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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

Centers of Learning

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.

Invention of Paper

Around 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!

Growth of Knowledge

Muslims, 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 between cities.

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.

Faith 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 scientists.

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 research.

For example, there was a college in Córdoba attached to the Umayyad caliphate. In Baghdad, the Seljuk Turks established the Mustansiriyyah. And, the Fatimid rulers founded Cairo’s famous al-Azhar University.

Traveling 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 subjects.

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 life. 

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 in Europe.

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."

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