The Qur’an, a personal view. Generations 431-432, 600-632

For an outsider like me, it is very easy to bounce off the Qur’an. It took a few readings before I could start to see the brilliance in it.

It is not a historical document. It has very little external contemporary reference. And when there is external reference, it is often hard to say for sure what is being talked about. For example, there are a few mentions of a Holy Mosque, but no description of where it is. There are frequent mentions of believers and unbelievers, but it offers no guidance on how to distinguish them. There are lots of references to characters from the bible, both the old and new testaments.

For me, the best way in to getting a sense of it was to imagine it as the experience of one man, Muhammad. Perhaps the nearest equivalent would be a stream-of-consciousness recitation. Once I started to get into it, I could see that the intensity must have been almost unbearable. Of course he had to recite, to talk it out. No wonder he repeated himself. He had to find the words to clothe what he was experiencing. Because it kept on coming.

For me now, the Qur’an gives expression to what it was like to be the first Believer. Muhammad experienced something so clearly. He could see that the thing he was experiencing was not being felt in this way by anyone else he knew. He knew it was not meant for him alone. At times it comes out like a cry: ‘Do you not see? Will you now begin to understand?’

The nearest equivalent he could find was in the bible, in the experiences of the old testament prophets, particularly Abraham, Noah and Moses. He also refers to Jesus, Mary and Zachariah from the new testament. But again, he does not merely repeat their stories. He finds the common themes from the place he himself is in. That common experience becomes incorporated into the intense outpouring that we can now read in the suras of the Qur’an.

One of the common features is that each of the people he mentions was confronted by the reality of their God. They were forced into a situation where they had to take a position. Each one chose to act against the conventional wisdom of their time and had to deal with the consequences of that. By reciting from his own experience and referring to his predecessors in this way, Muhammad legitimises the human’s self-responsibility – a responsibility which overrides traditional allegiances to one’s family or wider group. It is up to each human to decide what is important to them – and accept the consequences of their decision.

This, in my view, is a major stepping-stone in the human story.


One of the oldest manuscripts of the Qur’an, dated to the 7th or 8th century.

There are a few pieces of writing that are intimately tied up with the story of a language. In Spanish, it would be Tirant Lo Blanch by Joanot Martorell and Don Quixote by Manuel Cervantes. In Italian two candidates also spring to mind: Dante’s Divine Comedy and The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni. In English it would be Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the entire canon of Shakespeare’s plays. But none of these come close to the impact of the Qur’an on the arabic language.

Prior to the time of the Qur’an there were a few inscriptions in arabic, but nothing else. Within a century it was the official language of an empire and within two centuries it was the international language of learning, to be superseded by scholar’s latin around the year 1200.


Another early qur’anic manuscript, found in a mosque in Sanaa in Yemen in 1972.

An accidental empire. 680-740, generations 435-437.

During Mohammed’s lifetime the Arabian peninsula was united into a single polity. After he died in 632 the expansion of arab-controlled land accelerated. The rate of expansion was astounding and unprecedented. The latest dynasty of the Persian empire, the Sasanian dynasty, had the misfortune that its capital, Ctesiphon, was not easily defensible against the arab armies. After losing a battle against the invaders in 636, the Sasanian royal family abandoned Ctesiphon. Once the capital was gone, the rest of the empire could be picked off bit by bit. The arabs repeatedly attempted to take Constantinople too, but failed. Emperor Constantine had chosen a defensible location three centuries previously, on a promontory encircled by the Bosphorus. So the Roman empire, although dramatically reduced in size, was not wiped from the map in the way that the Sasanian one was, and its rump continued to be administered from Constantinople.

Within fifty years of Mohammed’s death the Umayyad dynasty was established in Damascus. From this base it controlled the whole of the ex-Persian empire as far as China, a large part of the Roman empire (Anatolia, the eastern Mediterranean, north Africa) and, by the year 720, most of the Iberian peninsula. The map of the world had changed, irrevocably.

The Umayyads appointed arab governors to each region, who collected taxes and sent them back to Damascus. There was a vigorous slave trade. It was said that after the defeat of the Visigoths in southern Spain, 30,000 blond Visigothic slaves were on sale in the slave markets of Damascus. This was beginning to look more like an empire than a religious arising. The arab elite grew rich.

Tensions began to show. The arab rulers came from the desert of Arabia. Hitherto, their main contact with the empires administered from Constantinople and Ctesiphon had been as traders and raiders: people on the move, not city-dwellers. There were not many of them: they were a tiny minority in their vast unexpected empire. They did not have the infrastructure or the traditions to manage it. How to administer these lands and retain their distinctive identity?

One way was not to move into the pre-existing cities. In Mesopotamia the arabs set up encampments, which became garrison towns in Kufa and Basra. In Egypt they set up a semi-permanent camp on the banks of the Nile at Fustat, which is now a suburb of Cairo. They left the Roman and Sasanian administrative structures in place and almost untouched. For those living in the villages of the new empire, the regime change must have been hardly noticeable. The fact that the annually-collected taxes now went to Damascus instead of Constantinople or Ctesiphon probably didn’t impinge. Otherwise, life continued unchanged.

However, there was unrest. There were repeated uprisings all over the new empire. The arabs came with a powerful new religion and a book which proclaimed a bright future for the Believers. The book seemed to say that bloodlines and tribal loyalties were secondary to what a person chose to believe. For an open-minded, thinking person this appeared to offer a way out of their current situation . It was possible to be a part of this powerful wave that had swept over the world, simply by declaring one’s adherence to the new religion. But it didn’t work out like that in practice. When several hundred escaped slaves moved to Basra and Kufa and declared themselves to be muslims, the governor had them arrested, branded and sent back to their masters. Evidently, in this new world some were more equal than others.

