Chapter 10 The Rise of Islam
3 The Development of Islamic Civilization
rule of the Abbasids marked a high point of Islamic learning and
culture. Beginning in 750, the Abbasids turned Islam into a truly
universal creed. Non-Arabs began to be treated as full members of the
umma. During these years Muslim philosophy, science, and mathematics
outshone the scholarship of other empires. Inspired by Islam and funded
by the empire's wealth, architecture, the arts, and literature reached
new heights. Although the Abbasids were unable to maintain the political
unity of the Islamic world Islamic culture continued to flourish and to
spread through trade and commerce.
DEVELOPMENTS IN ISLAM
As early as Umar's reign as caliph, the Muslim community had struggled to
understand what exactly their religious duties should be. Although
Muhammad had received revelations, he had not made any effort to codify
them or to develop a systematic religious practice for all Muslims to
follow. In fact, many revelations were received as answers to particular
problems that arose in the umma. Consequently, during Muhammad's
lifetime Islamic practices remained fairly fluid. With the prophet's
death, however, revelation ceased. His successors therefore tried to
codify existing Islamic practices and make them more uniform.
Five pillars of Islam. The most
important duties expected of Muslims had been laid down in the Quran and
were practiced by the prophet himself. They became known as the Five
Pillars of Islam. They commanded
Muslims: (1) to say the shahadah,
the confession of faith, "There is no god but God, and Muhammad
is the Messenger of God"; (2) to pray five times a day; (3) to pay
a special tax, the zakat,
to support poor members of the umma; (4) to fast during the holy month
of Ramadan; and (5) to make the hajj,
or pilgrimage, to Mecca at least once if possible.
There were other requirements as well. For example, Muslims were
forbidden to eat certain kinds of food, like pork. They could not drink
wine or other alcoholic beverages. They were encouraged to free their
slaves, and required to treat them humanely if they did not. No Muslim
could be enslaved, and the children of slaves who had converted to Islam
were therefore free.
Islam also established a new ethical and moral standard for
relations between men and women. Men could have no more than four wives,
but only on the condition that they treated each one exactly equally
with the others. Women on the other hand were restricted to one husband.
Reinforcing the stability of the extended family, the Qur'an laid down
specific rules of inheritance, as well as women's right to own property.
One important requirement, sometimes called the sixth pillar of
Islam, was jihad.
Europeans who were threatened by the advancing Islamic armies later
translated this term as "holy war", but a more correct
translation might be "struggle for the faith." This could mean
fighting and dying for Islam, in which case the Muslim warrior would
achieve immediate salvation. However, it could also mean the constant
inner struggle people experienced in their efforts to obey God's will.
Some early Muslim scholars distinguished between the two ideas, calling
the physical struggle the lesser jihad and the inner struggle the
greater jihad. Other scholars, however, disputed such an inner emphasis
and insisted that jihad referred to the fight to continually extend the
area under Islamic rule.
The object of obeying God's will was to attain eternal salvation.
Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam saw the history of humanity and the
world as having a definite beginning and a definite end. Muhammad had
preached his message as a warning that the end was close at hand. On
that final day, God would judge all human beings. Those who had
faithfully tried to obey his commandments would be bodily resurrected
and granted eternal life in paradise. The Qur'an described paradise as a
beautiful garden full of earthly delights such as fine food and drink.
Those who did not obey God, however, would suffer in a place of eternal
The ulama and Islamic law. With
eternal salvation at stake, it was extremely important for Muslims to
understand exactly what God wanted them to do. Often, however, neither
the Qur'an nor Muhammad's own actions and sayings covered all the
situations in which people found themselves. After Muhammad's death,
Muslims naturally looked to the caliphs to instruct them in the faith.
Under the Umayyads, however, many devout Muslims came to distrust the
caliphs' motives and religious sincerity.
As distrust of the spiritual authority of the caliphs grew, a
body of experts gradually emerged to whom people looked instead for
guidance in religious matters. These men, known as the ulama,
were not priests but religious scholars. They specialized in studying
and interpreting the Qur'an and the sayings and deeds of the prophet.
