Development of Literary
Tradition in Early Islam
Tradition in Early Islam
Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said: "words of wisdom are a believer’s property, wherever he or she finds it, they have every right to it."
When Abbasids came in to power in 8th Century CE, they moved the capital from Damascus to Baghdad where the major scientific revolution took place under the rule of Khalifa Harun Al Rashid when he developed the major center of learning called Dar Al Hikmah – House of Wisdom, whose foundation was laid down by his predecessor Khalifa al-Mansur. The center conducted a major translation project where all old Greek, Indian, Persian texts related to subjects like mathematics, philosophy, astronomy, medicine underwent translation in to Arabic. The project resulted in a major scientific and educational revolution in the Islamic world that impacted the entire globe in the upcoming years. The project also attracted a keen interest of the Islamic scholars. Its important to note that the Quran and prophetic hadith encourage inquiring in to nature. Studying our world and the universe is highly encouraged because the Creator is known through His creation and as the Quran says:
إِنَّ فِي خَلۡقِ ٱلسَّمَٰوَٰتِ وَٱلۡأَرۡضِ وَٱخۡتِلَٰفِ ٱلَّيۡلِ وَٱلنَّهَارِ لَأٓيَٰتٖ لِّأُوْلِي ٱلۡأَلۡبَٰبِ
(Al Quran 3:190) Surely, in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alternation of night and day, there are signs for the people of wisdom
However, what is important to note that the Dar Al Hikmah (House of Wisdom) in Baghdad was actually a forerunner of the early pre-Abbasid literary developments that had initiated during Sassanian Empire under Khusrow I (Chosroes) Anushirvan (CE 531 - 579) and later of Umayyad’s under Khalifa Muawiya ibn Abu Sufyan I (CE 661–680). Even though the early translation projects were not as great in their strength and did not produce an intellectual and scientific revolution as that of the time of Abbasids, yet their influence may have played significant part in laying foundation for it.
Academy of Gondeshapur in Sassanian Empire
The Sassanian King Khosrow Anushirvan was also called the philosopher king because of his love for philosophy and knowledge. Due to his patronage for knowledge he accepted refugees coming from the Eastern Roman Empire when Emperor Justinian closed the neo-Platonist schools in Athens in 529 CE. He praised the good and useful traditions and learning of the Romans, Greek and Indian and acceded that even though they do not belong to his culture yet they should be adopted due to their usefulness and benefit for the society. With court scholars like Paul the Persian, a theologian and philosopher, the King supported the effort to translate works of Plato and Aristotle as well as requested the Indian courts to provide philosophers and men of knowledge for further research and development. The Academy of Gondeshapur was the center of learning during Khosrow’s time. Future Muslim graduates of the center - during early Arab Muslim and Umayyad rule - in addition to Islamic luminaries from rest of the empire became part of the Abbasid scientific revolution in Baghdad.
Bayt Al Hikmah of Damascus
After Academy of Gondeshapur there was also translation efforts done under Umayyad’s during the rule of famous Khalifa Muawiyah I. He started to gather a collection of books in Damascus. He then formed a library that was referred to as "Bayt al-Hikma". Books written in Greek, Latin, and Persian in the fields of medicine, alchemy, physics, mathematics, astrology and other disciplines were collected and translated by Muslim scholars at that time. Additionally Persian and Christians translators were hired for translating texts in to Arabic, as the Arabs were not yet well versed in the usage of pen. Even though this was an effort at a much lower scale than the future project by Abbasids in Baghdad, it may have formed the basis and methodology for the upcoming scientific revolution.
