Because Islam originated and has developed in an Arab culture, other cultures which have adopted Islam have tended to be influenced by Arab customs. Thus Arab Muslim societies and other Muslims have cultural affinities, though every society has preserved its distinguishing characteristics. Islamic culture inherited an Arab culture born in the desert, simple but by no means simplistic. It has an oral tradition based on the transmission of culture through poetry and narrative. However, it has been the written record that has had the greatest impact on civilization. Islam civilization is based on the value of education, which both the Qur'an and the Prophet stressed.
This dark green jade pot, 14 cm. (5½"), once furnished the Safavid palace at Tabriz, and probably passed into Ottoman hands after the Battle of Çaldiran in 1514. Before that, the dragon-headed handle suggests it may have belonged to a Timurid ruler. (Aramco World Magazine, January-February 1995; photo Ergun Çagatay).
Knowledge and Education
In the Pre-Islamic period, one of the traditions was that of the mu'allaquat (literally "the hangings"). In the city of Mecca, poets and writers would hang their writings on a certain wall in the city so that others could read about the virtues of their respective tribes. Their travels from city to city and tribe to tribe were the means by which news, legends, and exploits would become known. 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 (750-1258 A.D.) when thousands of mosque schools were established. In the tenth century Baghdad had some 300 schools. Alexandria in the fourteenth century had 12,000 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. 820) and Dar al-Ilm in Cairo (ca. 998). Universities such as Al-Azhar (969 A.D.) were also established long before those in Europe.
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.
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 (661-750 A.D.) when the Arab way of life began shifting from the simple nomadic life prevalent in the peninsula to an urban and sophisticated one. Contacts with Greece and Persia gave a greater impulse to music, which frequently accompanied the recitation of prose and poetry. By the mid-800'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.C., when Alexander the Great conquered Asia Minor and founded Alexandria, he set the stage for the great migration of Greek philosophy and science to that part of the world. 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 641, 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. 1406), Ibn Sina (Avicenna, d. 1037), Ibn Rushd (Averroes, d. 1198), al-Farabi and al-Ghazali translated the works of earlier Greek philosophers and added their own significant contributions. 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. Thomas Aquinas, the founder of Catholic naturalism, developed his views of Aristotle through the translation of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes). 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.
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 (838-923). 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. "The Thousand and One Nights" captured Western Europe's cultural and popular fancy in the 1700's (first translated into French by Galland in 1704, then into English). 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. Even "Robinson Crusoe" and "Gulliver's Tales" are adaptations of "The Thousand and One Nights." Arabo-Islamic culture, knowledge, scholarship, and science fed the Western world's development for five hundred years between the tenth and fifteenth centuries.
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 Wonders and Curiosities of Creation
Iran or Iraq
(Aramco World Magazine, November-December 1995; photo courtesy of ARCH).
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. 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 (965-1030), 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 (860-940) is reported to have written 200 books on medicine, one of them on medical ethics, and the Hawi, a 25 volume practical encyclopedia. Ibn Sina (980-1037) 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. The most important medical school was that of Judishapur, Iran, which after 738 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 749-1258).
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. 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. (Aramco World Magazine, January-February 1989; photo Jeffrey Crespi).
The translation effort began in earnest under the reign of the second Abbasid caliph, al-Mansur (754-75). 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 950. 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. This development not only simplified calculation but paved the way for the development of an entirely new branch of mathematics, algebra.
The study of geometry was sustained by a remarkable series of scholars, the Banu Musa or "Sons of Musa," who were all, quite literally, sons of the al-Ma'mun's court astronomer, Musa ibn Shakir. Their activities were all the more noteworthy because they carried on their research and writing as private citizens, devoting their lives and expending their fortunes in the pursuit of knowledge. Not only did they sponsor the translation of numerous Greek works but contributed substantial works of their own. Al-Hasan, one of the sons, was perhaps the foremost geometrician of his time, translating six books of the Elements and working out the remainder of the proofs on his own.
