Chapter 10 The Rise of Islam

Section 3 The Development of Islamic Civilization

The 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.


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 fire.

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 overthrown.

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 conclusions.

            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 early Islam.

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. [7][7]

"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 altogether His."

            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.


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. [8][8]

            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 "Arabic" numerals.

            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.


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 growing audience.

            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 them.[9][9]

            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.


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 system.

            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 culture.

            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.


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.


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 decline.

            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.