Under their guidance Islamic theology and religious practice began to
take definite shape. After the overthrow of the Umayyads, the Abbasids
patronized the ulama in an effort to make the empire more truly Islamic.
At the heart of the ulama's work was the codification of Islamic law,
which was seen as the embodiment of God's will for human beings.
Where the Umayyads had relied heavily on local and customary law
to rule their empire, the Abbasids endorsed the ulama's efforts to
establish a comprehensive and truly Islamic law code. Drawing on the
Qur'an and the hadith,
a collection of sayings and actions attributed to Muhammad, the ulama
developed a full Islamic legal system, called shari'ah,
to rule all Muslims. Adherence to shari'ah soon became one of the most
important elements of the Muslims' sense of identity.
Shari'ah guided every aspect of life for Muslims. It included
laws governing religious observances, marriage, divorce, business,
inheritance, and slavery. It also defined the role and legitimacy of the
state itself. Muhammad had
been both a religious and a political leader – consequently, following
his example, the Muslim community made no distinction between religion
and state. Indeed, the whole reason for the state to exist, according to
the ulama, was the enforcement of shari’ah, the holy law. Lands where
it was applied became known as Dar al-Islam, or the Abode of
Islam. All other lands were known as Dar al-Harb, or the Abode of
War. Enforcing shari'ah thus became the hallmark of legitimate
government for pious Muslims. Any state that did not enforce it had to be
considered illegitimate and must eventually be transformed or
Al-Shafi'i and the Islamic
worldview. While developing the shari'ah, Muslim scholars dealt with
both theological and philosophical questions. They debated many of the
same questions that had affected Christianity. For example, scholars
disagreed over the status of the Qur'an. Eventually, most accepted it as
being the literal, divine Word of God that had existed as long as He
had. One of the greatest controversies concerned the question of free
will. If God were all-knowing and all-powerful, some scholars asked,
then how could human beings do anything that he had not already
ordained? As in Christianity, such debates led to many different
Like Christianity too, Greek philosophy influenced the search for
answers. Muslim theologians tried to reconcile the teachings of Plato
and Aristotle with the Qur'an. The major question that arose out of
these efforts was how much weight Muslims should give to human reason to
solve problems that the Qur'an and traditions did not cover. In the
early days of Islamic development, scholars allowed for a considerable
amount of human reason and interpretation. As the Islamic world
splintered, however, and political unity under a single caliph
disappeared, people found themselves uneasy about relying on their own
reason to answer major questions of life, death, and salvation.
By the 10th century, a rising sense of insecurity led many
scholars to rely primarily on a literal interpretation of the Qur'an to
guide them. In cases not covered directly by the scripture, they tried
to draw analogies with cases that were. Still, many continued to
disagree on how much weight should be given to the Qur'an, the
traditions, or human reason. Eventually, most of the disputes were
resolved by the scholar al-Shafi'i.
Under al-Shafi'i, Islamic theology and law took on a distinctive
shape. Above all, he emphasized the importance of modeling human
activity on the example of the Prophet Muhammad. Human reason was
allowed, but limited. The precedents set by Muhammad, as recorded in the
hadith, and the rules established by the Qur'an thus came to dominate
all Islamic thought.
Not all Muslims accepted al-Shafi'i’s practical compromise
between divine revelation and human reason, but most accepted his basic
description of the elements on which Islamic law must be founded: the
Qur'an and the hadith were the most important, followed by analogy, the
consensus of the community, and only lastly human reason. As different
scholars gave a different emphasis to each of these sources of law, four
major schools of law emerged. No longer looking forward for answers,
most Muslim scholars began to look back to an imagined golden era of
Sufism. Where al-Shafi’i had
been influenced by Greek rationalism, some Muslims were more heavily
influenced by Hindu philosophy, especially ideas concerning meditation
and contemplation of the divine. These Muslims tended to be concerned
about the growing materialism of Islamic civilization. Many of them
sought refuge in a life of simplicity and devotion to God. Greek and
Judeao-Christian mystical traditions that emphasized spiritual rather
than earthly attainment also appealed to them. All these traditions
contributed to a new movement in Islam, sufism.
