The time of Imām al-Ridā, peace be on him, was called the Golden Time. It was the most brilliant and wonderful of all the times in Islamic history. That is because building prospered; agriculture developed; the Islamic state dominated most regions of the world as well as Baghdad became the capital of Islamic world; rather the capital of the world, for it was the greatest city to which scholars and diplomats from everywhere in the world came in order to obtain an office in the state or to present the needs of their countries in the fields of administration, economy, and science.
We must mention the affairs of that time, for there is a close relationship between them and the research on the life of Imām al-Ridā, peace be on him.
The scientific life in the time of Imām al-Ridā bloomed, and its activities in all kinds of science grew. That was the most developed kind of civilization progress which the ‘Abbāsid state reached in all periods of its reign. We will briefly present some aspects of this scientific progress as follows:
Among the most marvelous inventions of that time was the satellite which was made by ‘Atā’ al-Khurasāni, better known as Ibn al-Muqanna‘. That satellite appeared and the people saw it from a two-month distance, and then it disappeared from them, and concerning it Abū al-‘Alā’ al-Ma‘arri has said:
Be watchful! The satellite whose head is masked
is error and enticement just as the satellite of al-Muqanna‘.
The poet Abū al-Qāsim Hibat Allah b. Sanā’ al-Mulk has referred to it in a poem, saying:
To you, the satellite of al-Muqanna‘ when rising is not
more charming than that of the turbaned one.
However our references have not mentioned how that satellite was made and its apparatuses as well as they have not referred to the country where the satellite was made. More likely, it was made in Baghdad, the Capital of the ‘Abbāsid government in that time, any how, the making of that satellite is regarded as the greatest scientific achievement in those times.
Yet another example of the scientific achievements in those times was the usage of crystal in making ships. This has been mentioned by some historians.
The ‘Abbāsid government established institutes and libraries in Baghdad, that Islamic and non-Islamic sciences might be studied therein. The Government founded wherein thirty marvelous schools; the most famous of them was al-Nizāmiya. Moreover it established therein public libraries the most important of which is:
Hārūn al-Rashid brought to it his personal library and added to it the books which were collected by his father al-Mahdi and his grandfather al-Mansūr. Then al-Ma’mūn asked the Emir of Siqliya for some philosophical and scientific books. He added these books to the Depository of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikma) after he had received them as well as he brought to it may books form Khurasān. Wherever he heard of a book, he brought the book to it.
Sahl b. Hārūn b. Rāhbūn was a scribe in the Depository of Wisdom, and then he was appointed by al-Ma’mūn as a keeper of the philosophical books which were brought from the Island of Cyprus. When al-Ma’mūn made peace with the leader of the Island, he asked him to send him the books which were collected by the Greeks in a house and which none came to know except them. So the leader of the Island gathered his retinues and men of opinion and counseled with them about carrying the books to al-Ma’mūn, and they advised him not to carry them to him except one archbishop who said to him: “I think that you should be quick in sending the books to him, for if these sciences enter a state, they will corrupt it and sow division among its scholars; therefore, send them to al-Ma’mūn.” Al-Ma’mūn became delighted at them and appointed Sahl as a keeper over them. It is worth mentioning that Ghaylān al-Fārisi was the general keeper of the library and was scribe of al-Rashid and al-Ma’mūn.
This library continued supplying researchers and scholars with various kinds of science. When Hulagu, the Mongol shedder of blood, occupied Baghdad, he destroyed the library, and hence Islam world lost its most important heritage.
