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Islamic Golden Age

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Islamic Golden Age

Scholars at an Abbasid library. Maqamat of al-Hariri Illustration by Yahyá al-Wasiti, Baghdad 1237

The Islamic Golden Age refers to the period in Islam's history during the Middle Ages from the 8th century to the 13th century when much of the historically Arabic-speaking world was ruled by various caliphates, experiencing a scientific, economic, and cultural flourishing.[1][2][3] This period is traditionally understood to have begun during the reign of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (786 to 809) with the inauguration of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, where scholars from various parts of the world with different cultural backgrounds were mandated to gather and translate all of the world's classical knowledge into Arabic.[4][5] It is said to have ended with the collapse of the Abbasid Caliphate with the Mongol invasions and the Sack of Baghdad in 1258.[6] Several contemporary scholars, however, place the end of the Islamic Golden Age to be around the 16th to 17th centuries.[1][2][3]


  • History of the concept 1
  • Causes 2
    • Religious influence 2.1
    • Earlier cultural influence 2.2
    • Government sponsorship 2.3
    • New technology 2.4
  • Philosophy 3
  • Science 4
    • Scientific method 4.1
    • Mathematics 4.2
    • Physics 4.3
    • Biology 4.4
    • Medicine 4.5
  • Institutions 5
    • Healthcare 5.1
    • Education 5.2
  • Commerce and travel 6
  • Culture 7
    • Art 7.1
    • Architecture 7.2
  • Decline 8
    • Invasions 8.1
    • Economics 8.2
    • Stifling free thought 8.3
  • See also 9
  • References 10
  • Further reading 11
  • External links 12

History of the concept

Expansion of the Islamic Caliphate, 622–750.
  Expansion under Muhammad, 622–632
  Expansion during the Rashidun Caliphate, 632–661
  Expansion during the Umayyad Caliphate, 661–750

The metaphor of a golden age began to be applied in 19th-century literature about Islamic history, in the context of the western cultural fashion of Orientalism. The author of a Handbook for Travelers in Syria and Palestine in 1868 observed that the most beautiful mosques of Damascus were "like Mohammedanism itself, now rapidly decaying" and relics of "the golden age of Islam". [7]

There is no unambiguous definition of term, and depending on whether it is used with a focus on cultural or on military achievement, it may be taken to refer to rather disparate time spans. Thus, one author would have it extend to the duration of the caliphate, or to "six and a half centuries",[8] while another would have it end after only a few decades of Rashidun conquests, with the death of Umar and the First Fitna.[9]

During the early 20th century, the term was used only occasionally, and often referred to the early military successes of the Rashidun caliphs. It was only in the second half of the 20th century that the term came to be used with any frequency, now mostly referring to the cultural flourishing of science and mathematics under the caliphate during the 9th to 11th centuries (between the establishment of organised scholarship in the House of Wisdom and the beginning of the crusades),[10] but often extended to include part of the late 8th or the 12th to early 13th centuries.[11] Definitions may still vary considerably. Equating the end of the golden age with the end of the caliphate is a convenient cut-off point based on a historical landmark, but it can be argued that Islamic culture had entered a gradual decline much earlier; thus, Khan (2003) identifies the proper golden age as being the two centuries between 750–950, arguing that the beginning loss of territories under Harun al-Rashid worsened after the death of al-Ma'mun in 833, and that the crusades in the 12th century resulted in a further weakening of the Abbasid empire from which it never recovered.[12]


Religious influence

The various Quranic injunctions and Hadith, which place values on education and emphasize the importance of acquiring knowledge, played a vital role in influencing the Muslims of this age in their search for knowledge and the development of the body of science.[13][14][15]

Earlier cultural influence

During this period, the Muslims showed a strong interest in assimilating the scientific knowledge of the civilizations that had been conquered. Many classic works of antiquity that might otherwise have been lost were translated from Greek, Roman, Persian, Indian, Chinese, Egyptian, and Phoenician civilizations into Arabic and Persian, and later in turn translated into Turkish, Hebrew, and Latin.[5]

