HIST 1100: History and Civilization
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A Guide To Writing in History and Classics

The Nature and Triumph of Islam

One of the most remarkable stories in all of human history is the rise of Islam. Coming virtually out of nowhere, Muhammad shaped the desert communities of Arabia into the center and vehicle of a new world view. While the Islamic revolution found its roots in the minor economic boom which the Arabs experienced during the late sixth century CE, more is owed to the middle-aged Muhammad's visions of Allah and his subsequent assertion of that god as the only divine presence in the universe. Outlasting the resistance of the ruling aristocracy in Mecca, Muhammad triumphed over adversity in a "holy war" and established himself as the prophet of Allah, only to die soon thereafter. After that followed a long line of caliphs, literally "successors (of the prophet)," who carried Muhammad's new religion forward, guiding the growing power of Islam across the known world and producing one of the finest civilizations ever seen, the age of the "Arabian Nights" (700-1000 CE). Though all too often disrupted by strife and ill-will, the cultural traffic between the Islamic world and Western civilization has advanced both immeasurably.

People, Places, Events and Terms To Know:

Black Stone
Hegira (Hijrah)
Pax Arabica

"Five Pillars of Islam"
Hajj (Haji)
Abu Bekr
Umayyads (Umayyad Dynasty)

Shi'ites (Shiat Ali)
The Dome of the Rock
Abbasids (Abbasid Dynasty)
The Arabian Nights
Harun al-Rashid
Ottoman Empire
Faylasufs (Philosophos)
Omar Khayyam, Rubaiyat

I. Introduction: Arabia and the Early Arabs

The Saudi Arabian peninsula south of the Holy Lands and east of Egypt contains, and has ever since antiquity, an enormous desert. Accordingly, there is little mention of it in the historical record prior to the rise of Islam. Most ancient conquerors—including the classical Persians, Alexander the Great, and even the Romans—ignored Arabia, largely because the scarcity of resources in such a place does not attract or facilitate human habitation.

Bedouins (click to see larger image)The few who have ever managed to survive there, a people known collectively as Bedouins, eke out a life on the edge. These nomads herd camels and travel from place to place, subsisting on milk, meat and the date palms which grow by the springs at oases. Of the earliest Arabs' culture, little is known other than that they were polytheistic, prone to worshiping features of nature like trees and stones, and they were not Indo-European. Their language, the forerunner of modern Arabic, is Semitic, tying them linguistically and culturally to the Babylonians and Assyrians of ancient Mesopotamia. But living where they did, the Bedouins' political and technological life lagged far behind that of their powerful, urbanized cousins to the north.

All that began to change dramatically in the sixth century CE. The powers-that-be in the day, the Sassanian Persians and the Byzantines—both remnants of once-great empires, Persia and Rome respectively—were engaged in a protracted and debilitating war which had forced a diversion of the lucrative trade routes coming up out of Africa and Asia into the Near East. With Egypt at the center of much of the fighting, it became unsafe to move goods along the Nile, and a new route had to be sought through Arabia. The sort of money that comes when one lives near a railroad or interstate started working its way into Bedouin society, and the lifestyle of these desert denizens evolved quickly from nomadic to commercial.

Cities also began to grow up at important intersections in trade networks crossing the desert. Particularly at Mecca and Yathrib—both were communities situated on the western side of Arabia—commercial municipalities of a sort not seen before in this part of the world began to rise from the sand. This is not to say that there hadn't been settlements in these localities before. Mecca, especially, had long been a religious center since it housed the sacred Ka'aba ("the cube"), a structure built over the holiest of holies, the Black Stone. Around the Ka'aba various shrines to the many deities which the early Bedouins worshiped had accumulated over time, making Mecca a well-established site of pilgrimage long before Muhammad's day.

Mecca (click to see larger image)Thus, at this time the Meccans were not only overseeing a healthy industry based on religious tourism but were also becoming entrepreneurs whose city was growing into a lucrative center for business and trade. As wealthy foreign caravans passed through this part of the world, money began pouring in. Of course, fortune favored some more than others which produced a nouveaux-riches aristocracy called the Kuraish—it's also the name of the largest of the family clans inhabiting Mecca—this new upper crust was soon prosperous enough to start sending out caravans of its own, making the community even wealthier. It was a heady time indeed, which means it was ripe for revolution.

