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Abbasid Dynasty

The Golden Age of Islam

  • In the Middle East, during these centuries, the 'Abbasids, after their victory over the Umayyads, had transformed the Umayyads' Arab empire into a multinational Muslim empire.

  • They moved the capital of the empire from Syria to Iraq, where they built a new capital, Baghdad, from which, during the next five centuries, they would influence many of the main events of Islamic history.


  • Much of the 'Abbasid administration was left in the hands of well-educated Persian civil servants, many of whom came from families that had traditionally served the Sassanid kings.

  • The vizier was much more than an advisor; indeed, when the caliph was weak, a capable vizier became the most powerful man in the empire.  

Establishing the Arabic language and literature

  • Under the 'Abbasids a whole literature was created for the use and training of the clerical classes that had come into being.

  • Since all government business was by now transacted in Arabic, manuals of correct usage were written for the instruction of non-Arabic speakers who had found government employment.

  • There was also a vast literature on the correct deportment of princes, as well as anthologies of witty sayings and anecdotes.

  • The infamous stories from ?The Thousand and One Nights? stem from this period. The Caliph Harun al-Rashid (who came to the caliphate in 786) had a fictional role in the works. His reign is now the most famous in the annals of the 'Abbasids. 

Expansion of the trade and commerce

  • The developments in trade are among the achievements of the 'Abbasids that are too often overlooked. Because Islamic rule unified much of the Eastern world, thus abolishing many boundaries, trade was freer, safer, and more extensive than it had been since the time of Alexander the Great. Muslim traders, consequently, established trading posts as far away as India, the Philippines, Malaya, the East Indies, and China.

  • From the eighth to the eleventh centuries this trade was largely concerned with finding and importing basic necessities- grain, metals, and wood. To obtain them, of course, the Muslims had to export too, often using the imports from one region as exports to another: pearls from the Gulf, livestock from the Arabian Peninsula (particularly Arabian horses and camels), and - one of the chief products - cloth. The Muslims also traded medicines, an offshoot of 'Abbasid advances in medical science, as well as paper and sugar.

  • The Golden Age also, little by little, transformed the diet of medieval Europe by introducing such plants as plums, artichokes, apricots, cauliflower, celery, fennel, squash, pumpkins, and eggplant, as well as rice, new strains of wheat, the date palm, and sugarcane.

  • This expansion of commercial activity led to other developments too. One was a system of banking and exchange so sophisticated that a letter of credit issued in Baghdad could be honoured in Samarkand in Central Asia or Kairouan in North Africa.

  • The demands on trade also generated development of crafts. From Baghdad's large urban population, for example, came craftsmen of every conceivable sort: metalworkers, leatherworkers, bookbinders, papermakers, jewellers, weavers, apothecaries, bakers, and many more. As they grew in importance to the economy, these craftsmen eventually organised themselves into mutual-benefit societies which in some ways were similar to later Western guilds and which offered many social services: lodging travellers, engaging in pious works such as caring for orphans, and endowing schools.

The age of scholars

  • The Golden Age was a period of unrivalled intellectual activity in all fields: science, technology, and (as a result of intensive study of the Islamic faith) literature - particularly biography, history, and linguistics.

  • During the Golden Age Muslim scholars also made important and original contributions to mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and chemistry. They collected and corrected previous astronomical data, built the world's first observatory, and developed the astrolabe, an instrument that was once called "a mathematical jewel." In medicine they experimented with diet, drugs, surgery, and anatomy, and in chemistry, an outgrowth of alchemy, isolated and studied a wide variety of minerals and compounds.

  • Important advances in agriculture were also made in the Golden Age. The 'Abbasids preserved and improved the ancient network of wells, underground canals, and waterwheels, introduced new breeds of livestock, hastened the spread of cotton, and, from the Chinese, learned ?then developed- the art of making paper, a key to the revival of learning in Europe in the Middle Ages.  

The secret of their success

  • Geographical unity: During this period, from 750 to 950, the territory of the Muslim Empire encompassed present-day Iran, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Palestine, North Africa, Spain, and parts of Turkey and drew to Baghdad. The Islamic Empire brought peoples of all those lands in an unparalleled cross-fertilisation of once isolated intellectual traditions.

  • The development of Arabic, by the ninth century, into the language of international scholarship as well as the language of the Divine Truth. This was one of the most significant events in the history of ideas.

  • Another crucial factor was the establishment in Baghdad of a paper mill. The introduction of paper, replacing parchment and papyrus, was a pivotal advance which had effects on education and scholarship as far reaching as the invention of printing in the fifteenth century. It made it possible to put books within the reach of everyone.

  • The Islamic philosophy of learning from other cultures was an important forth factor. Unlike the Byzantines, with their suspicion of classical science and philosophy, the Muslims were enjoined by the Prophet (pbuh) to "seek knowledge as far as China" - as, eventually, they did. In the eighth century, however, they had a more convenient source: the works of Greek scientists stored in libraries in Constantinople and other centres of the Byzantine Empire. In the ninth century the Caliph al-Mamun, son of the famous Harun al-Rashid, began to tap that invaluable source. With the approval of the Byzantine emperor, he dispatched scholars to select and bring back to Baghdad Greek scientific manuscripts for translation into Arabic at Bayt al-Hikmah, "the House of Wisdom."  

The end of an era

  • By the thirteenth century, internal disputes and disloyalty of the army combined with the devastating effect of the Mongol invasions led to the decline of the Abbasid Empire.

  • Led by Genghis Khan, a confederation of nomadic tribes that had already conquered China now attacked the Muslims. In 1220 they took Samarkand and Bukhara. By mid-century they had taken Russia, Central Europe, northern Iran, and the Caucuses, and in 1258, under Hulagu Khan, they invaded Baghdad and put an end to the remnants of the once glorious 'Abbasid Empire.

  • The ancient systems of irrigation were destroyed and the devastation was so extensive that agricultural recovery, even in the twentieth century, is still incomplete.

  • Politically and economically, the Mongol invasions were disastrous. Some regions never fully recovered and the Muslim empire, already weakened by internal pressures, never fully regained its previous power

  • The Mongol invasions, in fact, were a major cause of the subsequent decline that set in throughout the heartland of the Arab East. In their sweep through the Islamic world the Mongols killed or deported numerous scholars and scientists and destroyed libraries with their irreplaceable works. The result was to wipe out much of the priceless cultural, scientific, and technological legacy that Muslim scholars had been preserving and enlarging for some five hundred years

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