Al-Mansur: The Muslim patron of Classics

By Alex Krabbendam

When we think of the Classics, we think of white marble columns, gaudy statues, and purple hemmed togas. Our European languages, science, and even our morals all stem from those ancient people in Greece and Rome. Democracy and imperialism all mashed up into a ball of western brilliance. So it was; so it will always be. Right?

Well, not really. Especially not that “western” bit. While it is true that the Romans and Greeks lived in what is now called Europe (and even that name comes from the Ancient Greek word Europa), the history of these people are not and should not be considered only western. Nor was it only us in Europe, or Christians, that were captivated by the remains left behind by the ancients. Let me introduce you to Al-Mansur, the second Abbasid Caliph of the Islamic Empire, founder of Baghdad, and patron of Science, Philosophy, and yes, especially the Classics. With quite a resume, it’s a surprise that most of us in the western world have not heard more about him, and even more a surprise that his achievements and impact in the field of Classics are not celebrated more. This Islamophobia Awareness Month, we need to look at those who have so often been ignored in the historiography. Islam and the Classics are so often seen as opposites, fuelled by portrayals of a “clash of nations” – but it’s a false narrative. Muslims have always been involved in the study of Classics, and we would not be where we are now without them! So, in an attempt to realign the narrative, let me take you on a quick bibliographical journey through the life of Al-Mansur.

Madinat as-Salaam, the round city of Baghdad which was built on the banks of the river Tigris, in modern Iraq. While it began as a political and administrative centre, it’s strategic location meant it grew quickly, and over time many scholars gathered there.

Born in 714CE under the name Abu Ja’far Abdallah ibn Muhammad (no, not the Disney Jafar), he took the name Al-Mansur meaning “The victorious” as a regal name. Distantly related to the Prophet Muhammad, he emerged at the head of the Abbasid Caliphate in 754CE and reigned for almost 22 years, succeeding the earlier Rashidun and the Umayyad Caliphates. The Umayyad caliphate had been overthrown by popular rebellion just five years prior to Al-Mansur’s ascension; there was little harmony in the Muslim world at this time. Yet following Al-Mansur’s rise to the throne internal peace was largely achieved, especially after quashing a few rebellious uncles (although skirmishes and wars at the Chinese, Spanish, and Byzantine borders were still rather common). With some degree of peace and with relative economic success, Al-Mansur decided that a new capital and administrative centre ought to be built, to better reflect the new empire he was building from the inside out. He named his city “Madinat As-Salaam”, the City of Peace. Today it is known as Baghdad, the second largest city in the Middle East after Cairo. Al-Mansur was fascinated by astrology, and thus brought many astrologers to help design his city. The most influential amongst them was Mashallah ibn Athari, a Jewish man of Persian descent who was himself influenced by numerous Greek astrologers. The administrative centre was built as a circular citadel, with all the most important buildings located inside the walls.  

Having built his city, Al-Mansur invited scholars, doctors, and other “smart people” from every corner of his Empire, to concentrate IQ into one house. With the creative name of “the Baghdad House of Wisdom”, he began to fund and support all types of sciences and scholarly efforts. For us, his most important decision was to kickstart and become the first patron of the Graeco-Arabic Translation movement. This is where his impact upon Classics becomes clear, and ever so valuable. Whilst many monasteries in western Europe were copying Latin and Greek texts, Arab and Persian scholars also took it upon themselves to preserve and transcribe Greek texts, many of which were being ignored or demonised by Christians in the West. The works of ancient astrologers, polymaths, and doctors were transcribed into Arabic and ruthlessly peer-reviewed with their own understandings of the stars, mathematics, and the human body. Attempts were made by Al-Mansur’s scholars to try and understand, and thus improve, Hippocrates’ methods or Galen’s theories. What should be noted however, is that almost every work considered useful by the Abbasids were non-fictional, secular, and also non-political. Arabic translations of works by Homer for example, are hardly worth mentioning, and now offer little use for the discipline of  Classics. This is remarkably different from the work done by western scholars (usually monks), who seem to have been comparatively much more interested in myths, theatre, and politics.

A 13th century painting of the House of Wisdom. While original science and medicine became the main function of this institution, translations of ancient texts were always made throughout its history.

“So what?” – you might be saying. What use is an Arabic version of Euclid, or Aristotle, especially if they were scribbling in the margins with their own thoughts too? With the work that Al-Mansur began and under the patronage of future Caliphs, the House of Wisdom grew to an enormous size, becoming at one point the largest library in the world, and continued as such until 1258 CE when the Mongol Khanate burned the whole city down. Just as the library of Alexandria was burned down by invaders in 48 BCE, history repeated itself, and who knows just how many texts were lost after the fires subsided. Luckily however, the wealth of knowledge collected for the almost 500 year lifespan of the library had attracted the interest of scholars from all around the known world, including Europe. Works which had not been seen by western European eyes for hundreds of years were reintroduced, all from Arabic translations. A great example is the work done by Adelard of Bath, an English scholar who reintroduced Euclid’s Elements to western Europe in 1127– a work that had been translated into Arabic under the orders of Al-Mansur. This is not an isolated case, and many western European scholars made trips into the Muslim world in search for “lost” texts, filling in the gaps of their own knowledge. Admittedly, many did not bother to travel all the way to Baghdad, preferring the closer-to-home libraries in Al-Andalus and Sicily, but the majority of those centres of knowledge were based on and owed much of their collections to the original House of Wisdom in Baghdad set up by Al-Mansur.

Caliph Al-Mansur continued to fund and sponsor translations throughout his reign, not only of Greek works but also of Indian and Persian texts. He died in 775CE, with varying accounts on the circumstances. Some say he died during a pilgrimage to Mecca, while others say he died after reaching the Well of Maimun. In either case he was succeeded by his son, Al-Mahdi (meaning “The rightly guided one” – again a regal name. Being humble was clearly  not a family trait). A long time has passed since Al-Mansur’s death, but his legacy remains, in astrology, medicine, and classics! By laying the foundations for later Caliphs to further the Graeco-Arabic Translation movement, many texts were preserved for those who would later study the ancients as we do today.  We could almost say that the Renaissance would not have been as transformative for western society were it not for the works of Al-Mansur and his translators. Major works of classical medicine, philosophy, astrology, and science were all passed into the hands of Renaissance Europeans through Arabic translations.  

A page from the an Arabic translation of the De Materia Medica, which was written by Greek physician Dioscorides between 50 and 70 CE. It was one of the first Greek manuscripts to be translated into Arabic. This page shows instructions for the creation of an “elixir” meant to heal a patient.

All of this is to say that Al-Mansur’s life shows it was not just Europeans who were interested in preserving the Classics. Whilst many of us have a story in our mind of only western monks meticulously translating texts into Latin in quiet monasteries, it’s not a wholly accurate view. Muslims were always interested in the ancient Mediterranean, but especially in the works they considered useful themselves. It is interesting that political speeches, myths, and court cases were not seen as “interesting” or “useful” by Al-Mansur and his translators, but perhaps that is because they had their own developed legal system – namely the Qur’an and the hadith (the sayings of the Prophet). While it is clear today that western society has been influenced more by Classical civilisations, as seen in architecture, language, and law: the West is not the extent of the Classics. Whenever Classicists thank the monks in monasteries for their efforts in preserving the classics, they really should also be thanking Al-Mansur for his efforts.

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