II. Muhammad

Muhammad (ca. 570-632 CE), the founder of Islam, was born and grew up in Mecca at the end of the sixth century. Though belonging to one of the lesser clans of the Kuraish, Muhammad was orphaned early in life and went into the service of an older widow whom he later married. Spending most of his early adulthood running her affairs—which means embarking on trading expeditions—Muhammad carved out a reasonably comfortable existence but, far more important for later history, among these various business ventures he visited the urbanized civilizations around Arabia which brought him into contact with Jews, Persians and Christians.

To judge from the subsequent nature of Islam, Christianity seems to have been particularly interesting to him, since Muhammad adopted and adapted quite a few Christian ideas. The reverse, it should be noted, is equally true. In the wake of Muhammad's successes and the triumph of the world view he created, Christianity absorbed more than one Islamic notion, such as the image of an angel blowing a trumpet on Judgment Day. Indeed, the prophet may have initially conceived of his religion as a reformation or completion of Christianity, but whether or not he did, it went much further than that in the long run.

Muhammad's Vision of Allah (click to see larger image)Relatively little is known about Muhammad's life until he reached his forties and started experiencing a series of intense visions which he said had been sent to him from Allah—originally Al-Illah ( "The God"), Allah was the chief god of the early Arabic pantheon—and during these visitations Allah declared himself the one and only god, the single divine presence in the universe, laying the groundwork for a very strong form of monotheism. Seen as both the god of the ancient Hebrew scriptures and the Christian New Testament, Allah ordained Muhammad as his prophet the same way several others had served before, including Abraham, Noah, and Jesus. But according to Allah, Muhammad was to be the last in this series of divine messengers, the final chance given humanity to rescue itself from the morass of impiety into which it seemed always to fall so easily and regularly.

When Muhammad set out to preach this extended form of Christianity, he met with little success at first. No one converted except his immediate family and a few poor people who had little to lose. The rich and well-born Kuraish, especially, scoffed at his notion of being a prophet and scorned him because of his less-than-lofty birth, but behind this mockery surely lay the fear that any change in the way people worshiped might detract from the lucrative business pilgrimage brought to Mecca. The future would prove such apprehensions spectacularly misguided, for Muhammad would turn Mecca into the single greatest pilgrimage site ever in human history.

Hegira: Muhammad hides in a cave and escapes Satan (click to see larger image)The Meccans' hostility toward Muhammad increased until he was forced to flee to Yathrib, a city north of Mecca in 622 CE. Having previously been invited there by the locals to serve as an impartial judge, Muhammad and a few loyal followers, including a man named Ali who later played an important role in Islamic history, resettled there during what was to become a central moment in the establishment of Islam, the Hegira (or hijrah), Muhammad's famous emigration from Mecca—the Hegira is often but wrongly termed a "flight"—the Hegira marks the turning point in the prophet's fortunes and as such is remembered as the "year one" in the calendar system used by Muslims today. As a testament to the force of his charisma and the power of his new world vision, Muhammad converted the inhabitants of Yathrib en masse to his new religion and became both the political and religious leader of the city, now renamed in his honor Medina (Medinat al-Nabi, "the City of the Prophet").

Now angry and bent on revenge against his Meccan detractors who, according to some records, were out to destroy the new Muslim community, Muhammad's policies became more openly militarized, resulting in what he called a jihad ("a holy war") against the "infidels" who included the people of Mecca as well as some of the Jews living in Medina. Winning many followers across the Arabian peninsula, his attentions now turned from a more universalist outlook to immediate, pragmatic concerns like advancing his own interests and those of the people who had joined his cause. Fired up by their fervor for the new religion, Muhammad's followers began raiding the many, well-laden caravans coming out of Mecca and blockading the trade that made life so comfortable there.

Furthermore, as a people accustomed to traveling in the desert, Muhammad's Bedouin faithful were uniquely well-equipped to use the harsh landscape to their advantage, where sandstorms can cover sneak attacks or retreats and camels, not horses, rule. Indeed, the formation of a camel cavalry must all on its own have looked like an act of god, much less that Muslim jihaders (in Arabic, mujaheddin) could charge with lances while riding on such creatures. Allah or not, it must have seemed to many that some sort of powerful deity was backing these people.

