Chapter 10 Section 3
Under the Abbasids, Muslim civilization absorbed traditions from many cultures. In the process, a flourishing new civilization arose in cities from Baghdad to Córdoba. It incorporated all the people who lived under Muslim rule, including Jews and Christians. The great works produced by scholars of the Abbasid period shaped Muslim culture and civilization. Through contacts in Spain and Sicily, Christian European scholars began to study Muslim philosophy, art, and science. Muslim scholars also reintroduced knowledge of Greco-Roman civilization to later Europeans.
Social and Economic Advances
Muslim rulers united diverse cultures, including Arab, Persian, Egyptian, African, and European. Later, Mongols, Turks, Indians, and Southeast Asians joined the Muslim community. Muslim civilization absorbed and blended many of their traditions.
Muslims Build an International Trade Network
Merchants were honored in Muslim culture, in part because Muhammad had been a merchant. A traditional collection of sayings stated:
“I commend the merchants to you, for they are the couriers of the horizon and God’s trusted servants on Earth.”
—Sayings of the Prophet
Between 750 and 1350, merchants built a vast trading network across Muslim lands and beyond. Camel caravans—the “ships of the desert”—crossed the Sahara into West Africa. Muslim, Jewish, and Christian traders traveled the Silk Road toward China and were a vital link in the exchange of goods between East Asia and Europe. Monsoon winds carried Arab ships from East Africa to India and southeast Asia. Some traders made great fortunes.
Trade spread products, technologies, knowledge, and culture. Muslim merchants introduced an Indian number system to the Western world, where they became known as Arabic numerals. Traders also carried sugar from India and papermaking from China, introducing Islam to many new regions. As more people converted and learned Arabic, a common language and religion helped the global exchange grow and thrive.
Extensive trade and a money economy led Muslims to pioneer new business practices. They created partnerships, bought and sold on credit, formed banks to change currency, and invented the ancestors of today’s bank checks. The English word check comes from the Arabic word sakk. Bankers developed a sophisticated system of accounting. They opened branch banks in all major cities, so that a check written in Baghdad might be cashed in Cairo.
A Muslim Market and its WaresAt bottom, Muslim merchants sold local goods and those from distant lands. Persian weavers were known for their beautiful carpets, such as the one shown above.
Manufactured Goods Are Highly Valued
As in medieval Europe, handicraft manufacturing in Muslim cities was typically organized by guilds. The heads of the guilds, chosen by their members, often had the authority to regulate prices, weights and measures, methods of production, and the quality of the product. Most labor was done by wage workers. Muslim artisans produced a wealth of fine goods. Steel swords from Damascus, leather goods from Córdoba, cotton textiles from Egypt, and carpets from Persia were highly valued. Workshops also turned out fine glassware, furniture, and tapestries.
Outside the cities, agriculture flourished across a wide variety of climates and landforms. Both Umayyad and Abbasid rulers took steps to preserve and extend agricultural land. Small farming communities in desert areas faced a constant scarcity of water. To improve farm output, the Abbasids organized massive irrigation projects and drained swamplands between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. In addition to crops raised for food, farmers cultivated sugar cane, cotton, medicinal herbs, and flowers that were sold in far-off markets. Farmers began to grow crops that came from different regions.
The deserts continued to support nomads who lived by herding. Still, nomads and farmers shared economic ties. Nomads bought dates and grain from settled peoples, while farming populations acquired meat, wool, and hides from the nomads. Pastoral groups also provided pack animals and guides for the caravan trade.
Social Structure and Slavery
Muslim society in the eighth and ninth centuries was more open than that of medieval Christian Europe. Muslims enjoyed a certain degree of social mobility, the ability to move up in social class. People could improve their social rank through religious, scholarly, or military achievements.
As in many earlier societies, slavery was a common institution in Muslim lands, though Islamic law encouraged the freeing of slaves as an act of charity. Slaves were often from conquered lands because Muslims were not supposed to enslave other Muslims. Some slaves bought their freedom, often with the help of charitable donations or even state funds. However, if non-Muslim slaves converted to Islam, they did not automatically become free. A female slave who bore a child by her Muslim owner gained freedom upon her master’s death. Children born of a slave mother and free father were also considered freeborn.
