Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr. A Concise History of the Middle East. Chpt. 8. Islamic Civilization


Now that you have been taken — or dragged — through almost seven centuries of political history, it is time to look at the civilization as a whole. But what should we call it? 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. But, for much of the period you have studied so far, Muslims were still a rninority 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. Because “Islamic” is a more comprehensive term than “Arabic”, I have chosen the title “Islamic Civilization” for this chapter.



Islam begins with a profession of faith, but it is manifested and elaborated by what Muslims do and what they condemn. Ever mindful of the impending Judgment Day, Muslims wish to know and to obey the rules of behavior that will please God and maintain a harmonious society. These rules have been carefully compiled and organized into a law code called the Shari’ah (an Arabic word meaning “way”). It is somewhat like the Talmud for Orthodox Judaism; there is nothing comparable in Christianity. The Shari’ah tries to describe all possible human acts, classifying them as obligatory, recommended, neutral, objectionable, or forbidden in the eyes of God, the supreme legislator. The Shari’ah covers, in addition to commercial and criminal law, rules about marriage and divorce, child rearing, other interpersonal relationships, property, food and clothing, hygiene, and the manifold aspects of worship. At least up to the time of the Mongols, there was nothing a Muslim might experience or observe on which the Shari’ah was silent.

Development of Jurisprudence

The first Muslims based their ideas of right and wrong on the customary norms of the society they knew, that of western Arabia. Caravan traders had worked out elaborate rules about commercial transactions and property rights, while criminal law still held to the principles of retribution based on the tribal virtues (the muruwwah). Muhammad’s mission broadened and strengthened the realm of rights and responsibilities. The Quran spelled out many points, and Muhammad’s precepts and practices (what later Muslims would call his sunnah) fixed some of the laws of the nascent ummah. After the Prophet died, his survivors tried to pattern their lives on what he had said or done, and on what he had told them to do or not to do. Muhammad’s companions, especially the first four caliphs, became role models to the Muslims who came later; indeed, their practices were the sunnah for the caliphs and governors who followed them. Gradually, the traditional norms of Arabia took on an Islamic pattern, as the companions inculcated the values of the Quran and the sunnah in their children and instructed the new converts to Islam. Even after the men and women who had known Muhammad died out, the dos and don’ts of Islam were passed down by word of mouth for another century.

Because of the Arab conquests, the early Muslims picked up many concepts and institutions of Roman and Persian law. Quran reciters and Muhammad’s companions gradually gave way to arbiters and judges who knew the laws and procedures of more established empires. As the ummah grew and more arguments arose about people’s rights and obligations within this hybrid system, the leaders and the public realized that the laws of Islam must be made clear, uniform, organized, acceptable to most Muslims, and thereby enforceable. By the time the Abbasids took power in 750, Muslims were starting to study the meaning of the Quran, the life of Muhammad and the sayings and actions ascribed to him by those who had known him. A specifically Islamic science of right versus wrong, or jurisprudence, thus evolved. Its Arabic name, fiqh, originally meant “learning,” and even now a close relation exists in the Muslim mind between fuqaha (experts on the Shari’ah) and the ulama (the Muslim religious scholars, or literally “those who know”).

Sources of the Law

Historians of Islam see in the Shari’ah elements taken from many ancient legal systems, but Muslims customarily view their law as having four, or most five, main sources: the Quran, the hadiths (documented statements about the sunnah of Muhammad), interpretation by analogy, consensus of the ummah, and (for some) judicial opinion. Strictly speaking, only the first two are tangible sources. The Quran, as you know, is the record of God’s words to Muhammad. It contains many commandments and prohibitions, as well as value judgments on the actions of various individuals and groups in history. Let me give some examples. The Quran lays down explicit rules, obeyed by all Muslims up to modern times, for divorce (2:226-238), contracting debts (2:281-283), and inheriting property (4: 11-17). When it describes the wickedness of the dewellers on Sodom (7:78- 82), the message is implicit: clearly their acts are unlawful for Muslims. But the variety of human action far exceeds what the Quran could cover. It might order people to pray, but only the exmaple of Muhammad taught Muslims how to do so.

