Early Islam, Part 2: The Golden Age

By Namit Arora

Part 1: The Rise of Islam

(This five-part series on early Islamic history begins with the rise of Islam, shifts to its golden age, examines two key currents of early Islamic thought—rationalism and Sufi mysticism—and concludes with an epilogue. It builds on precursor essays I wrote at Stanford’s Green Library during a summer sabbatical years ago, and on subsequent travels in Islamic lands of the Middle East and beyond.)

A great rebellion had overthrown the Umayyad Caliphate of Damascus in 750 CE, after which power shifted east to Baghdad—a city more Persian than Arab back then—reflecting the growing prominence of Persians in Islam. A new caliph, Abu Al-Abbas, a great-grandson of Muhammad’s uncle, founded the Abbasid dynasty, satisfying the fond desire of many rebels to get a caliph from the Prophet’s lineage. But their hopes were soon dashed when the new caliph began living up to his nickname, Al-Saffah—‘the blood-shedder’—by ruthlessly eradicating former allies like Abu Muslim. For the new regime, loyalty to the dynasty, and not the brotherhood of Islam, would be the basis of empire.

AbbasidPainting Leading up to the rebellion that had ousted the Umayyads, the Abbasids had made great play of the former’s addiction to wine and women. Now that they were themselves in power, their promise of a return to ‘true religion’ under the Prophet’s own family vanished into thin air; luxuries and irreligious behavior grew instead. The Abbasids, partly out of expediency, began patronizing a more liberal school of theology—the Mu’tazilah—much to the resentment of the Shiites and the orthodox Sunnis; it led to more crushed Shiite rebellions. [1]

The caliphs that followed Al-Abbas now presided over a loose collection of provinces, each with a governor and a bureaucracy similar to older Persian arrangements, where local satraps had a good deal of autonomy and power. Administration was divided into departments—or divans—headed by the vizier. The old Arab monopoly on power had passed—Islamized Persians began entering the higher echelons of leadership. The dominant Abbasid legal system—there were at least four to choose from, all proceeding from the Shari’ah but with significant variations nonetheless—became the Hanafi rite, the most liberal of the lot. In making civil laws and administering justice, it opposed overly literal readings of the Qur’an, relying instead on analogy, consensus, and judicial reasoning. [2]

LutePlayer10thCAbbasid In the ensuing decades came an era of relative peace. A general flourishing of agriculture and trade led to unprecedented prosperity and a huge burst of intellectual and cultural creativity, especially during the reigns of Haroon al-Rashid (786-809 CE) and al-Mamun (813-833 CE). This ushered in the ‘golden age’ of Islam;[3] Baghdad became the richest city in the world—only Constantinople came somewhat close. In A Short History of the Arab Peoples, Sir John Glubb wrote:

‘Their ships were by far the largest and the best appointed in Chinese waters or in the Indian Ocean. Under their highly developed banking system, an Arab businessman could cash a cheque in Canton on his bank account in Baghdad. [Wealthy women wore] lavish jewels and pearls, silks and embroidered fabrics. [A new upper class valued] exquisite carpets and cushions, the sparkling fountains, the soft music and the exotic perfumes of private apartments [of] musk, myrtle and jasmine …


‘[It was also] an age in which conversation and culture were considered an art. Intellectual, and even theological, discussions were among the recreations of the educated classes. Poetry was still, as it had been among the nomad tribes before Islam, the most typical Arab art form … improvisation of verse in conversation was considered an essential accomplishment in polite society … al-Mamun opened an institution which he called the House of Wisdom [Bayt al-Hikmah] … for the translation of Greek works … [Many citizens made] outstanding contributions … in the field of mathematics … invented algebra, plane and spherical trigonometry … logarithms … [their] astronomers measured the circumference of the earth with remarkable accuracy, six hundred years before Europe admitted that it was not flat … Baghdad had its first paper mill … opened public hospitals, medical schools …’ [4]

AbbasidEmpireMap9thC The Abbasid armies were now highly professional and ‘moved with perfect drill and discipline’ and its ranks were dominated by Abbasid Turks. But the old expansionary phase was over—Andalus and the Maghreb had been lost to the Umayyads; Ifriqiya (greater Egypt) and Byzantium had become tributary states. The leading western Christian monarch of the time was Charlemagne. He and the Abbasids cultivated cordial ties to deter their primary foes: Byzantium, hostile to Charlemagne, and Umayyad Spain, a bitter rival to the Abbasids.

