Islamic Golden Age
The Islamic Golden Age is the era in the history of Islam, traditionally dated from the 8th century to the 13th century, during which much of the historically Islamic world was ruled by various caliphates, and science, economic development and cultural works flourished. This period is traditionally understood to have begun during the reign of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (786 to 809) with the inauguration of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, where scholars from various parts of the world with different cultural backgrounds were mandated to gather and translate all of the world's classical knowledge into the Arabic language. This period is traditionally said to have ended with the collapse of the Abbasid caliphate due to Mongol invasions and the Siege of Baghdad in 1258 AD. A few contemporary scholars place the end of the Islamic Golden Age as late as the end of 15th to 16th centuries.
- 1 History of the concept
- 2 Causes
- 3 Philosophy
- 4 Mathematics
- 5 Natural sciences
- 6 Engineering
- 7 Social sciences
- 8 Healthcare
- 9 Education
- 10 Commerce and travel
- 11 Arts and culture
- 12 Decline
- 13 See also
- 14 Notes
- 15 References
- 16 Further reading
- 17 External links
History of the concept
The metaphor of a golden age began to be applied in 19th-century literature about Islamic history, in the context of the western aesthetic fashion known as Orientalism. The author of a Handbook for Travelers in Syria and Palestine in 1868 observed that the most beautiful mosques of Damascus were "like Mohammedanism itself, now rapidly decaying" and relics of "the golden age of Islam".
There is no unambiguous definition of term, and depending on whether it is used with a focus on cultural or on military achievement, it may be taken to refer to rather disparate time spans. Thus, one author would have it extend to the duration of the caliphate, or to "six and a half centuries", while another would have it end after only a few decades of Rashidun conquests, with the death of Umar and the First Fitna.
During the early 20th century, the term was used only occasionally, and often referred to the early military successes of the Rashidun caliphs. It was only in the second half of the 20th century that the term came to be used with any frequency, now mostly referring to the cultural flourishing of science and mathematics under the caliphate during the 9th to 11th centuries (between the establishment of organised scholarship in the House of Wisdom and the beginning of the crusades), but often extended to include part of the late 8th or the 12th to early 13th centuries. Definitions may still vary considerably. Equating the end of the golden age with the end of the caliphate is a convenient cut-off point based on a historical landmark, but it can be argued that Islamic culture had entered a gradual decline much earlier; thus, Khan (2003) identifies the proper golden age as being the two centuries between 750–950, arguing that the beginning loss of territories under Harun al-Rashid worsened after the death of al-Ma'mun in 833, and that the crusades in the 12th century resulted in a further weakening of the Abbasid empire from which it never recovered.
The various Quranic injunctions and Hadith, which place values on education and emphasize the importance of acquiring knowledge, played a vital role in influencing the Muslims of this age in their search for knowledge and the development of the body of science.
The Muslim government heavily patronized scholars. The money spent on the Translation Movement for some translations is estimated to be equivalent to about twice the annual research budget of the United Kingdom’s Medical Research Council. The best scholars and notable translators, such as Hunayn ibn Ishaq, had salaries that are estimated to be the equivalent of professional athletes today. The House of Wisdom was a library established in Abbasid-era Baghdad, Iraq by Caliph al-Mansur.
Earlier cultural influence
During this period, the Muslims showed a strong interest in assimilating the scientific knowledge of the civilizations that had been conquered. Many classic works of antiquity that might otherwise have been lost were translated from Greek, Persian, Indian, Chinese, Egyptian, and Phoenician civilizations into Arabic and Persian, and later in turn translated into Turkish, Hebrew, and Latin.
Christians, especially the adherents of the Church of the East (Nestorians), contributed to Islamic civilization during the reign of the Ummayads and the Abbasids by translating works of Greek philosophers and ancient science to Syriac and afterwards to Arabic. They also excelled in many fields, in particular philosophy, science (such as Hunayn ibn Ishaq, Qusta ibn Luqa, Masawaiyh, Patriarch Eutychius, and Jabril ibn Bukhtishu) and theology. For a long period of time the personal physicians of the Abbasid Caliphs were often Assyrian Christians. Among the most prominent Christian families to serve as physicians to the caliphs were the Bukhtishu dynasty.
