SPEAKER: Classical Islam promoted a Bourgeois revolution in the political economy and culture of the Middle East, Central Asia, North Africa, everywhere the civilization went. It was predicated on a meritocracy to a large extent. And the entrepreneurial spirit created by this society created wealth and the demand for goods, services, and trade.
Despite the many political divisions in Islam that we talked about in the last segment, the cultural and religious unity of Islamic civilization promoted ease of trade and movement of people, goods, and ideas across the expanse of the entire region.
In the great cities of the Near East, Muslims soon encountered the legacy of Greco-Roman learning. In particular, they encountered the scientific and intellectual heritage of the Greco-Roman period that had been preserved and transmitted by Syriac churchmen and that had survived and been studied anew in the great cities such as Alexandria, Odessa, and Antioch.
These materials were translated into Arabic by many Arabic-speaking Christians, including some of the writings of figures such as Euclid and Ptolemy, many others from the Greco-Roman classical antiquity.
Muslims could easily have rejected this body of knowledge that came from outside of the Islamic world, but Quranic verses, many in fact, and Hadith of the prophet speak convincingly and emphatically of the central importance of knowledge in all of human life and thus to Islam.
This encouraged the development of a peculiarly Islamic institution which we call seeking knowledge, [ARABIC] in Arabic. And this included both seeking knowledge in the Islamic sciences in particular in the study of Hadith, the traditions and sayings of the prophet, as well as in the non-Islamic sciences.
Among Muslim religious and literary intellectuals, the notion of loving God with the mind came to enjoy a hallowed place in Islamic society and culture. The reasoning went something like this. If God had endowed human beings with reason, it must be for some divine purpose. So the exercise of human reason in a quest for knowledge, all manner of knowledge, what today we would call religious or non-religious, a quest for understanding, must be the fulfillment of that divine purpose and therefore is given a religious significance.
It follows that a better understanding of the physical universe served a religious purpose. And to know creation in all of its incredible variety and beauty was in some sense to better understand God and God's purpose in creation.
This spirit of free inquiry and the drive to understand all that was created in the world promoted a uniquely Muslim scholastic philosophy and theology in Islam. And this effort was also passed to Jewish and Christian subcultural minorities in the world of Islam during the Middle Ages.
From the Muslim East across North Africa to the Muslim West and through Islamic Spain from there to Provence, this material, which was cultivated in the works of such scholars as Ibn Rushd, who was known by the European name of Averroes, and Moses ben Maimon, a Jewish philosopher known as Maimonides in the Latin West, translation of their works on Aristotle and on systematic theology and philosophy became part and parcel of the transmission of scholastic learning to the Latin West.
And we find reference to their work, as well as their conceptual framework, in the works of scholars in the Latin West, such as Thomas Aquinas.
There were also several practical effects to this search for knowledge that characterizes much of classical Islam. For one, the production of such knowledge, its research and dissemination, required the patronage of members of the upper classes to be able to encourage those who were so inclined and adept at higher studies to be able to conduct their research unfettered by practical considerations.
But more so, more than that, medical research among these various sciences we're talking about contribute to the sustaining of life to research in optics and biology, the results of which were also passed to the Latin West. In the astronomical and mathematical sciences, there were practical effects because of the need to orient all Islamic buildings, in particular, mosques, places of worship, to the holy sites in Mecca.
This meant that precise astronomical calculations of the orientation of those sacred precincts in Mecca were required in order to know how to position buildings. And so there was a tremendous amount of interplay between Muslim scientists and engineers as to how to get the precise orientation towards those places, the holy places in Mecca, while at the same time maximizing the effect of sunlight and wind and so forth.
This level of research involved calendrical study and climatological study and, as I mentioned, engineering for ways in which to preserve energy and to deal with the excessive heat through much of the summer months in the lands of the Middle East.
One of those practical applications that I'm referring to, we see in a architectural design, part of an architectural structure, very common in Middle Eastern lands called the mashrabiya. And this is just a decorative ornament. But it's very much in the style of a mashrabiya that you can find, say, in places like old Cairo today or in old Fez in North Africa.
On the one hand, it's very consistent with Islamic decorative art in that you have geometric patterns on all sides, but it has a number of practical effects as well. When used in a private residential dwelling, a woman on the upper floor looking out from her window pane could see everything that was going on on the street below or in an inner courtyard while, at the same time, having her modesty, as well as her privacy and her eavesdropping, protected from those to whom she was listening.
At the same time, this had a very practical, energy efficient function in that it enabled cool breezes to enter into a home or a public building when it was used as a doorway during the very, very warm summer months of Middle Eastern North African and Central Asian lands and, during the winter months, used to shut off the escaping of whatever warm air had been captured inside the particular building.
For all the application of practical use of knowledge in the construction of Islamic buildings, Islamic cities, architectural monuments in Islam are a tribute not to the caliph or to the emir or sultan, but rather to God. And perhaps the best illustration of this or one such illustration is the Alhambra palace in Granada, Spain, today.
The Arabic inscription that one finds written and decorated all along the walls of this magnificent palace that you can visit is Wa-la galib illa Allah, which translates to mean there is no victorious one but God, as though the building itself were proclaiming the absolute oneness of God, the absolute sovereignty of God, over all creation. This is the message of all of Islamic calligraphy, all of Islamic art, all of Islamic construction.
The patterns of geometric design testify to the intimate variety and to the oneness of God's creation. They are a testament to the unity of humankind as a partner with God in that creation that is Islam.
For literary intellectuals, even appreciation of beauty and the cultivation of pleasure God has granted them had a particular place, an accepted place, in the human experience. And we have absolutely beautiful lyrics in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Urdu, the principal Islamic languages of the pre-modern period into the modern period.
I'd like to give you a couple of examples of those lyrics. Both of the examples I have chosen are from Islamic, Spain, al-Andalus, one from the 11th century, the second one from the 13th century. But we find these in all of the languages I've mentioned throughout the entire period.
The poet writes, many a night near the bend of the river have I passed in the warm company of a girl with bracelets like the river's curve. And when she took off her cloak, her cloak off the soft bend tree branch, how beautifully the calyx came loose from the flower.
How long have I waited for this evening which, after obstacles, fate has given to me. When we've realized our hopes in a garden which gives off the perfume of ambergris, and the garden is all silvery and gold, and its flowers are like dirhams and dinars, the gray doves sing. And the [ARABIC] sways. And the sun struts around in its yellow skirt.
And in the river surrounded by plants, a sword is drawn on a carpet of green-- a river whose beauty makes ecstatic those who have never known ecstasy and makes good poets of those who have never written a verse.
We've received your request
You will be notified by email when the transcript and captions are available. The process may take up to 5 business days. Please contact email@example.com if you have any questions about this request.
Islam, which means acknowledging the sovereignty of God, is first and foremost a monotheistic system of belief and practice. In the simplest sense, then, a Muslim is a person who submits to Allah (Arabic for God).
This CyberTower Room offers an introduction to Islam and Islamic civilization. In particular it highlights some of the lasting achievements of classical Islam and invites the CyberTower visitor to consider these over against the misguided popular tendency to regard Islam and Muslims as "others."
This video is part 4 of 5 in the Islam series.