Arabic Words That Entered the Western Vocabulary
AL-JABR = ALGEBRA
AL-KEMIA = CHEMISTRY
AL-KUHL = ALCOHOL
AL-MIRAL = ADMIRAL
AL'UD = LUTE
'ANBAR = AMBER
BAWRAQ = BORAX
GHARBALA = GARBLE
GHOL = GHOUL
LAYMUN = LEMON
MAKHZAN = MAGASIN (French)
NARANJ = ORANGE
QAHWAH = COFFEE, CAFE
QANAH = CANE
QITAR = GUITAR
SAFARA = SAFARI
SUKKAR = SUGAR = ASUKAR (Spanish)
TAFRIK = TRAFFIC
TA'RIF = TARIFF
TUNBAR = TAMBOURINE (French)
ZIRAFAH = GIRAFFE
The enormous intellectual energy unleashed by the Abbasid dynasty left no field of knowledge and speculation untouched. In addition to mathematics and geometry, Abbasid scholars in the House of Wisdom made important and lasting contributions in astronomy, ethics, mechanics, music, medicine, physics, and philosophy to name a few. In the process men of enormous intellect and productivity rose to prominence. One of these was Thabit ibn Qurra. Recruited from the provinces—where he had worked in obscurity as a money changer—he came to the Bait al-Hikmah to work as a translator. There his exemplary grasp of Syriac, Creek, and Arabic made him invaluable. In addition to his translations of key works, such as Archimedes' Measurement of the Circle (later translated into Latin by Gerard of Cremona in the 12th century), he also wrote over 70 original works on a wide range of subjects. His sons, too, were to found a dynasty of scholars that lasted until the 10th century.
But it wasn't only the pure or abstract sciences that received emphasis in these early years. The practical and technical arts made advances as well, medicine the first among them. Here several great scholars deserve mention. Hunain ibn lshaq not only translated the entire canon of Greek medical works into Arabic—including the Hippocratic oath, obligatory for doctors then as now—but wrote 29 works by his own pen, the most important a collection of ten essays on ophthalmology. The greatest of the 9th century physician-philosophers was perhaps Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi, known to the west as Rhazes. He wrote over 184 books and was an early advocate of experiment and observation in science.
Simultaneously, in far off Spain (al-Andalus), the social and natural sciences were being advanced by men such as Ibn Khaldun, the first historian to explicate the laws governing the rise and fall of civilizations. The brilliant flowering of Islamic science in Andalusia was directly stimulated by the renaissance in Baghdad. Scholars regularly traveled the length of the known world to sit and learn at the feet of a renowned teacher.
With the death of the philosopher al-Farabi in 950 the first and most brilliant period of Islamic scientific thought drew to a close. As the political empire fragmented over the next 300 years, leadership would pass to the provinces, principally Khorasan and Andalusia. Indeed, Spain was to serve as a conduit through which the learning of the ancient world, augmented and transformed by the Islamic experience, was to pass to medieval Europe and the modern world. At the very time that Baghdad fell to the Mongols in 1258, and the Abbasid caliphate came to an end, scribes in Europe were preserving the Muslim scientific tradition. This is why, just as many Greek texts now survive only in Arabic dress, many Arabic scientific works only survive in Latin.
The death of al-Farabi is perhaps a fitting event to mark the end of the golden age of Muslim science. His masterwork, The Perfect City, exemplifies the extent to which Greek culture and science had been successfully and productively assimilated and then impressed with the indelible stamp of Islam. The perfect city, in al-Farabi's view, is founded on moral and ethical principles; from these flow its perfect shape and physical infrastructure. Undoubtedly he had in mind the round city of Baghdad, The City of Peace.
Trade and Commerce as a Cultural Vehicle
Because Arabs historically had a tradition of trade and commerce, the Muslims continued that tradition. It was due to their superiority in navigation, shipbuilding, astronomy, and scientific measuring devices that Arab and Muslim commerce and trade developed and reached so many peoples throughout the world. The Arabs were at the crossroads of the ancient trade routes from the Mediterranean, the Arabian Gulf, East Africa, and the Indian subcontinent, all the way to China.
One of the interesting results of these trading relations occurred during the caliphate of Harun al-Rashid (786-809) when he exchanged envoys and gifts with Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor. As a result, Harun al-Rashid established the Christian Pilgrims' Inn in Jerusalem, fulfilling Umar's pledge to Bishop Sophronious, when he first entered Jerusalem, to allow freedom of religion and access to Jerusalem to Christian religious pilgrims.
A number of Arabic words relating to the trade and commerce have found their way into modern Western languages. (See list of words.) Muslin cotton developed in Mosul (Iraq) became a favorite commodity and a new word in the Western vocabulary, as did damask fabric (from Damascus), fustain cloth (from Fustat, Egypt).
