Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Rise Of An Empire

After the Prophet Mohammed (SAW) died in 632 AD, the city of Medina fell into despair and was consumed by sorrow and grief. Uncertainty hung in the air and there was the question of succession. At some point, one of the Prophet’s companions, Abu Bakr came forth and addressed the people. He said:

If you worshipped Mohammed, know that he is dead. If you worshipped God, know that he lives forever.

For the next 200 years, the Muslims engaged in numerous wars with rebellious tribes and fought to maintain their united front. Islam spread rapidly and had transformed 3 continents to become literally the largest empire the world has ever seen. The Arabs transformed the lands they occupied by improving their infrastructure and agriculture flourished.

Makkah remained the centre of this empire because of its significance to Muslims as a place of pilgrimage. Hajj (pilgrimage) became a central and evolutional feature in Islamic life by uniting and emphasizing equality amongst all. Most historians and commentators agree that the annual Hajj set humanity in motion for the first time since the reign of Alexander the Great. Borders that had been closed for 1000 years were re-opened. And where cultures and caravans flowed freely, goods and ideas were often exchanged. Where pilgrims went, traders followed and it soon became the trade centre of the world. Two centuries after the Prophet Mohammed (SAW) passed away, the Islamic empire stretched from Spain until the end of India and it took approximately a year to cross the distance.

At the heart of the empire, lay the fabled city of wealth, Baghdad. Many of the palaces of ancient Baghdad had been lost over the centuries, but in its glory days it rivaled ancient Rome and Athens, with magnificent architectural achievements. Historical accounts state that there were parks, gardens, villas, beautiful promenades filled with bazaars, finely built mosques and bathes. They stretched for miles on both sides of the river. But what made it the greatest city of its time was the company it kept.

From the 8th century onwards, scholars made Baghdad the jewel of the world. The best thinkers and philosophers came to Baghdad in search for answers to pragmatic questions. The Islamic empire’s meteoric growth left its leaders overwhelmed. They had to contend with logistical and engineering problems and needed the help of the greatest minds. By then, Baghdad had established the renowned “House of Wisdom” (Arabic Bait al-Hikma), a magnet for scholars and intellectuals alike.

Muslims, Jews and Christians came from all over the empire to work in those libraries and academies. All these different threads of human knowledge and cultural traditions were thrown together and it had been decided that the great work of the ancients had to be accumulated, deciphered and ameliorated into a new body of knowledge. Scholars were dispatched across the empire to locate as many ancient texts as possible. Unlike their Christian counterparts, Muslim thinkers saw no insurmountable contradiction between their faith and the laws governing the natural world. So they embraced Greek, Persian and Indian writers like Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Sushruta and Charaka; writers the Christian Church considered to be blasphemous. The Scholars accumulated a great collection of existing world knowledge and built on it through their own innovations, interpretations and discoveries.

Scientists and Bureaucrats sought knowledge from every civilization that had sciences before, like the Greeks and Persians and it is deemed as the first International Scientific venture in history. From the Hindus, came the mathematical concepts that guide us today. Scholars of the House of Wisdom translated and transformed the writings of the Greeks and made a gift of them to the modern western world. The Renaissance had its beginnings in Baghdad. They managed to assimilate a lot of the rich legacy of the Hellenistic world, translate it to Arabic and made it available to everyone else in the Islamic empire. Arabic emerged as the language of learning throughout the world.

Having amassed the knowledge, the Muslims then began to challenge it and the scientific process was born. Algebra, Trigonometry, Engineering and Astronomy were some of the products. There were many innovations in medicine too. At that time, the Europeans used to pray to the bones of their saints for cures to their illnesses. Muslim physicians developed an innovative theory that disease was transmitted through tiny airborne organisms, the precursor to the study of germs. They determined that sick patients should be quarantined and then treated – the first hospitals – which had separate wards or areas for patients suffering from different ailments. Even mental illness was treated. Their studies of Anatomy were so sophisticated that they remained in use by Muslim and European physicians for over 600 years.

Muslim scientists were especially intrigued by light lenses and the physiology of the human eye. The ‘father’ of optics, Ibn al-Haytham, is the man responsible for revolutionizing the field which eventually led to the invention of the modern camera. A thousand years befor the practice was taken up, Muslim doctors were removing cataracts surgically, clearing them from the eye with a hollow needle.

