Syed Ameer Ali.

The spirit of Islâm : a history of the evolution and ideals of Islâm online

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of Justice." With the disappearance of the Persian monarchy
had disappeared the famous Garden where the Lord of Asia
dispensed justice to his multitudinous subjects ; tradition,
however, had preserved the name. The beautiful site, central
and salubrious, attracted the eyes of Mansur, and the glorious
city of the Caliphs arose, like the sea-goddess issuing from the
waves, under the magic wand of the foremost architects of the

The Bagdad of Mansur was founded in the year 145 of the
Hegira on the western bank of the Tigris. Soon, however,
another city — a new Bagdad — sprang up on the eastern bank
under the auspices of the heir-apparent, the Prince Imperial of
the Caliphate, who afterwards assumed the title of al-Mahdi.
This new city vied in the splendour of its structures with the
beauty and magnificence of the Mansurieh. In the days of its
glory/ before the destroying hordes of Chengiz sweeping over
Western Asia had engulfed in ruin every vestige of Saracenic
civilisation, Bagdad presented a beautiful and imposing
appearance — a fit capital for the Pontiffs of Islam. 1

The beauty and splendour of the city, before its sack by the
Mongols, have been immortalised in glowing lines by Anwari —
most brilliant of panegyrists : — 2

" Blessed be the site of Bagdad, seat of learning and art —
None can point in the world to a city equal to her,
Her suburbs vie in beauty with the blue vault of heaven,
Her climate in quality equals the life-giving breezes of

Her stones in their brightness rival gems and rubies,

1 For a description of Bagdad under the Abbasides, see Short History of
the Saracens (Macmillan), p. 444.

2 This English rendering gives an inadequate idea of the beauty of the
original : —

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— *-d3laRJ


Her soil in beneficence has the fragrance of the amber,
The morning breeze has imparted to the earth the freshness

of Tuba (the tree of Paradise),
And the winds have concealed in her water the sweetness

of Kausar (the spring of Eden),
The banks of the Tigris with their beautiful damsels surpass

(the city of) Khullakh, 1
The gardens filled with lovely nymphs equal Cashmere,
And thousands of gondolas on the water,
Dance and sparkle like sunbeams in the sky."

Its designation of the City of Peace, Ddr us-Saldm, was
derived from a prophecy made by the astronomer-royal Nou-
bakht, that none of the Caliphs would die within the walls of the
city, and the strange fulfilment of this prognostication in the
case of thirty-seven Pontiffs. The great number of holy men
who have found their last resting-place within or about its
walls, and whose tombs are objects of veneration to all Moslems,
gave to Bagdad the title of Bulwark of the Holy. Here are the
mausoleums of the greatest Imams and the most pious Sheikhs.
Here reposes the Imam Musa al-Kazim, and here lie buried
Abu Hanifa, the Sheikhs Junaid, Shibli, and Abdul Kadir
Ghilani, the chiefs of the Sufis.

In the midst of the monuments of the Imams and Sheikhs
stood those of the Caliphs and their consorts. Of the numerous
academies, colleges, and schools which filled the city, two
institutions surpassed all others in importance by their wealth

,i}$ C^ ; H a. if* 1 ) ,' J * — ***"> '♦*■

Ui* c — y+f .J6y ) A- — Uj ;liS

1 A city in Cathay famous for the beauty of its women,
s.i. 2 A


and the number of their students. These were the Nizamieh
and Mustansarieh ; the first established in the first half of the
fifth century of the Hegira by Nizam ul-Mulk, the great Vizier
of Malik Shah, Sultan of the Seljuks ; and the second, built
two centuries later, by the Caliph Al-Mustansir b'illah.

" It is a remarkable fact," says the historian of Culture under
the Caliphs, " that the sovereign who makes us forget some of
the darker sides of his nature by his moral and mental qualities,
also gave the impetus to the great intellectual movement which
now commenced in the Islamic world." * It was by Mansur's
command that literary and scientific works in foreign languages
were first translated into Arabic. Himself no mean scholar and
mathematician he had the famous collections of Indian fables
(the Hitopadesa), the Indian treatise on astronomy called the
Siddhanta, several works of Aristotle, the Almagest of Claudius
Ptolemy, the books of Euclid, as well as other ancient Greek,
Byzantine, Persian, and Syrian productions, translated into
the language of the Arabs. Mas'udi mentions that no sooner
were these translations published than they were studied with
much avidity. Mansur's successors were not only warm
patrons of the learned, who flocked to the metropolis from all
quarters, but were themselves assiduous cultivators of every
branch of knowledge. Under them the intellectual develop-
ment of the Saracens, in other words of the conglomerate races
of the vast empire which constituted the Caliphate, proceeded
with wonderful rapidity.