According to contemporary Christian writers, the envoys of Charlemagne returned from the east with lavish gifts from ‘the king of Persia’—exquisite fabrics, aromatics, an elephant, and more interestingly, an intricate water clock. The Muslims, it seems, kept silent about the gifts they received from the Franks—no records or references have come down to us.

ManuscriptPagec1250Abbasid In the Abbasid age, writes historian Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr., ‘Alcoholic drinks were often indulged in both in company and in private. Judging by the countless stories of revelry in works such as Kitab al-Aghani (Book of Songs), the Arabian Nights, and the numerous songs and poems in praise of wine, prohibition, one of the distinctive features of the Moslem religion, prohibited no more than did the eighteenth amendment to the Constitution of the US. Even Caliphs, viziers, princes, and judges paid no heed to the religious injunction. Khamr, made of dates, was the favorite beverage.’ [5] According to historian Philip K Hitti, ‘The Jews and the Christians were the “bootleggers” of the time.’[6]

It was during the Abbasid era that The Thousand and One Nights, or The Arabian Nights, long transmitted orally with material added from different times and places, was formally recorded by scholars. [7] The tales of Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sindbad the Sailor were to become part of the global folklore. But perhaps the most remarkable feature of the age was the rise of a new spirit of reason and inquiry among the educated elite. In the words of Majid Fakhry, a leading scholar of Islamic philosophy, [8]


Interest in science and philosophy … grew during [the Abbasid] period to such an extent that … [it] was no longer a matter of individual effort or initiative. Before long, the state took an active part in its promotion … theological divisions … racked the whole of the Muslim community…. [The revival of] Greek ideas and the Greek spirit of intellectual curiosity generated a bipolar reaction of the utmost importance for the understanding of Islam. The most radical division caused … was between the progressive element, which sought earnestly to subject the data of revelation to the scrutiny of philosophical thought, and the conservative element, which dissociated itself altogether from philosophy on the ground that it was impious or suspiciously foreign.


Soon after the reign of al-Mamun in 833, Abbasid power began to wane. Local governors or amirs, responsible for tax collection, became the de facto rulers of the empire, especially when the governorships were held by army commanders, some of whom were Turks. The ultimate humiliation came in 946, when the Abbasid caliph became a puppet to the Shiite Persian house of Buyeh which invaded and occupied the capital but didn’t remove him from his palace because his religious title was useful to them.

Firdousi Further disintegration led to more independent dynasties, one of which, the Samanids (819-999) of Bukhara, reverted to Persian as the state language—now written in Arabic script—and ushered in a new cultural revival. Firdausi of Khurasan (b. c. 935—d. c. 1020-26), the ‘Homer of Persia,’ wrote the Shahnameh—a history of the kings of Persia from ancient times to the coming of the Arabs in nearly 60,000 couplets. Seven times the length of the Iliad, it took him 35 years to complete. It was his attempt to keep alive in the hearts of his people their ancestral faith and stories of their past, in a time when the Arabs had made deep inroads into Persian life.

Two Turkish Sunni dynasties, the Ghaznavids of Ghazna (977-1186) and the Seljuks (1038-1157) of Khurasan, arose next, existing in effect apart from the caliphate but nominally attached to it. They were founded on the military ethos of the ghazis—a dedicated warrior class raised to guard the northeastern boundaries against non-Muslim Turks. While the rulers were of Turkish origin, they presided over a still creative Persian culture. The first significant intrusion of Islam into India was led by Mahmud of Ghazna who, quite justifiably, lives in Indian history as a cruel and bloodthirsty fanatic, a destroyer of temples, and plunderer of their wealth, but in his own dominion he was known as a patron of art, literature, and science. He brought to his court, and to the university he established at Ghazna, the greatest scholars and writers of the age.