Ka'aba (click to see larger image)By 630 CE, less than a decade after the Hegira, Muhammad was able to return to Mecca, whereupon he converted the Kuraish along with the entire city to his new religion. By then a living legend, Muhammad saw Arabic tribes near and far line up to join his faith. In triumph, he entered the holy district of Mecca, cleared out the idols—that is, the statues of every god there—and anointed the Ka'aba an Islamic holy site and pilgrimage destination. Leaving little but the Black Stone and its "cubic" shrine intact, Muhammad had reformed his city, his people and his world.

A mere two years later (632 CE), however, Muhammad unexpectedly died in mid-life, having forged a united Arabia as it had never been before and, of more immediate consequence, a new highly energized, well-armed military power. At the same time as well, a period of peace and high culture was beginning to dawn, the Pax Arabica, so named because it's the Islamic counterpart of the Pax Romana, the centuries of peace accompanying the early period of the Roman Empire (see Chapter 1). The level of prosperity and civilization initiated by the Muslims' conquest and cultural domination of much of the world over the next five hundred years has rarely seen its equal in history.

III. Islamic Religion

In Arabic, the word islam means "surrender," that is, submission to Allah and his will. It encompasses a life of divine service as directed through the writings preserved in the Islamic "bible," the Koran. This somewhat disorganized compilation of scriptures is said to have been dictated to Muhammad through a divine ambassador sent from Allah, and thus it constitutes the god's exact words. To recompose them in any way would be to compromise the pure sense of Allah's message to humankind.

Arabic Writing (click to see larger image)Accordingly, Muhammad forbade translation of the Koran. This later popularized Arabic as a language, turning it from an obscure desert dialect of Semitic into an international language capable of great finesse and nuance, though that can hardly be Muhammad's primary motivation for such a stern injunction. More likely, he saw the troubling controversies surrounding Christian texts—that the various translations of Christ's message presented all sorts of challenges to its interpreters and impeded the formation of a coherent doctrine—knowing that, Muhammad, no doubt, resolved to avoid the same problem by enforcing linguistic uniformity.

From the Koran it's also clear Muhammad envisioned Allah as the sole god in the universe, not only unrivaled by other deities but not even accompanied by any other divine presence. Simply put, Allah was, to Muhammad, all that's holy, pure and unadulterated. It's hard not to see this, too, as a reaction to Christian controversies, in particular, the difficulties presented by a conception like the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

That is, to the foolish, unenlightened or anyone without an advanced degree in Byzantine theology from Constantinople State, the Christian Trinity could be mistaken as a form of polytheism. Muhammad made certain that no such divisive controversy would ever rend Islam the way Arianism and other heresies plagued early Christianity. In Islam, God was Allah and that was that, a notion which had considerable appeal in the philosophically "realist" East where pure ideas untainted by pragmatism tended to go over well anyway. Little wonder, then, that Islam spread across the Near East with remarkable ease and efficiency. It was the sort of thing people there liked already.

At the same time, however, Muhammad allowed that Allah could also manifest his will through agents, like the angel Gabriel who had brought Muhammad his first divine message. Likewise, prophets, too, were part of Allah's universe, even if none including Muhammad was a god. With this, Islam had no need for a clergy to oversee ceremonies, which consequently preempted any need for priests or celebrating mass since, according to Muhammad's reasoning, individual Muslims were directly responsible for their own salvation. Though at a later date Islamic holy men called sufis did finally appear, they were slow to be accepted and never attained the sort of power or influence popes, bishops or even monks wielded in the West.

Muslims praying (click to see larger image)Thus lacking much of the ceremony and mythological underpinnings that lie behind Hebrew and Christian worship, the Koran ordains a comparatively simple and straightforward regimen of ritual, involving the so-called "Five Pillars of Islam": faith, prayer, charity, fasting, and pilgrimage. Calling the faithful at least once in life to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, in Arabic a hajj—a haji is a pilgrim on a hajj—Muhammad gave new life to an old and well-established custom in Arabia. Joining the religion was also made easy—no baptisms, Nicene Creeds or other initiation issues for this prophet!—converts only have to say in front of a Muslim believer "La ilaha illa Allah, Muhammad rasul Allah" ("There is no god but Allah, Muhammad is his prophet") and they have joined the religion.

Other aspects of the new religion involved other unusual practices for the day. Muhammad forbade the drinking of alcoholic beverages except for a very mild raisin or date wine called rabidh. While he endorsed polygamy, the Koran seems to suggest a limit of four wives, a restriction later accepted by very few among the Islamic ultra-rich, some of whom kept hundreds of women, even if never more than four were called "wives"—legal dodges are part of every culture that has laws—indeed, what seem to be restrictions advanced by the prophet himself in favor of women's rights were often and widely undercut by later Islamic tradition. In the end was rendered one of the most socially repressive systems toward women ever known.

