India-Arab relations date back to era when Arabs learnt sciences from Hindus

Story by  Saquib Salim | Posted by  Aasha Khosa • 7 Months ago
House of wisdom: an unnamed artist's vision of knowledge
House of wisdom: an unnamed artist's vision of knowledge


Saquib Salim

“We have generally seen that Indians are proficient in astrology, mathematics, languages, and medicine. They have cures for many chronic diseases. They excel in the art of making sculpture, painting, and building. Not only do they know how to make good swords, Indians also use them adroitly ....We have received several books from them on medicine, philosophy, and other knowledge. They are a much superior race to the Chinese.” This is how Al-Jahiz, an 8th-century Arab scholar, has described Indian Hindus.

There is enough literature discussing the rise of Arabs in diverse fields of knowledge from the 8th century but very few have explored the role of Indians in the ‘Arab Revolution’ also called the ‘Golden Age of Islam’. There is a near consensus among historians that Arabs excelled in science, technology, philosophy, and sciences during the Abbasid rule. The Barmakid family, which held important ministerial positions during Abbasid rule, is thought to be the people behind nurturing this educational renaissance among Arabs.

The Barmakids were originally from Balkh (now in Afghanistan) and headed a Buddhist (or according to some sources Hindu) monastery before their family head Khalid ibn Barmak converted to Islam and joined the Umayyad court. According to Syed Sulaiman Nadvi, the Barmakids were Indian Brahmin Pundits. He traces the origin of the word Barmak to Sanskrit. Nadvi argues that because they were Indians the family came to Kashmir after Arabs captured Balkh. Khalid received his education in Sanskrit scriptures in Kashmir.

Khalid became one of the most important ministers under Abbasid Caliph Al-Saffah and Al-Mansur. He, and later his grandson Yahya Barmaki, played an important role in the establishment of the legendary House of Wisdom in Baghdad. Barmakids invited Indian scholars who knew Sanskrit to Baghdad. It is no secret that Arabs learned the number system from Indians. But not many know that an Indian Pandit was invited to the Abbasid court, where he translated a Sanskrit text, Siddhant, which introduced Indian mathematics and astronomy to the Arabs. Later on, more Indian scholars went to Baghdad and texts by Aryabhatta, Brahamagupta, etc. were translated from Sanskrit to Arabic. 

Nadvi proves in his book that Al-Khwarizmi, who is supposed to be a pioneer of algebra and whose name inspired the term Algorithm, was modifying the mathematical knowledge already explained by Indian scholars. He learnt mathematics from Indian Pandits. More importantly, this knowledge form soon penetrated the masses. 

It was around this time that another Indian scholar translated and taught Brahmsapt Siddhant to Arabs and the works of Aryabhat also reached Baghdad. Several other texts of astronomy and scholars of the subjects revolutionized how Arabs understood the stars. 9th-century Arab scholar, Abu Ma’shar, adopted the Indian concept of Kalpa developed by Aryabhat as the days of the world which later became the basis of several treatises on astronomy by the Arabs. Knowledge of medicines prevalent among Arabs is mostly attributed to Greeks which is partly correct but a major portion of their knowledge came from Indian Vaids (Physicians).

Once Caliph Harun Rashid was ill with a disease and couldn’t be cured by any doctor in his empire. Yahya Barmik sent a messenger to India to bring an Indian Vaid, who successfully treated him. The vaid, Manka Pandit treated the Caliph successfully and stayed in Baghdad to teach Indian medicine. Ibn Dhan (Dhanpati) was another Indian who was appointed the director of a Hospital in Baghdad.

The glory of Indian medicine reached its zenith when Caliph Harun Rashid’s cousin Ibrahim was declared dead by the royal physician Gabriel, a Greek medicine expert, and Sali, son of a renowned Indian Vaid Bhea, challenged him. Ibrahim was brought out of the coffin and Sali blew medicine in his nose. After ten minutes he sneezed and got up. Sali diagnosed it as a case of epilepsy.   

After this, a department was created in Baghdad with Indian Pandits to translate and teach Sushruta, Charak, and Ayurveda. A mission was sent to India to study Indian medicinal plants and other therapies. Texts of Susruta, Kanakayana, Shandilya, Yashodhara, and others were translated and became part of the Arab knowledge system.

Hindu Sanskrit texts of ethics, governance, and morality were translated into Arabic. These texts became the foundation for several later works by Arab scholars. Mahabharata and writings of Chanakya especially inspired a whole generation of Arabs.

Some of the Indian pundits noted by Arab scholars like Ibn al Nadim and Al-Jahiz were Manka Pandit, Ibn Dhan, Pandit Rusa (woman), and Pandit Savbaram. Given Nadvi these were Arabicised pronunciation of Sanskrit names and that’s why cannot be found in contemporary Indian records as such.   

The early Islamic Empire established by Arabs admired the Hindu knowledge system, learned it, and assimilated it with their knowledge. 9th-century Arab scholar Yaqubi wrote, “Indians are wise and critical because of which they are superior to all other races. Their knowledge of astronomy and medicine is second to none. Chinese and Persians have learned these arts from them.”

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In these times where people try to divide humans based on religion, race, language, or geography this cooperation needs to be told. Arabs did not spread Islam in a vacuum and there was a continuous process through which they learnt sciences, philosophy and literature from Hindus of India.