Al-Biruni One of these scholars was al-Beruni (973-1048), whose ‘patronage’ by Mahmud of Ghazna yielded his monumental commentary on Indian philosophy and culture, Kitab fi tahqiq ma li’l-hind (‘Book of Inquiry into India’, also known as Alberuni’s India). ‘In his search for pure knowledge he is undoubtedly one of the greatest minds in Islamic history.’ Born near modern Khiva in Central Asia, ‘he was an outstanding intellectual figure … possessing a profound and original mind of encyclopedic scope … conversant with Turkish, Persian, Sanskrit, Hebrew, and Syriac (Armenian) in addition to the Arabic in which he wrote. He applied his talents in many fields of knowledge, excelling particularly in astronomy, mathematics, chronology, physics, medicine, mineralogy and history.’ [9]

AlBeruniIndia Al-Beruni’s objective in writing his work on India was to provide, in his own words, ‘the essential facts for any Muslim who wanted to converse with Hindus and to discuss with them questions of religion, science, or literature.’ He read the major Indian religious and secular texts; in his account he highlights choice parts of the Gita, the Upanishads, Patanjali, Puranas, the four Vedas, scientific texts (by Nagarjuna, Aryabhata, etc.), and often related stories from Indian mythology to make his point. He also compares Indian thought to the Greek thought of Socrates, Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Galen and others, and at times with Sufi teaching. [10] He traveled in India for 13 years, observing, questioning, studying. The result is a comprehensive exposition of Indian thought and society. ‘Not for nearly eight hundred years would any other writer match al-Beruni’s profound understanding of almost all aspects of Indian life.’ [9]

‘In his works on astronomy, he discussed with approval the theory of the Earth’s rotation on its axis and made accurate calculations of latitude and longitude. In those on physics, he explained natural springs by the laws of hydrostatics and determined with remarkable accuracy the specific weight of 18 precious stones and metals. In his works on geography, he advanced the daring view that the valley of the Indus had once been a sea basin. In religion he was a Shi’ite Muslim, but with agnostic tendencies. His poetical works in the main seek to combine Greek wisdom and Islamic thought.’ …

‘By the end of the first millennium, Arab mathematician and physicist Alhazen had produced works on optical theory and planetary motion. His theories, translated into Latin in 1270, strongly influenced European thinkers. His publications deal with refraction, reflection, binocular vision, focusing with lenses, the rainbow, parabolic and spherical mirrors, spherical aberration, atmospheric refraction, and the apparent increase in size of planetary bodies near the Earth’s horizon. He was first to give an accurate account of vision, correctly stating that light comes from the object seen to the eye.’ [9]

OmarKhayyam Of considerable stature too is another famous man, Omar Khayyam (1048-1131), who continued the mathematical work of al-Beruni—the Seljuq empire owed the reform of its calendar to him. The result was the Jalali era (named after Jalal-ud-din, one of the king's names)—‘a computation of time,’ wrote Gibbon, ‘which surpasses the Julian, and approaches the accuracy of the Gregorian style.’ He measured the length of the year as 365.24219858156 days, a number that was improved to 365.242196 days only in the 19th century and the current number is 365.242190 days.

He not only discovered a general method of extracting Algebraic roots of arbitrary high degree, but his Algebra contains the first complete treatment of the solution of cubic equations which he did by means of conic sections. He was also part of the Islamic tradition of investigating Euclid and his parallel postulate. Another was the definition of ratios which he argued should be regarded as ‘ideal numbers,’ and so he conceived of a much broader system of numbers than that used since Greek antiquity, that of the positive real numbers. He was also commissioned to build an observatory in the city of Esfahan for which he led a team of astronomers. In his lifetime, he was recognized as a master of philosophy, jurisprudence, history, mathematics, medicine, and astronomy. Khayyam was attached to the court of the Seljuks—of Khorasan, later Baghdad, Samarkand and Esfahan as well—and lived amidst political turbulence interspersed with quiet times. He also attracted flak from the growing religious conservatism of Sunni Turks.

