THE GOLDEN AGE OF ISLAM
By Dr Zachariah Matthews
Presented at the Australian New Muslim Association (ANMA) Fundraising
Dinner, Bankstown, Friday 1 October 2004.
http://www.famsy.com/salam/ Sep-Oct 2004
Islam, the youngest of all the world's religions emerged on the world
scene in 622 CE (Current Era) with the Hijra (migration), of Prophet
Muhammad (s) and his small band of followers, from Mecca to Medina in
northwest Arabia. One hundred fifty years later the Muslim government
where Allah is the ultimate authority had become the Islamic Empire,
encircling the Mediterranean Sea from Syria and the Tigris and Euphrates
Valley east to southern China and western India, south through what had
been the Persian Empire and Saudi Arabia, west through Egypt and across
North Africa, and north through Spain to the Pyrenees. With the founding
of the city of Baghdad and the establishment of the Abbasid Caliphate
(Muslim religious/political leaders, successors of the Prophet) in the
mid-8th century, Islam's golden age began to emerge. For 400 years, from
the mid-9th century until the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1256,
Muslim culture was unparalleled in its splendor and learning.
A number of fortunate circumstances came together to make this golden
age possible. Perhaps most significant was the creation of a vast empire
without internal political boundaries, largely free from external
attack. Trade began to flow freely across the Asian continent and
beyond. The wisdom of India and China mingled with that of Persia,
ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt. In most cases civilizations conquered
by Islam remained administratively and intellectually intact, unlike
those overrun by northern barbarians. Thanks in part to Prophet
Muhammad's assertion that "the ink of scholars is more precious than the
blood of martyrs," Islamic leaders valued -- in fact, sought out -- the
intellectual treasures of their subject provinces. Further, the Muslim
use of Arabic, the language of the Quran, led to its standardization
throughout the empire as the language of faith and power, and likewise
of theology, philosophy, and the arts and sciences.
Unification under one faith and language alone, however, did not produce
the explosion of literacy and learning experienced by the Islamic
Empire. In the mid-8th century, Chinese paper-making technology arrived
in Samarkand, on the eastern border of the empire. Suddenly, the labour-intensive
processing of hides and papyrus was replaced by mass-production of paper
from pulped rags, hemp, and bark; large personal libraries -- as well as
public ones -- became commonplace. At about the same time, the so-called
"Arabic" numerals (imported from India) began to replace cumbersome
Roman numerals, and introduced the concept of zero for the first time.
Public education, also mandated by the Prophet (s), spread rapidly.
The Golden Age was a period of unrivalled intellectual activity in the
field of literature (as a result of intensive study of the Islamic
faith) - particularly biography, history, and linguistics. Scholars, for
example, in collecting and re-examining the hadith, or "traditions" -
the sayings and actions of the Prophet - compiled immense biographical
detail about the Prophet and other information, historic and linguistic,
about the Prophet's era. This led to such monumental works as Sirat
Rasul Allah, the "Life of the Messenger of Allah," by Ibn Ishaq, later
revised by Ibn Hisham; one of the earliest Arabic historical works, it
was a key source of information about the Prophet's life and also a
model for other important works of history such as al-Tabari's Annals of
the Apostles and the Kings and his massive commentary on the Quran.
The accomplishments of Islam's Golden Age are too numerous to mention.
Massive translation and copying projects made Greek, Roman, and Sanskrit
knowledge available to Arabic-speaking scholars across the empire.
Medieval Europe received the Hellenic classics that made the Renaissance
possible mostly through Arabic translations. Building on Hellenic,
Persian, and Hindu sources, physicians within the Islamic Empire
advanced medical knowledge enormously. Perhaps their most significant
single achievement was the establishment of medicine as a science based
on observation and experimentation, rather than on conjecture. Islamic
scientists developed the rudiments of what would later be called the
Seventy-five years after the death of Prophet Muhammad (s), the first of
many free public hospitals was opened in Damascus. Asylums were
maintained throughout the empire for the care of the mentally ill. In
the early 10th century, Spanish physician Abu Bakr al-Razi introduced
the use of antiseptics in cleaning wounds, and also made the connection
between bacteria and infection. Al-Hasan published a definitive study on
optics (the science of light and vision) in 965. Thirteenth-century
Muslim physician Ibn al-Nafis discovered and accurately described the
functioning of the human circulatory system. Islamic veterinary science
led the field for centuries, particularly in the study and treatment of
Muslim alchemists (early forerunners of modern chemists) in the 10th to
14th centuries, inspired by ancient chemical formulas from China and
India, are famous for the endless experiments they performed in their
laboratories. Their goals ranged from pursuit of a chemical elixir
bestowing enhanced life, to the transformation of base metals to gold.
Although they never succeeded in their ultimate goals, they did make
numerous valuable discoveries -- among them the distillation of
petroleum and the forging of steel.
