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




Adapting to Climate Change through Technology

Welcome to my first Humanist blog post. I’ll be trying to update this blog roughly every 2 weeks. I’ll be covering all kinds of topics relating to Humanism, science, politics, religion and history.

At the last West Yorkshire Humanists meeting we had a talk on Methane and Climate Change. This inspired me to look at what strategies and technologies could be deployed to help Humanity adapt to climate change in the future.

The effects of climate change on our global civilization could be devastating; sea level rises, desertification, destruction of agricultural land, ocean acidification and increased frequency of extreme weather events to name but a few. There are ways however that we can adapt to these changes in our world and I hope to outline a few here. I could literally write a book on the subject so I’m going to focus on solutions to the problems of agriculture, sea level rise and finishing with a look at the ambitious world of geoengineering.

One of the biggest challenges of climate change that will face all the world’s societies, both developed and developing, will be the damage to the world’s agricultural infrastructure. Regions that have been the world’s bread baskets for millennia could be rendered unusable through drought, desertification and wild fires. There are a number of avenues we could pursue in trying to adapt to this to avoid mass famine.

For example recent research has looked at developing new methods of farming, such as so called vertical farming which grows food on vertically stacked layers thus allowing for double the food production in half the land area. This could particularly be useful for densely populated regions where land is a premium and also affords other benefits such as reducing the environmental impact of agriculture and providing protection for crops against extreme weather.

Another emerging agricultural technology is hydroponics which involves the growing of crops artificially in indoors gardens without the need for soil. Instead of soil crops are grown by placing their roots in nutrient rich water solutions, or in nutrient bathed inert mediums like gravel, brick pieces or even wool. What’s interesting about hydroponics is that it is already a developed technology, there are already hydroponic gardens and farms in the world it just needs the investment by farmers and governments to implement it on a wider scale.

Sea level rise is perhaps one of the most dramatic effects of climate change. It is estimated that the sea may rise as much as 2 meters by 2100 in the worst case scenario.  Even if we don’t get the worst case scenario, the sea level will continue to rise even after 2100 as our world warms. I’ll admit I was shocked by how few solutions there are to managing this problem. The obvious one is simply to move people away from the coasts however given that the majority of the world’s largest cities are coastal, moving and resettling such vast numbers of people is problematic at best. A solution for some areas, at least in the medium term, would be the building of extensive new sea walls, levees and water management systems similar to the Delta Works in the Netherlands, one of the largest sea defence systems ever built, but potentially on an even larger scale.

Unfortunately, especially in very low laying regions, even sea walls can be outstripped and no system is full proof. A more radical and ambitious solution for dealing with rising sea levels and land loss is the concept of constructing large self-contained cities that float at sea. Whilst perhaps a little outlandish at first sight, much of the technology needed to build a floating city or city-ship does exist, it is merely a case of scaling it up. There have been a number of serious proposals or designs for such a city-ship. One that I found is called the Lilypad or Floating Ecopolis. Designed in 2008 by Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut for the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), it is a proposed self-sufficient amphibious city that houses up to 50,000 people and could be deployed in coastal regions to rehouse the potentially millions of people displaced by sea level rise or other climate change effects. What makes Lilypad interesting is that it is not just a city that floats but also provides areas for agriculture, purifies its own water supply and generates its own electricity thus once built it is largely self-sufficient. Lilypad isn’t alone out there, there are a number of similar proposals and projects and whilst quite ambitious in scale out of all the solutions to sea level rise I’ve found it is the only one that provides a long term solution to the problem thus far.

This brings us nicely to the ambitious world of geoengineering. Geoengineering refers to any large scale engineering project aimed at altering our climate or weather patterns to avert dangerous climate change. These project proposals are wide ranging and come in a variety of forms. The IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) identifies two areas where most geoengineering schemes fall. These are carbon dioxide removal and solar management.

Carbon dioxide removal schemes as you’d expect involve methods for reducing the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere to compensate for the carbon we have pumped in through industrial action. They include options such as the creation of biochar from biomass (e.g. wood, leaves, agricultural waste, faeces etc.) that would otherwise release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. Biochar is a stable charcoal like substance that can then be buried in the ground or used as a very rich and efficient fertilizer for crops.

Another option is so called Carbon Capture and Storage or CCS. This uses a variety of techniques to capture carbon dioxide as it is emitted at fossil fuel power stations or other CO2 sources. Once it has been absorbed it can either be sequestered away in geological formations underground (e.g. unmined coal seams, oil fields or salt formations) or sealed away by chemically reacting the CO2 with metal oxides to create stable carbonates like calcite or magnesite which are then easily stored away.

Somewhat more ambitious are solar management geo-engineering projects. These involve the alteration of the amount of sunlight that is absorbed by our planet. They typically involve either using some kind of space based device to reflect some of the sun’s light away from the Earth or use ground, oceanic or atmospheric based techniques to increase the Earth’s albedo so it naturally reflects more light away. The benefits of these approaches are that they provide near instant changes to the Earth’s climate whereas CCS and other Carbon removal schemes could take decades to see any change. Furthermore they can be easily reversed if at a future time we wish to stop the project. The downside to solar management schemes is that they are often quite costly, particularly space-based solutions and we don’t necessarily know exactly how our climate would respond to the change in solar output. Furthermore solar management schemes do nothing to change the amounts of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere and thus do not solve the other problems of greenhouses gases such as ocean acidification.

I’ve only brushed the surface on adaptations and technological solutions to the problems raised by climate change. Certainly the message however that my research has given me is that the Human race is brilliantly innovative and adaptable and there are already minds hard at work developing the technologies and strategies for our survival in the future. Whilst the challenge we face is large, Humanity’s ingenuity has always been our greatest strength as a species and we will no doubt continue to adapt and develop in ways we may not even be able to imagine now. What is vital is that we continue to fund research into projects like those I’ve outlined for it is only by knowing more that we will find a way towards a sustainable brighter future.

Michael J Bramham