The Golden Age of Islam
by Abbas Khan

Chapter 1
Overview of the Islamic Golden Age


In 786 CE Harun al-Rashid became the Abbasid Caliph.  He is best recognized for his fictional role in the book “Thousand and One Nights.”  But he is best remembered for his reign that marked the high point of the Abbasid period in Islamic history.  He reigned during the Golden Age of Islam as Caliph. 

The Golden Age was a period of unrivaled intellectual activity in the fields of science, technology, and  literature.  Islamic Scholars collected and reexamined the Hadith (traditions, sayings, and actions of the Prophet)  and they compiled immense biographical detail about the Prophet Muhammid (pbuh) as well as other information, both historic and linguistic, about the Prophet’s era.
These works included “Life of the Messenger of God” by Ibn Ishaq and the works of Sirat Rasul Allah which produced some of the earliest Arabic historical works of literature and scholarship.  Ibn Ishaq’s work became very important and served as a model for other important Islamic works of history such as the “Annals of the Apostles and the Kings” by al-Tabari and his massive commentary on the Holy Qur’an.

Abbasid writers developed new genres of literature such as adab, the embodiment of sensible counsel, sometimes in the form of animal fables; a typical example is Kalilah wa-Dimnah, translated by Ibn al-Muqaffa’ from a Pahlavi version of an Indian work. Writers of this period also studied tribal traditions and wrote the first systematic Arabic grammars.

During the Golden Age of Islam, Muslim scholars made important and original contributions to mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and chemistry. They collected and corrected previous astronomical data, built the world’s first observatory, and developed the astrolabe, an instrument that was once called “a mathematical jewel.” In medicine they experimented with diet, drugs, surgery, and anatomy, and in chemistry, an outgrowth of alchemy, isolated and studied a wide variety of minerals and compounds. Important advances in agriculture were also made in the Golden Age. The ‘Abbasids preserved and improved the ancient network of wells, underground canals, and waterwheels, introduced new breeds of livestock, hastened the spread of cotton, and, from the Chinese, learned the art of making paper, a key to the revival of learning in Europe in the Middle Ages. The Golden Age also, little by little, transformed the diet of medieval Europe by introducing such plants as plums, artichokes, apricots, cauliflower, celery, fennel, squash, pumpkins, and eggplant, as well as rice, sorghum, new strains of wheat, the date palm, and sugarcane.

Many of the advances made by Muslim scholars and scientists during the Golden Age provided the impetus for the European Renaissance.  These advances reached their peak during the Caliphate of al-Mamun who was the son of Harun al-Rashid and perhaps the greatest of all the Abbasids.

The reign of Harun al-Rashid was not without problems.  There were growing political signs of decay.  The province of Ifriqiyah – North Africa west of Libya and east of Morocco – had fallen away from Abbasid control during the reign of Harun al-Rashid.  Under al-Mamun other provinces soon broke loose also. When al-Mamun marched from Khorasan to Baghdad he left a trusted general named Tahir ibn al-Husayn in charge of the eastern province. Tahir asserted his independence of the central government by omitting mention of the caliph’s name in the mosque on Friday and by striking his own coins.  Such acts became the standard ways of expressing political independence. From 821 onward Tahir and his descendants ruled Khorasan as an independent state with the tacit consent of the Abbasids.

Al-Mamun died in 833, in the town of Tarsus, and was succeeded by his brother, al-Mu’tasim, under whose rule the symptoms of decline that had manifested themselves earlier grew steadily worse. As he could no longer rely on the loyalty of his army, al-Mu’tasim recruited an army of Turks from Transoxania and Turkestan. It was a necessary step, but its outcome was dominance of the Caliphate by its own praetorian guard. In the years following 861, the Turks made and unmade rulers at will, a trend that accelerated the decline of the central authority. Although the religious authority of the ‘Abbasid caliphate remained unchallenged, the next four centuries saw political power dispersed among a large number of independent states: Tahirids, Saffarids, Samanids, Buwayhids, Ziyarids, and Ghaznavids in the east; Hamdanids in Syria and northern Mesopotamia; and Tulunids, Ikhshidids, and Fatimids in Egypt.