Omar Khayyam (‘Tentmaker’, possibly his father’s profession) was not only a top-notch mathematician but also a major poet, famous today for his quatrains, the Rubaiyat. Besides the social attitudes of the times, they reveal a sensitive, intelligent, humble, gently-mocking yet good-humored man, skeptical of divine providence and certainty of truth, wistful of an ever-present evanescence, mystical in one, lamenting man’s ignorance in another. ‘… he chooses to put his faith in a joyful appreciation of the fleeting and sensuous beauties of the material world. The idyllic nature of the modest pleasures he celebrates, however, cannot dispel his honest and straightforward brooding over fundamental metaphysical questions.’ [9] Many of his 500 or so quatrains celebrate wine, exhorting all those who take themselves too seriously to partake of it while time permits. Here are ten sample quatrains (from the translation of E. H. Whinfield). [11]

O unenlightened race of humankind,
Ye are a nothing, built on empty wind!
Yea, a mere nothing, hovering in the abyss,
A void before you, and a void behind!

Some are thoughtful on their way
Some are doubtful, so they pray.
I hear the hidden voice that may
Shout, “Both paths lead astray.”

The secrets eternal neither you know nor I
And answers to the riddle neither you know nor I
Behind the veil there is much talk about us, why
When the veil falls, neither you remain nor I.

All my companions, one by one died
With Angel of Death they now reside
In the banquette of life same wine we tried
A few cups back, they fell to the side.

Drinking wine is my travail
Till my body is dead and stale
At my grave site all shall hail
Odor of wine shall prevail.

Heed not the Sunna, nor the law divine;
If to the poor his portion you assign,
And never injure one, nor yet abuse,
I guarantee you heaven, and now some wine!

Slaves of vain wisdom and philosophy,
Who toil at Being and Nonentity,
Parching your brains till they are like dry grapes,
Be wise in time, and drink grapejuice like me!

You, who in carnal lusts your time employ,
Wearing your precious spirit with annoy,
Know that these things you set your heart upon
Sooner or later must the soul destroy!

Never in this false world on friends rely,
(I give this counsel confidentially);
Put up with pain, and seek no antidote;
Endure your grief, and ask no sympathy!

You know all secrets of this earthly sphere,
Why then remain a prey to empty fear?
You can not bend things to your will, but yet
Cheer up for the few moments you are here!


Genghis Not long afterward came the longhaired Mongol hordes on horseback screaming war cries. ‘For centuries these hardy nomads had lived on the windswept plateau north of the Gobi desert, occasionally swooping down on China or on the caravans that plied the Great Silk Route. Most Mongols had kept aloof from the civilizations and religions surrounding them, worshipping their deity, Tengri (‘eternal blue sky’). But in the late 12th century, a warrior chieftain called Genghis Khan united the eastern Mongol tribes into a great confederation.’ [12] They were soon drawn into conflict with frontier Muslim states and left a trail of debauchery and mayhem wherever they went. In 1256, Hulegu, a grandson of Genghis, approached Baghdad. Although a pagan, his wife was a Nestorian Christian who is said to have influenced his hatred of Islam. Here is a modern historian on the encounter, [12]


‘The Caliph’s army resisted bravely until the Mongols flooded its camp, drowning thousands. Hulegu’s forces proceeded to bombard Baghdad with heavy rocks flung from catapults until the caliph surrendered. Then the Mongols pillaged the city, burned its schools and libraries, destroyed its mosques and palaces, murdered possibly a million Muslims, and finally executed all the Abbasids by wrapping them in carpets and trampling them beneath their horses’ hooves. Until the stench of the dead forced Hulegu and his men out of Baghdad, they loaded their horses, packed the scabbards of their discarded swords, and even stuffed some gutted corpses with gold, pearls, and precious stones, to be hauled back to the Mongol capital [Shang-tu or the Xanadu of Samuel Taylor Coleridge]. It was a melancholy end to the independent Abbasid caliphate, to the prosperity and intellectual glory of Baghdad…’ [13]

A few years later, Marco Polo would visit the court of the next Mongol ruler—Kublai Khan, Hulegu’s brother. In the centuries ahead, it would be the Mongols who would fight the Turks for territorial control in western and central Asia and Egypt (the Mamluks were of Turkish origin). Eventually, they would all absorb Islam and contribute to its expansion into new lands, including the Indian subcontinent (the Mughals were a Turko-Mongol dynasty; ‘Mughals’ is a corruption of ‘Mongols’).


