Abbasids and the Arab Golden Age of Culture, Art and Science (A.d. 750 to 1258)

Home | Category: Medieval Period / Abbasids / Muslim Culture and Science / Muslim Art and Architecture / Abbasids / Arab Culture / Arab Art


Abbasid hamam (bath)

During the Abbasid period, unique Muslim styles of art, architecture, literature and ways of life became mature. Great artists, builders and patrons of literature and science made contributions. Arab lyric poetry thrived; and Greek, Persian and Sanskrit texts were translated into Arabic (often by Christians and Jews, whose theology and law influenced Islam). Magnificent mosques (of which only a few unfortunately remain) were built. Mathematics flourished. Algebra and trigonometry were devised and Arabic numerals (the ones we use today) were exported to Europe.

Despite the Muslim restrictions on idolatry images of animals were common Abbasid courts. Some of the first caliphs had frescoes of dogs painted in their homes and pleasure boats made in the shape of lions. The sword blades made in Damascus and Toledo were world famous. Craftsmen showed great skill at making wonderful ceramics, glassware, textiles, leather and articles made of silver, copper and bronze.

Abbasids were influenced greatly by Persian culture. The stories in “Arabian Nights” took place mostly in Persia. Firdausi (940?-1020), Persia’s greatest poet, sang epic verse of the early Persian kings. Persian miniaturist brought these tales to life with their richly illuminated manuscripts. The Persian mystic-scientist-pet Omar Khayyam (died 1123) made important contributions to astronomy and mathematics and wrote the “Rubaiyat”.

Even when the Abassid dynasty weakened Arab-Muslim culture continued to thrive, and in some ways was better off, than before. The new states that sprang up had their own courts that supported the arts. There was a sharing of ideas and competition to see who could produce the best stuff. The common language and religion, Arabic and Islam, made communication easier.

Gaston Wiet wrote in “Baghdad: Metropolis of the Abbasid Caliphate": “Baghdad, at the confluence of two cultures, Aramaean and Greek, became, in the tenth century, the intellectual center of the world." As capital of the caliphate, Baghdad was also to become the cultural capital of the Islamic world. The political history of this period is rather bleak. If only the succession of events were to be taken into consideration, we would have a false view of the cultural civilization under the Abbasids...Astronomical observation was begun in Baghdad in an observatory in the Shammasiya section, on the left bank of the Tigris, east of Rusafa. The staff set to work measuring the ecliptic angle and fixing the position of the stars. In addition, the caliph ordered that two terrestrial degrees be calculated in order to determine the length of the solar year. (This work was not to be taken up again for seven centuries.) The engineer Ibrahim Fazari, who helped plan the founding of Baghdad, was the first in the Arab world to make astrolabes. (The Bibliothque Nationale in Paris has perhaps the oldest instrument of this type, one dating from the year 905. It was probably made in Baghdad, since it has on it the name of an heir apparent to the caliphate, a son of the caliph Muktafi.). [Source: Gaston Wiet, “Baghdad: Metropolis of the Abbasid Caliphate,” Chapter 5: the Golden Age the Golden Age of Arab and Islamic Culture translated by Feiler Seymour University of Oklahoma Press, 1971 ]

Abbasid Caliphate at its greatest extent

“People of the West should publicly express their gratitude to the scholars of the Abbasid period, who were known and appreciated in Europe during the Middle Ages. There were the astronomer al-Khwarizmi (850), from whose name comes the word "algorithm"; Farghani, whom we call Alfraganus (about 850); the physician Yahya ibn Masawayh, called Mesua in the West; the astronomer Abu Ma'shar, the Albumasar of the Europeans (about 996).

“During the two hundred years after AD. 750, the intellectual ferment did not lessen for a single moment. Even limited to the names of those scholars, writers, and poets who absolutely should be known, the list is an impressive one...Great admiration should be expressed for this civilization born in Baghdad. In this center of universal culture were found polite manners, refinement, general education, and the confrontation of religious and philosophical thought which made the Mesopotamian city the queen of the world during that period.”

Websites and Resources: Islamic Art and Architecture: Islamic Arts & Architecture / ; British Museum Islamic Art Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Islamic Art Louvre Louvre ; Museum without Frontiers ; Architecture of Islam ; Images of mosques all over the world, from the Aga Khan Documentation Center at MIT ; Islamic Images ; Victoria & Albert Museum ; Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar ; CalligraphyIslamic, lots of Islamic calligraphy ; Islamic, Arabic and Persian Literature Islamic and Arabic Literature at Cornell University ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook ; Wikipedia article on Islamic Literature Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on Arabic Literature Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on Persian Literature Wikipedia ; Persian literature at Encyclopædia Britannica ; Persian Literature & Poetry at / ; Islamic History: History of Islam: An encyclopedia of Islamic history ; Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World ; Sacred Footsetps ; Islamic History Resources ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook ; Islamic History ; Muslim Heritage ; Chronological history of Islam

Mamun and the Intellectual Blossoming of the Islamic World

Mamun was the caliph who was largely responsible for cultural expansion. An Arab historian states the following: "He looked for knowledge where it was evident, and thanks to the breadth of his conceptions and the power of his intelligence, he drew it from places where it was hidden. He entered into relations with the emperors of Byzantium, gave them rich gifts, and asked them to give him books of philosophy which they had in their possession. These emperors sent him those works of Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates, Galen, Euclid, and Ptolemy which they had. Mamun then chose the most experienced translators and commissioned them to translate these works to the best of their ability.” [Source: Gaston Wiet, “Baghdad: Metropolis of the Abbasid Caliphate,” Chapter 5: the Golden Age the Golden Age of Arab and Islamic Culture translated by Feiler Seymour University of Oklahoma Press, 1971 ]

Mamun sends an envoy to Theophilos

After the translating was done as perfectly as possible, the caliph urged his subjects to read the translations and encouraged tbem to study them. Consequently, the scientific movement became stronger under this prince's reign. Scholars held high rank, and the caliph surrounded himself with learned men, legal experts, traditionalists, rationalist theologians, lexicographers, annalists, metricians, and genealogists. He then ordered instruments to be manufactured."

