The Golden Age of Islam

Posted: June 18, 2013 in History, Politics, Religion, Science
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Islamic Golden Age.

The many recent articles on the recent French liberation of the north Malian town of Timbuktu tell us that an estimated 2000 irreplaceable manuscripts on science, astronomy, algebra, optics, and the like, have reportedly been destroyed by the retreating Islamists of Ansar Dine.

As an aside, in the continuing Syrian civil war we hear of similar actions during the brutal imposition of shariah by Islamist rebels in the northern town of Aleppo, birthplace of al Ma’arri, a 10th century poet who railed against Islam and religion in general; “Inhabitants of the earth are of two sorts: those with brains, but no religion, and those with religion, but no brains.”. His statue, in his hometown, now stands broken and headless.

It should be noted with regards to Timbuktu, however, that no evidence of specific texts or manuscripts being burnt have materialised beyond a few piles of ashes and photographs of strewn protective storage covers for codices.

That theses works were perceived to be in danger, though, is sadly beyond doubt – and we can be thankful to the ingenuity and undoubted bravery of certain Malians who hid and smuggled whole collections of books from Jihadists, who, through purifying Islam from idolatry and heresy, are intent on returning the Ummah to what was recently described as The Golden Age of Islam.

It is a description of a period of Islamic history that we are hearing more and more of just recently, both from Islamists who use the phrase to inform us that only Islam can return us to such an obviously much needed period – and from their opponents, mostly secular, who insist that no such age could have ever existed, and cite the call from the pious which says that ‘only through Islam’ (and the imposition of the shariah) can we create a renaissance of this ‘Golden Age‘, as nothing more than the cry of the propagandist, or worse, the ignorant.

So was there a ‘Golden Age’? If so, when was it? Why did it come about, and, more importantly, what, or who, caused it to end? Furthermore, why would Islamists seek to destroy the libraries and cultural icons of present day Muslim communities, and will this destruction bring about a Second Golden Age of Islam?

To begin to understand this we first need to grasp the position that Timbuktu holds in this narrative;


Timbuktu, before its decline in the late 16th century, was seen as a commercial hub, a centre for slave trading, and a historic seat of Islamic learning. It was, and is, famous for its libraries, and well placed, geographically, for the preservation of texts and manuscripts.

It is for these libraries, and their unique method of construction, along with its significance to the spread of Islam in Africa, that has seen Timbuktu designated a UnescoWorld Heritage site since 1988.

Situated north of the Niger River on the southern rim of the Sahara desert, Timbuktu first came to prominence in the early decades of the 14th century with the rise of the Mali Empire (c. 1230 – c. 1600 CE). Changing economics placed it in an advantageous geographic and the trade routes now passing through it brought prosperity and imperial favour.

Soon its growing religious university (or madrasah) – as large as any in the known world – was to be become renowned throughout Islam.

Timbuktu experienced a rapid expansion during this period and by the mid 14th century could boast around 100,000 inhabitants – a full quarter of these as students, scholars, and scribes at the madrasah.

It is through these very scribes that Timbuktu would become equally famous for its production and trade in books – and books, throughout the medieval period, meant knowledge – and knowledge, in this era no less than our own, held the means of authority, dominance, and control.

It should be understood here that books were also thought to hold the pathway to God and Godliness. Books were the Philosophers Stone. The visible seat of temporal and spiritual power.

It is why, in the search for power, they were both collected and destroyed.

The libraries of the defeated have always made both good loot, and good kindling.

So is this latter then the reason the world may have witnessed the loss of irreplaceable books and manuscripts along with the destruction of historic Sufi shrines in Timbuktu?

Could this be Ansar Dines attempt to wipe out its opponents both physically and historically, as they march us toward a second Islamic Golden Age, or is this merely the vandalism of war?

In order to answer these important questions we need to take our leave of Timbuktu and look further into the history of Islam for interestingly, regardless of its great role in the dissemination of Islam in Africa, Timbuktu was not founded until the 12th century and therefore follows long in the wake of what can truly be described as an age of flourishing in Islamic thought.

This age of flourishing, this Golden Age, has its roots in an earlier century, a greater city, and another empire entirely.

The Abbasid Caliphate – Islam’s Golden Age.

Historians widely regard this period to be that of the Abbasid Dynasty (750-1258 CE) which was the third of the Islamic Caliphates and an empire that was to last for over half a millennia. This longevity has to be observed against a timeline of Islamic expansion that, since Mohammed to even more recent times, would see ‘Islamic’ empires and dynasties popping in and out of existence rather like soap suds. Literally in their hundreds.

Nevertheless, the relative stability of the third Caliphate over such a length of time created agriculture, trade, taxation, bureaucracy, and the building of cities and schools, and brought with it all the trappings of the imperial court. Intrinsic to this was the accumulation of knowledge – of culture, and of power. The accumulation of books.