Between 700 AD and 750 AD, the need to document and distribute their findings led to the introduction of paper, which the Scholars sought from Central Asia and China. They learned to make paper to copy and transfer their knowledge. Women were used as scribes, transcribing the translations and new writings of the Baghdad scholars. Soon the knowledge acquired from the Greeks, Indians, Persians and Asians were being sold in bookshops in the Street of Booksellers – a street with more than 100 shops with paper and books for sale. It enabled people to think of the globe as a single unit, as humanity. At that time in Europe, a monastery would be fortunate if it had 5 or 10 books.

The Christian world would come to see evidence of Islamic culture in the Spanish city of Cordoba. A thousand years ago, Cordoba was a centre of learning and culture similar to Baghdad. During the Dark Ages, it was the most sophisticated and prosperous metropolis on the European continent. It had street lights, running water, paved roads, libraries, hospitals and palaces. It was a Muslim city and in the 9th and 10th centuries, known as the city of light, in contrast to the rest of Europe’s cities who were described as being very dark in comparison.

Cordoba was certainly one of the biggest, most exciting cities in Europe on the account of the various people who visited there. They described the place as resplendent with flowers, open streets and big houses in contrast to those in Paris who lived in shacks by the river. Most of Europe languished in poverty and squalor while Cordoba was a spectacle of prosperity and enlightenment. Evidence of its former glory is in the elaborate detail of the Cordoba cathedral which was originally a mosque, the largest in Europe. The Islamic architecture found in Cordoba, Spain mirrored and influenced other architectural endeavours throughout Europe in various cathedrals.

A 10th century Christian Saxon nun described Cordoba as the “ornament of the world”, and was very taken with the place. They lived lavish lifestyles in extraordinary luxury. The Muslim elite relished time on lush carpets surrounded by perfume, dined on spiced delicacies served on porcelain and strolled in gardens irrigated by complex water systems, while the rest of Europe suffered through the Dark Ages.

Europe was also introduced to Islamic culture during the Crusades. When the Crusaders occupied Jerusalem and the surrounding areas, they harassed traders and caravans that passed by their castles. In their raids, they encountered the luxurious lifestyle of the Arabs, unheard of in Europe, in the form of textiles, silks and inlaid metal work…the good life and the likes of which they had never encountered before. They were blown away for they had never seen such quantity and most of them took these items back with them as souvenirs. In fact, a whole industry developed to provide souvenirs for the Crusaders on their return to Europe.

It is perhaps a form of Western bias to imagine that the Crusaders were a decisive force in world events, devastating the Islamic culture and trade. But the truth is that while the knights of the Crusades were bunkering down in their castles, Islam was spreading its influence and flourishing. Mosques were now on every horizon. They welcomed traders and housed schools and hospitals. Through Islamic Architecture, Literature and Music, a vibrant culture was emerging in celebration of a singular faith. Faith had launched an empire, united by trade, which brought innovation.

Business was expedited by a revolutionizing concept called the sakk or cheque, which could be written in Spain and cashed in India, based on trust and faith in the bearer. Muslims became some of the greatest merchants of the Middle Ages and the greatest craftsmen as well. Muslim blacksmiths learnt how to fold steel from the Persians, to give it strength and flexibility. Swords made in Toledo and Damascus had no equal in the world. But the economic backbone of Islamic wealth was textiles, the demand being enormous for Cashmere, Cotton and Silk. While European garments were made of course Woolen and Linen, Muslims wore brocaded fabrics of Organdy, Damask and Taffeta – words that came into the English language from Arabic and Persian.

Complex patterns in silk, threaded with gold were coveted by the European elite. Most of these fabrics were trimmed with decorative Arabic text from the Qur’an and sometimes appeared in shocking proximity to Christendom’s holiest icon. It is not unusual to find in some Renaissance paintings of the Virgin Mary wearing fancy, intricately patterned cloth, precious silks embroidered or woven with gold designs; sometimes saying things in Arabic inscription like “There is no God but God and Mohammed is his prophet”.

Crusaders returning to Europe were forever changed by the Islamic lifestyles they encountered in the Middle East. For instance, they acquired certain palates by being exposed to spicy food and were taken by the functionality of soap. As a result, they imported spices, soap, textiles etc. and became more interested in what was going on in the Middle East. They even learnt Arabic to engage with merchants and advance trade. The magnificent ideas and developments borne in this era significantly influenced Thomas Aquinas and eventually led to the European Renaissance.

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