The Myth of the 'Islamic Golden Age'

The Great Mosque of Damascus, also called Umayyad Mosque, was built between 705 and 715 CE by the Umayyad Caliph al-Walīd I. The mosque was built on the site of a Christian basilica dedicated to John the Baptist, honored as a prophet by both Christians and Muslims. A legend dating to the sixth century holds that the building contains the head of John the Baptist. Two shrines commemorating Husayn ibn Ali, whose martyrdom is frequently compared to that of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ, exist within the building premises. The mosque is also believed by Muslims to be the place where Jesus will return before the End of Days (photo: iStock by Getty Images).

The notion of the Islamic golden age is one of the most widespread misconceptions about the general meaning of civilization and Islamic civilization in particular. It refers to a period of Islamic history approximately from the 8th to the 13th century, which is characterized by a remarkable scientific, cultural, economic and educational flourishing. It has put Islam and Muslims on the map. Dozens of books and articles have been composed on the topic.

The subject concerns the inauguration and prolific functioning of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, the translation movement that targeted the world’s classical knowledge, the government’s lavish patronization of knowledge-seeking and scholars, the emergence of various institutions, and Muslims reaching unprecedented heights in various religious and worldly sciences, making them world leaders par excellence.

Despite the fact that most things said about the “Islamic golden age” are in principle true, needless to say that the concept is an outcome of the Western colonial thinking. It was tinted with its ideological coloring. It was part of Orientalism as a European invention, aimed at “dominating, restructuring and having authority over the Orient” (Said).

The issue is two-pronged.

Subjective benchmarking 

First, the Westerners observed Islam and Muslims exclusively through the perspective of their own narrow criteria. They tried to bend the civilizational performance of Muslims to the categories of their civilizational templates. However, when the former, naturally, refused to be bent, their misunderstanding intensified. They became more intrigued, yet frustrated.

Relying solely on subjective benchmarking, the Westerners were able to identify in Islamic civilization only some of its exterior manifestations (branches and leaves), such as science, technology, art, architecture and economic prosperity. Divorcing themselves from their immaterial underpinning and substance, even those, more often than not, were gravely misunderstood.

As a result, the overarching spiritual, ethical and humanizing dimensions of Islamic civilization were excluded. By way of illustration, people were able to see the material advances realized during the professed golden age, but did not pay as much attention to the fact that Islamic spirituality was more than ever on the decline, authentic scholarship was in disarray and on the loose, Islamic orthodoxy was sporadically in jeopardy, and that political decentralization and fragmentation, which perpetuated the scourges of disunity and schism, were the rule of the day.

Muslim, especially Aristotelian, philosophy and theosophical, or pseudo, Sufism – which for obvious reasons never enjoyed wide currency within the mainstream of Islam – were also high on the agenda because they could be easily aligned with the interests of mind colonization. Coupled with myriads of premeditated misunderstandings and outright fabrications, they were often promoted in lieu of Islam’s true spirituality and intellectualism. They were seen as the zing of the “golden age”. Their modern popularity is largely due to the efforts of Western scholarship, rather than that of Muslims. Anyhow, the myth, mystery, and in present age distortion and misrepresentation, of the Orient had to live on at all costs.

Islamic civilization as the intermediate civilization 

Second, most Western scholars have come to hold that “Islamic civilization is a continuation of past civilizations, especially of the Roman and the Greek civilizations, and that the Arabs shuffled the old elements in a new way and just changed their appearance to make it seem a different civilization” (al-Maududi).

Islamic civilization was seen as an intermediate and “messenger” between classical antiquity and the nascent phases of modernity. Hence, Shelomo Goitein titled his 1963 article as “Between Hellenism and Renaissance – Islam, the Intermediate Civilization”.

Stressing how Islamic philosophy is perceived in the Western intellectual tradition, Seyyed Hossein Nasr recaps this outlook thus: “Islamic philosophy appears as simply Graeco-Alexandrian philosophy in Arabic dress, a philosophy whose sole role was to transmit certain important elements of the heritage of antiquity to the medieval West.”

In other words, apart from being a supply line and a conduit of various intellectual outputs, together with cultural forms, to the West, which might otherwise have died out, Muslims and their Islamic civilization also conveniently plugged the holes in the ways the history and disposition of Western civilization were presented.

As such, in a way, Islamic civilization - which already had its heyday (its golden age) - is a part of Western civilization. It became upgraded and surpassed by the latter. And in conformity with all the conventional codes and laws of inference, Western civilization is only to chart the course. Everybody else, especially Muslims, are to follow, or at best, play a secondary role. That logic, at the same time, serves as the basic tenet of current globalization which, predictably, is often seen as global westernization.

The first person who used the idiom “the golden age of Islam” was Josias Leslie Porter (d. 1889), an Irish minister, missionary and traveller (mainly for proselytization purposes), in his “A Handbook for Travelers in Syria and Palestine” (1858). He speaks about Saracenic (Islamic) art whose “best specimens are, like Mohammedanism itself, rapidly decaying.” He then remarked that Damascus was rich in such buildings which, however, were mere “relics of the golden age of Islam, long since passed.” As innocent as it may seem at face value, the idiom was a poisoned cup.

The true golden age 

In truth, the Prophet’s time and the time of his immediate successors represent the golden age of Islam and its civilization. It was then that every aspect of Islam, as the guidance and framework for ultimate success and happiness in both worlds, was most genuinely accomplished, regardless of how its material displays were conceptualized and interpreted by subsequent generations. It was then furthermore that Islam and Muslims were in the best of conditions insofar as their status and mission were concerned.

It is not exaggerating to say that every authentic good Muslims enjoy today, and most authentic goods the world enjoys today, are due to the civilizational feats of the earliest Muslim generations. That is why every sincere Muslim reminisces about those times, wishing and trying to bring its spirit to the dismal contemporary context. Which is the only way to bring about a “Muslim renaissance”.

The Prophet (pbuh) said: “The best people are those of my generation, then those who come after them, then those who come after them. Then, there will come people after them whose testimony precedes their oaths and their oaths precede their testimony” (Sahih al-Bukhari).

Also: “Do not revile (insult) my companions, for by the One in Whose hand is my soul, if one of you were to spend the equivalent of Uhud (mountain) in gold, it would not amount to a mudd (a basic unit of measurement of mass) of one of them, or half of that” (Sahih al-Bukhari).

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