Destroying the Myth of the Islamic Golden Age

The title of this article may come across as somewhat provocative, and rightfully so. After all, it’s one of those intellectually lazy banalities used by critics of Islam, who allege that:

  • Everything good coming from the Muslims is of course always despite Islam; and
  • Everything bad coming from the Muslims is most certainly always because of Islam.

Obviously our perspective on the matter will be quite different.

We’ll be exploring whether or not there even was a “Golden Age” to begin with; and why in actuality the whole thing is very problematic.

The “Golden Age” and Eurocentric Materialistic History

The most obvious problem with the expression “Golden Age” is that it sequences history.

If there is a “Golden Age,” then by default there is something prior which is not as good and something later which is not only not as good but also infers some form of decay or decadence.

Worse yet, this so-called “Golden Age” is equated with achievements in science and technology. It is assessed using modernist Western standards.

For Muslims, the term “Golden Age” would perhaps be more appropriate for describing the period extending from the Prophet ﷺ and his Companions up to the rightly guided caliphs. Others may also include the early Umayyad conquests. The point is, this would be a purely Islamic perspective, not a Eurocentric one which judges a civilization’s worth based upon “progress” and “development” through scientific and technological “advancements.”

Of course there’s nothing wrong with appreciating individual figures in mathematics, physics, and so on. However, from an Islamic perspective a triumphant society isn’t one full of mathematicians and physicists and especially not one full of “philosophers” who are infatuated with Greek thought.

RELATED: Why Would We Trust Science Over Islam?

As explained above, by labelling the late Abbassid era as the “Golden Age,” this not only serves to create a perceived depreciation of the prophetic era, it also deems everything that follows this supposed “Golden Age” as having become decadent.

And guess who took advantage of such a historiography?

Well, the liberal-reformists of course.

Influenced by Orientalists, they argued that because they lived in a decaying society, the best way to “progress” was to imitate the European colonialists. After all, they only had what the Muslims were acknowledged for during the so-called “Golden Age”—science and technology.

If being a “Golden Age” were to be judged on the basis of science and technology then these liberal-reformists, who admired (and feared) Europe’s military prowess, weren’t entirely wrong.

US-based Palestinian-Christian academic Joseph Massad writes in the collective work, Islam and the Orientalist World-System (2015):

Influenced by the Orientalist judgment that Arab culture had “degraded” to an age of “decadence” under the Ottomans, most Arab writers since the middle of the nineteenth century were overcome with a sense of crisis concerning a sort of malady afflicting the Arab present, its “culture,” its “language,” its political and economic orders, its “traditions,” its views of its own “heritage,” even “Islam” itself, in short, a malady afflicting the whole of Arab Islamic “civilization.” The diagnosis would echo Orientalist judgment, including “backwardness,” “decadence,” “moral decline,” “irrationality,” and most of all “degeneration,” resulting from centuries of Ottoman rule caracterized by stasis at best or retardation of things Arab (and sometimes Muslim) at worst. This understanding of Ottoman rule would become one of the main mobilizational factors in the emergence of the nascent anti-Ottoman Arab nationalism.

Such a philosophy of history infected liberal-reformists all over the Muslim world. They had embraced the idea of Muslims having reached their “Golden Age” when they were at the forefront of scientific and technological progress. And now that colonial Europe is the leader in these fields, what better approach is there than to adopt their way of life—liberalism and all its branches (secularism, feminism and so on)?

Prof. Dr. Jamal Malik (a Pakistani academic teaching in German universities) has also joined the dots between this notion of “Golden Age” and European colonialism in the introduction to his book, Islam in South Asia: A Short History, pp. 4-5:

This image usually envisions an Islamic Golden Age, followed by a decline, followed by a revival, or by an increasingly militant Islam. It is also in line with long standing Orientalist perceptions which see a gradually improving Islamic high culture swept away by the Mongols in 1258, followed by a long dark-age and stagnation culminating by around 1750 when enlightenment came to flourish in Europe while barbarism and despotism reigned in the Orient. This mirror image is complemented by the idea of a deep colonial kiss to awaken the sleeping beauty resulting in an Islamic revival in the nineteenth century. This effective and memorable image is unfortunately also believed by many a Muslim. The underlying essentialism is based on “orientalist empiricism” and was continuously pursued in colonial and nationalist historiography, producing quite a number of orientalist studies.

It is thus no wonder that, as per Edward Saïd, the very expression “Islamic Golden Age” is in fact an Orientalist product.

Some Gold After the “Golden Age”?

We’ve already explained why we stand against the idea of this “Golden Age.” In short, it is a Eurocentric approach towards history and is intended as a trap to be weaponized against Muslims.

However, there’s actually more.

This notion of the “Golden Age” may even be wrong according to their own approach and standards.

