Islam emerged out of the Arabian Peninsula (modern-day Saudi Arabia) in the seventh century. Prior to this, Arabian tribal peoples had practiced a wide variety of pagan beliefs, living in a time Muslims called jahiliyya or ignorance.

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The Ka’aba (probably a meteorite) in Mecca was one of the early sites of religious pilgrimage for Arabian tribes and the merchants of Mecca had long made lucrative livings off the trade generated by the pilgrims. The Ka’aba became the holiest site in the Muslim world and the center for the annual pilgrimage or hajj to Mecca.

Although Muslims accept the validity of all of the Old and New Testament prophets, including Jesus, they believe the prophet Muhammad is the last and the greatest of the prophets. As strict monotheists Muslims do not accept the resurrection of Jesus because that would have made him divine and for Muslims God or Allah is indivisible. However Islam, as the third major monotheistic religion, forms part of the Judaic-Christian-Islamic tradition.


The Muslim holy book, the Qur’an, contains the words of Allah as revealed to the prophet Muhammad. The Qur’an places great emphasis on knowledge and the first word in the Qu’ran is Iqra or “read.” The Hadith and Sunna, traditions and sayings of the Prophet, also provide guidance for proper behavior and practice. Muslims follow the Five Pillars of belief and practice and are called to prayer five times a day by the muezzin from the minaret, a tall tower, attached to a mosque. The mosque serves not only as a place of worship but often as a center for social gatherings and as a school. On Friday, the Muslim holy day, the imam delivers a sermon to the faithful. Unlike Christianity, orthodox Sunni Islam does not have an established clergy. Any devout believer can serve as an imam. However, the mullahs form an established, hierarchical clerical caste in Shi’a Islam. The community of believers is known as the umma; religious scholars or ulema continually provide interpretations and reinterpretations of religious texts and practice.

As with Judaism and Christianity, Islam began as a patriarchal society. However Islamic law improved the lot of women, who were granted extensive legal and property rights. Polygamy was permitted as with most of the world at the time. A Muslim male could have four wives at one time but he must treat each equally in terms of lifestyle and the time spent with her. Thus only the wealthy could usually afford more than one wife.

As the number of Muslim converts grew under Muhammad’s charismatic leadership, the established wealthy merchants in Mecca began to persecute the new believers. Led by Muhammad the Muslims migrated (or made a Hijra) from Mecca for Medina in 622. In Medina the Muslims had extensive interactions with three Jewish tribes; although the prophet Muhammad had fairly cordial relations with some of these tribes he failed to convert them. Some of these tribes also openly sided with the rival Meccans and even joined forces with them in military battles. Consequently the Jewish tribes were either expelled from Medina or killed. Muhammad created a new religious and political society heavily influenced by tribal practices in Medina.

In 624 the Meccans were defeated at the Battle of Badr but they retaliated by winning the Battle of Uhud in 625. In a third confrontation, Muhammad’s strategy of building a large ditch to stop the Meccan cavalry helped the Muslims to defeat the Meccans at the Battle of the Trench in 627. Muhammad then negotiated a treaty between two cities, but after the Meccans violated the settlement, Muhammad led over 1,000 Muslim forces against the city. He took Mecca without bloodshed or forced conversions in 630. Muhammad returned to Mecca as the unquestioned leader of a growing and dynamic new community. Within two years Muslim campaigns had incorporated much of the Arabian Peninsula and had taken several Byzantine centers near the Gulf of Aqaba, north of Medina. Recognizing the growing power of the Muslims, other Arabian tribes soon sent envoys to negotiate alliances or conversions with Muhammad at Mecca. Muslims also moved into Yemen and along the Persian Gulf in the east.


In 632 Muhammad died and since he had left no chosen successor the community gathered to select by consensus a new leader or caliph to represent the Muslims. Under the next four “righteous” caliphs, the Muslims embarked on one of the most dynamic expansions in human history. Within 100 years the Islamic/Arab empire expanded from the banks of the Indus River in the east to northern Africa and Spain in the west. Much of the spread of Islam in Asia and Africa occurred not through warfare but trade. The Muslim annual pilgrimage to Mecca was another extremely effective way for the vast community of believers to establish trade and business relationships with one another and to exchange ideas and new technologies.

Although religious tolerance was practically unknown at the time, Islam enjoined its believers to treat people of the book (Jews, Christians, and usually Zoroastrians) kindly and not to force conversions unless they took up arms against the Muslims. As an open, universal religion that stresses the equality of all believers, Islam continues to hold great appeal and in the 21st century remains one of the world’s fastest growing religions.

Islam: Art And Architecture In The Golden Age

Islam: art and architecture in the golden age Islamic art and architecture is that of the Muslim peoples, who emerged in the early seventh century from the Arabian Peninsula. The Muslim empire reached its peak during the golden age of Islam from the eighth to the 13th century. Literary and archaeological evidence reveals that the early architecture of the Muslim communities in Medina and Mecca, presented through the prophet Muhammad’s mosque and residence in Medina and through other smaller mosques, continued the indigenous building style based on a rectangular structure with an open internal courtyard and a covered area. Older structures such as the Ka’aba in Mecca continued the ancient Arab architectural style found among the Nabataeans in Petra, Palmyra, South Arabia, and Hatra in Mesopotamia.