Gaston Wiet wrote in “Baghdad: Metropolis of the Abbasid Caliphate": ““The caliph Mamun was responsible for the translation of Greek works into Arabic. He founded in Baghdad the Academy of Wisdom, which took over from the Persian university of Jundaisapur and soon became an active scientific center. The Academy's large library was enriched by the translations that had been undertaken. Scholars of all races and religions were invited to work there. They were concerned with preserving a universal heritage, which was not specifically Moslem and was Arabic only in language. The sovereign had the best qualified specialists of the time come to the capital from all parts of his empire. There was no lack of talented men. The rush toward Baghdad was as impressive as the horsemen's sweep through entire lands during the Arab conquest. The intellectuals of Baghdad eagerly set to work to discover the thoughts of antiquity.

Baghdad under the Abbasids

Baghdad — the city of the Arabian nights — was founded in A.D. 762 and in its prime about 800, during the reign of the famous caliph Harun-al-Rashid. Baghdad doesn’t have any connection with Mesopotamia. Babylon was the great city from that era. Baghdad was founded by Al-Mansur, second caliph of the Muslim Abbasid dynasty. He is said to have brought in over 100,000 architects, craftsman and laborers who built the city from scratch on the Tigris River about 20 miles from Ctesiphon, the Persian Sasanian and Parthian capital, and 60 miles from the ruins of Babylon.

Al-Mansur moved the capital of the Arab Muslim Abbasid kingdom to Baghdad from Damascus. He selected Baghdad because: 1) it lay on major trade routes; 2) Al-Mansur wanted to get as far as Umayyad influence as possible (the Umayyad Dynasty preceded the Abbasid Dynasty); and 3) it was a considerable distance from Constantinople, the home of the Byzantines, the other major power in the Near East. The city Al-Mansur built on the west side of the Tigris was called Medinat as-Salam (“City of Peace”).

In the 8th and 9th century, under the Abbasid caliphs, Baghdad became one of the great cities of the world and the center of a vast empire. During that time Baghdad grew into the “round city,” nearly three kilometers in diameter, ringed by three concentric walls. At the center was the caliph's green-domed palace, surrounded by his court and administration buildings. Bazaars, markets and craftsmen were relegated to the fringes of the city. Emanating from the four gates were highways the extended to the fringes of the Abbasid empire. A bridges of boats was built across the Tigris River.

Under the Caliph Harun al-Rashid (763-809), Baghdad becomes the richest city in the world and the center of the Islamic Golden Age. It was home to about 250,000 people (claims of a million people appear to have been exaggerations). Immortalized in the tales form “Arabian Nights”, it was both a terminus and crossroads of major Silk Road trade routes, was filled with great scholars, poets, scientists, gardens and magnificent buildings. It gave the world Arabic numbers, decimal points, algebra, algorithms and medical advances and played a major role in keeping Greco-Roman culture and scholarship alive.

destruction of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258

Intellectual Life in the Early Islamic Period

According to the “Encyclopaedia Judaica”: During the first three centuries of that history, Muslim writers produced a rich historiography, extensive literature in linguistics and lexicography, literary criticism, poetry, and jurisprudence. They stood for a long period at the cutting edge of scientific development. In its formative period, Muslim religious thought was characterized by a wide variety of views on numerous subjects. The variety of views and the nature of the arguments marshaled by their protagonists testify to the vibrant intellectual life of Islam in the early period of its history. [Source: Haïm Z’ew Hirschberg, “Encyclopaedia Judaica”, 2000,]

Muslims have differed on questions such as determinism versus free will; the existence of the Koran since all eternity versus its being created at a certain point in time, with the rest of creation; the equality of all prophets versus the unquestioned superiority of Muhammad; the validity of personal reasoning versus the irrefutable authority of the prophetic tradition in jurisprudential matters; the identity of unbelievers who may be offered the status of protected communities (dhimmis) rather than being forced to embrace Islam; the extent of tolerance to non-Muslims living under Muslim rule

Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr. Wrote in “A Concise History of the Middle East”: Unfortunately, many Westerners still believe that the Arab conquests stifled artistic, literary, and scientific creativity in the Middle East. In reality, no area of intellectual creativity was closed to Muslim scholars. Although the Quran is not a philosophical treatise, nor Muhammad a philosopher, the Arab conquests brought Muslims into direct contact with the philosophical ideas of the Hellenistic world, including those of Plato, Aristotle, and many later thinkers. Hellenistic philosophy was alive and well in several Middle Eastern schools, including the Neoplatonist academy of Alexandria and the great Sasanid university of Jundishapur; and in ninth-century Baghdad Mamun's Bayt al-Hikmah picked up where these places left off. The encyclopedic writings of Aristotle, translated by Syrian Christians into Arabic, inspired much Muslim thinkers as al-Kindi, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), and Ibn Rushd (Averroes). [Source: Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr., “A Concise History of the Middle East,” Chapter. 8: Islamic Civilization, 1979, Internet Islamic History Sourcebook, /~]