Christians (particularly Nestorian Christians) contributed to the Arab Islamic Civilization during the Ummayad and the Abbasid periods by translating works of Greek philosophers to Syriac and afterwards to Arabic.[16][17][18] During the 4th through the 7th centuries, scholarly work in the Syriac and Greek languages was either newly initiated, or carried on from the Hellenistic period. Centers of learning and of transmission of classical wisdom included colleges such as the School of Nisibis, and later the School of Edessa, and the renowned hospital and medical academy of Jundishapur; libraries included the Library of Alexandria and the Imperial Library of Constantinople; other centers of translation and learning functioned at Merv, Salonika, Nishapur and Ctesiphon, situated just south of what later became Baghdad.[19][20] Nestorians played a prominent role in the formation of Arab culture,[21] especially at Jundishapur school.[22] Notably, eight generations of the Nestorian Bukhtishu family served as private doctors to caliphs and sultans between the 8th and 11th centuries.[23][24]

Government sponsorship

The Muslim government heavily patronized scholars. The money spent on the Translation Movement for some translations is estimated to be equivalent to about twice the annual research budget of the United Kingdom’s Medical Research Council.[25] The best scholars and notable translators, such as Hunayn ibn Ishaq, had salaries that are estimated to be the equivalent of professional athletes today.[25] The House of Wisdom was a library, translation institute, and academy established in Abbasid-era Baghdad, Iraq by Caliph Harun al-Rashid and his son al-Ma'mun.[26][27]

New technology

A manuscript written on paper during the Abbasid Era.

With a new, and easier writing system, and the introduction of paper, information was democratized to the extent that, for probably the first time in history, it became possible to make a living from simply writing and selling books.[28] The use of paper spread from China into Muslim regions in the eighth century, arriving in Al-Andalus on the Iberian peninsula, present-day Spain in the 10th century. It was easier to manufacture than parchment, less likely to crack than papyrus, and could absorb ink, making it difficult to erase and ideal for keeping records. Islamic paper makers devised assembly-line methods of hand-copying manuscripts to turn out editions far larger than any available in Europe for centuries.[29] It was from these countries that the rest of the world learned to make paper from linen.[30]


Islamic architecture in Alhambra, Al-Andalus, in modern-day Spain

Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina played a major role in saving the works of Aristotle, whose ideas came to dominate the non-religious thought of the Christian and Muslim worlds. Islamic scholars would also absorb ideas from China and India, adding to the tremendous knowledge from their own studies. Ibn Sina and other philosophers such as al-Kindi and al-Farabi combined Aristotelianism and Neoplatonism with other ideas introduced through Islam. Arabic philosophic literature was translated into Latin and Ladino, contributing to the development of modern European philosophy. During this period, non-Muslims were allowed to flourish relative to their treatment in the Christian Byzantine Empire. The Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, who lived in Andalusia, is an example.

Avicenna argued his "Floating Man" thought experiment concerning self-awareness, in which a man prevented of sense experience by being blindfolded and free falling would still be aware of his existence.[31]

In epistemology, Ibn Tufail wrote the novel Hayy ibn Yaqdhan and in response Ibn al-Nafis wrote the novel Theologus Autodidactus. Both were concerning autodidacticism as illuminated through the life of a feral child spontaneously generated in a cave on a desert island.