In pre-Islamic times, the inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula and its surrounding regions lived in scattered minority communities of Jewish, Christian, and Zoroastrian peoples among a majority of pagans or polytheists. To these people, great legendary architectural palaces, castles, temples, and churches were still-vivid memories signifying power and prestige. They were recorded in poetry and other literary forms and associated with famous cities such as Petra, Palmyra, Hatra, Hira, Madain Salih, Kinda, Najran, Marib, and Sana.

Pre-Islamic records and literary evidence attest to the existence of visual art forms, especially sculpture and painting, which were employed primarily to disseminate copies of icons and sculptural depictions of the many deities and idols worshipped in the region. For example monumental statues of major deities like Hubal, Allat, Al-Uzza, and others were still standing in public locations and temples on the eve of the advent of Islam prior to 630. Small-scale statues and figurines were abundantly available among the pre-Islamic population, and makers of images were active in such cities as Mecca and Taif. Wall paintings from the early Islamic secular buildings in Syria, Jordan, and Iraq reveal important examples of a blending of Mesopotamian, Sassanian, Hellenistic, and indigenous Arab styles. Architectural planning of early Muslim mosques in Egypt and North Africa reveals borrowing from ancient Egyptian architecture.

Early Islamic Art And Architecture

The prophet Muhammad died in 632 and within a few years the newly emerged Islamic state expanded quickly and swiftly claimed the realms of both the Sassanian and Byzantine Empires. In less than 100 years the new politicoreligious model reached the steppes of Central Asia and the Pyrenees in Europe. As the Muslim community expanded, the need for a central place of worship emerged and was realized by the development of the mosque—a French distortion of the word masjid or “place of prostration.” Islam, a nonclerical, nonliturgical faith, does not employ ritualistic surroundings and the first mosque was actually the open courtyard of the house of the prophet Muhammad in Medina. It functioned as a meeting place and community center.

Later this tradition expanded to the establishment of a central mosque called al-Masjid al-Jami—“the great mosque”—in every major city. With it developed the characteristics of the mosque and its components: an 202 Islam: art and architecture in the golden age open courtyard (sahn); a roofed area for prayer (musallah) with a dome (qubba); a niche in the wall of the prayer area (mihrab) to indicate the direction of prayer (qibla) toward the Ka’aba in Mecca; an elevated platform (minbar), from which the congregational leader delivered the sermon; a tower (minaret), from which the call to prayer (adhan) was issued; and an ablution place for performing the ritual washing before each prayer (wudhu). This basic arrangement of functional space found in early mosques in Basra, Kufa, and Wasit in Iraq, and later in the Great Mosque of Damascus and the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, and elsewhere, became the prototype of traditional Islamic mosque architecture.

The rapidly growing state demanded a new Islamic architectural style that developed gradually, acquired new forms, and incorporated diverse methods of visual expression. During the golden age of Islamic civilization a blend of architectural designs and motifs from South and North Arabian, Byzantine, Hellenistic, Indian, Chinese, and other origins was employed in a new building program throughout the Islamic world. Whatever the variety of its components, the final result always presented a unique Arab Islamic style, especially in the early period, where the architecture and art were unified by strong Arab characteristics that can be detected in the art of the Umayyads in Syria, the Andalus in Spain, the Abbasids in Iraq, and the Fatimids in Egypt.

The Arabic language, derived from the Semitic Aramaic language, played a decisive role in the formation of Islamic culture and art. Arabic was the official and original language of the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam. Arabic was a powerful cultural and literary vehicle with which to disseminate Arab culture throughout the new and diverse Muslim communities in the recently expanded regions of Central Asia, Anatolia, the Mediterranean coasts, Sicily, and Spain. Verses of the Qur’an were inscribed in elegant Kufi c and Thulth calligraphic styles on the interior and exterior of major mosques in Jerusalem, Damascus, Basra, Fustat, Tunisia, Sicily, and Spain in a variety of techniques such as stucco, wood carving, and ceramic tiles. The mosque thus became a unifying architectural form and symbol of the monotheistic concept of Islam.

Islam adopted an aniconic style in art that does not promote figurative representation. In the Qur’an, the sunna (manners, ethics, behavior, and social practice of the prophet Muhammad), and hadith (collection of sayings of Muhammad pertaining to a variety of topics, and everyday life situations), depiction of living forms is discouraged and according to certain interpretations is banned altogether, especially in religious environments such as mosques. Sunni orthodox interpretation of figurative representation characterized it as an act of defying the power of God, who alone was ascribed the ability of creation. Furthermore the depiction of human beings was also thought to be reminiscent of and an encouragement of pre-Islamic idol worship. These sanctions prompted Muslim artists to create a new form of expression based on the use of Arabic calligraphy—literal meaning and visual composition—and decorative ornamentations. The corroboration of these two powerful visual vocabularies with the already developed conventional Islamic components characterized Islamic art distinctly and continuously.

Umayyads : 661-750 c.e.

Borrowing, blending, and modifying motifs, forms, and techniques from Byzantine and Sassanian sources and incorporating them into the indigenous Arabic style characterize the art and architecture of this formative period. This approach was presented through the architectural planning and iconographic design in major buildings, both religious and secular.

In the eastern Mediterranean region a new blend of styles and motifs was incorporated in the early Umayyad buildings. Mosaic decoration, a preferred Byzantine medium, is evident in the case of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, completed in 692; the Great Mosque of Damascus, completed in 715; and the desert palaces in the Syrian regions. Presentation of power, triumph of the new religion, and the emphasis on Islamic theology in early Islamic art were realized through the use of monumental architectural forms, calligraphy, and the ornamental aniconic patterns as in the case of the Dome of the Rock, or the figurative representations in painting and sculpture at the desert palaces Qusayr Amra, Khirbat al-Mafjar, and Mshatta in the Syrian region, and during the early Abbasid period in palaces in Samarra and Baghdad in Iraq.

