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History of the Islamic Golden Age/Arabia

  History of the Islamic Golden Age

Explore the Golden Age of Islamic history and its lasting legacy across the Middle East, Europe, India, and North Africa. Discover this powerful period in human history through our comprehensive guide! 

The Islamic Golden Age was an influential period in history, lasting from the 8th to the 14th centuries and spanning across the Middle East, Europe, India, and North Africa. During this time, Muslims explored philosophy and science, made remarkable advances in architecture and art, and created new methods for preserving knowledge.

What is the Islamic Golden Age? 

The Islamic Golden Age refers to a period in human history, lasting from the 8th to the 14th centuries, when Muslims made great advances in the fields of science, philosophy, architecture and art. This age of prosperity began with the rise of the Abbasid dynasty in the Middle East and was one of the most productive eras of scholarly activity ever seen. Universities were established during this time period, along with new methods for preserving knowledge that laid down a framework for future generations.

Who were the Major Figures of the Golden Age? 

The Islamic Golden Age saw major contributions from some of history’s most renowned figures. These individuals were often polymaths, meaning that they excelled in multiple fields and disciplines. Scholars such as Al-Biruni, Ibn Sina, Abu Yusuf Ya’qub al-Kindi and Ibn Rushd (also known as Averroes) all made significant contributions to the advancement of learning during this period. They combined traditional methods with innovative discoveries to make great progress in science, mathematics, philosophy and many other fields. Their work is still referred to today as crucial foundations for modern intellectual development.

What Major Contributions Did Muslim Scholars Make to Science, Technology and Culture? 

Muslim scholars during the Golden Age made incredible contributions to science, technology and cultural expression. In mathematics and astronomy, they developed new geometric forms and carried out detailed measurements of time and celestial bodies. They made great advances in chemistry, physics and medicine, including the invention of keys devices such as astrolabes, quadrants, compasses and ink pens. In culture, Muslim scholar promoted intellectualism through books on poetry and music. They also developed new styles in architecture that influenced the building designs across much of Europe. The major innovations from this period have formed an integral part of scientific advancement over time up until the present day.

Islamic renaissance gif

Introduction to the Islamic Golden Age 

The Islamic Golden Age was an epoch of intellectual and cultural flourishing between the 8th and 15th centuries in which much of the known world flourished under Muslim accomplishments. Although this period began long ago, its impact is still seen today in science, technology, culture, art and more from Europe all the way to India and North Africa. During this time, scholars developed advances in mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, physics and medicine, as well as promoting a vibrant culture through books about music, poetry and architecture. Join us as we explore these significant contributions to human history!

Golden age era 8 to 14

THE attacks upon the Eastern Empire, Africa, and Spain differed from those of Northern barbarians on the West in two respects: first, the Eastern Empire survived till 1453, nearly a thousand years longer than the Western; second, the main attacks upon the Eastern Empire were made by Mohammedans, who did not become Christians after conquest, but developed an important civilization of their own. 

spread of Islam map
spread of islam map

History of Mohammedan era begin

The Hegira, (The Hegira was Mahomet's flight from Mecca to Medina) with which the Mohammedan era begins, took place in A.D. 622; Mahomet died ten years later. Immediately after his death the Arab conquests began, and they proceeded with extraordinary rapidity. In the East, Syria was invaded in 634, and completely subdued within two years. In 637 Persia was invaded; in 650 its conquest was completed.
 India was invaded in 664; Constantinople was besieged in 669 (and again in 716-17). The westward movement was not quite so sudden. Egypt was conquered by 642, Carthage not till 697. Spain, except for a small corner in the north-west, was acquired in 711-12. Westward expansion (except in Sicily and Southern Italy) was brought to a standstill by the defeat of the Mohammedans at the battle of Tours in 732, just one hundred years after the death of the Prophet. (The Ottoman Turks, who finally conquered Constantinople, belong to a later period than that with which we are now concerned.)
Various circumstances facilitated this expansion. Persia and the Eastern Empire were exhausted by their long wars. The Syrians, who were largely Nestorian, suffered persecution at the hands of the Catholics, whereas Mohammedans tolerated all sects of Christians in return for the payment of tribute. Similarly in Egypt the Monophysites, who were the bulk of the population, welcomed the invaders. 
In Africa, the Arabs allied themselves with the Berbers, whom the Romans had never thoroughly subdued. Arabs and Berbers together invaded Spain, where they were helped by the Jews, whom the Visigoths had severely persecuted.

