When you go out in the middle of the night and look at the seemingly billions of stars, you start to realize your position and scale in a massive and indifferent universe but how many of those stars can you name? I can name around five, All of these names are actually Arabic. In fact, around two-thirds of the stars that have names, have Arabic names and we have one period of history to thank for that, the Islamic Golden Age.
The Islamic Golden Age
First of all, What was the Golden Age of Islam?It was a period of time roughly around 500 years when scientific studies and research in fields like medicine, economics, mathematics geography, astronomy, and many more were flourishing in the Islamic World. Muslims contributed greatly to science, culture, and literature. One of the most famous and scary examples is Algebra which was founded by Al-Khwarizmi, a Persian polymath. Here’s another question, what was Islamic about it? When we call it the Islamic Golden Age, the idea comes to mind that it was just Muslims but it really wasn’t. For instance, many personal Physicians to the Abbasid Caliphs themselves were Christians. A Christian called Hunayn ibn Ishaq al-Ibadi was the head of the House of Wisdom for a long period of time, he was given that position by Al-Ma’mun. Jews and Zoroastrians played a huge role in translating old works of Greek, Roman, Persian, Chinese, and Hindu origin into Arabic. People of all religions and cultures came together in Baghdad to fuel the Islamic Golden Age. So, from this point on, when I use the term Islamic Scholars, I don’t mean necessarily Muslim Scholars but also, Scholars from other faiths and cultures. I mean all scholars who worked under the patronage of a Muslim ruler or a state that had Islam as its state religion. So, when did the Golden Age start? A lot of people put the starting date around 786CE when caliph Harun al-Rashid ascended to the throne. Some Muslims tend to put it around 610CE when Muhammad received his revelation because well, of course, they do. I personally put it around 25th of January, 750 CE because, well, that’s the year that the Abbasids came to power. All of them together made the conditions that made a Golden Age even possible. For instance, Al-Mansur founded the city of Baghdad, the center of the Golden Age, and the paper was made famous during Al-Mahdi’s reign. As you might expect, paper played a huge role in the Golden Age. It was taken from the Chinese in 751CE, during As-Saffah’s reign so you know, all of the caliphs before Harun al-Rashid played some role in bringing the Golden Age. The most important thing, I think during the Golden Age, was the Translation Movement. Muslims were in control of many important centers of learning of the ancient world. Cities like Alexandria, once home to the great library, now a mere shadow of its former self. Gondishapur, which was home to a great academy. Many alumni of this academy went on to work at the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. From these old cities, Muslims inherited a massive collection of books and manuscripts written primarily in Greek, Persian, Hebrew, Aramaic, and to some extent, Latin. Scholars went on to translate these books to preserve their knowledge. They translated these books into Arabic. A huge number of ancient Greek works only exist today because of this movement. I’ve even read somewhere that a scribe who translated a book was given the book’s weight in Gold. The Christian physician I mentioned before Hunayn ibn Ishaq al-Ibadi was known as the Sheikh of the Translators because he translated many books from Greek to Arabic including Plato’s Republic. Islamic Scholars didn’t only take and translate works, they also contributed to them. They learned from them and did further research on them. Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi famously founded the basis of Algebra. He also made commentary and improved upon Ptolemy’s works on Geography. Ibn Mua’dh al-Jiyyani, inspired by Euclid’s work, wrote the earliest known treatise on spherical trigonometry. Ibn al-Haytham did groundbreaking work on optics. He was also the first known scholar to suggest the use of experimentation to prove the hypothesis. I like to think of him as the first scientist. Ibn al-Nafis made commentaries on Hippocrates’ work and he also described the pulmonary circulation of blood. First known person to do so. I’ll go into more detail about the contributions of the Islamic Scholars in future videos about the Golden Age. Now, why Baghdad? In one word, I think, Geography. Baghdad was founded in Mesopotamia, which was rich in agriculture, so the city had the right conditions to grow, become a metropolitan city, one big enough to be rich, and to house all the immigrants it needed and it did need a lot of immigrants. Educated people from throughout the empire or even beyond the empire were given the incentive to move to Baghdad. This made sure all the smart people were attracted to Baghdad. In addition to that, many centers of learning from the ancient world were under Islamic Control now, thanks to more than a century of conquests. All these cities contributed their knowledge to the House of Wisdom. Persia, for instance, played a huge role. The academy mentioned earlier was home to thousands of manuscripts and hundreds of scholars. All of which were moved to Baghdad. Together these factors created an intellectual revolution. The most important edge that the Abbasids had was that they controlled a significant portion of the Silk Road. The Silk Road, if you don’t know, was an old network of trade routes that were used to trade goods between China, India, the Middle East, and Europe. Along with goods, ideas traveled on this road. Also, to some extent, disease but let’s not discuss that. Let say that the Indians invent something, if it looks like it’ll be profitable, some merchants will buy it from India and sell it in the Levant, maybe in Damascus or Jerusalem. From there, if it looks like it’ll sell in the European market, some merchants will take it to Europe. This way the world was very connected and the cities that were on the Silk Road were some of the most important cities in history. The Abbasid Empire was controlling a significant portion of those cities so any ideas that traveled down the Silk Road, found its way to Baghdad. Now, when I was younger and I first read about the Golden Age, what came to my mind was that the Muslims just took works from other and made some improvements, that’s not a big deal but well, that’s one of the reasons I wanna kill my younger self. As I grew up, I realized that you have to build upon the works of others. You can’t do anything without those who came before. “Our life is made by the death of others”, as Leonardo Da Vinci said. If you’re a writer, you probably read a lot. If you’re an artist, you look at other artists’ artworks a lot. When you’re new to a field, you look at and learn from others who have been there before you and over time, you mix their style with your own unique style and make something new. Sort of a remix and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m going to link a great video by Nerd Sync here. So, that’s why in this video, I keep talking about the importance of the older works that Baghdad had access to. Without them, there could never have been an Islamic Golden Age. Muslims took works from the people who had been there before and remixed them to make something new. Then, the Europeans during the Renaissance took those works and remixed them to make something newer. The device that you’re watching this video on, for instance, has a microprocessor in it that runs on programming, an extension of the concepts proposed by the goddess Ada Lovelace. The program uses binary. Binary is made of two numbers, 1 and 0. 0 was popularized by the Islamic Scholars. Those Islamic Scholars took it from the Indians. The device you’re watching it on might look like magic to those Indians but for us, it was sort of a natural progression over things that came before it. The end of the Golden Age is said to be in 1258 CE when Hulagu Khan sacked Baghdad. It’s said that the Tigris river ran black with ink from the books and manuscripts flung into the river. The leather covers of those books were used to make shoes by the Barbarians. For the Muslim world, the shock of this event was unparalleled. Baghdad was an important center of learning. It was a hub of international trade. It was the home to the Caliph. Anywhere from 200,000 to a million people were slaughtered. The Mongols killed so many people that Hulagu himself couldn’t stay in the city because of the stench of the dead bodies. However, I don’t believe that this was the end of the Golden Age. It didn’t end as much as it dispersed. Islamic Scholars still continued to do scientific work in other places like Cordoba and Cairo. Scholars like Ibn Khaldun continued to do great work away from Baghdad. All of this kinda makes you wonder what happened to the Muslims, how’d they go from pioneers of science and culture to well, today. See you next time. Read also about The Life of Prophet Muhammad, The Last Messenger Of God.