The House of Wisdom Interdisciplinarity in the Golden Age of the Arabic Empire Suzi Elhafez Jorg Reuter

July 4, 2017

Suzi Elhafez is an interdisciplinary PhD student and visual artist at the University of Melbourne, Australia, mapping the intersections between art, philosophy and physics. In an article based on research first presented at The IAFOR International Conference on Arts & Humanities – Dubai 2017, she examines the scope of interdisciplinarity throughout the Golden Age of the Arab-Islamic Empire and its efficacy in informing approaches to multimodal art practices and expanding knowledge domains within a contemporary context.

The Arab-Islamic Empire

From 945 AD the Arab-Islamic Empire entered its “Golden Age”, the historical culmination of the peak of medieval Arab civilisation. For five centuries thereafter, Arabic science, art, architecture and indeed Arab-Islamic society as a whole formed the most intellectually advanced, culturally rich and globally influential empire in the world (Huff, 1993, p. 47).

“The scholars of the Golden Age of the Arab-Islamic Empire achieved a level of interdisciplinary, intercultural and interfaith cohesion in pursuit of scholarship and knowledge that is regrettably not realised in the Arab region today.”

At its peak, the Arab-Islamic Empire was vast, extending from the Arabian Peninsula as far as Persia and India in the East, Spain in the north, and across the face of northern Africa to the west. Within this immense territory, which surpassed the Roman Empire at its height, many of the scholars who contributed to knowledge production were not exclusively Arab or Muslim and included an ethnically and religiously diverse group of intellectual pioneers, including Jews and Christians. These scholars converged from across the empire; intellectuals from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Spain and Egypt worked together to preserve and produce knowledge in a way that was historically unprecedented (Huff, 1993, 48). The scholars of the Golden Age of the Arab-Islamic Empire achieved a level of interdisciplinary, intercultural and interfaith cohesion in pursuit of scholarship and knowledge that is regrettably not realised in the Arab region today.

During Europe’s Dark Ages, the Arab-Islamic Empire flourished, producing advances across the sciences and arts that remain largely unacknowledged within contemporary Western discourses. Acknowledging this forgotten historical legacy is significant, as it formed an intrinsic part of the foundations of how scientific scholarship evolved, paving the way for the Copernican Revolution and the Renaissance in Europe. Moreover, it historically evidences the success and scope of interdisciplinarity as an approach to scholarship and knowledge production; the convergence of art, science, philosophy and technology was intrinsic to creating the intellectual, cultural and creative apex of Medieval Arabic civilisation, arising out of the infamous Golden Age.

The rise of the Golden Age

In what is now modern-day Baghdad, the Abbasid dynasty established their new capital city, ruling the Arab-Islamic empire between 750 and 1258. It would be the work of the seventh Abbasid caliph Al-Ma’mun (c. 813–833) that would raise the empire to its zenith, not only in terms of power and wealth but also in terms of cultivating a culture of intellectual scholarship and cultural diversity (Huff, 1993, p. 750). During the Abbasid dynasty’s rule, the ancient city of Baghdad became the largest city in the world, far greater than Rome, Constantinople, Athens or Damascus; a centre for scholarship, commerce, trade and culture. British physicist and author Jim Al-Khalili writes extensively about the history of science within the Arab world and the notable contributions of Arabic Science. In his book Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science, Al-Khalili, an accomplished theoretical physicist, recounts the great achievement of the Abbasid Caliph Al-Ma’mun by starting the intellectual academy “Beyt al-Hikma”, which literally means “the House of Wisdom” (Al-Khalili, 2010). Under the generous patronage of the caliph Al-Ma’mun, scholars from across the world were brought together to share knowledge across science, philosophy, astronomy, medicine and art (Al-Khalili, 2010). Within the House of Wisdom, these great scholars were encouraged to work with one another and engage in intellectual discourses, debates and the exchange of ideas, theories and methodologies. This practice invariably created an intellectual tradition of interdisciplinarity that informed their methodologies, their approaches to the way knowledge itself was produced and the cultural fervour by which scholarship was cultivated.