Scientific method

Ibn Al-Haytham (Alhazen) was a significant figure in the history of scientific method, particularly in his approach to experimentation,[32][33][34][35] and has been referred by some to be the "world’s first true scientist".[36]

The physician Rhazes was an early proponent of experimental medicine and recommended using control for clinical research. He said: “If you want to study the effect of bloodletting on a condition, divide the patients into two groups, perform bloodletting only on one group, watch both, and compare the results.”[37]

Jim Al-Khalili gives the example of the classification of materials as a sign of new ways of thinking.[38] While the classification of the material world by the ancient Greeks into Air, Earth, Fire and Water was more philosophical, medieval Islamic scientists used practical, experimental observation to classify materials.[38] Rhazes, for example, classified minerals into six groups based on their observed chemical properties: Spirits, which were flammable; Material Bodies, which were shiny and malleable, Salts, which could dissolve in water, Vitriols, Stones,and Boraxes.[38]


Girih tiles arranged in quasicrystal order, an example of the advancements during the Islamic Golden Age.

Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī played a significant role in the development of algebra, algorithms, and Hindu-Arabic numerals.

In calculus, Alhazen discovered the sum formula for the fourth power, using a method that could be generally used to determine the sum for any integral power. He used this to find the volume of a paraboloid. He could find the integral formula for any polynomial without having developed a general formula.[39]

In geometry, Medieval Islamic art from the 15th century intuitively echoed principles of quasicrytalline geometry, which were discovered 500 years later.[40][41] The art uses symmetric polygonal shapes to create patterns that, without leaving gaps, can continue indefinitely without repeating its pattern, in a way that can be directly compared to what are now considered quasi-crystals.[42] It was previously thought that Islamic design was done with straightedge rulers and compasses, but Lu and Steinhart now argue that the patterns were created by tessellating a small number of different tiles with complex shapes, evolving into what would now be described as quasi-periodic shapes by the 15th century.[41] The Swedish Academy, which granted Dan Shechtman the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of quasicrystals in molecular structures, stated, "Aperiodic mosaics, such as those found in the medieval Islamic mosaics of the Alhambra Palace in Spain and the Darb-i Imam Shrine in Iran, have helped scientists understand what quasicrystals look like at the atomic level".[42]

In trigonometry, Ibn Muʿādh al-Jayyānī introduced the general Law of sines in his The Book of Unknown Arcs of a Sphere in the 11th century. This formula relates the lengths of the sides of any triangle, rather than only right triangles, to the sines of its angles.[43]


In about 964 AD, Persian astronomer Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi, writing in his Book of Fixed Stars, described a "nebulous spot" in the Andromeda constellation, the first definitive reference to what we now know is the Andromeda Galaxy, the nearest spiral galaxy to our galaxy.[44]

Alhazen played a significant role in the development of optics, experimental physics, and theoretical physics.


In his survey of the history of the ideas which led to the theory of natural selection, Conway Zirkle noted that al-Jahiz was one of those who discussed a "struggle for existence", in his Kitab al-Hayawan (Book of Animals), written in the 9th century.[45]


The eye, according to Hunain ibn Ishaq. From a manuscript dated circa 1200.

In the cardiovascular system, Ibn al-Nafis in his Commentary on Anatomy in Avicenna's Canon was the first to contradict the contention of the Galen School that blood could pass between the ventricles in the heart through the cardiac inter-ventricular septum that separates them, saying that there is no passage between the ventricles at this point.[46] Instead, he correctly argued that all the blood that reached the left ventricle did so after passing through the lung.[46] He also stated that there must be small communications, or pores, between the pulmonary artery and pulmonary vein, a prediction that preceded the discovery of the pulmonary capillaries of Marcello Malpighi by 400 years. The Commentary was "rediscovered" in the 20th century in the Prussian State Library in Berlin; whether its view of the pulmonary circulation influenced scientists such as Michael Servetus is unclear, as it was not published and only five copies were made.[46]

In the nervous system, Rhazes stated that nerves had motor or sensory functions, describing 7 cranial and 31 spinal cord nerves.[47] He assigned a numerical order to the cranial nerves from the optic to the hypoglossal nerves.[47] He classified the spinal nerves into 8 cervical, 12 thoracic, 5 lumbar, 3 sacral, and 3 coccygeal nerves.[47] He used this to link clinical signs of injury to the corresponding location of lesions in the nervous system.[47]