Thus, as medieval Europe edged itself deeper into darkness, the Abbasid ‘Empire’ was to come across the known and available philosophies of the day. The philosophies of the Ancients. These were studied, copied, translated, and developed – and this study, this discourse, brought Islamic culture nearer to God, and its adherents therefore, closer to godliness.

One major technological achievement which hastened this godly rush was the importation of paper making from China. The significance of the paper-mill to book production was as great as steam was to the Industrial Revolution.

Cheaper, faster, and better quality book production, allied with other advances of the Abbasid dynasty, created a revolution in the dissemination of knowledge and information, and led to a vast increase in philosophical and scientific debate that must parallel much of our own experience with the Internet.

It produced, amongst many others, these giants in the history of natural philosophy:

Al Kindi (801-873 CE). Regarded as the Father of Islamic Philosophy for introducing Greek thought to the Arabic world. A founding philosopher of Baghdad’s ‘House of Wisdom’, and instrumental in introducing Indian numerals to the Arabic and European worlds.

Al Farabi (872-950 CE). Musician, logician, alchemist, philosopher. Of whom Maimonides was to call ‘The Second Master’, Aristotle being ‘The First’.

Al Rawandi (827-911 CE). Freethinker and vociferous critic of religion, heretic, and possibly an atheist, who championed the primacy of intellectual thought over that of revealed religion.

Al Razi (865-925 CE). Persian polymath, physician, philosopher, and alchemist. Celebrated as the greatest physician of his day.

Al Ma’arri (925-1058). Mentioned briefly, earlier. Poet and rationalist, whose satirical criticism of Islam and religion in general was lauded in the salons of Baghdad.

Avicenna (980-1037 CE). The most famous of all the philosopher scientists of the Abbasid Caliphate. His books on medicine were standard texts throughout medieval Europe.

Averroes (1126-1198 CE). A product of the Al Andalus Caliphate. Known as the link between ancient Greece and a Europe emerging from the slumber of darkness. A man who Aquinas called ‘The Commentator’ in reference to his influential works on Aristotle, and regarded as a significant figure in the European Renaissance.

Theirs was a world moving forward at a significant pace – the thirst for knowledge bolstered by patronage and a belief that God intended this knowledge to be found, to be discovered – the unfolding of which revealing nothing less than the splendour of creation.

Science becomes Haram.

It is in this context that one of the most influential characters in Islamic history al Ghazali (1058-1111 CE) enters the narrative, for it was his thesis, ‘The Incoherence of the Philosophers‘ (11th century, obviously) which positioned, for the first time, Hellenistic science as being anti-Islamic, and is posited by many as beginning the decline of scientific understanding in the Abbasid Caliphate.

In ‘The Incoherence’, al Ghazali tackles the Aristotelian position developed by al Farabi and Avicenna with specific reference, amongst other things, to causality (creation), the nature (or otherwise) of a concerned and interventionist God, and the (heavenly) re-composition of tissue after death.

Not only did he take issue with the logic employed to attain such neoplatonic views that questioned the above, he further argues that such positions, being unfounded, should submit unquestioningly to religious revelation.

Put simply, al Ghazali’s stance is that if there exist natural laws then God is not omnipotent. To study the limits of natural laws in any metaphysical way is to suggest such, and is therefore heretical.

This is the Islamic philosopher that Weinberg refers to in his famous polemic regarding accommodationism (Beyond Belief 2006) where he informs us that al Ghazali rejected the very notion of laws of nature as these would “put Gods hands in chains”.

Al Ghazali’s philosophical position, allied with his political strength, underscores the end of a discursive interpretation of the Koran – of ‘God’ – and marks a shift toward literalism. His standing as a Muslim jurist allowed him to append a fatwa to the ‘The Incoherence’ stating that the teaching of any metaphysics which challenged such revelation to be blasphemous and the work of unbelievers or apostates – the penalty for such, then as now, being death.

It is of worth repeating here that the effect this has on the rest of the ‘natural philosophy’ of the time can only be fully understood when one comprehends that up to this moment all philosophy, all study  – all science – exists, in a very real sense, simply to move one closer to God, both literally and metaphorically.

Much like later medieval Europe, all knowledge, all progress, was for the greater glory of God.

Individuals, of course, do not exist in a vacuum, and in order to place al Ghazali’s mindset into some perspective, it is at least of worth to note that the first crusade was to begin in 1096 (ending in 1099) when he was thirty eight years old and probably at the height of his influence and power.

