His Highness the Aga Khan: “At various times in world history, the locus of knowledge has moved from one centre of learning to another…”

“At various times in world history, the locus of knowledge has moved from one centre of learning to another. Europe once came to the Islamic world for intellectual enrichment – and even rediscovered its own classical roots by searching in Arabic texts….intellectual leadership is never a static condition, but something which is always shifting and always dynamic… Throughout history, confident cultures from every part of the world have been eager to seek new learning, not to dilute inherited traditions but to amplify and extend them. The great civilizations of Islam were prime examples.”
His Highness the Aga Khan
Commencement address at the American University in Cairo, June 15, 2006
Speech at AKDN

Aga Khan IV
His Highness the Aga Khan delivering the commencement address at the American University in Cairo. Photo: AKDN/Gary Otte

Although Mecca and Medina hold a special status due to their links with Prophet Muhammad, they did not become political or cultural centres of the Muslim civilisations.

Mu’waiya, founder of the Umayyad dynasty, first Islamic dynasty, made Damascus his capital, thereby moving the political centre away from Arabia. The caliphs of later dynasties established their capitals at Baghdad (Abbasids), Cairo (Fatimids), Bukhara (Samanid), Cordoba (Spanish Umayyads), Samarkand (Timurids), Istanbul (Ottomans), Isfahan (Safavids), and Delhi (Mughals). Although several cities under the respective dynasties developed into major centres of scholarship, sciences, art, and architecture, we highlight the following few notable centres:

Founded in 762 CE as the Abbasid capital, Baghdad once stood at the centre of trade routes between the east and the west, linking Asia with Europe. Baghdad was also the centre of intellectual pursuits attracting scholars, scientists, and philosophers. The entire philosophical heritage, the legacy of Aristotle, Plato, the great Greek philosophers, physicians and scientists, was translated into Arabic in the ninth century at the Bait al-Hikma founded by Caliph Harun al-Rashid (r.786-809) and that entire corpus was subsequently available to the West in a Latin translation based on the Arabic translations. The first modern-day concept of hospital was built here in the eighth century. The first observatory was founded here in the ninth century. Baghdad’s impressive buildings and magnificent gardens gave it the reputation of the richest and most beautiful city of the world.

The famous mathematical al-Khwarizmi (d. 850), founder of the field of algebra, worked at the Bayt al-Hikma. The term algorithm is derived from al-Khwarizmi’s Latinised name ‘Algoritmi.’ The renowned physician al-Razi (d. 925) was one of the chief physicians of the hospital at Baghdad. The Ikhwan al-Safa (Brethren of Purity), who compiled their encyclopaedic work Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa in the ninth and tenth centuries, are believed to have some connection to Baghdad.

The city remained one of the world’s cultural and commercial hubs under the the reign of other dynasties until 1258, when it was destroyed by the Mongols.

Although inhabited since 3,000 BCE, the city of Bukhara, now in Uzbekistan, was officially founded 2,000 years ago. Located at the crossroads of ancient trade routes, it was one of the most prosperous cities in Central Asia in the Middle Ages, becoming a centre for trade, scholarship, culture, arts, and religious studies. Under the Samanids (r. 819-999), who revived the use of the Persian language, Bukhara became a major centre of scholarship and culture.

Bukhara. Photo: UNESCO World Heritage Collection

The scientist, philosopher, and physician Ibn Sina (known in the West as Avicenna) (d. 1037), the Persian poets Rudaki (d. 941) and Ferdowsi (d. 1020), and the chronicler Al-Biruni (d.1052) all thrived in the city, completing some of their most important works there. Ibn Sina’s Canon of Medicine, translated into Latin in Toledo in the thirteenth century, became the most influential medical encyclopedia and was taught in European universities well into the eighteenth century.

Canon of Medicine. Aga Khan Museum
Ibn Sina’s Qanun [Fi’l-Tibb] (Canon [of Medicine]), Volume 5. Aga Khan Museum
 Bukhara continued to flourish under subsequent dynasties including the Timurids (r. 1370-1499) until it was destroyed by the Mongols in the thirteenth century.

Bukhara is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

Founded in seventh century BCE, Samarkand is one of the earliest centres of civilisation in Central Asia. In the fourteenth century, the city experienced a period of growth and splendour as the capital of the Timurid Empire. Timur, founder of the dynasty, took Samarkand from the Mongols in 1369, and established his capital there, making Samarkand dazzle with the splendour of its magnificent buildings. He brought the most gifted builders of the time to the city, fusing different artistic schools and traditions to create a new international style – now known as the Timurid style of architecture.

Registan, Samarkand. Photo: Kaori, UNESCO

Under the reign of Timur’s grandson Ulugh Beg (d.1449), a mathematician and astronomer, Samarkand developed into a centre of scholarship and culture, attracting scholars and craftsmen from all over Asia. In 1417, he founded and developed the central Registan, literally the “place of sand,” with a complex of religious buildings and caravanserais. Only his principle madrasa survives to this day.

His Highness the Aga Khan remarked, “In legend and in reality Samarkand is a source of inspiration to those who love good buildings and great cities. Your city has given to all the world the remarkable legacy of the Timurid expansion.”
September 19, 1992
Speech at AKDN

Despite the frequent dynastic changes, Samarkand never lost its prestige and religious significance among the country’s inhabitants, and is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. In 1992, the fifth awards of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture were presented in Samarkand.

