The Rise of Arabian Learning
FROM the appearance of Mohammed in the East to the fall of the Saracens in the West, Arabian history is surrounded by an atmosphere of romance, which no realistic array of facts is able to dissipate. Say what we will about despotic power, with its suspicions and cruelties and recklessness of human life, or about religious crudities and fanaticism, the story fascinates. The spell which it casts is strengthened rather than weakened by the contrasts of light and shadow which are presented. The effect is like that we experience in looking back to the walls and battlements of old castles, where dungeons underlie the very towers from which ladies once waved signals to their troubadours.
Nor is this lustre mere glamour. Arabian progress was brilliant in more than one direction : in the arts of peace as well as in war; in the intellectual as well as the physical held. The sudden apparition of these children of the desert; their proclamation of a new faith ; their unification to an overwhelming power; their wild sweep, with lance and scimiter, through Syria and Persia to the banks of the Indus, through Egypt and along the coast of Africa to the Pillars of Hercules ; their bold push across the Straits of Gibraltar, under Tarik and Musa; their conquest of Spain and advance into France, until the Saracen army was stopped by the solid hosts of Charles Martel, — all this constitutes a history of substantial achievement.
These successes are rendered more dazzling by the sheen of that wealth which, gathered from plunder and tribute, enabled the people to weave around their lives the enchantments of a luxury demoralizing to themselves and illusive to our modern eyes.
But what most surprises us is to see, growing cut of such wealth and springing up by the side of such luxury, an eagerness for knowledge, which resulted in making the Arabians, for the time, the most learned people on the face of the globe.
During several centuries, including the darkest portions of the Middle Ages, the Saracens were the world’s chief promoters of learning. They were especially conspicuous as students of the natural sciences, which, in Christian Europe, had fallen into almost entire neglect. They were the devoted cultivators of philosophy, and the poetic spirit attained among them a luxuriant growth. Other departments of letters were not neglected, while many of the arts were diligently cherished.
Before Mohammed, the Arabian was unlearned. He loved his horse, his weapons, and hospitality. He honored the poets of his race, who sung of the genealogies and heroisms of the tribes, and whose contests at the annual fairs helped to preserve the purity of a language which was always the nation’s boast. Perhaps he equally honored the orator, who roused the people to deeds of daring; and to whom, after the promulgation of Islam, the preacher was the natural successor.
The people’s lore comprised national and tribal history, family pedigrees, the courses of the stars and their influence over the weather, along with the interpretation of dreams. Science there was none. Learning of any kind, worthy of the name, was impossible to a people that had no written language; and the art of writing, which had been introduced to the Arabs about a century before the Hegira, obtained little currency among the native children of the desert. It was mostly in the hands of Jews and Christians. Ibn Kalikan tells us that when the Koran was published there was not in all the district of Yemen, along the Indian Ocean, — the finest part of Arabia, and containing its most ancient and populous cities, — a single person who could write or read Arabic.
Contact with people of better intellectual antecedents had not been wanting. The caravan trade across the peninsula was of ancient date, and the great means of commerce between the East and the West. The products of India and Africa found their way over the Red Sea, and thence, across the desert, to Damascus and Syria. This trade, in the hands of the tribes, opened channels of communication with the world through which one might expect a larger influx of knowledge and refinement than was realized.
Nor was the country without contributions to its population from the more cultivated nations. Its seclusion made it a resort of refugees from surrounding regions. Nestorian physicians had lived among the people. One of them attended on Mohammed. The name City of the Book had been given to Medina, because of the numerous Jews who made their residence there. The kings of Yemen, or of Homeritis, had professed the Jewish faith during a period extending from more than a hundred years before Christ down to the sixth century of our era.
But none of these circumstances persuaded the Saracen to any zeal for learning. The nation must first be set in motion under the impulses of a new faith. The Arab of the peninsula was content to know what his fathers had known ; the Arab of the conquest had new inspirations and needs.
The great Prophet of Islam was not above his race in literary attainments. In the Koran he repeatedly calls himself the illiterate prophet. Read he could not, much less could he write; and, whether from fear lest knowledge should sap the bottom stones of the faith, or from a belief that all man needs to know was made known by revelation through him, Mohammed issued an edict that made the study of the liberal sciences and arts punishable by death. The ignorance of the founder was urged as a proof of the divine origin of the faith, since the precepts of the Koran, being too lofty to proceed from an unlettered man, must be esteemed the result of divine communication.
From such a state of ignorance, the Arabians rose, in the course of two centuries, to a commanding position as cultivators of science and patrons of learning.
The first steps in their intellectual career were inspired by a more extended contact with the world which they conquered. For, however that world may have been sunken, in the seventh century, below the intellectual standards of past ages, it was immeasurably superior to the ignorance of the peninsula from which the conquerors emerged. Once entered on their career of foreign conquest, the Saracen hosts spread almost simultaneously over Syria, the valley of the Euphrates, Persia, and Egypt. In less than ten years after the death of Mohammed, his followers were holding some of the most splendid cities of the world, and were in daily contact with their despised but, in all except arms, superior inhabitants. Damascus, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria had fallen before them ; the conquest of Persia had begun. In just a hundred years from the death of the Prophet, the still hopeful and impetuous advance of the Moslems was checked and turned back by Charles Martel.