The most interesting accounts of other cultures encountered by Arab Muslims are contained in a book on the travels of Ibn Battutah of Tangier (1304-1377), who over a period of 25 years traveled to Asia Minor, Mongolia, Russia, China, the Maldives, Southeast Asia and Africa and recounted his travels and the influence of early Muslim traders in those regions. He was the precursor of Marco Polo, whose accounts contained detailed descriptions of various cultures with which Arab and Muslims traders had long been in contact. Islamic craftsmanship in bookmaking and bookbinding were items of trade which carried the message of Islamic civilization far and wide.
Architecture and music
The word "Arabesque" entered into the Western lexicon as a description of the intricate design that characterized Arab Muslim art. But the great mosques that were first built throughout the Islamic world were not only places of worship but places of learning which remained as great examples of architecture and design. Through them civilization was transmitted in an artistic environment that was at once intellectually inspiring and emotionally uplifting. The Haram Mosque of Mecca, the Mosque of Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem, the numerous mosques in Cairo—Al-Azhar, Amr, Sultan Hassan, Baybars—the Great Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, the Quairawan in Tunisia, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, the Cordoba Mosque in Spain and the Kutubiyah in Marakesh are among the most noteworthy. In addition to distinctive architectural characteristics, such as magnificent geometric designs, many of these contain mosaics of rare beauty, frequently painted in the blue and green of the sea, sky, and vegetation. The wood carving (masharabiyah) in most mosques are equally distinctive and characteristic of Islamic art.
At times of prayer, individuals and congregations—indeed the entire Muslim world—face Mecca. The mosque is usually a domed structure with one or more minarets from which the muadhin gives the call to prayer five times a day. The direction of Mecca is clearly indicated by the mihrab, a decorated niche in the wall. The larger mosques have a minbar or pulpit. Since the worshipers should be in a pure state of mind and body before they begin to pray, a fountain is placed in the courtyard for ritual ablutions. Shoes are removed on entering the prayer hall, which is usually carpeted.
For Muslims the mosque is a place for worship and education, a refuge from the cares of the world. Its function is best described in the Prophet's own words, namely that the mosque should be a garden of paradise. Islam's greatest architect was Sinan, a 16th century Ottoman builder who was responsible for the Sulaimaniye mosque in Istanbul. His mosques visibly display the discipline, might, and splendor of Islam.
The most notable examples of masharabiyah are in the Mosque of Ibn Tulun in Cairo, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, and the Mosque of Isfahan. After the Ka'ba in Mecca, the "Dome of the Rock" or Mosque of Umar in Jerusalem built in 685 is the oldest example of Muslim architectural genius. The technique of dome construction was perfected and passed on to the West. The technique of dome structural support was used in the Capella Palatine in Palermo (1132), while the campaniles or steeples of the Palazza Vecchio of Florence and of San Marco in Venice are inspired by the minaret which was first built in Qairawan, Tunisia (670). Similarly, the horseshoe arch, which was so prevalent in Islamic form and particularly well realized in the Great Mosque of Damascus (707), has since been copied all over the world. Probably the best known example of Islamic architecture is the Alhambra (meaning al-Harnra or the red one) palace built in 1230 in Granada, Spain.
But artistic contributions were not limited to architecture, construction, decoration, painting, mosaic, calligraphy, design, metalcraft and wood carving. They extended to music through the development of new instruments and new techniques of sound and rhythm. The Arab Muslims (al-Farabi in particular) were the first to develop a technique of musical harmony paralleling mathematical science. Arabic-Islamic music was characterized by the harmony of sound and evocative emotional expression. Musiqa is the Arabic word for music.
Many non-Muslims perceive Islamic Fundamentalism as a form of revolutionary ideology and associate it with groups and movements which engage in violent acts or advocate violence. This must be distinguished from Islamic revival which is a peaceful movement calling for the return to basic traditional values and practices. Adherents to and followers of such a movement believe that the best way to achieve the "true path of Islam" is to develop an integrated social and political system based on Islamic ideals and the teachings of the Qur'an and the Sunna. To that extent they are fundamentalists.
Reform ideas which derive from revival movements are not new to the history of Islam, nor do they advocate resorting to violence in order to achieve such a goal except where rebellion against unjust rule is legally justified. Examples of peaceful reform ideas are found in the learned teachings of the 13th century philosopher-scholar Ibn Taymiyya in Syria. In the 18th century the Wahabi reform movement developed in Saudi Arabia and its orthodox teachings continue to the present. Also in the 19th century the ideal of the "true path to justice" or al-salaf al-salih was eloquently propounded by Sheik Muhammad Abduh in Egypt, and his views continue to be studied by religious and secular scholars all over the world. These and other reform ideas have in common the search for Islamic truth and justice and their applicability to the solutions to Muslim societies' problems.