Abbasids : 750-1258 c.e.

Beginning around the 10th century the synthesis of Islam and Arab culture was modifi ed by the emergence of decentralized, mostly non-Arab political powers such as the Samanids in Iran and the Ghaznavids in Afghanistan, the Seljuk dynasty in Anatolia, the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt and Tunisia, and the Almoravid Empire (al-Murabitun) and Almohads (al-Muwahhidun) in the western areas of Islamic lands. These dynasties and mini independent states contributed to the spread of Islam and consolidated their political power in the Andalus in Spain and established bases in the heart of India with the Delhi Sultanate in 1206. Traders and merchants carried Islam as a religion and culture deep into Africa and Central Asia, and across the sea routes to Indonesia. These new political powers with their cultural trends added new riches to the diverse collection of Islamic science, literature, art, and architecture. Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid dynasty, became the center of knowledge and scientific development.

The Islamic Renaissance

The Islamic renaissance, which witnessed tremendous advances in every field, prompted architects, visual artists, calligraphers, and artisans of all sorts to collaborate in the production of a vast body of monuments, masterpieces, and manuscripts. A great number of these manuscripts were embellished and illustrated with fine visual presentations, such as the 13th century Maqamat al-Hariri illustrated by Mahmoud bin Yehya al-Wasiti, whose style set a standard for what is conventionally known as the Baghdad school of al-Wasiti. The diverse cultural input of new ethnic groups from Iran, Anatolia, Central Asia, India, and the Mediterranean region enriched the Islamic art repertoire. Figurative illustrations gradually populated manuscripts, especially those of a literary or scientific nature. Figurative representation was used during the Abbasid, Fatimid, Seljuk, Mamluk, and later periods as well. It is important to note that depictions of human figures, although employed by both Shi’i and Sunni artists and patrons, were most common with Shi’i and Sufi art.

In architecture, a blend of new elements from the recently acquired territories was incorporated in the design of mosques, hospitals (maristan), schools (madrasat), Sufi foundations (khanaqah), tombs, shrines, palaces, and gardens. This incorporation furthered and enhanced the defi nition of a distinct Islamic 204 Islam: art and architecture in the golden age The interior of the al-Aqsa Mosque, built in 708 in Jerusalem. A blend of new elements from the recently acquired territories was incorporated in the design of mosques, hospitals, schools, tombs, shrines, palaces, and gardens. style. Muslim architects developed and employed the pointed arch as early as 776 at the al-Ukhaydhir palace in Iraq and the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem in 780. The pointed arch concentrates the thrust of the vault on a narrow vertical line, reducing the lateral thrust on foundation and allowing for higher walls. The double tier arch and the horseshoe arch were developed and used in the Great Mosque of Damascus in 715 and transmitted later to the Andalus in Spain and employed in the Great Mosque of Córdoba.

The square minaret appeared for the first time at the Great Mosque of Damascus and was transmitted later to North Africa and Spain. The pointed arch, horseshoe arch, and the square minaret impacted European architecture and were adopted in Romanesque churches and monasteries and especially in the Gothic cathedral and its towers. Much of the Islamic golden age achievement passed on to Europe through Sicily, Spain, Jerusalem, and other important centers in the Islamic world.

Muqarnas is probably the most distinct and magnificent architectural decorative element developed by Muslim architects around the 10th century, simultaneously in the eastern Islamic world and North Africa. Muqarnas is a three-dimensional architectural decoration composed of nichelike elements arranged in multiple layers. Soon after its appearance, muqarnas became an essential architectural ingredient in major buildings of the Islamic world in Iran, India, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Sicily, North Africa, and Spain. Muqarnas structures, augmented with the elegant Arabic calligraphy, fl oral design, and geometric patterns typically called arabesque, produced a dazzling visual composition that characterized the beauty of such places as the interior of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem or the Masjid al-Jami’ in Isfahan, among other examples.

This composition, accentuated by bands of the Kufic and Thulth styles of Arabic calligraphy, added spiritual and poetic dimensions to the adorned buildings and objects. Qur’anic texts usually cover the exterior and interior of religious buildings with verses and chapters at various locations in the building. Poetry, proverbs, and celebrated sayings may cover secular buildings and nonreligious objects such as dishes, plates, and jewelry boxes. The continuous patterns and repetition of ornaments covering walls and ceilings, running along naves, arcades, and archways, echo a rhythmic tone that originates from one pattern and multiplies in endless, complex, repeated, and variant patterns. It defines the unity in multiplicity of Islamic decorative style. This attractive visual system was so impressive that some early Renaissance artists could not resist copying and imitating bands of Kufic inscriptions to decorate the clothing of the figure of the Virgin Mary and other biblical figures and angels in paintings of the period.

The golden age of Islam witnessed the emergence of elegant visual art and magnificent architectural achievements that had a major influence on succeeding periods, with its characteristics echoing throughout the Safavid, Mogul, and Ottoman periods.