In these conquests, the absorptive mind of the Arabians, fresh from untaught barbarity and eager with awakened curiosity, was forced into communication with whatever of learning remained in the great cities of the East and South. The leaders of armies held personal intercourse with the best intellects of Asia and Africa. When Alexandria falls, we find the Moslem general, Amrou, in free and friendly intercourse with John Philoponus, who, as grammarian and philosopher, represents the learning of his day, and who, displaying the facility of his scholarship, repays the friendship of the conqueror by composing in Arabic a book on Aristotle, and by translating into the same language from the medical works of Galen a collection of extracts on antidotes for the bites of serpents. In consequence of these pioneer labors he ranks among the earliest of those Christians who helped to build Arabian science on the foundations of Greek learning. What took place in this instance happened in other cities. Necessity promoted friendly offices, and opened up an intercourse which became the opportunity of intelligence over against ignorance. To the effect of such free communication may in part be charged the difference between the earliest Kalifs and the generals of their armies. The first three Kalifs seldom went from home. Living in Arabia, they experienced few of the effects of contact with the world. The burning of the great library at Alexandria, when that city fell, was due to the fanaticism of Omar, the second Kalif, and not to the wantonness of his general. Philoponus asked of Amrou the preservation of that depository of ancient learning, and Amrou, willing to favor the request, referred to Omar the question whether he should bestow the library as a gift on his Christian friend. The Kalif, living in the seclusion of Arabia, lying among beggars on the steps of the mosque at Medina, or preaching, in his tattered gown, the Moslem crusade, replied, “ As to the books you mention, if they agree with the book of God, there is enough in that book without them; but if there is anything in them at variance with that book, we have no need of them: therefore order them all to be destroyed.” And destroyed they were. They are said to have fed the fires which heated the baths of Alexandria. But such fanaticism began to yield when the Kalifs moved more abroad, and came under the influence of Christian civilization. Ali, the Lion of God, nephew and son-in-law of Mohammed, — the Ali whose sad fate and that of his two sons, Hassan and Hosein, are to this day bewailed by the Mohammedans of Persia in their passion play, — was the first to favor learning. Some of his sayings in exaltation of letters are still preserved in Mohammedan literature.
But under Moawiyah, the sixth Kalif in the order of succession, and the first of the Ommiade dynasty, which dates from his elevation to the throne in a little less than thirty years after the death of the Prophet, the simplicity and seclusion of the Arabian court were abandoned. The seat of the kalifate was transferred to Damascus, and victorious Islam became intellectually subject to the world which it had conquered. Before he mounted the throne, and while governor of Syria, Moawiyah had subdued the islands of Rhodes and Cyprus. Under his kalifate the Moslem war boats pushed into the Hellespont and besieged Constantinople. Checked by the long and vigorous defense of the imperial city, he was willing to receive a Greek embassy into his capital. There was a truce of thirty years. Moawiyah paid tribute. This humiliation and the opening of extended intercourse with the Grecian islands and the imperial city undoubtedly contributed to the coming in of Grecian learning. Having established a princely court in the midst of an ancient civilization, Moawiyah is said to have adorned it with poets and philosophers. Convinced of the superiority of Greek culture, he sought out the most learned men of his time, and summoned them to his side. Thus the forbidden fruit was tasted. In less than fifty years after the death of Mohammed the policy of the Kalifs was changed ; the edict which had made the pursuit of the liberal sciences a capital offense was laid aside by a successor of the Prophet, a commander of the faithful, and a defender of the faith.
Nevertheless, the period of preparation on the part of the national mind for its subsequent career had yet to extend over more than a hundred years, during the whole of which there was little that could be called literary activity. Only now and then appeared an Arabian like El Hareth, who had studied medicine abroad, and, practicing it according to the best light of the age, stood later in life on an intimate footing with Mohammed. Others picked up a smattering of the healing art through contact with foreigners, or gained some knowledge of the sciences, like Kaled Ben Yezid, who, under the teaching of a Christian monk, became well versed in alchemy as well as medicine. The Saracen conquerors of this first century and a half usually employed Christian and Jewish physicians. A single Arabian name, that of Geber, or the Gebers (for, according to some, there are two persons of the same name, while another authority declares that the two who have been so known are to be distinguished from each other as Shafer and Geber), rises on the horizon with a claim to future eminence, as that of either an original discoverer in the fields of alchemy, or a diligent collector and preserver of the knowledge of previous generations in that department, out of which modern chemistry has been born. The actual supremacy of learning among the Arabians was not achieved until the ninth century of the Christian era, and the student may pass rapidly through the preliminary periods of conquest and of civil strife, alike unfavorable to the highest intellectual attainments, noting only, as he goes, the downfall of the Ommiades in the East amid scenes of blood which turn horror into disgust; the rise of the black turbans of the Abbassides out of the turmoil of civil strife ; the escape from the carnival of blood of that single Ommiade prince who, after wandering for years in disguise among African wilds, is welcomed to the coasts of Spain, proclaimed Emir of the West, and honorably perpetuates the soiled name of his family under the title of Abd El Rahman I., — distinguishing his reign of over thirty years in the earlier part of the last half of the eighth century by wisdom and liberality, and, having been schooled in the learning of the East, becomes the agent of its importation into the West.
While Abd El Rahman is thus laying the foundations of science in Spain, El Mansur, the second of the Abbassides, removes the seat of his power from Damascus. Bagdad is founded, on the banks of the Tigris, and, receiving the throne, rises rapidly to the splendor of her wealth and luxury ; becoming the centre of enlightenment both for the older East and the newer West, where Cordova, in her beauty, at first begins to share with the Abbasside capital the honors and benefits of learning, then rivals her, and at last outstrips and eclipses her.
The immediate instructors of the Arabians, at this time, were those Greek Christians, followers of Nestorius, whose ancestors, bitterly persecuted for their heresy, had fled into Persia. Here, after retaliating measure for measure of deadly persecution upon their orthodox neighbors, they had turned their attention to learning, and especially to medicine. They founded the medical college of Gondisapore, which, rising to distinction as a centre of Greek science, secured the patronage of princes, and sent out great numbers of Jews and Christians, who, as skilled physicians, found the world open to them. These cultivators of learning translated the literary remains of Greece into Syriac, and when Mohammedanism rose to power they were instrumental in introducing Greek science to the Arabians. With these scholars the conquest of Persia would naturally open more frequent communication. It is not improbable that some of them may have been called in the seventh century to the Damascene court of Moawiyah ; but, later, the Nestorian teacher became an indispensable minister to a more thoroughly awakened intellectual life. After the removal of the seat of power from Damascus to Bagdad, nearer the Eastern centres of learning, the name of George Bachtishwa appears as one of those who were invited to the court of El Mansur, under whose reign the patronage of learning began in earnest. This Kalif offered rewards for translations of ancient Greek writings in philosophy, astronomy, medicine, and mathematics; honored men of letters; and, not disdaining to become their pupil, applied himself to the study of astronomy. His bids for translations were met by those Christian scholars who had been drawn to Bagdad by its rising greatness, and who rendered the required books into Syriac, from which, they were afterwards translated into Arabic.