The sunnah of the Prophet was broader than the Quran, but Muslims had to avoid certain pitfalls in order to use it as a source for the Shari’ah. How could they be sure that an act had been committed or enjoined by the Prophet? There had to be a hadith (which literally means “news”), that said he had done it or said it. The hadith had to be validated by a chain of reporters, an isnad. The recorder of the hadith would have to start by saying who had reported to him this news, and who had told his informant, and who had told him, and so on back to the person who had witnessed the action or saying in question. The isnad served the function of a source footnote in a term paper; it authenticated the information by linking it to an established authority. Since the hadiths were not written down until more than a century had gone by, the isnads were needed to weed out those falsely attributed to Muhammad. What if the isnad, too, were fabrications? To weed out hadiths with false isnads, the early ulama became quite expert on the lives of the Prophet, his family, and his companions. If it could be proved that one link in the chain of transmitters was weak because the person in question was a liar or could not have known the previous transmitter, then the hadith was suspect. After a century of dedicated labor by many scholars, there emerged several authoritative collections of hadiths, six for Sunni Muslims and several others for the Shi’i sects. They are still being used by Muslims today.

Meanwhile, various scholars helped to formulate the Shari’ah itself, which they did by writing books that compiled the laws of Islam for reference and guidance. Because of the numerous changes that had occurred in the ummah since the lifetime of the Prophet, the Quran and the hadith compilations could not, in the view of most ulama, cover every conceivable problem. They also adopted reasoning by analogy, comparing a new situation with one for which legislation already existed. The Quran forbids Muslims to drink wine; therefore, the ulama reasoned that all liquors having the same effect as wine should also be banned. In much of what they wrote, Muslim scholars looked to the consensus of the ummah to settle hard legal points. This did not mean polling every Muslim from Cordoba to Samarqand. Rather, consensus meant that which could be agreed upon by those who had studied the law. It was through this practice that many laws from older societies were incorporated into the Shari’ah. Thus the laws of Islam could cover lives far removed from conditions known to Muhammad: a sailor in the Indian Ocean, a rice farmer in the marshes of lower Iraq, or a Turkish horse nomad in Transoxiana. In addition, the early legists incorporated decisions that had been made by the wisest judges in difficult or contested cases, rather as legal precedents are used in the administration of Anglo-Saxon law. The inclusion of “judicial opinion” gave the Shari’ah added flexibility and relevance to changing needs and changing conditions. In time, however, this fifth source fell out of common use.

Sunni Legal Systems

The compilation of the Shari’ah into authoritative books was, at least for the Sunni majority, completed by the late ninth century. Several “rites” or systems of Sunni legal thought (madhhab, a term no English word adequately translates) resulted, of which four have survived: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali. The Hanafi rite is the largest of the four. It grew up in Iraq under Abbasid patronage and made considerable use of consensus and judicial reasoning (in addition, of course, to the Quran and hadiths) as sources. Today, the Hanafi rite predominates in Muslim India and Pakistan and in most of the lands formerly part of the Ottoman Empire. The Maliki rite developed in Medina and made heavy use of the Prophetic hadiths that circulated there. It now prevails in Upper Egypt and in northern and western Africa. The Shafi’i rite grew up in ninth-century Egypt as a synthesis of the Hanafi and Maliki systems, but with greater stress on analogy. It was strong in Egypt and Syria at the time of Salah al-Din; it now prevails in the Muslim lands around the Indian Ocean and in Indonesia. The fourth canonical rite, that of the great jurist and theologian Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855), rejected analogy, consensus, and judicial opinion as sources. Because of its strictness, the Hanbali rite has tended to have a smaller following, though its adherents have included the thinkers who inspired the modern reform movement within Islam. It is also the official legal system in present-day Saudi Arabia. Other Sunni rites used to exist but have died out. The substantive differences among the four rites are minor except in matters of ritual, and each (except at times the Hanbali rite) has regarded the others as legitimate.

Shi’i Legal Systems

Shi’i jurisprudence also relies on the Quran, hadiths (with the difference that an authenticating isnad should include one of the legitimate imams), analogy, and consensus. Some differences do exist between Shi’i and Sunni Muslims over the authenticity of certain statements by the Prophet, especially on whether he was partial to Ali. In certain matters Shi’i law is more permissive: it allows temporary marriage, the female line receives a slightly larger share of the inheritance, and some sects let a Shi’i Muslim deny his religious identity if his safety is at stake. The major difference is that, while most Sunni rites allow no reinterpretation of the Shari’ah, in Shi’ism the imams can interpret the law and are regarded as being, in principle, alive. Among Twelve-Imam Shi’is, whose last imam is hidden, certain qualified legal experts called mujtahids can interpret the Shari’ah until the twelfth imam reappears. This “interpretation” (Vtihad) does not mean changing the law to suit one’s temporary convenience, but rather the right to go back to and examine the Quran and the hadith compilations without being bound by consensus. In this sense, Shi’ism has kept a flexibility long since lost by the Sunni majority, and the Shi’i ulama, especially the mujtahids, have remained influential in countries like Iran right up to modern times. Indeed, the central issue among Sunni Muslim ulama committed to Islamic reform has been to regain for themselves the right of ijtihad.

