What did the Abbasids contribute to the science we know today? Let us find out…
The Abbasid period, spanning from 750 to 1258, is widely recognized as the Golden Age of Islam. This era was marked by the extended period of stability and served as a transformative chapter in history, establishing Islamic lands as prosperous hubs of learning and innovation.
Harun al-Rashid, the fifth caliph of the Abbasid Caliphate, achieved renown during his reign from 789 to 809 and is often celebrated as the most illustrious Abbasid Caliph. Notably, he founded the Bayt al-Hikmah, also known as the House of Wisdom. Serving as a prominent centre of knowledge, Bayt al-Hikmah played a pivotal role by providing a welcoming space for researchers, scholars, and leaders alike.
Harun al-Rashid actively pursued the enrichment of knowledge by amassing an extensive collection of scientific literature from different communities and nations and extended invitations to scholars, philosophers, and experts from various fields, welcoming them to a dedicated space. Bayt al-Hikmah emerged as the preferred haven for intellectuals due to its provision of essential amenities, including a well-equipped reading hall, classrooms, and specialised divisions for binding, translating, authoring, map making, and more.
Khalifa Al-Mamoon, the seventh caliph of the Abbasid Caliphate, reigned from 813 to 833, leaving an indelible mark on the Islamic Golden Age. Renowned for his fervent support of the sciences, he became a key figure in advancing knowledge and learning. Al-Mamoon took significant strides by transforming Bayt al-Hikmah, initially a library, into a pioneering virtual university.
In addition to this intellectual hub, he went on to establish the Islamic world’s first two observatories. The Shammasiya Observatory, situated near Baghdad, and the second, located around 1000 miles away in Damascus on Koh-e-Qasiyoon. Notably, the administration of these observatories was entrusted to two prominent scientists of the era—Al-Khwarizmi and Ibne Mansoor. These eminent scholars not only served as guardians of these scientific centres but also took on the crucial responsibility of education within them.
In his writings, Al-Biruni describes a noteworthy collaboration between Al-Khwarizmi and Ibn-e-Mansoor. They conducted simultaneous observations of the sun’s movement—one from Baghdad and the other from Damascus, despite the 8-degree longitudinal difference between the two cities. The purpose of this coordinated effort was to discern whether this geographical variance had any impact on the autumnal equinox.
The Autumnal Equinox occurs when the sun’s rays create a 90-degree angle on the equator. This marks the onset of autumn in the Northern Hemisphere and spring in the Southern Hemisphere. The equinox is characterised by a perfect balance between day and night, each lasting approximately 12 hours. This celestial event takes place twice a year, once in March and again in September.
Beyond its astronomical significance, the Autumnal Equinox is intricately connected to the harvest season. The primary objective of the observations conducted by Al-Khwarizmi and Ibn-e-Mansoor was to understand and assess the Autumnal Equinox, exploring whether the longitudinal difference between Baghdad and Damascus had any influence on this phenomenon.
Over the course of a year, Al-Khwarizmi and Ibn-e-Mansoor meticulously observed the sun’s movement simultaneously, employing the Astrolabe (Astarlab)—a precision instrument utilised for measuring celestial distances. Notably, the Astrolabe found applications beyond their observations, serving as a crucial component in large clocks functioning based on solar rays.
Al-Biruni adds that a similar observation process unfolded concurrently in Baghdad and Makkah. The specific goal of this synchronised effort was to determine the direction of the Ka’aba, showcasing the versatility of their scientific endeavours.
Renowned historian of science, George Sarton, considers Al-Khwarizmi the foremost scientist of the 9th century. Today, a simple Google search highlights Al-Khwarizmi as the founder of the discipline of Algebra and the originator of algorithms. The commencement of significant scientific progress in the Islamic world can be traced back to the establishment of Bayt al-Hikmah, which reached its zenith during the reign of Al-Mamoon. Undoubtedly, Al-Mamoon’s inquisitive and pioneering spirit played a crucial role in paving the way for the onset of ‘Big Science’ in Islamic lands.
Sleepless, I watch the heavens turn
Propelled by the motions of the spheres;
Those stars spell out (I don’t know how)
The weal and woe of future years.
If I flew up to the starry vault
And joined the heavens’ westward flow
I would learn, as I travelled the sky
The fate of all things here below.
The House of Wisdom by Jim Al-Khalili