Hijra to medina in 622  CE

HIjra to medina marked the beginning of a distinct Muslim society. The religion of the Prophet was a simple monotheism, uncomplicated by the elaborate theology of rite Trinity and the Incarnation. 
The Prophet made no claim to be divine, nor did his followers make such a claim on his behalf. He revived the Jewish prohibition of graven images, and forbade the use of wine. It was the duty of the faithful to conquer as much of the world as possible for Islam, but there was to be no persecution of Christians, Jews, or Zoroastrians the "people of the Book," as the Koran calls them, i.e., those who followed the teaching of a Scripture. 

five pillars of Islam names

five pillars of Islam are  1. Profession of Faith (shahada). The belief that "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God" is central to Islam.  2. Prayer (salat) 3. Alms (zakat) 4. Fasting (sawm) 5. Pilgrimage (hajj) once in life. Is jihad a five pillar of Islam ? No, jihad is not in five pillar. 

social condition of arabia before islam gif

Arabia before Islam

 Arab culture had oral culture before Islamic culture. The Arab Dark Ages also referred to as Daur - e - Jahiliya. Pre- Islamic culture was barbarian period. political condition of arabia before islam was that the Arab had no state and each tribe had its own deity. Arab society was based on a  polytheistic tribal system. Each Arab tribe worshipped their own deity and idols. Once a year, all tribe came to together at the holy kaaba to pray, worship and do business. 

The pre islamic era is known as jāhiliyyah, This phrase is a common translation of the Arabic word jāhiliyya used by Muslims to refer to the historical period in west-central Arabia covering the centuries immediately prior to the mission of Muḥammad, a period characterized by ignorance of the divine truth and indicates a negative Muslim evaluation of pre-Islamic life and culture in Arabia as compared to the teachings and practices of Islam.

Social condition of arabia before islam

Arabia was a male-dominated society. Women had no status of any kind other than as sex objects. The number of women a man could marry was not fixed. When a man died, his son “inherited” all his wives except his own mother. 

Arabia was largely desert, and was growing less and less capable of supporting its population. The first conquests of the Arabs began as mere raids for plunder, and only turned into permanent occupation after experience had shown the weakness of the enemy. Suddenly, in the course of some twenty years, men accustomed to all the hardships of a meagre existence on the fringe of the desert found themselves masters of some of the richest regions of the world, able to enjoy every luxury and to acquire all the refinements of an ancient civilization. 

They withstood the temptations of this transformation better than most of the Northern barbarians had done. As they had acquired their empire without much severe fighting, there had been little destruction, and the civil administration was kept on almost unchanged. Both in Persia and in the Byzantine Empire, the civil government had been highly organized. The Arab tribesmen, at first, understood nothing of its complications, and perforce accepted the services of the trained men whom they found in charge. 

These men, for the most part, showed no reluctance to serve under their new masters. Indeed, the change made their work easier, since taxation was lightened very considerably. The populations, moreover, in order to escape the tribute, very largely abandoned Christianity for Islam.

four caliphs of islam gif

four caliphs of Islam

Some Sunnis believe that the Prophet indicated that Hazrat Abu Bakr will be the successor. Hazrat Abu Bakr was caliph from 632 to 634 CE. Hazrat Umar was from 634 to 644 CE. The Islamic Empire ruled by the Khulafa-e-Rashidin from 632-661 CE. Hazrat Ali was Khalifa from 656 to 661 CE. 

The arab empire and the caliphates

what is an absolute monarchy ? The Arab Empire was an absolute monarchy, under the caliph, who was the successor of the Prophet, and inherited much of his holiness. The caliphate was nominally elective, but soon became hereditary. The first dynasty, that of the Umayyads, which lasted till 750, was founded by men whose acceptance of Mahomet was purely political, and it remained always opposed to the more fanatical among the faithful. 

The Arabs, although they conquered a great part of the world in the name of a new religion, were not a very religious race; the motive of their conquests was plunder and wealth rather than religion. It was only in virtue of their lack of fanaticism that a handful of warriors were able to govern, without much difficulty, vast populations of higher civilization and alien religion. 

split in Islam religion

why there was a split in Islam resulted in the recreation of the two different sects ? The Persians, on the contrary, have been, from the earliest times, deeply religious and highly speculative. After their conversion, they made out of Islam something much more interesting, more religious, and more philosophical, than had been imagined by the Prophet and his kinsmen. 

why did sunni and shia split ? 

