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Online Extra
June 2004

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The Baghdad That Was

Shiites of Iraq Online Extra
Image courtesy Washington Freer Gallery of Art
©Kathleen Cohen

"Preparation of Medicines from Flowers and Consul"
Illustration from an Arabic translation of the Materia Medica by Dioscorides
Baghdad, Iraq, 1224

By Saadia Iqbal

A city that would be little recognized today, Baghdad was a celebrated metropolis of glamour and learning in 800 A.D.—attracting scholars, scientists, and artists from around the Muslim world. Sadly, Baghdad has long since lost that status. Numerous wars and invasions, both ancient and contemporary, have contributed to the city's decline.

Medieval Baghdad provided some of the setting for the stories from Alf Lalah wa Laylah (The Thousand and One Nights, also known as Arabian Nights). The city's opulent palaces and rich bazaars were one of the backdrops for Scheherazade, Aladdin, and Ali Baba's adventures, and the disguised caliph who appeared from time to time was none other than Harun al-Rashid, the fifth ruler of the Abbasid caliphate. He often roamed the streets of Baghdad dressed as a commoner, in order to learn more about his people and help them.

The Abbasid Caliphate

The Abbasids rose to power in the middle of the eighth century, launching a new era of Islamic civilization—one of political prestige, financial power, and intellectual pursuit—with Baghdad as the epicenter. The caliphate descended from al-Abbas, an important figure in early Islam, and the uncle of the Prophet Muhammad, who founded the religion. Al-Mansur, the second caliph of the Abbasids, established Baghdad in 762 A.D., and by Harun al-Rashid's rule in about 800 A.D.,  the city flourished.

By the ninth century, Baghdad's population reached more than 300,000, as people thronged to this city of hospitals, museums, libraries, mosques, law schools, zoos, horse race courses, public baths, and insane asylums. Most of what is known about Baghdad during the Abbasid period comes from eyewitness accounts of historians such as Yaqut, Harawi, and Ibn Jubayr. Excavations have also yielded pottery, coins, and architectural ruins, including the Abbasid palace at Qala, which functioned as a madrasa (Islamic theological school).

Plenty of modern scientific and philosophical knowledge has its roots in the Abbasid caliphate and its capital city. In 830 A.D., while Europe was stuck in the Early Middle Ages. Harun al-Rashid's son, al-Mamun established the Bayt al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom) in Baghdad, a distinguished institution where Greek works were translated into Arabic. Many of these subsequently reached Europe, thereby facilitating the Renaissance. The papermaking industry also began in Baghdad during this time. 

Great Minds

Some of the most renowned thinkers from medieval Baghdad are listed below. Many others passed through the city during their lives, including some with whom the Western world is familiar, such as Omar Khayyam, Rumi, and Saadi.

  • Al-Khwarizmi, who lived during Al-Mamun's rule, founded algebra, which takes its name from his book Al-Jabr wa-al-Muqabilah. He also developed the concept of algorithms (which are named after him), and introduced the Arabic numeral system to the world.

  • The Banu Musa, three brothers working at the Bayt al-Hikmah, were among the first Arabs to build upon Greek mathematics. Their book, Kitab Marifat Masakhat al-Ashkal (The Book of the Measurement of Plane and Spherical Figures), is one of many examples of how the Arabs used Greek knowledge and kept it alive. It was later translated into Latin.

  • Jabir Ibn Hayyan, a pioneer in the field of applied science, is called the father of chemistry (this honor was also given to Robert Boyle eight centuries later). He developed techniques for making steel, dyeing cloth, and preventing rust. He also discovered many acids, and practiced medicine.

  • Ibn al-Haitham studied in Baghdad, though he later moved to Egypt. He gave an accurate, scientific explanation of the process of vision for the first time, and wrote a book about optics that explained phenomena like shadows, eclipses, and rainbows. His works were translated into Latin in the Middle Ages and influenced the works of Roger Bacon and Kepler.

  • Al-Kindi's most famous work is his book On First Philosophy. He first elaborated a system of thought based on Greek philosophy, then developed logical explanations for some debated issues of his time, such as creation, immortality, and prophecy. He is famous for a doctrine of conciliation between Plato and Aristotle. Al-Kindi wrote some 250 books related to philosophy, mathematics, physics, astronomy, music, and medicine.

  • Al-Farabi gained prominence as a philosopher, logician, musician, and sociologist. The Arabs called him the Second Teacher with Aristotle being the first. He lived through the reign of six Abbasid caliphs and wrote at least 117 books on logic, metaphysics, ethics, political science, music, medicine, and sociology.

  • Al-Ghazali taught at the Madrasa al-Nizamiyah, Baghdad's first great school of religious law, founded in 1067 A.D. He later left to become a wandering mystic, and wrote many religious books combining mystical and orthodox points of view. Today people consider him one of the greatest Islamic theologians.

  • Abul Wafa greatly contributed to the understanding of trigonometry, and improved upon Ptolemy's sine and tangent tables.

  • Al-Razi, who headed Baghdad's Muqtadari Hospital (one of the city's five hospitals at the time), developed the discipline of pharmacology. His firsts include finding a treatment for kidney stones, identifying and treating smallpox, using alcohol as an antiseptic, and using mercury as a purgative. He wrote a 12-volume medical encyclopedia that included 50 contraceptive methods for women.
The Abbasid caliphate came to an end in 1258 A.D. when the Mongols, under Genghis Khan's grandson Hülegü, conquered all of Iran and also Baghdad. The Mongols massacred tens of thousands of people, including the then Abbasid caliph al-Mutzasim. They also destroyed large areas of the city. The fall of the Abbasids marked the end of an illustrious period in Islamic history which the Muslim world has yet to attain again.


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