Islam’s Pyrite Age

June 30, 2020 Category: History


The hyper-romanticized portrayal of a “Golden Age” fall apart once we realize that “Bayt al-Hikma” was not a unique phenomenon in the ancient world.

The legacy of a State-facilitated cultivation of knowledge goes back to Babylon during the 2nd millennium B.C.  In the advent of scribes becoming a major profession, much of the Mesopotamian population became literate.  By the 1st millennium B.C., during the course of the Assyrian / Babylonian / Persian Empires, there were libraries in most municipalities; and both men and women were taught to read and write.  Freedom to compose whatever material one wished was allowed–as attested by the fact that much of the Hebrew Bible was composed by Jewish scriveners in Babylon during the Exilic Period.

Major institutions of higher learning emerged during Classical Antiquity.  Here are FORTY of the most renown that preceded Islam’s Pyrite Age:

  • The Ionian school at Miletus (6th century B.C.)
  • The Indian university at Taxsha-shila [alt. “Taxila”; in Punjab] (6th century B.C.)
  • Plato’s Academy, followed by Aristotle’s Lyceum, at Athens (4th century B.C.) {20}
  • Phaedo’s Elian School; later Menedemus’ Eretrian School (4th century B.C.)
  • The imperial (Qin) Qi-Xia [alt. Jixia] academy at Yinqui in China (4th century B.C.)
  • The Museion at Alexandria in Egypt (3rd century B.C.) {6}
  • The Museion at Pergamon [alt. the library at Pergamum] in Aeolia (3rd century B.C.)
  • The Sammatiya “migadaya” at Isipatana [Sarnath] in India (2nd century B.C.)
  • The national (Han) legal school at Chang’an in China (c. 136 B.C.)
  • The Imperial (Han) “Tai-xue” academy at Chang’an in China (c. 3 A.D.)
  • The Athenaeum at Rome (late 1st century A.D.)
  • The Kushan school at Mathura (2nd century)
  • The Catechetical “Didascalium” at Alexandria; as well as the School of Antioch (2nd century)
  • The Sassanian “Sarough” [alt. “Sarouyeh”; library] at Isfahan in Persia (2nd century)
  • The Assyrian (Nestorian) school at Edessa (2nd century); followed by that at Nisibis (c. 350) in Anatolia
  • The Sassanian “daneshgah” [medical academy] at Gundishapur [alt. “Jundeshpur”] in Persia (3rd century) {22}
  • The Talmudic academies [“yeshivas”] of Mesopotamia: at Sura, Pumbedita, and Nehardea (3rd century) {23}
  • The Neo-Platonist school at Apamea in Syria c. 300
  • The “matenadaran” at Etchmiadzin in Armenia was one of the greatest storehouses of manuscripts in Late Antiquity (4th or 5th century)
  • The Byzantine Pandidakterion at the Palace Hall of Magnaura in Constantinople; founded as a school of medicine, philosophy, and law (c. 425).
  • The maha-vihara at Vallabhi in Saurashtra [Gujarat] (c. 600)
  • The imperial (Tang) “Small Wild Goose Pagoda” at Chang’an in China (7th century)
  • The Indian “maha-viharas” at Uddanda-pura (“Odantapuri” in Bihar), Telhara, Vikram-shila, Kuruk-shetra, Pushpa-giri (Odisha / Orissa in Utkala), Jagaddala (Varendra in Bengal) and–most famously–at Nalanda in Bihar (8th century) {24}
  • The (Carolingian) Urbs Regale at Aachen in Germany (8th century)
  • The Bengal maha-vihara, “Somapur[a]” at Paharpur[a] (c. 800)

This brings us to the 9th century, during which there were four major institutions founded–one of which was Islamic (though more of a Shia religious school than a university):

  • The (Idrisid) “Al-Qarawiyyin” madrasah in Fez, Morocco (c. 859)
  • The Preslav Literary School (est. in Pliska c. 885) and Ohrid Literary School (est. the next year) in Bulgaria {25}
  • The medical school at Salerno, Italy (late 9th century)

Needless to say, Bayt al-Hikma was nothing new.  In fact, it would have been rather odd for a major empire to NOT have developed a (sanctioned) curation program at some point.  What is telling is that this laudable institution did not endure.  Why not?  The Sunnah.  (For university-foundings thereafter, see Appendix 2.)

