The Islamic Golden Age was an era from the 8th to 14th century marked by the expansion of Islam and Arabic culture throughout North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and southern Europe, with the flourishing of art, commerce and science.
Muhammad, the prophet of Islam who is credited by non-Muslims with founding the religion and by Muslims with being Allah's last messenger, was also an inspirational and very effective leader and military commander. He united Arabia under his rule by 632. His successors, called caliphs, continued his project of spreading the religion and conquering more lands, and by 750, the Islamic Empire under the Umayyad Caliphate extended from Spain and Morocco to India and Central Asia.
The caliphs of this period in most cases had the view that an Islamic society should be one in which knowledge and technology progresses and science, philosophy and culture flourish along with and as part of Islam. Aided by generally liberal interpretations of the Koran's verses on People of the Book (non-Muslim monotheists), they welcomed the vibrant participation of Jews, Christians, freethinkers and others as well as Muslims in the society of great cities such as Baghdad and Cairo and produced a civilization that was the most advanced in the world for several hundred years, during a time now called the Middle Ages in Christian Europe.
The Rāshidun Caliphate from AD 632 to 661 came to dominate today's Middle East, and the Umayyad Caliphate conquered the whole of North Africa, most of Iberia and parts of the Caucasus and Central Asia, becoming one of the world's largest empires. The succeeding Abbasid Caliphate ruled much of this territory from 750 to 1258, becoming a patron of the arts and scholarship, with increasing inclusion of Christians, Jews and other non-Muslims.
Islamic kingdoms and the Christian realms of Medieval Europe had both peaceful trade and cultural exchange and conflicts, including the Crusades. Europeans have used various terms for Islamic peoples, including Saracens for Muslims from the Arabian Peninsula, and Moors for Muslim Africans, including Berbers and black sub-Saharan Africans.
The Golden Age was disrupted by the Mongol Empire, the reactions of some Islamic scholars such as Muhammad Al-Ghazali (c. 1058-1111) against freethinking and reliance on math and science instead of divine will to explain natural phenomena and the rise of the Almohad Dynasty in Andalus and the Maghreb, which in 1147 revoked dhimmi protections from non-Muslims, forced them to flee or convert and massacred many. The Ottoman Empire, founded right around the turn of the 14th century, conquered most of the Middle East, North Africa and large areas of Southern and Eastern Europe by 1566, and proclaimed itself to be an Islamic caliphate in its own right. The Ottoman Empire collapsed at the end of World War I, and the concept of an Islamic caliphate went dormant until it was revived in the 21st century by an organization called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant whose concept of Islamic rule is very different from the tolerance that had been commonplace during the Golden Age.
Scholarship and art
Scholars in the Islamic World were inspired by the knowledge of the ancient Greeks and Romans and took it further, and by translating numerous Greek and Roman books on all kinds of subjects, they preserved some knowledge during centuries when it was lost in Christian Europe.
Islamic scholars were forerunners in mathematics, importing the decimal system from India, and inventing algebra (al-jabr means "assembling parts") and other mathematical methods used in modern times.
A few famous scholars of the time were:
- al-Khwārizmī (c. 780-c. 850), probably from Khiva, from whose terms we get the English words algebra and algorithm, and who introduced decimal arithmetic and "Arabic" numerals (originally from India) to the Islamic world
- Avicenna (Arabic: ibn Sīnā, c. 980-1037), from a village near Bukhara, a brilliant doctor and philosopher. One of his medical texts was used in Europe as late as 1650
- Omar Khayyam, from Nishapur, primarily a mathematician and astronomer but he also wrote on philosophy, mechanics, geography and mineralogy and is best known in the West for his poetry
- Maimonedes (c. 1135-1204), who was born in Córdoba, fled persecution of Jews there for the (then) more tolerant Muslim regions, and eventually became Court Physician to Saladin in Egypt.
- Maimonedes, who was also a very influential rabbi, was one of many Jews and Christians who along with Muslims contributed to the greatness of the Islamic civilization.
