A Forgotten Woman of a Forgotten Time
What happens to knowledge when learning institutions collapse? Jordan Michael takesus on a journey through the universities of the Islamic Golden Age.
“The garden of the world has no limits except in your mind. Its presence is more beautiful than the stars, with more clarity than the polished mirror of your heart.”
Rumi, 13th century Persian poet.
The City of Fes, Morocco 1242 AD – As I stepped out of the time machine I was greeted by a bustling medina (city). The air was misted in sand swept up by the beating footsteps of the restless crowd. The sounds of a turbulent symphony of haggling men and murmuring sheep. I turned a corner and made my way through the souk (market), journeying through its seemingly endless cobbled alleyways, exhilarated by the sights, sounds and smells. A Moorish man with a melodic voice selling exquisite Iberian olives from his homeland. There were dates, pomegranates and other vibrantly coloured fruits from Persia and the Levant. And stacked were baskets of spices – cinnamon and saffron, cumin and turmeric – from China, India and other distant lands.
This university was founded in 859 AD by a woman of the name Fatima al-Fihri and stands today as the oldest university in the World still operating
Through nooks and crannies, my adventure led me to a quieter pocket of the medina and importantly, my destination. For before me emerged a majestic and impressive structure known as the University of al-Qarawiyyin. A complex that constituted of a mosque, a library and a Madrasa (educational institution/university). This university was founded in 859 AD by a woman of the name Fatima al-Fihri and stands today as the oldest university in the World still operating. From the early 800s to the late 1200s, it was a centre of knowledge for science, mathematics, theology and law during a time that was known as the Islamic Golden Age. As a student with a passion for learning, I came here to absorb the time and place of this early centre of knowledge.
Walking through the hallways of the university, sunlight pierced the arching windows and illuminated the ivory-white marble floors. Along the walls danced rolling lines and patterns of encoded wisdom in the glorious artworks of Islamic calligraphy. Surrounding these radiated a mosaic of diffracting tiles forming geometric tessellations, coloured in hues of royal blue, emerald, gold, white and more. This form of art, known as Zellige, represents an elegant union between mathematics and art, simplicity and complexity, nature and the human mind. A fitting symbol of the prestige and brilliance of this Golden Age of Islam.
Much of the knowledge will be lost, and with it the recognition of this glorious age and its characters.
I then entered the library. Although I could not comprehend the titles on the covers of the book or the inscribed wisdom within, I remained inspired by the treasures of the World’s knowledge around me. One of the most epic feats of the Islamic Golden Age was its initiative to translate works far-reaching from ancient Greece, Rome, India, China and Persia and more. Works that may otherwise have been lost in the forgotten void of time. I was surrounded by the Greek scripts of Plato, Ptolemy, Euclid and Aristotle, the astronomy and mathematics of Brahmagupta and the medical writings of Galen, Hippocrates and Ayurveda. It was this desire to conserve knowledge and construct upon the shoulders of giants that led to the many marvels, discoveries and inventions of the Islamic Golden Age.
Important leaps in astronomy were made, including Abu Ma’shar’s description of heliocentricity almost a thousand years before Copernicus. Or the polymath, Ibn Bajja, who lived in Fes and described the Milky Way as the light of thousands of stars forming a continuous image in the night sky, almost 500 years before Galileo. Significant advances in science and medicine were made, including the earliest records of the first clinical trial, anaesthesia and descriptions of evolution. We cannot also forget the works of Ibn-al-Haytham, the Father of Modern Optics, and who some consider as the world’s ‘first true scientist’. He was a pioneer of the scientific method centuries before the Renaissance.
I imagined that the works and theories of these Islamic scholars were what students at the Madrasa were learning at its cusp. Sadly, I also knew that in a few decades a fire will engulf this library. Much of the knowledge will be lost, and with it the recognition of this glorious age and its characters. Equally, 16 years from now in 1258 AD, the Mongols will seize Baghdad and with it destroy many of the collections in the House of Wisdom. This signalled the end of the Islamic Golden Age. I reflected on the largely forgotten role of the Islamic world in the construction of knowledge, still relevant today. We know the names of Copernicus and Galileo, but not Ibn Bajja, Ibn-al-Haytham or Fatima al-Fihri. Today, our mass cultural, educational and media institutions are dominated by Western influences. History is written by the victors, and it is perhaps for this reason we accredit the discovery of knowledge to when it was discovered in the West, rather than its true source. 21st century knowledge systems are changing, with libraries and universities transitioning to digital spaces. But even these digital spaces are dictated by the victors, and knowledge of social groups who do not have access to these platforms will likely be lost. While it takes effort, the most we can aspire toward is to continue telling the stories of those forgotten, as I have sought to do here.
Jordan Michael (not Michael Jordan) is a Masters of Secondary Teaching student at the University of Melbourne. He went to Japan for 4 months to live out the film ‘Lost in Translation’.