Islam in History: Ideas, People, and Events in the Middle East

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The tradition continued as the Qur'an was first memorized and transmitted by word of mouth and then recorded for following generations. This popular expression of the Arab Muslim peoples became an indelible part of Islamic culture. Even today Muslims quote the Qur'an as a way of expressing their views and refer to certain maxims and popular tales to make a point.

Great centers of religious learning were also centers of knowledge and scientific development. Such formal centers began during the Abbasid period A. In the tenth century Baghdad had some schools. Alexandria in the fourteenth century had 12, students. It was in the tenth century that the formal concept of the Madrassah school was developed in Baghdad.

The Madrassah had a curriculum and full-time and part-time teachers, many of whom were women. Rich and poor alike received free education. From there Maktabat libraries were developed and foreign books acquired. The two most famous are Bait al-Hikmah in Baghdad ca. Universities such as Al-Azhar A. Then exalted be Allah the True King! And hasten not O Muhammad with the Qur'an ere its revelation hath been perfected unto thee, and say: My Lord!

Increase me in knowledge. Qur'an Islamic history and culture can be traced through the written records: Pre-Islamic, early Islamic, Umayyad, the first and second Abbasid, the Hispano-Arabic, the Persian and the modern periods. The various influences of these different periods can be readily perceived, as can traces of the Greek, the Indian, and the Pre-Islamic Persian cultures. Throughout the first four centuries of Islam, one does not witness the synthesis or homogenization of different cultures but rather their transmittal through, and at times their absorption into, the Islamic framework of values.

Islam has been a conduit for Western civilization of cultural forms which might otherwise have died out. Pre-Islamic poetry and prose, which was transmitted orally, was recorded mostly during the Umayyad period A. Contacts with Greece and Persia gave a greater impulse to music, which frequently accompanied the recitation of prose and poetry.

By the mid's in the Baghdad capital of Abbassids under Harun al-Rashid and al-Ma'mun, Islamic culture as well as commerce and contacts with many other parts of the world flourished. In the fourth century B. During the Ptolemaic period, Alexandria, Egypt, was the radiant center for the development and spread of Greek culture throughout the Mediterranean.

That great center of learning continued after , when Egypt became part of the Muslim state. Thereafter Syria, Baghdad, and Persia became similar channels for the communication of essentially Greek, Syriac, pre-Islamic Persian and Indian cultural values. As a result, Islamic philosophy was influenced by the writings of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The great Muslim philosophers such as Ibn Khaldun d. It was essentially through such works, intellectually faithful to the originals, that Western civilization was able to benefit from these earlier legacies.

In fact, St. These great philosophers produced a wealth of new ideas that enriched civilization, particularly Western civilization which has depended so much on their works. The influence of Islam ultimately made possible the European Renaissance, which was generated by the ideas of the Greeks filtered through the Muslim philosophers. The same is true of early legal writings of Muslim scholars such as al-Shaybani, who in the seventh century started the case method of teaching Islamic international law that was subsequently put into writing in the twelfth century by a disciple in India.

It was the basis for the writings of the legal canonists of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries on certain aspects of international law, in particular the laws of war and peace.

Islam in History: Ideas, People, and Events in the Middle East

The study of history held a particular fascination for Arab Muslims imbued with a sense of mission. Indeed, because Islam is a religion for all peoples and all times, and because the Qur'an states that God created the universe and caused it to be inhabited by men and women and peoples and tribes so that they may know each other, there was a quest for discovery and knowledge. As a result Muslims recorded their own history and that of others.

But they added insight to facts and gave to events, people, and places a philosophical dimension expressed in the universal history written by al-Tabari of Baghdad In the introduction to his multi-volume work he devoted an entire volume to the science of history and its implications.

Al-Tabari also wrote an authoritative text on the history of prophets and kings which continues to be a most comprehensive record of the period from Abraham to the tenth century. The West's fascination with Arabo-Islamic culture can be seen in many ways. Dante's "Divine Comedy" contains reference to the Prophet's ascension to Heaven. Shakespeare in "Othello" and the "Merchant of Venice" describes Moorish subjects.

