The Prophet Mohammed died in 632. Even as the movement he founded continued to expand at a rapid rate, the all-too-human drive for political power continued among his successors. While Arab armies extended their control from France to China, Arab leaders struggled with each other for power. The period of infighting and dynastic strife came to a major turning point by 750 when Abu al-Abbas, a descendent of an uncle of the Prophet, led a mostly Persian army to victory over the other contenders. With Abu al-Abbas’ victory, the center of the Arab empire, which had moved in the past century from its founding locations of Mecca and Medina in the Arabian Peninsula to Damascus in Syria, moved eastward, establishing its new capital in Baghdad in 772. This new dynasty, called the Abbasid for its founder, ruled as the temporal and spiritual leaders of the Muslim world. Though their level of control over the entire empire varied from time to time, the Abbasids were the center of the Muslim world for 500 years, until Hulugu Khan’s Mongols destroyed Baghdad in 1258. The Abbasids won their place in command of an empire by virtue of their military prowess. However, they were also lucky to have been led early on by individuals who also had an interest in the world of the mind. Two are most important to the history of the transmission of knowledge. [Guillaume, 1956; Hitti, 1970]
The second Abbasid Caliph, al-Mansur (who ruled the period 754-775) began early on to incorporate scholars from outside the immediate Arab world into his court. Interested in the stars as a tool to permit navigation in trackless deserts, al-Mansur ordered the translation of Indian manuscripts on astronomy and mathematics. [Hitti, 1971] Suffering from a stomach ailment, al-Mansur sought assistance from Persian doctors. These doctors had been heavily influenced by Greek medicine and, accordingly, al-Mansur directed that the works of Galen and Hippocrates be translated from Greek to Arabic. [Hitti, 1970] Al-Mansur’s successors kept up the process of incorporating scholarship into the life of the Baghdad court. The successor most known in the West is probably Harun ar-Rashid, due to his role as a leading character in Arabian Nights (or The One Thousand and One Nights), which was translated into French in the 1700s by Antoine Galland. ut the individual who was the true leader of the flowering of Arab scholarship was the seventh Abbasid Caliph, al-Mamun who ruled from 813 to 833.
Al-Mamun (“the trusted one”) extended al-Mansur’s policy of bringing scholars to Baghdad. He sent out emissaries to lands both within and without his domains to collect manuscripts to bring back to Baghdad, where he had established a corps of translators to render them into Arabic. Where the land was under Arab control, as was the case in Persia, Sicily, Alexandria in Egypt, or Antioch in Syria, the emissaries collected manuscripts. Where the land was not under Arab control, the emissaries negotiated the acquisitions. In Constantinople, the Byzantine emperor at first hesitated to cooperate because he thought the learning in the manuscripts they were seeking would be wasted on the barbaric Arabs, but the emissaries succeeded in purchasing the manuscripts they needed. [Hitti, 1970, 1971; Durant, 1950; Brockelmann, 1960]
To store the product of these works, al-Mamun established in 830 a combination of academy, library and translation bureau modeled on similar institutions already in existence in Persia and Syria. Called the House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikmah), it was a multidisciplinary collection of Islamic as well as of foreign literatures, with primary focus on philosophy and the sciences from Greek and Persian/Indian sources. Well before the Arabs appeared, Greek philosophy and sciences were the staples of education in Syrian and Mesopotamia, notably at schools in Harran and Edessa in northeast Syria, and Nisibe in northern Iraq. Similarly, Persian kings had been open to scholars from Greek, Syrian, Indian, Zoroastrian, Manichean, and Christian cultures, to include Nestorian Christians who had been expelled from Edessa and Neo-Platonist philosophers whose school had been closed in Athens. Persia also had a renowned medical school where the teachers were largely Syrians using their language as a medium of instruction. With the Arab ascendancy in Persia, al-Mansur and al-Mamun directed intense efforts to translate the works of these schools into Arabic. [Ifrah, 2000]
Other Caliphs continued the interest in scholarship (most notably the Andalusian al-Hakam, an ardent bibliophile who annotated manuscripts with marginal notes and who established the university in Cordova, Spain), but it was al-Mamun who laid the foundation for the half-millennium of collection and translation of scholarly work from the known world. [Hitti, 1971]