The House of Wisdom is a Myth

When I first got really interested in the history of science, the history of science of the Islamic empires was not something dealt with in any detail in general works on the topic. If you wanted to get to know anything much about what happened in the various areas of the world dominated by Islamic culture in the period between the seventh and sixteenth centuries then you had to find and read specialist literature produced by experts such as Edward Kennedy. Although our knowledge of that history still needs to be improved, the basic history has now reached the popular market and people can inform themselves about major figures writing in Arabic on various areas of science between the demise of classical antiquity and the European Renaissance such as the mathematician Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, the alchemist Abū Mūsā Jābir ibn Hayyān, the optician, Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥasan ibn al-Ḥasan ibn al-Haytham or the physician Abū Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyyā al-Rāzī. These and a handful of other ‘greats’ are not as well known as their later European counterparts but knowledge of them, usually under their popular names, so al-Khwarizmi, Jabir, al-Haytham and al-Razi, is these days quite widespread amongst well educated and well read people. There is even a flourishing popular book market for titles about Islamic science.

Amongst those non-professionals, who interest themselves for the topic, particularly well known is the so-called House of Wisdom, a reputed major centre for scientific translation and research in Baghdad under the Abbasid Caliphs. This reputed academic institution even provided the title for two of the biggest selling popular books on Islamic science Jim al-Khalili’s The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance and Jonathan Lyons’ The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilisation. Neither Jim al-Khalili nor Jonathan Lyons is a historian of science, let alone Islamic science; al-Khalili is a physicist and broadcaster and Lyons is a journalist and herein lies the rub. Real historians of Islamic science say that the House of Wisdom never existed, at least not in any form remotely resembling the institution presented by al-Khalili, Lyons and other popular sources including, unfortunately Wikipedia, where the article is largely based on Lyons’ pop book.

The picture painted by al-Khalili and Lyons, and to be fair they didn’t create it but copied it from other fantasts, is of a special academic research institution set up by the early Abbasid Caliphs, staffed with leading scientific scholars, who carried out a sponsored programme of translating Greek scientific texts, which they them analysed, commented and developed further. Here academic exchanges, discussions, conferences took place amongst the leading scientific scholars in the Abbasid Empire.

The reality looks very different.[1]To quote Gutas (page 54):

It is in this light that the very scanty reliable reports about the bayt al-hikmashould be evaluated. Much ink has been used unnecessarily on description of the bayt al-hikma, mostly in fanciful and sometimes wishful projections of modern institutions and research projects back into the eighth century. The fact is that we have exceedingly little historical [emphasis in original] information about the bayt al-hikma. This in tself would indicate that it was not something grandiose or significant, and hence a minimalist interpretation would fit the historical record better.

The bayt al-hikma, to give it its correct name, which doesn’t really translate as house of wisdom, was the palace archive and library or repository, a practice taken over by the Abbasid Caliphs from the earlier Sassanian rulers along with much other royal court procedure to make their reign more acceptable to their Persian subjects. The wisdom referred to in the translation refers to poetic accounts of Iranian history, warfare, and romance. The Abbasid Caliphs appear to have maintained this practice now translating Persian historical texts from Persian into Arabic. There is absolutely no evidence of Greek texts, scientific or otherwise, being translated in the bayt al-hikma.

Much is made of supposed leading Islamic scientific scholars working in the bayt al-hikmaby the al-Khalili’s, Lyons et al. In fact the first librarian under the Abbasids was a well-known Persian astrologer, again a Sassanian practice taken over by the Abbasids. Later al-Khwarizmi and Yahya ibn Abi Mansur both noted astronomers but equally noted astrologers served in the bayt al-hikmaunder the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma’mun.

We will give Gutas the final word on the subject (page 59):

The bayt al-hikmawas certainly also not an “academy” for teaching the “ancient” sciences as they were being translated; such a preposterous idea did not even occur to the authors of the spurious reports about the transmission of the teaching of these sciences that we do have. Finally it is not a “conference centre for the meeting of scholars even under al-Ma’mun’s sponsorship. Al-Ma’mun, of course (and all the early Abbasid caliphs), did host scholarly conferences or rather gatherings, but not in the library; such gauche social behaviour on the part of the caliph would have been inconceivable. Sessions (magalis) were held in the residences of the caliphs, when the caliphs were present, or in private residences otherwise, as the numerous descriptions of them that we have indicate.

As a final comment we have the quite extraordinary statement made by Jim al-Khalili on the BBC Radio 4 In Our Time discussion on Maths in the Early Islamic World:

In answer to Melvyn Braggs question, “What did they mean by the House of Wisdom and what sort of house was it? It is supposed to have lasted for 400 years, it is contested”

Jim al-Khalili: “It is contested and I’ll probably get into hot water with historians but let’s say what I think of it. There was certainly potentially something called the house of wisdom a bit like the Library of Alexandria many centuries earlier, which was a place where books were stored it may have also been a translation house. It was in Baghdad this was in the time of al-Ma’mun, it may have existed in some form or other in his father’s palace…”

Bragg: “Was it a research centre, was it a place where people went to be paid by the caliphs to get on with the work that you do in mathematics?”