For Muslim men, however, Muhammad made the message of life very clear: to fight and die in a jihad was the supreme calling. And to drive that message home, the Koran describes in concrete and plentiful detail the rewards bestowed on jihaders—a garden of earthly delights including music, food and beautiful women—and for infidels, the converse was no less real, a hell featuring torture, fire and excruciating pain. Here Muhammad left no room for legalities.

Arabesque design (click to see larger image)Before his untimely death, Muhammad also left behind few indications about how to build proper houses of worship. With little to go on, his successors modeled Muslim holy edifices on Muhammad's house in Medina, the only construction project he'd been associated with in life. Eventually these evolved into Islamic "temples," today known as mosques ("places for prostration"). These were buildings designed mainly for prayer and meditation, not for presentation of any formal services or ceremonies as in Western churches.

Among the few avenues available to artists in this context, rugs for kneeling on during prayers became a focus of creative activity, and from that was born the Persian rug. Also permitted were decorative prayer niches built into walls directing the faithful to bow toward Mecca as they prayed. But since all realistic images were forbidden in early Islam, none of these could contain depictions of anything in the visible world, on the reasoning that making images of animals or humans is to challenge Allah who created all things. The result was a system of ornate but non-realistic designs which Westerners eventually came to call "arabesques" (from the French word for "Arabic"), which to this day characterize Arabic art throughout the world.

Christian iconoclasts painting over realistic art (click to see larger image)In much of this, it's hard not to see a reaction to the controversies roiling Christianity in Muhammad's day. Indeed, many of these principal tenets of Islam deal with issues which had proven to be sources of crisis and upheaval within the early Christian community. For instance, iconoclasm—Greek for "image-breaking"—was a movement that swept across the Byzantine world during and after the seventh century and which saw much of its best artwork destroyed in the name of a purer religion. Watching such pointless and self-destructive strife might well have taught the young Muhammad the wisdom of not admitting realistic art into the religious arena at all. To this can be added the role of saints in the Christian church, which also caused great controversy because it appeared to distract from the worship of God and Jesus and, to some, that smacked of polytheism. Thus, Muhammad permitted no humans to be seen as deities of any sort.

And, finally, what most clearly distinguishes Islamic society from its Western counterparts, its union of religious and political structures, effectively undercut the formation of any Islamic clergy by firmly melding church and state together. With that, Muhammad's world view disallowed any possibility whatsoever that Muslim "popes" might one day end up at odds with Arabic kings, a type of crisis which was threatening to disrupt the Christian world in the early medieval period. Whatever the reason these aspects of Islam evolved—and surely the full truth is vastly more complex than a series of knee-jerk responses to the controversies racking Christianity at the time—Muhammad was clearly a good student of Western religious history, at least inasmuch as he knew a losing proposition when he saw it. He had, after all, spent many years as a businessman before becoming a prophet.

IV. The Spread and Triumph of Islam after Muhammad

A. The Aftermath of Muhammad's Death

Muhammad's sudden death in 632 CE not only did not stop the progress of Islam but, in fact, accelerated it. Indeed, the seventh century came to belong largely to the Muslims, who claimed much of the western world during that time. There was, of course, a brief moment of confusion following the prophet's untimely and unexpected demise, especially since Muhammad had made no post-mortem provision for the future governance of the religion and society he'd created, naming neither a successor nor even a method of succession.

Worse yet, he had no surviving sons, only one daughter Fatima. Ultimately, Abu Bekr, an elder in the nascent Muslim community was nominated caliph, a title meaning "(Muhammad's) successor." An old man already, Abu Bekr ruled only two years, most of which he spent reconsolidating Arabia under Muhammad's religion—many of the tribes which had joined Islam had done so out of personal loyalty to Muhammad and, when he died, had defected—after re-unifying Arabia under Muslim control, Abu Bekr passed away two years later in 634 CE.

Map: The Spread of Islam (click to see larger image)The next caliph was Omar (r. 634-644 CE), a zealous and younger convert to Islam, who pushed north into Persian and Byzantine territory. The Muslims' incredible success had as much to do with the timing of their onslaught as their warriors who were fired up with religious zeal. Having just completed a draining war in which the Byzantines had badly beaten the Persians, both sides were exhausted and depleted of resources.