As director of the medical college at Gondisapore, Bachtishwa was summoned to Bagdad in a special emergency of the Kalif’s health, and, his advice having been followed with a successful result, he rose high in honor, though he refused the profession of Islam. At El Mansur’s request, he translated several medical works into Arabic; and when at last ill health compelled him to return to his Persian home, he was dismissed with princely rewards, It did not fare so well with an assistant whom he had brought with him, and recommended as his successor. This man could not bear his honors. Being found guilty of various rascalities, he was soundly whipped and dismissed in disgrace.
The Bachtishwa family had a remarkable career, continuing to produce distinguished physicians, who were employed by Kalifs and other notables from generation to generation, through a period of three hundred years.
The doctors thus became the pioneer missionaries of learning. The healing art afforded demonstrations of its value, with which the as yet too narrow minds of the early Abbassides could not dispense. The renowned Haroun El Raschid, from whose reign we must date the golden era of Arabian learning, began his career with strong prejudices against the infidel teachers. But when a beautiful favorite from Africa was suffering from a serious illness, he is said to have sent as far as Alexandria to summon Balatian, the Christian patriarch, to her side; and from the eastern limits of the empire, Gabriel Bachtishwa was called to put his life in peril by recommending bleeding for the Kalif, smitten by apoplexy. The success of the infidel doctors, in both cases, was fortunate for the cause of learning. Gabriel rose to great power with Haroun.
The position of these physicians, devoted to the interests of science at an imperious court, was by no means to be envied. The caprices of the Kalifs were dictated by their suspicions and fears. It was only a step from an enchanted palace to a dungeon. Gabriel Bachtishwa’s career is an illustration. Loaded, at first, with high honors by Haroun, he fell under his displeasure, was imprisoned and condemned to death. Afterwards released, he became physician to El Amin, was imprisoned by El Mamoun, and, again set at liberty, he was finally buried in a cloister with great pomp. A scarcely less severe lot fell, at a somewhat later period, to the accomplished Honain Ben Ishac, who, with his two sons, ranks among those who rendered the highest service to growing Arabian science, by translations of Hippocrates, Galen, Dioscorides, Aristotle, Ptolemy’s Almagest, and other works. While prosecuting his studies in the cities of Greece, and laboring to perfect himself in the language of that nation, he had also busied himself with the collecting of manuscript copies of the works of the Greek philosophers. Returning to Bagdad, he proceeded to Bassora in order to complete his command of the Arabic, and finally again took up his residence in the great capital of Eastern Islam. Here, under the Kalif Motewakkel, he was forced to give painful proof of his fidelity, lest he should turn out to be an adventurer and an enemy in the employ of the Greek Emperor. “ Teach me,” demanded the Kalif, “ a prescription by which I may take off any enemy I please without being discovered.” Under the plea of ignorance, Honain declines to give the lesson, and is marched off to prison. A year passes, and the physician stands again before the Kalif, while the demand is renewed. The penalty of refusal is death. The inflexible Honain declines to answer. As he stands awaiting his fate, a smile creeps over the Kalif’s face. “ Be of good cheer: we were only trying thee, that we might have the greater confidence in thee.” At this Honain, overcome, bows down and kisses the earth. “ What hindered thee,” cries the Kalif, “ from granting our request, when thou sawest us appear so ready to perform what we had threatened?” “ Two things,” replies Honain : my religion, which commands me to do good to my enemies, and my profession, which was instituted purely for the benefit of mankind.” “ Two noble laws ! ” exclaims the admiring despot, and the intrepid Honain, dismissed with gold and rich garments, is promoted to the place of royal physician.
It was under Haroun El Raschid and El Mamoun, father and son, at the close of the eighth and the beginning of the ninth century, that the zeal for knowledge among the Arabians reached its white heat. The credit of this great movement belongs largely to El Mamoun, who, successfully resisting his father’s prejudice against the Christian teachers, introduced an unlimited patronage of the sciences. The immense wealth of the Abbasside Kalifs enabled them to prosecute at will any literary ambitions awakened in them. Princes who, like Mahadi, the son of El Mansur, could expend six million dinars of gold on a single pilgrimage to Mecca, refreshing themselves and their courtiers on the way from trains of camels laden with snow ; or who, like El Mamoun, could give away two million four hundred thousand dinars, four fifths of the income of a province, before dismounting from their steeds, and could, at nuptials, shower their brides with costly pearls, that became the reward of whatever courtier picked them up as they fell to the earth, displayed their bounty and wisdom by drawing around them brilliant assemblies of men of learning, and by pouring forth their wealth for the promotion of knowledge. Haroun El Raschid is said never to have traveled without a hundred men of science in his train, who, while they improved the opportunities thus afforded for enlarging their spheres of observation, added the glories of learning to the glitter of wealth and the display of military power. The same prince manifested his zeal for knowledge by attaching a school to every mosque which he built; and, as this became the custom of his successors, we discern in these schools the foundations of all those literary institutions which were afterwards distributed throughout the length and breadth of the Mohammedan dominions.
El Mamoun, who after the death of his brother, El Amin, mounted the throne, was even more successful than Haroun in the promotion of science.
Before he rose to the kalifate, he was charged by his father with the government of the province of Korhassau, where, in establishing a separate court, he began to give free rein to his passion for learning. He applied himself to study, and, calling around him men of high attainments from various countries, organized them into a college, placing over them John Messue, a Nestorian Christian, who came from Gondisapore to Bagdad, where he won the confidence of the young prince. For fifty years this Messue was physician to successive Kalifs. His appointment to the directorship of El Mamoun’s college was the occasion of a declaration which throws a good deal of light on the relations of parties to the educational work of the time, and bears witness to the recognized superiority of the foreign teachers. Haroun resented the elevation of an infidel to a position of such influence and honor. El Mamoun replied, “ I have made a choice of Messue, not as a teacher of religion, but as an able preceptor in useful sciences and arts ; and my father well knows that the most learned men and the most skillful artists in his dominions are Jews and Christians.”Haroun afterwards placed John Messue at the head of his own schools, and made him superintendent of the studies of the empire.