Early sufism resembled the monasticism of early Christianity.
Many sufis pursued an ascetic life. Under Greek and Indian influences
they soon developed a whole new vocabulary for Islam. Many declared that
their goal was union with God. They emphasized loving God, calling him
their Beloved. Some wrote beautiful poems of devotion.
BIO One of
the most famous of the early sufis was Rabi'a al-Adawiyya. Rabi'a was
born in Basra between 719 and 724. She was stolen from her parents while
still an infant and sold into slavery. According to tradition she was so
saintly and devout even as a child that her master soon freed her. She
then retired to a life of seclusion and contemplation, but her
reputation caused many disciples to seek her out. She died in Basra in
801. Rabi'a expressed her love for God in magnificent devotional verses.
"In two ways have I loved Thee, selfishly,
And with a love that is worthy of Thee.
In selfish love my joy in Thee I find,
Whilst to all else, and others, I am blind.
But in that love which seeks Thee worthily,
The veil is raised that I may look on Thee.
Yet is the praise in that or this not mine,
In this and that the praise is wholly Thine."
Like other sufis, Rabi'a sought union with God: "My hope is for union
with Thee, for that is the goal of my desire....I have ceased to exist
and have passed out of self. I have become one with God and am
At first Sufis were persecuted by more orthodox muslims. As time
went on, however, Sufism itself underwent changes. Islamic society too
became ever more diversified and consequently less hostile to the
personal emphasis that Sufism placed on religion. Finally, in the 11th
century the scholar al-Ghazzali achieved a synthesis between Sufism and
Sunni Islam comparable to al-Shafi'i's achievement in the law.
Thereafter, many Sunni muslims felt free to practice Sufism as a private
and personal expression of their faith. Organized around Sufi saints, or
shaykhs, numerous sects, or tariqas,
sprang up that functioned rather like modern social or religious clubs.
SCIENCE AND LEARNING
In the ninth century, as Islamic philosophers tried to reconcile the works
of Plato, Aristotle, and other Greek philosophers with the teachings of
the Qur'an, they also became fascinated by Greek scientific works. In
830, the caliph al-Ma'mun established a great library, known as the
"House of Wisdom." The library also housed a school and a
bureau of translation. Here the works of Aristotle, Plato, Hippocrates,
Galen, and others were systematically translated from Greek into Arabic.
Indian works were also translated, though less methodically. 
Islamic scholars combined ideas from both Greek and Indian
science, as well as making their own contributions. In the 8th century
they introduced the Indian number system, including the concept of zero,
into the Greek science of mathematics. Later, they also imported the
decimal system from India. The Muslim mathematician, al-Khwarizmi, used
these new tools to write a textbook on arithmetic and what he called al-jabr,
or algebra. This book became the standard mathematics text in Europe
until the 16th century. Europeans called the new numbers it introduced
Muslim scientists also made great advances in astronomy. They
rediscovered the astrolabe, an instrument invented by the Greeks that
allowed observers to chart the positions of the stars, and thereby
calculate their own position on earth. Al-Ma'mun established permanent
observatories outside Baghdad and Damascus. As they learned to navigate
by the stars, Muslim merchants and explorers traveled more widely than
ever. To aid them Muslim geographers made new maps and developed more
accurate ways of calculating distances.
Perhaps the greatest Islamic contributions came in medicine. As
early as the 9th century, Muslim doctors in Baghdad had to pass rigorous
medical examinations in order to practice. They established the first
school of pharmacy and the first pharmacopoeia, a list and description
of known drugs and their effects. The caliph Harun al-Rashid founded the
first public hospital in Islam, on an old Persian model. The physician
al-Razi, who became head of the Baghdad hospital, discovered how to
diagnose and treat smallpox. Another doctor, ibn-Sina (known as Avicenna
in Europe), wrote a medical encyclopedia that became the standard text
in Europe until the 17th century.