Each great nation of the world has had its golden age.
Athens had her Periclean era ; Rome, her Augustan age ; so,
too, had the Islamic world its epoch of glory ; and we may with
justice look upon the period which elapsed from the accession
of Mansur to the death of Mu'tazid-b'illah, with only a brief
intermission during the reign of Mutawakkil, as an epoch of
equal, if not of superior greatness and magnificence. Under
the first six Abbaside Caliphs, but especially under Mamun,
the Moslems formed the vanguard of civilisation. The
Saracenic race by its elastic genius as well as by its central
position, — with the priceless treasures of dying Greece and
Rome on one side, and of Persia on the other, and India and

1 Kremer, Culturgeschichte des Orients unter den Chalifen, vol. ii. p. 412.


China far away sleeping the sleep of ages, — was pre-eminently
fitted to become the teacher of mankind. Under the inspiring
influences of the great Prophet, who gave them a code and a
nationality, and assisted by their sovereigns, the Saracens
caught up the lessons of wisdom from the East and the West,
combined them with the teachings of the Master, and " started
from soldiers into scholars." " The Arabs," says Humboldt,
" were admirably situated to act the part of mediators, and to
influence the nations from the Euphrates to the Guadalquivir
and Mid-Africa. Their unexampled intellectual activity marks
a distinct epoch in the history of the world."

Under the Ommeyyades we see the Moslems passing through
a period of probation, preparing themselves for the great task
they were called upon to undertake. Under the Abbasides
we find them the repositories of the knowledge of the world.
Every part of the globe is ransacked by the agents of the Caliphs
for the hoarded wealth of antiquity ; these are brought to the
capital, and laid before an admiring and appreciating public.
Schools and academies spring up in every direction ; public
libraries are established in every city free to every comer ; the
great philosophers of the ancient world are studied side by side
with the Koran. Galen, Dioscorides, Themistius, Aristotle,
Plato, Euclid, Ptolemy, and Apollonius receive their due meed
of appreciation. The sovereigns themselves assist at literary
meetings and philosophical disquisitions. For the first time in
the history of humanity a religious and autocratic government
is observed to ally itself with philosophy, preparing and
participating in its triumphs.

Every city in the empire sought to outrival the other in the
cultivation of the arts and sciences. And governors and
provincial chiefs tried to emulate the sovereign. Travelling in
search of knowledge was, according to the precept of the Master,
a pious duty. From every part of the globe students and
scholars flocked to Cordova, to Bagdad, and to Cairo to listen
to the words of the Saracenic sages. Even Christians from
remote corners of Europe attended Moslem colleges. Men who
became in after-life the heads of the Christian Church, 1 acquired
their scholarship from Islamic teachers. The rise of Cairo

1 Such as Gerbert, afterwards Pope Sylvester II., who studied in Cordova.


under al-Muizz li-din-illah added a spirit of rivalry to the
patronage of learning on the part of the Caliphs of the Houses
of Abbas and Fatima. Al-Muizz was the Mamun of the West
— the Maecenas of Moslem Africa, which then embraced the
whole of the continent from the eastern confines of Egypt to
the shores of the Atlantic and the borders of the Sahara. During
the reign of al-Muizz and his first three successors, the arts and
sciences flourished under the especial and loving protection of
the sovereigns. The free university of Cairo, the Dar-ul-Hikmat
— Scientific Institute — established by al-Muizz, " anticipated
Bacon's ideal with a fact." The Idrisides at Fez, and the
Moorish sovereigns in Spain, outvied each other in the cultiva-
tion of arts and letters. From the shores of the Atlantic
eastward to the Indian Ocean, far away even to the Pacific,
resounded the voice of philosophy and learning, under Moslem
guidance and Moslem inspiration. And when the House of
Abbas lost its grasp on the empire of the East, the chiefs who
held the reins of government in the tracts which at one time
were under the undivided temporal sway of the Caliphs,
extended the same protection to science and literature as the
Pontiffs from whom they still derived their title to sovereignty.
This glorious period lasted, in spite of the triumph of patris-
ticism and its unconcealed jealousy towards scientific and
philosophical pursuits, until the fall of Bagdad before the
Tartar hordes. But the wild savages who overturned the
Caliphate and destroyed civilisation, as soon as they adopted
Islam, became ardent protectors of learning !