Most slaves worked as household servants, while some were skilled artisans. To help break down the tribal system, Abbasid caliphs also created a class of Turkish slave-soldiers who were loyal only to the caliph. Often educated in Islamic law and government, some of these men rose to high positions in the government, such as vizier. This set the stage for the Turks to become powerful later in the Abbasid era.
Muslim Art, Literature, and Architecture
Muslim art and literature reflected the diverse traditions of the various peoples who lived under Muslim rule, including Greeks, Romans, Persians, and Indians. As in Christian Europe and Hindu India, religion shaped the arts and literature of Muslim civilization. The great work of Islamic literature was the Quran itself. Because the Quran strictly banned the worship of idols, Muslim religious leaders forbade artists to portray God or human figures in religious art, giving Islamic art a distinctive style.
A Hero’s Super Powers
The illustration above is from Firdawsi’s Shah Namah, which tells the story of many Persian heroes—among them, Rustam. Why was Rustam’s strength both an advantage and a disadvantage?
“The tale is told that Rustam had at first
Such strength bestowed by Him who giveth all
That if he walked upon a rock his feet
Would sink therein. Such [power] as that
Proved an abiding trouble, and he prayed
To God in bitterness of soul to [diminish]
His strength that he might walk like other men.”
—Firdawsi, Shah Namah
,h2>Poetry and Tales of Adventure
Long before Muhammad, Arabs had a rich tradition of oral poetry. In musical verses, poets chanted the dangers of desert journeys, the joys of battle, or the glories of their clans. Their most important themes—chivalry and the romance of nomadic life—recurred in Arab poetry throughout the centuries. Later Arab poets developed elaborate formal rules for writing poetry and explored both religious and worldly themes. The poems of Rabiah al-Adawiyya expressed Sufi mysticism and encouraged the faithful to worship God selflessly without hope of reward. “If I worship Thee in hope of Paradise / Exclude me from Paradise,” she wrote in one prayer poem.
Persians also had a fine poetic tradition. Firdawsi (fur dow see) wrote in Persian using Arabic script. His masterpiece, the Shah Namah, or Book of Kings, tells the history of Persia. Omar Khayyám (oh mahr ky ahm), famous in the Muslim world as a scholar and an astronomer, is best known for The Rubáiyát (roo by aht). In this collection of four-line stanzas, Khayyám meditates on fate and the fleeting nature of life:
“The Moving Finger writes; and having writ,
Moves on; nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a word of it.”
—Omar Khayyám, The Rubáiyát
Arab writers also prized the art of storytelling. Along with ancient Arab tales, they gathered and adapted stories from Indian, Persian, Greek, Jewish, Egyptian, and Turkish sources. The best-known collection is The Thousand and One Nights, a group of tales narrated by a fictional princess. They include romances, fables, adventures, and humorous anecdotes, many set in Harun al-Rashid’s Baghdad. Later versions filtered into Europe, where children heard about “Aladdin and His Magic Lamp” or “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.”
anecdote—(an ik doht) n. a short, entertaining story, often historical
Domed mosques and high minarets dominated Muslim cities. Adapted from Byzantine buildings, domes and arches became symbolic of Muslim architecture. For example, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem was built around 688. Inside, the walls and ceilings of mosques were decorated with elaborate abstract, geometric patterns. In addition, Muslim artists perfected skills in calligraphy, the art of beautiful handwriting. They worked the flowing Arabic script, especially verses from the Quran, into decorations on buildings.
Some Muslim artists painted human and animal figures in nonreligious art. Arabic scientific works, including those on the human body, were often lavishly illustrated. Literary works sometimes showed stylized figures. Later, Persian, Turkish, and Indian artists excelled at painting miniatures to illustrate books of poems and fables.
