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Archive for April 2009

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Translations

A huge number of Classical texts no longer exist in their original Greek or Latin, and were brought to the Renaissance through the Arabic. The Abbasids drew from Greek and Roman classics, as well as the classical Persian, Turkic and Indian sources. In this way, information on subjects such as Zero, came to the Arabs (from the Indian subcontinent). Such breakthroughs led to a snowballing effect, with problems of mathematics, physics and so on that were uncrackable before, being solved for the first time.

The House of Wisdom was at first essentially a translation house and giant library. Then gradually it turned into a think-tank, which built on the foundations of earlier cultures, and welcomed Christians and Jews as well as Muslims to study.



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Vast Libraries

Magnificent libraries were made possible by the price of cheap paper, and by the growing literacy because people were required to read and write the Qur’an. An example was the Royal library in 10th century Cordoba, assembled under the patronage of Caliph al-Hakim II, which boasted 400,000 books. The library’s directory stretched to 44 huge ledgers. Caliph al-Hakim II sent scholars across the East to buy and have copied important books, and in so doing, added to the expansion of knowledge. The library at Cairo supposedly had two million volumes; and the one at Tripoli had three million, before it was destroyed by Crusaders. We can only imagine the extent of the House of Wisdom’s great library before it was sacked. It must have run into the millions of documents as well. It is said that when it was sacked in 1258 by the Mongol Horde, that the Tigris ran black with ink for six entire months.



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The Starting Point

The point where I want to begin the story is the moment at which paper — that most magical aids to the spread of learning — was acquired by the Arabs. The second of the two great Islamic Caliphates, the Abbasids, ruled from 750 AD (after overthrowing the Umayyads), with their capital at Baghdad — having moved from the Umayyad capital of Damascus. Baghdad in the ninth century, a city of 800,000 souls, second city in the world to only Constantinople. It was ruled by the Abbasid Caliph Harun ar-Rachid.

The mixture of people in the city, from so many cultures – Europe, North Africa, Asia Minor and Central Asia – created a blend of cultures as it had never really been known before. And they could all communicate through Arabic, the lingua franca of Islam, all equal under this new faith.

Harun, who’s known more for his Alf Layla wa Layla, ‘1001 Nights’, set about accumulating books in huge a private library. He loved poetry, music, learning. Whenever he heard of learned people, he invited them to his court. The idea of wisdom being rewarded spread, and scholars made their way from the corners of the growing Islamic world to Baghdad.

In March 809 Harun ar-Rachid was succeeded by his son Al-Amin, (but he was killed four years later, in 813, after going against the order of succession left by his father). His half-brother, al-Ma’mun, became Caliph, and it’s with him that our story really begins…

Like his father, Ma’mun was fascinated by learning, and was eager to know how the world and the universe worked. He built up the library founded by his father, and brought together scholars from every corner of the world, from known every religion, speaking every language. He dispatched messengers to bring to Baghdad every book, document, and sensible man in existence… and bring it back to his centre of learning, which became known as Bayt al Hikma… The House of Wisdom.



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The Arab Contribution

In the sciences, the Arabs took Classical work and breakthroughs and refined them, as well as developing their own fields of study from scratch. Their contribution was profound, and is often sidelined or completely forgotten in the Occident. And very often it was centuries ahead of its time. For example: The Arabs under the Abbasids and others constructed the first hospitals and lending libraries, gave the first academic degrees, and treated mental patients with music (more than a millennia before our idea of music therapy); they invented the fountain pen (because a tenth century Sultan wanted a pen that would write when he was ready), the camera obscura, water clocks, hydraulics, decryption of codes, and soap. 

They wrote about the concept of evolution, environmentalism, classification (mineral, animal, vegetable), scientific method and peer review… and refined all sorts of other things that are so key to our world, like paper as we have seen, the ‘Indian numbers’, and the massive mathematical breakthrough of ZERO.

They made contributions in almost all the sciences: mathematics, botany, chemistry, psychology, philosophy, engineering, physics, agriculture, astronomy, metallurgy, medicine and zoology.