What was the condition of learning and science in Christen-
dom at this epoch ? Under Constantine and his orthodox
successors the ^Esclepions were closed for ever ; the public
libraries established by the liberality of the pagan emperors
were dispersed or destroyed ; learning was " branded as magic
or punished as treason " ; and philosophy and science were
exterminated. The ecclesiastical hatred against human learn-
ing had found expression in the patristic maxim, " Ignorance
is the mother of devotion " ; and Pope Gregory the Great,
the founder of ecclesiastical supremacy, gave effect to this
obscurantist dogma by expelling from Rome all scientific
studies, and burning the Palatine Library founded by Augustus


Caesar. He forbade the study of the ancient writers of Greece
and Rome. He introduced and sanctified the mythologic
Christianity which continued for centuries the predominating
creed of Europe, with its worship of relics and the remains of
saints. Science and literature were placed under the ban by
orthodox Christianity, and they succeeded in emancipating
themselves only when Free Thought had broken down the
barriers raised by orthodoxy against the progress of the human

Abdullah al-Mamun has been deservedly styled the Augustus
of the Arabs. " He was not ignorant that they are the elect
of God, his best and most useful servants, whose lives are
devoted to the improvement of their rational faculties . . . that
the teachers of wisdom are the true luminaries and legislators
of the world." 1

Mamun was followed by a brilliant succession of princes who
continued his work. Under him and his successors, the prin-
cipal distinguishing feature of the school of Bagdad was a true
and strongly marked scientific spirit, which dominated over all
its achievements. The deductive method, hitherto proudly
regarded as the invention and sole monopoly of modern Europe,
was perfectly understood by the Moslems. " Marching from
the known to the unknown, the school of Bagdad rendered to
itself an exact account of the phenomena for the purpose of
rising from the effect to the cause, accepting only what had
been demonstrated by experience ; such were the principles
taught by the (Moslem) masters." " The Arabs of the ninth
century," continues the author we are quoting, " were in the
possession of that fecund method which was to become long
afterwards, in the hands of the moderns, the instrument of
their most beautiful discoveries."

Volumes would be required to enumerate the host of scientific
and learned men who flourished about this epoch, all of whom
have, in some way or other, left their mark on the history of
progress. Mashallah and Ahmed ibn Mohammed al-Neha-
vendi, the most ancient of the Arab astronomers, lived in the
reign of Mansur. The former, who has been called the Phoenix
of his time by Abu'l Faraj, wrote several valuable treatises on

1 Abu'l Faraj.


the astrolabe and the armillary sphere, and the nature and
movements of celestial bodies — works which still evoke the
admiration of scientists. Ahmed al-Nehavendi wrote from his
own observations an astronomical table, al-Mustamal, which
formed a decided advance upon the notions of both the Greeks
and the Hindus. Under Mamun, the Almagest of Ptolemy was
re-translated, and the Verified Tables prepared by famous
astronomers like Send ibn Ali, Yahya ibn Abi-Mansur, and
Khalid ibn Abdul Malik. Their observations connected with
the equinoxes, the eclipses, the apparitions of the comets, and
other celestial phenomena, were valuable in the extreme, and
added greatly to human knowledge.

Mohammed ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi made a new translation,
under the orders of Mamun, of the Siddhanta, or the Indian
Tables, with notes and observations. Al-Kindi wrote two
hundred works on various subjects — arithmetic, geometry,
philosophy, meteorology, optics and medicine. Thoroughly
versed in the language of the Greeks, he derived from the schools
of Athens and Alexandria part of the information which he
embodied in his invaluable treatises. " His works," says
Sedillot, " are full of curious and interesting facts." Abu-
Ma'shar (corrupted by the Europe of the Middle Ages into
Albumazar) made the celestial phenomena his special study ;
and the Zij-abi-Ma'shar, or the Table of Abu-Ma'shar, has
always remained one of the chief sources of astronomical know-
ledge. The discoveries of the sons of Musa ibn Shakir, 1 who
nourished under Mamun and his two immediate successors,
especially with respect to the evaluations of the mean movement
of the sun and other astral bodies, are almost as exact as the
latest discoveries of Europe. They ascertained with wonderful
precision, considering the appliances they possessed, the
obliquity of the ecliptic, and marked for the first time the
variations in the lunar altitudes. They also observed and
determined with remarkable accuracy the precession of the
equinoxes, and the movements of the solar apogee (which were
utterly unknown to the Greeks). They calculated the size of
the earth from the measurement of a degree on the shore
of the Red Sea — this at a time when Christian Europe was