Among the aspects of the development of the cultural and
scientific life in that time was translating books from foreign languages into
Arabic including medical, mathematical, astronomical books as well as
philosophical and political sciences. In his book al-Fihrast, Ibn al-Nadim has
mentioned many names of these books. Hanin b. Ishāq was the head of the
Translation Department. Ibn al-Nadim narrated: “Al-Ma’mūn exchanged letters
with the Romanian King. He turned to him for help, wrote to him, and asked
permission to send him what he chose of the old books stored in Rome. He (the
Romanian King) responded to him after a refusal. Accordingly, al-Ma’mūn
delegated for that a group of persons including al-Hajjājj b. Matar, Ibn
al-Batriq, Salam (the keeper of the House of Wisdom), and
 Tamhid Li Tārikh al-Falsafa, p. 47.
others. They chose books from what they found. When they brought them to al-Ma’mūn, he ordered them to carry the books to the Depository of Wisdom.”
Of course, the books translated into Arabic developed Arab and Islamic thought and, in addition, they contributed in improving sciences in Islamic world, for may students worked in studying and understanding them.
Among the aspects of the scientific progress of that time is that al-Ma’mūn ordered a world map to be drawn and it was called al-Ma’mūn’s Map (al-Sura al-Ma’mūniya), and it was the first world map to be drawn during the ‘Abbāsid time, as well as he ordered an observatory to be established, and it was established at al-Shammāsiya, a district in Baghdad.
As for the sciences which dominated that time, they were the sciences of the Qur’ān, which are as follows:
This science means interpreting the verses of the Holy Qur’ān, clarifying their meanings, distinguishing the abrogating verses from the abrogated, the unlimited verses from the limited, the general from the specific, and so on. The interpreters followed two ways in their interpretations:
A. Interpreting the Qur’ān according to transmitted
traditions, by this we mean interpreting the Holy Qur’ān according to the
traditions transmitted from the Prophet, may Allah bless him and his family,
and the good Imāms; this method was followed by most Shi‘ite interpreters such
as the Interpretation of al-Qummi, al-Burhān, al-‘Askari, and others. The
argument of Shi‘ites concerning this method
of interpreting is that it is the Imāms who were singled out for the knowledge of the Qur’ān, and that it is they who were knowledgeable in interpreting it. Imām Abū Ja’far al-Bāqir, peace be on him, said: “None can claim that he has knowledge of the surface and deep meaning of the Qur’ān except the testamentary trustees (i.e. the Imāms).”
Shaykh al-Tūsi, Shaykh of the Shi‘ite Sect, said: “It is not permissible to interpret the Qur’ān except with the authentic traditions transmitted from the Prophet, may Allah bless him and his family, and the Imāms whose statement is an argument like that of the Prophet, may Allah bless him and his family.”
B. Interpreting the Qur’ān according to opinion, by this we mean interpreting the Qur’ān according to the approved, rational considerations. This method was followed by the interpreters from among the Mu‘tazilities and the Bātiniya who did not take care of the traditions reported from the Imāms of guidance, peace be on him, concerning the interpretation of the Holy Qur’ān, who interpreted the Qur’ān according to their approved, rational considerations only. As for interpreting the Qur’ān according to the surface meanings, it is not regarded as a method of interpretation, but it is not objected.
It is worth mentioning that the first school to be established in Islam for interpreting the Qur’ān according to the transmitted traditions was at the time of Imām ‘Ali, the Commander of the faithful, peace be on him, for he was the first interpreter of the Qur’ān, and under him studied ‘Abd Allah b. ‘Abbās, the scholar of the community, and other prominent companions (of the Prophet). Then, after him, the pure Imāms began, through their lectures, interpreting the Qur’ān, the causes of the revelation of the Qur’ān, and the excellence of reciting its verses.
Among the sciences which dominated that time is the science of the hadith, by this we mean the traditions transmitted from the Prophet, may Allah bless him and his family, or from one of his testamentary trustees, the pure Imāms, namely their words, their actions, their justifications, for they are part of the Sunna, and in the Sunna ¾just as in the Holy Qur’ān ¾there is the general, the specific, the unlimited, the limited, and the like.
