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.
Avalon Foundation Distinguished Service Professor of Islamic Studies, Emerita, Department of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations, University of Chicago
1. What is the connection between Islam and other monotheistic religions? List similarities and differences.
2. Describe and define Islamic culture during the Golden Age of Islam, and is it relevant today?
3. What were the defining characteristics and achievements of the Golden Age of Islam? List four major achievements.