Administration of the Law

At the dawn of Islamic history, the administration and enforcement of i the law was handled by the caliphs and their provincial governors. Greater complexity of society led to more specialization, and they began to appoint Muslims who knew the Quran and the sunnah (of the caliphs as well as of Muhammad) to serve as quadis or “judges.” As the judicial system evolved, an aspiring qadi at first got his training under an experienced master jurist. The schools were instituted in the big city mosques for the training of one (or more) of the various legal rites. The training schools for propagandists of Isma’ili Shi’ism and later the madrasahs founded by the Seljuks and other Sunni dynasties became centers for training judges and legal experts. Students would read the law books and commentaries under the guidance of one or several masters. When they had memorized enough of the information to function as qadis, they would receive certification to practice on their own.

Various other judicial offices also evolved; the mufti (“jurisconsult”), who gives authoritative answers to technical questions about the law for a court or sometimes for individuals; the shahid (“witness”), who certifies that a certain act took place, such as the signing of a contract; and the muhtasib (market inspector), who enforces the Shari’ah in public places. It is interesting to note that the Muslim legal system had and still has no lawyers; that is, opposing parties are not represented by attorneys in court cases. Muslims felt that an advocate or attorney might well enrich himself at the expense of the litigant or the criminal defendant. There were also no prosecutors or district attorneys. In most cases the qadi had to decide on the basis of the evidence presented by the litigants and the witnesses, guided by relevant sections of the Shari’ah and sometimes by the advice of a mufti.

The caliph was supposed to assure that justice prevailed in the ummah not by interpreting the Shari’ah, but by appointing the wisest and best qadis to administer it. True, many of the Umayyad caliphs flouted the Shari’ah in their personal lives, but its rules remained valid for the ummah as a whole. We must always distinguish between what an individual can get away with doing in his home (or palace, or dormitory room) and what he can do in public, in the possible presence of a police officer. But no Umayyad or Abbasid caliph could abolish the Shari’ah or claim that it did not apply to him as to all other Muslims. When the caliphs could no longer appoint qadis and other legal officers, the various sultans and princes who took over his powers had to do so. When the caliphate could no longer serve as the symbol of Muslim unity, then everyone’s common acceptance of the Shari’ah bridged the barriers of contending sects and dynasties to unite Islam. Even when the Crusaders or Mongols entered the lands of Islam and tried to enforce other codes of conduct, Muslims went on following the Shari’ah in their everyday lives. And, to a degree that may surprise some Westerners, they still do. You can go into a bazaar (covered market) in Morocco and feel that it is, in ways you can sense even if you cannot express them, like bazaars in Turkey, Pakistan, or thirty other Muslim countries. A Sudanese student greets me with the same salam alaykum (“peace to you”) that I have heard from Iranians and Algerians. The common performance of worship, observance of the Ramadan fast, and of course the pilgrimage to Mecca are all factors unifying Muslims from every part of the world.

Applicability of the Law

But is the Shari’ah relevant today? The laws are immobile, critics claim, and cannot set the norms for human behavior in a rapidly changing world. Even in the period we have studied so far, strong rulers tried to bypass certain aspects of the Shari’ah, perhaps by a clever dodge, more often by issuing secular laws, or qanuns. The ulama, as guardians of the Shari’ah, had no police force with which to punish such a ruler. But they could stir up public opinion, even to the point of rebellion. No ruler would have dared to change the five pillars of Islam and, until recently, none interfered with laws governing marriage, inheritance, and other aspects of personal status. Islam today must deal with the same problem facing Orthodox Judaism: How can a religion based on adherence to a divinely sanctioned code of conduct survive in a world in which many of its nation-states and leading minds no longer believe in God — or at any rate act as if they do not? Perhaps the time will come when practicing Muslims, Christians, and Jews will settle their differences — even the Arab-lsraeli conflict — in order to wage war on their common enemies: secularism, positivism, hedonism, and the various ideologies that have arisen in modern times.

