How Muslims Inspired The European Renaissance

By Neenah Payne

It would be hard to overstate the importance of the role of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad in bringing Europe out of the Dark Ages and fueling the Renaissance. The House of Wisdom: Baghdad’s Intellectual Powerhouse – 1001 Inventions, How Arabs Revolutionized Western Culture, and How Islamic Architecture Transformed Europe give a hint of the impact the Arabs had on Europe with the introduction of the Arabic numbering system, algebra, Moorish architecture, medicine, hospitals, the scientific method, astronomy, philosophy, paper, printing, maps, foods, music, etc.

1001 Inventions says:

Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid founded the House of Wisdom in Baghdad during his reign (786-809). It was a research and educational center where leading scholars from various fields came to share their knowledge. The House of Wisdom was the largest repository of books in the whole world already by the middle of the ninth century. It was the leading center for the study of mathematics, astronomy, medicine, alchemy, chemistry, zoology, geography and cartography. Unluckily the mongols destroyed the House of Wisdom when they attacked Baghdad in 1258.

When Moors Rescued Europe From The Dark Ages discusses the impact on Europe when the Moors ruled Spain from 711-1492. In addition to the vast translation movement in the House of Wisdom, there was a large translation movement in Cordova where Muslim, Jewish, and Christian translators worked to convert the Arab texts into Latin.

House of Wisdom: The Translation Movement

The video below explains that the capital city of Baghdad was founded by Al-Mansure, the Second Caliph (successor to Mohammad). The House of Wisdom in Baghdad grew out of Al-Mansure’s private collection of books which he opened up to visiting scholars, including delegations from India.

The House of Wisdom later became an international center for research and translation from Greek, Chinese, Sanskrit, Persian, and Cyriac. This became known as The Translation Movement from 750-960 CE. The translators also wrote commentaries on the texts to summarize and analyze them. By 850, the House of Wisdom had become the largest library in the world. By 950, every Greek scholarly text had been translated. By 930, Baghdad was the largest urban area in world with a population of one million.  There were 30 madrasas (colleges) in Baghdad by 1200. Each madrasa had its own library full of paper books.

The Medieval Islamicate World: Crash Course History of Science #7

The religion of Islam significantly influenced knowledge-making in the greater Mediterranean and western Asian world. Islamicate scholars—meaning people influenced by Islamic civilization, regardless of their religious views—gave us terms such as “algebra,” “azimuth,” “algorithm,” “alcohol,” “alkali,” and “alembic.” We’ll dive into Islamic medicine and philosophers such as the great Persian polymath Ibn Sina in future episodes. For now, let’s explore the beginnings of Islamicate natural philosophy.

The Scientist Pope (999-1003)

The video below is by Nancy Marie Brown, author of The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages. She discusses Gerbert of Aurillac who served as Pope Sylvester II from 999-1003. He grew up in Muslim Spain (Al Andalus) where the Caliph’s library had 200,000 books while Gerbert’s French monastery had fewer than 400. Many of the Caliph’s books came from the House of Wisdom in Baghdad where for 200 years works of astronomy, mathematics, physics, and medicine had been translated from Greek, Persian, and Hindi and developed by Islamic scholars. In the world Gerbert knew, Arabic was the language of science.

Gerbert was the leading Christian mathematician and astronomer of his day and was the first Christian teacher to use Arabic numerals in his classes. Arabic was the language of science in 10th century Europe. The word “algorithm” so central to computer science today comes from the name of Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (c 780-850), a Persian scientist in Baghdad’s House of Wisdom. He wrote a book on Arabic numerals which he called On Indian Calculation since the numerals, came from India. Modern algebra comes from a second book by al-Khwarizmi.

Brown says science was so important around the year 1000 that Christians, Jews, and Arabs collaborated. She says that proves that conflict between the religions is not inevitable today.

The Scientist Pope | Nancy Marie Brown

Did you know that the Pope in the year 1000 was the leading mathematician and astronomer of his day? Did you also know that he was the first mathematician in the Christian West known to use Arabic numerals? In this video, Nancy Marie Brown, author of The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages, explores a parallel universe, an alternate history of the Middle Ages, in which science was central to the lives of caliphs, bishops, kings, and even popes.

The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages

Amazon Description

The medieval Catholic Church, widely considered a source of intolerance and inquisitorial fervor, was not anti-science during the Dark Ages—in fact, the pope in the year 1000 was the leading mathematician and astronomer of his day. Called “The Scientist Pope, Gerbert of Aurillac rose from peasant beginnings to lead the church. By turns a teacher, traitor, kingmaker, and visionary, Gerbert is the first Christian known to teach math using the nine Arabic numerals and zero.

In The Abacus and the Cross, Nancy Marie Brown skillfully explores the new learning Gerbert brought to Europe. A fascinating narrative of one remarkable math teacher, The Abacus and the Cross will captivate readers of history, science, and religion alike.