Dar Al Hikmah (House of Wisdom) of the Abbasid
The Academy of Gondeshapur under Anushirvan Khosrow I and the smaller Baytal Hikmah in Damascus did not flourish due to the fact that their support was only limited to those who initiated them. Moreover, their successors did not show the same interest in developing further. As mentioned earlier that during Umayyad rule the main focus was Islamic sciences rather than worldly sciences because preaching was the necessity of the time due to conversions among non-Arab populations. Even though successors of Khosrow and Muawiya did not attempt to cease these research houses, yet they never paid serious attention to their development. Serious attention with political and economic support were one of the key factors that made the House of Wisdom in Baghdad the center of educational revolution in the world that ultimately found its way in to the Madrassah’s of Islamic Spain in Cordoba and became the basis of eventual European Renaissance and modern scientific revolution. From Caliph al-Mansur (CE 754 – 775), Al Rashid (CE 786 – 809) to Al-Ma'mun (CE 813 – 833) and under his successors namely Al-Mu'tasim (CE 833 – 842) and Al-Wathiq (CE 842 – 847) there was a continuous support and personal interest by these Abbasid rulers in to the subjects being researched. The impact of such continuous support and interest in to knowledge by the rulers was bound to reflect in the nation, which produced scholars in various fields. The habits of the influential, elite and its intelligentsia reflect upon a nation because common people follow habits of the influential and if the habits are good then they are bound to show its results in a nation, a Quranic fact:
وَإِذَآ أَرَدۡنَآ أَن نُّهۡلِكَ قَرۡيَةً أَمَرۡنَا مُتۡرَفِيهَا فَفَسَقُواْ فِيهَا فَحَقَّ عَلَيۡهَا ٱلۡقَوۡلُ فَدَمَّرۡنَٰهَا تَدۡمِيرٗا
(Al Quran 17:16) And when We intend to destroy a nation, We command its affluent (political, renown persons and intellectual elite) to obey Allah ﷻ but they defiantly disobey therein (become corrupt); so the word comes into effect upon it (the nation)…
Likewise if the affluent are wise and just and promote healthy habits then the people reflect their actions and the society flourishes in those actions thus they are saved from divine punishment. Scientific research was the focal point of the rulership and intelligentsia therefore it was spread from the capital of the empire, Baghdad, to all other regions of the Muslim world and then Western Europe.
Importance of Islam in Educational Revolution
A very important point to note is that as per Islamic teachings, gaining knowledge of worldly sciences is praiseworthy and is not condemned in any way or form. A false notion prevalent among the modern secular academia today is that "religion is against science". This saying may be true for other religions - due to corruption of their texts and man made influences resulting in permanent misinterpretations of their teachings - but not of Islam. It is also quite amazing to notice that these great minds with their free-thinking in the House of Wisdom brought one of the most important scientific revolution in human history, yet none of them supported or propagated atheism as is the unfortunate case of modern science. Allah ﷻ or God - Who created humans and endowed them with exceptional attribute of knowledge - was the center of all learning. Learning was means of expressing gratefulness to Him for this wonderful attribute which generated humility in the hearts & minds of these scientists unlike the proud scientists of today who question the existence of their Creator.
أَوَلَمۡ يَرَ ٱلۡإِنسَٰنُ أَنَّا خَلَقۡنَٰهُ مِن نُّطۡفَةٖ فَإِذَا هُوَ خَصِيمٞ مُّبِينٞ
وَضَرَبَ لَنَا مَثَلٗا وَنَسِيَ خَلۡقَهُۥۖ قَالَ مَن يُحۡيِ ٱلۡعِظَٰمَ وَهِيَ رَمِيمٞ
قُلۡ يُحۡيِيهَا ٱلَّذِيٓ أَنشَأَهَآ أَوَّلَ مَرَّةٖۖ وَهُوَ بِكُلِّ خَلۡقٍ عَلِيمٌ
(Al Quran 36:77 - 79) IS MAN, then, not aware that it is We who create him out of a [mere] drop of sperm - whereupon, lo! he shows himself endowed with the power to think and to argue? And [now] he [argues about Us, and] thinks of Us in terms of comparison, and is oblivious of how he himself was created! [And so] he says, "Who could give life to bones that have crumbled to dust?" Say: "He who brought them into being in the first instance will give them life [once again], seeing that He has full knowledge of every act of creation.”