The zeal of El Mamoun was not quenched when he assumed the cares and honors of the kalifate. History lavishes praises on the enlightenment of his reign. His sense of the value and honor of learning rose to a passion. He laid the world under tribute to furnish the means of gratifying his literary ambition, summoned the learned of all nations to his court, loading them with emoluments and honors. No religious or national prejudice was allowed to stand in the way of his purposes. Whenever he heard of one who excelled in any department of learning, he followed up the clue, to secure another scholar upon whom he might impose labors and rewards. A pupil of Leo, the great teacher of rhetoric, arithmetic, and other sciences, having been taken prisoner by the Saracens, won the admiration of his captors by solving a mathematical problem which had embarrassed their wise men. When the news of the solution reached the ears of El Mamoun, he caused inquiry to be made, and, learning that Leo had been the instructor of the captive, he sent a messenger to the Greek Emperor, entreating that the master might be dispatched to the Arabian court. The curt refusal of Theophilus to spare his favorite, notwithstanding the heavy inducements offered by El Mamoun, shows how much easier it is for an aspiring representative of a rising young empire to ask a favor than for the representative of an old monarchy which has been bitterly humbled by the new one to grant it.
By such measures El Mamoun strove to make Bagdad the residence of the choicest among the learned. His court took on the character of a great academy. The provinces of his empire were searched for precious manuscripts; his collectors were busy everywhere, — in Syria, in Armenia, in Egypt. Governors of provinces had instructions to further the work. Collections of books were taken as tribute. Among the terms of peace with the Greek Emperor, Michael the Stammerer, was the exaction of a series of the manuscripts of Greek authors. Vast numbers of books were brought from all quarters to Bagdad, constituting a library which represented the accumulated learning of the East. These contributions of the nations to Arabian enlightenment were borne on the backs of hundreds of camels, which entered the city laden with their treasures. Such a collection required numerous laborers to inspect, arrange and classify, transcribe and translate. The work of translation is said to have been done under the general superintendence of the indefatigable John Messue, and was pursued with diligence, renderings being made from the Greek, Persian, Chaldean, and Egyptian or Coptic. Whatever of the vast collections needed to be made accessible to the students of the time was translated into Arabic. But notwithstanding El Mamoun’s zeal for possessing the intellectual products of the nations, he displayed an utter want of appreciation of the literary value of original manuscripts, by ordering everything to be destroyed as soon as the translations were completed. The same policy was followed by the Kalifs of Africa in their turn. Some excuse for this course may be found in the lack of room to store such numbers of manuscript originals, transcriptions, and translations ; but besides this, the Arabians were exceedingly proud of their own tongue, and it is quite possible that they regarded it as a matter of little importance that anything should be preserved in another language. Whatever may have been the motive, this wholesale destruction was an irreparable loss to the world.
El Mamoun was not satisfied with the mere patronage of learning. From the duties of the throne, he turned to the library and the desk, becoming a student of law, science, and philosophy, versed in astronomy, successful in mathematics. With regal dignity he graced the assemblies of his learned men, and took an active part in their discussions. The example of the sovereign stimulated the ambition of his subjects. So much enthusiasm, such far-reaching search after manuscripts and learned men, thrilled the empire to its limits, and made intellectual culture, or the show of it, fashionable. Courtiers aspired to the ranks of science, some of them with eminent success. El Fragan, or Faragani, wrote the Elements of Astronomy, and El Merwasi prepared astronomical tables. These men were of the court of El Mamoun. The royal bounty provided costly instruments for astronomical observations, and carried out upon the plains of Sinar and Cufa the project of measuring two degrees of a great circle, and hence determining the circumference of the earth. The science of medicine, so long held in favor, rose to a commanding position, and was adorned, under this enlightened Kalif, by some most distinguished names.
The reign of El Mamoun marks the victory of knowledge in its struggle with ignorance. The supremacy of learning is secured. Here, the movement which made the Saracens everywhere the most conspicuous cultivators of literature, philosophy, and science becomes pervasive. It is, therefore, not necessary for our purpose to trace the development of this history through its further stages. We may confine ourselves to a sketch of its general features.
The Nestorian Christians, who had taken so prominent a part in awakening the scientific zeal of the Arabians, knew the importance of schools of learning. When, in the latter portion of the fifth century, the college which they had maintained at Edessa was broken up, they had removed to Persia, and established at Nisibis a college, and at Gondisapore a school for medicine. In the literary institutions of these Nestorians is said first to have arisen the practice of conferring academical degrees. When the Arabians had once entered upon the work of founding similar institutions, they displayed the luxuriance which characterized their other enterprises. All over the empire, in the East and in the West, rose the mosques, and attached to the mosques the schools. A hen the demand came for instruction in the higher branches of learning, such as Arabic literature, mathematics, astronomy, grammar, metaphysics, alchemy, and medicine, academies were established for advanced youth. Colleges were formed for instruction in the liberal arts, and special schools for the prosecution of special sciences. Those foundations were laid on which, in later ages, were built the superstructures of magnificent universities. The Arabians became the teachers of the world. Christian pupils, from remote parts of Europe, sat at the feet of the Saracens of Spain, while the Mohammedan smiled at the ignorance of the Latins, and that grand old earnest monk, Roger Bacon, in the thirteenth century, tried in vain to rouse the herd of European ecclesiastics to a zeal for science, by repeating the taunts of the Moslem.
When the Mohammedan Empire split into its three great sections, under the Abbassides in the East, the Ommiades in Spain, and the Fatimites in Africa, the Kalifs of these separate empires vied with each other for the glory of learning. The Emirs of provinces were affected by the example of the Kalifs, and entered the lists as rivals. The great cities of the East, South, and West became centres of education.