The House of Wisdom

Florence P. Heide, Judith H. Gilliland, F. Parry Heide. DK Publishing (Dorling Kindersley), $16.95 (48pp) ISBN 978-0-7894-2562-1

The inspiration for Heide and Gilliland’s (Sami and the Time of Troubles; The Day of Ahmed’s Secret) ambitious tale is the landmark learning institution built in Baghdad in 830 A.D. by the Caliph al-Ma’mun. Told from the perspective of a boy, Ishaq, who lives in the House of Wisdom with his scholar father, the narrative transports readers to the Islamic Empire, at a time of dramatic academic and cultural growth. Ishaq aspires to the scholarly heights of his father, but finds his studies slow-going, unlike the sports he enjoys– “Then the time flew!

He simply does not share his father’s “fire” for learning. But when the Caliph one day chooses Ishaq to lead an expedition in search of ancient manuscripts, Ishaq discovers for himself the truth of his father’s words–that the scholars of history are “like the leaves of the same tree, separated by many autumns.” The book’s lofty subject and weighty text may make it best suited to those who have already been exposed to history’s great thinkers, but all readers can appreciate the authentic feeling of the time and setting.

Ishaq’s character remains intangible, but the House of Wisdom’s contribution to modern civilization comes through loudly and clearly. Grandpr ‘s (Chin Yu Min and the Ginger Cat) lushly colored pastels detail the ornate patterns of the Baghdad rooftops as easily as they convey the sweltering heat of a caravan of camels. A fitting homage to the quest for knowledge. Ages 4-7. (Sept.)

Wikipedia says: “Baghdad is the capital of Iraq and the second-largest city in the Arab world after Cairo. It is located on the Tigris near the ruins of the ancient city of Babylon. In 762 CE, Baghdad was chosen as the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, and became its most notable major development project. Within a short time, the city evolved into a significant cultural, commercial, and intellectual center of the Muslim world. This, in addition to housing several key academic institutions, including the House of Wisdom, as well as a multiethnic and multi-religious environment, garnered it a worldwide reputation as the ‘Center of Learning'”.

Baghdad was the largest city in the world for much of the Abbasid era during the Islamic Golden Age, peaking at a population of more than a million. The city was largely destroyed at the hands of the Mongol Empire in 1258, resulting in a decline that would linger through many centuries due to frequent plagues and multiple successive empires.

With the recognition of Iraq as an independent state (formerly the British Mandate of Mesopotamia) in 1932, Baghdad gradually regained some of its former prominence as a significant center of Arab culture, with a population variously estimated at 6 or over 7 million. Compared to its large population, it has a small area at just 673 square kilometers (260 sq mi).

The city has faced severe infrastructural damage due to the Iraq War, which began with the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and lasted until 2011, and the subsequent insurgency and renewed war that lasted until 2017, resulting in a substantial loss of cultural heritage and historical artifacts. During this period, Baghdad had one of the highest rates of terrorist attacks in the world. However, terrorist attacks are rare and have been declining since the territorial defeat of the Islamic State militant group in Iraq in 2017.

The First Modern Hospitals

The Islamic Roots of the Modern Hospital Written by David W. Tschanz

In the late ninth century, leading physician and polymath Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi helped establish a bimaristan—hospital—in Baghdad staffed with 25 doctors, optometrists, surgeons, and bonesetters.

The hospital shall keep all patients, men and women, until they are completely recovered. All costs are to be borne by the hospital whether the people come from afar or near, whether they are residents or foreigners, strong or weak, low or high, rich or poor, employed or unemployed, blind or signed, physically or mentally ill, learned or illiterate. There are no conditions of consideration and payment; none is objected to or even indirectly hinted at for non-payment. The entire service is through the magnificence of God, the generous one. —policy statement of the bimaristan of al-Mansur Qalawun in Cairo, c. 1284 ce

The modern West’s approach to health and medicine owes countless debts to the ancient past: Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and India, to name a few. The hospital is an invention that was both medical and social, and today it is an institution we take for granted, hoping rarely to need it but grateful for it when we do. Almost anywhere in the world now, we expect a hospital to be a place where we can receive ease from pain and help for healing in times of illness or accidents.

We can do that because of the systematic approach—both scientifically and socially—to health care that developed in medieval Islamic societies. A long line of caliphs, sultans, scholars, and medical practitioners took ancient knowledge and time-honored practices from diverse traditions and melded them with their original research to feed centuries of intellectual achievement and drive a continual quest for improvement. Their bimaristan, or asylum of the sick, was not only the true forerunner of the modern hospital, but also virtually indistinguishable from the modern multi-service healthcare and medical education center.

The bimaristan served variously as a center of treatment, a convalescent home for those recovering from illness or accident, a psychological asylum, and a retirement home that gave basic maintenance to the aged and infirm who lacked a family to care for them.

Asylum of the Sick

The bimaristan was but one important result of the great deal of energy and thought medieval Islamic civilizations put into developing the medical arts. Attached to the larger hospitals—then as now—were medical schools and libraries where senior physicians taught students how to apply their growing knowledge directly with patients. Hospitals set examinations for the students and issued diplomas. The institutional bimaristans were devoted to the promotion of health, the curing of diseases and the expansion and dissemination of medical knowledge.

tarker / bridgeman images

The Nur al-Din Bimaristan, a hospital and medical school in Damascus, was founded in the 12th century. Today it is the Museum of Medicine and Science in the Arab World.