Because Islam is a holistic religion integrating all aspects of life, it follows that a reform movement predicated on religion necessarily confronts the social, economic, and political realities of the society in which it develops. Muslim societies, however, have emerged from colonialism and neo-colonialism and are seeking to develop free from certain western influences which may corrupt or subvert basic Islamic values. Furthermore in Islam there is no division or distinction between what in the West is called "Church and State". In fact westerners refer to the Islamic form of government as a theocracy. Thus contemporary political-religious groups focus on social, political, and economic aspects of Muslim societies. They oppose the secular state and instead call for the establishment of a "Muslim State".
A distinction must be made between Islamic reform and Islamic political activism conducted under the banner of Islam. The latter is sometimes characterized by extremism, fanaticism, and violence, which are contrary to Islamic precepts. But these manifestations of a socio-political nature must not be confused with the ideals and values of Islam.
Enlightened reform ideas continue to develop in the Muslim world. Institutions like Al-Azhar University in Cairo, which is the oldest university in the world, the Muslim World League in Mecca, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference headquartered in Jeddah are the examples of the contemporary, intellectual, educational, and diplomatic forces in the resurgence of Islam. The contributions they make toward a better understanding of Islam, as well as its peaceful propagation, are free from extremism and violence.
The resurgence of Islam is flourishing in every part of the world and dedicated Muslims are trying hard to meet the challenges of modern times while remaining faithful to the values of their past. This is enlightened Islamic Fundamentalism. Its continuation and growth are ongoing. But since all mass movements carry the risk of excess, extremism by some is likely to occur at times. However, one should not judge the higher values shared by the many on the basis of the extreme deeds committed by the few.
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Overview of the Golden Age of Islamic Civilization
In general, a civilization is the cumulative, lettered, urban tradition that is carried by literary high culture by a single language or a group of culturally related languages, and has sufficient continuity to allow for its specific designation as a civilization different from other human civilizations. When we speak about “Islamic civilization,” in particular, we mean the literary tradition that was produced in an Islamic context. This context can have several meanings: that the people who contributed to this tradition were Muslims; that they lived in the lands where the state, high culture, and symbols were Islamic, regardless of the religions they professed; that Islamic languages were used as a means of expressing this tradition, especially Arabic, Persian, and later Turkish; and that they belonged to a discipline whose origins are associated with the study of Islam.
The contribution of Islamic civilization in the Golden Age of Islam resulted from the broad choices that the early Muslim community made. As swift conquerors of practically all of the Near East, the early Muslims refused to act either as victors who impose their religion and world-view on their subjects, or as inexperienced civilization-builders who “melt” into the sophisticated ancient civilizations of the indigenous populations. Instead, they permitted the indigenous populations—primarily, but not only, Jews and Christians—to keep their religions and traditions, placing them under the Qur’anic category of “people of scripture” (ahl al-kitab) who deserve protection (dhimmis), while they identified their own religion, Islam, and its language, Arabic, as their only non-negotiable sphere of identity; all other areas which did not conflict with this sphere they considered a legitimate source of inquiry and inspiration. This almost limitless openness, accompanied with great self-confidence, success, and prosperity of the carriers of the new faith, was the foundation on which Islamic civilization was based, and flourished in the Golden Age of Islam, with people of all kinds of ethnicities and religions participating in the construction of that civilization. The gradual acceleration of consensual conversion into Islam in the first centuries of Islam helped in homogenizing while enriching the base of that civilization, as did the quick dominance of Arabic language as a language of culture, to be joined by Persian from the tenth century onward. The foundation of cities like Basra and Kufa, Baghdad and Cairo, Cordoba and Fez, and the revivification of ancient ones, like Jerusalem and Damascus, created urban contexts for the flourishing of that civilization and allowed the construction of monuments expressive of their identity in them. The extended periods of peace allowed for the flow of trade and ideas across continents. The ideas of the past were also incorporated in this hub of cultural production, translating them into Arabic, and that past was extended to that of late antiquity—Greece—and of ancient Persia. In this context, even sectarian divisions within the Muslim community could be re-channeled in positive directions, with each sect enriching the fabric of religious culture, as could the debates between the various religious and ethnic groups.