Victor Hugo writes of Persians as do Boccaccio and Chaucer. From the second half of the eighth century to the end of the eleventh century, Islamic scientific developments were the basis of knowledge in the world. At a period of history when the scientific and philosophical heritage of the ancient world was about to be lost, Islamic scholars stepped in to preserve that heritage from destruction.

Indeed, without the cultivation of science in these early centuries by Islamic scholars, it is probable that texts which later exercised a formative influence over Western culture would never have survived intact. It is certain, moreover, that the modern world would look much different than it does today. For the culture and civilization that were founded on Islam not only preserved the heritage of the ancient world but codified, systematized, explained, criticized, modified, and, finally, built on past contributions in the process of making distinctive contributions of their own.

The story of Islam's role in the preservation and transmission of ancient science, to say nothing of its own lasting contributions, is truly fascinating—and a bit of a puzzle. Why is it that so many ancient Greek texts survive only in Arabic translations? How did the Arabs, who had no direct contact with the science and learning of the Greeks, come to be the inheritors of the classical tradition?

The answers to these questions are to be found in a unique conjunction of historical forces. From the first, it appears, the Umayyad dynasty located in Damascus evinced an interest in things Greek, for they employed educated Greek-speaking civil servants extensively.

Early friezes on mosques from the period show a familiarity with the astrological lore of late antiquity. The theory of numbers, developed and expanded from the original Indian contribution, resulted in the "Arabic numbers" 1 through 9.

Islam in History: Ideas, People, and Events in the Middle East

Islamic scholars also used the concept of zero, which was a Hindu concept. Without the zero, neither mathematics, algebra, nor cybernetics would have developed. Algebra was essentially developed by the Arab Muslims; the very word derives from the Arabic al-jabr. Among the most prominent scholars is the Basra born Ibn al-Haytham , who developed the "Alhazen problem," one of the basic algebraic problems, and who made great contributions to optics and physics. He had advanced long before Newton the thesis that extraterrestrial scientific phenomena governed the motion of the earth and stars.

He also developed experiments on light which were nothing short of extraordinary at that time. He demonstrated the theory of parallels, based on the finding that light travels in straight lines, and the passing of light through glass. Astronomy, developed by the Babylonians, continued to flourish under Islam. It soon expanded beyond the science of observation into the design of measuring instruments. In addition, it gave rise to the development of planetary theory.

The Arabic alphabet developed from the ancient script used for Nabataean, a dialect of Aramaic, in a region now part of Jordan. The Arabic alphabet has 28 letters. However, additional letters have been added to serve the need of other languages using the Arabic script; such as Farsi, Dari, and Urdu, and Turkish until the early part of the 20th century. The Qur'an was revealed in Arabic. Traditionally the Semites and the Greeks assigned numerical values to their letters and used them as numerals. But the Arabs developed the numbers now used in languages. The invention of the "zero" is credited to the Arabs though it has its origins in Hindu scholarship.

The Arab scholars recognized the need for a sign representing "nothing," because the place of a sign gave as much information as its unitary value did. The Arabic zero proved indispensable as a basis for all modern science. The medical sciences were largely developed throughout the works of Ibn Sina Avicenna , al-Razzi, and Husayn bin Ishak al-Ibadi, who translated Hippocrates and other Greeks.

Razi is reported to have written books on medicine, one of them on medical ethics, and the Hawi, a 25 volume practical encyclopedia. Ibn Sina became a famed physician at 18 who wrote 16 books and the Canoun, an encyclopedia on all known diseases in the world. It was translated into many languages. But medical science soon led into zoology, veterinary medicine, pharmacy, pharmacology and chemistry. Indeed the word "chemistry" derives from the Arabic word al-kemia or alchemy as it was later known.