A wandering student, seeking contact with the wise, might start from a point far to the east of the Caspian, beyond the river Oxus, travel across Persia and the valley of the Euphrates, through Egypt and Northern Africa, into the fair realms of Spain; gathering information at numerous points in the way from men devoted to science and letters. Seats of learning were located as the demand for them arose: at Samarcand and Bochara beyond the Oxus, at Balk among its western sources, at Ispahan in Persia, at Bagdad on the Tigris and Cufa on the Euphrates, at Bassora near the Persian Gulf, at Alexandria and Cairo in Egypt, at Fez and Morocco in Western Africa, at Cordova, Seville, Toledo, Granada, Salamanca, and Alcala in Spain, and even in Sicily. Bassora and Cufa originated rival schools of the Arabic language; Bagdad was the literary metropolis of the East. Cordova of the West. Alexandria is credited with more than twenty schools in which philosophy was taught, and about the beginning of the eleventh century there were as many more in Cairo alone, to which crowds of students resorted from all parts of the world, to listen to instructors who discoursed on the philosophy of Aristotle. In Cordova, we hear of not less than eighty schools, apparently of an academical or collegiate order, where professors, influential at home, became renowned in Christian Europe. Besides these, the Kalif El Hakem founded, in the same city, an academy, which grew into fifteen institutions devoted to special sciences. These were not consolidated into a single university. There seems to have been nothing among the Saracens exactly corresponding to what we include under that name, but numerous colleges offered advantages to students, which placed Cordova, with its beautiful surroundings, at the head of all the cities of the world as a seat of learning.
The endowments of the various institutions, in different parts of the Arabian dominions, were commensurate with the wealth of the Kalifs and of their subjects. The buildings devoted to education were sometimes magnificent. Professors were supported upon fixed salaries, and provision was made for indigent students. Nor was the son of the carpenter excluded from the halls frequented by the children of the wealthy. A single vizier gave two hundred thousand pieces of gold to found a college at Bagdad, and endowed it so liberally that its revenue was fifteen thousand dinars annually. It was open to the sons of mechanics, as Well as to the noble born ; the professors were supported by salaries, and there were foundations for students who needed pecuniary aid. The largess thus shown towards the pursuit of knowledge was one of the causes of the rapid growth of Arabian literature, science, and philosophy at a time when the Christian world was either buried in intellectual slumber or only beginning to awake from its stupor. The conditions of abundant wealth, and, after the wars of conquest in the seventh and eighth centuries were over, of relatively undisturbed leisure, prepared the way for intellectual and æsthetic culture.
Of this culture the Arabian libraries became at once the source and expression. Books, demanded by an aroused hunger after knowledge, were the continuous products of minds satisfied with its stores. The Arabians became great producers and consumers of books. We have seen how greedily they gathered and how eagerly they appropriated the literary and scientific treasures of the nations which had flourished before them. The translations of those manuscripts which El Mamoun brought from all parts of the world must of themselves have formed a large library at Bagdad. But on this basis the activity of Arabian scholars built up an extensive literature of their own. The passion for learning was followed by a passion for authorship, not excelled in our modern schools. The Arabs studied everything, and wrote on everything they studied. Having first secured translations of the best Greek works upon rhetoric, they discoursed upon that art, and. under the leadership of the two rival schools of Cufa and Bassora, their grammarians discussed the beauties of the Arabic, in which their orators spoke and poets sung. Their historians left no subject untouched: writing upon history, universal, national, and local; upon the lives of distinguished men, and even of distinguished horses and camels. Authors rendered honor to authors by giving sketches of all those writers who had belonged to particular cities, or of those who had devoted themselves to particular studies, as doctors, mathematicians, or philosophers. One wrote the history of Arabian money, another of the arts, another of the nation’s antiquities. In the physical sciences, they treated of minerals, plants, animals, precious stones, pharmacy, medicine, optics and hydraulics, statics, alchemy, and astronomy. In the Escurial library is a full discussion of agriculture by an Arabian of Seville, of the twelfth century. In the abstract sciences, mathematics took a prominent place. They simplified arithmetic by the introduction of the so-called Arabic numerals and the decimal system, pursued geometry and algebra, advanced trigonometry. They devoted a large share of attention to philosophical speculation, plunging into and losing themselves in the obscurities of Aristotle, whom they translated, commented on, and adored. The long list of authors might be fitly closed by the compilers of dictionaries in sixty volumes, and of encyclopædias and other helps to indolent or weary students, searching among the confusing piles of literary values or literary rubbish. The renowned philosopher, Ibn Sina, while yet a youth, wrote a scientific encyclopædia ; Mohammed Aba Abdallah, of Granada, compiled a comprehensive historical dictionary of sciences; A1 Farabi wrote an encyclopædia of sciences ; the Arabian Brothers of Purity, who flourished at Bassora in the tenth century, prepared treatises embodying the science accessible to the members of their order and available for their pupils.
Out of these unremitting labors, extending through five or six centuries, from the time of El Mamoun onwards, were accumulated the materials of vast libraries. The great number of schools, academies, colleges, and universities scattered through the East, Egypt, Fez, Morocco, and Spain presupposes the presence in every place of larger or smaller collections of books. Such renowned colleges as those of Cufa, Bassora, Saraarcand, and others must have had stores of manuscripts corresponding to their influence. The history of the great library of the Bagdad Kalifs is already known to us. But the Fatimites of Africa emulated the East; Fez and Morocco were renowned during hundreds of years for their many universities and libraries, and for the magnificent buildings which contained them. The royal library of the Fatimites is said to have numbered a hundred thousand volumes. These, though elegantly written and richly bound, were unstintingly placed at the disposal of the students at Cairo, where, in the departments of astronomy and medicine alone, there were six thousand five hundred manuscripts.
But I suppose that all other collections of books in the world were surpassed by the great library of El Hakem II. of Spain, near the close of the tenth century, which is said to have reached the enormous proportions expressed by six hundred thousand volumes. This munificent prince, son of Abd El Rahman III., established a manufactory of manuscripts at Cordova, where he employed the best transcribers, illuminators, and binders. He brought learned men from Cairo and Bagdad, and employed agents in the East to purchase books. Authors and collectors experienced his bounty. Eager not to be outdone as a patron of letters, he is said to have paid the Persian Abul Faradj El Isfahni a thousand dinars of pure gold for the first copy of his celebrated work on anthology, in order that the book might be read in Andalusia before it could be read iu Persia.
