Sunday, September 26

The lost Islamic library where modern mathematics arose

  • Adrienne Bernhard
  • BBC Future


The academy was a major intellectual power in Baghdad during the Islamic Golden Age.

The House of Wisdom sounds a bit like a fantasy: there is no trace of this ancient library, destroyed in the 13th century, so we cannot be sure where it was located or what exactly it looked like.

But this prestigious academy was in fact a major intellectual powerhouse in Baghdad during the Islamic Golden Age, and the birthplace of such transformative mathematical concepts as the common zero and our modern “Arabic” numbers.

Founded as a private collection for Caliph Harun Al-Rashid in the late 8th century, and later converted into a public academy some 30 years later, the House of Wisdom appears to have brought scientists from around the world to Baghdad, drawn by the vibrant intellectual curiosity of the city and freedom of expression (Muslim, Jewish and Christian scholars were allowed to study there).

With an archive as formidable in size as the current British Library in London or the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, the House of Wisdom eventually became an incomparable center for the study of the humanities and sciences, including mathematics, astronomy, medicine, chemistry, geography, philosophy, literature and the arts, as well as some more dubious subjects such as alchemy and astrology.

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