“The "Philosopher of the Arabs" al-Kindi (d. 873) rated the search for truth above all other human occupations, exalted logic and mathematics and wrote or edited many works on science, psychology, medicine, and music. He was adept at taking complicated Greek concepts, paraphrasing them, and simplifying them for students, a skill any textbook writer can appreciate. Ibn Sina (d. 1037), originally from Transoxiana, also combined philosophy with medicine. His theological writings are unusually lucid and logical, although his devout contemporaries shunned them because he separated the body from the soul and conceded that the individual has free will. He argued that the highest form of human happiness was not physical, but spiritual, and that it aimed at communion with God. His scientific writings include what amounts to an encyclopedia of medical lore. Translated into Latin, his greatest book remained a text for European medical students until the seventeenth century. Like al-Kindi, he wrote on logic, mathematics, and music. The greatest Muslim writer of com- mentaries lived in twelfth-century Spain. Ibn Rushd (d. 1198) is best known for his works on the philosophy of Aristotle and on Muslim theologians. Because of his unorthodox religious views, many of his writings were burned, and some of his original contributions to knowledge may have been forever lost. /~\

Culture and Religion under the Abassids

Al Mamun listening to a poet

Gaston Wiet wrote in “Baghdad: Metropolis of the Abbasid Caliphate": “An effort was made to keep the language and the religion at an indispensable cultural level. In reality, there was but a single aim: It was necessary to study the structure and the rules of the language of the Qur’an in order to have the language respected and understood. Khalil, the inventor of Arabic prosody, the first author of a dictionary, and especially his pupil Sibawaih... codified definitively all the problems of grammar. Later, Mubarrad wrote a work which is not only didactic but a valuable collection of poetic quotations. He also shares with his rival and contemporary, Tha'lab, the honor of having contributed to the philological training of several poets. [Source: Gaston Wiet, “Baghdad: Metropolis of the Abbasid Caliphate,” Chapter 5: the Golden Age the Golden Age of Arab and Islamic Culture translated by Feiler Seymour University of Oklahoma Press, 1971]

“Some authors wrote the biography of Muhammad in the broad sense, by including the literature of the hadith, "The Conversations of the Prophet." The names of two of the first authors in this category should be remembered: Muhammad ibn Ishaq and Ibn Hisham. Two of the founders of the four schools of jurisprudence lived in Baghdad and exerted decisive influence there for a long time. Abu Hanifa is already known to us because of his material participation in the founding of the city. He had the merit of integrating into the formalism of the law a living element, which consisted of both an analogical method and, when necessary, personal common sense. His tomb is still venerated in Baghdad. Opposed to this type of thought stands Ibn Hanbal, whose followers were talked about a great deal during the early centuries of the Mesopotamian city. This austere traditionalist was perhaps the victim of his own work, which is nothing more than a collection of hadith. Indeed, he came to consider tradition, after the Qur’an, as the only source of law. A fierce enemy of all innovation, Ibn Hanbal created a puritan school within Islam, which still in our day inspires the people of the Saudi kingdom. His tomb was in Baghdad too, but it has disappeared.

“The first commentaries on the Qur’an were written in Baghdad but we shall not spend much time on them. Religious circles were affected by a contemplative movement begun by the Mutazilites, etymologically "those who keep to themselves," as they did during the political quarrels which divided the Moslems the century before. The Mutazilites, preaching essentially that God was a Perfect Being took no attributes other than his unity into account. This conviction led the believers to deny the eternity of God's word; thus, for them, the text of the Qur’an became a creation of the Divinity. This doctrine, with its appeal to reason, is particularly important because three caliphs imposed it officially upon the people in a particularly unpleasant way.

turquoise glass stamp of Caliph Mustadi

“The religious spirit, moreover, was to be undermined by Jahiz and, even more violently, by Razi. It was during this time that the doctor of laws, Ash'ari, sprang up from the Mutazilite ranks. He dominated and definitively unified all the future beliefs of Islam. He is mentioned now because he lived during this period, but his influence will be seen in the discussion of the Seljuk period when his ideas had official approval.

On the various bases of division within Islam, Goldschmidt, wrote: The first is political: After Muhammad died, should the leaders have been chosen by the ummah or taken from the male members of his household? The second, overlapping somewhat with the first, is legal: Which rite or system of jurisprudence can best guide the conduct of individual and communal Muslim life? The third raises theological issues: How much can human reason be applied to the formulation and defense of Islamic beliefs, and is God or humanity responsible for the actions of the latter? The fourth can be called spiritual: To what extent, if any, should the practice of Islam include mysticism and the search for hidden meanings not contained in outwardly tangible aspects of religion? The resulting sectarian divisions have not been watertight compartments. For instance an eleventh-century Egyptian could be a Sunni Muslim adhering to the Maliki rite and to Ash'arite theology and could practice Sufism within a particular brotherhood of mystics, even while living under the Shi'i Fatimids. [Source: Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr., “A Concise History of the Middle East,” Chapter. 8: Islamic Civilization, 1979, Internet Islamic History Sourcebook, /~]

