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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Understanding the Islamic Golden Age

The Islamic Golden Age is a period of scientific, mathematical, philosophical, medical and artistic advancement, generally believed to have started with the Abbasid Caliphate in the mid 8th century lasting until the Mongol conquest of Baghdad in 1258. The Abbasids claimed to descend from the Prophet Muhammed’s youngest uncle, and therefore the same tribe as the Prophet, and were considered holy by many. The Islamic Golden Age is traditionally considered by scholars to be inaugurated by the transfer of the capital from Damascus to Baghdad.

From the 4th to 7th centuries, scholarly work in the Syriac and Greek languages continued the traditions of the Hellenistic period. These were then copied into Arabic during the Golden Age, while most were destroyed, suppressed or lost to the Christian world during the dark ages and religious suppression of knowledge that followed the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity.

The Abbasids were influenced by Qur'anic injunctions and hadith such as: "the ink of a scholar is more holy than the blood of a martyr" that stressed the value of knowledge.[2] The rise of Islam was instrumental in uniting the warring tribes of the region into a powerful empire.  During this period the Middle East became an intellectual centre for science, philosophy, medicine and education; the Abbasids championed the cause of knowledge and established the House of Wisdom (Bait-ul-Hikmat) at Baghdad,[3] where both Muslim and non-Muslim scholars sought to translate and gather all the world's knowledge into Arabic.

This Caliphate and the dynasties that followed showed a strong interest in assimilating the scientific knowledge of the civilisations they had overrun. Many classic works of antiquity that might otherwise have been lost were translated into Arabic and Persian and later in turn translated into Turkish, Hebrew and Latin. During this period, the Arab world was a collection of cultures; put together, synthesised and significantly advancing the knowledge they had inherited and collected from the ancient Roman, Persian, Kurdish, Greek, Chinese, Indian, Egyptian, Byzantine and Phoenician civilisations.

The decimal system travelled from India to Arabia and in 9th century and was popularised in the region by the Persian mathematician al-Khwarizmi. In the 10th and 11th centuries, the Fatimid Sultanate made many contributions to the advancement of science. During the Abayassid Sultanate that followed, many new schools, hospitals and universities were founded by female members of the dynasty. Later in the 12th century, a Christian monk Abelard (immortalised in the Romance of Heloise and Abelard) introduced it to Europe. Islamic mathematicians also began the use of a first form of algebra (without numerical exponents) in order to solve complex mathematical problems.

In fact many of the mathematical terms we use today derive from arabic - words like algebra, algorithm, alchemy - which became chemistry, alkaline, average, azimuth, cipher, elixir, almanac, nadir, soda, zenith and zero, to name just a few. The very concept of zero - a numeric representation of nothing - comes from Arabic, as does the first binary code.

With a new, easier writing system and the introduction of paper, information was democratised to the extent that for the first time in history, it became possible to make a living as an author. Around the eight century the use of paper spread from China into the Islamic world, arriving through Spain to the rest of Europe 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. It was from these countries that the rest of the world learned to make paper from linen.

Islamic governments during this period heavily funded scholars. The money spent during the Translation Movement for some translations is estimated to be equivalent to twice the annual research budget of the United Kingdom’s Medical Research Council. The best scholars and notable translators, such as Hunayn ibn Ishaq, had salaries that are estimated to rival professional athletes today.

Eastern Christian scholars (including ibn Ishaq) were important in preserving ancient Greek texts. Indeed, we owe our knowledge of these works directly to the Golden Age of Islam.

Centres 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; other centres of translation and learning functioned at Merv, Salonika, Nishapur and Ctesiphon situated just south of what was later to become Baghdad. The House of Wisdom was a library, translation institute and academy established in Abbasid-era Baghdad, Iraq.


The scholars 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. Leading thinkers also absorbed ideas from China, and India, advancing these ideas through their own experimentation and study. Ibn Sina, al-Kindi and al-Farabi combined Aristotelianism and Neoplatonism with new ideas introduced from Islam, while Avicenna argued his famous "Floating Man" thought experiment, concerning self-awareness, where a man prevented of sense experience by being blindfolded and free falling would still be aware of his existence.

Arabic philosophic literature was eventually translated into Latin, and Ladino, finding its way into the West via returning Crusaders and eventually contributing to the development of modern European philosophy. The Islamic golden age also enabled the flourishing of non-Muslim philosophers. The Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides who lived in Andalusia thrived thanks to Islamic rule, during a period in the Christian world where non-religious philosophical thought was repressed.

This is just a small snapshot of this amazing period in history. Stay tuned for more discoveries from the Golden Age of Islam in my next blog.

Discover more about his amazing period in The Infidel and its sequel Veritas:

Islamic Radicalism and Multicultural Politics. Taylor & Francis. p. 9. ISBN 978-1-136-95960-8. Retrieved 26 August 2012.

Vartan Gregorian, "Islam: A Mosaic, Not a Monolith", Brookings Institution Press, 2003, ISBN 0-8157-3283-X

Medieval India, NCERT, ISBN 81-7450-395-1

"In Our Time - Al-Kindi,Hugh Kennedy". 28 June 2012. Retrieved May 18, 2013.

"Islam's Gift of Paper to the West". 2001-12-29. Retrieved 2014-04-11.

"Kevin M. Dunn, ''Caveman chemistry : 28 projects, from the creation of fire to the production of plastics'', Universal-Publishers, 2003, page 166". Retrieved 2014-04-11.

"In Our Time - Al-Kindi,James Montgomery". 28 June 2012. Retrieved May 18, 2013.
Ferguson, Kitty Pythagoras: His Lives and the Legacy of a Rational Universe Walker Publishing Company, New York, 2008,

Kaser, Karl The Balkans and the Near East: Introduction to a Shared History p. 135.
Yazberdiyev, Dr. Almaz Libraries of Ancient Merv Dr. Yazberdiyev is Director of the Library of the Academy of Sciences of Turkmenistan, Ashgabat.

Hyman and Walsh Philosophy in the Middle Ages Indianapolis, 3rd edition

Meri, Josef W. and Jere L. Bacharach, Editors, Medieval Islamic Civilization Vol.1, A - K, Index, 2006,

1 comment:

  1. for this review I am excited to read the book about my history and see it from your point of view