Culture in the Muslim-Arab World

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Abbasid-era Les Makamat de Hariri par Yahya ibn Mahmoud ibn Yahya ibn Aboul-Hasan ibn Kouvarriha al-Wasiti, folio 86r

The Arab world has been described as the largest culturally homogeneous region in the world. It is unified by language, religion, poetry and music. The modern media as a transmission vehicle for music, news, ideas and entertainment has helped unify the Arab-Muslim world. Groups like the Muslim Brotherhood feel that Islam should infused in all aspects of the media, culture and life.

The Middle East is the source of three of the world’s great religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—and the home of the ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures, The Seven Wonders of the World were in the Middle East and the first alphabet, first writing, first school, first calendar and the first code of laws originated there. The world oldest inhabited city (Damascus) is there as well as most of the places mentioned in the Bible. Arabs are relative latecomers to the Near East. They are first mentioned in the mid 9th century B.C. as a tribal people subjugated by the Assyrians.

After the Arab conquest in the 7th century, for example, Egypt was transformed from a predominantly Christian country to a Muslim country in which the Arabic language and culture were adopted even by those who clung to their Christian or Jewish faiths. In time most of the people accepted the Muslim faith, and the Arabic language became the language of government, culture, and commerce. The Arabization of the country was aided by the continued settlement of Arab tribes in Egypt. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, ed. Egypt: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1990 ]

Some say the Arab contribution to Islamic culture has been unduly magnified, and that of the civilized peoples of Egypt, Syria, 'Iraq and Persia, who later converted to Islam, has been minimized. In the Middle Ages there were two great centers of Arab and Muslim culture: Baghdad in Iraq and Cordova in Spain. As Islam spread, it embraced Greeks, Jews, Romans, Iberians, Hindus, Egyptians, Persians—each of whom added elements of their own culture to Islamic culture.

Websites and Resources: Islamic Art, Architecture and Images: Islamic Art And 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 ; Wikipedia article on Islamic architecture Wikipedia ; Islamic Finder ; Islamology Picture gallery ; Islamic Images ; Islamic Images ; Qur’an Images WikiIslam ; Muslim Women ; Wikipedia article on Islamic Art Wikipedia ; Calligraphy Islamic ; Islamic Art Art History Resources ;

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 / ;

Islam ; Islamic City ; Islam 101 ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance ; BBC article ; Patheos Library – Islam ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam ; Islam at Project Gutenberg ; Islam from UCB Libraries GovPubs ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary frontline ; Discover Islam

Islamic or Arabic Civilization?

Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr. Wrote in “A Concise History of the Middle East”: “Scholars are divided between the terms "Islamic" and "Arabic." Some say the civilization was Islamic because the religion of Islam brought together the various peoples -- mainly Arabs, Persians, and Turks -- who took part in it. The religion also affected its politics, commerce, life-style, ideas, and forms of artistic expression. [Source: Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr., “A Concise History of the Middle East,” Chapter. 8: Islamic Civilization, 1979, Internet Islamic History Sourcebook, /~]

ancient Arabic writing in an 8th or 9th century Qur'anic manuscript

“But, for much of the period you have studied so far, Muslims were still a minority within the lands of Islam. Since the Muslims were relatively unlettered at first, it is hardly surprising that many of the scholars and scientists active within the civilization were Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, or recent converts to Islam whose ideas still bore the stamp of their former religions. The civilization evolving in the Middle East drew on many religious and philosophical traditions. /~\

“The alternative name, "Arabic civilization," emphasizes the importance of Arabic in the development of the culture. Not only because of its prestige as the language of the Quran and of the conquering elite, but also because it could easily assimilate new things and ideas, Arabic became the almost universal language of arts, sciences, and letters between 750 and 1250. But do not assume that all the artists, scientists, and writers were Arabs. The builders of the civilization came from every ethnic group within the ummah. Although many were Arabized Berbers, Egyptians, Syrians, and Iraqis whose present-day descendants would call themselves Arabs, only a few were wholly descended from Arab tribesmen.” "Islamic" is a more comprehensive term than "Arabic". /~\

Islam Art Prohibitions

Muslims believe that only God creates. Only Allah has the power to give life. Extended to art this belief infers that any artist who paints pictures of people or animals is trying to outdo Allah himself and therefore deserves some of the worst punishments on the Day of Judgment. Some Muslims believe that when an artist, who has created animate objects, faces Allah in heaven, god will ask him to breath life into his creations. When the images remain lifeless the artist will be cast into hell.