The House of Wisdom Interdisciplinarity in the Golden Age of the Arabic Empire Suzi Elhafez AlWasiti

13th-century manuscript, drawn by Al-Wasiti for the celebrated book The Assemblies, written by Al-Hariri. Image shows a library in Baghdad. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The House of Wisdom evolved into a great intellectual institution where seminal works of scholarship across philosophy and science were translated from ancient Greek texts and works in other languages into Arabic, making this ancient knowledge accessible to the entire Arab-Islamic Empire (Middleton, 2015, p. 571). Works translated from ancient Greek into Arabic include philosophical works of Plato and Aristotle, medical works of Galen and Hippocrates, works on physics by Archimedes, Euclid’s Elements on mathematics and geometry as well as the astronomy of Ptolemy in the Almagest (Huff, 1993, p. 50). It was through the House of Wisdom that the flourishing of the translation movement occurred. This enabled the exposure and integration of knowledge contained within the work of ancient Greek scholars, which was then propelled into the cultural and intellectual discourses of the Arab-Islamic Empire. This great period of translation marks the starting point for creation of the cultural conditions for the emergence of the Golden Age of Arab-Islamic civilisation.

The emergence of original scholarship

This seminal feat of translation exposed scholars within the empire to the vast corpus of prior knowledge in the ancient Hellenistic Greek tradition, resulting in the emergence of original scholarship across the sciences and philosophy. Some of the greatest scholars of medieval Arabic history can be traced back to this period of the Abbasid Dynasty. Jabir ibn Hayyan (c. 720) was regarded as the first quantitative chemist. Hunayn ibn Ishaq (c. 809–877) was a Christian physician given patronage to translate the great works of Galen; Galen’s volumes on medicine were at the forefront of scholarship for over seven hundred years. Al-Kindi (c. 850–873) was regarded as the greatest Arabic philosopher and the first scholar to synthesis the philosophical works of Plato to the people of the Arabian Peninsula. Another ground-breaking scholar was Al-Khwarizmi (c. 780 – c. 850) who was regarded as the greatest mathematician of the medieval Arab world and known historically as the father of algebra for synthesising the algorithm. The great Al-Razi is regarded as the greatest medieval Arabic physician for his creation of the first hospital in Baghdad. Arab astronomers were also highly accomplished, notably Al-Tusi (d. 1274) and Ibn Al-Shatir (d. 1375) who aimed to reform Ptolemaic systems of planetary theory. Toby Huff argues in The Rise of Early Modern Science that the planetary models of Copernicus, whose work initiated the scientific revolution in Europe and appeared over 150 years after the works of Arab astronomers, were duplicates of the models developed by astronomers such as Al-Tusi and Ibn Al-Shatir (Huff, 1993, p. 59).

Ibn al-Haytham (c. 965–1040) was one the most significant physicists between the Ancient Greeks’ Archimedes and Newton of the European Renaissance. His seminal work, Kitab Al-Manazir, (“the Book of Optics”) explains with accuracy the mathematical, anatomical and physical mechanisms of sight and the way light travels and bends, and provides a complete theory of perspective (Al-Khalili, 2013). Jim Al-Khalili, among other scholars of the history of science, regards the contributions of Ibn al-Haytham as being just as historically significant as the work of Newton (Al-Khalili, 2010). Understanding perspective was particularly important for Renaissance artists in Florence, where employing perspective in their artworks was essential to their creative success and characterised the perfection of proportionality attributed to Renaissance art. The work of Ibn Al-Haytham was translated into Latin, making it accessible to European scholars and enabling the integration of his ideas into Europe’s intellectual culture; there he was known by his Latinised name “Alhazen” (Al-Khalili, 2013).

“What would Renaissance art have been like if Florentine artists had not encountered the work of Ibn Al-Haytham and applied his theory of perspective?”

Historically, this exemplifies the efficacy of interdisciplinarity, whereby the engagement between the arts and sciences diversifies and expands knowledge domains and gives rise to new modalities of knowledge production, through both academic scholarship and creative practices. One must ask the question: what would Renaissance art have been like if Florentine artists had not encountered the work of Ibn Al-Haytham and applied his theory of perspective? Would they have simply worked it out for themselves; objects further away appear smaller, two and three-point perspective, vanishing points? Or would Renaissance art (and architecture) be completely different without the magnanimous contributions of the Golden Age of Arab civilisation? These questions bring into focus the intrinsic relationality of domains of knowledge, and their inherent capacity to propel and develop learning as a cohesive whole through engaging with interdisciplinary approaches to how knowledge itself is created. The commitment of the Florentine Renaissance artists to engaging with the other disciplines, namely the sciences, from which they learned about optics and perspective, elevated their creative practices to the level of astounding mastery, leaving behind a historical legacy that resonates throughout time.