Some of these states made important contributions to Islamic culture. Under the Samanids, the Persian language, written in the Arabic alphabet, first reached the level of a literary language and poets like Rudaki, Daqiqi, and Firdausi flourished. The Ghaznavids patronized al-Biruni, one of the greatest and most original scholars of medival Islam, and the Hamdanids, a purely Arab dynasty, patronized such poets as al-Mutanabbi and philosophers like the great al-Farabi, whose work kept the flame of Arab culture alive in a difficult period. But in historical terms, only the Fatimids rivaled the preceding dynasties.

Chapter 2
The Seljuks

Seljuk Empire

The Seljuk Turks came from their homeland which laid beyond the Oxus River near the Aral Sea in the 10th and 11th centuries.  The coming of the Seljuks signaled the first large scale penetration of the Turks into the Middle East.  They were decended from a tribal chieftain named Seljuk.  They developed a highly effective fighting force and had close contacts with Persian court life in Khorasan and Transoxania.  They were to prove to be able administrators.  The Seljuk state was to extend from Central Asia to the marshes in Byzantine Asia Minor.  They established a highly cohesive and well adminstrated Sunni Muslim state under the nominal authority of the Abbasid Caliphs in Baghdad.

The Persan Nizam al-Mulk was one of the greatest Islamic statesmen of Medieval Islam.  For 20 years he was the custodian of the Seljuk state under Sultan Malikshah.  He was a very skilled administrator and scholar who wrote a book on statecraft.  Siyasat Namah was is also a valuable source of political thought from this time.  Mulk, in his book, stressed the responsibilities of the ruler.  He asserted, for example, that if a man is killed because a bridge is in disrepair then it is really the fault of the ruler because the ruler make it his business to apprise himself of the smallest negligences of his underlings.  Mulk was a devout and orthodox Muslim.  He established a system of Madrasahs (theological seminaries) and called them “Nizamiyahs.”  They were designed to provide the students with free education in religious sciences and Islam.  They also instructed students in advanced scientific and philosphical thought of the time.  Al-Ghazali was a famous Islamic theologian who wrote “The Revival of the Sciences of Religion.”  His concepts were taught in these Islamic seminaries.  Mulk was a patron of Umar al-Khayyam (Omar Khayyam) who was a poet and astronomer.  His writings have become as familiar to Muslim students as Shakespeare is to English students.

Sultan Malikshah died in 1092 and his young heirs began to fight against each other, thus, resulting in the fragmentation of the Seljuks’ central authority.  The state was broken up into smaller Seljuk states led by various members of the ruling family.  Those smaller states were broken up into even smaller regions ruled by tribal chieftains.

The Seljuk Empire stretched from the Hidu Kush region to eastern Anatolia (Turkey) and from Central Asia to the Persian Gulf at its peak.  The empire was founded by Tughril Beg in 1037 following such efforts by Seljuq Beg in the beginning of the 11th century.  The Seljuks united the fractured political scene of the Eastern Islamic world and played a key role in the battles of the 1st and 2nd Christian Crusades.  They were highly Persianized in their culture and language.  They exported Persian culture to Turkey.

Seljuk Beg was the tribal chieftain for whom the Seljuks were named after.  It was a soldier in the Khazar Army.  The Seljuks migrated to Khwarezm  around 950 and converted to Islam it is believed.  They formed a strong alliance with the Persian Samanid Shahs (Sultans).  They set the stage for the coming of the Golden Age of Islam.  Seljuk rule was modelled after the tribal organization that was common in Turk and Mongol nomadic tribes which resembled a family federation more than anything else. Under this form of organization the paramount family assigned family members portions of domains as autonomous territories.

The First Crusade began in 1096 and the Seljuks easily defeated the Crusaders but they could not stop the coming Crusaders.  In 1099 the Crusaders captured Jerusalem and the Holy Land and set up the first Crusader State.  The Seljuks lost Palestine to the Fatimids who had recaptured it just before it was captured by the Crusaders.

Seljuk WarriorThe Seljuks were educated in the service of Muslim courts as slaves and mercenaries for the most part.  The Seljuk dynasty brought revival, energy, and reunion to Islamic civilization, however, that was once only dominated by Arabs and Persians.  The Seljuks claimed that they brought Muslims the “fighting spirit and fanatical aggression.”  They founded universities and were patrons of the arts and literature.  Under their rule New Persian become the language of historical scholarship and writing.  Arabic culture during this time shifted from Baghdad to Cairo.