In this 1596 edition of the Siyero Nebi Muhammad and his son-in-law Ali have their faces covered but not his daughter Fatima

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The Islamic resistance to the representation of living beings ultimately stems from the belief that the creation of living forms is unique to God, and it is for this reason that the role of images and image makers has been controversial. The strongest statements on the subject of figural depiction are made in the Hadith (Traditions of the Prophet), where painters are challenged to "breathe life" into their creations and threatened with punishment on the Day of Judgment. The Qur’an is less specific but condemns idolatry and uses the Arabic term musawwir ("maker of forms," or artist) as an epithet for God. Partially as a result of this religious sentiment, figures in painting were often stylized and, in some cases, the destruction of figurative artworks occurred. Iconoclasm was previously known in the Byzantine period and aniconicism was a feature of the Judaic world, thus placing the Islamic objection to figurative representations within a larger context. As ornament, however, figures were largely devoid of any larger significance and perhaps therefore posed less challenge. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

Initially Christians and Buddhists forbade images of humans and animals in their art for reasons similar to those endorsed by Muslims. Muslim prohibition of “false idols” mirrors similar prohibitions in Judaism and Old Testament Christianity. The first of the Ten Commandants reads, “Thou shall have no other gods before me," followed by the second Commandment, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images”—interpreted by many as a ban on idolatry. During the Christian iconoclastic period many great works of art were destroyed. But later Christians saw the painting of religious figures as a way of glorifying God and teaching the illiterate masses about him, while Muslims continued to see it as an act of mockery. Buddhists raised the point that images of Buddha distracted Buddhists from their pursuit of nirvana. μ

A lot of good art has probably been destroyed by Islamic purists the same way the statues of Buddha were destroyed by the Taleban in Afghanistan. An issue of Time was once banned in some Muslim countries because it contained a reproduction of a woodcut of Muhammad.

Idolatry and the Ban on Images of Animals and People in Islamic Art

Any picture or an animal or a person in a mosque or work or art is seen as idolatry. But the Qur’an doesn't explicitly ban images of animals and people as is commonly thought. It warns against the creation and worship of idols. According to the Qur’an: "Those who endure the most grievances on the Day of resurrection are those who create a likeness." Idolatry ( shirk in Arabic) is regarded as the handiwork of the devil. It is one of the worst sins and even the worship of Muhammad is sacrilegious. The only being that a Muslim is allowed to worship is Allah.

One of Muhammad's most important acts was expelling the Kaaba of idols. One early Arabic source wrote the Kaaba contained paintings as well as statues and that Muhammad ordered them all destroyed except a mural of Jesus and the Virgin Mary which he spared, some suggest, so as not to offend his Christian converts. Presumably Muhammad and his successors had no problems with paintings. The movement to forbid painting, some, was influenced by Jewish converts.

Hilye-i serif (a visual form in Ottoman art related to the physical description of Muhammad)

The Qur’an does not specifically ban images of animals and people. The ban is rooted in the belief that if someone makes an image they will worship it, a view spread by conservative Muslims after Muhammad's death. According to the Hadiths, Ibn Abbas, an early disciple of Muhammad said, "The angels will not enter a house in which there is a picture of a dog."

Muslim scholar interpretation produced the blanket statement against all images of animals and people. Interpretations of the ban on idolatry and animal and human figures varies widely. The prophet reportedly allowed the depiction of animals on pillows, carpets and children's toys. Many Islamic cultures allowed images of animals and people to be used in non-religious buildings and works of art of created for private use. Some of the greatest works of Islamic art were miniature paintings of famous rulers, and court, hunting and battle scnes with lots of human figures found in manuscripts created for the private use of sultans and caliphs.

The Sunnahs are the practices and examples drawn from the Prophet Muhammad's life. Along with the Hadiths they are the most important texts in Islam after the Qur’an. They must adhere to a strict chain of narration that ensures their authenticity, taking into account factors such as the character of people in the chain and continuity in narration. Reports that fail to meet such criteria are disregarded.

One Sunnah reads: “The angels are not with the company with which is a dog, nor with the company with which is a bell. A bell is the devil's musical instrument. The angels do not enter a house in which is a dog, nor that in which there are pictures. Every painter is in hell fire; and God will appoint a person at the day of resurrection for every picture he shall have drawn, to punish him, and they will punish him in hell. Then if you must make pictures, make them of trees and things without souls. [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. 11-32]

Intellectual Life in the Early Islamic Period

Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr. Wrote in “A Concise History of the Middle East”: Limitations of time and space will not let me give the intellectual life of early Islam all the attention it deserves. 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, /~]

13th century Al-jazari water device

“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. /~\

“Poetry was also an important means of artistic expression, instruction, and popular entertainment. There were poems that praised a tribe, a religion, or a potential patron; some that poked fun at the poet's rivals; others that evoked the power of God and the exaltation of a mystical experience; and still others that extolled love, wine, or sometimes both (you cannot always be sure which). Prose works were written to guide Muslims in the performance of worship, instruct princes in the art of governing, refute the claims of rival political and theological movements, or teach any of the 1001 aspects of living from cooking to lovemaking. Animal fables scored points against despotic rulers, ambitious courtiers, naive ulama, and greedy merchants. You probably know the popular stories that we call he Arabian Nights, set in Harun al-Rashid's Baghdad, but actually composed by many ancient peoples, passed down by word of mouth to the Arabs, and probably set to paper only in the fourteenth century. You may not have heard of a literary figure equally beloved of the peoples of the Middle East. The Egyptians call him Goha, the Persians say he is named Mollah, and the Turks refer to him as Nasruddin Hoja. One brief story will have to suffice. A man once complained to Goha that there was no sunlight in his house. "Is there sunlight in your garden?" asked Goha. "Yes," the other replied. "Well," said Goha, "then put your house in your garden."” /~\

Abbasids and the Arab Golden Age

The Abbasids (A.D. 750 to 1258) presided over the Golden Age of Islamic culture, art and science. While Europe was in its Dark Ages, the Islamic world was the most advanced civilization in the world. Spanning the globe from northwest Africa to the islands of Indonesia, it was light years ahead of Europe. Its main rivals—India and China—were powerful and rich but they were limited to one ethnic group and one geographical area and their influence on others was restricted mostly to their group and area.