Islam: Literature And Music In The Golden Age

Arabic literature developed and dominated the Islamic cultural scene during the eighth to the 13th century and beyond, from Baghdad to Córdoba in the Andalus. Arabic language, the youngest and the most widely spoken of the ancient Semitic languages, is the language of the Qur’an—the sacred book of Islam that culturally unified not only the Arab people, but also non-Arab Muslims. Islamic teaching presented in the text of the Qur’an and the Hadith, the sayings of the prophet Muhammad, encouraged learning and praised learned people and the quest for knowledge. The Arabic language has a peculiar regularity and coherent grammatical and structural system that lend to it the ability to express in creative and diverse literary forms such as Shir (poetry), Nathr (prose), Adab (a genre of socioethical literature), Balaghah (eloquence), and Maqamah (assembly).

In pre-Islamic times the Arabic language was the medium of communication especially in the transmission of oral tradition, poetry, and stories. As early as the fifth century, odes or Qasidah (plural Qasaid) were composed and the most celebrated were called Al-Muallaqat (the suspended), for they were honored and recognized by being displayed on the walls of the Ka’aba in Mecca. Famous among the pre-Islamic poets are Imru al-Qays, Tarafa ibn al-Abd, Zuhayr ibn abi Salma, Labid, Amribn Kulthum, Antara, and al-Harithah ibn Hillizah. During the early Umayyad dynasty celebrated poets emerged with diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds who composed masterpieces of Arabic poetry such as Al-Akhtal, Jarir, and al-Farazdaq.

With the expansion of the Islamic empire during the Umayyad and throughout the Abbasid dynasty, Arabic became the literary language of the era, the liturgy language of Islam, and a powerful literary vehicle to disseminate Arabic culture. Many talents contributed to the legacy of Arabic literature; scholars, linguists, writers, and poets of Arab and nonArab descent wrote in the Arabic language. During the Umayyad and Abbasid periods scholars gathered and collected the sources for Qur’anic studies and the collections of the Hadith. Ibn Ishaq (d. 767) wrote Sirat Rasul Allah (Life of the messenger of God), which was later revised by Ibn Hisham (d. 834).

Umayyad Period Literature

With the expansion of Islam the Arabic language was refined, first during the Umayyad era with Abu al-Aswad al Duali (d. 688), who founded the Arabic grammar and diacritical color-coded points Tashkeel. The dotting system and vowels signs developed by Al-Khalilibn Ahmed al-Farahidi (d. 786) soon replaced that system. Al-Farahidi was the fi rst Arab philologist who compiled the first Arabic dictionary; he was credited with the formulation of the rules of Arabic prosody. His major work was Kitab al-Arud (Book of prosody). His student Sibawayh (d. 793) codified grammatical rules. Later Al-Mubarrad (d. 898) wrote al-Kamil fial-Lughah waal-Adab, which was an invaluable collection of references to Arabic philology through poetic quotations. His rival al-Thaalibi also contributed to this field with his major work Yeteemat al-Dahr, a bibliography of poets and writers of Arabic. Another outstanding scholar in this field was the Andalusian linguist Ibn Malik (d. 1274), who composed the famous Alfiyah in which he compiled and analyzed all Arabic grammatical rules in 1,000 verses of poetry composed in a single poetical masterpiece. Other scholars worked on the subjects of jurisprudence, theological discourse, fundamentals of Arabic grammar, lingual terminology, rhetoric, and adab. Bayt al-Hikmah in Baghdad was the departing center for the quest of Hellenistic and Eastern knowledge in science, mathematics, philosophy, geography, astronomy, and literature.

Historians and biographers worked diligently on documenting the history of the Islamic state, pre-Islamic period, and ancient civilizations. Early transmitters of accounts are Kab al-Ahbar, Hammad al-Rawiyah, and Wahb ibn Munabbih from the eighth century. The list of important early historians includes Ibn al-Kalbi (d. 820) and his major work Kitab al-Asnam (Book of idols); Al-Waqidi (d. 823), who was affiliated with the Abbasid court in Baghdad and who wrote Kitab al-Maghazi (Book of the raids of the prophet); Ibn Sad (d. 845) was al-Waqidi’s secretary and wrote a major biographical dictionary called Kitab al-Tabaqat (The book of classes [of persons]); Al-Azraqi (d. 865), a native and historian of Mecca, wrote an extensive history of Mecca, Akhbar Mecca. Al-Bukhari (d. 870) was a historian and the famous Hadith compiler and interpreter. His major work was the collection of the sayings of the prophet Muhammad known as al-Jami al-Sahih; Al-Baladhuri (d. 892) was a great historian and companion of the Abbasid caliph al-Mutawakkil and wrote many treaties; the most famous was Futuh al-Buldan (History of the Muslim conquests).

Al-Yaqubi (d. 897), a historian and geographer, wrote a history of the world known as Tarikh al-Yaqubi, and Kitab al-Buldan (Book of countries). Al-Tabari (d. 923) was another noted historian, lexigrapher, and scientist. His major work is Tarikh al-Rusul wa al-Muluk (History of the world); Al-Masudi (d. 956) was born and lived in Baghdad and traveled widely; most of his works were lost and only one survived: Muruj al-Dhahab wa Maadin al-Jawhar (Fields of gold and mines of jewels), which was a short history of the world down to the end of the Umayyad period; Ibn al-Nadim (d. 990) was the son of a book dealer born in Baghdad. His massive work al-Fihrist was intended to be an index of all books written in Arabic from early Islam up to Ibn al-Nadim’s time. The vast majority of the books mentioned in his Fihrist are given with information on the authors and subjects. Ibn Khaldun was perhaps the most famous Arab historian and sociologist, who changed the course of interpreting historical events and set the mode for modern methodology in historiography with his influential book al-Muqaddimah (Introduction).

