The Heritage of Learning Passes to Muslim Civilization
Centers of Learning
Invention of Paper
Growth of Knowledge
Faith and Knowledge Growth
Institutionalized Learning Grows
Practical Uses of Knowledge
The spread of Islam extended the
Arabic language across Afro-Eurasian lands, from Central
Asia to the Atlantic.
Just as the Greeks, Romans, and Persians had done under
their rule, Muslim governments established centers of
learning. At these centers, they would collect and translate
scientific, literary, and philosophical works.
Among the most famous effort was the House of Wisdom (Bayt
al-Hikma in Arabic). Khalifah al-Ma’mun established this
center in 870 C.E. in Baghdad.
Al-Hunayn, a Christian scholar, led a great effort to
collect and translate available knowledge. Emissaries were
sent out to purchase books from wherever they could be
found. They included works in the library at Jundi-Shapur,
as well as all the great traditions.
the time the House of Wisdom was founded, a new technology
helped to advance the spread of knowledge: paper-making.
In the early 700s, the Chinese invention of paper arrived in
the Muslim countries of Southwest Asia. Suddenly, making
books became cheaper and easier. While parchment was a good
writing material, it was made from expensive animal skins.
Papyrus was cheap, but not very durable. In comparison,
paper could be made from cotton, linen and other plant
fibers, or even from old rags.
In the growing cities of Muslim lands, people bought, wrote,
and collected books more than ever before. Instead of having
just a few copies of an existing work, more could be
produced. This increased production improved chances that
the work would not be lost to history.
Books and paper-making spread westward across Africa to Al-Andalus,
or Islamic Spain. Another technology that spread with
paper-making was the use of water-power to pound fiber. The
result: libraries in Muslim lands grew to thousands of
volumes -- even though books were still copied by hand!
Jews, and Christians took part in the growth of learning and
culture in eastern and western Muslim lands.
The cities in western Muslim lands -- including Córdoba,
Toledo, Seville and Granada -- shared in this book and
scholarship exchange. Scholars in different places using the
same book corresponded with each other. They shared thoughts
and ideas. Their efforts allowed for the growth of knowledge
There also were other key factors advancing knowledge
growth. Trade, travel, and migration sped up this process.
Increased wealth also fueled this knowledge growth. What's
more, the use of Arabic language and Islamic law across a
wide territory proved critical.
It was, indeed, a very dynamic period of learning. The House
of Wisdom became a translation center, library, museum, and
institute for scholars. There, scholars copied, studied, and
discussed books from every angle.
What's more, Baghdad’s scholars worked with scientific ideas
everywhere -- in courts, palaces, streets, homes, and
bookshops. They tested them by measuring, experimenting, and
traveling. In time, they developed a large body of new
knowledge, adding to the wisdom of ancient times.
and Knowledge Growth
One important concern -- which would
be shared across religious boundaries -- was the question of
how these ancient ideas fit in with Islamic teachings. If
scriptures were a revelation from God and contained all
wisdom, as they believed, was it permitted to look to other
sources of knowledge?
Numerous scholars wrestled with this issue. But they
generally reached agreement that faith or belief and reason
or independent investigation are not just permitted, but
encouraged. God created human beings with the capacity to
think and reason. Like other human abilities, it could be
used for good and evil.
This important balance between faith and reason would be
explored for centuries. It would be passed on through the
work of Muslim, Jewish, and later Christian philosophers and
This shared understanding among the Abrahamic faiths put
into place one of the cornerstones of modern science. And,
the scholars of Al-Andalus played an important role in its
formation and transmission.
Institutionalized Learning Grows
Educational institutions such as
schools, universities, and libraries spread across the
network of Muslim cities. Mosques offered classes in reading
Arabic. Meanwhile, the wealthy employed tutors in their
homes or palaces.
From the 800s to the 1100s, major Muslim cities established
formal schools and colleges. There were also several
already-existing important universities for teaching and
For example, there was a college in CÃ³rdoba attached to the
Umayyad caliphate. In Baghdad, the Seljuk Turks established
the Mustansiriyyah. And, the Fatimid rulers founded Cairo’s
famous al-Azhar University.
students -- including young European scholars -- came to
these colleges. They learned Arabic. They also transmitted
important ideas and styles of song, poetry, and new foods
once they returned home.
Muslim-ruled territories in Spain and Sicily became centers
of Muslim learning and culture. These Mediterranean lands
within Europe served as links to the East.
Contacts during times of both war and peace brought
Christian Europe information about an advanced way of life
-- luxury goods, music, fashions -- and the learning
available in Al-Andalus. Curious scholars -- including
Church officials -- traveled to Al-Andalus to learn about
these things firsthand. They wanted to see the libraries
filled with books in Arabic on many important and useful
Groups of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholars sat down
together to translate these works from Arabic to Latin, with
the support of certain Christian rulers. This translation
effort mirrored the one at the House of Wisdom in
Jundi-Shapur centuries earlier.
Practical Uses of Knowledge
During the 1100 and 1200s, Latin
translations of Arabic books fostered changes in Europe’s
schools and growing cities. Books about mathematics --
including algebra, geometry and advanced arithmetic --
introduced Arabic numerals. Yet, it took another 200 years
before Arabic replaced Roman numerals in Europeans’ everyday
North African and Italian merchants' use of Arabic numerals
enabled them to spread among merchants, who also did their own bookkeeping, or accounting. Meanwhile, other books
brought knowledge about astronomy -- contributions from
Greek, Persian, and Arabic sources.
Geography, maps, and navigational instruments allowed Europeans to see the world
in a new way. These navigational instruments included: the astrolabe, the
quadrant, the compass, and the use of longitude and latitude
to create accurate maps and charts. (Calculating longitude
at sea came in later centuries.)
Medical books -- especially by Ibn Sina, al-Razi, and al-Zahrawi
-- and some classical Greek works, lifted the cloud of
superstition over illness. What's more, descriptions of
diseases and cures, surgery, and pharmacy -- the art of
preparing medicines -- helped develop a medical profession
Modern writers Francis and Joseph Gies summarize the
importance of translation work taking place in Spain after
the Christian conquest of Toledo in 1085:
It was the Muslim-Assisted
translation of Aristotle followed by Galen, Euclid,
Ptolemy, and other Greek authorities and their
integration into the university curriculum that created
what historians have called "the scientific Renaissance
of the12th century." Certainly the completion of the
double, sometimes triple translation (Greek into Arabic,
Arabic into Latin, often with an intermediate Castilian
Spanish … ) is one of the most fruitful scholarly
enterprises ever undertaken. Two chief sources of
translation were Spain and Sicily, regions where Arab,
European, and Jewish scholars freely mingled. In Spain
the main center was Toledo, where Archbishop Raymond
established a college specifically for making Arab
knowledge available to Europe. Scholars flocked thither
… By 1200 "virtually the entire scientific corpus of
Aristotle" was available in Latin, along with works by
other Greek and Arab authors on medicine, optics,
catoptrics (mirror theory), geometry, astronomy,
astrology, zoology, psychology, and mechanics."