Islamic Golden Age

From Academic Kids

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Architecture is one of several fields that blossomed during the Golden Age of Islam. Image shows a mosque in Qazvin, Iran.
During the Islamic Golden Age (750 - 1500) scientists and engineers of the Islamic world contributed enormously to technology, both by preserving earlier traditions and by adding their own inventions and innovations. (Islamic Science and Engineering, Donald Hill, Edinburgh University Press) Scientific and intellectual achievements blossomed in the Golden age.

The Foundations

Islamic governments inherited "the knowledge and skills of the ancient Middle East, of Greece and of Persia, it added to them new and important innovations from outside, such as the manufacture of paper ( from China and decimal positional numbering from India", as Bernard Lewis writes in What Went Wrong?. Much of this learning and development can be linked to their geographic position. Even prior to Islam's presence, the city of Mecca served as a center of trade in Arabia and the prophet Muhammad was himself a merchant. The tradition of the pilgrimage to Mecca became not only a center for an exchange of ideas, but for goods, and the influence held by Islamic trade over African-Arabian and Arabian-Asian trade routes was tremendous. As a result, Islamic civilization grew and expanded on the basis of a merchant economy, in contrast to their Christian, Indian and Chinese peers who built societies from an agricultural landholding nobility. Merchants would bring goods and their faith to China (resulting in a significant population of Chinese Muslims with estimates as high as 143 million followers), India, southeast Asia, and the kingdoms of western Africa and returned with new inventions. Merchants used their wealth to invest in textiles and plantations. Industry of the Islamic Empires in the Golden Age were clearly a precursor to the Industrial Age of the early 19th century.

Islamic Art

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Photo taken from medieval manuscript by Qotbeddin Shirazi, an Astronomer. The image depicts a star constellation.

The golden age of Islamic art lasted from 750 to the 16th century, when ceramics, glass, metalwork, textiles, illuminated manuscripts, and woodwork flourished. Lustered glass became the greatest Islamic contribution to ceramics. Manuscript illumination became an important and greatly respected art, and portrait miniature painting flourished in Persia. Calligraphy, an essential aspect of written Arabic, developed in manuscripts and architectural decoration.


Only in philosophy were Islamic scholars prevented from putting forth unorthodox ideas. Nevertheless, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd 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. The idea of succession of Greek learning however, ignores that, through the enormous flexibility of the language, they would absorb ideas from China, and India, adding tremendous knowledge from their own studies. Three speculative thinkers, al-Kindi, al-Farabi, and Avicenna, combined Aristotelianism and Neoplatonism with other ideas introduced through Islam.

From Spain the Arabic philosophic literature was translated into Hebrew, Latin, and Ladino, contributing to the development of modern European philosophy. The Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, sociologist-historian Ibn Khaldun, Carthage citizen Constantine the African who translated Greek medical texts and Al-Khwarzimi's collation of mathematical techniques were important figures of the Golden Age.


See Main article: Islamic science

Muslims of the medieval period earned the nickname of "the Greeks' most receptive pupils", and for very good reason. The difference in attitudes of Byzantine scientists and their medieval Muslim peers was firm. Byzantium added little to no new knowledge of science of medicine to the Greco-Roman scientific tradition, stagnating in awe of their classical predecessors. Most notable Islamic scientists lived and practiced during the Islamic Golden Age. Among the achievements of Muslim scholars during this period were the invention of spherical trigonometry and advances in optics (see Ibn al-Haytham).


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Rhazes, treating a Patient.

Medicine was a central part of medieval Islamic culture. Responding to circumstances of time and place, Islamic physicians and scholars developed a large and complex medical literature exploring and synthesizing the theory and practice of medicine. (from the National Library of Medicine digital archives)

Islamic medicine was built on tradition, chiefly the theoretical and practical knowledge developed in Greece, Rome, and Persia. For Islamic scholars, Galen and Hippocrates were pre-eminent authorities, followed by Hellenic scholars in Alexandria. Islamic scholars translated their voluminous writings from Greek into Arabic and then produced new medical knowledge based on those texts. In order to make the Greek tradition more accessible, understandable, and teachable, Islamic scholars ordered and made more systematic the vast and sometimes inconsistent Greco-Roman medical knowledge by writing encyclopedias and summaries. (from the National Library of Medicine digital archives)

It was through Arabic translations that the West learned of Hellenic medicine, including the works of Galen and Hippocrates. Of equal if not of greater influence in Western Europe were systematic and comprehensive works such as Avicenna's Canons of Medicine, which were translated into Latin and then disseminated in manuscript and printed form throughout Europe. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries alone, the Canons of Medicine was published more than thirty-five times. (from the National Library of Medicine digital archives)

In the medieval Islamic world, hospitals were built in all major cities; in Cairo for example, the Qalawun Hospital could care for 8,000 patients, and a staff that included physicians, pharmacists, and nurses. One could also access a dispensary, and research facility that led to advances in understanding contagious diseases, and research into optics and the mechanisms of the eye. indeed, Muslim doctors were removing cataracts with hollow needles over 1000 years before westerns dared attempt such a task.