Founded in 969 by Caliph-Imam al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah as the new capital of the Fatimids, Cairo rapidly grew into a centre of Islamic scholarship, sciences, art, and culture, in addition to playing a prominent role in international trade and commerce. Al-Azhar university, founded by the Imam Mu‘izz in 969, developed into a centre for higher learning and was richly endowed to support students, teachers, and one of the largest libraries of the time in the Muslim world. The Fatimid Caliph Imam al-Hakim founded Dar al-Ilm in 1005 promoting the study of various fields.

Al-Azhar, Cairo

The culture of unhindered scientific thought attracted the finest minds of the age to the Fatimid court, whatever their religious persuasions: philosophers al-Sijistani (d. 971), Nasir Khusraw (d. 1088); astronomers such as Ali b. Yunus (d. 1009); physicians al-Tamimi (d. 990) and Ibn Ridwan (d. 1061); mathematicians and engineers like Ibn Haytham (d. 1040) known in Europe by the Latin name Alhazen. Ibn Haytham’s greatest contribution was in the field optics, for which he is called the father of optics. The foundation of contemporary advances in the study of light, optics, and ophthalmology are based upon his observations and findings.

 Among the arts, the cultivation of poetry was especially encouraged by the Fatimid Imams, several of whom are known to have composed their own poems. The Fatimids employed several professional poets, ranked according to their skills, who performed an important role in court rituals and public ceremonies. As part of their general concern with education, the Fatimids adopted unprecedented policies for the education of women.

The Fatimid era represents one of the greatest eras in Egyptian and Islamic histories, and a major milestone in Muslim civilisation.

Historic Cairo is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List

The capital of the Spanish Umayyads who took control of a large part of the Iberian Peninsula in 711 which became known as Al-Andalus. The region became a centre for agriculture and scholarship. The Umayyads improved and developed farming technologies that contributed to the prosperity of the farmers and the court.

Caliph Hakim II (r. 961-976) invited scholars and poets from various lands to Cordoba, which had become a city of cultural diversity. Notable scholars include al-Qasim al-Zahrawi (d. 1013) known in Europe as Abulcasis, a physician and the father of surgery. His treatise Kitab al-Tasrif (The Method of Medicine) was translated into Latin and published in Europe in the fifteenth century, where it had a vast influence on medical teaching until the eighteenth century.

Page of al-Zahrawi’s surgical instruments translated into Latin.

Ibn Rushd (d. 1198), a physician and philosopher known by his Latin name Averroes, was born in Cordoba in 1126. Several of his commentaries on Aristotle’s works were translated into Hebrew and then into Latin; other works were translated directly from Arabic into Latin at the translation school in Toledo.

Historic Cordoba is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, another transfer of knowledge took place, this time from Arabic into Latin, resulting in a significant portion of Islamic philosophical and scientific learning made available to medieval European scholars. The first college of translators from Arabic into Latin was established in Toledo by Don Raimundo, the Archbishop of Toledo from 1126 to 1151. A Benedictine monk, Raimundo was convinced of the importance of the Arab philosophers’ understanding of Aristotle’s works, and decided to make their works available in Latin.

The co-existence of Muslims, Christians, and Jews facilitated the development of the translation school. Translations were made not only of the original Greek works that had been translated into Arabic, but also of works by Islamic scholars who came to be known by their Latinised names of Avicenna (Ibn Sina), Averroes (Ibn Rushd), Alhazen (Ibn al-Haytham), Rhazes (al-Razi), among others. Many of the works of these scholars had a significant influence on Europe: Avicenna’s Canon was the medical textbook for European medical schools, Alhazen’s Optics was the foundation upon which Kepler built the modern science of optics.

His Highess the Aga Khan noted, “Of the several places in Europe where we are giving glimpses of masterpieces of Islamic art from the collection of the future Aga Khan Museum in Canada, Toledo is incomparable. Its history, spanning more than seven hundred years during which different religious communities lived together in peace, have made its name famous world-wide. Toledo reached its zenith and became one of the intellectual and scientific capitals of the world during the Islamic caliphate of Cordoba (929 – 1031).”
Geographies of Islam, Aga Khan Museum Exhibition Leaflet

Historic Toledo is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List


“The Muslim world, once a bastion of scientific and humanist knowledge, a rich and self-confident cradle of culture and art…From the seventh century to the thirteenth century, the Muslim civilisations dominated world culture, accepting, adopting, using and preserving all preceding study of mathematics, philosophy, medicine and astronomy, among other areas of learning. The Islamic field of thought and knowledge included and added to much of the information on which all civilisations are founded. And yet this fact is seldom acknowledged today.”
His Highness the Aga Khan
Baccalaureate Address at Brown University, May 26, 1996
Speech at AKDN


Alnoor Dhanani, “Muslim Philosophy and the Sciences,” The Muslim Almanac Ed. Azim A. Nanji (Detroit: Gale Research Inc. 1996)
Thomas Burman. “Islam in Spain and Western Europe,” The Muslim Almanac Ed. by Azim A. Nanji (Gale Research Inc. Detroit. 1996)
Bukhara, The Silk Road, UNESCO
Sami Hamarneh, Drawings and Pharmacy in Al-Zahrawi’s 10th-Century Surgical Treatise

Compiled by Nimira Dewji

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s