Rhazes differentiated through careful observation the two diseases smallpox and measles, which were previously lumped together as a single disease that caused rashes.[48] This was based on location and the time of the appearance of the symptoms and he also scaled the degree of severity and prognosis of infections according to the color and location of rashes.[49]

On hygienic practices, Rhazes, who was once asked to choose the site for a new hospital in Baghdad, suspended pieces of meat at various points around the city, and recommended building the hospital at the location where the meat putrefied most slowly.[37]

For Islamic scholars, Galen, Mankah, Sustura, and Hippocrates were pre-eminent authorities.[50] In order to make the Greek tradition more accessible, understandable, and teachable, Islamic scholars ordered and made more systematic the vast, and sometimes inconsistent, Greco-Roman medical knowledge by writing encyclopedias and summaries. Sometimes, past scholars were criticized, like Rhazes who criticized and refuted Galen's revered theories, most notably, the Theory of Humors and was thus accused of ignorance.[37] It was through 12th-century Arabic translations that medieval Europe rediscovered Hellenic medicine, including the works of Galen and Hippocrates. Works such as Avicenna's The Canon of Medicine, were translated into Latin and disseminated throughout Europe. During the 15th and 16th centuries alone, The Canon of Medicine was published more than thirty-five times.



Hospitals in this era were the first to require medical diplomas to license doctors.[51] In the medieval Islamic world, hospitals were built in most major cities.

Medical facilities traditionally closed each night, but by the 10th century laws were passed to keep hospitals open 24 hours a day, and hospitals were forbidden to turn away patients who were unable to pay.[52] Eventually, charitable foundations called waqfs were formed to support hospitals, as well as schools.[52] This money supported free medical care for all citizens.[52] In a notable example, a 13th-century governor of Egypt Al Mansur Qalawun ordained a foundation for the Qalawun hospital that would contain a mosque and a chapel, separate wards for different diseases, a library for doctors and a pharmacy.[53] The Qalawun hospital was based in a former Fatimid palace which had accommodation for 8,000 people - [54] "it served 4,000 patients daily."[55] The waqf stated,

"...The hospital shall keep all patients, men and women, until they are completely recovered. All costs are to be borne by the hospital whether the people come from afar or near, whether they are residents or foreigners, strong or weak, low or high, rich or poor, employed or unemployed, blind or sighted, physically or mentally ill, learned or illiterate. There are no conditions of consideration and payment, none is objected to or even indirectly hinted at for non-payment."[53]

The first institutions for the care of mentally ill people were also established.[56]


An entrance to the Al Azhar University, Cairo
Introductory summary overview map from al-Idrisi's 1154 world atlas (note that South is at the top of the map).

The Guinness World Records recognizes the University of Al Karaouine, founded in 859 AD, as the world's oldest degree-granting university.[57]

The Al Azhar University was the first university in the East, and perhaps the oldest in history. The madrasa is one of the relics of the Fatimid dynasty era of Egypt, descended from Fatimah, daughter of Muhammad. Fatimah was called Az-Zahra (the brilliant), and it was named in her honor. It was founded as a mosque by the Fatimid commander Jawhar, at the orders of the Caliph Al-Muizz as he founded the city for Cairo. It was (probably on Saturday) in Jamadi al-Awwal in the year 359 A.H. Its building was completed on the 9th of Ramadan in the year 361 A.H. Both Al-'Aziz Billah and Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah added to its premises. It was further repaired, renovated, and extended by Al-Mustansir Billah and Al-Hafiz Li-Din-illah. Fatimid Caliphs always encouraged scholars and jurists to have their study-circles and gatherings in this mosque, and thus it was turned into a university. Al Azhar University now has the claim of being the oldest University still functioning.[58]