During the reign of its first seven Abbasid caliphs, Baghdad became a center of power where Arab and Iranian cultures mingled to produce a blaze of philosophical, scientific, and literary glory. This era is remembered throughout the Arab world, and by Iraqis in particular, as the pinnacle of the Islamic past.

Barmecides display their wealth

At its peak in the 9th through 13th centuries, the Islamic-Arab world, Princeton historian Bernard Lewis, wrote: “represented the greatest military power on earth—its armies were at the same time invading Europe and Africa, India and China. It was the foremost economic power in the world..It had achieved the highest level so far in human history in the arts and sciences of civilization."

In the 8th and 9th century, under Abbasid caliphs, Baghdad became one of the great cities of the world and the focal point of a vast empire. During that time Baghdad grew into a circular city, nearly three kilometers in diameter, ringed by three concentric walls. At the center was the caliph's green-domed place. From the four gates were highways that extended to the fringes of the Abbasid empire. A bridges of boats was built across the Tigris River.

Under the Caliph Harun al-Rashid, Baghdad becomes the richest city in the world and the center of he Islamic golden age. It grew to encompass with over a million people. Immortalized in the tales from Arabian Nights, it was situated at the crossroads of major Silk Road trade routes, was filled with great scholars, poets, scientists, gardens and magnificent buildings and gave the world Arabic numbers, decimal pints, algebra and medical advances.

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.

Early Islamic Poetry and Art

Arabic and Persian poetic verses

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.” Unfortunately, virtually nothing remains from Abbasid Baghdad today. [Source: Yalman, Suzan. Based on original work by Linda Komaroff. "The Art of the Abbasid Period (750–1258)" Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

Partly because of its association with the Qur’an and god, poetry has traditionally been considered the highest Arab-Muslim cultural form. Most of the Arab world's most famous literary figures have been poets. They have often been regarded as men blessed or cursed with special talent denied ordinary men, in some cased from demons. Muslim poets wrote love songs rich in betrayal and sensual imagery, usually accompanied by musical instruments. Even Muslims who are illiterate can appreciate poetry because they recite and hear the poetic verses of the Qur’an every day.

In the pre-Islamic era poets acted as storytellers, historians, judges, philosophers and counselors. With the arrival of Islam, the rich language of the Qur’an because an expression of poetry in itself. In the courts of Baghdad and Damascus, poets were held in the highest of regard. Many famous poets seemed to have had drinking and women problems.

Popular styles of poetry included: 1) the qasida, an ode that originated in pre-Islamic times with accented meters and with a single rhyme running throughout it; 2) the muwashshah, a style that emerged in the 10th century and had a pattern of rhymes that appeared in a series of lines repeated throughout the poem. Among the most popular subjects were the exaltation of God, praise or rulers, odes to nature and romantic love and mysticism.

Famous Poets from the Abbasid Period

Abu Nuwars was a companion of the Baghdad Caliph Harun al-Rashid. He wrote many tributes to wine and appears to have been quite a rouge. One of his most famous lines goes: " How can you but enjoy yourself/ When the world is in blossom," And wine is at hand?"

Al-Mutanabbi (915-68) is a legendary Arab poet born in Kufa whose names means “oracle." When he was young he served as a court poet in Aleppo, Cairo, Baghdad and Shiraz. He was involved in politics and was murdered in a tribal feud by assassin who picked him out at random, not realizing he was a respected poet and sage. One of his most famous lines goes: “Not everything a man longs for is within his reach, for gust of winds can blow against a ship's desires."

Poet Council of Al-Hakan II, Caliph of Cordoba

In a tribute to his patron in Aleppo, who had just recovered from an illness, Al-Mutanabbi wrote: “Glory and honor were healed when you were healed, and pain passed from you to your enemies...Light, which had left the sun, as if its loss were a sickness in the body, returned to it...The Arabs are unique in the world in being of his race, but foreigners share with Arabs in his beneficence...It is not you alone I congragualte on your recovery; when you are well all men are well."

Yunus Emre was a 13th century poet who wrote about universal love, friendship and divine justice. He lived in Anatolia from about 1228 to about 1320 and was a member of a Sufi sect of Muslims. His poems were about the search of spirituality, emphasizing the soul of the individual rather than formal religion. Emre once wrote, “ We see all of mankind as one...Whoever does not look with the same eye upon all nations is a rebel against truth...God's truth is lost on men of orthodoxy. One of his most famous couplets goes: “ God's truth is an ocean, and dogma is a ship." Most people don't leave the ship to plunge into that sea."

