The great lesson of Bait-ul-Hikmah: Knowledge is Universal

The great lesson of Bait-ul-Hikmah: Knowledge is Universal

In 750 CE the Abbasids took over from the Umayyads (661-750 CE) as rulers of the Muslim territories. While the reign of Khulfa-i-Rashidin ended with the martyrdom of Hazrat Ali (RA) in 661 CE, both Umayyads and Abbasids justified their rule by calling themselves as Khalifa and not king. Under the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphate, Muslims reached distant parts of the globe. Their rule extended to Asia, Africa and Europe, the three major continents of the world. While Umayyads could rule barely for 90 years, Abbasids got a longer time to rule the Muslim empire. They ruled for no less than 500 years. Such an enormous time allowed them to do some extraordinary things.
One of these extraordinary things was the establishment of centres of knowledge, training, and research. Primary education was made free and higher education was made affordable and accessible to all. The foundation of Bait-ul-Hikmah, rendered in English as ‘The House of Wisdom’, was a sophisticated university and hub of major educational and research centers. It was established in the first half of the 9th century CE (the time when “Inquisition” was underway in Europe and the West). It aimed at the universalisation of knowledge.
Al-Mamun, the competent son of Harun al-Rashid, ruled from 813-833 CE and made Bait-ul-Hikmah a living wonder. Himself a curious student and fluent in Arabic and Persian, he sent deputations and delegations to all the major civilisations of the world to collect manuscripts and books in order to compile the collective knowledge of human beings. As such, books of all genres and from Indian, Chinese, Greek, Roman, and Persian civilisations were brought, with permission of their respective kings and emperors, to Baghdad and stocked in the great Bait-ul-Hikmah. Along with books and manuscripts, experts of literature were also lured to the city of learning. The books of diverse nature and content were then translated into Arabic by employing multi-lingual experts.
The Bait-ul-Hikmah was thus a conglomeration of intellectuals and scholars coming from different races and civilisations, who worked together towards revisiting the shared heritage of knowledge. The researchers, most of whom were polymaths, employed at Bait-ul-Hikmah not just translated the imported texts but critically examined and reviewed them, improved upon them, and then set them open for the masses to read and engage with. Some of the great minds that made Bait-ul-Hikmah or Dar-ul-Ilm memorable and an enduring legacy through their works were Hunayn bin Ishaq, Musa bin Shakir, Yuhana bin al-Batriq, Fadl bin Nawbakht, Ibnul Muqaffa, Sabit bin Qurrah, Al-Khwarizmi, Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, Al-Biruni, Al-Razi, etc.
Research was carried out in fields of astronomy, astrology, mathematics, medicine, chemistry, hydraulics, philosophy, ethics, and many other subjects under the patronage and supervision of the Caliph himself. The researchers were handsomely paid and accommodated in well-furnished residential quarters. For the first time in human history, scholars, intellectuals, and researchers had assembled at one place and in one common university to cherish the knowledge of entire mankind. It was the moment when men from all races, religions, ethnicities, and cultures breathed in an atmosphere of freedom, tolerance, and cooperation. It was team work, a collective effort to bring the existing knowledge on the common table. If the Greek and Roman scientific and philosophical works survive, if the Chinese and Indian medical, astronomical and mathematical treatises survive, if the glorious contribution of Muslim polymaths reaches us, it is largely because of the hard work done by the scholars at Bait-ul-Hikmah.
Tailpiece: The contemporary world in general and Muslims in particular have many lessons to learn from the “Golden Rule” of Abbasids. It teaches us that knowledge is a shared heritage, and nobody’s monopoly; that intelligence is universal, and team work is the key to success. It also instills in us a cosmopolitan outlook, broad vision, mutual respect, tolerance, and the love for research and learning.

The writer is Assistant Professor at Department of Islamic Studies, Baba Ghulam Shah Badshah University, Rajouri. ashrafamin121@gmail.com

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