Theology (Kalam) in the Early Islamic Period

Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr. Wrote in “A Concise History of the Middle East”: Like medieval Christianity, Islam had to come to grips with some pretty big issues: Does divine revelation take precedence over human reason? Is God the creator of all the evil as well as all the good in the universe? If God is all-powerful, why does He let people deny His existence and disobey His laws? If God has predestined all human acts, what moral responsibility do people have for what they do? Philosophical questions seemed to lead Muslims into theology, as did their disputations with their Jewish and Christian subjects, who were intellectually and theologically more sophisticated than they. Islam developed several systems of scholastic theology, starting with the Mu'tazilah. [Source: Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr., “A Concise History of the Middle East,” Chapter. 8: Islamic Civilization, 1979, Internet Islamic History Sourcebook, /~]

Abbasid-era Amr Mosque in Cairo

“The main points in the Mu'tazilite doctrine were (I) belief in the absolute oneness of God, the sole eternal being and creator of everything else, including the Quran, and (2) insistence that everyone has free will and will be rewarded or punished for what he does. Since these positions seem reasonable to most of us, it is interesting to see why some Muslims objected to them. Was the Quran really created? It must have been known to God before Gabriel revealed it to Muhammad. How could God exist without His knowledge? If He has existed eternally, then His knowledge (the Quran) must also have been around since time began, not created like all other things. It may help to point out that Muslims have always revered the Quran as the means by which they know God; it occupies a position in Islam somewhat like that of Jesus in Christianity. On the question of free will, if everyone will be rewarded or punished for what he or she does, what will happen to babies and small children who die before they have learned to obey or disobey God's will? If the innocents automatically go to Heaven, is this fair to those who struggled to obey the laws of Islam all their lives? Despite these objections, the Mu'tazilah was for a while the official ideology of the Abbasids. However, its advocates attacked dissident Muslims so zealously that a reaction set in, new theological ideas took hold, and the movement died out. /~\

“Who spearheaded the reaction of these Mu'tazilites? Ahmad ibn Hanbal, founder of the Sunni legal school that bears his name, broke with them over their application of rigid logic to the Quran and the laws of Islam. His writing influenced a major theologian named al-Ash'ari (d. 935). Trained as a Mu'tazilite, al-Ash'ari came to the conclusion that divine revelation was a better guide than human reason. The Quran, he maintained, was an attribute of God, eternally existent, yet somehow separate from God's essence. Faith was absolute. If the Quran mentioned God's hand (or other manlike features), this should be accepted as is "without specifying how" or even interpreting the words allegorically, which the Mu'tazilites and some of the later theologians tried to do. Finally, al-Ash'ari and his disciples accepted the complete omnipotence of God: everything people do is predestined, for God created all persons and all their actions; yet He assigned these actions to them in such a way that individuals remain accountable for their actions. Later theologians proved that Muhammad must have been God's messenger because the content and the style of the Quran could not be imitated. The capstone of early Muslim theology was the work of Abu-Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111). One of the greatest teachers of the Shari'ah in Baghdad, his main distinction as a theologian was his use of Aristotelian logic to prove the main tenets of Islam, but he also wrote a stinging refutation of Muslim philosophers. Among Muslims he will always be remembered for bringing together theology and Sufism. /~\

Sufism and Mysticism in the Early Islamic Period


Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr. Wrote in “A Concise History of the Middle East”: Sufism is a difficult subject to discuss. Any effort to define it is apt to mislead you. My attempt to do so in the Glossary ("organized Muslim mysticism") is rather like calling the oyster "a sea creature with a grey shell." While many Muslims whom I know scorn Sufism as a nonrational perversion of Islam, others make it the essence of their faith. Many Sufis regard their beliefs and practices as universal, existing in every religion, no more (or less) Islamic than they are Christian, Buddhist, or Zoroastrian. Each religion, they say, contains the germ of ultimate truth; but, when controlled by an unsympathetic and worldly hierarchy, it can degenerate into a meaningless cult. Sufism seeks to rediscover meaning that is veiled from our sense and impenetrable to human reason. In monotheistic religions like Islam, finding ultimate truth is called communion with God. This can be done by meditation or by esoteric rites, such as prolonged fasting, night vigils, controlled breathing, repetition of words, or whirling for hours on one spot. /~\

“There was always an element of Sufism in Islam, but it emerged as a distinct movement during the second century after the hijrah. At first it was a movement of ascetics, people who sought spiritual exaltation by denying themselves the comforts of the flesh. Their driving force was a strong fear of God, but this evolved toward a belief in the love of God. Sufism could cut through the intellectualism of theology and soften the rigid legalism of "straight" Sunni (or Shi'i) Islam. It was not -- s some modern writers suppose -- a negation of the Shari'ah itself. Sufism also permitted Islam to bring in some of the traditional practices of converts from other religions without damaging its own essential doctrines. This facilitated its spread to central Asia, Anatolia, southeastern Europe, India, Indonesia, and Black Africa. From the eleventh to the nineteenth century, Sufism dominated the spiritual life of most Muslims. Brotherhoods of mystic dervishes, also called Sufi orders, grew up throughout the ummah, providing a new basis for social cohesion. The Safavid dynasty, which ruled Iran between 1501 and 1736, began as a Sufi order. Sufism also held together the warrior ghazis who founded its better-known rival, the Ottoman Empire. The Safavids were Shi'is and the Ottomans Sunnis, which goes to show that both of the main branches of Islam could accommodate Sufism. /~\

Art in the Early Islamic Period

Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr. Wrote in “A Concise History of the Middle East”: “Muslims do not neglect the visual arts. Some of the best proportioned and most lavishly decorated buildings ever erected were the great congregational mosques in Islam's largest cities. They had to be monumental to accommodate all their adult male worshippers on Fridays. Some have not survived the ravages of time or the Mongols, but the congregational mosques of Qayrawan, Cairo, Damascus, and Isfahan are impressive enough. Muslim architects also devoted some of their time and talents to palaces, schools, hospitals, caravansaries, and other buildings. Artists worked in many different media.