Persian Poets

The Persian provinces produced some of Islam's greatest scholars and poets: Nizami (died 1203), Hafez (died 1390), Saadi (died 1292) and the 10th century Samanid figures Avicenna and Omar Khayyan. Iranians love Sufi poets. Many of great "Persian" poets and literary figures were in fact Tajiks from Central Asia.

Omar-Khayyám (1048-1123) was a Persian mathematician who enjoyed drinking and writing fatalistic poetry. He is famous in the West for his Rubiayat, or quatrains, but he was best known in his time as a mathemitican and astronomer.

Omar-Khayyám wrote: “I sometimes think that never blows so red/ The Rose as where some buried Caesar bled." “Rubaiyat of Mar Khayyam” was a popular book in the Victorian era. Produced by an American expatriate Elihu Vedder, it was filled with images of skulls, owls and lizards set to Omar verse.


Al-Ghazali work

Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali (d. 1111) is one of the great poets and thinkers in Muslim history. He made great contributions to Islamic theology, philosophy, literature, science and legal scholarship. In Baghdad in 1095 he suffered a nervous breakdown due to questions about his faith that left him paralyzed and unable to speak. He went to Jerusalem and recovered by doing Sufi excercises and concluded that God could not be found in reason and rationality but was more likely to be discovered using the rituals of Sufi mystics who aimed to have a direct relationship with God. He returned to Iraq 10 years after his breakdown and wrote his masterpiece The Revival of Religious Sciences, which became the most quoted text after the Qur’an and the hadiths.

Al-Ghazali was sort of like of a Muslim equivalent of St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas: someone who wrote beautifully and was able to bring religion down to earth so that it could be understood by ordianry people. In addition to writing about deep philosophical issues he also wrote about music and what heaven is like.

In The Revival of Religious Sciences, al-Ghazali offered inights into prayer and knowledge of God and provided spiritual justification for Muslim rules on ordinary activities such as washing, eating and sleeping so that Muslims could feel they were doing something more than just following rules and that the only infallible teacher was Muhammad. Other Al-Ghazali works included The Deliverer of Error and The Incoherence of Incoherence.

On Disciplining The Soul, Al-Ghazali wrote: “"If his aspiration is true, his ambition pure and his concentration good, so that his appetites do not pull at him, and he is not distracted by the hadith an-nafs (discourse of the soul meaning egotism of the soul) towards the attachments of the world, the gleams of the Truth will shine in his heart. At the outset, this will resemble a brief, inconstant shaft of lightening, which then returns, perhaps after a delay. If it returns, it may be fleeting or firm; and if it is firm (thabit), it may or may not endure for some time. States such as these may come upon each other in succession, or only one type may be present. In this regard, the stages of God's saints (awliya) are as innumerable as their outer attributes and qualities". (Translation by Shaykh Abdal-Hakim Murad).

Arabian Nights

The most famous book in Arabic literature is Arabian Nights, a collection of stories that may have descended from an old Persian book called Thousand and One Nights. No one knows where the stories originally came or when they were first told.

from Arabian Nights: The gardener, with a rake, drew the basket to the side of the canal

The stories from Arabian Nights remain popular today. The include classical tales of adventure, magic and wealth set among exotic Eastern settings with harems, bazaars and luxurious palaces. Many people are familiar with the famous stories of Sinbad, Aladdin and Ali Babi through films and children stories without knowing anything about the originals.

The fairy tales of Arabian Nights are believed to be mostly of Persian origin. The moral fables are distinctly Arabian. The tales of animals and beasts are thought to have come from India. Others are probably of Chinese, Japanese and Egyptian origin. In the A.D. 8th century, the stories of Arabian Nights fame were introduced to the court of Harun al-Rashid, the Caliph of Baghdad and one the greatest rulers during the Arab Golden Age. A great patron of the arts, Harun loved the stories and storytellers flattered him by making him a central character of many of the stories, often as a ruler traveling in disguises among his subjects.

No original or authoritative copy of Arabian Nights exists. Up until the Middle Ages the stories continued to be passed on orally, with different storytellers telling different stories, and did not take their present form until around 1400 when Egyptian scholars began writing the stories down. Arabic manuscripts that have survived from this period contain about 200 stories. The Middle Easter scholar Edward Said has accused European translations of the stories as being the source of many of the stereotypes and misconceptions about Arabs and Muslims.

The heroine of Thousand and One Nights is Scheherazade, the daughter of a grand vizier, of a kingdom between Arabia and China. She is described as "learned, prudent and witty." The ruler of the kingdom is Sultan Shahriyar, who is deeply in love with his wife and feels deeply betrayed by her when he witnesses her having an affair with a slave. Deeply hurt the sultan decides to take revenge on all women by having a new young women brought to him each night only to have her executed the following morning. Fed up with the sultan's cruelty, Scheherazade hatches a plan. She tells her father to offer her and sister to the sultan. Against his own wishes the vizier acquiesces. Both sisters sleep with the sultan.

As the time for Scheherazade execution approaches, her sister asks her tell a story. Her plan is to tell a story until it reaches its most suspenseful point and then stop. To hear the end of the tale the sultan lets Scheherazade live another day so she can tell the end of the story. Scheherazade knows a lot of stories and she keeps this up 1001 nights. During that time she produced three sons for the sultan, who ultimately becomes convinced of her womanly virtue and ends his campaign against women and the couple lives happily ever after.

