The Golden Age of Islam Explained
A Summary of the Islamic Golden Age
Although the story is more complex than can be said in a sentence, and although the exact dates are contested, we can generally say:
Islam began in the Arabian Peninsula in the early 7th century. Then, beginning with Abbasid Revolution of 750 and thus beginning with the Abbasid Caliphate (the Abbasid Kingdom), Islamic culture (the “middle eastern” Muslim people, a faith and culture, not a race) began integrating different Arab, Persian, Greek, Egyptian, Indian, Jewish, and European cultures and traditions over time, building on their past knowledge, advancing, maintaining, and innovating in the tradition of enlightenment (including all academic and scientific fields and the military arts.
This era of expansion, enlightenment, and colonization is really no different at its core than that of the Persians and Cyrus the Great, or the Greeks and Alexander the Great, or the Romans to some extent (at times; from the era of the Roman Republic to the era of Italian Republics and Machiavelli), or other more modern cultures who have colonized swaths of the world in the name of enlightenment (although certainly each people and era has its own story).
This Golden Age of Islamic Enlightenment is then one of the many stories of global culture sharing and progress that spanned the globe over the eras.
The height of the Age happened in-between the Fall of Rome and the rise of the West during Europe’s dark ages (which weren’t “that dark”; but that is a different topic we will touch on below), and thus, for westerners the story provides a much need explanation of world history (lest we think history begins in sub-Roman Europe in the 500’s).
Notably, the era contains the origin stories of new developments in math, science, astronomy, medicine, and education and the origin stories of great thinkers like al-Khwarizmi (who helped popularize al-jabr, or algebra).
The era even resulted in the first modern degree granting universities!
Regarding colonization (a main property of most historic superpowers in any age), although Islam colonized many of their neighbors, they tended to rule fairly, letting Jews practice their religion and customs in the west in Spain, and letting Indians do the same further east in India (certainly not every conquering and colonizing power in history has both embraced a people and their customs in an effort to promote wisdom and learning and let those concurred live with dignity in their colonization; this alone is enlightened).
Here, we can not only offer respect where it is due, but we can learn something, that is “to ensure a large empire one must rule with a light hand, or live close by” (the same lesson Machiavelli teaches us)… well that and, politely as possible, “no empire is immune to barbarians [in those days, the Mongols].”
Sadly, the Golden Age of Islam began to decline due to complex factors including war and a lack of trade in the late 1200’s, but the culture generally declined at different times in different regions and did so as late as the 1600’s (or arguably never in some places; as this depends on how we define the Age).
Regardless of exactly when we place the rise and fall, we can say for a period in the 9th – 13th centuries Baghdad was not only the Capital of the Muslim world, but the cultural epicenter of the world in general as well.
Below we tell the story of the Golden Age of Muslim culture, look at famous scholars like Ibn Khaldun (who revolutionized mathematics) and Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (the polymath, mathematician, and social philosopher), and discuss some of the inventions and discoveries of this age.
Lastly, we’ll also address historical bias for or against the age, from the praises of Voltaire to the skepticism of some modern thinkers, so we can put some of the myths about the Golden Age of Islam to rest.
See the videos and links for more information on each subject.
FACT: The terms algebra and algorithm are Arabic words. They both come from Latin forms of al-Khwarizmi’s name, as he was the one who brought the Indian numeral system to the middle-east (long before Fibonacci brought it to the west).
Science and Islam, Jim Al-Khalili – BBC Documentary.
Texts from the Golden age of Islam, Socrates is featured in the middle. If there is one constant in enlightened societies since the Greeks, it is that their thinkers studied greats like Plato and Aristotle.
THE GOLDEN AGE MYTH?: Some say the Golden Age concept is a myth created by liberals like Voltaire (supposedly due to a affinity against the Catholic church, and perhaps to show that the principles of the European Enlightenment weren’t bound by culture). My research shows that there was a Golden Age, and while it wasn’t all pretty (see “what is progressive militarism and colonialism” and “how things change over time and are different under different rulers”), we can point to it as a time when science and reason brought together Christians, Jews, and Muslims in great cities, just like it had in past ages, and just like it does in some places today. It is easy to glorify the story and give more credit than perhaps any colonizing power of the past deserves (we do it with Rome, Sparta, Athens, certain ages in China, etc; we likely do it a bit with Islam’s Golden Age too, sure), but on that same token, there is a lot of propaganda out there pushing for just the opposite (saying this age is not an age at all), that argument I think we can pretty clearly refute, and will attempt to below well telling the story of how religion and science co-existed in an enlightened environment and thrived for one of many times in history in the middle-east.