GreatMosqueSamarra The Islamic state began with no distinction between ‘church’ and state—the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs, responsible for both realms, had substantial leeway in formulating and justifying legal doctrines. After the demise of the caliphate, the local rulers—the Khans, Sultans, and Shahs of Islam—were heads of the community only, not of faith. It was their job to fulfill the administrative functions of the state, ensure the authority of the law, and preserve the fabric of civilized life. They issued secular laws, or qanuns. The guardians of the faith were the ulema but with no enforcing power, so a strong ruler could dodge the Shar’ia. [14] Many periods in the early centuries of Islam saw liberal rulers and liberal jurists, as in Abbasid Baghdad and in some dynasties in Persia. Their dynamism, tolerance, and vitality of culture were well ahead of contemporaneous civilizations. Here are two modern historians, JM Roberts and Philip K. Hitti, on Islam’s golden age:

‘Islamic civilization in the Arab lands reached its peak under the Abbasids. Paradoxically, one reason was the movement of its center of gravity away from Arabia and the Levant [Umayyad Damascus]. Islam provided a political organization which, by holding together a huge area, cradled a culture which was essentially syncretic, mingling … Hellenistic, Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian and Hindu ideas. Arabic culture under the Abbasids had a closer access to the Persian tradition and closer contact with India, which brought to it renewed vigor and new creative elements.’ [15]

‘What we now call ‘Arab civilization’ was Arabian neither in its origin and fundamental structure nor in its principal ethnic aspects. The purely Arabian contribution was linguistic and to a certain extent in the religious fields. Throughout the whole period of the Caliphate the Syrians, the Persians, the Egyptians and others, as Moslem converts or as Christians and Jews, were the foremost bearers of the torch of enlightenment and learning … In art and architecture, in philosophy, in medicine, in science and literature, in government the original Arabians had nothing to teach and everything to learn.’ [16]


Ismael-samani-mausoleum The end of the golden age of Islam coincided with the rise of illiberal and destructive forces brought in by the new converts on the fringes of Islam—the Turks and the Mongols—who extracted from the Qur’an what their cultural unsophistication had prepared them for. All Abrahamic scriptures have lent themselves to a wide spectrum of interpretation, some seriously regressive—one only need remember the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, sanctioned by the Catholic Church itself. Islam too has its fair share. Below is a flagrant and oft-cited passage from the Qur’an: [17]

‘And fight for the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not be aggressive. Surely Allah does not like the aggressors. / Kill them wherever you find them and drive them out from wherever they drove you out. Sedition is worse than slaughter. Do not fight them at the Sacred Mosque until they fight you at it. If they fight you there, kill them. Such is the reward of the unbelievers. / But if they desist Allah is truly All-forgiving, Merciful. / Fight them until there is no sedition and the religion becomes that of Allah. But if they desist, there will be no aggression except against the evil-doers. (Qur’an 2:189-192.)’ [18]

And here is a modern opinion on the above passage by the American historian Bernard Lewis:

‘[Militant jihad] is a recurring and at times a dominant theme in Islamic history. It retained its potency on the frontiers of the Islamic world, where the frontier peoples, often themselves recent converts to Islam, tried to carry their new faith, by war and by preaching, to their unconverted kinsfolk in the lands beyond the frontier … notably in central Asia and Africa. In the central lands of Islam, among peoples of more advanced culture and greater political sophistication, the notion of jihad underwent a number of changes … By the ninth century … [they] were becoming reconciled to the fact of a more or less permanent frontier subject to only minor variations and a more or less permanent non-Muslim state beyond that frontier, with which it was possible to have commercial, diplomatic, and at times even cultural relations.’ [19]

Abbasid_palace In early second millennium CE, with the waning of the Abbasid caliphate, the gates of ijtihad—independent reasoning or interpretation of scripture—were declared closed for good in Sunni Islam (more on this later). [20] This major event—or more correctly the cultural outlook that accompanied it—is believed to have contributed much to the fossilization of a hitherto creative society (with notable exceptions in later times). A feature of modern political Islam is its dearth of secular institutions built around the individual. As we’ll see, the triumph of mysticism in medieval Islam (much like in Hinduism) indirectly and unintentionally contributed to this outcome—far more, it appears, than did Islamic orthodoxy. This represents a significant difference with the medieval Western Christian experience (more on this later).