Famous stories in the West from Arabian Nights include Sinbad the Sailor, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and Aladdin. The famous tale of a flying carpet began when three brothers—Prince Ali, Houssain and Ahmed—peered through an ivory tube and saw that the princess they loved was dying. To get to her as quickly possible they flew on a magic carpet Lesser known stories include The Young King of the Black Isles, The Three Sisters, The Enchanted Horse and Prince Ahmen and Periebanou.

Arab Scholarship in the Early Islamic Period

Persian astrological manuscript

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.

Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr. Wrote in “A Concise History of the Middle East”: “I alluded to mathematics, science, and medicine in discussing Islamic philosophy, for early Muslims did not split up the areas of human knowledge as much as we do now. We tend to appreciate Muslim thinkers, if at all, for preserving the body of classical learning until the West could relearn it during the Renaissance. Our debt is really much greater. Muslim mathematicians made important advances in algebra, plane and spherical trigonometry, and the geometry of planes, spheres, cones, and cylinders. Our "Arabic numerals" were probably a Hindu invention, but Arabs transmitted them to Europe. Muslims used decimal fractions at least two centuries before Westerners knew about them. They applied their mathematical knowledge to business accounting, land surveying, astronomical calculations, and mechanical devices. [Source: Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr., “A Concise History of the Middle East,” Chapter. 8: Islamic Civilization, 1979, Internet Islamic History Sourcebook, /~]

schematic of eyes

“In medicine, the Muslims built on the work of the ancient Greeks, but they were especially indebted to Nestorian Christians. One of these was Hunayn ibn Ishaq (d. 873), who translated many Greek and Aramaic texts into Arabic but whose greatest work was in the science of optics. I have already mentioned the continuing use of Ibn Sina's work as a medical textbook in Europe. To give another example of the influence of Middle Eastern medicine, the illustrations in Vesalius's pioneering work on anatomy show many parts of the body labeled with Arabic and Hebrew terms. Physicians in early Islamic society studied both botany and chemistry in order to discover curative drugs and also antidotes to various poisons. /~\

“Rational and nonrational methods of observation were often closely tied together. For example, chemistry would be mixed with alchemy and astronomy with astrology. Knowledge of the movements of stars and planets aided navigation and overland travel by night. But Muslims, like most other peoples, thought that heavenly bodies affected the lives of people, cities, and states, and so many of the caliphs kept court astrologers as advisers. Muslims also used astrolabes (devices for measuring the height q of stars in the sky) and built primitive versions of the telescope. One astronomer is said to have erected a planetarium that reproduced not only the movements of the stars but also peals of thunder and flashes of lightning. Muslim scientists, if not the public, knew that the earth was round and that it revolved around the sun, long before Copernicus or Galileo. /~\

“To come closer to earth, descriptive geography was a favorite subject. Thanks to the Arab conquests and the expansion of trade throughout the eastern hemisphere, Muslims liked to read books describing distant places and their inhabitants, especially if they were potential trading partners or converts to Islam. Much of what we know about Black Africa from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries comes from the writings of Arab travelers and geographers. History was a major discipline, too. Nearly every Muslim scientist had to write about the previous development of his specialty. Rulers demanded chronicles, either to publicize their own accomplishments, or to learn from their precursors' successes and failures. The ulama could never have developed the Shari'ah without first having biographies of Muhammad and his companions. Muslims also liked to read accounts of the early caliphs and conquests for amusement as well as instruction. Muslim historians were the first to try to structure history by looking for patterns in the rise and fall of dynasties, peoples, and civilizations. These efforts culminated in the monumental Muqaddimah of Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406), which linked the rise of states with the existence of a strong group feeling (asabiyah) between the leaders and their supporters. /~\

Golden Age of Arab Science and Mathematics

The Arabs were the most scientifically advanced civilization between the seventh and eleventh century. Muslim scholars made great advances in algebra, geometry, optics, cosmology, alchemy (the beginning of modern chemistry), natural history, astronomy, medicine, geography, technology and philosophy but left the world of physics to Allah and Aristotle. Arabic was the language of science from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean.

Muslim astrolabe, dated to 1080

One historian wrote that Muslim scholars were developing algebra and measuring latitude while "Charlemagne and his lords were reportedly dabbling in the art of writing their names." Lipman wrote, "Muslim scholars accepted the holy book's challenge, exploring the works of their Greek and Babylonian predecessors and synthesizing them with their own works into a highly sophisticated body of knowledge."

Abu Ali al-Hasan Ibn al-Haytham, born in Basra in present-day Iraq in 965, is credited with developing the notion of scientific method. Rather than trying to figure out truth and reality by pondering and analyzing things, as Plato and Aristotle had done, Ibn al-Haytham emphasized experimentation. Ironically, teetotaling Arab Muslims developed the technology of distillation—a way of making the alcohol content in beverages higher—and introduced it to Europe in Middle Ages.