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Misinformation

Western society tends to believe that the scientific and cultural bedrock upon which it sits was a product of the Classical world, most notably of the Romans and the Greeks. At our schools, teachers rant on about Latin etymology, and about Euclid, Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle. But in our obsession for those empires, we blinker ourselves to the full picture, of how the two Classical civilizations arrived at our doors. The knowledge of the Romans and the Greeks passed through a matrix, a system that honed them and gave them shape, like a swordsmith giving edge to a blade.

The general idea that’s been commonly believed is that the fall of the Roman Empire (in 476 AD), was followed by centuries of darkness, until the blinding light of the European Renaissance. And during that era of darkness, there was no important scholarship, no learning, no breakthroughs in their desert of darkness.

It was almost a thousand years when nothing really happened at all.

But then the Renaissance, the rebirth of learning, was constructed solely on the classical cultures.

Nothing could be farther from the truth…


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April 25, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

Paper

One of the things I love about the study of history is how a small event changes the lives of everyone, and dramatically alters the world in which we live. A great example of this began in the year 751 AD, when a fledgling Abbasid force met that of the Chinese Tang Dynasty on the Talas River. The Chinese were superior as a fighting machine, and were expected to win the battle. But on the day, it was the Muslims who defeated the Chinese. The important point of story is that the Muslims captured a number of Chinese and took them prisoner. Among them, was a group of experts in papermaking. The Muslims took them to the city of Samarkand, where they forced them to build a papermaking factory. The technology was completely unknown in Europe at the time, and had been a closely guarded secret in China. Eventually, the Abbasids had another papermaking factory built at Baghdad using the Tang knowhow. And with this technology they could begin the extraordinary accomplishments in science for which they became so celebrated.

With paper, and the knowledge of writing which was so key to read the Qur’an, the Muslims were able to write books, detailing their breakthroughs in the evolving sciences. And they could now pass these books east and west along the ever-growing pilgrimage routes, centred at the holy city of Mecca. It was in its own way a kind of primitive Internet, made possible by the secret knowledge of paper, acquired on a distant battlefield in 751.



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April 24, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

All Change

The kind of miracles often performed by Indian Godmen rely on a knowledge of chemicals, physics, and the environment, a kind of layer of information which many of us take for granted. Just as I am fascinated by the illusions conjured by these Godmen, I am also deeply interested in the science that makes them possible. Or, rather, I’m preoccupied by the history of that science, and how it came about.

Over the next few days, I’m going to write some notes — nothing too heavy — on how the science we all rely on every day (the very same that the Godmen rely on too) came to us all through Arab society, predominantly from the Abbasid era. I have touched on this before in my blog, by have long wanted to devote a little more time to it, so excuse me while I indulge myself…



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April 23, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

How to Stick Needles in an Inflated balloon

You will need: One balloon, some needles or pins, a roll of scotch tape


I once met a Godman in Calcutta who was using a book of children’s conjuring and illusion to create miracles. The book he had in his possession was printed in 1931, and I’m not sure if this miracle was in there, but it might well have been. It’s a schoolboy’s favourite.

You take the balloon, blow it up, and stick one-inch bits of scotch tape in various places. Then, when the audience have turned up, and mustering theatrical flair, you ease the needles into the places where you have put the tape. The tape seals and rubber, and the balloon doesn’t burst.




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April 22, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

How to Set Sawdust Alight with Spit

You will need: very dry sawdust, powdered sodium peroxide


So many common Godmen miracles are based on fire, and this is a good example, as it’s cheap and easy to do. The Godman just needs to find a supply of sodium peroxide which, in India, is relatively easy, as chemicals are readily sold without any questions being asked.

the method involves the powdered sodium peroxide being mixed in with the sawdust before the performance. Before going on show, the Godman takes a big sip of water and, when he’s sitting in front of his audience, he spits the water out nearby on the sawdust. The chemical reaction of the sodium peroxide and the water causes fire, which combusts the sawdust.

NB: Godmen’s miracles such as this should not be attempted by children, or by anyone else except trainee Godmen.



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April 21, 2009 Posted by tahir in Travel

How to Set Drying Clothes Alight

You will need: Yellow or white phosphorous in a solution of carbon disulphide (ration 1:6)


Pour a little of the solution on the clothes just before the audience assemble, and a few minutes later the clothes will spontaneously catch fire as the solution dries and ignites.

NB Godmen’s miracles such as this should never be attempted by children or anyone else, except for trainee godmen.



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