1 Mohammed, Ahmed, and Hasan.


asserting the flatness of the globe. Abu'l Hasan invented the
telescope, of which he speaks as " a tube to the extremities of
which were attached diopters." These " tubes " were improved
and used afterwards in the observatories of Maragha and Cairo
with great success. Al-Nairezi and Mohammed ibn Isa Abu
Abdullah continued the great work of Mvisa ibn Shakir's sons. 1
By the time al-Batani appeared, the Moslems had evolved from
the crude astronomy of the ancients a regular and harmonious
science. (Al-Batani, 2 though surpassed by his successors,
occupies a high position among astronomers, and a competent
judge pronounces his role to be the same among the Saracens
as that of Ptolemy among the Greeks. His Astronomical
Tables, translated into Latin, furnished the groundwork of
astronomy in Europe for many centuries. He is, however,
best known in the history of mathematics as the introducer of
the sine and co-sine instead of the chord in astronomical and
trigonometrical calculations.

Among the numerous astronomers who lived and worked in
Bagdad at the close of the tenth century, the names of two men,
Ali ibn Amajur and Abu'l Hasan Ali ibn Amajur, generally
known as Banu- Amajur, stand prominently forward. They
are noted for their calculation of the lunar movements.

Owing to the weakness of the central power, and an increasing-
inability to maintain the sway of the Caliphate in outlying and
distant parts, there arose on the confines of the empire, towards
the end of the tenth century, several quasi-independent chiefs.
Spain had been lost to the Abbasides at the commencement of
their rule ; about this period the Bani-Idris established them-
selves at Fez, the Bani-Rustam at Tahart, and the Bani-
Aghlab at Kairowan in Africa. Soon, however, the whole of
the northern part of that continent was brought under the
domination of the Bani-Fatima, and then another era of glory
for arts and literature commenced. Fez, Miknasa, Segelmessa,
Tahart, Tlemcen, Kairowan, but above all, Cairo, became
centres of culture and learning. In Khorasan the Taherides,

1 For their names, see ante, p. 374. Mohammed ibn Musa ibn Shakir died
in a.h. 259 (a.c. 873).

2 Abu Abdullah Mohammed ibn Jabir ibn Sinan al-Batani was a native of
Harran, died a.h. 317 (a.c. 929-30).


in Transoxiana the Samanides, the Buyides in Tabaristan and
afterwards in Persia and Bagdad, as mayors of the palace,
extended a lavish patronage to scientists and scholars. Abdur
Rahman Sufi, one of the most brilliant physicists of the age,
was an intimate friend of the Buyide Ameer 'Azud ud-Dowla,
deservedly called the second Augustus of the Arabs. Abdur
Rahman improved the photometry of the stars. 'Azud ud-
Dowla, 1 himself a scholar and a mathematician, welcomed to
his palace as honoured guests the learned men who flocked to
Bagdad from every part of the globe, and took part in their
scientific controversies. Ja'far, the son of the Caliph Muktafi
b'illah, made important observations regarding the erratic
movements of comets, and wrote a treatise on them ; and
other princes cultivated the sciences side by side with their

Under the Buyides flourished a host of astronomers,
physicists, and mathematicians, of whom only two need be
mentioned here, Al-Kohi and Abu'1-Wafa. Al-Kohi studied and
wrote on the movements of the planets His discoveries con-
cerning the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox added
materially to the store of human knowledge. Abu'1-Wafa was
born in 939 A.c. at Buzjan in Khorasan ; he established himself
in Irak in 959, where he applied himself chiefly to mathematics
and astronomy. His Zij-ush-Shdmil {the Consolidated or General
Table) is a monument of industry and keen and accurate
observation. He introduced the use of the secant and the
tangent in trigonometry and astronomical observations. " But
this was not all," says M. Sedillot ; " struck by the imperfec-
tion of the lunar theory of Ptolemy, he verified the ancient
observations, and discovered, independently of the equation of
the centre and the eviction, a third inequality, which is no other
than the variation determined six centuries later by Tycho
Brahe." 2

Under the Fatimides of Egypt, Cairo had become a new
intellectual and scientific centre. Here flourished, in the reigns

1 To 'Azud ud-Dowla (Malik Fanakhusru) Bagdad owed several hospitals
for the sick and refuges for orphans. He built magnificent mausoleums over
the tombs of Ali and Husain at Najaf and Kerbela. He rendered navigable
the river which flows by Shiraz by erecting the famous dyke called Bend-emir.