Arabic prose flourished in Baghdad with Ibn al- Muqaffa (d. 757), who translated many Pahlavi works and was famous for his Kalila wa Dimna, a collection of didactic fables in which two jackals offered moral and practical advice. Originally derived from the Sanskrit Fables of Bidpai, Kalila wa Dimna was the inspirational source for La Fontaine’s Fables. From Basra came Al-Jahiz (d. 869), who developed Arabic prose into a literary vehicle of precision and elegance and was one of Baghdad’s leading intellectuals. He wrote over 200 works; the most famous of them were 206 Islam: literature and music in the golden age Kitab al-Hayawan (Book of animals), al-Bayan wa al- Tabyeen, and al-Bukhala. Equally important was Abu al-Faraj al-Isbahani (d. 967), also called al-Isfahani, who was an Arab historian, intellectual, and poet. His monumental book Kitab al-Aghani (Book of songs) is an anthology of songs and poems from the earliest epoch to the author’s own time. These were especially those were popular in Baghdad during Harun al-Rashid’s reign.

Abbasid Period Literature

The early Abbasid period witnessed the birth of new genres in poetry where politics, eroticism, and blasphemy mingled. The emergence of a political trend geared toward undermining the dominant Arab culture in what came to be called Shuubism, or anti-Arabism, led to a new genre of literature. An adamant leader in this trend was the renowned blind poet Bashshar ibn Burd (d. 783). Other poets also excelled in various genres such as Muti ibn Iyas (d. 787), Abbas ibn al-Ahnaf (d. 808), Muslim ibn Walid (d. 823), Abu Nuas (d. 813), and ibn al-Rumi (d. 896).

Many poets revived classical Arabic poetry such as Abu Tammam (d. 843), al-Buhtari (d. 897), al-Mutanabbi (d. 956), and al-Maarri (d. 1057). The art of the genre Maqamat, an assembly of rhymed prose of amusing anecdotes narrated by a vagabond who made his living by his wit, was associated with two famous names, al- Hamadhani (d. 1008), who invented the genre, and al-Hariri (d. 1122), who elaborated on the style and excelled in composing linguistic virtuosity where the literary form was more important than the content. The talented visual artist Mahmoud bin Yehya al-Wasiti, who established a distinct and influential artistic style in 13th century Baghdad, illustrated al-Hariri’s Maqamat.

Storytelling literature had flourished since the early period of Islam. Storytellers were street preachers who used old Arab folk tales mixed with religious flavor; they spoke to enthusiastic and attentive audiences in mosques and other public places. Remains of this folk art are found in the form of al-Hakawati in present-day Cairo, Damascus, and Marrakesh. A favorite literary subject of these storytellers was the epic tale of Arab bravery presented in such work as Sirat Antara.

Out of this type of oral tradition and sometime around the 15th century evolved the most famous Arabic literary work in the West: Alf laylah wa Laylah (Thousand and One Nights, or Arabian Nights). It revealed a blend of legends, fables, and fairy tales derived from many cultures such as the Mesopotamian, Persian, Greek, Indian, Chinese, Turkish, and Arabic, traditions integrated and reintroduced through tales and legacies correlated with Abbasid times.

In the western part of the Islamic state al-Andalus, a similar cultural revolution took place and built widely on the eastern Islamic prototype. One particular form of literature was distinctly Andalusian, al-Muwashshahat, which was a love poem performed with singing and music. Among the brilliant names associated with this art are Ibn Sahl, Ibn al-Khatib, and Ibn Hazm. As early as the 12th century Muslim Spanish academies, similar to Bayt al-Hikmah in Baghdad, were opened for translating Arabic into Latin. Scholars from France, England, Germany, and northern Europe converged in the Andalus to study Arabic literature and other subjects.

As early as the second half of the ninth century a new type of literary work emerged throughout the Abbasid Empire, that is, geohistorical writing accentuated with traveler observations and accounts. Major examples of this type were Ibn Fadhlan, Abbasid ambassador to the Viking kingdom, and his account Rihlat ibn Fadhlan (Travels of Ibn Fadhlan) in 922; in Baghdad, Ibn Hawqal (d. 969) wrote Surat al-Ardh (Description of the Earth), where he described Spain, Italy, and the Byzantine territories. In 1154 Al-Idrisi was commissioned by the Norman king Roger II in Palermo and composed a geographical account of the world called Nuzhat al-Mushtaq fiIkhtiraq al-Afaq also known as Kitab Rodjar.

Yaqut al-Hamawi (d. 1229) wrote a major geographical dictionary, Mujam al-Buldan, which contained significant biographical, cultural, and historical data on the known world. Al-Qazwini (d. 1383) wrote in Baghdad his cosmographic work Ajaib al-Makhluqat wa Gharaib al-Mawjudat (Marvels of things created and miraculous aspects of things existing).

The book was very popular and was translated into Farsi and Turkish and was often illustrated lavishly. Al-Qazwini also wrote an important geographical account. Ibn Batuta traveled extensively through Africa, Europe, and Asia and recorded his accounts in his Rihlat Ibn Batuta (Travels of Ibn Batuta), a classic in Arabic literature.