Throughout the 4th to 7th centuries, Christian scholarly work in the Greek and Syriac languages was either newly translated or had been preserved since the Hellenistic period. Among the prominent centers of learning and transmission of classical wisdom were Christian colleges such as the School of Nisibis and the School of Edessa, and the renowned hospital and medical academy of Jundishapur, which was the intellectual, theological and scientific center of the Church of the East. The House of Wisdom was founded in Baghdad in 825, modelled after the Academy of Gondishapur. It was led by Christian physician Hunayn ibn Ishaq, with the support of Byzantine medicine. Many of the most important philosophical and scientific works of the ancient world were translated, including the work of Galen, Hippocrates, Plato, Aristotle, Ptolemy and Archimedes. Many scholars of the House of Wisdom were of Christian background.
With a new and easier writing system, and the introduction of paper, information was democratized to the extent that, for probably the first time in history, it became possible to make a living from simply writing and selling books. The use of paper spread from China into Muslim regions in the eighth century, arriving in Al-Andalus on the Iberian peninsula, present-day Spain in the 10th century. It was easier to manufacture than parchment, less likely to crack than papyrus, and could absorb ink, making it difficult to erase and ideal for keeping records. Islamic paper makers devised assembly-line methods of hand-copying manuscripts to turn out editions far larger than any available in Europe for centuries. It was from these countries that the rest of the world learned to make paper from linen.
Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) 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. Ibn Sina and other philosophers such as al-Kindi and al-Farabi combined Aristotelianism and Neoplatonism with other ideas introduced through Islam. Arabic philosophic literature was translated into Latin and Ladino, contributing to the development of modern European philosophy. During this period, non-Muslims were allowed to flourish relative to treatment of religious minorities in the Christian Byzantine Empire. The Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, who lived in Andalusia, is an example.
Avicenna argued his "Floating man" thought experiment concerning self-awareness, in which a man prevented of sense experience by being blindfolded and free falling would still be aware of his existence.
In epistemology, Ibn Tufail wrote the novel Hayy ibn Yaqdhan and in response Ibn al-Nafis wrote the novel Theologus Autodidactus. Both were concerning autodidacticism as illuminated through the life of a feral child spontaneously generated in a cave on a desert island.
Islamic art makes use of geometric patterns and symmetries in many of its art forms, notably in girih tilings. These are formed using a set of five tile shapes, namely a regular decagon, an elongated hexagon, a bow tie, a rhombus, and a regular pentagon. All the sides of these tiles have the same length; and all their angles are multiples of 36° (π/5 radians), offering fivefold and tenfold symmetries. The tiles are decorated with strapwork lines (girih), generally more visible than the tile boundaries. In 2007, the physicists Peter Lu and Paul Steinhardt argued that girih from the 15th century resembled quasicrystalline Penrose tilings. Elaborate geometric zellige tilework is a distinctive element in Moroccan architecture. Muqarnas vaults are three-dimensional but were designed in two dimensions with drawings of geometrical cells.
Ibn Muʿādh al-Jayyānī is one of several Islamic mathematicians to whom the law of sines is attributed; he wrote his The Book of Unknown Arcs of a Sphere in the 11th century. This formula relates the lengths of the sides of any triangle, rather than only right triangles, to the sines of its angles. According to the law,
where a, b, and c are the lengths of the sides of a triangle, and A, B, and C are the opposite angles (see figure).
Alhazen discovered the sum formula for the fourth power, using a method that could be generally used to determine the sum for any integral power. He used this to find the volume of a paraboloid. He could find the integral formula for any polynomial without having developed a general formula.
Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) was a significant figure in the history of scientific method, particularly in his approach to experimentation, and has been described as the "world's first true scientist".
Avicenna made rules for testing the effectiveness of drugs, including that the effect produced by the experimental drug should be seen constantly or after many repetitions, to be counted. The physician Rhazes was an early proponent of experimental medicine and recommended using control for clinical research. He said: "If you want to study the effect of bloodletting on a condition, divide the patients into two groups, perform bloodletting only on one group, watch both, and compare the results."
In about 964 AD, the Persian astronomer Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi, writing in his Book of Fixed Stars, described a "nebulous spot" in the Andromeda constellation, the first definitive reference to what we now know is the Andromeda Galaxy, the nearest spiral galaxy to our galaxy. Nasir al-Din al-Tusi invented a geometrical technique called a Tusi-couple, which generates linear motion from the sum of two circular motions to replace Ptolemy's problematic equant The Tusi couple was later employed in Ibn al-Shatir's geocentric model and Nicolaus Copernicus' heliocentric Copernican model although it is not known who the intermediary is or if Copernicus rediscovered the technique independently.
Alhazen played a role in the development of optics. One of the prevailing theories of vision in his time and place was the emission theory supported by Euclid and Ptolemy, where sight worked by the eye emitting rays of light, and the other was the Aristotelean theory that sight worked when the essence of objects flows into the eyes. Alhazen correctly argued that vision occurred when light, traveling in straight lines, reflects off an object into the eyes. Al-Biruni wrote of his insights into light, stating that its velocity must be immense when compared to the speed of sound.
