The Arab Golden Age

In spite of the strife the period of the caliphates is considered as the Arab Golden Age. Historians usually date the period from about 750 to 1250, the time of the Mongol invasions. Some scholars prefer the term Islamic Golden Age because of the large role of Persians in the caliphate. However the language in use was Arabic and the term "Islamic" over-emphasizes the factor of religion. What we see is an intellectual (and economic) flourish that parallels the flourish of the Hellenistic period that was put to an end by imperial Christianity 300 years earlier. In that earlier era Greek meant someone who knew the Greek language and culture but he was not necessarily of Greek descent. Similarly, in this era Arab means someone who knew Arabic and followed Islam but he was not necessarily of Arab descent. In both cases the contributors included Syrians, Egyptians, Mesopotamians, etc. An instructive account can be found in the Nestorian web site [1].

The Abbasid caliphs accumulated enormous wealth and led a luxurious life style. It is reported that Al-Mahdi (775 – 785) spent six million dinars of gold for a pilgrimage to Mecca. His retinue included camels laden with snow so that cool drinks could be served at the royal banquets [EG, Chapter LII, vol. 5, p. 407]. Al-Mahdi was the son of Al-Mansur, the founder of the dynasty, and father of Harun al-Rashid, the most famous of all caliphs. Al-Mahdi's grandson, Al Mamun (813-833) had one thousand large pearls showered on the head of the bride during his nuptial [ibid].

Al Mamun is also famous for another reason. His agents in Constantinople, Armenia, Syria, and Egypt collected any manuscript of Greek learning that they could find [ibid, p. 410] and he had then all translated into Arabic. These translations became very valuable later on because they were the only available record of many ancient Greek writings. (Christian Europe looked with disfavor on the pagan writers.) Eventually, they were translated from Arabic into Latin and they contributed the European Renaissance.

In the same period a college (House of Wisdom) was founded in Baghdad with an initial expenditure of 200,000 pieces of gold and an annual revenue from endowment of 15,000 dinars. Interest in learning was also strong in the caliphates of Cairo and Cordoba. The royal library of the Fatimids consisted of 100,000 manuscripts while that of the Omayyads in Cordoba consisted of 600,000 manuscripts (Gibbon [ibid, pp. 410-411]). We may think of these evolutions as a revival of the Hellenistic era after an interruption of 400 years (from the reign of Constantine to the establishment of the Abbasid dynasty). Because the language of the people around the Mediterranean had changed from Greek into Arabic, the translations were necessary to reestablish the link. However, Lewis [BL95, p. 265] observes that most of the translators were Christian (many of them Nestorians [[1b]) or Jews.

The sciences of Astronomy and Mathematics flourished particularly. The word Algebra is derived from the Arabic al-jabr meaning restoration. While the roots of this branch of mathematics can be traced back to Babylon and India, it was first formulated by the Alexandrian mathematician Diophantus (lived in the third century CE) in his treatise Arithmetica. But is was the Persian, Arab-speaking mathematician Al-Khwarizmi (780-850) who first used general methods for solving equations. Al-Khwarizmi was based in the House of Wisdom in Baghdad and made contributions to several fields of mathematics besides Algebra. The English word Algorithm is derived from the Latin version of his name, Algoritmi. It took several centuries before the study of Mathematics was resumed in Italy. Finally, we should mention the Arabic numerals, that while they were invented in India, they were introduced to the West by the Arabs.

Astronomy also saw advances. The Abbasid caliphs established two observatories in what is now Iraq and the Arab astronomers were able to measure the circumference of the earth with greater accuracy than before but they did not move past the observations to discover the solar system. Gibbon provides a possible explanation. "In the Eastern courts, the truths of the astronomer would have been disregarded, had he not debased his wisdom or honesty by the vain predictions of astrology" [ibid, p. 414].

There was also progress in Medicine and in the city of Baghdad there were 860 licensed physicians. Gibbon also cites a report that in 956 the Christian king of Leon was cured by the physicians of Cordoba [ibid]. Notable individual physicians include al-Razi (tenth century) who wrote a book on small pox and Ibn-Sina (980-1037) of Bukhara known in the West as Avicenna [BL95, p. 266]. He wrote the Canon that was later translated into Latin and "dominated European medical studies for centuries after that" [ibid], as late as 1650 [2].

An interesting question to ponder is why the scientific breakthroughs of the European Renaissance did not occur 200 years earlier, during the Arab Golden Age. Certainly the Arabs were far more advanced than their contemporary Europeans. Gibbon [ibid, pp. 412-414] blames the emphasis the Arabs put in the study of Aristotle with his focus on logical deduction rather than experimentation. One of the most famous Arab scholars of the period was Ibn Rushd (1126-1198), known to Europeans as Averroes, who exercised great influence on European philosophers through his commentary of Aristotle [3]. Of course, Aristotle was also an impediment in Europe and it look considerable time to establish the acceptance of experimentation as the struggles of Galileo with the Church demonstrate.

Interestingly Averroes also got into trouble with Muslim authorities because his rationalism conflicted with orthodoxy. Averroes came from a prominent family. Has born in Cordoba and he was a true polymath. He was a physician who wrote a seven volume medical encyclopedia and a physicist who first expressed what it became known later as the law of inertia. He achieved high positions and was a favorite of the emir Abu Yusuf al-Mansur to whom Averroes dedicated his Commentary on Plato's Republic. But in 1195 Abu Yusuf dismissed Averroes from his high office and sent him into exile in order to appease the Islamic jurists and theologians who did not like Averroes' rationalism. While Averroes was recalled from exile, he died soon after.

I would venture that what put an end to the Arab Golden Age was the realization by religious authorities that secular learning posed a threat to them. The Christian religious authorities were well aware of that and had banished secular learning for good after the age of Justinian. It took some time for secular learning to be revived in the Middle East and it took a bit longer for the authorities of the new religion to see it as threat. For over two millennia the Middle East had been the region where learning was the most advanced in the Western World (outside China). From the Babylonians and the Egyptians through the Greeks and the Arabs philosophy and the sciences advanced. But by the end of the twelfth century all that came to an end. When intellectual life resumed two centuries later, it was not in the Middle East but in Western Europe.

The "Skeptoid" web site offers an analysis of why the Arab Golden Age ended and places the blame on the crusades and only to a lesser degree on theologians [4]. I am not convinced and I cite the site because it contains a discussion of the influence of theologians.


  1. Postings in the Nestorian web site: (a) "Arab Golden Age and Education" and (b) "How Greek Science Passed to the Arabs"
  2. Articles on Avicenna: Wikipedia ( - Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. 2 (pp. 540-541), Fifteenth Edition, 1982.
  3. Articles on Averroes: Wikipedia ( - Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. 2 (pp. 538-540), Fifteenth Edition, 1982.
  4. Brian Dunning "Al-Ghazali and Arab-Islamic Science"

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