This followed the establishment of the first state funded religious schools by another Persian, Nizan al Mulk (1018-1092 CE). The most prestigious of these, al Nizamiya of Baghdad (founded 1065 CE) saw al Ghazali appointed professor there for a number of years from the age of thirty three.

It is in this context then that the philosophies of Plato, of Aristotle (and in consequence, those of the Islamic Neo-Platonists themselves) were to be cast aside not simply because of the non-belief of these ‘infidels’ – but because the very way these infidels thought was now heretical.

In many ways the very same infidels – the same heretics who were knocking at the door of the Levant.

To think like the enemy is to become ‘The Enemy’.

To think like the infidel is to become ‘The Infidel’.’

From this moment on to speculate regarding philosophy is to risk heresy.

Obviously, and as is usual, it is slightly more complicated than that – al Ghazali is much more than the one dimensional description that brevity here allows.

For example he believed in the application of the scientific method when it came to obvious geometric and mathematical proofs, proofs that were ‘self-evident’, and there is no doubt that he encouraged research and comprehension

Indeed there are some who would argue that his thesis was a defence of ‘hard’ science through his ‘separation’ of it from the more metaphysical philosophy with which it was grouped – the Arabic term, ‘falsafa’, meaning ‘philosophy’, included what we would now separately call science, philosophy, logic, theology, and mathematics.

However, regardless of whether his thesis was an early precursor to the non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) debate, it remains true, I feel, that following the success of al Ghazali’s ideas there were now only two ways to become closer to God – mysticism (he was later to become a Sufi), and the literal application of the received word of God – and this latter route, for many, involved the study of just one book, the Quran.

Philosophical responses to al Ghazali’s thesis were not well received, apparently. I believe that it is in the context of the above that this reception can be understood.

Timbuktu, it should be noted, would have been a few tents on the edge of a river at this time. Four centuries into the future when its own university was copying texts they would have been mainly Quranic scripts. Philosophical and scientific debate and scholarship had ended. The Islamic Golden Age a distant memory. Timbuktu, unlike Baghdad, would produce no ‘House of Wisdom’.

Kinship and Beyond.

Baghdad, on the other hand, was the most important city of this ‘golden age’, the capital of the Abbasid caliphate, and the backdrop to the lives of al Ghazali and most of the great philosopher scientists of the day.

Arts, architecture, engineering, economics, mathematics, astronomy, and chemistry all advanced in this era in what was, by far, the most important city in the world.

It was founded in 762 CE following the defeat of the Umayyad, and the growing dominance of Persia by the Abbasid. It quickly became the largest and richest city in history – and as has been said, a renowned centre of learning.

The rise of Baghdad under the Abbasids is a significant historic moment as in it we see the move from tribal (Arabic) to pan-tribal imperial design. Moving the Islamic capital from Damascus, east to Baghdad, wasn’t just a consequence of the decline of the Arabic Umayyid  – who went west to found the caliphate of al Andalus – or, as you might imagine, the final and ignominious defeat of a 400 year old Persian Empire – it was more than that – for it never destroyed the Persian Empire, it never enslaved it, instead it incorporated it.

This can be seen in the ethnicity of both al Ghazali and Nizan al Mulk, and indeed in the Abbasid adoption of the Hanafi school of jurisprudence – a legal system based on the teachings of yet another Persian, Abu Hanifa (699-767 CE). The status of these people – and of the aforementioned – as some of the greatest men in the history of Islam could not have occurred under the previous Caliphates where relations were based on extended kinship/tribal affiliations.

End of the Golden Age – The Fall of Baghdad.

Baghdad fell to the Mongols in 1258 CE, which signals the end of the Abbasid Caliphate and the death of the Arabic/Persian/Islamic Empire, or ‘Golden Age’.

As a nice coda to this age they rolled the Caliph in a carpet and trampled him to death to avoid spilling royal blood onto the earth. Inventive as it may seem it solved the problem of the spilling of royal blood, this being the harbinger of bad luck.

Of course, another Islamic ‘age’ (that was to last a further 600 years) was beginning to form in Anatolia with the coming together of various tribes that would eventually create the Ottoman state in 1299 CE, and not forgetting the earlier rise of the Seljuk whose expansion was seen as the motivation for the crusades and which produced, to the detriment of those very crusaders, the great Saladin, founder of the Kurdish Ayyubid dynasty (1174 – 1341 CE), but even though science was still practised in these ’empires’ and the ones to follow (science and medicine under the Ayyubid, and mathematics under the Ossman’s, for example) the so called ‘Golden Age‘ had passed, never to return.

Why this passing occurred is both complex and open to interpretation – but as I’ve suggested above with regards to al Ghazali, the pressures are many and obvious: over-extension, delegation of power to the regions with the creation of Emir’s, then decline, a competing caliphate in al Andalus, the imminent rise of the Seljuk Turks, the Crusades, and constant internecine warfare and politics – the Ayyubids failed to come to the aid of Baghdad when faced with the Mongol siege, and they were to pay for it.