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The most important medical school was that of Judishapur, Iran, which after became part of the Muslim world. It was managed by Syrian Christians and became the center for most Muslim practical learning and the model for the hospitals built under the Abbasids between The Arabs clearly followed the Hadith of the Prophet urging them to pursue knowledge from birth to death, even if that search was to be in China deemed the most remote place on the earth. The Abbasids, who displaced the Umayyads and moved the seat of government from Damascus to Baghdad, made the first serious effort to accommodate Greek science and philosophy to Islam.

The Abbasid rulers, unlike the Umayyads who remained Arab in their tastes and customs, conceived an Islamic polity based on religious affiliation rather than nationality or race. This made it easier for people of differing cultural, racial, and intellectual heritages to mingle and exchange ideas as equals. Persian astronomers from Gandeshapur could work side by side with mathematicians from Alexandria in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Baghdad. Then, too, the success of the Islamic conquest had erased existing national boundaries which had worked to keep peoples linguistically, politically, and intellectually apart.

For the first time since Alexander the Great former rivals could meet and exchange ideas under the protection of a single state. The rise of Arabic as the international language of science and government administration helped matters along. As the cultivation of the sciences intensified and the high civilization of the Abbasids blossomed, the expressive resources of Arabic blossomed as well, soon making Arabic the language of choice for international commerce and scholarship as well as divine revelation. Most important of all, however, it was the attitude that developed within the Islamic state toward the suspect writings of the Greeks.

Unlike the Christian communities of late antiquity, whose attitudes toward the pagan philosophers were shaped by the experience of Roman persecution, Muslims did not suffer—or at least to the same degree—the conflict between faith and reason.


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On the contrary, the Qur'an enjoined Muslims to seek knowledge all their lives, no matter what the source or where it might lead. As a result, Muslims of the Abbasid period quickly set about recovering the scientific and philosophical works of the classical past—lying neglected in the libraries of Byzantium—and translating them into Arabic. The task was herculean and complicated by the fact that texts of the classical period could not be translated directly from Greek into Arabic.

Rather, they had first to be rendered in Syriac, the language with which Christian translators were most familiar, and then translated into Arabic by native speakers. This circuitous route was made necessary by the fact that Christian communities, whose language was Syriac, tended to know Greek, whereas Muslims generally found it easier to learn Syriac, which is closer to Arabic.

A doctor and patient discuss vitrified lead poisoning on this page from the Materia Medica of Dioscorides. The Greek work, from the first century BC, was translated into Arabic in the ninth century; this is a 13th-century copy made in Iraq. The translation effort began in earnest under the reign of the second Abbasid caliph, al-Mansur He sent emissaries to the Byzantine emperor requesting mathematical texts and received in response a copy of Euclid's Elements.

This single gift, more than any other perhaps, ignited a passion for learning that was to last throughout the golden age of Islam and beyond. The effort was subsequently systematized under al-Ma'mun, who founded an institution expressly for the purpose, called the Bait al-Hikmah or House of Wisdom, which was staffed with salaried Muslim and Christian scholars. The output of the House of Wisdom over the centuries was prodigious, encompassing as it did nearly the entire corpus of the Greek scientific and philosophical thought.

Not only Euclid but Aristotle, Galen and Hippocrates, and Archimedes were among the authors to receive early treatment. It would be wrong to suggest that the scholars of the House of Wisdom were occupied with task of translation only. Muslim scholars generally were concerned to understand, codify, correct, and, most importantly, assimilate the learning of the ancients to the conceptual framework of Islam. The greatest of these scholars were original and systematic thinkers of the first order, like the great Arab philosopher al-Farabi who died in His Catalog of Sciences had a tremendous effect on the curricula of medieval universities.

Perhaps the most distinctive and noteworthy contributions occurred in the field of mathematics, where scholars from the House of Wisdom played a critical role in fusing the Indian and classical traditions, thus inaugurating the great age of Islamic mathematical speculation.