The Arabs learned papermaking technology from the Chinese in the eighth century and substituted mulberry bark and other organic matter with linen as raw materials, and the first papermaking factory was established in Baghdad in 793. This was a turning point in the spread of education and the development of Arabic literature throughout the Islamic world. Expensive parchment and fragile papyrus were replaced by paper that was affordable, practical, and durable. Libraries were common and were open to the public. Booksellers gathered around major mosques and markets with their shops stocked with volumes of desirable works; shops became popular gathering places for scholars and writers. Specialized workshops of manuscript copying were manned with professional and efficient copyists, calligraphers, illustrators, and linguists.

The fall of Baghdad to the Mongols in 1258 marked the beginning of the decline of the golden age of Arabic literature as well as other scientific activities. However the massive destruction of books by the invading armies of Genghis Khan, Hulagu Khan, and later Timurlane (Tamerlane) prompted Arab scholars to compile, digest, codify, and abridge major encyclopedic and collection works, hence preserving Arabic literary heritage with such authors as Al-Qazwini, Yaqut, Ibn Malik, Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Batuta, Abu al-Fida, and Al-Zabidi.

Islam : Science And Technology In The Golden Age

Science, technology, and other fields of knowledge developed rapidly during the golden age of Islam from the eighth to the 13th century and beyond. Early Abbasid caliphs embarked on major campaigns seeking scientific and philosophical works from eastern and western worlds. Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Empire, became the center of intellectual and scientific activity. The first academy, Bayt al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom) was established by the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid and was expanded by his son the caliph al-Ma’mun (d. 833). By the ninth century, Baghdad had become a center of financial power and political prestige and intellectual pursuits flourished in numerous colleges, schools, hospitals, mosques, and libraries. Baghdad attracted visitors, ambassadors, and students from all parts of the empire.

The Beginning

During the seventh century the Arab empire and Islamic domain included the realm of the old Persian Empire and most of the Byzantine Empire. This resulted in access to the wealth and heritage of both Hellenistic and Eastern philosophy and knowledge. During the immediate pre-Islamic period (fifth–seventh centuries), Hellenistic science and knowledge passed to the Arab people through Alexandria in Egypt, Nasibis in Syria, and Antioch and Edissa in northern Mesopotamia and Asia Minor. Through these centers much Greek philosophy and science was preserved by Coptic, Nestorian (Eastern Orthodox), and Jacobite Christians.

In Persia, Jundi-Shapur was another important pre-Islamic center for the quest of scientifi c knowledge. It was established during the Sassanian period and was located in Khuzistan, not far from the Abbasid capital of Baghdad. Home to many Nestorian and Zoroastrian scholars, it was conquered by the Arabs in 636. Abbasid caliphs summoned many of these scholars to serve on the faculty of the newly established Bayt al-ikmah.

Harran was another important intellectual center. Situated in eastern Anatolia, Harran was a center for Sabaeans, a pre-Christian monotheistic Semitic people who preserved both Babylonian and Hellenistic heritages. Therefore several agencies worked to develop and extend Hellenistic and Eastern heritage.

Quest For Learning

During the seventh and eighth centuries as Arabs conquered new lands they preserved, assimilated, and transformed the cultures of their subjects. Beside the Arabic speaking scholars there were also Nestorians with knowledge of Greek and Syrian languages (dialect of Aramaic), Sabaeans who spoke a dialect of Aramaic, Zoroastrians who used Pahlevi (an old Persian language related to Aramaic), Indians knowledgeable in Sanskrit, and Jews fluent in Hebrew. However Arabic was the literary language of both the Umayyad and Abbasid Empires as well as the liturgy language of Islam.

Hence Arabic became the literary and scientific lingua franca of the time. By virtue of its root relation to the different Aramaic dialects, Arabic unifi ed the collective intellectual effort of scholars into one dialect. Furthermore, the new Arab/Islamic authority related easily to these diverse groups and shared many of the same cultural values. Records indicate that Nestorian scholars translated Greek philosophical treatises to Syriac and Arabic during the Umayyad period in the eighth century; they also studied Aristotelian logic, metaphysics, and medical and scientific works.

Empowered by the new Islamic state and fueled by the quest for knowledge that was encouraged by many Qur’anic verses and Hadiths advocating the pursuit of knowledge, Caliphs Harun al-Rashid and al-Ma’mun sponsored envoys to Byzantine and Christian authorities in Europe to gain access to Greek manuscripts, hitherto kept in basements and attics of churches and monasteries. Countless manuscripts, especially in Greek, were collected and stored at Bayt al-Hikmah. Early scholars went to Baghdad from diverse areas and backgrounds and enjoyed considerable respect and religious tolerance from their Muslim colleagues.

Caliph al-Ma’mun encouraged the translation of Greek and other texts into Arabic. The caliph surrounded himself with learned men, legal experts, rationalist theologians, lexicographers, and linguists. Yuhanna bin Masawayh (d. 857) and his student Hunayn ibn Ishaq (d. 874) and a host of others headed the program at Bayt al-Hikmah.

Works of Greek philosophers such as Porphyry, Aristotle, Galen, and Hippocrates were translated to Syriac and then to Arabic. The bulk of these materials were exhaustively analyzed and consequently codified and reintroduced with a particular Islamic Arabic identity.

In 751 the Arabs learned the technology of papermaking from the Chinese; the first paper mill was established in Baghdad around 793. The knowledge soon spread to Jerusalem, Egypt, and the Andalus in Spain, which was instrumental in transmitting the technology to Europe. Bayt al-Hikmah developed a vast library and a systematic program of translation and study. For the next 300 years, Baghdad remained a center of knowledge. Córdoba in Spain was an equally active scientific center.