The “Golden Age” is generally characterized as being between the 9th century—when Abbassid caliph Al-Ma’mun established the Bayt al-Hikmah (“House of Wisdom”) and launched the translation movement of foreign (mainly Greek) texts—up to 1258, with Hulagu Khan sacking of Baghdad.

But it’s not that simple.

Elias Muhanna (an American academic who specializes in medieval and early modern Islamic history) released a work in 2017 titled The World in a Book.

It’s basically the study of Al-Nuwayri, an Egyptian-Muslim civil servant from the 14th century who compiled an Islamic encyclopedia where you find everything from Islamic sciences to astronomy and zoology, etc.

Muhanna argues that such encyclopedism was common during the Mamluk period within Egypt and also Syria (what “decadence”!).

But the usual reasoning is that Muslims began to embrace encyclopedism as a way to protect and preserve all the knowledge they could after the supposed Mongol onslaught. And this is precisely what Muhanna refutes.

We read in the aforementioned book, on pp. 16-17:

The rise of encyclopedic literature in Egypt and Syria during the period following the Mongol conquests has often been attributed by historians to a fear among Mamluk compilers that all knowledge would be lost as a result of the destruction of libraries. The sense of terror that this catastrophe provoked has been seen as a principal factor behind the work of al- Nuwayrī and his contemporaries, who ostensibly aimed to preserve the intellectual achievements of the Islamic golden age in the form of manuals, dictionaries, commentaries, and other types of composite sources.
(…)
The Mongol conquests brought about dramatic transformations in the Near East but did not seem to trigger cultural trauma in the field of book production. The famous description of Baghdad’s libraries being emptied into the ink-clouded Tigris is almost certainly a topos that emerged in later historiography. Local sources and other early accounts make no mention of it. And while it remained the capital of the Abbasid Empire, Baghdad had long ceased to be the glorious cultural hub it once had been during the days of Hārūn al- Rashīd. As Michael Cooperson has shown in an examination of literary reports about Baghdad and the various tropes that crystallized within them, the city seemed to have devolved into a backwater long before the Mongols sacked it. The Andalusian traveler Ibn Jubayr visited Baghdad three quarters of a century before Hülegü arrived and described it as resembling nothing so much as “a vanished encampment or a passing phantom.”

In brief:

The Mongol “destruction” of Baghdad did not have any long-lasting effects on the intellectual history of Muslims.

So, if the very foundations of the “Golden Age” mythology are biased, we should be able to present examples of “achievements in science and technology” which came after 1258, right?

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Certainly.

For example, George Saliba (Lebanese-Christian academic based in the U.S.) says that the “Golden Age” of astronomy not only came after 1258 but ironically due to Hulagu Khan himself. He had patronized the construction of the Maragheh observatory in 1259 (in today’s Iran) where many influential astronomers would work.

Saliba also mentions Ibn al-Shatir, the 14th-century Syrian astronomer linked to Damascus’ famed Umayyad mosque and whose models and drawings are suspiciously similar to those of Copernicus, who came a few centuries later.

In the field of mathematics you have Ibn Hamzah al-Maghribi from the 16th-century, born in Algeria but working in the Ottoman Empire and someone who quite possibly invented the concept of the logarithm decades before Napier.

In philosophical theology or Kalam you have many academics such as Robert Wisnovsky highlighting the richness of the Islamic intellectual tradition after the so-called “Golden Age.”

Wisnovsky says that the reason we don’t have a clear picture of the post-classical or post-“Golden Age” Islamic intellectual history is because there are simply far too many manuscripts which remain unstudied.

Muzaffar Iqbal opines the same in his The Making of Islamic Science, pp. 144-146:

We cannot pronounce a general death sentence to all branches of science in all regions of the Muslim world at a specific date. The need is to carefully study available data (with the understanding that we do not possess all manuscripts and instruments) pertaining to different branches of natural science in different regions of the Muslim world, look at the evidence from within each branch of science to determine its high and low points of productivity, and then categorize a time period during which its study declined. This is a task for historians of science who have adequate linguistic and scientific expertise.

Even then this judgment will be provisional until a substantial number of new manuscripts have been studied, for, as King has pointed out, so far we only know of about 1000 Muslim scientists who worked between the eighth and the eighteenth centuries; there are thousands more about whom we have no information or of whom we merely know the names and their works’ titles.

There are over 200,000 manuscripts in Iran alone, of which about three-quarters are as yet uncatalogued. “In 1994,” King writes, “during my research on the first world-map, the index to a 21 volume catalogue of over 8,000 manuscripts in the public library of Âyâtallah al-Uzma Ma‘rashi Najafi in Qum landed on my desk. There are over 400 titles relating to mathematics and astronomy, including some of the works hitherto thought to be lost” (King 1999, 4, n. 4 and 5). King’s book alone cites 9,002 instruments, over 80 manuscripts, and 38 pages of bibliography.