The intellectual life in Egypt during the Fatimid era reached a great degree of progress and activity due to the number of scholars who either lived in Egypt, or came from outside, as well as the number of books available. The Fatimid Caliphs gave prominent positions to the scholars in their courts and encouraged the students. Fatimids paid attention to establishing libraries in their palaces so that the scholars might polish up their knowledge and get benefit of what their predecessors had done.[58]

Commerce and travel

Apart from the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates, navigable rivers were uncommon in the Middle East, so transport by sea was very important. Navigational sciences were highly developed, making use of a rudimentary sextant (known as a kamal). When combined with detailed maps of the period, sailors were able to sail across oceans rather than skirt along the coast. Muslim sailors were also responsible for reintroducing large, three-masted merchant vessels to the Mediterranean. The name caravel may derive from an earlier Arab boat known as the qārib.[59]

During the Fatimid era, Egypt flourished and the Fatimids developed an extensive trade network in both the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. Their trade and diplomatic ties extended all the way to China and its Song Dynasty, which eventually determined the economic course of Egypt during the High Middle Ages.

Unlike other governments in the area, Fatimid advancement in state offices was based more on merit than on heredity. Members of other branches of Islam, like the Sunnis, were just as likely to be appointed to government posts as Shiites. Tolerance was extended to non-Sunni Muslims such as Christians, Shias, and Jews,[60] who occupied high levels in government based on ability. Tolerance was set into place to ensure the flow of money from all those who were non-Muslims too in order to finance the Fatimids Caliphs' large army of Mamluks brought in from Circassia by Genoese merchants.



A Seljuq, shatranj (chess) set, glazed fritware, 12th century.
Marquetry and tile-top table from the year 1560.

The golden age of Islamic art lasted from 750 to the 16th century, when ceramics (especially lusterware), glass, metalwork, textiles, illuminated manuscripts, and woodwork flourished. Manuscript illumination became an important and greatly respected art, and Persian miniature painting flourished in the Persianate world. Calligraphy, an essential aspect of written Arabic, developed in manuscripts and architectural decoration.

The Fatimid era was also known for their exquisite arts. A type of ceramic, lustreware, was prevalent during the Fatimid period. Glassware and metalworking was also popular.


The Great Mosque of Kairouan (in Tunisia), the ancestor of all the mosques in the western Islamic world,[61] is one of the best preserved and most significant examples of early great mosques. Founded in 670, it dates in its present form largely from the 9th century.[62] The Great Mosque of Kairouan is constituted of a three-tiered square minaret, a large courtyard surrounded by colonnaded porticos, and a huge hypostyle prayer hall covered on its axis by two cupolas.[61]

The Great Mosque of Samarra in Iraq was completed in 847. It combined the hypostyle architecture of rows of columns supporting a flat base, above which a huge spiralling minaret was constructed.

The beginning of construction of the Great Mosque at Cordoba in 785 marked the beginning of Islamic architecture in Spain and Northern Africa. The mosque is noted for its striking interior arches. Moorish architecture reached its peak with the construction of the Alhambra, the magnificent palace/fortress of Granada, with its open and breezy interior spaces adorned in red, blue, and gold. The walls are decorated with stylized foliage motifs, Arabic inscriptions, and arabesque design work, with walls covered in glazed tiles.

Many traces of Fatimid architecture exist in Cairo today, the most defining examples include the Al Azhar University and the Al Hakim mosque.



Trade Routes inherited by the Muslim civilization were ruined by invading Mongols, which according to Ibn Khaldun ruined economies. Later the European Age of Exploration bypassed the land routes

The Crusades put the Islamic world under pressure with invasions in the 11th and 12th centuries, but a far greater threat emerged from the East during the 13th century: in 1206, Genghis Khan established a powerful dynasty among the Mongols of central Asia. During the 13th century, this Mongol Empire conquered most of the Eurasian land mass, including China in the east and much of the old Islamic caliphate (as well as Kievan Rus) in the west. The destruction of Baghdad and the House of Wisdom by Hulagu Khan in 1258 has been seen by some as the end of the Islamic Golden Age.[64] Later Mongol leaders, such as Timur, destroyed many cities, slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people, and did irrevocable damage to the ancient irrigation systems of Mesopotamia. Muslims in lands subject to the Mongols now faced northeast, toward the land routes to China, rather than toward Mecca.