The library of El Hakem was stored in his palace at Cordova. But, besides this, there are said to have been seventy depositories of manuscripts scattered through the cities and towns of Moorish Spain. The rage for collections spread from the sovereign to his wealthy subjects, who vied with each other for the reputation of their libraries. A like fondness for private collections seems to have prevailed elsewhere. When a Sultan at Bochara invites a physician to his court, the doctor excuses himself on the ground that he cannot be parted from his library, to transport which would require four hundred camels. Where power and wealth were priding themselves to such a degree on the patronage of learning, it may be properly said that books, literature, science, and philosophy had become fashionable. The contagion spread beyond the empire. From all quarters, pupils repaired to the great establishments of learning. Early in the twelfth century, the students and instructors at Bagdad numbered six thousand men. A century before this the universities of Spain were resorts of students from Christian Europe.
To this general enumeration of opportunities and means of study must be added some more particular notice of three great departments which, aside from theology, engaged attention.
The Arabian mind found special satisfaction in the pursuit of the natural sciences. The exuberant fancy of the Arab, his love of wonder and mystery, intensified by a swiftly unfolding history, which surprised and flushed him, helped to make the powers and movements of nature an attractive study. With him, also, as with us, the real or imagined uses of the natural sciences were an additional and perhaps a preponderating motive. Medicine, alchemy, and astronomy had their practical value. The healing art is in all ages a necessity; and to it alchemy offered the legitimate contributions of pharmacy, and the ever-disappointing but everreviving hope of an elixir of life. In like manner, the supposed influence of the stars upon human destiny, the mysterious power of the heavenly bodies to affect the character and the fortunes of each new-born heir to an earthly career, made the knowledge of the heavenly motions a matter of supreme moment to every subject, as well as to kings and empires. The practical value of astronomy, tributary to judicial astrology, must be recognized as a leading motive in Arabian science.
We need not, therefore, be surprised to find a lavish expenditure of time, labor, and treasure in behalf of the studies of nature. Medicine took the lead ; the Nestorian Christians of the East and the Jewish physicians of the Alexandrian schools being, as we have seen, the early teachers. The science handed down from Hippocrates, patronized by Ptolemy Philadelphus, and now at length fairly introduced to Arabian students, grew rapidly in favor among them. Through it lay one of the surest roads to the gratitude of princes, and consequently to honor and wealth. The name of physician is attached to that of many philosophers. Rahzes, the noted alchemist, was chief physician of the hospital at Bagdad ; El Kindi, surnamed the Philosopher, wrote upon medicine, and El Farabi studied medicine. El Serif El Sakali, the geographer, was famous for his medical knowledge ; Ibn Sina and Ibn Roschd were physicians as well as philosophers. The doctors practiced surgery, and are said to have been bold in the use of instruments. The medical schools, at first embarrassed by the interdict laid upon the practice of dissection, annulled in Spain, at least, that restriction; for the Spanish-Arabians followed the example of the Alexandrians under Ptolemy Philadelphus, and investigated the structure and functions of the human body by the aid of the dissecting knife. In alchemy the furnaces of the laboratory were seconded by a tolerably complete array of apparatus. In addition to stores of reagents, the balance, the retort, the cupel of bone earth, the water-bath, the sandbath. solutions, crystallizations, precipitations, filtrations, sublimations, distillations, and, we may believe, the usual complement of smells, made the laboratory of the Arabian a very respectable progenitor, whose likeness is not lost in its modern descendant. Intimately connected with these appliances were others, which belong more properly to our present department of physics. The aerometer took the place of our thermometer for the measurement of temperatures ; the hydrometer of the ancients was improved.
But next to their libraries, the Arabians seem to have spent the largest sums on the means of promoting astronomical studies. They inherited and improved the instruments which had been used by the Greeks. In the library at Cairo they pointed with satisfaction to a brass globe which was said to have come down to them from Ptolemy, whom they revered as their teacher. They erected observatories in the cities of the East, — at Meragba, near Tauris, at Damascus, at Bagdad; and were the first to introduce them into Europe, where Cordova had its observatory, and the Geralda tower of Seville was erected by Geber, the mathematician, for astronomical purposes. These observatories were equipped with instruments made large and fine, in order to secure an accuracy which could be reached in no other way ; for astronomers knew nothing of reading minutely graduated circles by the aid of lenses. The Greek instruments had not given measurements closer than ten minutes of a degree ; and the only way in which smaller fractions of an arc could he obtained was by increasing the size of the circle, so as to make the lesser subdivisions visible to the naked eye. The Arabians, therefore, enlarged their instruments, mounting circles of twenty-two and even fiftyeight feet in diameter, on the limbs of which it might be possible to read gradations equaling not more than ten seconds of a degree. Such instruments would be unwieldy, and, to prevent warping, must have required excellent workmanship and secure mounting; but the Kalif Sharfadula erected giants of this kind in the garden of his palace, and the vernal equinox was observed by the use of them, the result being certified by ten astronomers. In like manner the gnomons of the Arabians were carried to a great height, in order to secure more accurate results ; that erected by Ulugh Begh at Samarcand, measuring one hundred and eighty feet. El Batini, the greatest of Arabian astronomers, and the first who could be called great, to whom we owe the earliest numerical determination of the eccentricity of the earth’s orbit, and the important trigonometrical improvement by which the sine came to be used in tables instead of the chord of an arc, is said to have had the advantage of such a colossal gnomon in making his computation of the obliquity of the ecliptic. Moreover, in order to determine the position of the stars with greater precision, the observers watched them through tubes provided with sights, the forerunners of onr telescopes. They also made measurements by the aid of armils and astrolabes, and in their schools geography was taught from globes of brass and sometimes of silver.
