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Before Islam
The spread of Islam
     Arabs and Chinese
     Umayyads in Spain
     Arab civilization
     Greek and Arabic scholarship
     Greek to Latin via Arabic

Arab decline
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The Abbasid caliphate: from750

Persia is the region in which resistance comes to a head against the caliphate of the Umayyads in Damascus. The uprising is partly a simple struggle between Arab factions, each of impeccable pedigree in relation to the pioneers of Islam. A revolt in Persia in 747 is headed by descendants of al-Abbas, an uncle of the prophet Muhammad. Their new caliphate, established in 750, will be known as Abbasid.

The involvement of Persia is also significant. The Umayyad caliphate in Damascus derives from the early days of Islam when all Muslims are Arabs. But many Muslims in the east are now Persian, and Persian sophistication is beginning to divert Muslim culture from its simple Arab origins.


Abbasid forces reach and capture Damascus in 750. Abul Abbas is proclaimed the first caliph of a new line. Male members of the Umayyad family are hunted down and killed (though one survives to establish a new Umayyad dynasty in Spain).

The centre of gravity of the Muslim world now moves east, from Syria to Mesopotamia. In 762 a new capital city, Baghdad, is founded on the Tigris. It is about twenty miles upstream from Ctesiphon, one of the leading cities of the preceding Persian dynasty, the Sassanians.


The Arabs and the Chinese: 751-758

By the mid-8th century, with the Arabs firmly in control of central Asia and the Chinese pressing further west than ever before, a clash is sooner or later inevitable. It comes, in 751, at the Talas river. The result is a shattering defeat for the Chinese. For the Arabs an interesting fringe benefit of victory is the valuable secret of how to make paper.

Seven years later the Arabs again demonstrate their strength with an impertinent gesture at the opposite extreme of the Chinese empire. Arriving in 758 along the trade route of the south China coast, they loot and burn Canton.


Umayyad dynasty in Spain: 756-1031

The defeat of the Arabs in 732 by Charles Martel in Gaul is followed by Berber rebellions in north Africa and in Spain. The effect is to limit Arab territorial ambitions in Europe to the Iberian peninsula. Even this proves hard to hold because of hostilities between rival Arab groups.

Stability in Spain is restored by an Umayyad prince, Abd-al-Rahman, who escapes the Abbasid massacre of his family in Syria. He establishes himself in 756 at Cordoba. Here he founds the first great Muslim civilization of Spain.


Abd-al-Rahman begins the process of making Cordoba one of the outstanding cities of the medieval world. On the site of a Roman temple and Visigothic church he builds the famous mosque, with schools and hospitals attached, which survives today as a place of great beauty - even though its vistas of columns and striped arches are brutally interrupted by alterations made for its later use as the city's cathedral.

Cordoba continues to grow in size and wealth and reputation, known equally for its skilled craftsmen and its scholars. Under Abd-al-Rahman III, in the 10th century, it has probably half a million inhabitants. He is the first amir of Cordoba to accord himself the resounding title of caliph.


During the three centuries of Umayyad rule in Spain the Arabs are for the most part in control of almost the entire peninsula. The Christian reconquest makes several tentative beginnings during the period, but northern territories are often then regained by Arab rulers - relying heavily on the wild Berber mercenaries who form the bulk of their armies.

The Berbers eventually prove too hard to control. Concessions to their demands lead in 1031 to the collapse of the Umayyad caliphate and the effective end of Arab rule in Spain. There follows a period of steady Christian advance southwards. It is halted, in 1086, by a tribal leader from north Africa. He is head of a Berber dynasty, the Almoravids.


Baghdad: 8th century

In their new city of Baghdad the Abbasid caliphs adopt the administrative system of the long-established Persian empire. Persian Muslims are as much involved in the life of this thriving place as Arab Muslims. Here Islam outgrows its Arab roots and becomes an international religion. Here the Arabic and early Persian languages coalesce to become, from the 10th century, what is now known as Persian - combining words from both sources and using the Arabic script. Here Mesopotamia briefly recovers its ancient status at the centre of one of the world's largest empires.

At no time is this more evident than in the reign of the best-known of the Abbasid caliphs, Harun al-Rashid.


The luxury and delight of Harun al-Rashid's Baghdad, in the late 8th century, has been impressed on the western mind by one of the most famous works of Arabic literature - the Thousand and One Nights. Some of the stories are of a later date, but there are details in them which certainly relate to this period when for the first time a Muslim court has the leisure and prosperity to indulge in traditional oriental splendour.

The caliphate is now at its widest extent, with reasonable calm on most borders. The international fame of Harun himself can be judged by the emphasis of Charlemagne's biographers on the mutual esteem of these two contemporary potentates, who send each other Rich gifts.


