How Scholars of the Islamic Golden Age Saved Ancient Greek Knowledge

ByAnna Wichmann September 3, 2021

golden age of islam ancient greek
Scholars at libraries across the Arab world, particularly in the House of Wisdom, translated and preserved ancient Greek knowledge during the Golden Age of Islam. Painting of scholars in an Abbasid library by Yahya al-Wasiti, 1237. Credit: Public Domain

During the Islamic Golden Age, a period during which science, literature, geometry, astronomy and other fields of knowledge flourished from the eighth to the 13th century. Without the scholars of this period, who translated the works of the Ancient Greeks, it is likely that much of ancient knowledge would now be lost.

Algebra, which comes from an Arabic word, was developed during the period, and we owe our numerals to Arabic scholars. Doctors made advances in the diagnosis of cancer, and even performed complex surgeries, during that period.

Countless stars were discovered and astronomical theories were developed by scholars during the Islamic Golden Age as well.

The cultural, scientific, and political growth during Islamic Golden Age was noted throughout the Muslim world, which stretched from central Asia, the Middle East, across North Africa, and all the way to Spain.

Yet the most prominent city during the period was Baghdad, in modern-day Iraq, where the House of Wisdom was established by Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid in the late eighth century.

Baghdad was center of knowledge, progress

As Baghdad was the largest city in the Islamic world at the time, and the center of culture and trade, scholars from across the globe journeyed there to study, learn, and write at the House of Wisdom.

As the House of Wisdom, which mirrors the great Library of Alexandria, was destroyed by the Mongols during the Siege of Baghdad in 1258, there is virtually no archaeological evidence for the contents and layout of the structure.

There is some debate as to whether the House of Wisdom served as a public academy, where intellectuals and poets gathered to share knowledge, or a private library for the Abbasid Caliphs.

Either way, its prominence as an intellectual site is well documented by contemporary writing and the many works of scientific and scholarly importance produced there.

During the Islamic Golden Age, scholars translated massive amounts of important works of poetry, mathematics, and science from ancient cultures around the world, particularly Ancient Greece.

These scholars, often fluent in Latin, ancient Greek, Arabic, and Syriac, hunted down the most important texts from ancient cultures across the world and translated them into Arabic, allowing them to be widely studied throughout the Islamic world.

golden age of islam ancient greek
A 13th century manuscript of an Arabic translation of the ancient Greek pharmacological text “De Materia Medica” by Dioscorides. Credit: Public Domain

Scholars of Islamic Golden Age translated ancient Greek works

This knowledge was easily spread across the Muslim world because Arabs had learned the art of making paper quickly and effectively from the Chinese, allowing them to disperse manuscripts very quickly.

Europeans later learned this paper-making technique from the Arabs.

At the time, Arabic was a “lingua franca,” a language used to communicate across many cultures, much like English today.

Using the knowledge of the ancient Greeks, countless Islamic scholars expanded knowledge of biology, geometry, mathematics, medicine, and astronomy.

The movement was characterized by a quest for knowledge that the Abbasid Caliphs considered to be required by the Quran, as it was included in the Hadith, or the record of the Prophet Mohammad’s sayings and actions.

It is inaccurate, however, to assume that all those who participated in the Islamic Golden Age were Muslims. In fact, many Christians, Jews, and members of other faiths were prominent intellectual figures during the time.

Thus, the caliphs spent large sums of their vast wealth sponsoring not only scholars who were conducting research, but also translators who worked to disperse the knowledge of ancient cultures.

Islamic scholars preserved writings of Ancient Greeks

This wave of intellectual curiosity and state-sponsored research in the Islamic world was a sharp contrast to Europe, which was in what some used to call the Dark Ages, when literacy rates were low and theology was preferred to knowledge from antiquity.

During this time, in much of Europe, much of the works of Aristotle, Archimedes, and other important ancient Greek figures were completely lost or even unknown.

Yet the Muslim world was alight with the fire of knowledge, as scribes tirelessly translated the works of ancient Greek scientists, philosophers, and mathematicians, whose works later inspired some of the most important intellectuals in history.

While the quest for knowledge led scholars of the Islamic Golden Age to the works of the ancient Greeks, theology also played a part.

Muslims believe that the Quran, the holy book of Islam, contains within its pages the entirety of the world, of existence, which includes all realms of art and science.

So, many theologians of the period pored over texts from ancient Greek sources in an attempt to find analogous sections of the Quran to prove that Islam was the true faith.

The Golden Age of Islam came to a close in the 13th century after years of invasions by  Mongol armies.

Some consider the destruction of the House of Wisdom by the Mongols to mark the end of the period.

It is said that the Mongol invaders destroyed so many books from the city by throwing them into the Tigris River, that the river itself turned black from the ink on the pages.

Additionally, as the Ottoman Empire began to gain power, the focus of the Islamic world began to shift to Turkey.

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