LITERATURE AND THE ARTS
Islamic rulers became great patrons of the arts, as each court tried to
outdo its rivals. Poets composed elegant poetry in both Arabic and
Persian. Short stories were also a favorite. Set in the court of Harun
ar-Rashid, for example, the folktales told by the fabled Scheherazade
about Sinbad the Sailor, Aladdin, and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves
were brought together under the title The
Thousand and One Nights. The introduction of paper manufacturing
from China allowed such literary masterpieces to be published for a
By the 9th century, a new body of literature had appeared in the
form of history. Earlier histories had chronicled events from the
Prophet's life, or listed the genealogies of the Arab tribes. The History
of India, written by al-Biruni sometime around 1000, marked a new
approach. He explained his purpose in the preface:
This is not a book of controversy and
debate, putting forward the arguments of an opponent and distinguishing
what is false in them from what is true. It is a straightforward
account, giving the statements of Hindus and adding to them what the
Greeks have said on similar subjects, so as to make a comparison between
While secular literature and poetry flourished, the Qur'an
influenced other forms of Islamic art. To prevent idol worship, the
Qur'an discouraged the creation of images of either human beings or
animals. Consequently, calligraphy,
the art of decorative writing, became a high art form. Verses from the
Qur'an itself were written down and transformed into magnificent works
of art. Muslim artists created special scripts to decorate mosques and
other buildings. Qur'anic verses were carved in stunning calligraphy on
glazed tiles that shone like jewels, woven into intricately designed
carpets, and hammered into finely decorated steel blades.
Most other Islamic art avoided depicting animals or people by
using only geometric shapes or complex floral patterns. Apart from some
painting and sculpture found in the palaces of the early Umayyads, who
had paid little attention to Islamic prohibitions, the only exceptions
appeared in Persia. There the pre-Islamic tradition of miniature
paintings remained strong. Persian artists painted legendary beasts,
hunters, warriors, and historical figures in such delicate detail that
often the vibrant colors could only be applied with a single hair.
One of the most important Islamic art forms was architecture.
From the days of the Umayyads, Muslim rulers began to express their
power, and their devotion to Islam, in stone. The most important
buildings at first were mosques, places where the Muslim community gathered to pray. Soon,
however, Muslim architects were building palaces, market places,
libraries, and a host of other buildings for secular purposes.
The first mosques resembled the courtyard of Muhammad's house in
Medina, where he had led the umma in prayer. In Syria, the Umayyads had
built more elaborate structures. Perhaps the most famous, and one of the
most beautiful, is the Dome of the Rock, which they built on the sight
of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem. The Abbasids adopted their own style,
even more elaborate than the Umayyads. They also built great palaces,
set in magnificent Persian-style gardens.
ANDALUSIA: ISLAMIC SPAIN 
While the Abbasids were creating a great Islamic civilization from Syria
to India and Central Asia on a Persian model, to the west another
pattern emerged. Spain, or al-Andalus
as the Muslims called it, had never acknowledged the rule of Baghdad.
Under a survivor of the Umayyad family, a new empire developed that
rivalled that of the Abbasids. From their capital at Cordova, the
Spanish Umayyads ruled an elegant and courtly domain. Cordova itself had
piped water, and at night the city was lit with a public lighting
Umayyad Spain reached its height under the eighth amir, Abd al-Rahman
III, in the middle of the 10th century. His reign was so brilliant that
he eventually assumed the title of caliph, something his predecessors
had not done since the revolution of 750. In the first 20 years of his
reign, Abd al-Rahman established a unified and centralized government.
Religious tolerance was his watchword. Christians, Jews, and Muslims
lived together in peace and harmony under his rule. With Spain largely
unified and at peace, Abd al-Rahman presided over a flowering of Islamic
A strong economy supported Islamic civilization in Spain. The
Arabs had brought with them many of the techniques and skills they had
learned in Iran and Iraq. In southern Spain, for example, they built
irrigation systems, even using the underground canals they had seen in
Iran. They also introduced new crops, such as oranges, rice, sugarcane,
and cotton, all of which had been brought from India, China, and
Southeast Asia. Spain once again produced fine steel, as well as
magnificent textiles of silk, cotton, and wool.
Umayyad Spain became a center of great learning. As in other
Islamic countries, education, based on learning to read and write the
Qur'an, began at an early age. The University of Cordova attracted
scholars from throughout the Islamic world, as well as from Europe.