Interdisciplinarity and contemporary practices

Interdisciplinary approaches to informing knowledge production, innovation, discovery simply involve creating new and meaningful connections in a way that transcends the traditional delineations of disciplines so often imposed in knowledge domains today. Interdisciplinarity can expand the epistemological framework from which new knowledge emerges. Interdisciplinary approaches to knowledge production have immeasurable potential to inform academic scholarship, research outputs and multimodal creative practices through a critical investigation of the intersectionality of disciplines. Furthermore, the agency, relevance and implementation of such a collaborative, exploratory intersectionality has a unique and urgent usefulness within a contemporary context, particularly given the global challenges we face in these highly turbulent times of transition.

Throughout the Golden Age of the Arab-Islamic Empire we see historical evidence of the efficacy of interdisciplinary approaches to knowledge production that were realised with vast success during a period of cultural pluralism, intellectual expansion and socio-religious tolerance. However, we must ask a simple question: how could an empire leading the world in astronomy, optics and mathematics while Europe was gripped by the Dark Ages, an empire so committed to the pursuit of knowledge and scholarship, fail to give birth to the modern scientific revolution? Why did the Arab-Islamic civilisation fail to continue its march into modernity? (Huff, 1993, p. 61). This is a complex and historically loaded question that we cannot begin to reconcile here. But what we can learn from the Arab-Islamic empire is this: intercultural inclusion, and collaborative interdisciplinarity, coupled with the institutional recognition of the value of intellectual and creative discovery, enables the proliferation of original scholarship and creative practices in unprecedented and non-predictive ways. Ongoing advancements in technology, science and expanding methodologies across the arts enable us to make contributions to knowledge production and creative practices in fundamentally emergent ways. By engaging with interdisciplinarity we can expand the definitions of what constitutes contemporary multimodal creative practice and innovate how we examine the intersectionality between art and our ways of being-in-the-world. Furthermore, through interdisciplinarity we can expand domains of knowledge and the very paradigms within which knowledge itself can be configured and reconfigured, conceptualised and reconceptualised, to enable us to make more affectual connections in an ever-more-complex contemporary landscape.

The House of Wisdom Interdisciplinarity in the Golden Age of the Arabic Empire Suzi Elhafez

“Interconnect”. Fine Art Photograph. Suzi Elhafez © 2017. All Rights Reserved.

Cover image | Jörg Reuter, Flickr

Suzi Elhafez first presented this research in the form of a Virtual Presentation at The IAFOR International Conference on Arts & Humanities – Dubai 2017.


Al-Khalili, J. (2010). Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic science. London: Penguin Books.

Al-Khalili, J. (2013). The forgotten legacy of Arabic science. British Humanist Association Holyoake Lecture.

Huff, Toby E. (1993). The rise of early modern science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Middleton, J. (2015). World monarchies and dynasties. Armonk: Taylor and Francis.

Pedersen, J. (1984). The Arabic book. (G. French, Trans.). Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Saliba, G. (1982). The development of astronomy in medieval Islamic society, Arab Studies Quarterly 4(3), 211–225.

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About Suzi Elhafez

Suzi Elhafez is a contemporary artist exploring the notion of Entanglement through the intersectionality of art, physics and philosophy. She has a multimodal practice that expands and challenges the traditional boundaries and role of the artist within a contemporary context. Her work extends from creating visual artwork (painting, experimental photography, and installation-based digital practices), to generating networks between institutions and practitioners and expanding knowledge domains in academia through discursive interdisciplinary practices. She is undertaking a PhD at the University of Melbourne, Australia, and has a previous tertiary background in the Humanities and Law. She has exhibited artwork in Australia, Europe and the Middle East. Her Egyptian heritage uniquely positions her to strengthen existing synergies between Australia and the Arab world; she creates international networks, through linkages with institutions and is an active board member in inter-regional organisations creating effective relationships between East and West. She believes the arts have powerful social agency, are culturally universal, are globally accessible and have the unique capacity to create an inclusive knowledge-based global culture.

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