Westerners’ image of Islam has not often been very positive. Many Westerners know little about Islam and this gap can get filled by dramatic news events like terrorism or the extremist regime in Afghanistan. At Encounter, we promote education and actual engagement with religious communities to move beyond the Single Story that can stereotype or pigeonhole whole communities.
Today, I want to approach this from a different angle by thinking about presentism – our view of a religion’s true essence is often shaped by the geopolitical and socioeconomic circumstances that prevail during our life. In truth, religions change vastly with culture. While recently in Cairo, I visited the world’s second oldest university and was reminded how the Muslim world once held earth’s most learned people and how their intellectual centres preserved and advanced knowledge that eventually led to the European Renaissance and Enlightenment. Sit back and let’s explore the Islamic Golden Age and the incredible House of Wisdom.
Harun Al-Rashid. Photo credit: Sketch by Kahlil Gibran, wikipedia.org.
Harun Al-Rashid and the House of Wisdom
Harun Al-Rashid became the leader of the Muslim empire in 786. Al-Rashid believed in education and so he founded the House of Wisdom where the learnings of as many civilizations as possible would be collected. He began with a large translation project, hiring people to translate the texts of Greece, Rome and Persia, later those from India and China, and later those in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Syriac. He hired any learned person who could translate well whether they were Muslim, Christian, Jew or otherwise. Going beyond translation, he then funded the creation of original scholarship and research.
Al-Rashid was building the best library in the world and those working there soon became likely the best educated people on earth. Other centres of learning blossomed in major Islamic cities like Cordoba (in Muslim-held Spain) and Cairo.
As a result, Muslim thinkers became leaders in multiple fields. To give a few examples:
- Al-Khwarizmi (780-850) developed algebra and figured out how to solve quadratic equations by completing the square. (Now you know who to blame for all those equations you had to solve!). Our word “algorithm” comes from Latinizing his name and “algebra” from a title of his work. Translations of his work introduced decimal numbers to Europeans.
- Al Biruni (973-1048) was an early comparative religionist (a very, very valuable role!) and also calculated the circumference of the earth with an accuracy of over 99%. No European would top this until the 1600s.
- Al Haytham (965-1040) is seen as the father of modern optics. He also was a pioneer in the scientific method, arguing that theories needed evidence and proof to validate them.
- Al Tusi (1201-1274) was an astronomer whose work informed Copernicus.
- Ibn Rushd’s (1126–1198) book on medicine was used as a textbook in Europe for centuries while his treatises on Aristotle did much to introduce Europeans (including Thomas Aquinas) to Greek philosophy.
Al Azhar Mosque, Cairo, Egypt. Photo credit: Brian Carwana
The House of Wisdom spawned similar institutions elsewhere including Al Azhar, built in 980 and older than any university in Europe. It remains Cairo’s largest university as well as a mosque where the university started. I visited the mosque which was beautiful, full of history, and also remains a student space. There were so many students reading books and studying, sometimes alone, sometimes in small groups, both men and women.
Scholars at an Abbasid library. Maqamat of al-Hariri Illustration by Yahyá al-Wasiti, 1237. Wikipedia.org
In 1258, the Mongols sacked Baghdad and destroyed the House of Wisdom. The library was lost and no trace remains. This helped end what scholars call the Islamic Golden Age. Europe during these same centuries had gone through a terrible period when learning declined, civilization decayed, and violent crusaders murdered Jews, Muslims and other Christians as they journeyed east.
Someone alive at that time might have concluded that Christianity was fundamentally backward and that Islam was fundamentally enlightened. By 1800, many would make reverse declarations.
In truth, religions are complicated and diverse and deeply shaped by their cultures. When particular cultures thrive or struggle, it is easy to credit or blame the religion and make trans-historical judgements about what that religion is really like. Such judgements are wrong.
Religious literacy helps insulate us from that rush to judgement. Religions are powerful cultural tools that can help build up or tear down societies. In Cordoba and elsewhere, Muslim societies preserved leaning, enhanced it, and helped spread it. In the same way, our own society will do best when we harness the skills and insights of everyone who lives here. Religious literacy promotes this. It fosters connections and inclusion where we all belong and can learn from one another.
Photo credit: Brian Carwana