4.17.2009

The Golden Age of Islam [750-1258] and the Resurgence of Intellect





In the period between 786-809, during the reign of Haroun al-Rashid, a Persian nobleman wrote a letter to his father describing Baghdad as the 'City of Wonders'. He wrote, "It is difficult for me, with this pen which is of limited substance, to describe the glorious qualities of the city which are but a small part of the honor it achieves, as such that it prides itself in the splendor of power..." So much was told, back then, of this magnificent city of gold and wealth, that philosophers and scholars ventured to Baghdad to be taught the Greek and Roman classics. They named themselves the 'falsafa' or philosophers of the Arabian and Islamic world and spread their wealth of knowledge on architecture, politics, astronomy, math, and medicine to areas of Spain, Sicily, Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Persia, and the Hindu Kush.
Without the falsafa, a Renaissance in the West would never have happened. In the 8th century, Rome looked like an agricultural playing field, open to little, and holding on for dear existence. Christians were divided between Arian heretics (notably German Visigoths) and the universal Catholic Church which aimed its aggression on fighting off these visible heresies. St. Augustine's Just War theory (published in the 4th century) was designed to unify Holy Christendom under the Nicene Creed and kill off any detractors of the one and true form of Christianity.
While Western Christendom fought its way to survival, the Eastern portion relished in the education and vibrance of the falsafa. Although Byzantium was fighting for Christendom in the midst of an Islamic sea, Islam provided Byzantium and the eastern realms with an intelligentsia unparalleled in the West. Trade was booming, madrasahs were built throughout the cities, hippodromes provided entertainment, and the middle class grew.

When science was introduced to the Muslims via the Greek and Roman scholars, debates ensued. Can science and religion coexist? Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali, one of the greatest Muslim jurists and theologians responded, "Mathematics comprises the knowledge of calculation, geometry, and cosmography: it has no connection with the religious sciences, and proves nothing for or against religion..." He goes onto mention, "It is therefore a great injury to religion to suppose that the defense of Islam involves the condemnation of the exact sciences." Here, al-Ghazzali takes a logical approach to understanding the importance of math and its irrelevance to religion.

Furthermore, the falsafa engaged in medicinal examination and scholarship. Men like Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi, a Persian physician, was the first to diagnose smallpox and measles and the first to distinguish the difference between them. He composed the Kitab al-Hawi fi al-Tibb, also known as the Comprehensive Book on Medicine. His book "was translated into Latin in 1279, the title Continens by Faraj ben Salim, a physician of Sicilian-Jewish origin employed by Charles of Anjou to translate medical works"

Politics was another interest among the falsafa. Abu Nasr Muhammad al Farabi, a Turkish scholar, spent years studying and commenting on Plato's Republic. In his essay on The Perfect State, al-Farabi exclaimed the importance of the philosopher-king and went even further to distinguish the leader of the state as an almighty prophet. However, he devoted much time to including the importance of human interdependency and the communal factor for a healthy state to exist. He wrote, "In order to preserve himself and to attain his highest perfections every human being is by his very nature in need of many things which he cannot provide all by himself, he is indeed in need of people who each supply him with some particular need of his." Al-Farabi noted the importance of attaining perfection or working to attain the "perfect state". Although this is often times unattainable, he argued that the state is comprised of smaller divisions each working for the betterment of each other. Happiness is the fundamental goal for every city and cooperation among divisions is paramount to eternal happiness. Al-Farabi is clearly debating the role of government and the necessity of hierarchical relationships in working towards compromise and cooperation.
The falsafa were vital to the health and prosperity of the eastern realms. I argue that they were just as vital to the west. Without the falsafa, the Greek and Roman classics would not have been reintroduced and perhaps Charlemagne would not have sponsored his own Carolingian Renaissance in the 9th century.