Roman techniques of manufacturing glass lenses stimulated Al-Hasan's
breakthrough in the field of optics (the science of light and vision),
which demolished Aristotle's theory that vision was the result of a ray
emanating from the eye, encompassing an object, and bringing it back to
the soul. Al-Hasan's Book of Optics, published in 965, was first to
document sight as visual images entering the eye, made perceptible by
adequate light. This book remained the pre-eminent text in its field
until 1610, when the work of European Johannes Kepler surpassed it.
Islamic mathematicians refined algebra from its beginnings in Greece and
Egypt, and developed trigonometry in pursuit of accurate ways to measure
objects at a distance. Muslim scholars also made important and original
contributions to astronomy. 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
Islamic architects borrowed heavily from the Byzantine Empire which used
domes and arches extensively throughout their cities. An example of this
use can be seen in the Dome of the Rock, a famous mosque in Jerusalem.
Avid students of both the heavens and the earth, Muslim scholars made
detailed and accurate maps of both. Muslim mapmakers to accurately map
distances around the earth refined longitude and latitude.
Twelfth-century Persian Omar Khayyam developed a calendar so reliable
that over 500 years it was off by only one day. The list goes on and on.
When Islam was laying the foundations of its civilisation; it did not
adopt a narrow-minded attitude to other religions. The behaviour toward
other religions was in keeping with the principles laid down in the
"Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from
error… (Al-Baqarah 256)
"If it had been your Lord's Will, they would all have believed, all who
are on earth! Will you then compel people, against their will, to
believe!" (Yunus 10:99)
Say: "We believe in Allah, and the revelation given to us, and to
Abraham, Isma'il, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and that given to Moses
and Jesus, and that given to (all) Prophets from their Lord: we make no
difference between any of them: and we submit to Allah (in Islam)."
"…Had not Allah checked one set of people by means of another there
would surely have been pulled down monasteries, churches, synagogues,
and mosques, in which the name of Allah is commemorated in abundant
measure…" (Al-Hajj 22:40)
The well known American writer, Draper, wrote: "During the period of the
caliphs, the learned men of the Christians and the Jews were not only
held in high esteem but were appointed to posts of great responsibility,
and were promoted to high ranking positions in government. Haroon
Rasheed appointed John the son of Maswaih, the Director of Public
Instruction and all the schools and colleges were placed under his
charge. He (Haroon) never considered to which country a learned person
belonged nor his faith and belief, but only his excellence in the field
Sir Mark Syce, writing on the qualities of Muslim rule during the period
of Haroon Rasheed said: "The Christians, the idolaters, the Jews and the
Muslims as workers running the Islamic State were at work with equal
Liefy Brutistal wrote in his book: "Spain of the Tenth Century: So often
the scribe writing out the terms of a treaty was a Jew or a Christian.
Just as many Jews and Christians were holding charge of important posts
in the State. And they were vested with authority in the administrative
departments, even in matters of war and peace. And there were several
Jews who acted as the ambassadors of the Caliph in European countries."
Islam’s Golden Age has many lessons to teach the greedy and terrorized
world of today.
Why did it all end?
Why did Islam's Golden Age come to an end? What forces shifted both
political power and learning from the Islamic Empire to Christian
Europe? Like all historical trends, the explanations are complex; yet
some broad outlines may be identified, both within and without Muslim
lands. With the end of the Abbasid Caliphate and the beginning of the
Turkish Seljuk Caliphate in 1057 CE, the centralized power of the empire
began to shatter. Religious differences resulted in splinter groups,
charges of heresy, and assassinations. Aristotelian logic, adopted early
on as a framework upon which to build science and philosophy, appeared
to be undermining the beliefs of educated Muslims. Orthodox faith was in
decline and skepticism on the rise.
The appeal by some erring theologians turned the tide back, declaring
reason and its entire works to be bankrupt. They declared that
experience and reason that grew out of it were not to be trusted. As a
result, free scientific investigation and philosophical and religious
toleration were phenomena of the past. Schools limited their teaching to
theology. Scientific progress came to a halt.
During this same period, the European Crusades (1097-1291) assailed
Islam militarily from without. Cordoba fell to Spanish Christians in
1236. When the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1256 (or 1258) the Islamic
Empire never recovered. Trade routes became unsafe. Urban life broke
down. Individual communities drew in upon themselves in feudal
isolation. Science and philosophy survived for a while in scattered
pockets, but the Golden Age of Islam was at an end.
Muslims rose to the height of civilisation in a period of four decades.
For more than 1,000 years the Islamic Civilisation remained the most
advanced and progressive in the world. This is because Islam stressed
the importance of and held great respect for learning, forbade
destruction, developed discipline and respect for authority, and
stressed tolerance for other religions. The Muslims recognised
excellence and hungered intellectually. The teachings of the Qur'an and
Sunnah drove many Muslims to their accomplishments in all disciplines of
Muslims of today must apply those same principles of success in order to
rectify the current state of decay. May Allah (swt) grant us the
strength and wisdom to accomplish just that!
1. Tapestry: The Institute for Philosophy, Religion, and the Life
3. Jeffery Watkins: (1999-2003) Oswego City School District Regents Exam
4. Dr. Ibrahim B. Syed, PhD: 2001,
5. Some glittering aspects of the Islamic civilisation, Dr Mustafa