In the cardiovascular system, Ibn al-Nafis in his Commentary on Anatomy in Avicenna's Canon was the first to contradict the contention of the Galen School that blood could pass between the ventricles in the heart through the cardiac inter-ventricular septum that separates them, saying that there is no passage between the ventricles at this point. Instead, he correctly argued that all the blood that reached the left ventricle did so after passing through the lung. He also stated that there must be small communications, or pores, between the pulmonary artery and pulmonary vein, a prediction that preceded the discovery of the pulmonary capillaries of Marcello Malpighi by 400 years. The Commentary was rediscovered in the twentieth century in the Prussian State Library in Berlin; whether its view of the pulmonary circulation influenced scientists such as Michael Servetus is unclear.
In the nervous system, Rhazes stated that nerves had motor or sensory functions, describing 7 cranial and 31 spinal cord nerves. He assigned a numerical order to the cranial nerves from the optic to the hypoglossal nerves. He classified the spinal nerves into 8 cervical, 12 thoracic, 5 lumbar, 3 sacral, and 3 coccygeal nerves. He used this to link clinical signs of injury to the corresponding location of lesions in the nervous system.
Modern commentators have likened medieval accounts of the "struggle for existence" in the animal kingdom to the framework of the theory of evolution. Thus, in his survey of the history of the ideas which led to the theory of natural selection, Conway Zirkle noted that al-Jahiz was one of those who discussed a "struggle for existence", in his Kitab al-Hayawan (Book of Animals), written in the 9th century. In the 13th century, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi believed that humans were derived from advanced animals, saying, "Such humans [probably anthropoid apes] live in the Western Sudan and other distant corners of the world. They are close to animals by their habits, deeds and behavior." In 1377, Ibn Khaldun in his Muqaddimah stated, "“The animal kingdom was developed, its species multiplied, and in the gradual process of Creation, it ended in man & arising from the world of the monkeys.”
The Banū Mūsā brothers, in their Book of Ingenious Devices, describe an automatic flute player which may have been the first programmable machine. The flute sounds were produced through hot steam and the user could adjust the device to various patterns so that they could get various sounds from it.
The first Muslim hospital was an asylum to contain leprosy, built in the early eighth century, where patients were confined but, like the blind, were given a stipend to support their families. The earliest general hospital was built in 805 in Baghdad by Harun Al-Rashid. By the tenth century, Baghdad had five more hospitals, while Damascus had six hospitals by the 15th century and Córdoba alone had 50 major hospitals, many exclusively for the military.
The typical hospital was divided into departments such as systemic diseases, surgery and orthopedics with larger hospitals having more diverse specialties. "Systemic diseases" was the rough equivalent of today's internal medicine and was further divided into sections such as fever, infections and digestive issues. Every department had an officer-in-charge, a presiding officer and a supervising specialist. The hospitals also had lecture theaters and libraries. Hospitals staff included sanitary inspectors, who regulated cleanliness, and accountants and other administrative staff. The hospitals were typically run by a three-man board comprising a non-medical administrator, the chief pharmacist, called the shaykh saydalani, who was equal in rank to the chief physician, who served as mutwalli (dean). Medical facilities traditionally closed each night, but by the 10th century laws were passed to keep hospitals open 24 hours a day.
For less serious cases, physicians staffed outpatient clinics. Cities also had first aid centers staffed by physicians for emergencies that were often located in busy public places, such as big gatherings for Friday prayers to take care of casualties. The region also had mobile units staffed by doctors and pharmacists who were supposed to meet the need of remote communities. Baghdad was also known to have a separate hospital for convicts since the early 10th century after the vizier ‘Ali ibn Isa ibn Jarah ibn Thabit wrote to Baghdad’s chief medical officer that “prisons must have their own doctors who should examine them every day”. The first hospital built in Egypt, in Cairo's Southwestern quarter, was the first documented facility to care for mental illnesses. In Aleppo's Arghun Hospital, care for mental illness included abundant light, fresh air, running water and music.
Medical students would accompany physicians and participate in patient care. Hospitals in this era were the first to require medical diplomas to license doctors. The licensing test was administered by the region's government appointed chief medical officer. The test had two steps; the first was to write a treatise, on the subject the candidate wished to obtain a certificate, of original research or commentary of existing texts, which they were encouraged to scrutinize for errors. The second step was to answer questions in an interview with the chief medical officer. Physicians worked fixed hours and medical staff salaries were fixed by law. For regulating the quality of care and arbitrating cases, it is related that if a patient dies, their family presents the doctor's prescriptions to the chief physician who would judge if the death was natural or if it was by negligence, in which case the family would be entitled to compensation from the doctor. The hospitals had male and female quarters while some hospitals only saw men and other hospitals, staffed by women physicians, only saw women. While women physicians practiced medicine, many largely focused on obstetrics.