The first great advance consisted in the introduction of Arabic numerals—which, as far as can be determined, were Indian in origin. They embody the "place-value" theory, which permits numbers to be expressed by nine figures plus zero. In the struggle for essential resources such as water and grass, membership in a tribe was important for individual survival and thus tribal loyalty asabiyya in Arabic formed the very core of identity and also promulgated a kind of moral code that required unconditional loyalty to one's own group. Those who became outcasts of their tribes either faced death or were forced to seek protection among other tribes.

The main values and the principal source of pride among nomadic Bedouins have always been hospitality, generosity, courage, honor and self-respect. The values both enabled survival in a desert environment and offered decent treatment to outsiders of peaceful intentions. Although Islam was born in Mecca, it can hardly be defined as an exclusively urban religion. Lying in an arid environment of the Arabian Peninsula, Mecca was not self-supplying and its development was thus closely tied to the surrounding areas.

According to a legend, the Well of Zemzem - the essential water source of the city - was a miraculously generated source of water by God for Hagar, wife of the Prophet Abraham, when she was left in the desert with her son Ishmael. Three main female goddesses were revered in pre-Islamic Mecca: Manat goddess of fate , Allat goddess of the sky and 'Uzzat the equivalent of Venus. All three were considered to be daughters of Allah, the central deity of local cults. Prophet Muhammad forbade the worship of all deities but Allah.

It is instructive to recall that Allah was the god of the sky and the giver of rain in the beliefs of the Meccans. For the nomadic and semi-nomadic Arabs, the concept of al-Dahr, blending the concept of "time" and "fate" was still important part of the mental construction, most probably, because the desert calls for obedience and perseverance in order to survive. The acceptance of Islam did not conflict with such mental constitution at all: the word "Islam" itself suggests the idea of submission, the only difference being that obedience was henceforth to be not to the laws of harsh nature, but to God alone.

In , two years after Muhammad began to preach Islam publicly in Mecca, many of his followers became outcasts of their tribes and were exiled to the arid mountains, where they suffered from the harsh climate and the potential animosity of the other tribes. Therefore, after his hijra to Medina in , Muhammad created a new "tribe", the Muslim nation Umma bonded not by blood, but belief, as the Constitution of Medina laid down a new asabiyya based on religion.

The tribal traditions were partly transferred to the religious community, and it became a basic duty for members of the Umma to defend each other against outside attacks. However, a parallel could be drawn between attempts to integrate Christians and Jews into the Umma and the pre-Islamic tradition of protecting peaceful strangers. Ever since, Islamic order has been based on sharia, an archaic Arabic word, meaning "pathway to be followed", but also "path to the water hole", suggesting that in a desert environment, the path to water was a metaphor for the path to life.

One can conclude, that a number of pre-Islamic values and social constructions, partly developed as a response to harsh climate, found their way to the basic concepts of Islam. The possible effect of climate could also be proven by examining the various passages in the Quran on the contrast between Hell and Paradise, accompanied by warnings that those who disobey Allah's laws will be consumed by the unbearably hot fires of Jahannam, while those who are obedient will have access to the Garden of Eden "beneath which rivers flow", again a possible reflection to the heat and drought of Arabia.

Another eloquent reflection of the hardships caused by an oppressive environment is that green, the most welcome color for the people of the desert, became the color of Islam. The Islamic conquest of the Middle East dates to the onset of the Medieval Warm Period and can therefore be indirectly connected to warming because the nomadic Arab tribes who had converted to Islam were forced to migrate northward to flee the droughts devastating their lands.

Even earlier, in , the pasturelands of Persia were scorched by drought that pushed about 15, Arabs into Byzantine territory. The presence of ethnic Arabs in Syria played a crucial role in the Muslim conquest of the northerly regions of Syria in the 7th century. In , the Islamic capital was moved from Medina to Damascus by Muawiya, the founder of the Umayyad dynasty. The Umayyads, a wealthy family from Mecca, built their castles outside the Syrian towns. As sons of the Arabian deserts, the rulers could have been enchanted by the favourable climate of Syria and their castles were surrounded with lush green gardens similar to those promised in the Quran and prophetic Hadiths.