Ibn Rushd (Averroës)
While growing up in Spain, Muslim scholar Ibn Rushd (1126–1198)—known to Europeans as Averroës—was interested in almost every subject and profession. He focused first on medicine and became chief physician to the Muslim ruler in Spain. Later, he studied astronomy and wrote several important books on the subject. Ibn Rushd also studied law, became a famous judge, and wrote a digest of Islamic law.
Ibn Rushd is best known as a philosopher. Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike have studied his commentaries on Aristotle for centuries. For part of his life, however, Ibn Rushd lived in exile outside Spain because some Muslim religious leaders felt that his writings contradicted the teachings of Islam. What role did Ibn Rushd play in increasing the knowledge of people during the Middle Ages?
Muslims Seek Knowledge
Although Muhammad could neither read nor write, his respect for learning inspired Muslims to make great advances in philosophy, history, mathematics, and the sciences. Both boys and girls received elementary education, which emphasized reading and writing. Muslims needed these skills to study the Quran. Institutions of higher learning included schools for religious instruction and for the study of Islamic law.
Centers of Learning
Al-Mamun and later caliphs established Baghdad as the greatest Muslim center of learning. Its libraries attracted well paid and highly respected scholars. Other cities, like Cairo, Córdoba, and Timbuktu were also known as centers of learning. In these places, scholars made advances in philosophy, mathematics, medicine, and other fields. They also preserved the learning of earlier civilizations by translating ancient Persian, Sanskrit, and Greek texts into Arabic.
Philosophy and History
Muslim scholars translated the works of the Greek philosophers, as well as many Hindu and Buddhist texts. Scholars tried to harmonize Greek ideas about reason with religious beliefs based on divine revelation. In Córdoba, the philosopher Ibn Rushd—known in Europe as Averroës—put all knowledge except the Quran to the test of reason. His writings on Aristotle were translated into Latin and influenced Christian scholastics in medieval Europe.
Another Arab thinker, Ibn Khaldun (ib un kal doon), set standards for the scientific study of history. He stressed economics and social structure as causes of historical events. He also warned about common causes of error in historical writing, such as bias, exaggeration, and overconfidence in the accuracy of sources. Ibn Khaldun urged historians to trust sources only after a thorough investigation.
One of the greatest Muslim mathematicians was al-Khwarizmi (al kwahr iz mee). He pioneered the study of algebra (from the Arabic word al-jabr). In the 800s, he wrote a book that was translated into Latin and became a standard mathematics textbook in Europe. Like many scholars of the time, al-Khwarizmi contributed to other fields too. He developed a set of astronomical tables based on Greek and Indian discoveries.
Arabic numerals originally developed in India and changed as traders introduced them to Muslim lands and, eventually, to Europe.
Building on the knowledge of the ancient Greeks, Muslims made remarkable advances in medicine and public health. Under the caliphs, physicians and pharmacists had to pass a test before they could practice their professions. The government set up hospitals, where injured people could get quick treatment at a facility similar to today’s emergency room. Physicians traveled to rural areas to provide healthcare to those who could not get to a city, while others regularly visited jails.
One of the most original medical thinkers was Muhammad al-Razi, head physician at Baghdad’s chief hospital. He wrote many books on medicine, including a pioneering study of measles and smallpox. He also challenged accepted medical practices. Treat the mind as well as the body, he advised young doctors. He theorized that if doctors were hopeful with their patients, recovery would be faster.
The famous Persian physician Ibn Sina (ib un see nah) was known in Europe as Avicenna. By the age of 16, he was a doctor to the Persian nobility. His great work was the Canon on Medicine, a huge encyclopedia of what the Greeks, the Arabs, and he himself had learned about diagnosing and treating diseases. The book includes many prescriptions, made with such ingredients as mercury from Spain, myrrh from East Africa, and camphor from India.
Other Muslim surgeons developed a way to treat cataracts, drawing fluid out of the lenses with a hollow needle. For centuries, surgeons around the world used this method to save patients’ eyesight. Arab pharmacists were the first to mix bitter medicines into sweet-tasting syrups and gums. Eventually, European physicians began to attend Muslim universities in Spain. Arabic medical texts were translated into Latin and the works of Avicenna and al-Razi became the standard medical textbooks at European schools for 500 years.