The Islamic manuscripts in the Arabic language alone literally number in the millions, and this is not even counting those in the various other languages used by Muslims. For this reason, painting a fair and objective portrait of the reality will remain difficult. However it’s clear that something was definitely happening after the so-called “Golden Age.”

In conclusion, we’ve basically seen that the expression “Golden Age” is a Eurocentric idea produced by Orientalists and one full of modernist assumptions.
But even if you do accept it, we’ve also seen how you shouldn’t even be speaking of a “Golden Age” when you’re unaware of what happened after. Especially when it likely isn’t the “decadence” once widely claimed and which is now being refuted by Western academics themselves.

Keeping Things Clear

As Muslims, we know that the true Golden age was the age of the Prophet ﷺ and his Companions, then the next generation, and then the next. We don’t need materialists to tell us otherwise.

Abdullah ibn Mas’ud reported: The Prophet ﷺ said, “The best people are those of my generation, then those after them, then those after them.”

RELATED: Is Studying the Natural Sciences Virtuous for Muslims? Sh Muhammad `Awwamah Explains

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Leena Wang

As Muslims, we know that the true Golden age was the age of the Prophet ﷺ and his Companions, then the next generation, and then the next. We don’t need materialists to tell us otherwise.” – I totally agree with this point. The Prophet Muhammad (May Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him) is the best example for us to follow in his footsteps. May Allah guide the Ummah in the truth and expose falsehood!

Sardor

Tamerlan conquered many places and united a big portion of ummah, and during that time, science is also developed. You like or not, without science you gonna collapse, history just tells it to us. Western colonizers colonized us because they were more developed than us. Situation of current ummah would be bit different if we were developed more on science.

Believer Anon

Other way around. History tells us that the civilizations that are more powerful make more contributions to knowledge. The western world colonized partly because they were already powerful enough to do so. Using that power and influence, they promoted the ideologies of liberalism and secularism around the globe, leading us to the current mess we are in centuries later. I’d say that the Muslims must first rise up, then you will see us developing more on science.

Sardor

But why they were more powerful than us? Can you explain? What made them more powerful? “History tells us that the civilization that are more powerful make contributions to knowledge”. Yes, exactly, this is what I am saying. Even if muslims now rise up and unite, it is difficult to fight against kuffars, we are dependant on kaffirs from all the sides, we use their technologies, we wear the clothings which are made there, we buy guns from there because we cannt produce our own guns.

عبدالله

History also tells us that ppl with no advancments in science conquered lands of ppl that did, there’s rlly many examples.
And hw do u reconcile what ur saying with what Allah says on various places, that if we’re steadfast on the religion and firm upon it, then will Allah give us victory.
What ur saying isnt completely dismissed bt that’s simply not the core issue.

We shouldn’t be frightened by ‘military prowess’ of the disbelievers, as loss and victory are with Allah alone.

Muhammad Talha

indeed. Or else Hazrat Musa AS shouldn’t have gone to confront the pharoh.

UmmHamza

Great article. Jazakum Allah Khairan. Came to a similar conclusion myself that the golden age is simply a materialistic way of looking at the worldly sciences that the Muslims expelled at, yet at the same time, these sciences seem to overlook/cover Islamic sciences such as Hadith. We Arabs and Muslims tend to look at our history, unfortunately, with the eyes of Orientalists, mainly because they studied Classical Arabic while we forgot it. Would love to see the article in Arabic.

Anon

I’ve been following this blog for quite a time now, but this is the first time I am commenting. I often don’t agree with some of the stuff that’s written on here. This article however summarizes PRECISELY what I’ve been saying the WHOLE TIME, thank you for that.

In online discourse, whenever someone mentions the “Golden Age of Islam”, 95% of the time they will spew nothing but bullshit and ignorance. They have no knowledge of history nor religion.

Anon

Rather, it’s nothing but a cheap trick to make Orthodox Muslims appear backward and uneducated.

“Muslims then = rational and open-minded;
Muslims today = religious and bigoted;
-> ergo Islam neEDs tO bE rEForMed”

What’s even worse are the hordes of mentally colonized Muslims who fall into this cheap trap and who have adopted this orientalistic worldview.

Muslim brother

Another superb piece Bheria, jzk.

MSReader

Excellent article and a sorely misunderstood topic. Thank you Bheria.

Yusuf ibn Tashfin

People also fail to mention how the Ottoman caliphate (or empire for the west), was ahead of any western nation(except for the Spanish and Portuguese empires) during the 15th and 16th centuries in terms of technological and scientific advancements. During the 15th and 17th centuries the ottomans were a world power like today the USA is.
This was during the early modern age 200+ years after mongol destruction of Baghdad.

Last edited 26 days ago by Yusuf ibn Tashfin