Neil DeGrasse Tyson Vs Al Ghazali – On the Islamic Golden age. <— Liberals pointing to the Islamic Golden Age. See “what is liberalism?“. This video offers corrections to Tyson, I didn’t catch any that I fully disagreed with (although the commenter wasn’t exactly unbiased). The video mentions the crusades in Andalusia (the Christians sacking Muslim Spain) as part of the decline of the Golden Age before and after the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols. Prior to the decline Jews and Christians lived in Andalusia [mostly peacefully] under Muslim rule. See Al-Andalus and the fall of Muslim power and non-Muslims under the Caliphate.
Enlightenment in the Muslim and European Worlds
Islam carried the torch of enlightenment after the fall of Rome in its period of colonization. In this time science and knowledge were the first order of Islamic religion. The Muslims learned the works of the Greeks like Aristotle and Plato, combined and integrated Egyptian, Persian, Arabic, Indian, etc influences, and generally preserved and innovated enlightened culture, economics, ethics, arts, and science.
This enlightenment is notable from a historical standpoint, but is especially notable from an western-intellectual standpoint, as it occurred during the dark ages of Europe, and in ways, helped propel Europe’s Renaissance and own Age of Enlightenment.
This isn’t to say Europe didn’t innovate in the European dark ages, they did; And it isn’t to say Islam didn’t carry its enlightenment until the present day, aspects of this can be seen. It is to say, that from around 1,100 to 1,300 all the inhabitants of the region (including Europeans, Christians, and Jews) mixed and shared culture, learning in Madrasas, and translating old texts. This, in-part, led to Europe’s own Renaissance which included, among other things, adopting the trend of erecting universities modeled after the Islamic Madrasas.
Pre-Islamic history of the Middle East. The story of the pre-Islamic middle east is a lot like the story of the rise and fall of the Golden Age of Islam.
FACT: The brightest stars in the sky of Earth are also the ones with the most ancient names. Names such as Betelgeuse, Achernar, Sirius, Deneb, and Algol are usually Arabic, dating from around the tenth century when Arab astronomy flourished. Whether we are discussing Algebra, Sirius, or Californium “naming rights” give us a hint at what cultures thrived in which eras.
What is a Golden Age?
A golden age, or age of enlightenment, is characterized by intellectual exploration and progress in the arts, sciences, and ethos. It typically involves colonizing and spreading its ideas. It is not primarily concerned with waging war or proselytizing religion, but of course, we see this happen from Homer’s Troy, to Alexander the Great. Any period of conquest and cooperation brings military strength and diplomacy. With great power typically comes the imposition of religion and war, so we can’t exactly ignore the point.
Key attributes of these golden ages of enlightenment, including the Islamic Golden Age, are centered around a drive to push the bounds of understanding and to preserve the great works of past cultures.
What Inventions Spread During the Golden Age of Islam?
Notable discoveries include either inventing, improving, or contributing to ethics, algebra, universities, trigonometry, philosophy, medicine, astronomy, and astrology, healthcare, economics, the arts, calculus, optics, theoretical physics, medicine, theoretical computers, firearms, and much more.
TIP: See Islamic contributions to Medieval Europe.
BBC What Islamic World Did For Us – Documentary over ancient Islamic inventions. A Documentary on ancient islamic inventions.
The Golden Age of Islam – National Geographic Live! – Salim Al-Hassani: 1001 Inventions – National Geographic.
TIP: The other thing the Islamic world rediscovered is… the modern slave trade (which notably the Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, and others had previously taken part in; Aristotle famously [and unfortunately] justified slavery). The Arab slave trade starts in 700 and continued into the height of the Atlantic Slave Trade in Europe. This is to say, whether it is religious wars, the slave trade, enlightenment, or colonization, its hard to point to a major nation today that doesn’t have a history of both the good and the bad. Thus, it is, in ways, hard to see more than superficial differences between even the most seemingly at odds cultures.
Alexander the Great and the Situation … the Great? Crash Course World History #8. Aristotle was Alexander the Greats teacher, Alexander colonized much of the known world, brining enlightenment and founding Alexandria. History has a tendency of repeating.
