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May peace and blessings of Allah be on thee



Islam From The Beginning To 1300
Date: 2002

An Age Of Learning And Artistic Refinement

The avid interest in Muslim ideas and material culture displayed by
European knights and merchants who journeyed to the centers of Islamic
civilization in this era cautions us against placing too great an emphasis on
the political divisions and struggles that were such a prominent feature of
the later Abbasid era. It also invites comparison with neighboring
civilizations, such as India and western Europe, that were a good deal more
fragmented and racked by endless warfare in late-Abbasid times. In the midst
of the political turmoil and social tensions of the Abbasid age, Muslim
thinkers and craftsmen living in kingdoms from Spain to Persia created,
refined, and made discoveries in a remarkable range of fields. Their
collective accomplishments mark one of the great ages of human ingenuity and
creativity. Their thought and techniques influenced their counterparts in
virtually all the civilized centers of the Old World from the Sudanic peoples
of Africa to the Iberians and Franks of western Europe, and from the Hindus of
India to the distant and relatively isolated Chinese.

[See Cordoba Mosque Interior: A forest of graceful arches fills the interior
of the mosque at Cordoba in Spain. Such an architectural feat testifies to the
depth and expansive power of Islamic civilization.]

Urban Growth And Continuing Prosperity

Though town life became somewhat more dangerous, the rapid growth and
increasing prosperity that had been dominant trends in the first centuries of
Muslim expansion continued until quite late in the Abbasid era. Expanding
bureaucracies and caliphal building projects meant that employment
opportunities for the well-educated and for skilled craftsmen remained
surprisingly abundant. Despite the declining revenue base of the caliphate and
deteriorating conditions in the countryside, there was a great expansion of
the professional classes, particularly doctors, scholars, and legal and
religious experts. Muslim, Jewish, and in some areas Christian entrepreneurs
amassed great fortunes supplying the cities of the empire with staples such as
grain and barley, essentials such as cotton and woolen textiles for clothing,
and luxury items such as precious gems, citrus fruits, and sugar cane.
Long-distance trade with coastal India and island Southeast Asia as well as
the overland caravan trade with China flourished through much of the Abbasid
era, despite periodic interruptions due to warfare between rival kingdoms.
Trade across the Mediterranean to western Europe, both from North Africa and
the Middle East, also increased. Merchants of Italian towns, such as Venice
and Genoa, expanded their operations in the eastern Mediterranean, ironically
as a by-product of the Crusades. Nonetheless, the continuing prosperity of
many urban centers of the Islamic world gave a false impression of the
economic state of Muslim lands as a whole. In the later centuries of Abbasid
rule, the agrarian base on which the townspeople and rulers were ultimately
dependent was rapidly eroding through much of the Middle East.

[See Persian City: The Persian of Yezd.]

Among the chief beneficiaries of the sustained urban prosperity were the
artists and artisans, who continued the great achievements in architecture and
the crafts that had begun in the Umayyad era. Mosques and palaces grew larger
and more ornate in most parts of the empire, and even in outlying areas, such
as Cordoba in Spain, Muslim engineers and craftsmen created some of the great
architectural treasures of all time. The tapestries and rugs of Muslim
peoples, such as the Persians, were in great demand from Europe to China. To
this day, Muslim rugs have rarely been matched for their exquisite designs,
vivid colors, and the skill with which they are woven. Muslim craftsmen also
produced superb ceramics. Particularly stunning were the blue-glazed tiles,
which were used to decorate the mosques and palaces of Persia, and the
wonderfully designed pitchers and bowls, which were fashioned for everyday use
in the Abbasid era but have become museum pieces in our day. Though the great
age of miniature painting still lay ahead, Persian and Arab artists were famed
for their lifelike depictions of plants and animals.

The Full Flowering Of Persian Literature

As Persian wives, concubines, advisors, bureaucrats, and - after the
mid-10th century - Persian caliphs came to play central roles in imperial
politics, Persian gradually replaced Arabic as the primary written language at
the Abbasid court. Arabic remained the language of religion, law, and the
natural sciences, but Persian was favored by Arabs, Turks, and those of
Persian descent as the language of literary expression, administration, and
scholarship. In Baghdad and major cities throughout the Abbasid Empire and in
neighboring kingdoms, Persian was the chief language of "high culture," the
language of polite exchanges between courtiers as well as of history, poetic
musings, and mystical revelations.