What parts of the Shari’ah are irrelevant? Are the marriages contracted by young people for themselves more stable than those arranged for them by their parents? Has the growing frequency of fornication and adultery in the West strengthened or weakened the institution of the family? If the family is not to be maintained, in what environment should children be nurtured and taught how to act like men or women? Has the blurring of sex roles in modern society increased or decreased the happiness and security of men and women? Should the drinking of intoxicating beverages be allowed, let alone encouraged, when alcoholism is a major public health problem in most industrialized countries today? Does lending money at interest encourage or inhibit capital formation? Do gambling and other games of chance enrich or impoverish most of the people who engage in them? If the appeal to jihad in defense of Islam seems aggressive, in the name of what beliefs have the most destructive wars of this century been fought? Would Muslims lead better lives if they ceased to pray, fast in Ramadan, pay zakat, and make the hajj to Mecca? These are just some of the questions that must be answered by people who claim that Islam and its laws are anachronistic.



In the early period, the social structure of Islam was far more formalized than that of our society nowadays. Every class had certain rights and duties, as did each religion, sex, and age group. The rulers were expected to preserve order and promote justice among their subjects, to defend the ummah against non-Muslim powers, and to assure maximum production and exploitation of the wealth of their realm. Sunni Islam developed an elaborate political theory. It stated that the legitimate head of state was the caliph, who must be an adult male, sound in mind, descended from the Quraysh tribe. His appointment must be publicly approved by other Muslims. In practice, though, the assent given to a man’s becoming caliph might be no more than his own. Some of the caliphs were juveniles. A few were insane. Eventually, the caliphal powers were taken over by vizirs, provincial governors, and military adventurers. The fiction, however, was maintained, and the Sunni legist might have asked whether to be governed by a usurper or a despot was worse than by no ruler at all. The common saying was that a thousand years of tyranny was preferable to one day of anarchy.

The abuse of political power was often checked by the moral authority of the ulama. The rulers were to govern with the aid of classes commonly called the “men of the pen” and the “men of the sword.” The men of the pen were the administrators who collected and disbursed the state revenues and carried out the rulers’ orders, plus the ulama who provided justice, education, and various welfare services to Muslims. The Christian clergy and the Jewish rabbinate had functions in their religious communities similar to those of the ulama. The men of the sword expanded and defended the borders of Islam and also, especially after the ninth century, administered land grants and maintained local order.

Social Groupings

The great majority of the people in the Muslim world belonged to the subject class, responsible for producing the wealth of the ummah. The most basic division of subjects was between nomads and settled peoples, with the former group further divided into countless tribes and clans, and the latter broken down into many occupational groups. Urban merchants and artisans had various trade guilds, often tied to specific religious sects or Sufi orders (brotherhoods of Muslim mystics), which looked out for their common interests. By far the largest group was the peasant population, whose status tended to be lower. There were also slaves; some served in the army or the bureaucracy, others worked for merchants or manufacturers, and still others were household servants. Plantations using slave labor were rare. Islam did not prohibit slavery, which was common in seventh-century Arabia, but it enjoined masters to treat their slaves kindly and encouraged their liberation. Slaves could be prisoners of war, children who had been sold by their parents, or captives taken by slave traders from their homes.

Crossing these horizontal social divisions were vertical ones based on ancestry, race, religion, and sex. Although various hadiths showed that Muhammad and his companions wanted to play down distinctions based on family origins, early Islam did nonetheless give higher status to descendants of the earliest Muslims or of Arabs generally than to later converts to the religion. As you have seen in earlier chapters, Persians and then Turks gradually rose to the same status as Arabs. Other ethnic groups, such as Berbers, Indians, and Black Africans, kept a distinct identity and often a lower status even after their conversion to Islam. Racial discrimina- tion, however, was generally less acute than it has been in Christian countries in modern times.

The divisions based on religion, though, were deep and fundamental. Religion was a corporate experience, a community of believers bound together by adherence to a common set of laws and beliefs, rather than a private and personal relationship between each person and his maker. Religion and politics were inextricably intertwined. Christians and Jews did not have the same rights and obligations as Muslims; they were protected communities living within the realm of Islam where the Shari’ah prevailed. Exempted from military duties, Christians and Jews were also not allowed to bear arms. If they did not have to pay zakat, they did have to pay a head tax vfizyah) plus whatever levies were needed to maintain their own religious institutions. They could not testify in a Muslim court against a Muslim, or ring bells or blow shofars (“ram’s horns”) or have noisy processions that might interrupt Muslim worship. Sometimes the restrictions were more humiliating, and in a few cases their lives and property were threatened. But they were able to maintain their identity as Jews or Christians and follow their own laws and religious beliefs for hundreds of years. The treatment of religious minorities in Muslim countries that upheld the Shari’ah was better than in those that have recently watered the code down or abandoned it altogether, and much, much better than the treatment of Jews in medieval Christendom, tsarist Russia, or Nazi Germany.

