What is the Islamic Golden Age?

The response to my first blog post was really good; thank you all for your feedback. Recently West Yorkshire Humanists had a brilliant talk on Political Islam by Dr Afshin Shahi of the University of Bradford. This got me thinking about Islamic history and in particular about the Islamic Golden Age. You see, many fundamentalist Islamists harken back to this time as the zenith of Islamic civilization and wish to recapture some of the success and prestige of this time. What they perhaps don’t realise, as I will elaborate on, is that they may have found themselves somewhat out of place in the time of the Islamic Golden Age.

The term ‘Islamic Golden Age’ was first coined in the 19th century by western historians to describe a flowering of art, science and culture in the Islamic Middle East during the medieval period comparable to the renaissance in Europe. It is traditionally dated from the late 8th century and the rule of the Abbasid Caliph Harun Al-Rashid (reigned 786-809) through to the middle of the 13th century and the Mongol Sacking of Baghdad in 1258. These dates are not universally accepted however and some historians give much earlier start dates and later end dates.

The two most important states involved in achievements of the Golden Age were the Sunni Abbasid Caliphate, largely based in Iraq and Syria and the Shia Fatimid Caliphate based in Egypt. A Caliph or Khalifah in Arabic, is a secular and religious Islamic ruler who claims to be a successor to the prophet Muhammad as a leader of the Islamic people. The title has been claimed by many throughout history, usually hereditary monarchies though in early Islam it was an elected position. The Abbasids claim descent from Al-Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib, the paternal uncle of Muhammad and a key figure in Muhammad’s life and existed from 750 to 1517 though they became vassals of other powers from 945 onwards. The Fatimids meanwhile were a Shia dynasty who claimed descent from Muhammad himself via his daughter Fatimah and his son-in-law Caliph Ali who is a central figure in Shia Islam, and ruled Egypt and parts of North Africa from 909 to 1171.

Both these dynasties founded important educational and research centres that would act as focal points for the Islamic Golden Age, the House of Wisdom or Bayt al-Hikma in Baghdad (established by Abbasid Caliph Harun Al-Rashid) and the House of Knowledge in Cairo (established by Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah in 1004). Both served as enormous state sponsored libraries and universities whose scholarship made them among the greatest centres of learning in the medieval world, beyond anything found in Western Europe at this time. Unlike the Islam of today’s extremists, medieval Islam was very pro-education and academic study. Inspired by a number of Hadiths from the prophet that praise education many medieval Muslim states sponsored educational institutions and libraries and provided state patronage for philosophers and other scholars both Muslim and Non-Muslim.

Indeed, the Golden Age did not just include Muslim scholars. For instance Moses Maimonides, one of the greatest medieval Jewish philosophers received support from the court of Egyptian Sultan Saladin, whilst Nestorian Christian Arab scholars formed a major part of the early scholarship at the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. Though religious relations were not always harmonious, for the most part Jews and Christian minorities in the Middle East flourished under Islamic rule. Indeed freedom of religion and freedom of expression in Fatimid Egypt were unprecedented anywhere in the Mediterranean and European world and so long as they didn’t infringe on the rights of others and did not threaten the state people could believe or express themselves whatever way they wished under most Fatimid Caliphs.

The Achievements of the Golden Age
In the beginning Islamic scholars worked to translate Ancient Greek and Roman works on philosophy, mathematics and science into Arabic. Later they expanded to include translations of ancient Persian and even classical Indian texts. This created an unprecedented melting pot of ideas that was fertile ground for new scholarship.

Some of the greatest achievements of Islamic scholarship were in mathematics. Islamic mathematicians made many advances most notably in algebra, algorithms, trigonometry and calculus. Indeed the words algebra and algorithm are Arabic words, algebra meaning ‘reunion of broken parts’ whilst algorithm is derived from the Latinization of the name of Islamic Persian mathematician Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi. Perhaps one of the developments in Islamic mathematics that has had the biggest impact on modern mathematics is their numeral system which they developed out of the Hindu numeral system and which we use today. What is significant about the Arabic-Hindu numeral system is its concept of a number zero. In Greco-Roman mathematics zero was usually thought of as the absence of something rather than a number in its own right and lacked an agreed numeral for it. It was Hindu mathematicians who first identified zero as its own number, a concept that was translated and further developed by Arabic scholars who then passed this on to the Europeans.

Medieval Islamic science was among the most advanced in the Old World. Like the Ancient Greeks, Islamic ‘scientists’ took a holistic approach to scientific study and most conducted studies in numerous different fields rather than specializing in any one. Among the fields they contributed to were physics, medicine, astronomy, optics, chemistry and many others. They were not just derivative of Greco-Roman science either, for instance Islamic chemists and alchemists such as the Persian polymath Rhazes (Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyya al-Razi in Arabic), broke with the Greco-Roman tradition of the four elements and instead categorized substances by their observed chemical properties.

Some 400 years before the Renaissance in Europe (600 years before Sir Isaac Newton), a number of Islamic scholars were already developing what would become known as the scientific method. Legendary Islamic scientist and philosopher Alhazen (Abu Ali al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham in Arabic), described variously as the world’s first scientist or simply The Physicist, developed what we can identify today as the scientific method, devising uniform experiments to test his hypotheses and calling on scientists to be sceptical and critical of all ideas including their own. Alhazen was not alone either, Rhazes (see above) also studied medicine and devised a system of experimentation with treatments that made use of what is clearly a control group, to determine a treatment’s effectiveness.

In Conclusion

I could write a book or several on the achievements of Islamic science and mathematics, to say nothing of its arts and philosophy and I’ve touched only lightly on it here. Far from the Anti-Intellectual and violent ideology we see in modern Islamist groups, the Islam of this age was an upholder and encourager of scientific inquiry, philosophy and critical thinking that has had an undeniable impact on our own western civilization. Certainly we can see that far from recapturing this era’s success and prestige, Islamists are doing quite the opposite. Sadly the Islamic Golden Age came to an end from the 1200s onwards for a multitude of reasons long argued over though the Mongol’s destruction of the House of Wisdom in 1258 is often seen as a critical point, as are the Christian Crusades. Hopefully one day the people of the Middle East can retake their history from savage fantasists like ISIS and take pride in their contribution to Humanity’s culture and knowledge.

Further Reading

Wikipedia has a good article on this topic if you want an overview.

Alternatively there are a number of books written on the subject here are a few recent ones I’m aware of:

  • Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance (2011) by George Saliba
  • The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization (2010) by Jonathan Lyons




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