The Shi‘ites were the first to write down the traditions, for the Imāms of guidance urged their companions to do that. In this connection, Abū Basir narrated, saying: “I went in to Imām Abū ‘Abd Allah al-Sādiq, peace be on him, and he said: ‘What has prevented you from writing down (our traditions)? You will not memorize (our traditions) unless you write (them). A group of the Basrans asked me about something, wrote them down, and departed.’” A group of the companions of Imām al-Ridā, peace be on him, collected the authentic traditions in big, comprehensive books which are the first comprehensive books of the Imāmi Shi‘ites and regarded as the foundation of writing down the four comprehensive books by the three Muslim Shaykhs.
Science of Islamic jurisprudence is the greatest of all Islamic sciences and most distinguished of the them, so it was widespread in that time and the rest of times. This honorable science is responsible for rendering knowledge of required, religious duties imposed on the bounded who are responsible before Allah for following and putting them into practice.
The Imāms of the members of the House (ahl al-Bayt),
peace be on him, played an active role in establishing a jurisprudence school
which included the eminent jurists and scholars such as Zarāra,
Mohammed b. Muslim, Jābir b. Yazid al-Ju‘fi, Abū Hanifa, and the like. These jurists and scholars recorded what they had heard from the pure Imāms in their fundamentals which they are about four hundreds, and which were rectified and gathered in the four books to which the Imāmi jurists refer for concluding lawful precepts.
The Shi‘ites are regarded as the first to record jurisprudence. In this regard Mustafā ‘Abd al-Razzāq said: “The Shi‘ites were the quickest of the rest of the Muslims in inclining to writing down jurisprudence. It is rational that the Shi‘ites were the quickest in clinging to recording the lawful rules because their belief in the infallibility or semi infallibility of their Imāms urged them to write down their legal decisions, their formal and legal opinions.”
Among the sciences which were studied in those times and the like was deriving religious decisions (ijtihād); this science was founded by the greatest Imām Abū Ja‘far Mohammed al-Bāqir, peace be on him.
Grammar was among the sciences which played an important role during the ‘Abbāsid time, for some of its matters and researches were the object of heated argument at gatherings held in the palaces of the Caliphs; disputes and heated arguments concerning some of its matters took place among the leading grammarians in the presence of the ‘Abbāsid Caliph. A group of great figures specialized in this science; at their head were al-Kisā’i, al-Farrā’, Sibawayh, and this science was established by Imām ‘Ali, the Commander of the faithful, peace be on him, the pioneer of wisdom and knowledge in Islam.
As for theology, it was widespread in that time. The
the theologians discussed important researches on this science in order to defend their beliefs. On the top of the theologians was Hishām b. al-Hakam, the student of Imām Ja‘far al-Sādiq, peace be on him, who disproved the beliefs of his opponents and established with his definite proofs the creed of the members of the House (ahl al-Bayt), peace be on him, which Allah has chosen for His servants.
Some Sunni famous theologians were Wāsil b. ‘Atā’, Abū al-Hudhayl al-‘Allāf, Abū al-Hasan al-Ash‘ari, and Hujjat al-Islām al-Ghazāli.
Medicine was widespread during that time. Imām al-Ridā, peace be on him, was at the head of the scientists in this science, and his dissertation in medicine is regarded as the most marvelous medical research, hence it has been called the Golden Dissertation (al-Risāla al-Dhahabiya). The ‘Abbāsid kings encouraged people to study this science and spent a lot of money on the specialists in it such as Gabriel b. Bakhtishū‘, the skillful doctor.
Chemistry was among the most important sciences which attained great care in that time. Jābir b. Hayyān, the pride of the Arab east, was specialist in it; he received his researches from the greatest figure of Islamic thought, Imām Ja‘far al-Sādiq, peace be on him, whom some western scholars called the thinking brain of humanity, for it was he who established this science.
Architecture and civil engineering reached zenith in that
time, for the architects were creative in their designing the palaces of the
caliphs whether in Baghdad or in Sāmrā’. Those palaces were the largest
building throughout history. An example of the marvelous architectural designs
is the ponds which were made in Sāmrā’, which the poets adored, and which
astonished the minds of the scholars, in addition to that there were wonderful
paintings and the Hanging
Gardens the like of which has not been made even in this century when architecture and technology have reached top.