As for social divisions based on sex, Islam (like most religions that grew up in the agrarian age) is patriarchal and gives certain rights and responsibilities to men that it denies to women. Muslims believe that biology has dictated different roles for the two sexes. Men are expected to govern countries, wage war, and support their families; women to bear and rear children, take care of their households, and obey their husbands. There is little women’s history in early Islam; a few women took part in wars and governments, wrote poetry, or had profound mystical experiences, but most played second fiddle to their husbands, fathers, brothers, or sons.

Importance of Family Life

As you may have guessed, the family has played a primary role in Islamic society. Marriages were arranged by the parents or the oldest living relatives of the potential couple, because it was understood that a marriage would tie two families together or tighten the bonds between two branches of the same family (marriages between cousins were preferred because they helped keep the family property intact). Muslims assumed that love between a man and and a woman would develop once they were married and had to share the cares of maintaining a household and bringing up children. Romantic love did arise between unmarried persons, but it rarely led to marriage. The freedom of Muslim men to take additional wives (up to a total of four) may have caused some domestic trouble, but many an older wife rejoiced when her husband took a younger one who could better bear the strains of frequent pregnancy and heavy housework. The “harem” of the Western imagination was rare. Only the rich nd powerful man could afford to take the four wives allowed him by the Quran; many poor men could not afford any, since the groom had to provide a dowry. Islamic law made divorce easy for husbands, almost impossible for wives; but in practice divorce was rare, since the wife got to keep the dowry. A Muslim marriage contract might also discourage divorce by specifying that the groom pay part of the dowry to the bride at once and the rest of it only if he later divorced her.

Another point worth making about family life is that parents expected (and received) the unquestioning obedience of their sons and daughters, even after they had grown up. Once a woman married, she had also to defer to her husband’s parents. Women naturally wanted to bear sons, who would eventually give them daughters-in-law to boss around. Parents disciplined their children harshly; yet, they loved them deeply and took great pride in their achievements in later life. While a youth usually learned his father’s trade, the gifted son of simple peasant or tradesman could get an education and move into the ranks of the ulama or the administrative elite. Of course, a vizir’s son might also turn into a bum. Opportunities for a girl to receive an education were limited, but certain occupations were re- served for women, and wives often worked beside their husbands in the fields or in domestic industries, such as weaving. Relationships between brothers, sisters, and cousins had an intensity (usually love, sometimes hate) that is rare in Western families, perhaps because Muslim youths spent so much of their free time within the family circle.

Personal Relationships

Even social relationships outside the household were apt to be more intense than in our culture. The individual in Islamic society tended to have fewer acquaintances than in our more mobile world, but his friendships (and enmities) were apt to be stronger and more enduring. Physical as well as verbal expressions of endearment between two friends of the same sex were common and did not usually signify homosexuality (though such relationships did exist). Men’s friendships were generally based on common membership in a Sufi brotherhood, trade guild, or athletic club. We know less about women’s social arrangements.

Both men and women entertained their friends, segregated by sex, at home. Mutual visiting, at which food and drink were shared and news exchanged, was the most common pastime for every class in Islamic society. The usual time for this activity was in the late afternoon or early evening as the weather cooled off, or at night during the month of Ramadan. Large groups of men (or of women) liked to gather at someone’s house to listen to poetry recitations or, less often, musical performances. Both sexes liked to go on picnics; Egypt and Iran even retained pre-Islamic holidays that required making an early spring trip into the countryside for a meal outdoors. The two great festivals of Islam, the Feast of (Abraham’s) Sacrifice during the month of the hajj and the Feast of Fast-breaking following Ramadan, were major social occasions everywhere. People also gave lavish parties to celebrate births, circumcisions, and weddings. Funeral processions, burials, and postburial receptions also played a big part in the social life of Muslims. While a death was mourned, of course, the survivors consoled themselves with the certain belief that the deceased would soon be with God. Men also got together in mosques, bazaars, public baths, and restaurants. Women might also meet their friends at women’s baths, at the public well where they drew their water, or at the streams where they did their laundry. Compared with our society, early Muslims had less freedom and privacy, but more security and less loneliness.