The Rise and Decline of the Golden Age of Islam
The Golden Age began with the expansion of the Islamic Caliphate in 622 – 750 and then started to decline in the Middle East in the 12th century during the crusades, then in the 13th century due to the Mongol invasions and the the Siege of Baghdad (1258) AD, and then as late as the 16th century in other Muslim lands.
When we say “Golden Age”, we are mostly referring to the cultural flourishing of science and mathematics under the Islamic caliphates during the 9th to 11th centuries. However, because the Muslim people had colonized swaths of Africa, Spain, the Middle East, and India, the culture of enlightenment declined and rose at different times in different places.
When Does the Golden Age Start?
- Some scholars argue that the Golden Age of Islam started as early as the 6th or 7th Century AD with the expansion of the Islamic Caliphate in 622 – 750 (perhaps starting in 639 AD when the Muslims conquered Egypt and thus obtained some amount of its knowledge).
- Others argue for 8th century (perhaps when the Abbasid dynasty rose to power in 750 in Baghdad, as explained in the video below).
The Histories Part 62: The Abbasid Dynasty.
When Did the Golden Age End?
The Mongols!: Crash Course World History #17.
Some argue it ended with a series of events beginning with the Crusades (which began way back in 900 BC and targeted just about everyone of every culture including Turks in Palestine, Muslims in Spain, pagan Slavs in the Baltic, and “heretics” in southern France).
The Crusades – Pilgrimage or Holy War?: Crash Course World History #15.
Others argue it ended as late as the 15th or even 16th century (implying the decline begins with the Mongol invasion in the Middle Eastern lands, but doesn’t fully settle in until after struggles with the expanding Ottoman Empire, the Crusades, and the rise of European industrialization in the Age of Discovery). .
THE HISTORY OF THE TURKISH AND OTTOMAN EMPIRE – Discovery History Ancient Culture (full documentary).
While there is truth in all the above, aspects of Islamic enlightenment never ended. The Islamic Mughal Empire continued in what today is Afghanistan, Pakistan, and part of India, as enlightened Muslims and traders fled the Mongols and the Mughals colonized more eastern lands; See the History of India. India is one of the only places outside of Europe that managed to ward off the Mongols, Ottomans, and the Crusaders.
TIP: The three videos below explain the Mughals, Islamic Africa, and the ship trade in the Age of Exploration.
The Mughal Empire and Historical Reputation: Crash Course World History #217.
Mansa Musa and Islam in Africa: Crash Course World History #16.
Int’l Commerce, Snorkeling Camels, and The Indian Ocean Trade: Crash Course World History #18.
AN EXPERT TIMELINE: To take excerpt from The Air of History Part III: The Golden Age in Arab Islamic Medicine An Introduction, “In the 7th century, Islam emerged from the desert of the Arabian Peninsula, conquering the old Egyptian, Persian, Roman, and Near Eastern Empires. Islam integrated elements of these cultures into its own, and between the 7th and 12th centuries, it became the center of a brilliant civilization and of a great scientific, philosophic, and artistic culture. Its language was Arabic, but it absorbed and added its culture to the heritage of Greece, Rome, Judaism, Christianity, and the Near East. The medieval Islamic world spanned the outer edge of the Latin world, in Spain, Sicily, and North Africa, and surrounding Byzantium in Egypt, Palestine, and Syria… Some historians of science refer to the period from the 8th to the 16th centuries as the Islamic Golden Age. While the rest of Europe was plunged in darkness and learning stagnated, scientific activity in the Muslim world during this period was phenomenal.”
THOUGHTS: People often point to a few factors when discussing the decline of the Golden age. However, one can argue that no one factor truly ended the Golden Age. These factors that some claim to have ended the age, but I would argue didn’t, include: 1. The mongol’s sacking Baghdad. Which although widely accepted is true; didn’t directly effect the rest of the Muslim world continue to thrive, 2. al-Ghazali’s championing of religion over “falsafa” (“philosophy”, like Aristotle). According to historians who have studied al-Ghazali, it is short sighted to see his work as dismissive of philosophy and science (despite his work and times being emblematic of a changing culture) and thus it is questionable that his work truly marked the end of an entire era, and 3. The rise of the Europeans (where much of the east and west started to industrialize and focus on global trade, while Islam had long stopped expanding. All of those factors are worth noting, but no single one along clearly marks the end of an era. See a reddit discussion for many sides to the al-Ghazali debate or see a historians account here.