The Seljuks were Turkic nomads from Turkmenistan.  They were related to the Uighurs who entered the Abbasid Empire around 950 AD and converted to Sunni Islam.  By 1030 they were gaining power for themselves.  The Uighurs were of Mongol stock.  Their king was called a “khan.”  After the defeat of the Mongols it was a Seljuk named Osman who founded what was to become the Ottoman Empire.

The Seljuk Turks were the fist Turks to settle in what is now Turkey.  The capital of their empire was Isfahan in Iran.  They saw themselves as the rightful heirs to the lands conquered during and after the time of the Prophet Muhammid (pbuh).

Chapter 3

The Accomplishments of Islamic  Scholars


The Golden Age of Islam came about due to several circumstances.  It enabled the creation of an empire without internal political boundaries and for a long while these lands were not threatened by attacks from foreigners most of the time.  Trade and commerce were big factors in bringing about this Golden Age and the Muslim lands became the heart center of the trade routes.  Trade flowed freely in Muslim lands and knowledge from India and China mixed with that of Persia and that from ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt.

Trade flourished and so did science and knowledge.  Conquered Muslim lands were left largely intact unlike those lands in Europe that were conquered by barbarians.  This was largely due to the Prophet Muhammad’s teaching that all Muslims are Brothers and that Islam is a Brotherhood.  It was also due to his teaching that “the ink of the scholar is more precious than the blood of martyrs.”  Islamic leaders at the time valued knowledge and scholarship.  Arabic is the language of the Qur’an and Arabic became the unifying language of the Islamic Empire uniting people in both religion (Islam) and language (Arabic).

Paper making technology was brought to the Muslim world from China by the trade caravans travelling the infamous Silk Road.  Mass production of paper was begun made from pulped rags, hemp, and bark.  The elites acquired large personal libraries and there were many public libraries as well.  Knowledge was discussed and shared throughout the Muslim lands.  Libraries and schools became common place as did hospitals as Muslim physicians were the best of the time.  Jewish physicians were also trained in Muslim medical schools to serve as physicians.  Arabic numerals (imported from India actually) replaced cumbersome Roman numerals and the concept of the Zero was introduced for the first time.  Further, the Prophet Muhammad in his teachings MANDATED PUBLIC EDUCATION and the Islamic Empire created a massive education system in all lands under their rule.

This Golden Age of Islam was a time of prosperity, science, and knowledge for Muslims and for the world.  Intellectual activity, literature, and science were unrivalled during this time and serious study of Islam was undertaken.  Ancient Greek, Roman, Persian, and Egyptian manuscripts were translated into Arabic and made available to Muslim scholars across the Empire.  Medieval Europe received the Hellenic classics that made the European Renaissance possible mostly from Arabic translations.  Muslim scholars built on the knowledge they learned from these classic sources.  They established medicine as a true science based on observation, experimentation, and treatment instead of on superstition or conjecture.  What was to come to be known as the “scientific method” was begun by Muslim scientists.

Only 75 years after the death of Islam’s founder Prophet Muhammad the first of many public hospitals was opened in Damascus, Syria.  The mentally ill were cared for in asylums that were built across the Islamic Empire.  Antiseptics for cleaning wounds were introduced and developed in the early 10th Century beginning with Spanish physician Abu Bakr Al-Razi.  Islamic doctors were the first to establish the connection between bacteria and infections.  Additionally, the first manuscript on optics (the science of light and vision) was published by Al-Hasan and in the 13th century Islamic physician Ibn al-Nafis discovered accurately the function of the human circulatory system.  Persian physician ibn-Sina became one of the most famous Islamic physcians and he wrote extensive manuscripts and treaties on all aspects of medicine, human anatomy, surgery, and treatments.  Islamic veterinary science was also developed and was the leader in animal medical science for centuries especially in the treatment of horses.