Al-Khalili: “I believe it very well could have been…” He goes on spinning a fable, drawing parallels with the Library of Alexandria

History is not about what you choose to believe but is a fact-based discipline. Immediately after al-Khalili’s fairy story Peter Pormann, Professor of Classics & Graeco-Arabic Studies at the University of Manchester chimes in and pricks the bubble.

Pormann: “There’s the myth of the House of Wisdom as this research school, academy and so on and so forth, basically there is very little evidence…”

Listen for yourselves!

I find Bragg’s choice of words, repeated by al-Khalili, “it is contested” highly provocative and extremely contentious. It is not contested; there is absolutely no evidence to support the House of Wisdom myth as presented by Lyons, al-Khalili et al. What we have here is another glaring example of unqualified pop historians propagating a myth and blatantly ignoring the historical facts, which they find boring.

[1]The facts in the following are taken from Dimitri Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early Abbasid Society (2nd–4th/8th–10th centuries), Routledge, Oxford, ppb. 1998 pp. 53-60 and Lutz Richter-Bernburg, Potemkin in Baghdad: The Abbasid “House of Wisdom” as Constructed by 1001 inventions In Sonja Brentjes–Taner Edis­–Lutz Richter-Bernburg eds., 1001 Distortions: How (Not) to Narrate History of Science, Medicine, and Technology in Non-Western Science, Biblioteca Academica Orientalistik, Band 25, Ergon Verlag, Würzburg, 2016 pp. 121-129

11 Comments

Filed under History of Islamic Science, History of science, Myths of Science

11 responses to “The House of Wisdom is a Myth

  1. Ken Smith

    Awesome — I always enjoy your posts! I’ve used the “house of wisdom” in my teaching of math history but will update my notes with your column. Thanks!

    • If you want to know more about the Abbasids, Baghdad and the translation movement I highly recommend Dimitri Gutas’ book, it really is the definitive study

  2. Another great piece. I must confess to having quite enjoyed Jim al-Khalili’s book but there’s clearly a bit of wishful thinking in his account of the House of Wisdom… I hadn’t heard of “1001 Distortions” though – is it as good as it sounds?

    • Have only just got it but those bits that I’ve read are very good. Also those of the authors that I know are all excellent so I have a very positive feeling.

      • That’s what I was thinking – especially when I saw Petra Schmidl is in it too! I’ve been a good boy this month, will treat myself to a copy 🙂

      • I already have Petra’s paper as a pdf but I thought the book was still worth buying, I only paid €25.

  3. Thanks Thony. Shame that Khalili Lyons & co. act like glorified versions of ‘jagged85’, the infamous wiki ‘editor’ (vandal) whose inflations trashed every entry on Islamic phil/sci. for years. Whether there was a physical ‘House’ seems superfluous to the larger translation movement, makes me wonder why Khalili & Lyons need to propagate such fables. It’s not as if the story of the Alexandrian Library itself is any more reliable, as Tim O Neill has pointed out many times! Everyone gets a free miracle I guess.

    I recently finished Gutas’s ‘Greek Thought Arabic Culture’. Loved it, but it was focused more on the why of the translation movement rather than the what and how. Can you recommend any books that deal with the important figures (translators and nat. philosophers, etc), i.e., books that cover the material chosen by Khalili/Lyons, but that are written by authorities, and not amateurs? I hated Khalili’s ‘Great Man’ narrative.

    Would Franz Rosenthal’s ‘The Classical Heritage in Islam’ be a good source, or would his book have been superceded in the 60 years since, for example? If there’s something more up to date, I’d love to know.

    Many thanks!

  4. Laurence Cox

    I am beginning to think that, just as we crowdfunded Thony to go to a conference in the USA last year, we should think about crowdfunding a book of Thony’s mythbusting articles, perhaps with a chapter or two trom Tim O’Neill on Roman/Greek era mythbusting. While we know how good Thony’s research is, as long as it is confined to this blog it won’t get the widespread coverage it deserves.

    • Gavin Moodie

      Thanx for your suggestion Laurence. I would contribute to such a fund. I would like to see a chapter or 3 on the several Galileo myths that Thony busts, tho praps that warrants a whole book in itself.