Food and Clothing

The foods Muslims ate, the clothing they wore, and the houses in which they lived differed according to their economic condition, locality, and the era in question, so it is hard to generalize on how they met their fundamental needs. Wheat was the basic cereal grain. It was usually ground at a mill, kneaded at home, and baked in small flattened loaves in large communal or commercial ovens. Bulgur or parched wheat was used in cooking, especially in Syria and Palestine. Wheat gruel or porridge was eaten by bedouins. Rice was less common then than now; corn and pota- toes were unknown. Many fruits and vegetables were eaten, some fresh, others dried, pickled in vinegar, or preserved in sugar. Sheep, goats, camels, water buffaloes, and cows were milked, and the dairy products consumed included cheese, butter (also clarified for use in cooking), and yogurt. The meat most commonly eaten was lamb or mutton, usually roasted or baked. Various animal organs not highly prized by Westerners, such as eyes, brains, hearts, and testicles, were considered delicacies. Pork was forbidden to Muslims, and so were fermented beverages, although Hanafi Muslims were allowed a very mild date wine. Lax Muslims drank wine from grapes and other fruits, beer, and araq (a fermented beverage made from date palm sap, molasses, or rice). The observant majority drank fruit juices in season, sherbet (originally snow mixed with rose water or fruit syrup), and diluted yogurt. Coffee and tea did not come into wide-spread use until the seventeenth century. Middle Eastern food has never been highly spiced; salt, pepper, olive oil, and lemon juice are the commonest seasonings. Saffron was used for its yellow coloring more than its flavor, because Muslim cooks like to enhance the appearance of their dishes. Honey, more than sugar, served as a sweetening agent.

People’s clothing had to meet stiff requirements for modesty and durability. Linen or cotton clothes were worn in hot weather and woolen ones in the winter — and at all times of the year by some mystics and nomads. Loose-fitting robes were preferred to trousers, except by horseback riders who wore baggy pants. Muslim men covered their heads in all formal situations, either with turbans or various types of brimless caps. Different colored turbans might identify a man’s status; for instance, green singled out one who had made the hajj to Mecca. Arab nomads wore flowing kuJyahs (headcloths) bound by headbands. Hats with brims and caps with visors were never worn by Muslims, because they would have interfered with prostrations during worship. Women always wore some type of long cloth to cover their hair, if not also to veil their faces. Christians, Jews, and other minorities wore distinctive articles of clothing and headgear. If what you wore showed your religion and status, as did the attire of a stranger you might meet in the bazaar, each of you would know how to act toward the other.

Houses were constructed from whatever type of building material was locally most plentiful: stone, mud brick, or sometimes wood. High ceilings and windows helped provide ventilation in hot weather; and in the winter, only warm clothing, hot food, and an occasional charcoal brazier made indoor life bearable. Many houses were built around courtyards containing gardens and fountains. Rooms were not filled with furniture; people were used to sitting cross-legged on carpets or very low platforms. Mattresses and other bedding would be unrolled when people were ready to sleep and put away after they got up. In houses of people who were reasonably well-off, cooking facilities were often in a separate enclosure. Privies always were.



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).

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.

Theology (Kalam)

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 (mentioned in chapter 6). 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 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.

Review of Muslim Divisions

Let me now go over with you the various bases of division within Islam. 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.

Mathematics and Science

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.

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.


Every subject mentioned so far in this survey is part of the literature of il the Muslim peoples. 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.”

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. 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.



The social, cultural, and intellectual life of early Islam was so rich and so varied that it defies brief descriptive surveys. The Muslim peoples of the Middle East drew on their own pre-lslamic traditions, plus those of the various civilizations with which they came in contact, many of which had already flourished for centuries. They absorbed the customs and ideas that would go with their basic belief in the unity of God and the mission of Muhammad — and rejected the others.

Over many centuries and under many dynasties, the peoples of the Middle East continued to develop and to enrich this many-faceted civilization. Even the destruction of Baghdad and other great cities during the Mongol invasions did not stop these processes. Nor did centuries of Muslim-Christian warfare stop Europe from learning the arts and sciences of Islam at the beginning of the Renaissance. Indeed, I maintain that the .high point of Muslim power and artistic expression was not reached until the sixteenth century, the era of the “gunpowder empires” that will be the subject of my next chapter.

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