For time-keepers, they used the old clepsydras, or water-clocks, of which they had a variety, and to which they sometimes gave an intricate construction. One of these, sent by Haroun El Raschid to his friend, the Emperor Charlemagne, gives us some idea of the mechanical skill of the Arabian artificers. It was of metal, and marked the time for both eye and ear, being provided with a gate for each of the twelve hours. When an hour was up the gate for that hour flew open, and a corresponding number of brass balls dropped successively upon a brazen vessel. So the clock struck ; and at the same time the eye noted the hour by the number of gates standing open. When the twelfth hour had struck, twelve horsemen issued forth, rushed in a circus past the open gates, and closed them by their momentum.
When, from the study of nature, we turn to philosophy, the Arabians are found scarcely less zealous in this department. If the names of noted writers are fewer, we must remember that only select minds are qualified for such pursuits. But wherever men are engaged in the study of nature, there must be attempts at a philosophy of nature. The mere knowledge of things, as presented to the senses, does not long satisfy human inquiry. Back of all sensible phenomena lie the mysteries of being in presence of which the curiosity of learning is changed to spiritual yearning. Then man challenges all things to give account of their sources ; he demands of his own soul the passport of its birth and destination. By philosophy he will penetrate the remotest secrets of nature; by it he will reinforce or destroy his religion. To such inquiries, in common with all intellectually awakened nations, the Arabians were especially driven by the impulses of spiritual thought. The right to question, denied by Islam, could not fail to assert itself. Scarcely a century after the founding of Mohammedanism, believers began to investigate the grounds of their faith. Very early, they broke into sects, opposed to each other in their views of the freedom of the will and the consequent relation of human action to divine determination. As different theologies developed, philosophy was summoned to their defense. Out of its polemical use grew philosophical schools, graced by names which have become familiar to all who have given attention to Arabian learning. The most distinguished of the philosophical writers range from the middle of the ninth to the close of the twelfth century : beginning with El Kindi, who rose to such eminence, in the reign of El Mamoun and El Motasim. that he came to be especially designated as the Philosopher; and ending with Ibn Roschd, or, as he is commonly called by European writers, Averroes, in whom the speculative career of the Arabians culminated. From El Kindi to Ibn Roschd runs a line of celebrities, most conspicuous among whom are El Farabi, Ibn Sina, El Gazali, Ibn Badja, and Ibn Tofail, the friend and probably the teacher of Ibn Roschd.
These were men of large gifts and masters of the learning of their time. El Kindi, versed in the science of Greece, drew knowledge, also, from Persian and Indian sources. Two hundred or more treatises, set down to his credit, include all the then known departments of learning. The writings of others were voluminous. El Farabi, while he wrote upon optics and astronomy, found time to compose sixty treatises on Aristotle, and is said to have spoken seventy languages. Similar feats in scholarship or authorship might be cited in regard to others. But these illustrative examples will serve to bring before us a class of men who studied and wrote during the three most active centuries of the Arabian intellectual movement, and will give us an impression of the zeal which characterized that movement, and made it prolific in philosophical as well as other literature.
By his logic and his wide study of nature, Aristotle commended himself as instructor of the Saracens in philosophy. He was their master, blindly followed. To comment on his works, without much hope of adding to the sum of his knowledge, was their ambition. But such is the relation of these commentators to their Greek teacher, and to the course of speculation in Christian Europe, that the modern student of the history of philosophy is compelled to include the Arabian schools in his survey. For many years, writers have been engaged in tracing the descent of Aristotelian thought through Mohammedan channels. Arabian authors exerted such an influence on Middle Age scholasticism that an acquaintance with the drift of their speculative work is indispensable to a thorough understanding of the controversies that raged from the end of the twelfth century to the Reformation.
The beginnings of Arabian poetry are lost in the obscurities of the desert. The tribes assembled at the call of Mohammed were launched upon the world fresh from the inspirations of song. As the Saracens brought with them their lances and swords, their steeds and their camels and their tents ; as they brought concentration, energy, and the fury of war, so they brought rhyme, rhythm, and elegant diction. The Bedouin of the Arabian sands seems to have been a poet by nature.
When and how the poetic art arose is not known. The earliest verses which have come down to us with a certified text are not older than the year 500 of the Christian era. The fixation in a definite and permanent form of those effusions which had floated from tent to tent and tribe to tribe, subject to all the variations of memory or of individual preference, must necessarily be associated with the art of writing. This art was probably introduced among the Arabians somewhere about the year 500. From that date omvard, until the time of Mohammed, appear the great poets and the great poems which are known to modern history. But we must not presume that these more definitely moulded productions celebrate the earliest results of fancy. Long before their appearance the passions of the desert life expressed themselves in measured verse. On the spur of the moment, in the flood tide of feeling, in the heat of love and of the fight, or in the wildness of grief and mourning, the Bedouin seems to have broken away from the unsatisfying forms of prose into improvisations, of which the more striking were passed from mouth to mouth, and of which some are supposed to have been caught from their desert flights, and embodied in those later and longer poems which have been handed down to us.
Arabian verse, therefore, was not imported from foreign sources. It was born out of the soil. It grew up in the desert, and was the impassioned embodiment of its life. The most remarkable thing about it is that it attained, before the time of Mohammed, in the desert and in the midst of tribal ignorance, its most splendid development. The old Arabic poetry of the wandering Bedouins is celebrated not only for its freedom, its naturalness, the depth and intensity of its passion, the boldness and energy of its expression, but also for the perfection of its diction and the purity of its language. The poems of pre-Mohammedan times became the enduring models, to which after-poets aspired during the whole period of Saracen supremacy. The language of the wandering Bedouin was esteemed so perfect that composers of later ages resorted to the wilds and tents of the heart of Arabia that they might listen to their native speech in its purity, and baptize themselves afresh in the scenes and influences of that nomadic life, which always formed the basis of even the later compositions.
The most distinguished among these productions of the earlier period are the seven Muallaca, by as many different authors, who are said to have won the prize at the annual fair of Aukaz, where singers contended before the assembled tribes for the crown; and to the successful contestant was awarded the honor of having his verses inscribed on costly stuff in letters of gold, and hung in the common temple, the Kaaba at Mecca. Whether or not this disposition of the Muallaca poems is a fable of later origin, tricked out by European imagination, as the celebrated Nöldeke would have us believe, certain it is that these productions of the seven great poets have held their place through all time and in all Mohammedan lands as the true Arabian classics.
