The Abbasid Dynasty was an Arab Islamic empire that ruled in the Middle East from 750 to 1258, a period known as the Islamic Golden Age. The Abbasid caliphs were patrons of the arts and sciences, and their capital city of Baghdad was a global epicenter of intellectual culture. Among the greatest cultural contributions of the Abbasid Dynasty was the consolidation and translation of global literature and scientific knowledge.
The Abbasid Translation Movement
What contemporary scholars call the "Abbasid translation movement" involved the translation of global artistic and scientific knowledge from Indian, Persian, Greek and other texts into the Arabic language. This was significant because it was the first time that global knowledge from different civilizations and time periods had been consolidated in one location and translated into the same language. This later facilitated scientific discovery and artistic innovation in the Islamic world and other parts of the world, notably Europe.
Arabic was the chosen language for translations because it is the language of Islam and was (and is today) comprehensible in non-Arab Islamic regions such as Persia (today's Iran). Furthermore, its complex grammar was capable of producing words with highly specific meanings, which was perfect for describing scientific and mathematical principles. In mathematics, such enhancements from the Abbasid era included the adoption of Arabic numerals (then called Hindi numerals in reference to their Indian origin) to replace Greek numerals, and the invention of "0" as a numeral and mathematical concept. These changes allowed for advanced formulas and calculations that were not otherwise possible, and facilitated new concepts and areas of study in mathematics, such as algebra and algorithms.
The Abbasid translation movement also produced lasting advances in medical knowledge. Leaders in the field of medicine included men like the Persian al-Razi, whose advocacy for hygiene as a deterrent to disease had a monumental effect on the sanitary conditions of hospitals in Baghdad, the Abbasid capital city. Al-Razi's book on measles and smallpox was so advanced that it was translated into Latin and used by European medical students and professionals as late as the 18th century. Advances during the Abbasid Dynasty also related to medical practices like inoculation, a technique in preventative medicine still used today.
In addition to the translation movement, Middle Easterners made significant contributions in the field of agriculture during Abbasid rule. Engineers designed an advanced system of irrigation canals capable of efficiently distributing water over unprecedented expanses of farmland. The Abbasids surrounded their capital city of Baghdad with vast areas of cultivable fields. They imported rice, sugar and cotton from India, citrus fruits from China, and sorghum (grain) from Africa. Like the consolidation of global knowledge, the centralization of diverse crops facilitated their diffusion to other parts of the world. In the West, for example, the English word for cotton and the Spanish word for rice (arroz) come directly from the Arabic language.
- Journal of World History: Translation as Self-Consciousness: Ancient Sciences, Antediluvian Wisdom, and the 'Abbāsid
- The Wilson Quarterly: The Glory That Was Baghdad
- The Saylor Foundation: The Abbasid Dynasty: The Golden Age of Islamic Civilization
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: Islamic Culture and the Medical Arts
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