Muslim, Christian, and Jewish scholars translated the Greek classics.
They also studied, debated, and translated the new works on mathematics,
medicine, astronomy, geography, and history being produced in the
Islamic world. From Spain these works reached the rest of Europe.
Students at the university took courses in all these subjects as well as
theology and law. Women were included in such studies in Spain, and some
even possessed their own extensive libraries.
EXPANSION THROUGH TRADE
The basis for Islamic cultural development was the growing wealth of the
Islamic world. While the Umayyads had expanded the empire by military
conquest, during the Abbasid period expansion by trade and commerce
became more common. To a considerable extent, this development was a
function of geography. Islam had emerged into the heart of a great world
trade network linking three continents.
Baghdad itself set the pace. Located at the hub of both overland
and sea routes between east and west and north and south, it became a
major meeting place, or entrepot, for trade from China, India, Africa, and Europe. While
Arab ships set sail for eastern ports, Chinese ships docked at wharves
along the Tigris River, unloading shimmering silks, spices, and jewelled
treasures from India and Asia.
Following both overland trade routes through central Asia and sea
routes through the Indian Ocean and the waters of Southeast Asia, Muslim
merchants established trading colonies as far away as China. They
brought ivory, slaves, rhinoceros horn, tortoise-shell, and gold from
Africa and southern Arabia. In exchange they carried silks and
porcelains back to Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, and the Mediterranean
world. Drawn by the message of Islam carried by these merchants, in some
places, like Malaya, local rulers adopted the new faith.
In India, where Islam initially made little headway beyond the
province of Sind, Muslim traders were also a primary means of spreading
both the religion and culture of Islam. Although the interior kingdoms
remained Hindu, coastal cities and trading centers soon had large Muslim
communities. From these bases and the Islamic lands of southern Arabia,
Muslim merchants dominated the Indian Ocean trade.
In East Africa, Islamic trading communities set up business next
to African market towns. Gold, ivory, and slaves were the primary goods
sought from Africa, and later on cloves grown on the coastal islands of
Zanzibar and Pemba. In return merchants brought porcelain from China,
clothgoods from India, and iron from the Middle East and Europe. Soon a
kind of hybrid society emerged that displayed both African and Islamic
influences. Arabic combined with local African languages to produce a
new language that gave its name, Swahili,
to the new culture of the east African coast.
In West Africa, too, merchants proved the most effective
transmitters of Islamic culture and civilization. Muslim merchants
traveled south across the Sahara desert in search of gold from the
African empire of Ghana. In exchange, they carried salt, which was
scarce south of the desert. With the salt, Muslim merchants also spread
the word of Islam. As in Southeast Asia, many of the rulers of the
African grasslands below the Sahara became Muslims.
While merchants spread Islam along with their wares, they brought
back to the Islamic heartland enormous wealth. This new prosperity
caused a tremendous expansion of the Islamic economy. With the gold of
Africa, the Abbasids minted their own coins. Coinage in turn allowed the
expansion of an economy based on money rather than barter and trade. The
Abbasid dinar became a
standard for other currencies from Spain to China.
As Muslim merchants traveled and traded in many lands, they also
needed some means of exchanging the different kinds of money with which
they were paid for their goods. They began to set up money exchanges.
These exchanges soon became banks, which issued letters of credit to
those who deposited their cash. The letters of credit could be exchanged
almost anywhere in the Islamic world, even across political boundaries
like those between the Abbasids and the Spanish Umayyads. Thus began the
first checking system.
DECLINE OF THE ABBASIDS
The Abbasid Empire reached its height under the caliph Harun al-Rashid.
Harun had come to the throne largely through the intrigues of his
Persian mother and his father's grand vizier. As caliph, Harun followed
a policy of trying to unite the Arab and Persian peoples within the
empire into a single Islamic identity. When Harun died, however, two of
his sons, one representing the Persian faction and the other the Arab
faction, plunged the empire into civil war. The Persian side triumphed,
but the conflict heralded the beginning of Abbasid decline.
