"The Abbasid House of Wisdom: Between Myth & Reality"
(a book authored by Prof. Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, published by Routledge)
By Prof. Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu
This lecture, which is based on a published book under the same title, examines the library of the Abbasid caliphs, known as “The House of Wisdom” (“Bayt al-Hikma”), exploring how this important institution has been misconceived by scholars. Itplaces the Abbasid palace library within the framework of the multifaceted cultural and scientific activities in the era of the caliphs, Harun al-Rashid and al-Ma’mun, generally regarded as the Golden Age of Islamic civilization.
The author studies the first references to the House of Wisdom in European sources, and shows how misconceptions arose because of incorrect translations of Arabic manuscripts, and also because of how scholars overlooked the historical context of the library in ways that reflected their own cultural and national ambitions.
Careful and critical examination of the available information provided by the primary sources that have reached us has undoubtedly clarified many misunderstandings, and helped to undo the fanciful portrait of the House of Wisdom.
As for the claims that all these varied activities used to take place within the House of Wisdom and inside its “specialized departments”, Ihsanoğlu has clearly shown that this claim has no historical support.
By researching how the myth of the House of Wisdom was created and disseminated, Ihsanoğlu endeavored to dissect the fanciful image and tried to construct a real depiction of the ninth century caliphal library, in accordance with the accounts available in primary sources.
Having proved that the myth which was created no longer stands in the face of reality, one cautionary remark is to admit that the mythical image of the House of Wisdom developed over many years has become well established to the extent that the bare reality stands as an unwelcome stranger, while the myth seems a household acquaintance.
Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu is a Turkish scholar and diplomat and a pioneer of studies of Ottoman Science and the history of institutions of learning. He was the founder and chair of the first Department of the History of Science in Turkey at the University of Istanbul, the IRCICA, the Turkish Society for the History of Science, and president of the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science from 2001 to 2005. Editor and co-author of many volumes, including 18 volumes of History of Ottoman Science Literature, laureate of Alexandre Koyré Medal and also Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science’s prestigious award in the field Arabic and Islamic Scientific Heritage.