The Turks and the Mongols would rule southwest Asia long enough to permanently impair older spiritual traditions. [21] In lending an aggressive and militant character to political Islam, they resembled the original Arabs—the common poverty of their pre-Islamic thought and culture is noteworthy. In the 18th century, a fresh wave of religious conservatism would arrive from Arabia (Wahhabism) with more to come in the 20th—backed by petrodollars and the ultra-orthodox Hanbali legal system. [9] The humiliations of European colonialism, Cold War politics, and the disruptive cultural values of western modernity would further fuel a reactionary fringe in some parts of the Muslim world. [22]


Early Islam saw the rise of two major currents of Islamic thought, both opposed to orthodoxy. The first would elevate the egoistic self, the second would seek its annihilation. The first was a spirit of rationalism inspired by the Classical Greeks. The second would later be called ‘Islamic mysticism.’ In many ways, these two currents—rationalism and mysticism—were destined to collide with each other, as well as with the third current: orthodoxy. Their trajectories in the formative centuries shed light on the path Islam was to take in the ensuing ones.

(Part 3, which takes a closer look at the rational current of early Islam, will appear on Nov 9.)



1. Disillusionment grew rapidly on the assumption of power by ‘the Prophet’s family’ (which included both the Abbasids and the Shiites from the two wives of Ali—the latter through Fatima, a ‘purer’ lineage to the Prophet), and resulted in a crop of rebellions. In 762, the Abbasids crushed a Shiite rebellion in Medina. One of its survivors, Idris, ‘the pure soul’, a great-great-great-grandson of the Prophet escaped to the Maghrib where he founded a dynasty—the current royal family of Morocco claims descent from him. (Source: #4 below, p 95.)
2. Several systems or rites of Sunni legal thought (madhhab) arose in early Islam. The Hanafi rite is the largest and is prevalent in the Indian subcontinent and in the lands of the former Ottoman Empire. The Maliki rite developed in Medina and made heavy use of the prophetic hadiths (sayings of the Prophet) that circulated there. It prevails in Upper Egypt and in northern and western Africa. The Shafi’i rite grew up in ninth century Egypt as a synthesis of the Hanafi and Maliki systems but with greater stress on analogy. It now prevails in Indonesia. The fourth rite, Hanbali, rejects analogy, consensus and judicial opinion as sources. It is very strict and is the official legal system in present day Saudi Arabia, and has often regarded the other three as illegitimate (Source: #5, p. 103).
3. The notion of a ‘golden age’ is rather problematic. Golden for whom? The idea is inseparable from one who makes this judgment and the contemporary sub-culture to which he belongs. With that proviso, I will drop the quotes around the term from this point on.
4. Sir John Glubb, A Short History of the Arab Peoples, 1969.
5. Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr., A Concise History of the Middle East, 3rd edition, 1988.
6. Philip K. Hitti, The Arabs: A Short History, Gateway Editions, 1996, p. 126.
7. Even today there is no definitive text but many versions. ‘Unlike the works of Homer which also developed through an oral tradition, this was not seen as a font of culture and legitimacy and thus worthy of careful and exact preservation, as in the case, for example, of the Qur’an. Though heavily drawn from the hinterlands, from Persia, and India, they are most comfortably identified with Baghdad and the Arab Middle East.’
8. Majid Fakhry, A History of Islamic Philosophy, Second Edition, Colombia University Press, 1983, p. 5.
9. The Encyclopedia Britannica, 1998.
10. Al Beruni’s India by Alberuni (Kitab fi tahqiq ma li’l-hind or simply, Ta’riqh al-hind), early eleventh century, translated by Edward C. Sachau. Edited with introduction and notes by Ainslee T. Embree, The Norton Library, 1971. This is an abridged version—the complete version is by Sachau in two volumes and is more suitable for the specialist. I’d highly recommend the Ainslee version for the rest.
11. The Edward Fitzgerald Translation (1859) is the one that first introduced Omar Khayyam to a western audience and is also the best known. However, it is a free verse translation and having compared it to the literal translation I would much rather settle for the latter.
12. Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr., A Concise History of the Middle East, 3rd edition, 1988.
13. This has an uncanny similarity to the later Mongol chief Timur the Lame’s sacking of Delhi in 1398. The then floundering Sultanate of Delhi had a Turkish lineage. It would be Timur’s descendants who would forge the Mughal dynasty in India.