Attacking the Byzantines in 636 CE, Muslim forces waited for a dust storm to blow up and, when the Byzantines were blinded, charged and scored a stunning victory. Syria, Jerusalem and much of the Near East fell to them. Wheeling east, they defeated the Persians the next year so decisively that they captured the Persian capital of Ctesiphon. The next decade they spent consolidating their conquests and, although their siege of Constantinople failed in 646, by 651 they had stripped the Persians of their empire and all their provinces, making it a Muslim realm de facto.

The rest of the 600's proved hardly less triumphant for the Muslims. Heading to sea, they wrested the islands Cyprus and Rhodes in the eastern Mediterranean from Byzantine control and then surged across North Africa. By 711 they reached and crossed the straits of Gibraltar—in Arabic Jebel Tariq ("Tariq's hill")—which lies between Morocco and Spain. Both were absorbed into the burgeoning Islamic sphere of cultural and political influence.

The reasons for such astounding success amount to more than a mere combination of lucky timing and well-organized hysteria, what had characterized the Muslims' first military adventures outside Arabia. In particular, the nature of their religion and governance played deftly into the hands of disgruntled Byzantine provincials, especially the Monophysites in Egypt who were ever ready to revolt from their orthodox oppressors enshrined in Constantinople. These Monophysites found it better to join with non-Christians who neither forced their beliefs on others nor envisioned a "poly-physite" heaven.

What problems the early Muslims encountered stemmed less from foreign than internal strife. The history of the succession of Islamic caliphs is, in fact, a gruesome catalogue of assassinations leading invariably to wave after wave of civil disorder. The caliph Omar, for instance, died in 644 CE, murdered by a Christian (or Persian) slave while he was praying. This did little to endear Christians (or non-Arabs) to Muslims.

Next in line was a weak "successor" named Othman from a Kuraish family, the Umayyads, infamous within Arabia for having resisted Muhammad in the early stages of his prophetic career. To some it seemed inappropriate for this clan, however powerful or influential, to assume the caliphate when it was so clearly ill-deserved. Consequently, a quarrel broke out between the Umayyads and Ali, Muhammad's cousin and Fatima's husband.

Insisting that a caliph must be designated through his relation to Muhammad somehow, Ali stirred up such discontent in the early days of the caliphate that in 656 CE mutinous troops assassinated Othman. Thereupon, Ali declared himself caliph, and disorder broke out within Islam. A short five years later (661 CE), Ali joined Omar and Othman among the ranks of murdered caliphs, though his cause didn't die with him. His followers created a separatist Islamic sect called Shi'ites—that is, "factionalists" (the Shiat Ali, "the party of Ali")—this splinter group still exists, accounting for about one-tenth of Muslims today. The rivalry between Shi'ites and mainstream Muslims has more than once sparked war, including several that are still ongoing.

B. The Umayyads

Despite their travails with Ali, the family of Othman managed to reassert themselves as the principal Muslim clan, inaugurating in 661 CE the Umayyad Dynasty (661-750 CE). Using Damascus in Syria as their base, the Umayyads moved the center of Muslim society out of Arabia which was never again to serve as a political hub in the medieval Islamic world. With this important development, Islam now took up residence in the traditional corridors of power in the Near East. In other words, though born in sands of Arabia, it was no longer sequestered in some far-off desert land.

The Dome of the Rock (click to see larger image)The Umayyad regime inaugurated an age of prosperity and growth, well-evidenced by the construction of the famous mosque in Jerusalem, The Dome of the Rock, the oldest surviving Islamic monument. Built over the place from which Muhammad purportedly ascended into heaven, this holy site's seniority in the tradition of Muslim architecture is shown in its essentially Byzantine design, for there was as yet no Islamic style in these early days. Still, the Dome of the Rock presaged Islamic things to come, especially in the addition of the minaret to the exterior of the site.

The explosive stage of early Muslim expansion ended in two great military defeats: the failed siege of Constantinople in 717-718 CE, routed by the Byzantines' use of Greek fire; and Charles Martel's rebuff of Muslim forces at Tours (central France) in 732 CE. The result was that the Muslims' northern progress was stopped, and they turned their ambitions eastward toward India, Southeast Asia and China. Another consequence of these failures was to undermine the Umayyad dynasty which eventually fell, its prestige severely battered. Nor did it help that the Shi'ite issue refused to go away, especially after the Umayyads were linked to the murder of Ali's sons, the prophet Muhammad's only male descendants.