There is a reason that nobody contends: “If only the great universities of Renaissance Europe had devoted more time to teaching sacred scripture [Judaic, Christian, OR Islamic], Europe would have been so much better off!”  Au contraire, it was because Europe was BREAKING FREE FROM (de rigueur) beholden-ness to church doctrine that headway was made.  (Indeed, progress in Europe and North America can only be attributed to the emancipation of society from Roman Catholic dominion.)  If only the Ummah had undergone marginal secularization as well, it might have followed suit.  In a certain sense, the “Golden Age” of Islam was an aborted Renaissance.

Meanwhile, we should recall how Europe was plunged into the Dark Ages IN THE FIRST PLACE. {44}

But that’s just institutions of higher learning.  What of LIBRARIES?  Of course, many of the above institutions were known for their libraries–as with the Great Library of Alexandria (replete with the Serapeum, a school of higher learning that included lecture halls) from the 3rd century B.C. {6}

The earliest libraries date back to c. 2500 B.C. with those at Nippur and at Ebla.  They were followed by the Hittite archives at Hattusa and the Amorite archives at Mari (both c. 1900 B.C.)  Ten other ancient libraries of note:

  • Sargon of Akkad is said to have erected a library at Agade (i.e. Akkad) in the 17th century B.C.
  • The library at Nuzi c. 1500 B.C.
  • The library at Ugarit c. 1200 B.C.
  • The Great Assyrian Library of Ashur-banipal at Nineveh in the 7th century B.C.
  • The Vivarium of Bruttium, founded by Roman statesman Cassiodorus in the 6th century B.C.
  • The library at Ctesiphon (unknown, Classical Antiquity)
  • The royal archives of the Qin palace at Xian-yang (unknown, Classical Antiquity)
  • The Syrian library at Antioch, founded by the Greek poet, Euphorion of Chalcis [Euboea], at the behest of Antiochus the Great, in the 3rd century B.C.
  • The great library at Pergamum [Aeolia] in the 3rd century B.C.
  • The great Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum in the 1st century B.C.

That accounts for what were likely the fifteen largest libraries before the common era.  This brings us to Late Antiquity.  Here are six more notable libraries that preceded the Abbasids:

  • The Greco-Roman library at Kos c. 100
  • The Greco-Roman library of Celsus at Ephesus from the early 3rd century
  • The Roman (theological) library at Caesarea Maritima in Palestine from the early 3rd century
  • The Syriac “Dayro d-Mor Mattai” on Mount Alfaf (near Mosul) c. 363
  • The Imperial (Byzantine) library at Constantinople from the 4th century
  • The (Smartha) Kaila-sanathar Temple at Kanchi-puram (Tamil Nadu, India) had a library dating to the 7th century

Already mentioned were the great Indian libraries at Taxsha-shila and Nalanda–both from the 8th century (both destroyed by Muslim conquerers).  The Judaic library of Geniza was established at Fustat (Cairo) in Egypt c. 870.

The Barmakids (originally a Buddhist clan from Balkh) rose to prominence in the 9th century.  They commissioned the translation of myriad texts from Sanskrit (into Syriac and/or the newly-established Classical Arabic); and even had a paper mill constructed to maximize dissemination.

In the 10th century, the Benedictine monastery at Cluny (France) became one of the great storehouses of Europe’s ancient manuscripts.  It ended up being one of the few places that heretical documents were not destroyed by the Catholic Church.

The “Bayt al-Hikma” came and went.  As Baghdad’s “House of Wisdom” was about to enter its denouement, the (Vietnamese) Ly Dynasty established the “Van Mieu” [House of Literature] in Hanoi c. 1070.  Also founded during the last days of Islam’s Pyrite Age was the “Jagaddala” maha-vihara at Varendra in Bengal.

During the Middle Ages, there also existed the great Nizari (Isma’ili) fortress at Alamut in Daylam (northern Persia), which contained a vast library.  There is a myth that the books there were all destroyed when Hulegu arrived in 1256.  But this cannot be true.  For according to Marco Polo’s travelogue, the fortress boasted “impressive libraries whose collections included books on various religious traditions, philosophical and scientific texts, and scientific equipment.”  Marco would have visited the fortress just after 1300–long after the Mongol seizure. {32}  It is more likely to have been destroyed by the (Islamic) Seljuks.  To reiterate: The Mongols were not known for ever burning books.  They craved knowledge and respected other cultures.

The renown Library of Corviniana was commissioned by the Hungarian King, Matthias Corvinus in the 15th century.

So how unique was Islam’s “Golden Age”?  Revisiting ancient history helps put this fabled epoch in perspective.  We might start with the endeavor to combat dogmatism, which preceded even the fabled Athenian pedagogue, Socrates.  The Indian school of empiricism / skepticism, Lokayata (a.k.a. “Brhaspatya”; “Charvaka”) was founded by the philosopher, Ajita Kesakambali c. 600 B.C.

The Thracian polymath, Democritus wrote “On History”, “On Nature”, “The Science of Medicine”, “On The Tangents Of The Circle And The Sphere”, “On Irrational Lines And Solids”, “On The Causes Of Celestial Phenomena”, “On The Causes Of Atmospheric Phenomena”, “On Reflected Images”…and on and on.  He was the first to propose the atomic theory.  That was in the 5th / early 4th century B.C.  Alas.  NOT ONE of these works survived the (Roman Catholic) book-burning mania of Christendom. {50}

The Roman Epicurean, Lucretius was one of the first to conjecture biological evolution–noting in his “On The Nature Of Things” that nature proffered many species of animal which seemed to have useful characteristics–traits suitable for its ability to survive, thrive, and reproduce successfully.  Those who lacked such traits, he noted, “law at the mercy of others for prey and profit…until nature brought that species to destruction.”

Moving on through the Epicureans, Stoics, and other anti-dogmatists of Greco-Roman thought, the legacy of critical inquiry continued into Late Antiquity. In the 3rd century, Carian philosopher, Alexander of Aphrodisias taught at the Peripatetic school in Athens; while Porphyry of Tyre studied there.

And in Alexandria, Neoplatonist thought thrived–producing figures like Ammonius Saccas, Origen “the Pagan”, Cassius Longinus, and Plotinus.  Meanwhile, there were mathematicians like Diophantus and Pappus.

In India, Buddhist scholar Dignaga pioneered “pramana” (epistemology; especially in the field of deductive reasoning) in the early 6th century A.D.  His “Pramana-samuccaya” dealt primarily with “anumana” [Reason].  Meanwhile, the indian mathematician, Vira-hanka discovered the Fibonacci pattern of numbers.

Armenian polymath, Anania Shirakatsi and Andalusian thinker, Isidore of Seville were both contemporaries of MoM. The Benedictine monk, Bede of Northumbria expressed intellectual curiosity when he composed “On The Nature Of Things” in the late 7th / early 8th century.  Then, another Benedictine monk, Rabanus Maurus of Mainz composed his own “On The Nature Of Things” in late 8th / early 9th century.

Fast forward to the Middle Ages.  We might note the great thinkers outside Dar al-Islam yet in the Orient during this period.  In India / Kashmir alone, there was:

  • Philosopher, Sridhar Acharya of Radha (8th century)
  • Jain logician, Akalanka (8th century)
  • Philosopher, Jayarasi Bhatta [ref. his great work of skepticism, “Tattva-opa-Plava-Simha”] (late 8th / early 9th century)
  • Jain polymath, “Acharya” Virasena (early 9th century) 
  • Jain mathematician, Mahavira “Charya” of Bihar (9th century)
  • Nyaya philosopher, Jayanta Bhatta of Kashmir (9th century)
  • Pratyabhijna (Shaiva) philosopher, Utpala-deva of Kashmir (10th century)
  • Mathematician, Aryabhata II (10th century)
  • Mathematician, Halayudha of Manyakheta (10th century)
  • Logician, Udayana-charya of Mithila [Bihar] (10th century)
  • Astronomer, Sri-pati (11th century)
  • Philosopher, Gangesha Upadhyaya of Mithila [Bihar] (12th century)
  • Indian (Gujarati) mathematicians, Gopala and Hema-chandra (12th century)
  • Indian mathematician / astronomer, Bhaskara II of Bijapur / Karnataka (12th century)

Meanwhile, the Irish Gaelic Neoplatonist, John Scotus Eriugena composed his “Division of Nature” in the 9th century. And in the 10th century, heterodox Frankish expositor, Abbo[n] of Orléans [associated with the Fleury Abbey] championed critical thinking.

During the 11th century in China alone, there could be found great thinkers like:

  • Shen Kuo of Zhe-jiang [a.k.a. “Meng-qi”]
  • Zhou Dunyi, Cheng Hao, and Cheng Yi [a.k.a. “Zheng-shu”] of Luo-yang
  • Shao Yong of Henan [a.k.a. “Yaofu”]
  • Zhang Zai of Chang’an
  • Su Song of Fujian
  • Wei Pu of Kai-feng

Then, in the 12th century, there emerged in China such luminaries as Zhu Xi of Fujian and Lu Xiang-shan [a.k.a. “Lu Jiuyuan”].  If the Creator of the Universe was seeking to focus his endowment of insight on Dar al-Islam, he certainly had a funny way of doing it.  Indeed, during the Middle Ages, throughout the non-Muslim world, there was plenty of intellectual flourishing.

So what of the ESTIMABLE occurrences in Dar al-Islam during its Pyrite Age?  It is well-known that from c. 800 through c. 1200, the Muslim world was significantly ahead of Christendom when it came to science.  However that juxtaposition in and of itself is misleading.  For the Muslim world was ahead BY DEFAULT; as the Roman Catholic Church GUARANTEED an intellectually benighted Europe–ensuring that the continent remained mired in religionism (read: ignorance) for over a thousand years.  Thus the Holy Roman Empire was EVEN WORSE OFF than Dar al-Islam…until, that is, the European Renaissance.

That long, sluggish process by which the Occident emerged from the interminable bog of superstition that was Christendom was kicked off by Reformers–nay, radicals.  Just as in Dar al-Islam, those in Europe who made headway managed to do so IN SPITE OF, not because of, their religious environs.  They achieved what they did by extricating themselves from the dogmatic quagmire in which they found themselves.

It was in the 9th century that the Mutazilis [“those who secede” from the mainstream emerged, and some injected intellectual rigor into Dar al-Islam. Note that they were not characterized by ORTHODOXY, but by their DEPARTURE FROM orthodoxy. They privileged Reason (esp. independent thinking) over revelation (nay, dogmatism in general).  Caliph Al-Ma’mun departed from precedent, and encouraged this (heterodox) approach to religiosity.  Its champion was the Persian philosopher, Abu Bakr Zakariyya of Rey (a.k.a. “Al-Razi”; Romanized to “Rhasis”), who taught in the early 10th century.

As Baghdad flourished, in Dar al-Kufr, the Renaissance was yet to get underway.  Yet by the 12th century, things were starting to look up.  The great natural philosopher, Adelard of Bath had gained notoriety in England–and had even garnered some knowledge about astronomy from his travels in the Muslim world (he could read Arabic).  Yet he did not have RELIGION to thank for his verging erudition–as is made quite clear in his magnum opus, “Questiones Naturales”.

In early 1200’s, the Dominican friar, Vincent of Beauvais compiled the 80-volume compendium of human knowledge: “The Great Mirror”. And in 1206, the Italian mathematician, Leonardo of Pisa (a.k.a. “Fibonacci”) published the “Liber Abaci”.

Meanwhile, the scientist, Robert Grosseteste wrote his landmark work on mathematics and the natural sciences, “De Lineis, Angulis et Figuris” in the 1220’s.  (This established the scientific method.)  Grosseteste was the mentor of the renown Franciscan friar, Roger Bacon, who would make major contributions to the scientific method in the 13th century (ref. his “Opus Majus”).  Soon thereafter, the Bavarian polymath, Albertus Magnus of Cologne helped pave the way for subsequent thinkers.  Michel de Montaigne, who’s “Essais” broke new ground in anti-dogmatism in 1580.

As it so happened, the first time there occurred any effort to facilitate quasi-secular education in post-Pyrite Age Dar al-Islam was in 1227.  That was when Abbasid caliph Al-Mustansir commissioned a madrasah for higher learning in Baghdad (thereafter known as “Mustansiriya Madrasah”); which–incidentally–was left undamaged in the Mongol sack of the city 31 years later.

In terms of the extent of preservation of ancient wisdom in “Bayt al-Hikma” (and the degree to which we should be grateful for what was done within its walls), we should bear in mind: We are only aware of the limited number of documents the Islamic scribes DID opt to preserve; not the untold amount of documents that were destroyed.  In fact, it is quite likely that the vast majority of extant material was destroyed.  We’ll never know how much.  So to characterize this as some exalted enterprise to preserve all the world’s knowledge is disingenuous.  Indeed, it is remarkable what material was NOT destroyed.  We might thank a handful of diligent scribes for the gesture; but we should be under no illusions that the caliphs were devoting their time to reading Aristotle and celebrating the achievements of Classical Antiquity.

The fact remains that the handful of great thinkers in the Muslim world during the Middle Ages who DID manage to make some headway did so because they were great thinkers, not because they happened to be Muslim. {31}  They were, after all, noteworthy for being so astoundingly exceptional; which means they were EXCEPTIONS.

In Dar al-Islam, there was a delimited pseudo-Renaissance of sorts.  So it is important to see where and when (and HOW) this occurred.  The best way to do so is to survey Muslim luminaries during the epoch-in-question (late 8th century thru 13th century).  In doing so, we should note the temporal concentration of thinkers during Islam’s Pyrite Age; as well as the two geographical concentrations: Persia (from Basra to Bactria / Khorasan) and Andalusia.  It is no coincidence that Muslim luminaries tended to operate in cosmopolitan centers.

Temporally-speaking, the demise of Islam’s Pyrite Age coincided with (Occidental) Renaissance.  Subsequently, virtually all progress in Europe could be attributed to the process of secularization known as the Enlightenment–the centers of which were in Scotland / England and Germany (not coincidentally: where the Reformation occurred) as well as in France.

n the midst of Christendom, there were some forays into free-thought. In the late 12th / early 13th century, Duns Scotus pioneered philosophy; while Robert Grosseteste of Suffolk pioneered the scientific method.  Albert “the Great” of Cologne–as well as his student, Thomas Aquinas–incorporated Aristotelian thought and Neo-Platonism into their disquisitions in the 13th century.

In the 14th century, other forays were made with English thinker, William of Ockham…as well as with French thinkers like John Buridan of Picardy and Nicole Oresme of Normandy. Such headway was made IN SPITE OF, not because of, any ambient religiosity. {40}

The same went for the Muslim world.  The salutary achievements of the few luminaries were not ISLAMIC achievements, they were HUMAN achievements.  Each was made by someone who happened to be–to one degree or another, in one way or another–part of the Muslim world.  Such figures were invariably HETERODOX thinkers; far from being emblematic of the “conventional wisdom” that permeated their environs.  Let’s now turn to a survey of these exceptional individuals. {33}

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