In the Iberian Peninsula, the Catholic Monarchs completed the Reconquista with a war against the Emirate of Granada that started in 1482 and ended with Granada's complete annexation in early 1492, which also marks, for some historians, the end of the Islamic Golden Age. The Ottoman conquest of the Arabic-speaking Middle East in 1516-17 placed the traditional heart of the Islamic world under Ottoman Turkish control. Starting in the 16th century, the opening by the European powers of new sea trade routes to East Asia and the Americas bypassed the Islamic economies, greatly reducing prosperity by the start of the 17th century.


Ahmad Y. al-Hassan has rejected the thesis that lack of creative thinking was a cause, arguing that science was always kept separate from religious argument; he instead analyzes the decline in terms of economic and political factors, drawing on the work of the 14th-century writer Ibn Khaldun. Al-Hassan extended the golden age up to the 16th century, noting that scientific activity continued to flourish up until then.[3] Several other contemporary scholars have also extended it to around the 16th to 17th centuries, and analysed the decline in terms of political and economic factors.[1][2]

Stifling free thought

There is little agreement on the precise causes of the decline, but in addition to invasion by the Mongols and crusaders, and the destruction of libraries and madrasahs, there is evidence that political mismanagement and the stifling of ijtihad (independent reasoning) in the 12th century in favor of institutionalised taqleed (imitation) thinking played a part. There was considerable decline under the reign of al-Mutawakkil (r. 847–861).[65] The caliph al-Mutawakkil enforced a more literal interpretation of the Qur'an and Hadith. Science and rationalism were dismissed in favor of revelation.[65] Greek philosophy was condemned as anti-Islamic.[65]

See also


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  61. ^ a b John Stothoff Badeau and John Richard Hayes, ''The Genius of Arab civilization: source of Renaissance''. Taylor & Francis. 1983-01-01. p. 104.  
  62. ^ "Great Mosque of Kairouan (Qantara mediterranean heritage)". Retrieved 2014-04-11. 
  63. ^ Seyyed Hossein Nasr, ''Islamic art and spirituality''. SUNY Press. 1987-02-12. p. 53.  
  64. ^ William Wager Cooper and Piyu Yue (2008), ''Challenges of the Muslim world: present, future and past'', Emerald Group Publishing, page 215. 2008.  
  65. ^ a b c Al-Khalili, p. 135

Further reading

  • Josef W. Meri (2005). Medieval Islamic Civilization: An Encyclopedia. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-96690-6. pp. 1088.
  • Tamara Sonn: Islam: A Brief History. Wiley 2011, ISBN 9781444358988, pp. 39–79 (online copy, p. 39, at Google Books)
  • Maurice Lombard: The Golden Age of Islam. American Elsevier 1975
  • George Nicholas Atiyeh; John Richard Hayes (1992). The Genius of Arab Civilization. New York University Press. ISBN 0814734855, ISBN 9780814734858. pp. 306.
  • Falagas, M. E.; Zarkadoulia, Effie A.; Samonis, George (1 August 2006). "Arab science in the golden age (750-1258 C.E.) and today". The FASEB Journal 20 (10): 1581–1586.  
  • Allsen, Thomas T. (2004). Culture and Conquest in Mongol Eurasia.  

External links

  • Islamic web
  • "Baghdad: Metropolis of the Abbasid Caliphate."Wiet, Gaston. Chapter 5
  • The Kirkor Minassian Collection at the Library of Congress contains examples of Islamic book bindings.
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