Monday, 22 June 2015


Before that watershed moment in European scholarship when the rediscovery of the classics ignited the Renaissance, the rebirth of Greek academics and inquiry, there was a parallel precedent that took place in the Caliphate of Baghdad some four centuries earlier that secured for secular and religious spheres the systems of mathematics, medicine, astronomy and circumspection that dominated both oriental and occidental thought for over a thousand years. Plato’s dialogues and the spectre of Socrates the gadfly did not exactly dislodge the Aristotelian approach to government, civics and philosophical inquiry—that only really came much later with the enlightenment and educational reform that conceded that while the rote exercises that Plato’s pupil prescribed were excellent dress-rehearsals, they failed to prompt anything progressive. No school of thought that endured any rigour or scepticism is so easily exhaustible, but Aristotle’s early and spectacular reintroduction may have proved all-consuming in that it did rather launch an important and sustaining tradition of independent and original research, which was wedged in Western scholastics as an idée fixe by early theologians who knew no other Greek thinkers.
Abbasid Caliph Abu Ja’far Abdullah al-Mamûn ibn Harun, who ruled Baghdad in the early ninth century, had a dream, reportedly, in which the figure of Aristotle came to him with assurances that Hellenic thought was not in opposition to Islam but very much compatible with it. Al- Mamûn’s successors disagreed, but for a not insignificant run, Baghdad’s House of Wisdom was the premier repository of knowledge and research facility in the world. Academics and original sources were gathered and brisk business of translation grew up around the institute, all administered by the patron caliph who oversaw the curriculum and debating societies to further the pursuits. Whether because of the vision or because Aristotle was more fastidious in organising his writing than most (all of his works were plainly titled as opposed to Plato’s where one could not claim to know what the piece was about in a word even after having read it through), the work began with the most practical topics—biology, taxonomy, geography and proceeded to the ethics and sociology. Before the flagging support for this place of learning of al-Mamûn’s descendants and its eventual destruction by the Mongol invasion in the Siege of Baghdad, perhaps they had set out to tackle the whole of classical-thought but the venture fell victim to its own success, so to speak, as more and more discoveries and derivative writings came out of that first systematic endeavour. In the informal environment of the House of Wisdom, new and inspiring works with tangible advances being made in mathematics, surgery, engineering, map-making and star-charts. Plato and the other rarefied luminaries must have seemed old-hat.