C. The Abbasids

Thus, another powerful Muslim family, the Abbasids of Persia took advantage of this opening and defeated the Umayyads in a brief civil war (747-749 CE). This inaugurated the Abbasid dynasty (750-1258 CE). The last Umayyad ruler, however, escaped to Spain, where he established a separate Muslim kingdom, accelerating the growing separatism that had already with the Shi'ites begun to rend the Islamic world. But for the moment, under the Abbasids' guidance the Muslims produced a level of civilization unrivaled in that day.

In Mesopotamia along the Tigris river near the ancient site of Babylon, they established their capital city Baghdad, still a major urban site in modern Iraq. At that location, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers come within twenty miles of one another, enabling the Abbasids to link them with a canal. This, combined with ditches and walls laid out in concentric circles the largest of which were two miles in diameter, restricted the approaches to the city and turned the rivers and canal into functionally a large defensive moat. It's hard not to see Constantinople, also well-protected by water and walls, as the model for Baghdad—a lesson the Muslims learned, perhaps, from their unsuccessful siege of that city a generation or two before—and, like Constantinople, Baghdad rose and triumphed with amazing speed. From its ground-breaking in 762 CE, the city was up and running within four years, a speed of construction which outstripped even its Byzantine prototype.

The lifestyle in Baghdad was very high by the standards of the day. Situated on a plateau that provides cool nights and few mosquitoes, the city delivers a remarkably pleasant climate for that part of the world most of the year. And because it sat on the intersection of several important trade routes and provided a link between the major rivers in the area, Baghdad also became a center of commerce and wealth. In that way, too, it seems designed to serve as a rival to Constantinople, but with the expansion of Muslim influence throughout much of the known world it far surpassed the Byzantines' range of contacts. In fact, during the Abbasids' heyday a check that was written in Baghdad could be cashed in Morocco.

Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Baghdad  (click to see larger image)Other such evidence abounds attesting to the luxuries and elegance characterizing life in this "Golden Age of Islam." Resplendent palaces featuring elaborate court ceremony, eunuchs and harems showcased the power Abbasid caliphs wielded, in many ways traditional eastern autocrats who, if not gods themselves, were seen as the "Shadow of Allah on Earth." This world known to ours as the age of The Arabian Nights brought with it tales of flying carpets and genies but bestowed more on the world than mythical brilliance. From it come many features of modern life: porcelain, polo, chess, backgammon, frying pans, pants and rag paper, all of which owe their popularity in the world today to the Muslims who constructed this golden era.

Not everything the Muslims touched, however, wrought splendorous advancement. Women's rights, for example, suffered under the oppressive social restrictions grafted onto Islam after it merged with Persian society. This age of harems and veiled faces greatly diminished women's power within the Islamic world, and so a husband had only to say three times "I divorce you" to dissolve his marriage—of course, it usually took several months to finalize all the legalities—but still women had no such recourse and depended almost entirely on men for their well-being. This oppression constituted a serious setback from earlier days in the Muslim world when Muhammad had apparently sought to protect women's rights.

Likewise, other constituencies in Islamic society withered under a cloud of bigotry and repression. For instance, wealthy Muslims enslaved black Africans in large numbers, popularizing the notion that sub-Saharan peoples were somehow fit for such subjection. This behavior laid the foundation for similar attitudes among Europeans later and opened the door for the horrific abuses perpetrated through slavery during the period of European colonization, the tragedies of which still haunt the world.

Yet at its peak the Golden Age of Islam brought unparalleled civilization to a world despoiled by invasion and internal unrest. From the broken brilliance of ancient Mesopotamia, the Parthians and Sassanian Persians in the first half of the millennium before the coming of Muhammad had struggled to keep alive a moribund culture mired in its own past glory. To all this the Muslims gave new life, direction and sense of unity, especially under the greatest of the Abbasid caliphs, Harun al-Rashid (r. 786-809). A contemporary of the medieval potentate Charlemagne, Harun al-Rashid communicated widely and commanded respect from virtually every corner of the known world. He was remembered, for instance, in European records for having sent an elephant named Abu'l Abbas as a gift to the Holy Roman Emperor in Aachen. The elephant survived many years and became legendary in the history of the Carolingian Age.