Written in a modified Arabic script and drawing selectively on Arabic
vocabulary, the Persian of the Abbasid age was a supple language as beautiful
to look at when drafted by a skilled calligrapher as it was to read aloud.
Though catch phrases ("A jug of wine, a loaf of bread - and Thou") from
Rubiyat of Omar Khayyam are certainly the pieces of Persian literature best
known in the West, other writers from this period surpassed Khayyam in
profundity of thought and elegance of style. Perhaps the greatest single work
was the lengthy epic poem, Shah-Nama (Book of Kings), written by Firdawsi in
the late 10th and early 11th centuries. The work relates the history of Persia
from Creation to the Islamic conquests, and it abounds in dramatic details of
battles, intrigues, and illicit love affairs. Firdawsi's Persian has been
extolled for its grand, yet musical, virtuosity, and portions of the Shah-Nama
and other Persian works were actually read aloud to musical accompaniment.
Brilliantly illustrated manuscripts of Firdawsi's epic history are among the
most exquisite works of Islamic art.

In addition to historical epics, Persian writers in the Abbasid era wrote
on all manner of subjects, from doomed love affairs and the elements of
statecraft to incidents from everyday life and mystical striving for communion
with the divine. One of the great poets of the age, Sa'di, fuses an everyday
and a religious message in the following relation of a single moment in his
own life:

Often I am minded, from the days of my childhood,
How once I went out with my father on a festival;
In fun I grew preoccupied with all the folk about,
Losing touch with my father in the popular confusion;
In terror and bewilderment I raised up a cry,
Then suddenly my father boxed my ears:
"You bold-eyed child, how many times, now,
Have I told you not to lose hold of my skirt?"
A tiny child cannot walk out alone,
For it is difficult to take a way not seen;
You too, poor friend, are but a child upon endeavour's way:
Go, seize the skirts of those who know the way!

This blend of the mystical and commonplace was widely adopted in the
literature of this period. It is epitomized in Rubiyat, whose author is much
more concerned with finding meaning in life and a path to union with the
divine than with extolling the delights of picnics in the garden with
beautiful women.

Achievements In The Sciences

From the preservers and compilers of the learning of the ancient
civilizations they had conquered in the early centuries of expansion, Muslim
peoples - and the Jewish scholars who lived peacefully in Muslim lands -
increasingly became creators and inventors in their own right. For several
centuries, which spanned much of the period of Abbasid rule, Islamic
civilization outstripped all others in scientific discoveries, devising new
techniques of investigation, and in the innovation and dissemination of
technology. Their many accomplishments in these areas include major
corrections to the algebraic and geometric theories of the ancient Greeks and
great advances in the use of the concepts of the sine, cosine, and tangent
that are basic to trigonometry.

Among numerous discoveries in chemistry, two that were fundamental to all
subsequent investigation were the creation of the objective experiment and
al-Razi's scheme of classifying all material substances into three categories:
animal, vegetable, and mineral. The sophistication of Muslim scientific
techniques is indicated by the fact that in the 11th century al-Biruni was
able to calculate the exact specific weight of 18 major minerals. This
sophistication was also manifested in the astronomical instruments and
observations made through the cooperation of Muslim scholars and skilled
craftsmen. Muslim technicians greatly improved devices, such as the astrolabe
and armillary sphere, for measuring and mapping the position of celestial
bodies. Muslim astronomers devised the names, which we still use today, of
many of the constellations and individual stars. Their astronomical tables and
maps of the stars were in great demand among scholars of other civilizations,
including those of Europe and China.

As these breakthroughs suggest, much of the Muslims' work in scientific
investigation had very practical applications. This practical bent was even
more pronounced in a number of other fields. In medicine, for example, Muslim
cities, such as Cairo, boasted some of the best hospitals in the world;
doctors and pharmacis s had to follow a regular course of study and pass a
formal exam before they were allowed to practice; and Muslim scientists did
important work on optics and bladder ailments. Muslim traders and crafpsmen
introduced into the Islamic world and Europe many basic machines and
techniques - namely, paper making, silk weaving, and ceramic firing - that had
been devised earlier in China. Muslim scholars made some of the world's best
maps, which were envied and copied by geographers from Portugal to Poland.
Muslim travelers, such as Ibn Khaldun and al-Biruni, wrote ethnographic and
historical accounts of the lands they visited, which remain to the present day
some of our fullest and most accurate sources on these regions. The Arab dhow
was one of the finest sailing vessels of its day, and its hull and sail design
later greatly influenced the shipbuilders of Italy and Iberia who would
pioneer European overseas exploration from the 13th century onward. As these
achievements testify, despite continuing political instability, Islamic
civilization remained vibrant, receptive, and highly creative through much of
the era of Abbasid decline and the political fragmentation of the Muslim

