The Rise and Fall of Islam's Golden Age

While Europe was going through the Dark Ages, the Islamic world underwent it's own cultural renaissance. So what was Islam's Golden Age?

Many of the modern iterations of Islam are criticized for repressive policies toward education, sexuality and freedom of expression. But there was a time when Islam was arguably the most enlightened and progressive religion in the world. Laura Ling has the story in today's Seeker Daily dispatch.

The Golden Age of Islam, according to most historians, spanned the 8th to the 13th centuries -- a time that happens to coincide with the heart of the Dark Ages in Europe. This will become significant later. Under the Abbasid Dynasty, Islam spread throughout the Mediterranean, the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. The Abbasids were inspired by verses from the Quran and Hadiths that emphasize the value of knowledge -- rather than just religious devotion -- and they strongly pushed for advances in science, art, and commerce.

The Golden Age is noted in particular for its general sense of tolerance and inclusivity. In Baghdad, the heart of the Caliphate, Christian and Jewish scholars were invited to join Muslim leaders to share ideas and information. These scholars were assigned to what amounts to state-sponsored research projects, including the Islamic world's first astronomical observatory. This center of knowledge in the capitol of the dynasty was known as the House of Wisdom.

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During the Golden Age, physicians and philosophers wrote medical encyclopedias and text books that were used for centuries in the field of medicine. By the 10th century, a system of pharmacies was established among major Muslim cities and hospitals stayed open 24 hours a day. The Caliphate even established a kind of universal health care by prohibiting doctors from turning away the sick.

As the Dark Ages ravaged Europe, Islam produced countess works of art, science, literature, poetry and architecture. But you know what they say about all good things. In 1258, the Mongols sacked Baghdad and destroyed the House of Wisdom. Legend holds that so many books were thrown into the Tigris River that it ran black with ink.

The Caliphate was demolished. Had history played out differently, Islam might look very different indeed today. For more on the history of Islam, and its mystical traditions, clock on over to our feature on Sufism.

-- Glenn McDonald

Learn More:

Britannica: Abbasid Dynasty

The New Yorker: Invaders

PBS: Timeline of Islam