Ever since the death of Mahomet's son-in-law Ali in 661, Mohammedans have been divided into two sects, the Sunni and the Shiah. The former is the larger; the latter follows Ali, and considers the Umayyad dynasty to have been usurpers. 

The Persians have always belonged to the Shiah sect. Largely by Persian influence, the Umayyads were at last overthrown, and succeeded by the Abbasids, who represented Persian interests. The change was marked by the removal of the capital from Damascus to Baghdad. 

Islamic empire facts

 A brief timeline prepares this preparation. The prophet Muhammad died in 632 CE, succeeded by Abu Bakr.  The latter’s appointment by the elders at Medina angered those who expected to see Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, become Caliph. Ali eventually became the fourth Caliph, but the damage had been done; the rift that was to split Sunni from Shi‘a was permanently opened by this disagreement over the succession.

achievements of umayyad dynasty

 Ali’s appointment was opposed by the Umayyad clan, and he was murdered in 661, to be succeeded by his son Hasan, who abdicated that same year, at which point the Umayyads took control. Under them the Empire expanded hugely and rapidly, until it touched the Atlantic shores in the west and the borders of China in the east.

The Abbasids were, politically, more in favour of the fanatics than the Umayyads had been. They did not, however, acquire the whole of the empire. One member of the Umayyad family escaped the general massacre, fled to Spain, and was there acknowledged as the legitimate ruler. From that time on, Spain was independent of the rest of the Mohammedan world.

Under the early Abbasids the caliphate attained its greatest splendour. The best known of them is Harun-al-Rashid (d. 809), who was a contemporary of Charlemagne and the Empress Irene and is known to every one in legendary form through the Arabian Nights. 

His court was a brilliant centre of luxury, poetry, and learning; his revenue was enormous; his empire stretched from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Indus. His will was absolute; he was habitually accompanied by the executioner, who performed his office at a nod from the caliph. This splendour, however, was short-lived. 

The Umayyads ruled from Damascus for a century before being overthrown by the Abbasids, who established themselves at Baghdad and ruled most of the Islamic world for the next five hundred years, from 750 to 1258. 

abbasid achievements

This was the golden age of Islam, promoted by the Abbasids’ desire to foster culture and learning. They built a great library in the capital, the Bayt al-Hikmah (the House of Wisdom; hikmah means ‘wisdom’), as a centre for study and for translation of Greek and Syriac manuscripts into Arabic. 

The early Abbasid caliphs – Harun al-Rashid (r. 786–809), Abu al-Abbas al-Ma’mun (r. 813–33) who famously had a dream that translations must be made, and al-Mu ‘tasim (Abū Ishaq Muhammad ibn Harun al-Rashid, r. 833–42)  all sponsored scholars and translators, and included them among their courtiers.

His successor made the mistake of composing his army mainly of Turks, who were insubordinate, and soon reduced the caliph to a cipher, to be blinded or murdered whenever the soldiery grew tired of him. Nevertheless, the caliphate lingered on; the last caliph of the Abbasid dynasty was put to death by the Mongols in 1256, along with 800,000 of the inhabitants of Baghdad.


arab merchants history

System of the Arabs had defects similar to those of the Roman Empire, together with some others. Absolute monarchy combined with polygamy led, as it usually does, to dynastic wars whenever a ruler died, ending with the victory of one of the ruler's sons and the death of all the rest. 

There were immense numbers of slaves, largely as a result of successful wars; at times there were dangerous servile insurrections. Commerce was greatly developed, the more so as the caliphate occupied a central position between East and West. "Not only did the possession of enormous wealth create a demand for costly articles, such as silks from China and furs from Northern Europe, but trade was promoted by certain special conditions, such as the vast extent of the Muslim empire, the spread of Arabic as a world-language, and the exalted status assigned to the merchant in the Muslim system of ethics;

 it was remembered that the Prophet himself had been a merchant and had commended trading during the pilgrimage to Mecca." This commerce, like military cohesion, depended on the great roads which the Arabs inherited from Romans and Persians, and which they, unlike the Northern conquerors, did not allow to fall into disrepair. Gradually, however, the empire broke up into fractions Spain, Persia, North Africa, and Egypt successively split off and acquired complete or almost complete independence.