Commerce and Urban Life

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Avicenna was the greatest of the medieval Islamic physicians, whose work had a direct impact on the Renaissance.

From the very beginning, the foundation of Islamic civilization was urban and business oriented, and its growth in population and agriculture is mirrored through its global trade network. Muslim cities grew unregulated, resulting in narrow winding city streets and neighborhoods separated by different ethnic backgrounds and religious affiliations. These qualities proved efficient for transporting goods to and from major commercial centers while preserving the privacy valued by Islamic family life. Suburbs lay just outside the walled city, from wealthy residential communities, to working class semi-slums. City garbage dumps were located far from the city, as were clearly defined cemeteries which were often homes for criminals and prostitutes. A place of prayer was found just near one of the main gates, for religious festivals and public executions. Similarly, Military Training grounds were found near a main gate.

While varying in appearance due to climate and prior local traditions, Islamic cities were almost always dominated by a merchant middle class. Peoples loyalty towards their neighborhood was very strong, reflecting ethnicity and religion, while a sense of citizenship was uncommon. The extended family provided the foundation for social programs, business deals, and negotiations with authorities. Part of this economic and social unit were often the tenants of a wealthy landlord.

State power normally focused on Dar al Imara, the governor's office in the citadel. These fortresses towered high above the city built on thousands of years of human settlement. The primary function of the city governor was to provide for defence and to maintain legal order. This system would be responsible for a mixture of autocracy and autonomy within the city. Each neighborhood, and many of the large tenement blocks, elected a representative to deal with urban authorities. These neighborhoods were also expected to organize their young men into a militia providing for protection of their own neighborhoods, and as aid to the professional armies defending the city as a whole.

The head of the family was given the position of authority in his household, although a qadi, or judge was able to negotiate and resolve differences in issues of disagreements within families and between them. The two senior representatives of municipal authority were the qadi and the muhtasib, who held the responsibilities of many issues, including quality of water, maintenance of city streets, containing outbreaks of disease, supervising the markets, and a prompt burial of the dead.

Another aspect of Islamic urban life was waqf, a religious charity directly dealing with the qadi and religious leaders. Through donations, the waqf owned many of the public baths and factories, using the revenue to fund education, and to provide irrigation for Orchards outside the city. Following expansion, this system was introduced into Eastern Europe by Ottoman Turks.

While religious foundations of all faiths were tax exempt in the Muslim world, civilians paid their taxes to the urban authorities, soldiers to the superior officer, and landowners to the state treasury. Taxes were also levied on an unmarried man until he was wed.

Animals brought to the city for slaughter were restricted to areas outside the city, as were any other industries seen as unclean. The more valuable a good was, the closer its market was to the center of town. Because of this, booksellers and goldsmiths clustered around the main mosque at the heart of the city.

Guilds were officially unrecognized by the medieval Islamic city, but trades were supervised by an official recognized by the city. Each trade developed its own identity, whose members would attend the same mosque, and serve together in the militia. Slaves were often employed on sugar plantations and salt mines, but more likely as domestic house servants or professional soldiers.

Technology and Industry of Islamic civilization was highly developed. Distillation techniques supported a flourishing perfume industry, while chemical ceramic glazes were developed constantly to compete with ceramics imported from China. A scientific approach to metallurgy made it easier to adopt and improve steel technologies from India and China. Primary exports included manufactured luxuries, such as wood carving, metal and glass, textiles, and ceramics.

The systems of contract relied upon by merchants was very effective. Merchants would buy and sell on commission, with money loaned to them by wealthy investors, or a joint investment of several merchants, who were Muslim, Christian and Jewish. Recently a collection of documents were found in an Egyptian synagogue shedding a very detailed and human light on the life of medieval middle eastern merchants. Business partnerships would be made for many commercial ventures, and bonds of kinship enabled trade networks to form over huge distances. Networks developed during this time enabled a world in which money could be promised by a bank in Baghdad and cashed in Spain, creating the check system of today. Each time items passed through the cities along this extraordinary network, the city imposed a tax, resulting in high prices once reaching the final destination. Regardless, the Muslim world never completely relied on foreign markets, remaining completely self sufficient throughout this period.