Science And Medicine

Islamic scholars expanded on the works of Greek physicians such as Galen. Al-Razi (Rhazes, d. 925) was an alchemist, physician, and clinician who wrote the first medical description of smallpox and measles; he combined psychological methods with physiological explanations. He also developed the discipline of pharmacology, found treatment for kidney stones, and used alcohol as an antiseptic. In his medical encyclopedia he included 50 contraceptive methods for women. The Latin version of his work was published and used as a text in Milan, Venice, and Basle. Ibn Sina (Avicenna) was a philosopher, poet, and physician who wrote a vast canon of medicine. Ibn Sina’s writing was held in high repute in Europe and was appreciated by Saint Thomas Aquinas and Roger Bacon.

In Spain, Ibn al-Khatib (Ibn al-Jatib, d. 1375) of Granada composed a treatise on the theory of infection. Ibn Zuhr (Avenzoar, d. 1162) of Seville was another prominent physician. Al-Zahraw (Alzahravius, d. 1013), a famous surgeon, left the fi rst descriptive account of hemophilia. Ibn al-Nafi s (d. 1288) was the first to describe the anatomy of the pulmonary vessels; his medical writing was translated to Latin. Ibn al-Haytham al-Khazin (Alhazen, d. 1039) wrote The Book of Optics, in which he gave a detailed treatment of the anatomy of the eye and correctly deduced that the eye receives light from the object perceived, thereby laying the foundation for modern photography.


In the field of therapeutics, Yuhanna bin Masawayh (d. 857) started a scientifi c and systematic method in Baghdad. Hunayn outlined methods for confirming pharmacological effectiveness of drugs by experimenting with them on humans. He also emphasized the importance of prognosis and diagnosis of diseases. Other famous names in this field were al-Biruni and Ibn Butlan. Pharmacies were open in towns and cities and were regulated by the government. Much of the repertoire of modern pharmaceutical and chemical terminology derives from Arabic, including alchemy, alkali, alcohol, elixir, saffron, zenith, and zero. Famous Arab scientists in this field include Ibn al-Bitar (d. 1248), who was born in Malaga, worked in Damascus, and served as chief inspector of pharmacies in Egypt.

Arab scientists introduced Greek medicine to India and Central Asia in the ninth century and that knowledge flourished under dynasties following the Mongol invasion through the 17th century. Islamic medical practice transformed the theological and superstitious and talismanic rituals inherited from medieval culture to methodical hospitals equipped with educated and certified physicians. Hospitals in Baghdad, Damascus, Jerusalem, Cairo, and Córdoba were equipped with pharmacies and libraries; they incorporated innovations such as fountains to cool the air, storytelling to ease pain, and the sound of music to treat mental illness. Throughout the Islamic world mental institutions were built and were equipped with baths, drugs, music therapy, and occupational therapy.

Applied Science And Technology

The wealth of knowledge and scientific achievement spread to different centers in the Islamic world and Islam: science and technology in the golden age 209 was reflected in the lifestyle, public education, health service, commercial activity, and military as well as in art and architecture. Schools, libraries, hospitals—both permanent and mobile—courthouses, shopping centers, parks, and public baths were regular features of life in medieval Arab and Muslim cities. Observatories, textile factories (Tiraz), metal and copperware manufacturing centers, and manuscript production centers were widespread. The astrolabe, pendulum, clock, sphere, and many other engineering tools and mechanical devices were commonly used.

In the field of science and mathematics, the three brothers Banu Musa—Muhammad, Ahmad, and al-Hasan—were pioneers and were the first to translate Greek mathematics in the ninth century. They extended their patronage to others and their work was later translated into Latin. Jabir Ibn Hayyan (Geber, d. 815) was a pioneer in the fi eld of applied science and was considered the father of chemistry. Among the achievements of Muslim scholars during this period were the invention of spherical trigonometry and advances in optics. Famous scholars in this field were Averroës (Ibn Rushd) and Al- Kindi (Alkindus, d. 873). Al-Farabi (Alpharabus, d. 950) made notable contributions in the fields of mathematics, medicine, and music. Al-Khwarizmi (d. 840), with a Zoroastrian background and knowledge of Sanskrit, made major contributions in the fields of trigonometry, astronomy, and cartography. He founded algebra and developed the concept of algorithms (which are named after him) and introduced the Arabic numeral system to the world. Al-Idris (d. 1166) was born and educated in the Andalus and was famous as a botanist, geographer, and medical scientist. He worked as the personal scholar for the Norman king Roger II and produced advanced maps of the world as well as an important geographical encyclopedia.

Mechanical Engineering

The Arabs also developed two types of mechanical inventions: for everyday use things such as mills, water rising devices, and war machines; and automat, devices for pleasure, novelty, and wonder. The latter category included innovations such as self-trimming lamps, multifluid dispensers, musical fountains, and calculating devices. Water clocks were major technological inventions. In this field, the 13th-century scientist Al-Jaziri is well known for his book The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. He also researched the development of steam engine and pumping machinery. Waterwheels to lift water from ground level to higher levels, based on the manipulation of the pressure of the water, were common in Syria, Egypt, and Spain during the golden age of Islam.

Elaborate underground water channels, qanats, were widespread. Islamic inventions and knowledge, along with artistic and architectural knowledge, passed to Europe though many channels. Inventions like paper, the silk loom, astrolabes, compasses, waterwheels, and windmills, as well as agricultural crops like cotton (qutn), sugar (sukker), rice (ruzz), oranges (burtuqal), tea (shai), and coffee (qahwa), were transmitted to Europe. The collective efforts of Muslim scholars helped pave the way for scientific development in photography, gunpowder, marine warfare, and mechanical engineering.

