The Legacy

Science in the Golden Age

Science in the Golden Age

Written by Paul Lunde Illustrated by Michael Grimsdale Additional illustrations courtesy of Bodleian Library Towards the end of the 10th century, Ibn al-Nadim, son of a Baghdad , bookseller and boon companion of Abbasid caliphs, compiled an annotated bibliography of books that had passed through his hands during the course of his long and active life. The sheer number of books that he lists, to say nothing of the range of their subject matter, is astonishing: Aristotle appears beside Sindbad the Sailor, Euclid beside the stories of Goha, Plato beside the poems of’Antar ibn Shad-dad. The most striking feature of Ibn al-Nadim’s catalog, however, is the number of books dealing with science. In a chapter entitled The Reason Why Books on Philosophy and Other Ancient Sciences Became Plentiful in This Country, Ibn al-Nadim relates a strange story of how Aristotle appeared in a dream to the Caliph al-Ma’mun and assured him that there was no conflict between reason and revelation. Thus reassured, al-Ma’mun set about obtaining the works of the Greek philosophers, the first step toward founding the famous House of Wisdom, a center for the translation of Greek scientific works into Arabic. Ibn al-Nadim told the story this way: This dream was one of the most definite reasons for the output of books. Between al-Ma’mun and the Byzantine emperor there was correspondence … so al-Ma’mun wrote to the Byzantine emperor asking his permission to obtain a selection of old scientific manuscripts, stored and treasured in the country of the Byzantines. After first refusing, he finally complied, and al-Ma’mun sent forth a number of scholars, among them al-Hajjaj ibn Matar, Ibn al-Batrik, Salman, the director of the House of Wisdom and many others. They selected books from those they found and brought them back to al-Ma’mun, who ordered them to prepare translations of them. Though the House of Wisdom was founded in 830, Abbasid interest in Greek science had begun almost with the founding of the dynasty in 750 and by the time the House of Wisdom was launched, that interest had already been expressed in a number of important fields. The first Arabic translations of the medical works of Galen and Hippocrates, for example, were made by the official translator of the second Abbasid caliph, al-Mansur, builder of Baghdad. These sparked the interest in medicine so characteristic of Islam. In 809, the Caliph Harun al-Rashid founded the first hospital in the Islamic World, and within a short time no major city in the empire was without one. The translator of these medical texts died in 800 – the year that Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor. His son, Ibn al-Batrick, was among those scholars sent by al-Ma’mun to...

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The Islamic Legacy

The Islamic Legacy

The foundation of this legacy was the astonishing achievements of Muslim scholars, scientists, craftsmen, and traders during the few hundred years or so that are called the Golden Age. During this period, from 750 to 950, the territory of the Muslim Empire encompassed present-day Iran, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Palestine, North Africa, Spain, and parts of Turkey and drew to Baghdad peoples of all those lands in an unparalleled cross-fertilization of once isolated intellectual traditions. Geographical unity, however, was but one factor. Another was the development of Arabic, by the ninth century, into the language of international scholarship as well as the language of the Divine Truth. This was one of the most significant events in the history of ideas. A third important factor was the establishment in Baghdad of a paper mill. The introduction of paper, replacing parchment and papyrus, was a pivotal advance which had effects on education and scholarship as far reaching as the invention of printing in the fifteenth century. It made it possible to put books within the reach of everyone. Unlike the Byzantines, with their suspicion of classical science and philosophy, the Muslims were enjoined by the Prophet to “seek learning as far as China” – as, eventually, they did. In the eighth century, however, they had a more convenient source: the works of Greek scientists stored in libraries in Constantinople and other centers of the Byzantine empire. In the ninth century the Caliph al-Mamun, son of the famous Harun al-Rashid, began to tap that invaluable source. With the approval of the Byzantine emperor, he dispatched scholars to select and bring back to Baghdad Greek scientific manuscripts for translation into Arabic at Bayt al-Hikmah, “the House of Wisdom.” Bayt al-Hikmah was a remarkable assemblage of scholar-translators who undertook a Herculean task: to translate into Arabic all of what had survived of the philosophical and scientific tradition of the ancient world and incorporate it into the conceptual framework of Islam. As the early scholars in the Islamic world agreed with Aristotle that mathematics was the basis of all science, the scholars of the House of Wisdom first focused on mathematics. Ishaq ibn Hunayn and Thabit ibn Qurrah, for example, prepared a critical edition of Euclid’s Elements, while other scholars translated a commentary on Euclid originally written by a mathematician and inventor from Egypt, and still others translated at least eleven major works by Archimedes, including a treatise on the construction of a water clock. Other translations included a book On mathematical theory by Nichomachus of Gerasa, and works by mathematicians like Theodosius of Tripoli, Apollonius Pergacus, Theon, and Menelaus, all basic to the great age of Islamic mathematical speculation that followed. The first great advance on...

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