Very soon, the Umayyad nobles became addicted to a life of luxury and creature comforts, and they were seen as being decadent by the people of the desert and those on the frontier. Despite the favourable environment, the traditional Arabic way of thought still maintained its grip during the Umayyad period. Without neglecting its role in bolstering the divine legitimacy of the rulers, the fact that supporters of the Caliphate in polemic discourses were advocates of predestination gabariyya , while those supporting the concept of a free will qadariyya were against them, can be possibly seen as a heritage of the Arabian deserts.

The Medieval Warm Period is generally dated to between , a period that roughly coincides with the Abbasid era between and , often referred to as the Islamic Golden Age. After the fall of the Umayyads, the Islamic capital was moved to Baghdad. Although the Abbasids claimed to be purifiers of Islam, the spirit of the age was affected by the convenient Mesopotamian climate as much as it was the harsh Arabian desert.

The land of the two rivers had been the setting of many early cultures from the Early Holocene onward. Under the climatic conditions of the 8th century, Baghdad and its broader area was ideal for agricultural production, leading to population growth and prosperity. However, signs of rising temperatures and a slight decrease of water compared to previous centuries were already recorded.

Although the Babylonian Talmud records rice as the staple crop among the Jewish communities of ancient Mesopotamia, grains with a high drought tolerance such as barley and durum wheat were the principal cereals dominating the diet in the Abbasid era. The Abbasids built an empire stretching from Spain to Afghanistan, enabling the flow of goods and the spread of knowledge between the Eastern and Western Mediterranean in a previously unknown manner. The economic prosperity based on a flourishing agriculture made the Muslim lands a safe haven for many minorities.

Some Jewish communities of Europe were from the 9th century onward often singled out as scapegoats and blamed for poor crops and famines, leading to their expulsion, often as scapegoats for poor harvests and plaques.


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In contrast, Jewish scholars and even the minority Christians were not only held in high esteem in the Muslim Empire, but were often appointed to posts of great responsibility and were promoted to high-ranking positions in government. The fifth Abbasid ruler, the legendary Harun al-Rashid , was famous for not considering to which ethnic group or faith a member of his bureaucracy belonged, but only his personal capabilities and excellence. Religious tolerance dominated relations between common folk as well, in part because the more-or-less regular recurrence of Easter, Christmas and other Christian holy days regulated by the solar calendar were more suited to accurately marking the agricultural seasons than the lunar-based Muslim holidays.

Muslims often joined their fellow Christians in their celebrations. Shared rituals thus strengthened cohesion between groups professing different beliefs.

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The overall prosperity and abundance of essential resources could be viewed as a potential reason for the flourishing of mathematics, astronomy, philosophy and other sciences. Many major Greek, Persian, Syriac and Sanskrit writings were translated by Arab scholars, and manuscripts from all over the world were collected at the courts. Aristotelian logic was adapted to Islam, leading to the decline of orthodox faith and the rise of skepticism.

Dominant Muslim schools such as al-Mu'tazila were influenced by Greek philosophy and began to distance themselves from the traditional soul of Arabia.

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Despite the general prosperity, when the climate deteriorated in various parts of the Empire, receptivity to more radical religious slogans rose. The Arabisation of the Maghreb region in the 11th century was a partial consequence of climate changes. A drought followed by famine hit Arabia that pushed the Banu Hilal, a confederation of nomadic Bedouins, to migrate with their families and cattle herds to Upper Egypt. In the 11th century, during the Medieval Warm Period, Egypt was ravaged by a similar drought leading to environmental degradation. The Fatimid ruler strove to expel the nomads.

At the same time, tensions grew between the Caliph and the Zirids of Maghreb who had abandoned Shiism and declared their independence from the Fatimids. Hoping to kill two birds with one stone, the Fatimid ruler claimed a religious legitimation of their ambitions by declaring Jihad, and sent the Banu Hilal to war against the Zirids in defence what they claimed to be the true faith. By , the Banu Hilal had defeated the Zirids and transplanted nomadism to previously agricultural areas.