Astronomy was among the dominating sciences in that time. Al-Ma’mūn, the ‘Abbāsid, was one of those who were specialists in it. These are some sciences which dominated that time, and which represented intellectual freedom and technology in the time of the Imām, peace be on him.
Baghdad was one of the cities of knowledge in Islamic world, for it was, as we have mentioned before, the capital of the supreme authority and of knowledge; various kinds of culture dominated it; in it spread institutes, schools, the Depository of Wisdom, public and private libraries.
As for Yathrib (Medina), it was the most important scientific center in Islamic world, for the school of the members of the House (ahl al-Bayt), peace be on them, was established wherein, and it included the leading jurists and religious scholars who took care of recording the traditions of the Imāms of guidance, peace be on them, especially as it concerns their traditions on jurisprudence, which is the most perfect system in Islam. The school of the next generation (tābi‘in) was also established therein; it was the school which took great care of the jurisprudence which was narrated on the authority of the companions (of the Prophet).
Kūfa was more important than Yathrib, for in it was the
greatest mosque (al-jām‘ al-A‘zam) which was a public center for
Islamic studies and, in addition, there were seminars including hundreds of
students who studied under professors specialist in Islamic sciences
such as jurisprudence, the interpretation of the Qur’ān, the hadith (tradition), and Arabic. The school of Kūfa objectively took care of the sciences of the members of the House (ahl al-Bayt), peace be on them. Al-Hasan b. ‘Ali al-Washshā reported, saying: “I met nine hundred shaykhs in this mosque (i.e. the mosque of Kūfa) and all of them said: ‘Ja‘far b. Mohammed related to me (traditions).’”
Important families of knowledge graduated from the mosque of Kūfa. They are as follows: the family of Hayyān al-Taghlubi, the family of A‘yun, the children of ‘Atiya, the house of the children of Darrājj, and others.
A grammar school was established in Kūfa; one of its prominent teachers was al-Kisā’i, whom (Hārūn) al-Rashid entrusted with teaching his two sons, al-Amin and al-Ma’mūn.
As for Basrah, it was an important center of grammar. Abū al-Aswad al-Du’ali, the student of Imām ‘Ali, the Commander of the faithful, peace be on him, was the first to establish this school. This school competed with the school of Kūfa (for Arabic Grammar). The Basran grammarians were called the men of logic in order to distinguish them from the Kūfans grammarians. Among the leading grammarians of this school was Sibawayh, who compiled Kitāb Sibawayh (the Book of Sibawayh) in grammar, which is the ripest of Arabic books and the best of them in depth and originality. Daybūr said: “If we look at the book of Sibawayh, we will find it a ripe work and great effort to the extent that the later authors said: ‘The book must be the fruit of cooperating efforts of many scholars just like the Law (qānūn) of Ibn Sinā.’”
Basrah was not only an important center of grammar but
also was a school of the science of interpreting the Holy Qur’ān. Among
the prominent scholars in this science was Abū ‘Amrū b. al-‘Alā’. Besides Basrah was the school of prosody and linguistics. Among the specialists in these two sciences was al-Khalil b. Ahmed, the author of the book al-‘Ayn, which is the first linguistic dictionary written in Arabic.
These are some aspects of the cultural and scientific life of that time; generally speaking, Imām al-Ridā, peace be on him, was the first pioneer of the scientific movement, for the scholars and the jurists gathered around him in order to study his pure sciences, as well as sessions were held in the ‘Abbāsid palace including the great scholars whom al-Ma’mūn summoned in order to test Imām al-Ridā, peace be on him, but they went out of the palace and announced the Imām’s excellence and mentioned with admiration his many scientific abilities.
 Hayāt al-Imām Mohammed al-Jawād, p. 192.