Islam From The Beginning To 1300
The attainments of the Muslims in the intellectual and artistic fields
can be attributed not only to the genius of Arabs, but also to those peoples
who embraced the Islamic faith in Persia, Mesopotamia, Turkey, Syria, Egypt,
North Africa, and Spain. Muslim learning benefitted both from Islam's ability
to absorb other cultures and from the native talents of the Islamic peoples.
The cosmopolitan spirit permeating the Abbasid Dynasty supplied the tolerance
necessary for a diversity of ideas, so that the science and philosophy of
ancient Greece and India alike received a cordial reception in Baghdad. Under
Harun al-Rashid and his successors, the writings of Aristotle, Euclid,
Ptolemy, Archimedes, Galen, and other great Greek scientific writers were
translated into Arabic. This knowledge, together with the teachings of the
Koran, formed the basis of Muslim learning, which in turn was later
transmitted to scholars in western Europe. In addition to being invaluable
transmitters of learning, the Muslims made many original contributions to
science and the arts.
Advances In Medicine
The years between 900 and 1100 can be called the golden age of Muslim
learning. This period was particularly significant for medical advances.
Muslim students of medicine were by all measures far superior to their
European contemporaries. Muslim cities had excellent pharmacies and hospitals,
and both pharmacists and physicians had to pass state examinations for
licensure. Physicians received instruction in medical schools and hospitals.
Perhaps the greatest Muslim physician was the Persian al-Razi (d. 925),
better known in the West as Rhazes. He wrote more than a hundred medical
treatises in which he summarized Greek medical knowledge and added his own
clinical observations. His most famous work, On Smallpox and Measles, is the
first clear description of the symptoms and treatment of these diseases. The
most influential Muslim medical treatise is the vast Canon of Medicine of the
Persian scholar Avicenna (d. 1037), in which all Greek and Muslim medical
learning is systematically organized. In the twelfth century the Canon was
translated into Latin and was so much in demand in the West that it was issued
sixteen times in the last half of the fifteenth century and more than twenty
times in the sixteenth. It is still read and used in east Asia today.
Progress In Other Sciences
Muslim physicists were not just copyists, but highly creative scientists
as well. Alhazen (d. 1039) of Cairo developed optics to a remarkable degree
and challenged the theory of Ptolemy and Euclid that the eye sends visual rays
to its object. The chief source of all medieval Western writers on optics,
Alhazen interested himself in optic reflections and illusions and examined the
refraction of light rays through air and water.
Although astronomy continued to be strongly influenced by astrology,
Muslim astronomers built observatories, recorded their observations over long
periods, and achieved greater accuracy than the Greeks in measuring the length
of the solar year and in calculating eclipses. Interest in alchemy - the
attempt to change base metals into precious ones and to find the magic elixir
for the preservation of human life - produced the first chemical laboratories
and caused an emphasis on the value of experimentation. Muslim alchemists
prepared many chemical substances (sulfuric acid, for example) and developed
methods for evaporation, filtration, sublimation, crystallization, and
distillation. The process of distillation, invented around 800, produced what
was called alkuhl (alcohol), a new liquor that had made Geber, its inventor,
an honored name in some circles.
In mathematics the Muslims were indebted to the Hindus as well as to the
Greeks. From the Greeks came the geometry of Euclid and the fundamentals of
trigonometry, which Ptolemy had worked out. From the Hindus came arithmetic
and algebra and the nine signs, known as Arabic numerals. The Muslims probably
invented the all-important zero, although some scholars assign this honor to
the Indians. Two Persian mathematicians made significant contributions:
al-Khwarizmi (d. about 840), whose Arithmetic introduced Arabic numerals and
whose Algebra first employed that mathematical term, and Omar Khayyam (d. c.
1123), whose work in algebra went beyond quadratics to cubic equations. Other
scholars developed plane and spherical trigonometry.
In an empire that straddled continents, where trade and administration
made an accurate knowledge of lands imperative, the science of geography
flourished. The Muslims added to the geographical knowledge of the Greeks,
whose treatises they translated, by producing detailed descriptions of the
climate, manners, and customs of many parts of the known world.
Islamic Literature And Scholarship
To Westerners, whose literary tastes have been largely modeled after the
Graeco-Roman classics, Islamic literature may seem very alien. Whereas we are
used to restraint and simplicity, Muslim writers have long enjoyed elegant
expression, subtle combinations of words, and fanciful and even extravagant
Westerners' knowledge of Islamic literature tends to be limited to the
Arabian Nights and the poetry of Omar Khayyam. The former is a collection of
often erotic tales told with a wealth of local color; although it professedly
covers different facets of life at the Abbasid capital, it is in fact often
based on life in medieval Cairo. The fame of Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat is partly
due to the musical (though somewhat free) translation of Edward FitzGerald.