It is usually conceded that after the time of Mohammed the national poetry underwent no essential improvement. Some date a positive decline from the introduction of Islam. With the consolidation of the tribes into a nationality, and the erection over all Mohammedan countries of a central sovereignty and a strict standard of religious orthodoxy, the free spirit of the Bedouin ceased to animate Arabic verse, and the lofty swing of passion became more circumspect.
Under the dominion of the Ommiade dynasty began the court patronage of songsters. An imperial luxury, reigning at Damascus, drew to itself the servile flatteries of authors, and introduced the long line of court poets, who vied with each other in extravagant praises of their lords, and sought to make up in smoothness of diction or in elegance of wit for the want of that boldness, energy, and unfettered daring which spoke in pre-Mohammedan verses. The tide of song was increased in volume, but it flowed no longer among those stormy scenes of love and war which had made so large a share of tribal life. Its way lay through cultivated fields, past great and luxurious cities, where, under the dominion of wealth and power, liberty was tamed ; and the murmurs which the Stream gave forth were only recollections of the rush and roar of the mountain torrent.
The classic period of Arabian poetry closes with the founding of Islam. For another century, until the fall of the Ommiades, impulses springing from the old inspiration were still felt. But the Abbasside reign, under which Islam gained its firmer root in the life of the people, marks the loss of poetic power. Science, philosophy, and general culture flourish at the expense of that originality and inspiration which make the flow of poetry, if less smooth, yet more strong.
With the transfer of the Ommiade dynasty into Spain went also the Ommiade patronage of song, and Andalusia saw the day when in her palaces, her gardens, her groves, her fields, — from the king on the throne to the husbandman following the plough and the child yet in its school-days, — the passion for versification and rhyme made the air vibrate with songs of love and war, in which the old forms of verse and the old figures of speech and even the old desert life of Arabia, with its moving tents, still repeated themselves, interwoven with new forms of thought and new scenes drawn from a luxuriant, beautiful, and still passionate civilization. The names of authors of the later period of Arabic poetry would fill volumes. The numerical proportions of their writings are fabulous. It is said that a single rhapsodist. named Hammad, recited from memory, at the demand of the Kalif El Walid, two thousand nine hundred of the longer poems taken from the pre-Mohammedan period. On such a basis as this did the poets of the Islam period pile their innumerable productions.
The range of subjects which the ancient Bedouin treated was necessarily limited to the incidents and surroundings of desert life. The shifting tent of the nomad witnessed outbursts of passion less restrained than those of civilized communities. Its events broke the monotony of days of seclusion. The arrival and entertainment of a guest; the scenes of festive hospitality, when the full bowl, passing round, testified the liberality of the host; the sudden appearance of the death messenger, calling the name of one of the family who had fallen at the hand of an enemy, and whose slaying cried for the vow of blood revenge; mournings for the departed ; descriptions of nature, the desert. the storm; love and battle, swords and spears ; the fleet horse, who foams for the fray ; the favorite camel; the deserted dwelling of the love, whose tent has been moved to distant pasture grounds; the adventures of horse and rider in the search after her, — such are the themes of this poetry, which made the desert glow as with noontide heat, or glower as if swept by the hurricane. These themes are carried over into the later poetry of distant lands. They form a heroic element in the pre-Mohammedan verse, and communicate a like element to later Spanish verse. There was true knighthood in the old law of the desert, that whosoever took refuge in the tent, his life was sacred, though he were the bitterest enemy. Hospitality waited on him as on a friend. Within the cords and curtains was inviolable truce, — food, drink, sleep, protection. But, once out upon the wastes, the guest again took his life in his hand. It may be that knighthood knows no time or clime to which it exclusively belongs. History has not failed to show that the Arab rider and soldier has borne his part in its illustration. The final development of Middle Age chivalry displayed many of its glories on Spanish soil, where Christian and Saracen joined in battle, while both alike listened to the late echoes of desert song.
The rise of Arabian learning presents some features to which attention ought to be directed before we close. We have here a career offering itself with singular completeness to our observation. Its beginning, its culmination, its decline, are before us. It is a rounded whole. Unlike the great nations of antiquity, the beginnings of whose culture are lost in the distances of time, and whose learning was a slow growth out of a native soil, the intellectual movement of the Saracens had no hidden germinal period. It was not a growth, nor was it a product of Arabian soil. So long as the nation held to its birthplace it had no proper development, political or scientific. Its progress came by transplanting. Severed in a remarkable degree from its former life, its development was sudden. The successive stages wrought out before the gaze of the world can be easily studied.
Two things will impress the reader of this story. The first is the brilliancy of this intellectual career, and the second its fugitive nature.
The Arabians threw themselves into the pursuit of learning with the same enthusiasm, abandonment, and devotion which characterized their religious and political life. As war was a passion, as religion was a fanaticism, as art ministered to enrapt sensuous enjoyment, so learning was a species of luxury. It was one of the glories of a lavish civilization. It was pursued, not without a sense of its utilities, not without a devotion to knowledge and earnest searching after truth as truth ; but yet in a spirit of rivalry, and of that romance which attaches to all the activities stimulated by and developed under the Arabian impulse. Hence the enormous expenditure of money, the royal equipments, the royal emoluments, the princely state and pomp of learning, in the period of its widest diffusion.
While the time of its endurance is not short, — for its sway lasted through centuries,—it goes, nevertheless, as it came, suddenly. One wakes from the recital of all Arabian history as from a dream. With the passing away of other glories the glory of letters fades so completely that it is hard to realize their former supremacy over vast territories and over millions of active minds. The bustle and busy searching, the collecting and transcribing and recording, the piling up of libraries and accumulation of treatises covering every department of learning, ceases. The intellectual career of Islam is finished. In the history of the world the movement of the Arabian mind is like that of the Bedouin horde, suddenly appearing upon the desert, sweeping with dash and vigor over the sands, and vanishing again; leaving the observer surprised, wondering, and questioning.