Transport was simple yet highly effective. Each city had an area outside its gates where pack animals were assembled, found in the cities markets were large secure warehouses, while accommodations were provided for merchants in cities and along trade routes by a sort of medieval motel.

Apart from the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates, navigable rivers were uncommon, so transport by sea was very important. Navigational sciences were highly developed making use of a rudimentary sextant known as a kamal to altitudes of stars, and a magnetic compass. When combined with detailed maps of the period, sailors were able to sail across oceans rather than skirt along the coast. Muslim sailors were also responsible for reintroducing large three masted merchant vessels to the Mediterranean. The caravels used by Italian explorer Christopher Columbus were in fact, based on designs by earlier Muslim Andalusian vessels. An artificial canal linking the Nile with the Gulf of Suez was constructed, conversely linking the Red Sea with the Mediterranean although it silted up several times.

A tradition from Muhammad advises his followers to "even travel to China if it means obtaining knowledge." And not long after Muhammad's death, during the Islamic Golden Age, one can observe such travel and exchange with far way lands taking place.

For example, Ala'eddin, is honoured in the official history of China's Yuan dynasty, for having constructed the Counterweight Trebuchet for Kubilai. (see p119) (

And we now know that in fact Islam learned paper making from China as a result of this contact, but made the crucial decision to use linen as the raw material for paper, rather than mulberry bark, or other organic matter. The transfer of Chinese technology and the innovation in the use of linen provided a writing material more economical than parchment and more durable than papyrus. It was from Islam that the rest of the world learned to make paper from linen. (from the digital archives of The National Library of Medicine)

Architecture and Engineering

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The Kharaghan twin towers, built in 1067 AD, Persia, contain tombs of Seljuki princes.

See main article: Islamic architecture

The Great Mosque of Samarra in Iraq was completed in 847. It combined the hypostyle architecture of rows of columns supporting a flat base above which a huge spiralling minaret was constructed.

The Moors began construction of the Great Mosque at Cordoba in 785 marking the beginning of Islamic architecture in Spain and Northern Africa (see Moors). The mosque is noted for its striking interior arches. Moorish architecture reached its peak with the construction of the Alhambra, the magnificent palace/fortress of Granada, with its open and breezy interior spaces adorned in red, blue, and gold. The walls are decorated with stylized foliage motifs, Arabic inscriptions, and arabesque design work, with walls covered in glazed tiles.

Another distinctive sub-style is the architecture of the Mughal Empire in India in the 16th century. Blending Islamic and Hindu elements, the emperor Akbar constructed the royal city of Fatehpur Sikri (, located 26 miles west of Agra, in the late 1500s.

The Agricultural Revolution

Mongolian invasion and gradual decline

In 1206, Genghis Khan established a powerful dynasty among the Mongols of central Asia. During the 13th century, this Mongol Empire conquered most of the Eurasian land mass, including both China in the east and much of the old Islamic caliphate (as well as Russia) in the west. Later Mongol leaders, such as Timur, destroyed many cities, slaughtered hundreds of thousands of people, and did irrevocable damage to the ancient irrigation systems of Mesopotamia. Muslim lands subject to the Mongols now faced northeast, toward the land routes to China, rather than toward Mecca.

Eventually, most of the Mongol peoples that settled in western Asia converted to Islam and in many instances became assimilated into various Muslim Turkic peoples. (For instance, one of the greatest early Muslim astronomers, Ulugh Beg, was a grandson of Timur.) The Ottoman Empire rose from the ashes, but the Golden Age was theoretically over.

Opposing Views

Some commentators have detracted from the importance of the Golden Age going as far as to call it a myth, intended to distract attention from modern Islam. It is indisputable that Islamic regimes, such as the Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad under Harun ar-Rashid or al-Andalus were very wealthy in comparison with their neighbours, preserved a large amount of Greek philosophy, and transmitted Eastern ideas such as the concept of zero ('0') believed to have been developed in India. (See also: Arabic numerals). However, critics argue that all this flourished in spite of Islam rather than because of it.

The caliphate and other Islamic governments emphasized rigid Qur'anic orthodoxy and deployed Greek philosophy and science solely to buttress its authority. Persecution, exile and death were frequently meted out to philosophers whose writings did not conform to the Islamic canon. An example was the treatment of Ibn Rushd (Averroës) who attempted to reconcile Aristotle's writings to Islam (although Ibn Rushd is still considered an authority in one of the four classical schools of Islamic law).de:Blütezeit des Islam


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