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The Islamic Golden Age - When Baghdad was the Intellectual and Cultural Center of the World

posted on: Jul 13, 2022

Aerial view of Baghdad in the 8th century and it’s circular design, Photo Credit: Inside Arabia

By: Caroline Umphlet / Arab America Contributing Writer


A map outlining the Abbasid Empire, Photo Credit: Inside Arabia

From 800 AD to 1100 AD, Baghdad was the richest, most prestigious and significant cosmopolitan city in the world. 

The Islamic Golden Age contributed vital discoveries and ideas to science and math that still affect our world today. The average American is not very familiar with the crucial history of Iraq. There are ignorant stereotypes of Arabs and the Arab world in general. However, Baghdad was once the most important center of learning and culture.

Baghdad was officially founded in 762 AD as the capital of the Abbasid Dynasty (750-1252). The city’s physical location was ideal because of its proximity to trading routes and a source of water, the Tigris River, as well as its fair climate. It was named the City of Peace, or Madinat Al-Salam. The Caliph’s goal was to create a great new center that was united. It was designed with a circular layout to symbolize the organization and perfection of the new regime.

The caliph had to figure out a way to efficiently govern and bring together a very diverse community. He decided to establish Arabic as the uniform language. The goal was for people to be able to connect through sharing the same way of communicating. Arabic was specifically chosen because the Quran is written in Arabic and therefore, Muslims consider it the language of God. It also happened to be the language the caliph spoke. This decision set up the path to a scientific renaissance.

Similar beliefs of Islam also united the people. The Abbasid Dynasty valued membership based on believers rather than other empires that would grant membership based on how someone looked. Although, they did accept non-believers and other religions.

The Golden Age of Islam

The Mosque of Samarra from the 9th century in the Abbasid dynasty, Photo Credit: Atlas Obscura
Tile fragments from the Abbasid dynasty, Photo Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The 9th century to the 10th is referred to as the “Golden Age of Islam.” Baghdad grew exponentially and expanded into a massive center for trade and commerce and the exchanging of ideas. Its sphere of influence was international. Baghdad became an incredibly vibrant city, home to a multitude of rich cultures. There was all kinds of art, literature, new designs for architecture, styles of dancing, storytelling, varieties of music, and more.

In the early 800’s, the caliph Al-Ma’mūn (ruled 813–833) worked to attract professionals, artists, and other scholars to his city. He sent his men to gather scientific books of all languages to bring back to be translated into Arabic. The goal was to collect as much information as possible to create a library of knowledge, all while increasing accessibility to a wider audience. Some refer to this as the translation movement.

Islamic scholars were determined to import knowledge from any form of life, race, religion, etc. This is very different from modern science where we work against each other and compete for more knowledge and fame.

They understood that owning knowledge and facilitating its development was just as powerful, if not more, as control or intimidation tactics. Muslim scholars advanced technology and were responsible for improvements in areas such as medicine, chemistry, agriculture, and more.

Baghdad was home to world leaders of civilization and culture. The caliph Al-Ma’mūn made it a point to express the city’s openness to all travelers of any religion, race, or background. It was a cosmopolitan of culture and knowledge, which only brought more scholars and experts into the city.

Arabic soon became the international language of science and how people communicated important ideas. The Golden Age was in full-swing.

Impact today

Chart showing Arabic versus Roman numerals, Photo Credit: The Basic Maths

The Western part of the world even decided to switch over to Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.) rather than Roman numerals (I, II, III, IV, etc.). Multiplying, dividing, and all the other math equations were a much longer process with Roman numerals compared to Arabic, which is easier and much more efficient. We still use Arabic numerals today.

Additionally, a significant portion of the stars that have been named are from Arabic words from Islamic astronomers because of their contribution to astronomy. In fact, they built the world’s first observatory. Although, the names were changed to Latin letters for Europeans to easier pronounce them. For example, Alnitak from the arabic word “the girdle” (النطاق) and Betelgeuse stems from “armpit of the central one” or Ibt al-jowaza (إبط الجوزاء).

Westerners today have no idea of how much of an impact this society had and continues to have. English-speakers do not realize how many words they already know in Arabic. There are many words regarding math and science that come from Arabic like “algebra,” and “algorithm.” Other Arabic words include spinach, coffee, giraffe, mascara, and the list goes on.

Fall of the Abbasid Empire

The Siege of Baghdad in 1258 from Khem Karan in 1596, Photo Credit: Saint Louis Art Museum

There were several contributing factors that led to the city losing its influence. 

The caliph at the time, Al-Mu’tasim, (ruled 833-842) added non-Muslim members to his personal army, which weakened it. Additionally, some argue that Imam Hamid Al-ghazali (1058-1111) introduced the philosophy that math is the work of the devil. Consequently, as a quite religious region, this philosophy contributed to the fall or disinterest of science. However, others claim he was only denouncing the use of mathematics for evil, specifically.

Ultimately, in 1258 AD the Mongolian Empire (1206-1368) invaded and took down the city. Baghdad’s strong foundation collapsed and never rose again to its former glory. As we all know, Iraq is now dealing with the aftermath of decades of turmoil and conflict in the 21st century. 

The scientific world will never get the chance to unlock the potential brilliance of this community. We have missed out on brilliant minds. Maybe sometime in the future, Iraq will have the ability to restore its productive and inclusive environment to help foster the further development of math and science.

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