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The Islamic Renaissance of Baghdad

The preservation, transmission and acceptance of the Greek philosophical tradition by caliphates helped lay foundation of modern Western philosophy

by Khaled Ahmed

The Islamic Empire of the Middle Ages was the primary and indispensable force behind the preservation, transmission and acceptance of the Greek philosophical tradition—and subsequently European thinking. Without the influence of Muslim scholars during the medieval period, the foundational impact of Greek philosophy on later Western philosophy may have been lost. Averroes, also called Ibn Rushd, (born 1126, Córdoba, Spain—died 1198 in Morocco), integrated Islamic traditions with ancient Greek thought and introduced Aristotle to Europe in Arabic, the only version available then. Aristotle was “discovered” in 9th century Baghdad and translated from the original Greek, growing in popularity because of his “philosophy of the middle,” which the Quran had signaled by calling Muslims “the nation of the middle.”

Bartold’s verdict

Russian orientalist V. V Bartold, writing in Mussulman Culture (OUP 2009), describes the renaissance of knowledge in Baghdad in the 9th century. For the layman, Baghdad is bound up with the name of Harun-al-Rashid and his court; in reality, Harun’s Baghdad was but a small town in comparison with what it became under some of the less worthy caliphs of the 9th and 10th centuries. The courts of Mansur and Mamun included a number of scholars of Persian or Jewish origin, while translations of scientific treatises were made not only with the help of Syrians but also from the Persian language of the Sassanian epoch.

Because they had become acquainted with the researches of the Greeks through intermediaries, Arabs weren’t aware of the poets or historians responsible and lacked a clear idea of the chronology and development of the Greek sciences. For them, the history of Greece began with Philip of Macedonia, with even specialists believing Socrates had been put to death by orders of the Greek king. Some Greek scholars were even believed to be Persian, because their knowledge had spread through rough Pahlavi translations.

This ignorance was reflected in their tracts, as many Arab scholars could not distinguish between apocryphal texts attributed to philosophers of antiquity and authentic ones. Sometimes they were unable to differentiate between philosophers who bore the same or similar names but lived at different times, such as Plato and Potinus. They were also not clearly conscious of the difference between Plato’s teachings and those of Aristotle. Thus theology, which included the doctrines of Plotinus, was attributed by them to Aristotle. This belief was subsequently accepted by the Europeans of the Middle Ages, who read of it in translations made by the Jews. It was only when Europeans reviewed the original Greek texts that they realized theology and mystical philosophy did not correspond with the teachings of Aristotle.

Secular knowledge and Muslims

Scientific activity was largely, but not wholly, concentrated during the 9th and 10th centuries in the valley of the Tigris and the Euphrates, with some participation of old cultural towns such as Basra. Writer and philosopher al-Jahiz (d. 869), as well as Kindi—the first independent thinker and philosopher amongst the Arabs—were both connected with Basra. The 10th century in particular saw the rise in Basra of a society of free-thinkers and dilettante philosophers, the ‘Brothers of Purity,’ whose collection of 51 brochures on different branches of science proved a great success.

This collection was taken home by a Spanish mathematician, being translated into Persian four centuries later for one of the Timurid princes. Baghdad, meanwhile, attracted writers and scholars from across the Muslim world, but especially Persia and Central Asia. There, Kindi had a rival in the astronomer Abu Mashar, a native of Balkh. The same town gave birth to Abu Zaid, the most famous of Kindi’s disciples.

Extra-regional contributions

In an earlier epoch there lived in Baghdad the mathematician Muhammad-ibn-Musa-al-Khorezmi, who died after 847 and came from Khorezm, now known as the Khanate of Khiva. He author works on algebra and arithmetic, and was considered a great authority in Europe till the renaissance. The word “logarithm” is actually derived from his name. From distant Ferghana, on the borders of the Muslim world towards the east, came the astronomer Ahmad-al-Farghani, who died in 861.

A native of Turkestan was the well-known philosopher Abu-Nasr-al-Farabi, a Turk who had studied in Baghdad. Amongst the scholars from Harran was mathematician and astronomer al-Battani who worked at Rakka on the Euphrates and died in 929. The first knowledge in Europe of trigonometrical functions is derived from him. In both Greece and India trigonometry was studied only in relation to astronomy. It was only in the 13th century that it began to be treated in the East as an independent science.

Reaching out to Europe

Close contacts between different parts of the Muslim world contributed to a quick exchange of cultural values. A historical compilation by Tabari, to this day our chief source of information on the first centuries of Islam, was published at the beginning of the 10th century in Baghdad before spreading to the rest of the Muslim world. Excerpts from it were published at Cordova for Spanish Caliph al-Hakem II (961-976) with supplementary data dealing with the history of Spain and Africa; and at Bukhara in Persian for Amir Mansur of the Samanid dynasty, who was his contemporary. The rapid spread of the geographical literature of the Arabs, perhaps the most valuable monument of Muslim culture of the 9th and 10th centuries, is another example of this exchange.

Most astronomical calculations under the Caliphate were made at Baghdad in the court of al-Mamun. The 10th century researches of Abu Zaid were elaborated first by Istakhri of Pars and then by ibn-Haukal, a Baghdad merchant who lived in North Africa. In the geographical works of the Arabs of the 10th century, we find descriptions of all the countries comprising the era’s Muslim world, from Spain to Turkestan and the mouth of the Indus.

In these books, the main towns are described, articles of industrial exploitation and fabrication are mentioned, and clear information is given about the distribution of cultivated and wastelands as well as of plants. It is only because of the Arab geographers that modern scholars possess material giving them insight into how little the climatic and geographical conditions of higher and central Asia have changed over the past millennium.

At last, the decline

The decline of Baghdad began in the 11th century and its size had significantly decreased by the 13th century. At the same time, the Ummayad Caliphate of Spain and the Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt were at their developmental peak. The overshadowing of Baghdad by Cairo, founded by the Fatimids, began as early as the second half of the 9th century. Claiming to be descended from Fatima, a daughter of Islam’s Prophet, the Fatimids were Shia Muslims at odds with Baghdad’s Sunnis.

Aristotle dominates Europe

Despite the Arab comingling of their philosophies, Aristotle had rejected the elitism of Plato’s Academy, where he had trained, and took to lecturing to the Athenian public every afternoon at the Lyceum, a university he had founded. He also published short, accessible, inexpensive versions of his advanced treatises so that his ideas could circulate among the general population in the form of dialogues, or conversations between a philosopher and an ordinary person. He called these shorter works exoteric, meaning outward-facing, the opposite of esoteric or inward-facing, and used them to disseminate his findings in many different fields of knowledge.

Aristotle was one of the founding fathers not only of philosophy but of almost every branch of academic study—zoology and cosmology, aesthetics and rhetoric. His books on these topics are relatively dry and sometimes in arduous third-person prose, with sections of densely reasoned argument, but they have shaped the very form of academic writing used throughout history. They constitute one of the main reasons why philosophers, like all academics today, usually write formal prose books and papers rather than, for example, novels, plays or epic poems. Meanwhile, Aristotle’s exoteric public treatises—the ancient equivalent of open-access blogposts—did not survive the 23 centuries that lie between him and modern times. Fortunately, however, we can amass fascinating information about them from other classical literature.

For Aristotle, the virtues of character are not enough by themselves to work the magic of illumination that comes with exiting Plato’s cave. We also need the intellectual virtues: practical wisdom (phronesis) and theoretical wisdom (sophia)—the latter being what philosophia is the love of. After all, to calibrate our desires, to set their balances in the right mean, we have to know what our good really is, and that involves knowing what we really are. And not only that: but of what sort of world we are a part.

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