Tuesday, 20 December 2011


By Dr Zachariah Matthews

Presented at the Australian New Muslim Association (ANMA) Fundraising Dinner, Bankstown, Friday 1 October 2004.

SALAM Magazine, http://www.famsy.com/salam/ Sep-Oct 2004

Islam, the youngest of all the world's religions emerged on the world scene in 622 CE (Current Era) with the Hijra (migration), of Prophet Muhammad (s) and his small band of followers, from Mecca to Medina in northwest Arabia. One hundred fifty years later the Muslim government where Allah is the ultimate authority had become the Islamic Empire, encircling the Mediterranean Sea from Syria and the Tigris and Euphrates Valley east to southern China and western India, south through what had been the Persian Empire and Saudi Arabia, west through Egypt and across North Africa, and north through Spain to the Pyrenees. With the founding of the city of Baghdad and the establishment of the Abbasid Caliphate (Muslim religious/political leaders, successors of the Prophet) in the mid-8th century, Islam's golden age began to emerge. For 400 years, from the mid-9th century until the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1256, Muslim culture was unparalleled in its splendor and learning.

A number of fortunate circumstances came together to make this golden age possible. Perhaps most significant was the creation of a vast empire without internal political boundaries, largely free from external attack. Trade began to flow freely across the Asian continent and beyond. The wisdom of India and China mingled with that of Persia, ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt. In most cases civilizations conquered by Islam remained administratively and intellectually intact, unlike those overrun by northern barbarians. Thanks in part to Prophet Muhammad's assertion that "the ink of scholars is more precious than the blood of martyrs," Islamic leaders valued -- in fact, sought out -- the intellectual treasures of their subject provinces. Further, the Muslim use of Arabic, the language of the Quran, led to its standardization throughout the empire as the language of faith and power, and likewise of theology, philosophy, and the arts and sciences.

Unification under one faith and language alone, however, did not produce the explosion of literacy and learning experienced by the Islamic Empire. In the mid-8th century, Chinese paper-making technology arrived in Samarkand, on the eastern border of the empire. Suddenly, the labour-intensive processing of hides and papyrus was replaced by mass-production of paper from pulped rags, hemp, and bark; large personal libraries -- as well as public ones -- became commonplace. At about the same time, the so-called "Arabic" numerals (imported from India) began to replace cumbersome Roman numerals, and introduced the concept of zero for the first time. Public education, also mandated by the Prophet (s), spread rapidly.

The Golden Age was a period of unrivalled intellectual activity in the field of literature (as a result of intensive study of the Islamic faith) - particularly biography, history, and linguistics. Scholars, for example, in collecting and re-examining the hadith, or "traditions" - the sayings and actions of the Prophet - compiled immense biographical detail about the Prophet and other information, historic and linguistic, about the Prophet's era. This led to such monumental works as Sirat Rasul Allah, the "Life of the Messenger of Allah," by Ibn Ishaq, later revised by Ibn Hisham; one of the earliest Arabic historical works, it was a key source of information about the Prophet's life and also a model for other important works of history such as al-Tabari's Annals of the Apostles and the Kings and his massive commentary on the Quran.

The accomplishments of Islam's Golden Age are too numerous to mention. Massive translation and copying projects made Greek, Roman, and Sanskrit knowledge available to Arabic-speaking scholars across the empire. Medieval Europe received the Hellenic classics that made the Renaissance possible mostly through Arabic translations. Building on Hellenic, Persian, and Hindu sources, physicians within the Islamic Empire advanced medical knowledge enormously. Perhaps their most significant single achievement was the establishment of medicine as a science based on observation and experimentation, rather than on conjecture. Islamic scientists developed the rudiments of what would later be called the scientific method.

Seventy-five years after the death of Prophet Muhammad (s), the first of many free public hospitals was opened in Damascus. Asylums were maintained throughout the empire for the care of the mentally ill. In the early 10th century, Spanish physician Abu Bakr al-Razi introduced the use of antiseptics in cleaning wounds, and also made the connection between bacteria and infection. Al-Hasan published a definitive study on optics (the science of light and vision) in 965. Thirteenth-century Muslim physician Ibn al-Nafis discovered and accurately described the functioning of the human circulatory system. Islamic veterinary science led the field for centuries, particularly in the study and treatment of horses.

Muslim alchemists (early forerunners of modern chemists) in the 10th to 14th centuries, inspired by ancient chemical formulas from China and India, are famous for the endless experiments they performed in their laboratories. Their goals ranged from pursuit of a chemical elixir bestowing enhanced life, to the transformation of base metals to gold. Although they never succeeded in their ultimate goals, they did make numerous valuable discoveries -- among them the distillation of petroleum and the forging of steel.