By the late 800s the Abbasid caliphs had begun to lose political
control of their empire. Viziers, responsible for the daily tasks of
government, began to use their positions to their own advantage. Some
used imperial revenues to build palaces that rivaled those of the
caliphs they served. Often, they interfered in the succession. The vast
size of the empire also made it difficult to govern. Sultans, local military rulers of outlying provinces, began to run
their territories as they liked.
Under Harun's son, al-Ma'mun, the empire began to fragment. One
of al-Ma'mun's generals established his own dynasty in Khorasan, the
former seat of Abbasid strength. Deprived of their best warriors, al-Ma'mun's
successors began to recruit their bodyguards from Turkish tribesmen
brought as military slaves, or mamluks,
from Central Asia. Soon, like the Praetorian Guard in Rome, the Turkish
bodyguard held the real power in Baghdad.
Perhaps the greatest threat to the empire, however, was
continuing opposition from Shi'ites. In the 9th century the Abbasids
lost their western provinces to a Shi’ite dynasty, which claimed
descent from Ali and Fatima. Eventually these Fatimids, as they
came to be known, captured Egypt. Establishing Cairo as their new
capital, they directly challenged Abbasid legitimacy and proclaimed
themselves the true caliphs of Islam. While Fatimid armies soon attacked
Syria, Fatimid agents and missionaries also secretly infiltrated Abbasid
territory to win converts for their cause.
Shi'ites also launched rebellions in Persia. In 945 a Shi'ite
dynasty from Persia, the Buwayhids, took control of Baghdad and
"rescued" the caliph from his mamluks. Instead of deposing the
Abbasids, the Buwayhids too used them as figureheads. With such Shi'ite
"protectors," Abbasid prestige plummeted.
Meanwhile, nomadic groups from central Asia, newly converted to
Islam, began to encroach on the empire's frontiers. These were the
Turks. In 1055 a Turkish dynasty, the Saljuqs, overthrew the Shi'ite
Buwayhids and "liberated" the Abbasid caliph. Although Sunni
Muslims like the Abbasids, the Saljuqs too ruled the empire while using
the caliphs only as figureheads. The Abbasids never fully regained their
former power or authority. By 1258, when new invaders swept out of Asia
and finally destroyed Baghdad, the Abbasid Empire was long past its days
of glory. The civilization it had done so much to create and foster,
however, continued to flourish and grow.
It used to be fashionable among western historians to describe the early
Abbasid caliphate as the Golden Age of Islam, the height of Islamic
civilization. After this, they argued, Islamic civilization went into a
period of permanent decline. In adopting this interpretation, western
scholars largely reflected their sources, the Muslim historians and
political theorists of the 8th-11th centuries. These Muslim scholars
worried about the decline of the power of the caliphs in their own
times, and the rise of independent sultans. Such a division between
political power and spiritual authority seemed to them incompatible with
Muhammad's example; they equated political disunity with spiritual
Modern scholars, however, have begun to broaden their perspective
beyond the political sphere, and to rely on more varied sources. Using
non-Islamic accounts that were contemporary with Islamic expansion, such
as those of Nestorian Christians in 7th century Iraq and non-literary
sources such as tax rolls and census records, modern scholars have begun
to re-examine the whole pattern of Islamic civilization. From this new
perspective, Islamic civilization after the early Abbasids seems to have
been more fruitful and creative than ever.
As it spread, Islamic civilization brought all the regions of
Eurasia into direct contact with each other for the first time in world
history. Moreover, Islam acted as a kind of translator between cultures.
The English language stands as testimony. Words like algebra, alchemy,
sofa, and many others were derived from Arabic to describe ideas or
products that Muslims picked up in other parts of the world, then
developed and carried into Europe.
Not least, Islamic dominance of the central Eurasian trade routes
caused Europeans to go out in search of cheaper access to goods carried
by Muslim traders. Islamic civilization thus acted as a great catalyst
for material and cultural development. In short, the decline of
political unity in Islam only seems to have released an even greater
vitality and creativity in Islamic civilization, which in turn
stimulated developments in other civilizations. In the process, the
world became smaller than ever before.