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The Islamic Golden Age (8th–11th Centuries)

In the Middle East, the new Islamic dynasty came to be known as the Abbasid Caliphate and is synonymous with the golden age of Islam. The Abbasids moved their capital from Damascus to Baghdad and through trade with the East and through its agricultural wealth, the city soon became one of the richest cities in the world. It remained the political and cultural capital of the Islamic world from that time until the Mongol invasion in 1258. 

Great wealth encouraged the Abbasids to support learning and the arts; under a succession of great caliphs in the 8th and 9th centuries – predominantly under the caliphs al-Mansur, al-Rashid, and al-Mamoun – significant efforts were directed towards gathering knowledge from around the world. This created the conditions for the great flowering of Muslim culture and intellectual achievement in the caliphate between the 9th and 11th centuries. 

During this period Islamic lands were more open, cultured, sophisticated and richer than any kingdom in the West, where there remained a suspicion of learning that was not considered religious in essence. As William Bernstein describes in ‘A Splendid Exchange’, ‘The Arabs, invigorated by their conquests, experienced a cultural renaissance that extended to many fields; the era’s greatest literature, art, mathematics, and astronomy was not found in Rome, Constantinople, or Paris, but in Damascus, Baghdad and Cordova.30

The Abbasids encouraged a great interest in the writings of the ancient Greek world. Caliph al-Mamoun opened the Bayt al-Hikmah, or ‘House of Wisdom’, where scholars from different lands gathered and studied. Books on mathematics, meteorology, mechanics, astronomy, philosophy, medicine and many other subjects were translated into Arabic from Hebrew, Greek, Persian and other languages, thereby preserving the ancient classics that were of little or no interest to the barbarians in the West. In fact, a number of these works are known to us today only through Arabic translations.

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Legend has it that the Muslims learned how to make paper from a Chinese artisan captured in battle in the mid-8th century. Whether or not this is true, paper was clearly in use in Muslim lands by the 8th century and this only served to aid the rapid spread of ideas and knowledge. They even had a book trade while many Europeans were still writing on animal skins or even bark.

The commands of the Qur’an helped fuel many inventions. For example, Muslims were required to pray to Mecca five times a day. In order to do this they needed to know the time and the direction in which to pray – information that could only be understood through scientific enquiry. Improvements in map-making and navigation were just two of the many outcomes fuelled by the demands of the Qur’an. 

As Jonathan Lyons explains in his book, ‘The House of Wisdom’, ‘Koranic injunction to heal the sick spurred developments in medicine and the creation of advanced hospitals.’31 Christians viewed illness and disease such as the plague as divine punishment to be cured by such acts as persecuting Jews and scourging the body, while the Muslims looked for physical causes that could be treated. Lyons further explains that ‘western notions of medicine were based largely on superstition and exorcism in contrast to the Arab’s advanced clinical training and understanding of surgery, pharmacology and epidemiology. Westerners had no knowledge of ‘hygiene’ and sanitation’.32 As a result, the first hospitals were established in Baghdad, and their learnings subsequently transmitted to Europe, rather than vice-versa. 

In the 11th century Ibn Sina, a Persian writer known in the West as ‘Avicenna’ wrote a vast treatise on medicine, bringing together all the medical knowledge of the ancient Greeks and the Islamic world available at that time. This was referred to widely in medical facilities of Christian Europe right up until the 17th century.

The Islamic culture that developed over in Al-Andalus was dramatically different from that which grew around the Abbasid Caliphate. Not to be outdone, after AD 900, the Umayyad emirate attracted scholars from the East in a deliberate attempt to compete with the Abbasids, thereby creating their own golden age in Cordoba. ‘At its prime, the Muslim Emirate of Al-Andalus with its capital at Cordoba, became the most prosperous, stable, wealthiest and most cultured state in Europe.’33 Indeed, much of the knowledge from the Muslim world passed to the rest of Europe through present-day Spain. 

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