Arabs adopted the Hindu numerical and base ten system into Arabic numerals and invented algebra and trigonometry in A.D. 8th century. Algebra, derived from the Arabic word al-jabr, algorithms and logarithms were developed by Abu Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (800-47), a mathematician from Khiva, Uzbekistan. Algorithm (the mathematical process behind addition and multiplication) is a corruption of his name. He was also a pioneer in using Hindu (Arabic) numerals.

Arab Astronomy

Arab astronomers calculated the circumference of the earth, systematically studied and charted the stars and were aware of the moon's relationship to the tides. Copernicus's theory of planets revolving around the sun had been explored by Arab astronomers two centuries before Copernicus. The Muslim mathematician and astronomer Ibn al-Haytham studied atmospheric refraction around the A.D. 1000. Khorezm-based Al-Beruni was a pioneering astronomer in the 11th century. He worked in Guganj (present-day Konye-Urgench) and figured out the earth rotated and revolved around the sun and estimated the distance to moon correctly within 20 kilometers.

Arab astronomers used astrolabes, quadrants, globes and other tools. They also gave Arabic names to prominent starts such as Regel, Vega, Betelgeuse, Altair and Aldebaran. Of the 57 stars chosen by international agreement for navigation purpose, 38 have Arab names. Arabs also identified groups of stars using the signs of the zodiac like Leo and Sagittarius. Azimuth, zenith, nadir, altitude, almanac are all derided from Arabic words. Great observatories were were built in Baghdad and Samarkand.

Ulughbek, Tamerlane's grandson, ruled a Samarkand-based kingdom much smaller than Tamerlane's empire from 1409 to 1449. He was a humanist, historian, poet, and composer and a pioneer in mathematics and medicine. He built a astronomical observatory and mapped 1,000 stars, 200 of them previously unknown, using a massive 30-meter marble astrolabe, and calculated the length of the year with a high degree of accuracy. In 1420, he founded Samarkand madrassah, regarded as one of the greatest “universities” in the Muslim world.

Marika Sardar wrote of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “During the medieval period, scientists in the Islamic world made many contributions to the field of astronomy. While their work was based on ancient sources from Greece, Iran, and India, they updated methods for measuring and calculating the movement of heavenly bodies, and continued to develop models of the universe and the movements of the planets within it. Between the eighth and tenth centuries, Baghdad was a major center of study under the Abbasid caliphs al-Mansur (r. 754–75) and al-Macmun (r. 813–33), but local rulers across the region, in Cairo, Rayy, Isfahan, and other cities, also supported scientific research. [Source:Sardar, Marika. "Astronomy and Astrology in the Medieval Islamic World", Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

from Persian Shiraz

“At this time, scientists translated studies in Sanskrit, Pahlavi, and Greek into Arabic, and, for the first time, recorded Arab Bedouin traditions. The Indian Sanskrit and Persian Pahlavi sources taught medieval astronomers methods for calculating the position of heavenly bodies, and for creating tables recording the movement of the sun, the moon, and the five known planets. The Bedouin traditions contained knowledge on the fixed stars, the passage of the sun and moon through the zodiacal signs and lunar mansions, and the seasons and associated phenomenon. This body of knowledge was refined in part because of the specific requirements of Islam; the religion required the ability to correctly determine the time and direction of Mecca for prayer, the moment of sunrise and sunset for fasting during Ramadan, and for fixing the appearance of the moon that marked the start of a new month. This led to the refinement of scientific instruments, an improvement in methods for making observations, and the creation of new calendrical systems."^/

“Another branch of research was led by astronomers interested in a more accurate understanding of the planets' movements, in response to Greek inquiries into this field. The most influential Greek texts were more concerned with creating a model of the universe and the movement of the heavenly bodies within it, but the literature proposed two very different approaches to this problem. On the one hand, Aristotle's (384–322 B.C.) model of the universe, with the earth at its center, and the sun, moon, planets, and fixed stars rotating around it within uniformly turning spheres, was widely accepted. On the other hand, the work of Ptolemy (85–165 A.D.) sought a purely theoretical, geometrical representation of the universe based on precise observations, even if this conflicted with the ideal Aristotelian model of planets and stars."^/

Between the ninth and eleventh centuries, Islamic astronomers focused on criticizing and improving the geometrical models of Ptolemy. cAbd al-Rahman al-Sufi (903–986) was one of the most important scientists doing this work, supported by the Buyid sultan cAdud al-Dawla, to whom he dedicated his Illustrated Book of the Fixed Stars (13.160.10). This treatise describes the forty-eight constellations formed by what were called the "fixed stars" (the celestial objects that did not seem to move in relation to the other stars). It was written in Arabic, the language in which most scientists of the Islamic world worked, and was based on a series of new observations made by al-Sufi at Isfahan, the city in central Iran. Other important scientists of the time include al-Biruni (973–1048), who wrote al-Qanun al-Mascudi, dedicated to Sultan Mascud of Ghazna, on the topics of astronomy and solar, lunar, and planetary motions; and Ibn al-Haytham (known in Europe as Alhazen, d. 1039), who measured the thickness of the atmosphere and its effect on astronomical observations."^/

Golden Age of Muslim Spain

The Muslim period in Spain is often described as a 'golden age' of learning where libraries, colleges, public baths were established and literature, poetry and architecture flourished. Both Muslims and non-Muslims made major contributions to this flowering of culture.