14. This arrangement emphasized continuity and collective welfare. The old Indian conception of the duty of a ruler is very similar—a protector and guardian of religious tradition—with no sharp distinction between the spiritual and temporal. As noted in Part 1, ancient Persia was no different.
15. J. M. Roberts, History of the World, Oxford University Press, 1993, p. 338.
16. Philip Khouri Hitti, The Arabs, 1965, p. 71. In his magnum opus, Al-Beruni went farther. He attacked the original Arabs, reproaching them for destroying the civilization of Persia.
17. Majid Fakhry, The Qur’an, A Modern English Version translated, 1997, Garnet Publishing.
18. The second chapter of the Qur’an opens with ‘This is the Book which cannot be doubted and is a guidance to the God-fearing.’ Another passage related to the citation in the main text goes as follows (Sura 47:4): ‘So, when you meet the unbelievers, strike their necks till you have bloodied them, then fasten the shackles. Thereupon, release them freely or for a ransom, till the war is over. So be it. Yet had Allah wished, He would have taken vengeance upon them, but He wanted to test you by one another. Those who die in the cause of Allah, He will not render their works perverse.’ Majid Fakhry has drawn attention to the qualifications in such passages, ‘one of which is not to initiate aggression against them…; the other is toleration since “there is no compulsion in religion” (Sura 2:257), and the third is “gracious pardon or ransom”, once they have been subdued.’ Of course, the Turks and the Mongols knew which interpretation suited them best—proof of their pre-Islamic cultural deficits and ruthless ways.
19. Bernard Lewis, The Middle East, 1997, p. 234.
Note that Islam distinguishes four ways by which the duty of jihad can be fulfilled: by the heart, the tongue, the hand, and the sword. The first consists in a spiritual purification of one’s own heart by doing battle with the devil and overcoming his inducements to evil. The propagation of Islam through the tongue and hand is accomplished in large measure by supporting what is right and correcting what is wrong. The fourth way to fulfill one’s duty is to wage war physically against unbelievers and enemies of the Islamic faith. Those who professed belief in a divine revelation—Christians and Jews in particular—were given special consideration. They could either embrace Islam or at least submit themselves to Islamic rule and pay a poll and land tax. If both options were rejected, jihad was declared.
20. Ijtihad remained open in Shi’a Islam because the Imam was a living embodiment of the Prophet, his successor, and could interpret scripture according to the need of the hour.
21. They would also run over eastern Christendom as well as establish the Mughal dynasty in India—another politically quietist culture would be convulsed not for the first or the last time—but they would be repulsed by the western Christians.
22. Those in the modern West who cite militant jihad as evidence for Islam’s wholesale atavism and decadence—to contrast it with their own superior civilization—must de rigueur be asked to judge it in a wider perspective: In the name of what beliefs were the most brutal wars of 20th century fought? Which civilization created, used, and still maintains the deadliest weapons of mass destruction? What religious and market fundamentalisms have resisted measures to effectively tackle climate change? Etc.


1. Abbasid era painting (source)
2. Lute (from the Arab word “al-'ud”) players are among the most common themes of early Abbasid art, as in this Iraqi lusterware bowl of the tenth century (source)
3. Outdoor Scene of A Mad Dog Biting a Man, Arabic Translation of the Materia Medica, 1224 AD (source)
4. This manuscript page (c. 1250) from the Abbasid period depicts a fanciful representation of the archer associated with sagittarius positioned between the moon and Jupiter, reflecting the interest in astrological science that thrived In Islamic civilization from the 8th to the 13th century. Scientific treatises constituted a large part of the manuscript tradition of the Abbasid period. (Bibloiotheque Nationale, Paris) (source)
5. Bronze Chess Piece of the Caliph Harun al-Rashid (source)
6. Firdausi of Khurasan
7. Al-Beruni
8. Al-Beruni's India
9. Omar Khayyam
10. Genghis Khan
11. A 14th-century Persian depiction of the February 1258 sack of Baghdad (source)
12. Great Mosque of Samarra, 9th century
13. Ismail Samani Mausoleum, Bukhara, 10th century (source)
14. Abbasid Palace, c. 1200 (source)


More writing by Namit Arora?