One of the best features of the Arab economy was agriculture, particularly the skilful use of irrigation, which they learnt from living where water is scarce. To this day Spanish agriculture profits by Arab irrigation works.

The House of Wisdom in Baghdad

history of Islamic philosophy 

 Some therefore choose to demarcate this slice of philosophy’s history as ‘Philosophy in the Islamic World’. Despite the persistence of an association with a religion it is like calling philosophy in Europe ‘Philosophy in the Christian World’, which would not be true for nearly half of the history of Western philosophy  it is a less inaccurate option, and its adoption as an historic geographical label of convenience is acceptable.

 ‘Arabic–Persian’, this time relating to the languages in which the philosophy was written. The virtue of this is that it keeps in mind the fact, significant for philosophy in the Western tradition, that it was via Arabic that some of the key texts of antiquity were preserved and recovered.

Famous islamic philosophers

Islamic golden age philosophy

What follows here is an account of the leading thinkers in the Islamic world in the period between al-Kindi (c.801–73 CE) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes, 1126–98 CE). The focus here is on the treatment of questions of strictly philosophical interest, not least in connection with their influence on debates, just alluded to, in the wider philosophical community of their time, through translations from Arabic into Latin and the use of texts such as Averroes’ commentaries on Aristotle in the universities of Europe. 

The work of these thinkers is emphatically an aspect of the wider history of philosophy as such; the theology of Islam is a different subject, though a line of demarcation is often hard to draw, given the insistence of some Muslim historians of the subject that ‘the tradition of Islamic philosophy is deeply rooted in the world view of the Qur’ānic revelation and functions within a cosmos in which prophecy or revelation is accepted as a blinding reality that is the source not only of ethics but also of knowledge.’ 

In these words lies the problem; if the starting point for reflection is acceptance of a religious doctrine, then the reflection that follows is theology, or theodicy, or exegesis, or casuistry, or apologetics, or hermeneutics, but it is not philosophy.

If this seems too sharp a demarcation, consider this: if you accept as an unquestionable basis the existence and continuing interested activity of an omnipotent, benevolent, eternal and supernatural creator, then you have certain immediate commitments that are not open to discussion.  

For example: that the world has a beginning in time  and certain tricky problems to solve, for example: the existence of moral and natural evil, which on the face of it would have to be viewed as ultimately the responsibility of the being in question because it caused everything to exist, but which contradicts that being’s goodness and benevolence, typically supposed to be total. Or: if the being is One, because Oneness is perfect, complete, self-consistent and self-subsistent, why are there many things? why would such a being create or emanate pluralities? 

Or: if reality is a continuous emanation (in Islamic thought, fayd) from the divine being by some necessity of its nature, does that entail that free will does not exist in the universe? If the being emanates the universe by its own free will, why does it do so, given the imperfection of plurality and the evil that results? 

Finding solutions to these problems is a matter for theology and theodicy; a philosophical approach would question the conceptual robustness of the ontology (the existence of a being or beings of the kind at issue) which creates such difficulties in the first place.


Greek philosophy: impact on Islamic philosophy

In Arabic the words for ‘philosophy’ and ‘philosopher’ are respectively falsafa and faylasuf, adapted from Greek. Philosophy, mathematics, physics, astronomy and medicine were known as ‘foreign sciences’, having been acquired from Hellenic sources in the regions conquered by the spread of Islam in its first century. what were Hellenic sources? If one consults the catalogue of the Baghdad bookseller Ibn al-Nadim who, in 988 CE, produced a survey of the books available in the Islamic world, one can see what had been translated from the classical tongues. 

There is no Homer or Thucydides, nor Ovid nor Virgil; there is no Aeschylus or Cicero. It is only part of the legacy of the classical world that figures in the catalogue, for between the classical world and the arrival of Islam there had been Christianity  Syria was a Nestorian Christian domain, the Greek-speaking Roman Empire in the East, centred on Constantinople, was an Orthodox domain and the Christians not only had not sought to preserve the humanistic culture of classical times, they had taken active steps to expunge it. 

What the Christians kept was technical literature , medicine, logical treatises, mathematics and astronomy. There were works by Plato and Aristotle, Euclid, Galen and Ptolemy; but there were none of the poets, none of the plays, no letters and speeches.

