Islamic Institutions of Higher Learning
The growth of Islamic society
was paralleled by the development of institutions dedicated to the study of the arts and sciences.
The first major center dedicated to the study of philosophy, the natural sciences and mathematics
was the Bait al-hikmah or the House of Wisdom in Baghdad between 200-815 C.E. This center also had
a library, and both the instructional unit as well as the library were funded by the state.
It became the gathering place for scientists and scholars, and particularly for a group of
translators who would be responsible for the translation of the entire canon of Greek scientific and
philosophical works into Arabic. Through their efforts, the foundations for Islamic scholarship
for the following centuries were established.
The enormous quantity of works t
translated from the Greek, the Syriac, Pahlavi and Sanskrit in the third through ninth, and again from
the fourth through tenth centuries resulted in the fact that there are more translations of the works
of Aristotle and other Greek commentators into Arabic today than in any other European language.
Islamic scholars such as Hunain ibn Ishaq, Thabit ibn Qurrah and Ibn Muqaffa were not only merely
translators, but each was a scholar and scientist in his own right.
Among some of the other works translated by these early Islamic scholars are the writings of
Aristotle, the Neoplatonists, the Alexandrian philosophers, the Neopythagoreans, the Hermetic corpus,
and the works of such scientists as Galen.
The impetus for the interest of the Islamic world in the development of the sciences arose during the
third through ninth centuries. At this time, Muslims were caught up in the frequent debates and
challenges with Christian and Jewish philosophers in cities such as Baghdad and Damascus. As a
relatively new religion, islam, according to Seyyed Hossein Nasr, "Islam found itself on the losing
side, for they were unable to defend the principles of faith through logical arguments, as could
other religious groups, nor could they appeal to logical proofs to demonstrate the truth of the
tenets of Islam."1 In order to protect the interests of Islam, the caliphate made Greek
sciences and philosophies available in Arabic, and in many cities, supported centers of higher
education as a way of preparing individuals who were able to meet the intellectual and religious
challenges which confronted the Islamic world.
1Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Science and Civilization in Islam (Barnes Noble Press, 1992) p. 70.
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