This period also saw greater control of the Mediterranean Sea by the Europeans (through advances in construction, navigation, and the use of sail) – and the trade and wealth this developed allowed the funding of Christian military expeditions.

These pressures were telling on the Abbasid’s within 150 years, so it is easy to see how a philosophy that strengthens the central bond of unity against a perceived enemy – a unity no longer based on kinship, or extended kinship, but one that is now pan tribal – could come to the fore. That central bond of unity was Islam.

In Conclusion.

Islam’s ‘Golden Age‘ was indeed an era of flourishing by any standards, and should be recognised as such. Though present day claims by fundamentalist Islamists as to its cause are much more than simply overstated. I would propose that history shows us the very reverse is true: Islamism, Quranic literalism both in law and education, and the consequent denial of classical philosophy, rather than the progenitor of an Islamic Golden Age, was the very cause of its demise and strangled the opportunity of an Islamic Enlightenment.

It remains the cause of backwardness in Islam to this day, and is echoed in the social and educational policies of its states and, indeed, even in the names of its revolutionary organisations sworn to attain another Islamic ‘Golden Age’. For example Boko Haram in northern Nigeria and the Maghreb, which literally translates as Western Education is Forbidden.

Would this forbidden education include Chemistry, Algebra, or Algorithms, I wonder?

Would it be forbidden to teach the location of Betelgeuse, Vega, or Rigel? All products of the previous ‘Golden Age’ of Islam.

But back to Baghdad, briefly, and to a quick point of interest.

It’s fate was to be captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1534 CE from where it went into still further decline as the axis of economic and political power had long since shifted north and west with the fall, again to the Ossman’s, of Constantinople in 1453 CE.

It is of interest to imagine that, just as we are taught that Plato travelled to Florence in the shock wave of the advance of the Ottoman Empire into Constantinople, so too did he earlier travel to Timbuktu in front of the Mongol torching of the libraries and hospitals of Baghdad.

I would think it is safe to assume, with the massive trade in books of value that went on, that most of the books and manuscripts in Timbuktu are from the bureaucracies of the latter empires, such as the Mali and Songhai, but they are only now beginning to be digitised and translated, and it would be wonderful to peruse any earlier codices on astrology/astronomy and alchemy/chemistry.

It remains saddening to think, however small the possibility, that these beautifully translated works of the ancients and other scholars may now be lying in ashes in Timbuktu – but informative too, that even following the passing of the so called ‘Golden Age’, the books and manuscripts of the Ancients, and their Abbasid counterparts and interpreters, were still valued, stored, copied, read, and sold – both after the ‘Golden Age’, and up to the present day.

Strange (and somewhat awkwardly comforting) to think that, equally, with Timbuktu’s aforesaid fame for its trade in books, they may have long been safely ensconced in the Bodleian at Oxford, or in a box in a cupboard in Cambridge, or even in some dusty corner at the Royal Society.

The rise of Islam during this period is of immense interest and importance and is ignored to our detriment. It shows us much in the transmission and preservation of power, wealth, and knowledge. More to this it allows us an insight into how society moves through various stages of affiliation, from those based on family (kinship), through tribal (extended kinship), religious (pan or trans-tribal) association, its use in the growth and maintenance of empire, and even, through contrast, the geographic development (or otherwise) of later individualism and its relation, both to the advancement of science, and to the modern nation state.

Islam did indeed have its Golden Age. Knowledge of which provides us with a powerful narrative of both its wonders, and of its decline into a celebration of the philosophy of ignorance.

An ignorance that shows us that Islamism can no more return us to a Golden Age than it can advance the status and welfare of women, or children, or dogs. Understanding why this is, is an important weapon in the fight against irrationality and unreason.

It is how we can comprehend conservative Islam, Wahhabism, and Salafism. It explains why Muslim heritage and history – our heritage, our history, may have been burnt in Timbuktu, or is being destroyed as we speak, in Syria.

To deny history in this struggle is as disgraceful an action as those who seek to re-write it by hacking wiki pages or deliberately lying in order to portray a better (or worse) picture for specific political or ideological ends.

To allow value judgements because of your dislike (or support) of religion to affect your analysis of history will give you nothing but darkness, ignorance, and hysteria.

It will not allow you to observe the development of knowledge through history

It will not get you to a clearer and closer approximation of the truth.

It will not permit you to counter extraordinary claims with competent and verifiable knowledge.

Only a dispassionate observation of the available data will do that.

Only the application of science will do that.

Anvil Springstien.

  1. Graeme Kennedy says:

    This is fantastically well written and researched.

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