Why Did the Decline of the Golden Age of Islam Happen?
The decline can be attributed to many things, some perhaps avoidable, some not.
This includes War and natural cycles, a changing of culture from Enlightened principles to other factors, and a corresponding lack of participation in the Age of Exploration. Also, it should be noted that the decline was not universal (as the culture continues in Spain and India for instance).
First, on war and natural cycles we can refer directly to Ibn Khaldun’s Kitāb al-ʻIbar and Muqaddimah i.e. his Book of Lessons (read Kitāb al-ʻIbar online in English) which was written by the Muslim Polymath in the late 1300’s and was thus a reflection on the decline from within the decline.
Khaldun points out the natural cycle in which cities are erected, become great, but then become complacent, and finally “desert warriors” “barbarians” conquer a city thus completing a cycle. We can muse here on the different ways the original city was treated and reacting and how this colors the next evolution of the city (is it now run by fear, honor, faith, virtue, enlightenment, etc? Did they peacefully co-exist? Was the cities culture preserved and embraced, or was it forgotten?) [that is certainly a comment on certain modern groups, but also a nod to the start and end of the Golden Age with the Abbasid Revolution and Siege of Bagdad, and specifically just a nod to Khaldun who was an Enlightened scholar after “the decline”].
Scholar’s Chair interview: Dr. Charles E. Butterworth – Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah. Ibn Khaldun outlines an early (possibly even the earliest) example of political economy. He describes the economy as being composed of value-adding processes; that is, labour and skill is added to techniques and crafts and the product is sold at a higher value, that surplus and that required for the reproduction of classes respectively. He also proposed new ideas in science and other fields.
In terms of culture, an aspect of the decline is the general dismissal of science, reason, and fraternity over time a cities fell and cultures put specific faiths before religious tolerance. Science, reason, liberty (of faith and right), and fraternity (the brotherhood of all peoples, not one people) are the keystones of enlightenment.
Modern Afghanistan Women before 1992 Mujaheddin and Taliban. When aggression, despotism, and restrictions are put before Education the result is often the same. This is true in the 700’s, 1300’s, 1900’s, etc… in Afghanistan, Baghdad, Europe, or anywhere else.
Despite the decline of this Golden Age, elements of Enlightenment can still be seen across Islamic culture today, and of course, in the cultures who have since picked up the torch in the modern era. In fact, the enlightened relationship between the middle east and west has continued into modern times, despite bumps along the way. See European Colonialism and the Emergence of Modern Muslim States.
TIP: Muslim history doesn’t really ever stop intertwining with the west, or the Ottomans, or Spanish, or India, etc. See England’s Forgotten Muslim History.
The History of the Middle East (Part 1/5) FULL DOCUMENTARY. The British take on the history of the Middle East leading to where we are today. The very uncomfortable truth is that the Middle East’s decline happened at a time when the West was rising. Due to the advent of technology, the Turks, and the World Wars the Middle East got fast-tracked to becoming nation states… and that state building had consequences. The story is far to complex to paint with a broad brush, but here we are again, trying to co-exist in the Middle East with each other, and the principles of the enlightenment.
FACT: The Crusades may have contributed to the fall of Islam’s Golden Age, but they don’t directly bring about European enlightenment; there are many factors. An important factor in spreading knowledge was the printing press. The printing press was invented in China earlier, but in Europe it was invented around 1440. In many ways the printed word is responsible for ushering in the next age of enlightenment in the west. The printing press expanded access to knowledge exponentially and promoted the democratizing of ideas for the first time in history. Another important factor was the modern ship trade in the Age of Exploration noted above. Today, information and trade are no less important.
The Great Civilizations in Western History
In other words, the great civilizations relevant to western history in terms of enlightenment, include, but aren’t expressly limited to:
- Early Civilizations like the Sumerians and Assyrians: 3,500 BC – 1,700 BC. Where the first complex written language occurs.
- Babylonian and Egyptian Empires: late 1700 BC – 600 BC. The rise of the enlightenment.
- Early Greek and Roman Empires: starting with Homer and ending with the emergence of Christianity. This includes Alexander the Great and Alexandria in the 8th Century BC – 1st Century.