Roman techniques of manufacturing glass lenses stimulated Al-Hasan's breakthrough in the field of optics (the science of light and vision), which demolished Aristotle's theory that vision was the result of a ray emanating from the eye, encompassing an object, and bringing it back to the soul. Al-Hasan's Book of Optics, published in 965, was first to document sight as visual images entering the eye, made perceptible by adequate light. This book remained the pre-eminent text in its field until 1610, when the work of European Johannes Kepler surpassed it.

Islamic mathematicians refined algebra from its beginnings in Greece and Egypt, and developed trigonometry in pursuit of accurate ways to measure objects at a distance. Muslim scholars also made important and original contributions to astronomy. They collected and corrected previous astronomical data, built the world's first observatory, and developed the astrolabe, an instrument that was once called "a mathematical jewel."

Islamic architects borrowed heavily from the Byzantine Empire which used domes and arches extensively throughout their cities. An example of this use can be seen in the Dome of the Rock, a famous mosque in Jerusalem.

Avid students of both the heavens and the earth, Muslim scholars made detailed and accurate maps of both. Muslim mapmakers to accurately map distances around the earth refined longitude and latitude. Twelfth-century Persian Omar Khayyam developed a calendar so reliable that over 500 years it was off by only one day. The list goes on and on.

Religious Tolerance

When Islam was laying the foundations of its civilisation; it did not adopt a narrow-minded attitude to other religions. The behaviour toward other religions was in keeping with the principles laid down in the Quran:

"Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from error… (Al-Baqarah 256)

"If it had been your Lord's Will, they would all have believed, all who are on earth! Will you then compel people, against their will, to believe!" (Yunus 10:99)

Say: "We believe in Allah, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Isma'il, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to (all) Prophets from their Lord: we make no difference between any of them: and we submit to Allah (in Islam)." (Q2:136)

"…Had not Allah checked one set of people by means of another there would surely have been pulled down monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, in which the name of Allah is commemorated in abundant measure…" (Al-Hajj 22:40)

The well known American writer, Draper, wrote: "During the period of the caliphs, the learned men of the Christians and the Jews were not only held in high esteem but were appointed to posts of great responsibility, and were promoted to high ranking positions in government. Haroon Rasheed appointed John the son of Maswaih, the Director of Public Instruction and all the schools and colleges were placed under his charge. He (Haroon) never considered to which country a learned person belonged nor his faith and belief, but only his excellence in the field of learning."

Sir Mark Syce, writing on the qualities of Muslim rule during the period of Haroon Rasheed said: "The Christians, the idolaters, the Jews and the Muslims as workers running the Islamic State were at work with equal zeal."

Liefy Brutistal wrote in his book: "Spain of the Tenth Century: So often the scribe writing out the terms of a treaty was a Jew or a Christian. Just as many Jews and Christians were holding charge of important posts in the State. And they were vested with authority in the administrative departments, even in matters of war and peace. And there were several Jews who acted as the ambassadors of the Caliph in European countries."

Islam’s Golden Age has many lessons to teach the greedy and terrorized world of today.

Why did it all end?

Why did Islam's Golden Age come to an end? What forces shifted both political power and learning from the Islamic Empire to Christian Europe? Like all historical trends, the explanations are complex; yet some broad outlines may be identified, both within and without Muslim lands. With the end of the Abbasid Caliphate and the beginning of the Turkish Seljuk Caliphate in 1057 CE, the centralized power of the empire began to shatter. Religious differences resulted in splinter groups, charges of heresy, and assassinations. Aristotelian logic, adopted early on as a framework upon which to build science and philosophy, appeared to be undermining the beliefs of educated Muslims. Orthodox faith was in decline and skepticism on the rise.

The appeal by some erring theologians turned the tide back, declaring reason and its entire works to be bankrupt. They declared that experience and reason that grew out of it were not to be trusted. As a result, free scientific investigation and philosophical and religious toleration were phenomena of the past. Schools limited their teaching to theology. Scientific progress came to a halt.

During this same period, the European Crusades (1097-1291) assailed Islam militarily from without. Cordoba fell to Spanish Christians in 1236. When the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1256 (or 1258) the Islamic Empire never recovered. Trade routes became unsafe. Urban life broke down. Individual communities drew in upon themselves in feudal isolation. Science and philosophy survived for a while in scattered pockets, but the Golden Age of Islam was at an end.


Muslims rose to the height of civilisation in a period of four decades. For more than 1,000 years the Islamic Civilisation remained the most advanced and progressive in the world. This is because Islam stressed the importance of and held great respect for learning, forbade destruction, developed discipline and respect for authority, and stressed tolerance for other religions. The Muslims recognised excellence and hungered intellectually. The teachings of the Qur'an and Sunnah drove many Muslims to their accomplishments in all disciplines of knowledge.

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