The First Hospitals

Although places for ill persons have existed since antiquity, most were simple, without more than a rudimentary organization and care structure. Incremental improvements continued through the Hellenistic period, but these facilities would barely be recognizable as little more than holding locations for the sick. In early medieval Europe, the dominant philosophical belief held that the origin of illness was supernatural and thus uncontrollable by human intervention: As a result, hospitals were little more than hospices where patients were tended by monks who strove to assure the salvation of the soul without much effort to cure the body.

Muslim physicians took a completely different approach. Guided by sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (hadith) like “God never inflicts a disease unless He makes a cure for it,” collected by Bukhari, and “God has sent down the disease and the cure, and He has appointed a cure for every disease, so treat yourselves medically,” collected by Abu al-Darda, they took as their goal the restoration of health by rational, empirical means.

Hospital design reflected this difference in approach. In the West, beds and spaces for the sick were laid out so that the patients could view the daily sacrament of the Mass. Plainly (if at all) decorated, they were often dim and, owing to both climate and architecture, often damp as well. In the Islamic cities, which largely benefited from drier, warmer climates, hospitals were set up to encourage the movement of light and air. This supported treatment according to humoralism, a system of medicine concerned with corporal rather than spiritual balance.

Mobile Dispensaries

The first known Islamic care center was set up in a tent by Rufaydah al-Aslamiyah during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad. Famously, during the Ghazwah Khandaq (Battle of the Ditch), she treated the wounded in a separate tent erected for them.  Later rulers developed these forerunners of “mash” units into true traveling dispensaries, complete with medicines, food, drink, clothes, doctor and pharmacists. Their mission was to meet the needs of outlying communities that were far from the major cities and permanent medical facilities. They also provided the rulers themselves with mobile care. By the early 12th-century reign of Seljuq Sultan Muhammad Saljuqi, the mobile hospital had become so extensive that it needed 40 camels to transport it.

Permanent Hospitals

The first Muslim hospital was only a leprosarium—an asylum for lepers—constructed in the early eighth century in Damascus under Umayyad Caliph Walid ibn ‘Abd al-Malik. Physicians appointed to it were compensated with large properties and munificent salaries. Patients were confined (leprosy was well known to be contagious), but like the blind, they were granted stipends that helped care for their families..

The earliest documented general hospital was built about a century later, in 805, in Baghdad, by the vizier to the caliph Harun al-Rashid. Few details are known, but the prominence as court physicians of members of the Bakhtishu’ family, former heads of the Persian medical academy at Jundishapur, suggests they played important roles in its development.

Over the following decades, 34 more hospitals sprang up throughout the Islamic world, and the number continued to grow each year. In Kairouan, in present-day Tunisia, a hospital was built in the ninth century, and others were established at Makkah and Madinah. Persia had several: One in the city of Rayy was headed for a time by its Baghdad-educated native son, Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi.

In the 10th century five more hospitals were built in Baghdad. The earliest was established in the late ninth century by ‘Al-Mu’tadid, who asked Al-Razi to oversee its construction and operations. To start, Al-Razi wanted to determine the most salubrious place in the city: He had pieces of fresh meat placed in various neighborhoods, and some time later, he checked to determine which had rotted the least and sited the hospital there. When it opened, it had 25 doctors, including oculists, surgeons and bonesetters. The numbers and specialties grew until 1258, when the Mongols destroyed Baghdad.

The vizier ‘Ali ibn Isa ibn Jarah ibn Thabit wrote in the early 10th century to the chief medical officer of Baghdad about another group:

I am very much worried about the prisoners. Their large numbers and the condition of prisons make it certain that there must be many ailing persons among them. Therefore, I am of the opinion that they must have their own doctors who should examine them every day and give them, where necessary, medicines and decoctions. Such doctors should visit all prisons and treat the sick prisoners there.

Shortly afterward a separate hospital was built for convicts, fully staffed and supplied.

In Egypt, the first hospital was built in 872 in the southwestern quarter of Fustat, now part of Old Cairo, by the ‘Abbasid governor of Egypt, Ahmad ibn Tulun. It is the first documented facility that provided care also for mental as well as general illnesses. In the 12th century, Saladin founded in Cairo the Nasiri hospital, which later was surpassed in size and importance by the Mansuri, completed in 1284. It remained the primary medical center in Cairo through the 15th century, and today, renamed Qalawun Hospital, it is used for ophthalmology.

In Damascus the Nuri hospital was the leading one from the time of its foundation in the mid-12th century well into the 15th century, by which time the city contained five additional hospitals.

In the Iberian Peninsula, Cordóba alone had 50 major hospitals. Some were exclusively for the military, and the doctors there supplemented the specialists who attended to the caliphs, military commanders and nobles.”

The video below discusses Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi, founder of the modern hospital. It explains that the first modern hospital opened in Baghdad In 805 CE. Soon, there were 30 more throughout the empire.

History of the Islamic Golden Age | Religion, Science, & Culture in the Abbasid Empire

Neenah Payne writes for Activist Post

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