According to the BBC: “Islamic Spain is sometimes described as a 'golden age' of religious and ethnic tolerance and interfaith harmony between Muslims, Christians and Jews. Some historians believe this idea of a golden age is false and might lead modern readers to believe, wrongly, that Muslim Spain was tolerant by the standards of 21st century Britain. [Source: BBC, September 4, 2009 |::|]

Alhambra in Granada, Spain

The true position is more complicated. The distinguished historian Bernard Lewis wrote that the status of non-Muslims in Islamic Spain was a sort of second-class citizenship but he went on to say: 1) “Second-class citizenship, though second class, is a kind of citizenship. It involves some rights, though not all, and is surely better than no rights at all.” and 2) “A recognized status, albeit one of inferiority to the dominant group, which is established by law, recognized by tradition, and confirmed by popular assent, is not to be despised.” [Source: Bernard Lewis, “The Jews of Islam,” 1984 |::|]

From 969 to 1027, Cordoba, the capital of Moorish Spain,was a thriving metropolis and a great center of leanings with over 70 libraries, 700 mosques, 3,000 public baths, sumptuous palaces on the Guad and paved streets lit by oil lanterns. It was situated at the center of an important agriculture area along a river that was used for trade and the moving of raw materials and finished goods.

According to some estimates Córdoba was the largest city in the world in the year 1000, with 250,000 to 450,000 inhabitants. One traveler wrote its greatness was based on the "size of its population, its extent, the space occupied by its markets, the cleanliness of its streets, the architecture of its mosques, the number of its baths and caravansaries". It had no rival in the Middle East except for Baghdad and no rival in Europe.

Culture and Art in Muslim Spain

Cordoba was one of the greatest centers of learning in the world in the Middle Ahes. Abd al-Rahman III's library reportedly had 400,000 volumes. Muslim Spain was famous for its poetry, which resembled French troubadour poetry. Córdoba's libraries and poets were celebrated and Islamic scholars kept alive the knowledge of the Romans and Greeks which had died out in the Dark Ages in Europe. The monumental Great Mosque of Córdoba was built by Sultan Abd al-Rahman I and his successors as a symbol of the political and religious power of Muslim Spain.

Córdoba grew rich through the export or beautiful ceramics, green and manganese Alhambra vases, detailed textiles, wool, silks, felts and linens, intricately carved ivory boxes and European slaves throughout the Muslim world at a time when Muslims ruled the Mediterranean, northern Africa, the Middle east and western Asia.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “From 711 to 1492 al-Andalus was the occidental frontier of Islam. Floating on the western edge of the Mediterranean, cut off from the European continent by jagged mountains, it was geographically isolated from both North Africa and Europe, from Islamic as well as Christian lands. Physical remoteness gave al-Andalus a privileged place in medieval myths but also separated it from the communities of the east and the west, so that it received only sporadic attention from both worlds. Although a small group of scholars pursued the serious study of the arts of Islamic Spain, these arts have for the most part been viewed as brilliant and exotic vestiges of a lost culture, as objects and monuments that left no mark on European tradition. [Source: Department of Islamic Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art,\^/]

Alhambra, patio of the Karel Palace

“Most of the art and architecture that remains from Islamic Spain was produced for palatine settings and aristocratic patrons; representing, as these works do, almost eight centuries of history, they issue from diverse rules and traditions” and includes” intricately carved ivories, metalwork, and ceramics, luxurious textiles, jewelry, arms, marble capitals, stucco panels, and tiles, as well as major monuments of religious and secular architecture such as the Great Mosque of Córdoba, the palace city of Madinat al-Zahra, and the Alhambra. \^/

“Art from the Islamic period of Spain includes (in chronological order), the brilliant architecture and courtly arts of the Umayyad caliphate, the refined and original accomplishments of the succeeding Taifa kingdoms, the more rigorous contributions of the Almoravids and Almohads who followed, and, finally, the opulent palaces and objects created for the Nasrids of Granada, the last Muslim dynasty in Spain.” \^/

Muslim Influence on European Culture

Arab translators did the world a great service. They translated classical Greek works on philosophy, science, mathematics, medicine, astrology and alchemy. Hunayn ibn Ishaq (808-73), for example, a scholar in Baghdad, translated Plato and Aristotle and Galen's Anatomy. The original Greek versions of these works were lost and probably would not survived if it were not for Ishaq's Arabic translations.

The motivations for translating the classical works seems to have been both practical and scholarly. Knowledge relating to medicine, was particularly in demand. There also seemed to be intellectual curiosity. The great Islamic thinker al-Kindi (801-66) wrote: “We should not be ashamed to acknowledge truth from whatever source it comes to us, even if it is brought to us by former generations and foreign peoples. For him who seeks the truth there is no higher value than the truth itself."

The Arabs supplied the cultural and scientific link between the Golden of Greece and Rome and the European Renaissance. The medieval European sources of valuable documents by Euclid and Ptolemy and others where Arab manuscripts that were translated into Latin in Toledo.