Maqamat by Hariri

While painting and sculpture were rare until modern times, early Muslim artists did illustrate manuscripts with abstract designs, beautiful pictures of plants and animals, and depictions of the everyday and ceremonial activities of men and women. Calligraphy (handwriting) was also an important art form, used for walls of public buildings as well as manuscripts. Many artistic creations were in areas we usually regard as crafts: glazed pottery and tile work; enameled glass; objects carved from wood or ivory; incised metal trays; elaborate jeweled rings, pendants, and daggers; embroidered silk cloths, and tooled leather bookbindings. You doubtless have seen "oriental" carpets. Most of the genuine ones were woven — or, more correctly, knotted — in Middle Eastern countries. /~\

Gaston Wiet wrote in “Baghdad: Metropolis of the Abbasid Caliphate": “At this point it is appropriate to add two quotations that contain a good deal of information. The first is from the poet Bashshar ibn Burd, who was blind. He had ordered a vase from a Basra potter and questioned the artisan about its decoration. The potter answered, "Flying birds." The poet, thinking of the pouncing animal motif which was popular at the time, said, "You should have put a predator above, ready to swoop down on them.The great artist Abu Nuwas also clearly indicates the tastes of the time. "Wine flows among us in an ornate goblet in which the Persians had carved all sorts of figures. Horse- men, at Khosrau's side, aim at an antelope with their arrows." [Source: Gaston Wiet, “Baghdad: Metropolis of the Abbasid Caliphate,” Chapter 5: the Golden Age the Golden Age of Arab and Islamic Culture translated by Feiler Seymour University of Oklahoma Press, 1971 ]

“Fortunately, the art of Samarra makes up in part for the gaps. This decoration on plaster is bold, marked with holes, and is elegantly winding with deep, sinuous grooves. The paintings of the palace of Samarra disappeared during World War I, and we know them only through the publication by E. Herzfeld, who brought them to light. Some have remained famous and appear in all the works dealing with Moslem frescoes. There are two women dancers who approach each other and pour wine into a goblet. The flowers and the various animals recall the classic art of the Hellenic east. But of particular interest is a solemn figure, draped in a robe decorated with a wheel motif, whose shoulders are covered with a striped hood. This could very well represent a monk. If so, it brings to mind the painting with which Mutawakkil, the inveterate drunkard and persecutor of Shi'ites and non-Moslems, had his palace decorated. It was of an assembly of monks in a church choir and was a copy of a fresco that he had admired in a monastery in the suburbs of Baghdad.

Abbasid era manuscript by Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî

“In the third quarter of the tenth century, Mesopotamian painters were invited to Egypt to paint frescoes. The story is told by Maqrizi, who refers to a History of Painters, which can be placed in the eleventh century. The passage is reminiscent of Mesopotamia. The paintings of lapis lazuli, vermilion, verdigris, and other colors were covered over with varnish. We are told that the relief of these frescoes was remarkably executed in the style of the Basra painters.

“Samarra sent for glassmakers and potters from Basra, and for more potters and color mixers from Kufa. A Chinese text insists that Chinese artists taught painting in Akula (the Syriac name for Kufa), in Lower Mesopotamia. The problem, which has not been solved, is an interesting one since it concerns a region which later became famous for its book decorations.

“Our enthusiasm is somewhat satisfied by the beautiful descriptive poems by Buhturi, but it is risky to depend upon poetry to analyze a piece of architecture or even to enjoy its decorative aspects. We have no authentic documents from the earlier periods on the art of the city of Baghdad itself, but we do have several vague but enthusiastic descriptions by writers. They speak of porticoes and cupolas; they go on at length about the luxuriously rich furniture in the various palaces, as we have seen in the description of the Byzantine ambassador's reception. Mural paintings are especially mentioned.

Art of the Abbasid Period (750–1258)

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art : During the Abbasid period, “a distinctive style emerged and new techniques were developed that spread throughout the Muslim realm and greatly influenced Islamic art and architecture. “Since the style set by the capital was used throughout the Muslim world, Baghdad and Samarra’ became associated with the new artistic and architectural trend. [Source: Yalman, Suzan. Based on original work by Linda Komaroff. "The Art of the Abbasid Period (750–1258)" Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

Maqamat of Hariri

“As virtually nothing remains from Abbasid Baghdad today, the site of Samarra’ is particularly significant for understanding the art and architecture of the Abbasid period. In Samarra’, a new way of carving surfaces, the so-called beveled style, as well as a repetition of abstract geometric or pseudo-vegetal forms, later to be known in the West as "arabesque," were widely used as wall decoration and became popular in other media such as wood, metalwork, and pottery. In pottery, Samarra’ also witnessed an extensive use of color in decoration and, possibly, the introduction of the technique of luster painting over a white glaze. Admired for its glittering effect reminiscent of precious metal, luster painting, the most notable technical achievement at the time, spread in the following centuries from Iraq to Egypt, Syria, Iran, and Spain and eventually also contributed to the development of ceramic decoration in the Western world. In terms of architecture, along with the palace of Jawsaq al-Khaqani (ca. 836 onward), the mosques of al-Mutawakkil (848–52) and Abu Dulaf (859–61) in Samarra’ were important in setting the style that was emulated in regions as far as Egypt or Central Asia, where it was adapted to need and taste.\^/