Harun al-Rashid's reign marked, however, a downturn in Abbasid fortunes. Like the Roman emperor Augustus, he was unable to continue the expansion of his domain, which soon led to stalled fortunes and the general decentralization of Muslim governance. By 945 CE, Shi'ites had captured Baghdad and turned all subsequent Abbasid caliphs into puppet rulers. And when Seljuk Turks, a ferocious horde of Asiatic invaders, seized the capital in 1055 CE, the fate of the Abbasids as rulers of the Islamic world was sealed.

Even this nominal claim to power did not last forever. In the fifteenth century, a different Turkish group, the Ottomans, seized control of the Near East from the Abbasids and Seljuk Turks and did what Muslims had tried to achieve for centuries. They captured the city of Constantinople and changed its name to Istanbul, finally uprooting Byzantium, the last remnant of ancient Rome. This Ottoman Empire continued until after the close of World War I at the beginning of the twentieth century, its demise ending the final chapter in the long and luminous history of Medieval Islam.

V. Conclusion: The Contributions of the Islamic World

In the course of Islam's rise and triumph, people living in the Muslim world advanced human life in many arenas, including philosophy, poetry and architecture. In particular, Arab-speaking philosophers called faylasufs, a term clearly borrowed from the Greek word philosophos ("philosopher"), investigated and enriched several areas of thought and science. For instance, the great Iranian doctor Avicenna (in Arabic, Ibn Sina) wrote a medical encyclopedia, a manual still used in training physicians up until the seventeenth century. Born in Muslim Spain, Averroes (Ibn Rushd) composed a commentary on the classical philosopher Aristotle and even studied Greek philosophy in texts that came from Constantinople. His influence was widely felt in the early universities of Christian Europe during the High Middle Ages, when Aristotelian reasoning reappeared in Western thought and revolutionized intellectual discourse.

Likewise, it was said that the ghost of Aristotle appeared to the caliph Ma'mun and told him there's no conflict between reason and faith, and so he built a "House of Wisdom" in Baghdad, a university of sorts housing many Arabic translations of Greek texts. This helped preserve much ancient learning and, at the same time, encouraged scholars there to apply the principles and methods of Plato and Aristotle to the study of religion. A similar movement called Scholasticism in the West later imitated this notion of uniting theological and philosophical thought. That, in turn, laid the foundation for modern science.

The Muslim Middle Ages also witnessed several important developments in art. Arising from a long-standing tradition of oral verse among pre-Islamic Bedouins, Arabic poetry forged a strong and supple style of expression, grounded in Muhammad's language as exemplified in the Koran. The result was a dynasty of magnificent love-poets, including the wife of the first Umayyad caliph who, haunted by a love of desert life, longed for the "uncouth, slim tribesmen I love, not these fat men," presumably the bureaucrats around her husband in his capital.

Later, the very popular poet Ma'arri exhibited for the age an unusual degree of freedom of expression, evidenced in his assertion of belief in Allah but not in any afterlife or the need for having children. Early Islam also clearly tolerated dissent in a way few religions have. And last but not least, Omar Khayyam who died in 1123 CE is arguably one of the best known poets who ever lived. His Rubaiyat, a collection of love poems, was written in his native Persian, not Arabic, and its famous line, "a jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou," ranks among some of the most famous and often quoted words ever uttered.

Alhambra (click to see larger image)However, perhaps most visible of all Muslim arts is architecture. With injunctions against realistic art firmly ensconced in Islamic tradition, the architects working for caliphs and those who oversaw their realm perfected the geometric designs which characterize their art. Evidenced nowhere better than at the Alhambra, a palace-fortress in Granada (southern Spain), the lush intricacy of the architecture seen in this Muslim fortress features vine-like trails and the horseshoe arch, the latter originally a Visigothic device borrowed and perfected during the Muslim period.

In related fields, Muslim intellectuals combined Greek geometry with "Arabic" enumeration to advance mathematics and from this created modern algebra. Today's medicine also finds its roots in Islamic civilization. Muslim doctors and care-givers were the first to distinguish between diseases like measles and smallpox, to build hospitals widely, to train physicians and issue medical licenses.

All in all, the medieval Muslim world represents one of the finest civilizations of its day, if not one of the finest ever. This fact should be borne in mind as aggressions and tensions persist between the East and the West. As bombs fly back and forth, it's best to stop and recall how much is shared on both sides and how much is owed between us, and how we got to the point where our animosity is as sharp as it is today. And that's what we'll explore in the next Section.