It is interesting but futile to speculate what impact the humanistic culture of classical antiquity might have had on Islamic culture had it survived in any quantity. We know the effect its rediscovery had on the European Renaissance. Might something similar have happened? Nevertheless what chiefly stood out, as Ibn al-Nadim’s catalogue shows, was Aristotle. Aristotle was philosophy to almost all the Muslim scholars (al-Farabi, a Platonist, was the exception), and even parts of the Neoplatonist corpus were credited to him.

By the time of the Arab conquest, the chief centres of philosophy in the Christian Hellenic world were Athens a very pale imitation of its former glory  and, much more importantly, Alexandria, which fell to the Muslim forces of Ibn al-As in September 642. 

By one of the strange reversals of history Aristotle, whose philosophy had only just managed to survive, centuries before, by the skin of its teeth , had become the most admired and studied figure at Alexandria in the period directly before this event, while Plato had gone into relative eclipse.

 In any case the Neoplatonism that preserved ideas from Plato was by then a syncretistic form of theosophy (a family of views claiming the possibility of direct intuitive encounter with and knowledge of a deity), having absorbed other strands of thought and emphasized the more mystical Plato of the Timaeus. So the view that Arab scholars had of the history of Greek philosophy was idiosyncratic.

Another conduit of philosophy into the Islamic world was Persia. The Emperor Justinian closed the Academy in Athens in 529 CE, confiscating its property and expelling the philosophers. They went as refugees to Persia, to the court of Chosroes  Anushirvan (Khosrow I, 501–79 CE), King of the Sassanian Empire, who had a reputation for wisdom. 

Little is known of Athenians’ activity there, but a number of Greek philosophical texts were incorporated into the collection of Zoroastrian texts, the Avesta, over the following decades of that century, which demonstrates that their presence left a mark. 

They would not have been introducing anything unfamiliar to Persian scholars, though, because intercourse between the Greek and Persian worlds had persisted for more than a thousand years by that point, so perhaps what they achieved was an increase in interest in the philosophical tradition they represented, enough to recommend some of the texts they brought with them to the Avesta’s editors.

Some final preparatory remarks are required, concerning the theological background to the rise of philosophy proper in the Islamic world.



Mu‘tazilite

In this environment of learning the theology, kalam, encouraged by the ruling house was Mu‘tazilite, which promoted reason and evidence as adjuncts to faith. ‘Mu‘tazili’ means ‘withdrawer’, one who withdraws that is, one who withholds judgment, who sees two sides of the question, who uses rational and evidential tests in evaluating arguments. 

The Mu'tazila – literally 'those who withdraw themselves' – movement was founded by Wasil bin 'Ata' in the second century AH (eighth century ad).

While the Mu‘tazila theology was ascendant, the Sunni–Shi‘a split was not especially serious, and it was possible for thinkers to question orthodoxy, disagree with one another without fear and freely debate difficult points in kalam. 

A significant aspect of the rationalist and evidentialist approach of the Mu‘tazilites was that it provided a means of distinguishing between genuine and fake teachings and teachers, and between true and false beliefs  which of course mattered because true beliefs are what get the believer to heaven.

Islamic philosophy mutazila -From the early ninth century the Mu‘tazilites began to be opposed by three other groups: the fundamentalist Hanbalites (followers of Ahmad ibn Hanbal, 780–855) who demanded an unquestioningly literalist reading of the Qu’ran, the Zahiris (followers of Dawud al-Zahiri, 815–84) and most importantly the Ash‘arites, named after Abu al-Hasan al-Ash‘ari (874–936). All these groups were more literalist and dogmatic than the Mu‘tazilites.

The Ash‘ari school became, and is still, the most important of the Sunni theological schools (it is sometimes described as the ‘Sunni orthodoxy’). The Mu‘tazila remained influential among Shi‘a, and is today regarded as authoritative by the Zaydi Shi‘a school of law. 

Islamic philosophy has mainly been associated with Shi‘a Islam as a result; the Sunni schools, based on the ideal of following the ‘tradition of Muhammad and the consensus of the ummah [community]’, are inhospitable to philosophizing and cleave instead to orthodoxy.

Bibliography

A History of Western Philosophy Book by Bertrand Russell

The-history-of-philosophy-by-a.-c.-grayling

Philosophy: Selected Readings Presenting the Interactive Discourses among the Major Figures, 2nd edn, Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2006

Koterski, J. W., An Introduction to Medieval Philosophy: Basic Concepts, Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009

Luscombe, D., Medieval Thought, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997
Marenbon, J., Medieval Philosophy: An Historical and Philosophical Introduction, London: Routledge, 2006

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