“In the tenth century, Abbasid political unity weakened and independent or semi-autonomous local dynasties were established in Egypt, Iran, and other parts of the realm. Following the capture of Baghdad by the Buyids (932–1062) and Seljuks (1040–1194) in 945 and 1055, Abbasid caliphs retained little more than moral and spiritual influence as the heads of Orthodox Sunni Islam. The Abbasid realm witnessed a brief revival under caliphs al-Nasir (r. 1180–1225) and al-Mustansir (r. 1226–42), when Baghdad once again became the greatest center for the arts of the book in the Islamic world and the Mustansiriyya Madrasa (1228–33), the first college for the four canonical schools of Sunni law, was built. However, this burst of artistic vitality came to a temporary halt with the sack of Baghdad by the Ilkhanid branch of the Mongols in 1258. Though surviving Abbasids fled to Mamluk Egypt, these caliphs would only have nominal influence. The end of the Abbasid caliphate thus marked the end of the universal Arab-Muslim empire.” \^/

Crafts under the Abassids

Gaston Wiet wrote in “Baghdad: Metropolis of the Abbasid Caliphate": “Although we do not know exactly where these industries and crafts were located in the earlier period, we know that Mesopotamia was much advanced in weaving and ceramic techniques and in brick and wood sculpture. [Source: Gaston Wiet, “Baghdad: Metropolis of the Abbasid Caliphate,” Chapter 5: the Golden Age the Golden Age of Arab and Islamic Culture translated by Feiler Seymour University of Oklahoma Press, 1971]

Abbasid perfume burner

“Fortunately, an Arabic text tells of the quality of the ceramic mural tiles that were sent from the Mesopotamian capital, along with other materials, to decorate the mihrab of the Great Mosque of Qairawan: "These precious faence panels were imported for a reception room that the Aghlabid emir wanted to build, and also beams of teakwood from which to make lutes. He had the pulpit for the Great Mosque made of it. The mihrab was brought in the form of marble panels from Iraq. He placed the faence tiles on the facade of the mihrab. A man from Baghdad made tiles which he added to the first ones." And, indeed, Georges Mar,cais, who studied this decoration carefully, wrote, "Two origins can be distinguished. One, with a more skillful and a richer design using enamel of various colors, consisted of exotic pieces; the other, of simpler, larger decorations in one color, consisted of locally manufactured pieces." We find "a very wide decoration composed of very simple geometric com- binations interlaced with floral forms, as in the linear groove decoration of columns and carved wood."

“Many specimens of pieces of ceramic vessels were found in the Samarra excavations. These too are of yellow and green glazed pottery. When the Arab historians describe the famous Cupola of the Donkey, with its gently rising ramp, they speak also of the minaret with the spiral ramp in the Samarra mosque. All the briefly mentioned documents give evidence of a great unity of style, and Baghdad can be credited with a floral decoration which, although already conventional, was not yet geometric.”

Sports and Entertainment under the Abassids

Gaston Wiet wrote in “Baghdad: Metropolis of the Abbasid Caliphate": “The cultured residents of Baghdad liked their pleasure. They gathered secretly in cabarets, and some of them met in Christian monasteries on the outskirts of the city. The Book of Convents by Shabushti is really a description of the city's taverns. Wine was certainly drunk in these places. The Bacchic poets of the time were there to testify to that. Snow sherbets were eaten. Concerts were given in rooms cooled by punkahs. Abu Nuwas exclaims, "In how many taverns did I land during the night cloaked in pitch-like blacknessl The cabaret owner kept on serving me as I kept on drinking with a beautiful white girl close to us." Gambling houses were also popular. Chess, especially, was highly favored and backgammon was second in popularity. It is probable that the shadow-theater was a form of entertainment also. [Source: Gaston Wiet, “Baghdad: Metropolis of the Abbasid Caliphate,” Chapter 5: the Golden Age the Golden Age of Arab and Islamic Culture translated by Feiler Seymour University of Oklahoma Press, 1971 ]

“The privileged at the caliph's court were probably invited to play polo or go hunting. Horse racing for the aristocratic public and cock-fights and ram-fights for a lower level of society were common pastimes. Popular entertainment was offered in public places. First there were the preachers, who not only delivered homilies. Perhaps they also told stories, such as the ones which were the origin of The Thousand and One Nights. Mas'udi writes, "In Baghdad, there was a street storyteller who amused the crowd with all sorts of tales and funny stories. His name was Ibn Maghazili. He was very amusing and could not be seen or heard without provoking laughter. As he told his stories, he added many jokes which would have made a mourning mother laugh and would have amused a serious man." There were also street hawkers who ofered extraordinary products to their gaping customers. There was even a man with diseased eyes who sold passers-by a cure for ophthalmia.

Arab Scholarship

Arab Astrology treatise

During the 8th, 9th and 10th century when Europe was is in the Dark Ages, the Arab world was incorporating elements of the great civilizations around them—India, China and Byzantium— and producing a great culture of their own.

Among other things, the Arabs were very interested in Greek science and philosophy. They were reading Plato and Aristotle when they had long been forgotten in the West. The study of the Greeks is credited with incorporating reason into Islamic thought and causing tensions between those who favored reason and those that followed a strict interpretation of the religious scriptures.