Hospitals were forbidden by law to turn away patients who were unable to pay. Eventually, charitable foundations called waqfs were formed to support hospitals, as well as schools. Part of the state budget also went towards maintaining hospitals. While the services of the hospital were free for all citizens and patients were sometimes given a small stipend to support recovery upon discharge, individual physicians occasionally charged fees. In a notable endowment, a 13th-century governor of Egypt Al Mansur Qalawun ordained a foundation for the Qalawun hospital that would contain a mosque and a chapel, separate wards for different diseases, a library for doctors and a pharmacy and the hospital is used today for ophthalmology. The Qalawun hospital was based in a former Fatimid palace which had accommodation for 8,000 people -  "it served 4,000 patients daily." The waqf stated,
"...The hospital shall keep all patients, men and women, until they are completely recovered. All costs are to be borne by the hospital whether the people come from afar or near, whether they are residents or foreigners, strong or weak, low or high, rich or poor, employed or unemployed, blind or sighted, physically or mentally ill, learned or illiterate. There are no conditions of consideration and payment, none is objected to or even indirectly hinted at for non-payment."
By the ninth century, there was a rapid expansion of private pharmacies in many Muslim cities. Initially, these were unregulated and managed by personnel of inconsistent quality. Decrees by Caliphs Al-Ma'mun and Al-Mu'tasim required examinations to license pharmacists and pharmacy students were trained in a combination of classroom exercises coupled with day-to-day practical experiences with drugs. To avoid conflicts of interest, doctors were banned from owning or sharing ownership in a pharmacy. Pharmacies were periodically inspected by government inspectors called muhtasib, who checked to see that the medicines were mixed properly, not diluted and kept in clean jars. Violators were fined or beaten.
The misplaced theory of Humorism was largely dominant during this time. Arab physician Ibn Zuhr provided proof that scabies is caused by the itch mite and that it can be cured by removing the parasite without the need for purging, bleeding or other treatments called for by humorism, making a break with the humorism of Galen and Ibn Sina. Rhazes differentiated through careful observation the two diseases smallpox and measles, which were previously lumped together as a single disease that caused rashes. This was based on location and the time of the appearance of the symptoms and he also scaled the degree of severity and prognosis of infections according to the color and location of rashes. Al-Zahrawi was the first physician to describe an ectopic pregnancy, and the first physician to identify the hereditary nature of haemophilia.
On hygienic practices, Rhazes, who was once asked to choose the site for a new hospital in Baghdad, suspended pieces of meat at various points around the city, and recommended building the hospital at the location where the meat putrefied most slowly.
For Islamic scholars, Indian and Greek physicians and medical researchers Sushruta, Galen, Mankah, Atreya, Hippocrates, Charaka, and Agnivesa were pre-eminent authorities. In order to make the Indian and Greek tradition more accessible, understandable, and teachable, Islamic scholars ordered and made more systematic the vast Indian and Greco-Roman medical knowledge by writing encyclopedias and summaries. Sometimes, past scholars were criticized, like Rhazes who criticized and refuted Galen's revered theories, most notably, the Theory of Humors and was thus accused of ignorance. It was through 12th-century Arabic translations that medieval Europe rediscovered Hellenic medicine, including the works of Galen and Hippocrates, and discovered ancient Indian medicine, including the works of Sushruta and Charaka. Works such as Avicenna's The Canon of Medicine were translated into Latin and disseminated throughout Europe. During the 15th and 16th centuries alone, The Canon of Medicine was published more than thirty-five times. It was used as a standard medical textbook through the 18th century in Europe.
Al-Zahrawi was a tenth century Arab physician. He is sometimes referred to as the "Father of surgery". He describes what is thought to be the first attempt at reduction mammaplasty for the management of gynaecomastia and the first mastectomy to treat breast cancer. He is credited with the performance of the first thryoidectomy.