Religious Trends And The New Impetus For Expansion

The contradictory trends in Islamic civilization - social strife and
political divisions versus expanding trading links and intellectual creativity
- were strongly reflected in divergent trends in religious development in the
later centuries of the caliphate. On the one hand, Sufist mysticism injected
Islam with a new vibrancy and expansiveness; on the other hand, orthodox
religious scholars, such as the ulama, grew increasingly suspicious of and
hostile to non-Islamic ideas and scientific thinking. The Crusades had given
great impetus to the latter trend, particularly with regard to Muslim
borrowing from ancient Greek learning that the ulama associated with the
aggressive civilizations of Christian Europe. Many orthodox scholars came to
suspect that the propensity for empirical testing and seemingly endless
questioning of the Greek tradition posed potential challenges to the absolute
authority of the Quran, which they insisted was the final, perfect, and
complete revelation of an all-knowing divinity. Brilliant thinkers like
al-Ghazali, who was perhaps the greatest of Islamic theologians and whose
ideas indirectly influenced major European philosophers such as Thomas
Aquinas, struggled to fuse the Greek and Quranic traditions, achieving mixed
success in terms of acceptance by orthodox scholars.

Much of the religious vitality in Islam in the later Abbasid period was
centered in the Sufist movement. Like the Buddhist and Hindu holy men earlier
in India, Sufis (whose title was derived from the woolen robes they wore) were
wandering mystics who sought a personal union with God. In its various guises
- including both Sunni and Shi'a manifestations - Sufism was a reaction
against the impersonal and abstract divinity that many ulama scholars argued
was the true God of the Quran. Like the Indian mystics, the Sufis and their
followers sought to see beyond what they believed to be the illusory existence
of everyday life and to delight in the presence of God in the world. True to
the uncompromising monotheism of Islam, most Sufis insisted on a clear
distinction between God and humans - a distinction Hindu and Buddhist mystics
tended to deny or blur. But in some Sufist teachings God permeated the
universe in ways that appeared to compromise his transcendent status.

Some Sufis gained reputations as great healers and workers of miracles;
others led militant bands that sought to spread Islam to infidel peoples. To
find God some Sufis used asceticism or bodily denial; others used meditation,
songs, drugs, or (in the case of the famous dervishes) ecstatic dancing. Most
Sufis built up a sizeable popular following, and the movement as a whole was a
central factor in the continuing expansion of the Muslim religion and Islamic
civilization in the later centuries of the Abbasid caliphate.

New Waves Of Nomadic Invasions And The End Of The Caliphate

As we have seen, in the 10th and 11th centuries the Abbasid domains were
divided by ever-growing numbers of rival successor states. Independent
kingdoms or empires threatened the Islamic heartlands from Egypt and North
Africa, northern Syria, and Persia. Asia Minor was divided between different
bands of Seljuk Turks; much of Arabia was occupied for decades by Shi'a
rebels; and the Tigris-Euphrates core of the empire was controlled by Turkic
sultans who manipulated the caliphs they chose to put on the throne.

In the early decades of the 13th century, a new threat arose at the
eastern extremities of the original Abbasid domains. Another central Asian
nomadic people, the Mongols, united by their great war commander, Chinggis
Khan, first raided in the 1220s and then smashed the Turko-Persian kingdoms
that had developed in the regions to the east of Baghdad. Chinggis Khan died
before the heartlands of the Muslim world were invaded, but his grandson,
Hulegu, renewed the Mongol assault on the rich centers of Islamic civilization
in the 1250s. In 1258, the Abbasid capital at Baghdad was taken by the Mongols
and much of it was sacked. The thirty-seventh and last Abbasid caliph was put
to death by the Mongols, who continued westward until they were finally
defeated by the Mamluks, or Turkic slaves, who then ruled Egypt. Baghdad never
recovered from the Mongol depredations and in 1401 a second capture of the
city and another round of pillaging by the even fiercer forces of Tamerlane.
Baghdad shrank from the status of one of the great cities of the world - from
the cultural, if not the political center of Islamic civilization - to a
provincial backwater, supplanted by Cairo to the west and soon thereafter
Istanbul to the north.


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