Some scholars believe that Arab knowledge played a part in triggering the Renaissance and accelerating the pace of the Age of Discovery. The Renaissance began as a rediscovery of classic Greek culture and many say that Arabs were the ones who were responsible for reintroducing writings by Greek authors. Translations of Arabic texts into Latin spread knowledge of instruments such as the astrolabe. Among the greatest advancements were the merging Arabic numerals with the Hindu concept of zero and Greek geometry and devising algebra and trigonometry and spreading them to Europe.

Modern Arab-Muslim Culture

protest in Iran against Salman Rushdie for his 1988 novel "The Satanic Verses"

Jane F. Collier wrote: In his book “‘Culture and Imperialism,’ Edward Said argues that scholars must analyze connections between the histories of Western imperialist powers and the places they colonized and dominated, because only by understanding our shared history can we counteract the divisive and destructive forces of contemporary movements to rediscover "essential" cultural values, be they American, British, Arab, Muslim, Christian, Indigenous, or whatever. Said criticizes both imperialists and those they dominated. [Source: Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993)]

He condemns Westerners for misunderstanding the role of imperial conquests in shaping their culture -- a culture they continue to regard as superior to all others. And he condemns dictatorial leaders of successful national liberation movements for putting national security above the goals of human liberation and democratic participation. Although Said focuses on literature rather than law, his criticism of essentialist thinking is as applicable to legal treatises as to novels. Histories of Western law that ignore the imperialist context in which it developed and histories of dominated peoples that stress their preservation, rather than their innovative uses, of tradition both fuel dangerous stereotypes of Western law as dynamic (whether progressive or decadent) and Islamic law as conservative (whether pure or backward). /*/

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The end of the Ottoman empire unleashed a renaissance in literature and the arts. Traditional arts had suffered under ailing economies and the transfer of patronage from urban regional centers to the Ottoman court. By World War I, artists had turned to Western art as a representative form of modern expression. As a result, a new separation emerged between traditional art in all its forms and what came to be known as the fine art of easel painting. Traditional arts such as painting on glass and leather, woodwork, glassmaking, metalwork, textiles, and wall frescoes were considered naive and repetitive, relying less on intellect and more on archaic traditions. Painting on glass is one example of a dying tradition that ended with the passing of the last Syrian painter in this genre (Abou Subhi al-Tinawi, Muhammad cAli fi al-Sham). [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

French culture had a strong influence on some parts of the Arab-Muslim world. Some upper and middle class Syrians loved French culture. The Syrian-American writer Robert Sole wrote that some “adored French without having a drop of French blood in their veins, just as they knew Paris by heart without ever having set foot there.”

Censorship of Arab Culture

There have been many efforts to censor and control cultural works — particularly in literature, film and television, including even the classic “One Thousand and One Nights” — on the grounds that their content is too sexual or un-Islamic. Amro Hassan and Jeffrey Fleishman wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Some attempts at censorship are reminiscent of the death threats Islamic radicals made against Salman Rushdie for his 1988 novel "The Satanic Verses." Mohamed Salmawy, president of the Egyptian Writers Union, said he himself received threats from extremists over his play "The Chain," which criticized religion-inspired terrorism. [Source: Amro Hassan and Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times, July 11, 2010 /]

illegal 1988 Iranian edition of Satanic Verses

“Such tactics are common in Saudi Arabia, where last year a scholar issued death fatwas against racy-TV programmers. But they are unsettling in Egypt, traditionally more tolerant. The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information said attempts to silence or censor writers through lawsuits, many of them religion-based, have been rising. The group said 1,500 civil and criminal complaints were filed in Egypt against authors, scholars and journalists in 2007 and '08. Most are dismissed or end in favor of the writer. /

“In 2009, writer and feminist Nawal Saadawi won a lawsuit that sought to revoke her Egyptian citizenship over her play "God Resigns at the Summit Meeting." The work centers on prophets interrogating God over his "unjust rulings" in all three "heavenly faiths." Critics denounced it as heresy. "Extremists and their media tools are against any form of creativity and cases like these are a backlash against creative people and opposition authors," Saadawi said. Her frequent criticism of President Hosni Mubarak's government, she said, served to tangle her case in the courts much longer than suits involving less politically active writers. /

“Attempts at censorship through the prism of religion have spread to works dealing with Christianity. Youssef Ziedan is facing a criminal complaint filed with the state by a group of Coptic lawyers accusing him of "defaming Christianity" in his 2009 "Arabic Booker Prize"-winning novel, "Azazeel," or "Beelzebub." The story is set in 5th century Egypt and Syria and deals with the early history of Christianity and sects that challenged the divine nature of Jesus. Insulting religion is illegal in Egypt, and if convicted, Ziedan could face up to five years in prison. /

“Some intellectuals have a more cynical view of the lawsuits. Gamal Eid, executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, said that often lawyers are seeking notoriety through false righteousness. "Many of those lawyers are not even religious," Eid said, "but the furor accompanying these cases put them in the media limelight, which eventually secures them more clients and higher fees."” /

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Arab News, Jeddah; Islam, a Short History" by Karen Armstrong; "A History of the Arab Peoples" by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); "Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); "Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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