  5. Sonja Brentjes

    I just would wish that such entries were written more carefully and reliably. It is not the case that we have no evidence whatsoever of a Greek scientific text translated or revised by people appointed to the bay al-hikma, which indeed is translated as house or room of wisdom. We just have very little such evidence and we have too little additional information beyond the claims of Ibn al-Nadim (his book exists in an English translation which has a number of problems, but can still be read with some trust) in order to understand what his claims mean. Most of the people the Abbasid caliphs had to contend with in their bit for power and their efforts to survive the struggles with their contenders were members of their own family and clientele, i.e. mostly Arabs, then their Persian clients of whom they got rid whenever problems arose (we do not always really understand which reasons caused the ruptures) and finally their Turkic military. The population of Baghdad that rebelled repeatedly was mixed. Other groups that fought due to a variety of reasons (religious, economic, sectarian etc.) against their governors and landlords etc. were Iranians, not just Persians, Arabs, Greeks, Copts, Berbers. I am certain I do not know of all of them. Gutas’ claims about the intentional continuation of Sassanian traditions by the Abbasids are quite problematic. His Arabic sources are from the 10th century, faulty, contradictory and not easy to analyze. The Sassanians were dead for more than a century when the Abbasids got rid of the Umayyads. The Middle Persian sources that survive from the 9th and 10th centuries are as problematic as the Arabic sources. They contain certainly pre-Islamic Zoroastrian material, but also things that were written in exchange with the developments during the 9th century. The caliphs did not translate Middle Persian historical chronicles. Their converted clients did that in some cases. In other cases we do not know who the translators were. The Persian astrologers whom Caliph al-Mansur brought into his entourage came from western Iran (Khuzestan) and Basra. We do not know how they got their training. Certainly not at the Sassanian court. We speculate that some of them might have gotten their knowledge from Zoroastrian priests, but we really do not know it. How the Jewish Persian astrologer Masha’allah and the Muslim Arab astrologer al-Fazari acquired their skills is completely unknown. Hence, there is even less we can say with confidence about ongoing Sassanian traditions in the second half of the 8th century than what we know about the bait al-hikma. The first head of the bay al-hikma known by name was a Persian, but not an astrologer. There was no difference between an astrologer and an astronomer. People studying the stars were just called that: people who knew about the stars. Gutas says quite a bit about the what, when, who and where. But Rosenthal can also be read, although his evaluations are at times out of date. But above all, one should not project today’s divisions among the sciences back to the Abbasid caliphate. History was highly appreciated and in some form part of astrology. The people who did good math and astronomy were mostly astrologers, physicians or wealthy people who did not need a paid position. So, yes propaganda exaggerating what we know is bad. But downplaying what we know or denying it is as bad.

    Best, Sonja Brentjes

    • What ever the precise translation of the Arabic phrase–neither “house” nor “wisdom” necessarily captures it–it primarily served the caliph and his government as archive and library, and concomitantly, as an agency of translation. (Richter-Bernberg p. 121)

      But to return to the initial question of the precise function of this House of Wisdom for the caliph and his administration, the preliminary answer given above–archive and library–is supported by its alternative designation in the sources “repository of wisdom” (khizanat al-hikma). Eventually the term here rendered as “repository,” which in different contexts was also used for “treasury,” without the specific attribute “of books,” acquired the meaning “library.” “House” (bayt) might simply have been room. (Richter-Bernberg p. 123)

      The range of topics covered was rather wider than intimated by the term “wisdom,” which but approximately captures the Arabic hikma; whether it be called wisdom, scholarship, learning or polite education, education, the knowledge purveyed was geared towards a broadly utilitarian purpose as befits a court bureau; it might ideally have encompassed everything a complete gentleman and particularly, a sovereign, should know. The lack of precision of the word, reflecting an as yet non-specialised amateur rather than a disciplinary notion of erudition and learning may explain its eventual falling into disuse in relation to libraries as well as institutions of “higher education.” (Richter-Bernberg p. 123)

      In addition to the previously mentioned charges, under al-Ma’mun two astronomer-astrologers are named as employed there full-time. Apart from the widespread desire to be “scientifically” foretold the future or advised on the most favourable course of action, whether in matter military, political, or private, astronomers and mathematicians could be called into service as experts on time-keeping, geodesy, and the apportionment of inheritance shares and taxes. (Richter-Bernberg p. 125)

      As a library, it was never unrivalled, neither during the time of its existence not later; not even its name was subsequently passed onto libraries or other institutes of learning. “Academy” is an utter misnomer. The “House of Wisdom” did not function as a venue of instruction or scholarly meetings, let alone in a multilingual setting. If in addition to Arabic another language was ever spoken there, it was an Iranian idiom. Similarly, the translations that are attested for its officials or employees were done from (Middle-) Persian. The veritable outburst of Arabic translations from Greek occurred later and independently of any institution, caliphal or otherwise. (Richter-Bernberg p. 125)

      It’s a shame that the other two editors, of the volume quoted, didn’t show Lutz Richter-Bernberg the error of his ways and thus prevent me from repeating those errors in my blog post!

      Lutz Richter-Bernburg, Potemkin in Baghdad: The Abbasid “House of Wisdom” as Constructed by 1001 inventions In Sonja Brentjes–Taner Edis¬ Lutz Richter-Bernburg eds., 1001 Distortions: How (Not) to Narrate History of Science, Medicine, and Technology in Non-Western Science, Biblioteca Academica Orientalistik, Band 25, Ergon Verlag, Würzburg, 2016 pp. 121-129

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