Views & Reviews Past Caring

All the world’s knowledge

BMJ 2011; 342 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d1272 (Published 28 February 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d1272
  1. Wendy Moore, freelance writer and author, London
  1. wendymoore{at}ntlworld.com

Years spent buried in medical textbooks have taught doctors the value of libraries. Yet few appreciate that the Western medical tradition owes its survival entirely to history’s greatest ever library—the Bayt al-Hikma.

The fall of the Roman empire was not just bad news for decent roads and central heating. The principles of scientific inquiry and learning in medicine, championed by Hippocrates and Galen, were similarly enveloped in the dark ages. It took an enlightened Islamic empire to dispel the gloom.

The Bayt al-Hikma, or House of Wisdom, was founded in Baghdad, the capital of the Islamic empire, in 832, under the patronage of the caliph Harun al-Rashid. A combined library and academic institute, it was driven by a simple mission to accumulate all of the world’s knowledge in one place.

To achieve this lofty aim, teams of scholars scoured the civilised world to bring back ancient manuscripts on every subject from philosophy to pharmacy. Although some texts were loaned by far flung monasteries, with the threat of a divine curse rather than a hefty fine for late return, others were looted in literary raids by discerning troops.

Collected in the Baghdad library, these priceless texts on fragile parchment and papyrus were translated from Greek, Syriac, and Sanskrit into Arabic—the generic language of the medieval Middle East—by skilled scribes. Knowledge of mathematics, astronomy, natural history, and, crucially, medicine was transcribed for the first time onto paper, the secret of papermaking having been extracted from Chinese prisoners a century earlier, and was therefore preserved for posterity.

During an era noted for religious tolerance, when Baghdad was a multicultural haven for Christians, Jews, and Muslims, many of the translators were Christians recruited for their linguistic talents. Prime among them was Hunayn ibn Ishaq, a Christian born in southern Iraq, who supervised much of the work.

As the son of an apothecary, Hunayn had a natural interest in medicine. He and his pupils translated hundreds of works by Galen, Hippocrates, and others. Taking immense pride in their industry, the scholars invented new medical terms where none existed in Arabic, took care to preserve original meaning rather than slavishly translating word for word, and even started producing medical works of their own.

While Hunayn wrote an important treatise on ophthalmology, his followers wrote pioneering texts on smallpox, infectious diseases, and surgery. Others went on to produce handy manuals and massive compendiums. In turn these works, imbued with classical devotion to scientific principles and translated into Latin, became standard textbooks in Renaissance medical schools.

Sadly, after two centuries of feverish activity, political and financial support ran dry. And when the Bayt al-Hikma was later destroyed by invading Mongols, the ink from discarded books was said to have made the Tigris run black.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d1272

Footnotes

  • Sources: Conrad LI. Arab-Islamic medicine. In: Bynum WF, Porter R. Companion encyclopedia of the history of medicine. Routledge, 1993:676-708; Ghalioungui P. Hunayn ibn Ishaq, translator and medical writer. In: XXVII Congreso Internacional de Historia de la Medicina 1980. 1981:245-8.