In the early Middle Ages, the Muslim kingdoms were the intellectual centers of the world. The Al-Azhar University in Cairo had 12,000 students and the library in Cordoba contained 400,000 manuscripts. Mosques and madrasahs were the primary centers of learning, but because of what was studied there was of a religious nature, scientific and philosophical studies were supported primarily by the courts of rulers and wealthy people.

Science and religion coexisted and supported one another. Astronomers helped fix prayer times and determined the dates and times of Islamic holidays. It was believed astronomy and mathematics provided an avenue to God. Philosophy offered new insights into Islam but also challenged some of its premises. Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali (1058-1111) is arguably the greatest scholar and thinker in Muslim history. A theologian, logician, jurist and mystic, he spent much of his life lecturing in Baghdad or leading the life of a wandering dervish. His celebrated works exercised a profound influence on Muslim intellectual history by exploring the mystical significance of the practices and beliefs of Islamic orthodoxy, and earned him the title of "Hujjat al-Islam", the "Proof of Islam". His ideas contributed a great deal towards shaping Sunni ideology.

In “Confessions” (1100), al-Ghazali wrote: “These sciences, in relation to the aim we have set before us, may be divided into six sections: (1) Mathematics; (2) Logic; (3) Physics; (4) Metaphysics; (5) Politics; (6) Moral Philosophy. (1) Mathematics. Mathematics comprises the knowledge of calculation, geometry, and cosmography: it has no connection with the religious sciences, and proves nothing for or against religion; it rests on a foundation of proofs which, once known and understood, can not be refuted. Mathematics tend, however, to produce two bad results. The first is this: Whoever studies this science admires the subtlety and clearness of its proofs. His confidence in philosophy increases, and he thinks that all its departments are capable of the same clearness and solidity of proof as mathematics. But when he hears people speak of the unbelief and impiety of mathematicians, of their professed disregard for the Divine law, which is notorious, it is true that, out of regard for authority, he echoes these accusations, but he says to himself at the same time that, if there was truth in religion, it would not have escaped those who have displayed so much keenness of intellect in the study of mathematics. [Source: Charles F. Horne, ed., “The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East,” (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917), Vol. VI: Medieval Arabia, pp. 99-133. This was a reprint of The “Confessions of al-Ghazali,” trans. by Claud Field, (London: J. Murray, 1909)

Christians, Jews and Arabs and Greco-Roman Philosophy

In Islamic culture 'philosophy' (in the sense of a continuation Greek philosophy) was somewhat suspect. It never gained a foothold in publically supported educational institutions, it was never well connected with any profession (in contrast with western Europe after the 12th century, where philosophy was the main subject in Arts faculties of the universities). The subject best established in medieval Islamic education was the study of the law (i.e. of the religious law).

In many cases non-Muslims defeated in battle were offered the choice of conversion or death. An exception was made for Jews and Christians, who were allowed to continue their religious observances provided they acknowledged Muslim political authority and paid a tax. In this way there came to be in Muslim lands many communities of Christians and Jews, who sometimes acted as intermediaries in cultural exchange between Muslims and the Greeks and the Latins.

Thus Arab Christians were among the translators who (about A.D. 800) translated the works of Plato and Aristotle into Arabic, and Arabic-speaking Jews were among the translators who (in the 12th century) translated Greek and Arabic works of science and philosophy from Arabic into Latin. The bulk of Aristotle's works became known in Europe first in translations of Arabic translations from Greek (though translations were soon made direct into Latin from Greek) and were accompanied by translations of the Arabic writings of Muslim philosophers. Abu Nasr Muhammad al-Farabi, Abu 'Ali al-Husayn Ibn Sina and Abu al-Walid Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Ibn Rushd were well known in the universities of medieval Europe under the Latinised forms of their names, Alfarabi, Avicenna and Averroes.

“The works on politics written by the Islamic philosophers were based especially on Plato, with influence also from Aristotle's Ethics; Aristotle's Politics was not well-known, though Aristotle's other works were. Greek Neo-Platonists (Plotinus, Porphyry, Proclus and others) had tried to combine the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle; they held that these philosophies were fundamentally in harmony. This view was passed on to the Islamic philosophers, who expounded a more or less Platonized Aristotelianism.

Philosophy under the Abassids

Gaston Wiet wrote in “Baghdad: Metropolis of the Abbasid Caliphate": ““The way in which the caliph Mamun kindled the enthusiasm of others is admirable. Three brothers, the sons of Musa ibn Shakir, sought to distinguish themselves by giving fabulous sums of money to collect manuscripts and to bring translators together. The Banu Musa were themselves scholars who made advances in mathematics and astronomy. [Source: Gaston Wiet, “Baghdad: Metropolis of the Abbasid Caliphate,” Chapter 5: the Golden Age the Golden Age of Arab and Islamic Culture translated by Feiler Seymour University of Oklahoma Press, 1971 ]

“Kindi, who was to be known to posterity by the honorary title "philosopher of the Arabs," lived in Baghdad in this richly intellectual milieu. Because of his Mutazilite convictions, he attained the threefold position of translator, teacher, and astrologer. With him, "Arab intelligence rises to the level of philosophy." Of the role he played, it is enough to say that he was the creator of a doctrine that was to flourish in Arab philosophy, the idea of conciliation between the positions of Aristotle and Plato.