Arab civilization: from the 8th century

By the end of the 8th century a distinctive Arab civilization is emerging in widely separated regions. It is evident from the 8th century in Baghdad in the east and in Cordoba in the west. By the 10th century, between the two, there is a similar centre in the new city of Cairo.

The shared characteristics of these great cities are Islam, the Arabic language and a tolerance which allows Christians and Jews to play a full part in the community. The results include an expansion of trade (making these places the most prosperous of their time, apart from T'ang China), and a level of scholarship and intellectual energy superior to contemporary Christian cities.


Together with the spread of Islam, a lasting result of the events of the 7th century is the triumph of Arabic as a language in the middle east and north Africa. In Palestine and Syria it gradually replaces Aramaic as the popular tongue; in Egypt it does the same with Coptic; further west along the north African coast, it edges the language of the Berbers into a minority status.

The sense of identity of Arabs in subsequent centuries does not necessarily involve descent from the tribes of Arabia. It depends instead on the sharing of Arabic as both language and culture (implying also in most cases a commitment to Islam). It is this which provides the strong Arabic element in the civilization of the Middle Ages, from Mesopotamia to Spain.


Greek and Arabic scholarship: from the 8th century

The eastern Mediterranean coast, occupied so rapidly by the Arabs in the 7th century, has been part of the Greek world since the time of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC. Conquest by the Romans does not displace Greek civilization in this region, nor at first do the Arab caliphs. They rule over communities which understand Greek and which possess manuscripts of the classic works of Greek literature. Many have already been translated in Antioch into Syriac - a local version of Aramaic. Of the medical works of Galen, for example, as many as 130 exist in Syriac.

In the 8th century, when the caliphate has moved to Baghdad, scholars begin translating these available Greek and Syriac texts into Arabic.


Science and philosophy are of equal interest to the Arabs, and they find a full measure of each in Aristotle. Of the many learned commentators on his work, three are outstanding. Each writes on medicine as well as philosophy, combining the practical and theoretical. The first is born in the eastern part of the Arab world, in Turkestan. The other two come from Spain, and one of them is Jewish rather than Muslim.

Avicenna, born near Bukhara in980, has Persian as his native language but he writes mostly in Arabic. He is known in particular for two great encyclopedic compilations, one of philosophy (Ash-Shifa, 'The Recovery') and the other of medicine (Al-Qanun fi'l-Tibb, 'The Canon of Medicine').


Averroës and Maimonides are born in Cordoba within a few years of each other, in1126 and 1135 respectively. They both become leading physicians as well as philosophers. But their religion affects their careers differently.

Averroës, a Muslim, is for a while the chief physician to the ruler of the Almohads, who capture Cordoba in 1148. He lives his whole life in Cordoba and makes his reputation with his extensive commentaries on Aristotle. He also writes a complete handbook of medicine (Al-Kulliyyat, 'The Compendium').


Maimonides, by contrast, leaves Cordoba as a child, with his family, when the new rulers of the Almohads - failing to live up to the tradition of previous Muslim dynasties in Spain - introduce restrictions on the local Jews. He eventually settles in Cairo, where he becomes the city's leading rabbi and for a while a court physician to Saladin.

Maimonides' best-known philosophical work, with the endearing title Guide of the Perplexed, is a treatise in Arabic which attempts to reconcile Aristotelian philosophy with Jewish rabbinic theology.


From Greek to Latin via Arabic: 8th - 13th century

Although Greece is geographically close to Italy, and Greek literature is highly prized in ancient Rome, western Europe loses touch with its Greek intellectual roots during the centuries after the collapse of the Roman empire. The new barbarian clients of papal Rome, whether Franks or Anglo-Saxons, have no interest in Greek. And Byzantine Constantinople has no incentive to enlighten them.

It is the Arab interest in Greek philosophy and science that eventually transmits the tradition to western Europe, along the unbroken belt of Muslim civilization stretching from Greek Antioch in the northeast Mediterranean to Latin Toledo in the west.


The chain of communication stretches from the school of translators set up in Baghdad in the 8th century (Greek into Arabic) to a school of translators established in Toledo in the 13th century (Arabic into Latin).

In the early medieval years Toledo has been a multi-cultural Muslim city, where Christians and Jews prosper under Arab rulers. From the 11th century it maintains, for a while, the same excellent tradition as a Christian city. From this interface between the Arab and Christian worlds, the Latin translations of Greek philosophy (in particular Aristotle) enter the bloodstream of medieval Christianity - in the scholasticism associated above all with Thomas Aquinas.


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