The following stanzas indicate the poem's beautiful imagery and gentle
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread - and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness -
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
Some for the Glories of This World; and some
Sigh for the Prophet's Paradise to come;
Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go,
Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum! ...
The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.
And that inverted Bowl they call the Sky,
Whereunder crawling coop'd we live and die,
Lift not your hands to It for help - for It
As impotently moves as you or I. ^1
[Footnote 1: Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, trans. by Edward Fitzgerald, Stanzas
12, 13, 71, 72.]
The same rich imagery characterizes much Islamic prose. As the first
important prose work in Arab literature, the Koran set the stylistic pattern
for all Arabic writers. The holy book was designed particularly to be recited
aloud; anyone who has listened to the chanting of the Koran can testify to its
cadence, melody, and power.
Muslim philosophy, essentially Greek in origin, was developed by secular
scholars and not, as in the West, by churchmen. Like the medieval Christian
philosophers (see ch. 10), Muslim thinkers were largely concerned with
reconciling Aristotelian rationalism and religion. The earlier Muslim
thinkers, including Avicenna, the physician with many talents, sought to
harmonize Platonism, Aristotelianism, and Islam. Avicenna's work was widely
read in the West, where it was translated in the twelfth century. The last
great Islamic philosopher, Averroes (d. 1198), lived in Cordova where he was
the caliph's personal doctor. In his commentaries on Aristotle's works, which
gave the Christian West its knowledge of Aristotle long before the original
Greek texts were obtained from Constantinople, Averroes rejected the belief in
the ultimate harmony between faith and reason along with all earlier attempts
to reconcile Aristotle and Plato. Faith and reason, he argued, operate on
different levels; a proposition can be true philosophically but false
theologically. On the other hand, Moses Maimonides, Averroes' contemporary who
was also born in Muslim Spain, sought, in his still influential Guide to the
Perplexed, to harmonize Judaism and Aristotelian philosophy. St. Thomas
Aquinas, who in the next century undertook a similar project for Christianity,
was influenced by these earlier attempts to reconcile faith and reason.
Islamic historiography found its finest expression in the work of
ibn-Khaldun of Tunis (d. 1406), who has also been called a "father of
sociology." Despite his busy life in public affairs, he found time to write a
large general history dealing particularly with human social development,
which he held to be the result of interaction of society and the physical
environment. Ibn-Khaldun defined history thus:
It should be known that history, in matter of fact,
is information about human social organization, which
itself is identical with world civilization. It deals
with such conditions affecting the nature of civilization
as, for instance, savagery and sociability, group feelings,
and the different ways by which one group of human beings
achieves superiority over another. It deals with royal
authority and ... with the different kinds of gainful
occupations and ways of making a living, with the sciences
and crafts that human beings pursue as part of their
activities and efforts, and with all the other institutions
that originate in civilization through its very nature. ^2
[Footnote 2: Ibn Khaldun, The Mugaddimah: An Introduction to History, trans.
by Franz Rosenthal, Vol. I (London: Routledge & Keegan Paul Ltd., 1958), p.
Ibn-Kaldun conceived of history as an evolutionary process, in which societies
and institutions change continually.
Art And Architecture
Religious attitudes played an important part in Muslim art. Because the
Prophet warned against idols and their worship, there was a prohibition
against pictorial representation of human and animal figures. The effect of
this injunction was to encourage the development of stylized and geometrical
design. Muslim art, like Muslim learning, borrowed from many sources. Islamic
artists and craftsmen followed chiefly Byzantine and Persian models and
eventually integrated what they had learned into a distinctive and original
The Muslims excelled in the fields of architecture and the decorative
arts. That Islamic architecture can boast of many large and imposing
structures is not surprising, because it drew much of its inspiration from the
Byzantines and Persians, who were monumental builders. In time an original
style of building evolved; the great mosques embody such typical features as
domes, arcades, and minarets, the slender towers from which the faithful are
summoned to prayer. The horseshoe arch is another graceful and familiar
feature of Muslim architecture.
On the walls and ceilings of their buildings, the Muslims gave full rein
to their love of ornamentation and beauty of detail. The Spanish
interpretation of the Muslim tradition is particularly delicate and elegant.
Other outstanding examples of Islamic architecture are to be found in India;
the Taj Mahal, for example, is based largely on Persian motifs.
Restricted in their subject matter, Muslim craftsmen conceived beautiful
patterns from flowers and geometric figures. Even Arabic script, certainly one
of the most beautiful ever devised, was used as a decorative motif. Muslim
decorative skill also found expression in such fields as carpet and rug
weaving, brass work, and the making of steel products inlaid with precious