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Al-Kindi: Encyclopaedic Scholar of the Baghdad 'House of Wisdom'

02 August, 2014 13:39
Al-Kindi: Encyclopaedic Scholar of the Baghdad 'House of Wisdom'

Al-Kindi General Hospital, one of the biggest medical centres in present day Baghdad was named after his tremendous contributions in medical and pharmaceutical. Al-Kindi was best known as a philosopher, but he was also a physician, pharmacist, ophthalmologist, physicist, mathematician, geographer, astronomer, and chemist.

He was also concerned with music, logogriphs, the manufacture of swords and even the art of cookery. He wrote about 270 publications. As quoted by al-Ehwany, ref.1, Ibn al-Nadim in al-Fihrist considered him as:

 “the best man of his time, unique in his knowledge of all the ancient sciences. He is called the Philosopher of the Arabs. His books deal with different sciences, such as logic, philosophy, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy etc. We have connected him with the natural philosophers because of his prominence in Science.” Ibn al-Nadim

Below a short summary on the life and attributes of Al-Kindi is extracted from refs. 2-7.

Abu Yusuf Ya’qub ibn Ishaq ibn al-Sabbah ibn ‘Imran ibn Isma’il ibn al-Ash’ath ibn Qais al-Kindi was born in 801 in Kufah, Iraq, where Imam Abu Hanifah al-Nu’man; the renowned chemist Jaber bin Hayan and the great Arab poet al-Mutanabi were born. Al-Ash’ath ibn Qais is one of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad p.b.u.h., one of the pioneer Muslims lived in Kufah. His father was the governor of Kufah, as his grandfather had been before him.

Kufah, of course is more known as the second capital of the caliphate after Medinah, where the 4th Caliph Ali bin Abi-Talib based his government, before Muawiya bin abi Suffyan, the founder of the Umayyad Dynasty transferred it to Damascus.

Al-Kindi began his education in his hometown, Kufah before furthering his studies in Baghdad. He was tought the Qur’an (by heart), Arabic grammar and literature, arithmetics, fiqh and kalam. He also learned Greek and Syriac languages. He was proficient in the arts of the Greeks, Persians and Hindus. He was employed as a calligrapher as he was well known for his beautiful calligraphy.

Caliph al-Ma'mun (813-833) appointed al-Kindi as a researcher and translator in the House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikmah), Baghdad. He worked together with al-Khwarizmi, Hunayn ibn Ishaq and the Banu Musa brothers (Jafar Muhammad ibn Musa ibn Shakir, Ahmed ibn Musa ibn Shakir and al-Hasan ibn Musa ibn Shakir). The House of Wisdom was a research and educational institute, founded by Harun al-Rashid. Under the reign of his son al-Ma'mun, observatories were set up in the House of Wisdom. During the Abbasids, it became the centre for intellectual development, where many great scholars were introduced including al-Kindi.

Al-Kindi was one of the first Arab scholars involved in translating and commenting on Greek philosophical manuscripts. He defined philosophy as “the establishment of what is true and right”. He first wrote treatise in epistemology and logic books such as Risalah fi Hudud al-Ashya’ wa Rusumiha (On the Definitions of Things and their Descriptions). His other philosophy works include Rasa’il al-Kindi al-falsafiya (Philosophical Treatises of al-Kindi), Fi al-falsafa al-ula (On First Philosophy), Fi wahdaniyat Allah wa tunahiy jism al-‘alam (On the Oneness of God and the Limitation of the Body of the World), Fi kammiya kutub Aristutalis wa ma yohtaju ilaihi fi tahsil al-falsafa (The Quantity of Aristotle’s Books and What is Required for the Acquisition of Philosophy) and Fi al-hila li-daf‘ al-ahzan (On the Art of Averting Sorrows).

Although al-Kindi was influenced by the work of Aristotle (384-322 BC), he put the Greek’s ideas in a new context and laid the foundations of a new philosophy. He first elaborated a system of thought based on the logic of Greek philosophy, hence developed logic and systematic explanations for some of the debated theological issues of his time, such as creation, immortality, God's knowledge, and prophecy.

In his point of view, the philosophical sciences could be divided into mathematics, physics and theology. Interestingly, one of his philosophical theorems has been proved mathematically. In his 11 arithmetic works, Al-Kindi wrote on Indian numbers, the harmony of numbers, lines and multiplication with numbers, relative quantities, measuring proportion and time, and numerical procedures and cancellation. In geometry, he has invented the theory of parallels. He gave a lemma investigating the possibility of exhibiting pairs of lines in the plane, which are simultaneously non-parallel and non-intersecting. He also made rich contributions to the Arabic system of numerals, which was largely developed by al-Khwarizmi. Recently, his book on Cryptology and the application of mathematics to decipher encrypted language become famous through the publication of “The Code Book “ by Dr. Simon Singh,see ref.7. Other references to this may be found in refs.8-11.

Al-Kindi also delved in medicine. He produced 22 publications on medical topics. One of his major contributions in medicine and pharmaceutics is to determine and apply a correct dosage, which formed the bases medical formulary.

His writings, most of which were short treatises, are classified into seventeen groups; Philosophy, Logic, Arithmetics, Globe, Music, Astronomy, Geometry, Sphere, Medicine, Astrology, Dialectic, Psychology, Politics, Meteorology, Dimensions, First things and Metals, Chemicals Several of his books were translated into Latin and was known as Al-Kindus. His thoughts very much influenced medieval Europe.

Some historians claim that this encyclopaedic scholar had been subject to jealousies from rivals especially during the era of Caliph al-Mutawakkil (841-861) when he had the most difficult time of his life due to a conspiracy against him. He died in Baghdad in c. 873.


1. Al-Ehwany, Ahmad Fouad. (1961). “Al-Kindi” in A History of Muslim Philosophy Volume 1. New Delhi: Low Price Publications. pp. 421-434.
2. Al-Faruqi, Ismail R. & al-Faruqi, Lois Lamya. (1986). Cultural Atlas of Islam. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company. pp. 305-306.
3. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. (1969). Encyclopaedia Britannica. Chicago: William Benton. pp. 352.
4. Kennedy-Day, K. (No date). al-Kindi, Abu Yusuf Ya‘qub ibn Ishaq (d. c.866–73). 
5. O'Connor, J.J. & Robertson, E.F.(1999).Abu Yusuf Yaqub ibn Ishaq al-Sabbah Al-Kindi.
6. Abu Yusuf Yaqub ibn Ishaq al-Sabbah Al-Kindi, .
7. Singh, Simon, The Code Book: The Secret History of Codes and Code-Breaking, 1999.
8. Ibraham A. “Al-Kindi: The origins of cryptology: The Arab contributions”, Crypto logia, vol.16, no 2 (April 1992) pp. 97-126.
9. http:// 
Philosophers: Yaqub Ibn Ishaq al-Kindi
10. http://
Al-Kindi, Abu Yusuf Ya‘qub ibn Ishaq

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