“Kindi's successor, Farabi, who lived in later years at the court of the Hamdanid princes in Aleppo, had his early training in Baghdad. Without detracting from Kindi's merit, a pre-eminent place must be given to Farabi, who, with his more scientific mind, was the true creator of Arab peripateticism. This "second master," after Aristotle, continued along Kindi's path, too, in affirming the similarity of Aristotle's and Plato's views. In addition, he adopted the platonic theory of emanation. His Model City is an adapta-ion from Greek philosophy in which he describes his conception of the perfect city. This scholar, who was also an ecellent music theorist, contributed to the evolution of philosophical language. This master of logic also created a harmonious system that was a credit to his merit, his rigor, and his knowledge.

“A little later, there also developed in Baghdad the famous quarrel between the partisans of culture stemming from the text of the Qur’an and the pre-Islam poets and their adversaries, the writers of Persian origin who controlled the administration of the caliphate. The writers' leader, Sahl ibn Harun, was director of the Academy of Wisdom, which played a considerable role in literature. The discussions, which were very violent at times, were favorable to the development of Arab literature. The "Arab" party, if it can be called that, defended itself stubbornly and glorified as well as it could its religious position which made of the Qur’an a revelation in the Arabic language. It also exalted its ancient poems, which were not really under attack. Both sides carried on the entire campaign in Arabic. Thus adversaries and partisans of Arab intellectual life agreed in honoring Arabic.

“In two of his letters, Ibn Muqaffa' freely used the Arabic word adab, a term which needs some explanation since it covers a wide variety of ideas, such as to conform to the dictates of a strict religious spirit, to adhere to the customs of polite society. The term is somewhat similar to the ancient arete, with the omission of military courage. There are the same elements of practical morals, the feeling for justice, strength of soul, and piety. Good manners and courtesy became almost a technique and were, together with pure morality, the basis of Moslem education. But under the influence of the desire for cultural attainment, the term acquired a figurative sense which necessarily included the knowledge of Arab philosophy, of poetry and ancient stories, and of stylistic elegance.

Al-Farabi (ca. 870-950 A.D.)

According to R. Lerner and M. Mahdi in “Medieval Political Philosophy”, Al-Farabi's 'Book of Agreement” presents two key ideas: 1) Aristotle's idea of Nature as a source of development toward a mature state; 2) Aristotle's distinction between demonstrative argument and merely persuasive argument - i.e. between argument that gives genuine knowledge and understanding and argument that induces the hearer to believe a conclusion without understanding the fundamental reason why it is so (see Aristotle, Analytica Posteriora, 71 b19-23).

“According to Al-Farabi, human beings, like any natural species, have a perfect state toward which their actions tend: “[H]e cannot labour toward this perfection except by exploiting a large number of natural beings and until he manipulates them to render them useful... [A]n isolated individual cannot achieve all the perfections by himself and without the aid of many other individuals. It is the innate disposition of every man to join another human being or other men in the labour he ought to perform... Therefore, to achieve what he can of that perfection, every man needs to stay in the neighborhood of others and associate with them... which is why he is called the social and political animal (p. 60).

“[P]olitical association and the totality that results from the association of citizens in cities correspond to the association of the bodies that constitute the totality of the world... Just as in the world there is a first principle, then other principles subordinate to it, beings that proceed from these principles, other beings subordinate to these beings, until they terminate in the beings with the lowest rank in the order of being, the nation or the city includes a supreme commander, followed by other commanders, followed by other citizens, who in turn are followed by other citizens, until they terminate in the citizens with the lowest rank as citizens and as human beings. Thus the city includes the likenesses of the things included in the total world (p. 61).

“Human beings differ in their natural capacity to acquire the virtues required in a ruler. Therefore not every chance human being will possess art, moral virtue, and deliberative virtue with great power. Therefore the prince occupies his place by nature and not merely by will. Similarly, a subordinate occupies his place primarily by nature... This being the case, the theoretical virtue, the highest deliberative virtue, the highest moral virtue, and the highest practical art [politics] are realised only in those equipped for them by nature: that is, in those who possess superior natures with very great potentialities (p. 69).

“The person with the most superior natural capacity and acquired virtue must realise these perfections in nations and cities. There are two primary methods: verbal instruction, and the formation of character by making certain modes of action habitual. Instruction in the theoretical science should be given either to the imams and princes, or else to those who should preserve the theoretical sciences... [T]hey should be made to pursue a course of study and form the habits of character from their childhood until each of them reaches maturity, in accordance with the plan described by Plato [in the sections of the Republic on the education of the guardians]. Then the princes [leaders] among them will be placed in subordinate offices and promoted gradually through the ranks until they are fifty years old. Then they will be placed in the office with the highest authority... [T]hey are the elect who should not be confined to what is in conformity with unexamined common opinion. [For all of this cf. Plato's Republic.] In the earlier stages they should be instructed by means of persuasive arguments and similitudes [as contrasted with demonstrative arguments and knowledge of the thing itself] (p. 70).

“Now when one... receives instruction.., if he perceives their ideas themselves with his intellect, and his assent to them is by means of certain demonstration, then the science that comprises these cognitions is philosophy. But if they are known by imagining them through similitudes that imitate them, and assent to what is imagined of them is caused by persuasive methods, then the ancients call what comprises these cognitions religion... Therefore, according to the ancients, religion is an imitation of philosophy. Both comprise the same subjects and both give an account of the ultimate principles of the beings. For both supply knowledge about the first principle and cause of the beings, and both give an account of the ultimate end for the sake of which man is made - that is, supreme happiness - and the ultimate end of every one of the other beings. In everything of which philosophy gives an account based on intellectual perception or conception, religion gives an account based on imagination. In everything demonstrated by philosophy, religion employs persuasion - (p. 77).

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: ; Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Library of Congress and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.