The pervasiveness of slavery may have been an escape-valve. The slave trade was a fact of life, seen as a necessary evil. Attempts had been made since ancient times to regulate it, but never to outlaw it. This posed new dilemmas for the arab rulers. What was the legal status of the offspring of an arab father and his non-arab slave? Could they become a muslim? Over the years a complicated hierarchy emerged. A person with two arab parents was at the top of the tree, followed by one with one arab parent, and so on. There was movement between the categories. For example, the general who led the conquest of Spain in 711, Tariq ibn Ziyad, was probably an ex-slave. Gibraltar (Jebel Tariq) is named after him.

Another area addressed by the Umayyads was the coinage. In the early years of Umayyad rule the empire continued using the Sasanian and Roman currencies. This meant that, long after the arabs had taken control, images of the Roman Emperor were still on each coin in the purses of the traders of Alexandria and Damascus. In the 680’s the Umayyad emperor had his own coins made, with his image, modelled on the Roman solidus minted in Constantinople.


Here is a coin from 693, showing an image of the caliph Abd-al Malik. Courtesy Muslim Heritage

Whereas the Roman Emperor’s solidus had his image on one side and the christian cross on the obverse, Abd-al Malik’s dinar had an image of himself holding a sword on one side and the symbol shown here on the back of the coin. Evidently the muslim prohibition of depicting the human form had not yet kicked in. His image was encircled by the testimony of Islam written in Arabic: “In the name of God, there is no deity but God; He is One; Muhammad is the messenger of God.” Interestingly, Abd-al Malik had grown up in Medina, the final home of the Prophet and base for an uprising against Umayyad rule on the grounds that it was not following the way of the Believers. By placing the Testimony of Islam on his coins, maybe Abd-al Malik was nailing his colours to the mast.

In Abd-al Malik’s next minting, in 697, there were no images.


These coins were made compulsory throughout the empire. Persian and Roman coins were melted down and restamped, on pain of death. The language of the administration was declared to be arabic rather than greek or persian as it had been. The conquered territories began the process of cohering into a single entity, the dar al-islam, the abode of islam.

The people of the Book

Mesopotamia, known since ancient times as the Fertile Crescent, is rich in more ways than food production. For centuries it has been a place where learned people inquired into the nature of reality. It was a place of rich and fertile exchange of ideas.

But first, some background. To the west of this region was a great empire, referred to in our history books as the Byzantine Empire. But the word ‘Byzantine’ fell out of use in 330 C.E. When the Roman Empire was divided into a western and eastern half, the emperor Constantine established the capital of the empire of the east in the city of Byzantium in 324 and changed its name to Constantinople in the year 330.

Over the following centuries the western half of the Roman Empire disintegrated under repeated invasions from the north. The eastern half continued for another thousand years. The inhabitants of the empire ruled from Constantinople, which included the Balkans, modern-day Turkey, the eastern Mediterranean and parts of north Africa, referred to themselves as Romans.

Constantine also adopted Christianity as the official religion of the empire. Over the following generations scholars argued and agonised over the nature of Jesus. Was he human or divine, or both at once? Could a person so influential, so world-changing, have been a mere mortal like the rest of us? And if he was divine, what was the nature of Mary, his mother? They held councils to debate the question and came up with an official doctrine. Those who did not subscribe to the official view were declared heretics.

Many of those so-called heretics moved to Mesopotamia and joined the church of the East. The orthodox christians back in Constantinople disparagingly referred to them as Nestorians. The name stuck. That is the name used for the church of the East in my history books 1500 years later. (Nestorius was a bishop in Constantinople who had disagreed with the establishment over the term ‘Mother of God’ for Mary. His ideas were more welcome in the church of the East, but it was already in existence when he arrived.)

Byzantine, Nestorian … the third misrepresentation is ‘Zoroastrian’. This word was first used in the nineteenth century, to describe a set of beliefs prevalent in Persia since ancient times. This religion was traditionally founded by a man called Zoroaster, or Zarathustra who lived around 1000 BCE. Its heartlands were the mountains of Persia through to Khorasan in the north and east as far as India. Each region, each mountain valley had its own version of it. Further east, it contained elements of the Vedas. Shiva was incorporated into the belief systems, for example. Some adherents were vegetarians and pacifists who abhorred the unnecessary taking of life. In some regions polyandry was practised. This last appalled the incoming arabs, who described it as ‘wife-sharing’. To the west, it rubbed up against the values of the christians and jews (who themselves could not be separated into distinct categories as they are today. There were jewish christians and christian jews).

Around the same time that the christians were arguing in Constantinople, the scholars of this Persian religion living in the Fertile Crescent decided to transcribe their sacred tradition, recited from generation to generation for over a millennium or more. The book they compiled is known as the Avesta.

The Jews who were living in Mesopotamia already had a book: the Torah, the first five books of the bible. However, it would seem that they also joined in the discussions. While the Avesta was being put together, the Jewish rabbis compiled the Talmud, a set of commentaries on the Torah, often in response to issues raised by the mowbeds, the priests of the Avesta.

These were the three ‘religions of the book’. They shared many beliefs and values. For all of them, history has a beginning, and therefore also an end. The belief systems in India, further to the east, do not have this concept but rather one of endless cycles. There is a belief in one god (although the mowbeds who compiled the Avesta might say two: Ahura Mazda, the lord of light and Ahriman, the principle of evil or darkness). There was the concept of saviours, (prophets in Judaism) who brought new revelations to the human race. Zoroaster and Jesus were saviours. The three wise men who came from the east to visit the infant Jesus were magi, followers of Zoroaster. