In the 10th century, formal Madrassah (schools) began to develop in Baghdad with a set curriculum and full-time teachers, many of whom were women. The entire public, regardless of class where invited to partake, essentially establishing free education. All in all, extremely progressive for the time, a liberal approach to reading and learning that would take another millenium to develop in most of the West. With this wide approach to knoweledge, public literacy began to rise and from there Maktabat (libraries) developed. A widening foreign book trade emerged to fill these libraries, the most celebrated being the Bait al-Hikmah in Baghdad (ca. 820). 1

In the 4th century B.C. Alexander the Great conquered Asia Minor and founded Alexandria- thus spreading Greek philosophy and science to that part of the world. Under Ptolemy, the library of Alexandria in Egypt was the unrivaled epicenter of culture throughout the known world (i.e. the Mediterranean) and that tradition continued after 641, when Egypt was absorbed into the Arab Empire. Soon Syria, Baghdad, and Persia began to emulate (or at least incorporate) Greek, Syriac, pre-Islamic Persian and Indian cultural values. Islamic philosophers confronted Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle with zeal; sage fellows like Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406), Ibn Sina (Avicenna, d. 1037), Ibn Rushd (known in the West as Averroes, d. 1198- see "Averroes Search" by Jorge Luis Borges) al-Farabi and al-Ghazali - all these men worked in the translation of the original texts found scattered around their new empire. It was through these translations, later re-discovered after the Crusades that Western civilization was able to begin the Renaissance. Thomas Aquinas came to Aristotle through the translation of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes).

The first 'universal history' (early encyclopedias and compendiums) was written by al-Tabari of Baghdad (838-923) which, just to give an example of its scope and depth, devoted an entire volume to the methodology and means of history-making. Al-Tabari also wrote an authoritative text on the history of prophets and kings. In particular, the speed and success of the Arab Conquest meant that vast stores of regional knowledge, in all manner of languages, needed to be assimilated. (Sound familiar?) The Arabic language soon became the Latin of Africa, the Mediterranean and the Middle East- an international language of learning and commerce. At that time, followers of the Qur'an felt their faith encouraged Muslims to seek knowledge all their lives, no matter what the source and so the Arab nations sought out the works of the classical past—lying neglected in the libraries of Byzantium and Egypt—and translated them into Arabic.2

Under the second Abbasid caliph, al-Mansur (754-75) this acquisition of knowledge went wild as emissaries were dispatched to the Byzantine emperor requesting mathematical texts and received in response a copy of Euclid's Elements. The effort was subsequently systematized under al-Ma'mun (813-833) when he founded the Bait al-Hikmah or House of Wisdom- a vast translation library of legendary strength where Euclid, Aristotle, Galen, Hippocrates and Archimedes were some of the first extensive translations. The head of the library at the time Al-Kindï(801-873) served well under this regime of work (until he fell out of political favor with the last Caliph he served, ended up having his personal library confiscated and was flogged in public). The Arab scholars tackled texts in Greek, Indian, Farsi, Syriac, Armenian, Hebrew and Roman. Throughout this period the ruling Caliphs would even make the acquisition of manuscripts part of their political treaty and peace making, requisitioning foreign knowledge in return for assured non-hostility. However, with the death of the philosopher al-Farabi in 950, this golden age began to wither. The empire fragmented over the next 300 years and Moorish Spain was to serve as a conduit for the knowledge of the ancient world into medieval Europe.
1. Badea, The genius of Arab Civilization : Source of the Renassiance (Cambridge, MIT : 1983)
2. The Middle East Institute: George Camp Keiser Library: 1761 N Street NW • Washington DC 20036:
1. Secondly only at this time to the Dar al-Ilm in Cairo (ca. 998) and the University of Al-Azhar (969), which were both established long before those in Europe.
2. This was tricky since it was difficult, linguistically, to go straight from Greek into Arabic. Most were first rendered in Syriac which Christian translators were familiar and then went into into Arabic through native speakers. Christian communities in the Arab West, whose language was Syriac, tended to know Greek as opposed to Muslims quickly learned Syriac, closer to Arabic.
3. At the very time that Baghdad fell to the Mongol hordes in 1258, and the Abbasid caliphate came to an end, scribes in Europe were preserving the Muslim scientific tradition. This is why, just as many Greek texts now survive only in Arabic dress, many Arabic scientific works only survive in Latin.

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