The Golden Age of Islam

Of all the world's great religions, Islam is the youngest, emerging on the world scene in 622 CE (Current Era)with the Hijra (migration), of its founder, the Prophet Muhammad, and his small band of followers, from Mecca to Medina in northwest Arabia. One hundred fifty years later the Muslim theocracy (government where deity is seen as 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, Arabic 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 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 belief that Arabic, the language of the Quran, was the language of Allah himself, 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 labor-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 (actually 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, spread rapidly.

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 eternal 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 both petroleum and alcohol, and the forging of steel

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 experiment, rather than on conjecture. Islamic scientists developed the rudiments of what would later be called the scientific method.

Seventy-five years after the death of Muhammad, 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. Around CE 1000 Ibn Sina recognized the need for patients to actively cooperate in their healing process by resting and giving their bodies the chance to heal themselves. 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 horses.

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 preeminent text in its field until 1610, when the work of European Johannes Kepler surpassed it. Islamic scientist Ibn Sahl (984), in studying the fire-making properties of differently shaped lenses, also developed the first accurate theory of the refraction of light.

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. Avid students of both the heavens and the earth, Muslim scholars made detailed and accurate maps of both. Longitude and latitude were refined by Muslim mapmakers to accurately map distances around the earth. Twelfth-century Persian Omar Khayyam developed a calendar so reliable that over 500 years it was off by only one day. Ingenious irrigation techniques evolved to help arid land bear fruit. Arabic alchemists virtually founded the science of chemistry. The list goes on and on.

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 made by theologian al-Ghazali turned the religious tide back to orthodox belief. In a masterful philosophical argument, most clearly stated in his book, The Destruction of Philosophy, al-Ghazali declared reason and all its works to be bankrupt. Experience and the reason that grew out of it were not to be trusted; they could say nothing meaningful about the reality of Allah. Only direct intuition of God led to worthwhile knowledge. Philosophy was a snare, leading the unwary to the pits of Hell. By the time of his death in 1111, 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 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 Islamic culture was at an end.