What Happened to Islamic Civilization After the Golden Age of Islam?
The Mongol invasion and the fall of Baghdad in 1258 CE divided Muslim lands into fractured political dominions, and, within a century or two, a new Islamic world order was born, dominated by three competing “gunpowder empires.” These, like their European counterparts, used gunpowder technology for military and political ends, and ruled with a combination of centralized bureaucracy, efficient and broad tax-collection systems, ever-ready military forces, and independent sultans; only the religious scholars, the ulama provided the people with a sense of continuity and a relation to the Islamic past. The sultans of the Ottoman empire (1292-1924 CE) considered themselves the heirs to the Abbassids and the defenders of Sunni Islam, until the fall of their dynasty with its defeat in World War I. They ruled from Istanbul the lands between Anatolia and North Africa, and produced masterpieces in book-culture, especially in Islamic and secular law, but particularly in material culture, as one sees it in Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia, the superb Blue Mosque, and the grand Sulaymaniyya complex, in exquisite metalwork and decorated glass work, and in creative calligraphy, among other arts. The sultans of the Safavid empire (1501-1722 CE) in Iran consolidated Twelver Shi’i Islam, oversaw the strengthening its beliefs through the writing of books, and built magnificent mosques, colleges (madrasas), and mausoleums, especially in their capital, Isfahan, for example, in the Naghsh-e Jahan Square, the Chahar Bagh Madrasa, and the royal gardens of Isfahan. The sultans of the Mughal empire (1556-1857 CE), who showed sufi leanings, governed from Delhi, until they were ousted by the British, a population with a Hindu majority, and hence produced novel forms of cultural Islam. They also produced some of the finest works of Islamic art, notably in the area of exquisite miniatures and in architectural monuments, of which the famous Taj Mahal is but one example. After these empires, most of the Islamic lands entered the colonial period, after which the term “Islamic civilization” becomes mostly a reference to a glorious past, now gone.
“Discover the Ottomans.” TheOttomans.org. Link to resource (accessed April 30, 2010).
“Explore the Taj Mahal Virtual Tour.” Armchair Travel, Co. Ltd. London, UK. Link to resource (accessed April 30, 2010).
Avalon Foundation Distinguished Service Professor of Islamic Studies, Emerita, Department of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations, University of Chicago
1. Did the newly formed dominions make an effort to rejuvenate the accomplishments that had been made during the Golden Age of Islam?
2. Describe the role of the ulama or the religious scholars after the Golden Age of Islam. Did their role change?
3. What were the similarities and the differences between the Abbasids, Safavids, and the Mughals? How did these differences translate into religious-political conflict?