In 1258 the Abbasid Caliphate ended when the Mongols, under Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulagu Khan, conquered all of Central Asia, Iran, and Iraq. The Mongols massacred tens of thousands of people including many scientists; they destroyed Baghdad with its libraries, schools, mosques, and residential quarters. The coming of the Mongols marked the end of the golden age of Baghdad as a center of scientific and literary achievement of the Muslim world. But the echoes of that renaissance continued to reverberate in other parts of the Islamic world. Much of the Arab-Islamic scientific heritage passed to Europe through the crusaders, the Normans in Sicily, and the Mozarabic (Musta’rabeen) in Spain. Arab-Islamic science, medicine, mathematics, and technology were transmitted to Europe in written forms, especially the translation of the Greek heritage into Latin that was generated by Arab scholars in Salerno, Palermo, Toledo, Seville, and Córdoba.

Islamic Law

Shari’a is the collection of Islamic law that developed and was enlarged upon over a number of centuries. In Islamic society, fiqh, jurisprudence, was considered the queen of sciences and was held in extremely high esteem.

Under the Abbasids Shari’a evolved as a codified system of Islamic law. The Shari’a was based on the word of God as given through the Qur’an, Hadith, and Sunna. The compendiums of law included aspects of customary tribal law as well as religious law as given in the Qur’an. In spite of variations in interpretation, the Shari’a united Muslims across continents and influenced every aspect of their lives. Much of the law dealt with family matters (marriage, divorce settlements, inheritance) but also provided guidelines for the treatment of slaves, business matters, usury (forbidden), and the oversight of waqf (plural awqaf), or religious foundations. The law implied, in varying degrees, some measure of ijtihad, human judgment or interpretation. In Islam as in Christianity, scholars and theologians debated the degree of independent thinking allowed. Some permitted a greater degree of human interpretation while others argued that the sacred texts were to be implemented literally word by word.

The ulema, Muslim scholars, provided interpretations of the texts based on extensive research and study. Qadis, well-trained judges, were appointed by local rulers to pass judgments and issue verdicts on specific cases. When jurists could not agree on an issue or case the muftis or a so-called Sheikh al-Islam delivered fatwas or legal pronouncements. The issues dealt with in fatwas varied from weighty theological matters to matters of dress or the legality under Islam of drinking coffee.

Muslim scholars were divided over when or if the gates of ijtihad closed. Many held that by end of the 12th century ijtihad was no longer permissible; however, others argued that independent thought was an ongoing process and that the law was constantly being reinterpreted and reassessed. Qadis often engaged in taqlid or imitation of earlier judgments.

By the 1300s there were four recognized schools of Sunni law. The Shafi’i, named after Muhammad Idris ibn al-Shafi ’i (d. 820), was applied in Southeast Asia and much of Syria, Palestine, and Jordan. The Maliki, after Malik ibn Anas (d. 795), was fairly conservative in its interpretations and became prevalent in Egypt and North Africa. The Hanbali, after Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 833), was the most conservative and mandated the strict adherence to the letter of the law. It became the law applied in modern Saudi Arabia. The Hanafi , after Abu Hanifah al-Muman ibn Thabit (d. 767), was considered the most liberal of the schools of law. Hanafis used ra’y, or opinion, and questioned many of the Hadiths; it was adopted by the Ottoman Empire and became the most widely applied school of law.

Technically a Muslim could choose any one of the four schools but in practice nationlstates tended to apply a single one and individuals usually followed the one applied in their nation-state. The Shi’i in Iran evolved their own legal codes implemented through mullahs, the established clergy. Among Shi’i scholars, as within the Sunni community, there was a lively debate over ijtihad. Among the Shi’i the debate continued into the 17th century with the community generally following the guidance of the imams on issues of interpretation and practice.


The Isma’ilis are a sect within Islamic Shi’ism. Also known as Seveners, the Isma’ilis split from the Twelver Shi’i in 765 when they chose to follow Isma’il, the second son of the sixth imam.

Early Isma’ilis were avid proselytizers and revolutionaries who attacked and sometimes even killed Sunni leaders. To protect themselves from prosecution from the ruling Sunni government they practiced taqiyya or dissimulation to conceal their true beliefs and affi liation. Some other Shi’i sects also used taqiyya to protect themselves and their communities. In 909 the Isma’ilis established the Fatimid dynasty, which ruled large areas of the Muslim world from their new capital Cairo in Egypt. In the 16th century, Shah Ismail of the Safavid dynasty in Persia also claimed to be a Sevener imam.

The Assassins were a much dreaded offshoot of the Isma’ilis. Based in a fortress stronghold on Mt. Alamut in northern present-day Iran, the Assassins were led by the socalled Old Man of the Mountain or Grand Master. They assassinated Abbasid leaders and the fear they aroused in both Muslims and Christians gave rise to numerous legends regarding their prowess and secret society.

In the 1800s the Isma’ili imam acquired the honorary title of Aga Khan through a marriage alliance and moved to India. The present-day Aga Khan, Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, is the 49th imam in the chain of Isma’ili leaders. Believed to be continuation of the living imam, he continues to interpret Islam to fi t present-day needs. Although there are scattered communities in Africa and elsewhere around the world, most present-day Isma’ilis live in India, where they form a rich merchant class.

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