The University of Al Karaouine, founded in 859 AD, is arguably the world's oldest degree-granting university. The Al-Azhar University was another early university. The madrasa is one of the relics of the Fatimid dynasty era of Egypt, descended from Fatimah, daughter of Muhammad. Fatimah was called Az-Zahra (the brilliant), and it was named in her honor. It was founded as a mosque by the Fatimid commander Jawhar, at the orders of the Caliph Al-Muizz as he founded the city for Cairo. It was (probably on Saturday) in Jamadi al-Awwal in the year 359 A.H. Its building was completed on the 9th of Ramadan in the year 361 A.H. Both Al-'Aziz Billah and Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah added to its premises. It was further repaired, renovated, and extended by Al-Mustansir Billah and Al-Hafiz Li-Din-illah. Fatimid Caliphs always encouraged scholars and jurists to have their study-circles and gatherings in this mosque, and thus it was turned into a university. Al Azhar University now has the claim of being the oldest University still functioning. The intellectual life in Egypt during the Fatimid era reached a great degree of progress and activity due to the number of scholars who either lived in Egypt, or came from outside, as well as the number of books available. The Fatimid Caliphs gave prominent positions to the scholars in their courts and encouraged the students. Fatimids paid attention to establishing libraries in their palaces so that the scholars might polish up their knowledge and benefit from what their predecessors had done. The library at Cordoba's university contained 225,000 volumes, while Europe’s largest library at the time, in the University of Paris, had 400 volumes.
Commerce and travel
Apart from the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates, navigable rivers were uncommon in the Middle East, so transport by sea was very important. Navigational sciences were highly developed, making use of a rudimentary sextant (known as a kamal). 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 name caravel may derive from an earlier Arab boat known as the qārib.
Many Muslims went to China to trade, and these Muslims began to have a great economic impact and influence on the country. Muslims virtually dominated the import/export industry by the time of the Sung dynasty (960-1279).
Arts and culture
The golden age of Islamic art lasted from 750 to the 16th century, when ceramics (especially lusterware), glass, metalwork, textiles, illuminated manuscripts, and woodwork flourished. Manuscript illumination became an important and greatly respected art, and Persian miniature painting flourished in the Persianate world. Calligraphy, an essential aspect of written Arabic, developed in manuscripts and architectural decoration.
The Great Mosque of Kairouan (in Tunisia), the ancestor of all the mosques in the western Islamic world, is one of the best preserved and most significant examples of early great mosques. Founded in 670, it dates in its present form largely from the 9th century. The Great Mosque of Kairouan is constituted of a three-tiered square minaret, a large courtyard surrounded by colonnaded porticos, and a huge hypostyle prayer hall covered on its axis by two cupolas.
The beginning of construction of the Great Mosque at Cordoba in 785 marked the beginning of Islamic architecture in Spain and Northern Africa. 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 geometrically patterned glazed tiles.
Freedom of expression
A significant feature of the Fatimid era were the freedoms given to the people and liberties given to the mind and reason. People could believe whatever they liked provided they did not infringe other's rights. The Fatimids reserved separate pulpits for different Islamic sects, and scholars expressed their ideas in whatever manner they pleased. The Fatimids gave patronage to scholars and invited them from every place, financially supported them, and ignored what they believed in, even when it went against Fatimid beliefs.
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 China in the east and much of the old Islamic caliphate (as well as Kievan Rus) in the west. The destruction of Baghdad and the House of Wisdom by Hulagu Khan in 1258 has been seen by some as the end of the Islamic Golden Age. Later Turco-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.
The Ottoman conquest of the Arabic-speaking Middle East in 1516-17 placed the traditional heart of the Islamic world under Ottoman Turkish control. The rational sciences continued to flourish in the Middle East during the Ottoman period.
To account for the decline of Islamic science, it has been argued that the Sunni Revival in the 11th and 12th centuries produced a series of institutional changes that decreased the relative payoff to producing scientific works. With the spread of madrasas and the greater influence of religious leaders, it became more lucrative to produce religious knowledge.
Ahmad Y. al-Hassan has rejected the thesis that lack of creative thinking was a cause, arguing that science was always kept separate from religious argument; he instead analyzes the decline in terms of economic and political factors, drawing on the work of the 14th-century writer Ibn Khaldun. Al-Hassan extended the golden age up to the 16th century, noting that scientific activity continued to flourish up until then. Several other contemporary scholars have also extended it to around the 16th to 17th centuries, and analysed the decline in terms of political and economic factors. More recent research has challenged the notion that it underwent decline even at that time, citing a revival of works produced on rational scientific topics during the seventeenth century.
Economic historian Joel Mokyr has argued that Islamic philosopher Al Ghazali (1058–1111) "was a key figure in the decline in Islamic science", as his works contributed to rising mysticism and occasionalism in the Islamic world.
- Golden age of Jewish culture in Spain
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- List of Iranian scientists
- Ophthalmology in medieval Islam
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