2 Abu'l Wafa, died in a.h. 387 (a.c. 997).


of Aziz b'illah x and Hakim bi-amr-illah, one of the master-
spirits of the age, Ibn Yunus, 2 the inventor of the pendulum
and the measurement of time by its oscillations. He is, how-
ever, famous for his great work named after his patron and
sovereign, Zij-ul-Akbar-al-Hdkimi, which soon displaced the
work of Claudius Ptolemy. It was reproduced among the
Persians by the astronomer-poet Omar Khayyam (1079) ;
among the Greeks, in the Syntax of Chrysococca ; among the
Mongols by Nasir ud-din Tusi, in the Zij-il-Khdni ; and
among the Chinese, in the astronomy of Co-Cheou-king in 1280 ;
and thus what is attributed to the ancient civilisation of China
is only a borrowed light from the Moslems. 3

Ibn Yunus died in 1009, and his discoveries were continued
by Ibn un-Nabdi, who lived in Cairo in 1040, and Hasan ibn
Haitham, commonly called in Europe Alhazen, and famous for
the discovery of atmospheric refraction. He flourished about
the end of the eleventh century, and was a distinguished
astronomer and optician. He was born in Spain, but resided
chiefly in Egypt. He is best known in Europe by his works
on optics, one of which has been translated into Latin by
Risner. He corrected the Greek misconception as to the
nature of vision, and demonstrated for the first time that the
rays of light come from external objects to the eye, and do not
issue forth from the eye, and impinge on external things. He
determined the retina as the seat of vision, and proved that the
impressions made upon it were conveyed along the optic nerves
to the brain. He explained the phenomena of a single vision
by the formation of visual images on symmetrical portions of
the two retinas. He discovered that the refraction of light
varies with the density of the atmosphere, and that atmospheric
density again varies with the height. He explained accurately
and clearly how in consequence of this refraction, astral bodies
are seen before they have actually risen and after they have
set, and demonstrated that the beautiful phenomenon of

1 'Aziz b'illah was one of the greatest sovereigns Egypt ever had. " He
loved his people as they loved him." He was married to a Christian lady,
whose brothers, Jeremiah and Arvenius, held the posts of patriarchs, one of
Jerusalem and the other of Alexandria. Both of them belonged to the
orthodox or melkite sect.

2 See Appendix III. 3 Sedillot.


twilight was due to the effect of atmospheric refraction com-
bined with the reflecting action of the air upon the course of
the rays of light. In his book called the Balance of Wisdom he
discusses dynamical principles, generally supposed to be the
monopoly of modern science. He describes minutely the
connection between the weight of the atmosphere and its
density, and how material objects vary in weight in a rare
and in a dense atmosphere. He discusses the submergence of
floating bodies, and the force with which they rise to the
surface when immersed in light or heavy media ; he fully
understands the principle of gravitation, and recognises gravity
as a force. He knows correctly the relation between the
velocities, spaces, and times of falling bodies, and has very
distinct ideas of capillary attraction. 1

In Spain the same activity of mind was at work from the
Pyrenees to the Straits : Seville, Cordova, Granada, Murcia,
Toledo, and other places possessed their public libraries and
colleges, where they gave free instruction in science and letters.
Of Cordova, an English writer speaks thus : " Beautiful as
were the palaces and gardens of Cordova, her claims to admira-
tion in higher matters were no less strong. The mind was as
lovely as the body. Her professors and teachers made her the
centre of European culture ; students would come from all
parts of Europe to study under her famous doctors, and even
the nun Hroswitha far away in her Saxon convent of Gauders-
heim, when she told of the martyrdom of Eulogius, could not
refrain from singing the praises of Cordova, ' the brightest
splendour of the world.' Every branch of science was seriously
studied there, and medicine received more and greater additions
by the discoveries of the doctors and surgeons of Andalusia than
it had gained during all the centuries that had elapsed since the
days of Galen. . . . Astronomy, geography, chemistry, natural
history, all were studied with ardour at Cordova ; and as for
the graces of literature there never was a time in Europe when
poetry became so much the speech of everybody — when people

Online LibrarySyed Ameer AliThe spirit of Islâm : a history of the evolution and ideals of Islâm → online text (page 41 of 55)