- The Great Greek and Roman Empires (including the great Roman empire to its fall): late 700 BC – 1st Century. Many of the vital Greek texts were written in Athens, 400 – 300 BC.
- Islamic Golden Age of Enlightenment: at least 8th – 13th Century and arguably could range from the 7th – 15th Century if we consider Africa, Spain, and India.
- European and American Enlightenment: 15th Century – now. It can be said to start earlier in the 13th – 14th Century, and it rightly does in many respects in the Italian Maritime Republics (where trade, religion, cultures fleeing other areas of the world (and bringing with them the Muslim’s Hindu–Arabic numeral system and related accounting practices for instance), and a republican form of Government begin a new age of Enlightenment).
In other words, half of the great western civilizations were influenced by the middle east. Conversely, many of the great middle eastern civilizations share clear roots with the West because of this clear lineage of protecting, learning, progressing, and then passing on the human race’s collected knowledge throughout history. Every field of study today has been influenced by nearly every major culture on earth at some point in it’s history. The written language, for example, is arguably one of the most profound human achievements is handed down from early cultures from the middle east, but quickly became a practice in everywhere. See our page on naturally occurring systems.
NOTE: There were ups and downs between Sumer and Homer to say the least, this is only meant to give a rough idea of why the 1,000 years between the fall of Rome and the age of Enlightenment are oddly blank in many western history books. There is a long entwined history of the west and middle-east.
How Dark Where the Dark Ages?
The Middle Ages, or the Dark Ages, was a time when Europe had an age of “darkness” as opposed to an age of “enlightenment”. Remember, the Muslim world had an age of enlightenment at the time. The Dark Ages refers specifically to Europe at the time, and generally to any civilization going through a “Dark” and perhaps oppressed period at any point in history.
The 7th century to the 13th and to the 15th century certainly weren’t entirely “dark” in all respects in Europe. But, compared to where we are today, and compared to what the Muslim world was doing at the time, there was considered to be little cultural advancement, few brilliantly written works, and notably lots of warring states vying for power and a focus on religion over science.
It isn’t that nothing happened or that nothing was recorded, it is just that outside of the church and the aristocracy the average person was a peasant. The focus of much of life was to get enough food to eat, not die from plague and support the current King so he could protect and tax you.
There was no upward mobility and no quest for knowledge for the average person or for the culture in general. Compare this to today where any young American can become the next Bill Gates, David Koch, Barak Obama, or George Bush, and we have a time that as a people we should agree we don’t want to go back to.
Instead, we are arguably better advised to look to the east and middle east for examples at this time. Obviously, things have changed in many respects today, but not in all ways, and that is an important fact to keep in mind.
Likewise, when we see parts of the world “in darkness” today, it reminds us that this is a symptom of a deeper problem and not a comment on a people’s ability to be enlightened.
TIP: From here on we use one of the best online history channels around Crash Course to illustrate large parts of history. See more on the history of the middle east from Judea to the end of the Dark ages (from a European perspective) here.
The Dark Ages…How Dark Were They, Really?: Crash Course World History #14. How Dark where the Dark Ages?
FACT: Dark Ages and Enlightened Ages are important in terms of understanding world history, we see certain mechanics in play at the begging middle end of Dark Ages and Enlightened Ages. We can use critical thinking to understand how to lift up and protect the cultures of today.
What Does this Mean in Context From The Lens of Modern Western Society?
The takeaway of this article shouldn’t be that Islam is good or bad, and in no way should support the far-right views (as there isn’t much enlightened about the far-right).
Rather, it shows that humans of all backgrounds can carry the torch of enlightenment. This isn’t something unique to Europeans, rather, if we trace roots far enough back we find common roots between most major civilizations and religions.
If we are looking for the origin of our modern technology, we must look to China, Arabia, Egypt, Babylon, Germania, Rome, Greece, Persia, Prussia, etc.
The overarching war isn’t one of religion versus religion, or race versus race (although that happened often), it is between knowledge and repression.
Below is a video showing the European Age of Enlightenment. History repeats itself and this has both rosey and grave implications. How can we learn from our mistakes and avoid another Dark Age? How can we help lift those in Dark Ages today out of the darkness?
The Renaissance: Was it a Thing? – Crash Course World History #22