There’s an Islamic saying, “The ink of a scholar is more holy than the blood of a martyr,” and nothing embodies it better than 9th century Baghdad. It was a cultural Mecca, owned and operated by the people that pray to the actual Mecca.
Imagine a culture of people in which one of the top priorities was translating all of the world’s collective knowledge into Arabic. Turns out it was a good move for them. While the west was trapped in the Dark Ages searching for a flashlight, the Islamic world was making monumental leaps forward in almost every single discipline — mathematics, medicine, architecture, science and most importantly for us, philosophy.
Thinking of medieval philosophy in the Islamic world reminds me a little of listening to Adam Carolla rant in recent years. “Don’t you just hate it when you’re so talented, successful and rich that your personal maid hides your remote control from you, and you can’t find it for twelve seconds? What a terrible inconvenience.”
Well, that’s kind of how the Caliphate was feeling in 9th century Baghdad. They were having problems dealing with the quandaries that came with having a sprawling empire that was as big and influential as Rome was at its height. Being under the rule of the Caliph meant being under a strict, centralized culture, and not being under the Caliph meant you had very little access to their strict, centralized culture. As they focused on the problems in the rest of their empire, their cultural and political grip loosened on the city of Baghdad. This allowed people living in small towns near Baghdad to gain increased access to Greek philosophy translated into Arabic.
One of the people from one of these small towns was named Avicenna. Avicenna, to put it lightly, was a polymath genius. He’s almost unanimously considered the greatest mind of his region and time period. Not because there weren’t any other smart people around, he was just that good. He wrote almost 500 books. He wrote more books than James Patterson pretends to write. Not only did he fundamentally shift philosophy in medieval times, he somehow found time to write a series of medical books that were so far ahead of their time, they were still being referenced in the 17th century.
The craziest part about it is that he almost didn’t even exist. What if he never had access to the Greek philosophy that allowed his mind to reach its full potential? Simply having the information available to him gave him opportunities he would’ve never had otherwise.
Fast forward to modern times. In terms of making information accessible, the internet is the greatest invention in the history of man. If you had stock in printing presses in the early nineties you’re probably reading this from under a bridge somewhere. If Avicenna only had access to Hellenic philosophy and became the greatest thinker of his age, imagine what humanity will gain from the limitless access to knowledge that the internet provides. Google is the modern day 9th century Baghdad, and I wonder how many Avicennas have been flipping burgers and digging ditches over the last thousand years.