The Golden Age lasted until 1258 when Baghdad was captured and destroyed by the Mongols.
The Islamic heartland in today's Middle East can be difficult to visit. As of the 2020s, Syria and Iraq are not safe for travellers.
- 1 Baghdad. Founded by the Abbasids in 762, was one of the world's foremost centers of learning and scientific progress for almost 500 years.
- 2 Damascus. Home to the Great Umayyad Mosque, the first monumental Muslim temple, which started out as a local deity's shrine rebuilt as a Roman temple of Jupiter, which became a church dedicated to St. John the Baptist housing his relics (to this day, they're still there, inside a gilded marble shrine). Its overhaul into the monumental building we see today, from 706 to 715, is reported to have employed 200 skilled Byzantine craftsmen, architects, stonemasons and mosaicists, sent by emperor Justinian II at the personal request of Umayyad caliph al-Walid.
- 3 Humeima. Former Nabatean trading post and home of the Abbasid Caliphate, which has seen the birth of figures like As-Saffah, Al-Mansur and Al-Mahdi.
- 4 Mecca. The home town of Muhammad, is the primary destination for Hajis.
- 5 Medina. was the then primarily Jewish city of Yathrib that gave refuge to Muhammad and his followers after the Hijra (flight from Mecca). It is the second holiest city for Muslims.
- 6 Jerusalem. Contains the Al Aqsa Mosque (8th century) and Dome of the Rock (7th century), which are built on the Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary). Muslims believe that this is the location from which Muhammad ascended to Heaven, and it is considered one of the holiest places in Islam. As this site is also the holiest site in Judaism (Jews call it the Temple Mount), there have been tensions between Muslims and Jews here.
Balkans and Asia Minor
- Larnaca, or rather the bank of the local salt lake west of the town in Cyprus, is the site of Hala Sultan Tekke, an Ottoman-built shrine at the cemetery of Umm Haram, Muhammad's wet nurse, who died here during a siege in the 7th century. Some denominations consider this to be one of the holiest Islamic sites.
- Tetovo, North Macedonia, is the site of the "Painted Mosque" (Šarena Džamija), a rather small Ottoman-era mosque that is atypically decorated with extremely bright and colourful paintings.
- 7 Istanbul.
- 8 Bursa.
- 9 Konya.
- 10 Edirne.
- 11 Cairo. A crucial destination in this context, contains many dozens of religious and secular buildings from this period, most notably the Al-Azhar University, an institution of Islamic learning founded in the 970s and one of the world's oldest universities, standing proudly next to the Khan el-Kalili bazaar, another must-see.
- 12 Fez. is home to the University of al-Qarawiyyin, founded in 859 as a mosque and functioning until 1963 as a madrasa - an institution of Islamic learning - with a distinguished history and reputation.
- 15 Córdoba. Former capital of Al-Andalus, contains several important relics of that time, especially La Mezquita de Córdoba, a beautiful, large mosque built on the site of a Visigothic church and subsequently converted into a church after the reconquista of Spain.
- 16 Granada. the site of the splendid Alhambra fortress/palace complex and other relics of its Moorish past, and it also has a mosque in Moorish style that was built in 2003 to serve a new Muslim community, hundreds of years after the last member of the previous Muslim community was expelled.
- 17 Toledo. a former Roman fortress city, perched atop a dramatic bend of the Tagus River, has been a Visigothic royal seat as well, and features Spain's most important cathedral, in Gothic style. The former synagogue, a Moorish-style building which was used by the Jewish community prior to their expulsion during the Spanish Inquisition, also survives.
- 18 Sevilla. The site where the Catedral de Sevilla now stands was once the site of the city's main mosque under Muslim rule. While the mosque was demolished in the 14th century to build the cathedral, its minaret still survives, but has been converted to the cathedral's bell tower. Many of the palaces in the city also show strong influences from Arab architecture.