Alchemists were the forerunners of modern Chemists and Muslim scientists were very interested in chemistry.  They conducted numerous famous experiments in their laboratories which led to many new discoveries.  They learned how to distill petroleum and how to forge steel.  Al-Hasan led a breakthrough in the field of optics based on the ancient Roman techniques for making glass lenses.  He dispelled the notion put forth by Aristotle that vision was the result of a beam emitting from the human eye, encompassing the object, and bringing it back to the soul.  In 965 Al-Hasan published his famous Book of Optics and this was the very first document in human history to document sight as visual images entering the eye, made percepable by adequate light.  This book was the bible of optical science until 1610 when European Dr Johannes Kepler built upon it and surpassed it.

Advances were made in agriculture that far surpassed that of Europe.  Cotton became a stable plant for clothing as did the importation of silk from China.  Islamic mathematicians developed and refined Algebra basing it on its beginnings in ancient Greece and Egypt.  They developed trigonometry in an effort to develop ways to accurately measure objects at a distance.  Muslim scientists also made significant contributions to the field of atronomy collecting and correcting previous astronomical research.  They built the world’s first observatory and developed the astrolabe which was an instrument once called the “mathematical jewel.”  Muslim architects borrowed their techniques heavily from the Byzantine Empire employing large domes and arches in their construction.  Muslims in the time of the Golden Age of Islam were avid students of both the heavens and the earth.  Knowledge and discovery were highly valued as was exploration.  Muslim sailors voyaged far and wide discvoering new lands and new people and some believe they even came to the shores of the Americas long before Columbus.  Muslim mapmakers refined the concepts of longitude and latitude and created several very accurate maps of the world.  Omar Khayyam, a Persian, developed a calendar that was so accurate and reliable that for over 500 years it was off by one one mere day!

During the time of the Golden Age, Islam was laying the foundations of civilization.  It did NOT develop a narrow-minded attitude towards other religions as some assert.  The Islamic Empire kept with the principles laid down in the Qur’an concerning tolerance and the People of the Book.  The primary belief was:

“Let there be no compulsion in religion; Truth sands out clear from error…”
Sura Al-Baqarah 256

For anyone today to assert that Muslims have never done anything significant for humanity is an outright lie and myth.  For them to assert that Muslims slaughtered non-Muslims is yet another outright lie regarding the Golden Age of Islam.

During this time of the Sultans and Caliphs learned men from the Christians and Jews were highly regarded by Muslim scholars and many were even appointed to high positions in the Caliph’s court and universities.  Haroon Rashid appointed John the son of Maswaih as Director of Public Instruction and put him as head over all the schools and universities in the Islamic Empire, for example.  Religion was not that big of factor in this matter as excellence in the field of learning was a more significant and determining factor.  Jews, Christians, and Muslims worked together during this time as Sir Mark Syce pointed out during the rule of Caliph Harun Rashid.  Many of the official scribes were Jews or Christians and many held very important top posts in the Islamic government.  Several Jews served as ambassadors of the Caliph to European nations as well.

The Golden Age of Islam has many lessons for all of us today.  All we need to do is get the facts and ponder.

With the end of the Abbasid Caliphate and the beginning of the Turkish Seljuk Caliphate in 1057 CE the centralized power of the Islamic Empire began to shatter.  Religious differences arose and splinter groups formed.  Charges of heresy were leveled and assasinations were carried out.  Free scientific investigation and philosphical and religious tolerance began to decline and become a thing of the past.  Schools that once thought math and science along with religion now only taught religion.  Scientific progress and discvoery came to a halt in the Muslim world as everything began to deteriorate.  Trade routes became unsafe and trade was interrupted and dangerous.  City life broke down as crime rose.  Science and philosophy survived in a few scattered pockets but the Golden Age of Islam was over.

It took 400 years for Muslims to rise to the heights of civilization and for more than 1000 years Muslim civiliaztion was the most advanced, progressive, and knowledgeable on the planet.  Islam in the Golden Age held learning in very high esteem and it forbade destruction.  It was disciplined and respected authority and other faiths.  It stressed tolerance of other religions and Muslims recognized excellence and scholarship as they hungered intellectually.  The teachings of the Qur’an and the Sunnah drove many Muslims to their accomplishments during this time in all disciplines of learning and wisdom.  Now in this 21st century Muslims MUST apply those same principles of learning and success in order to save Islam and the Muslim world from gross decay into barbarism.

Chapter 4

What Can We Learn Today?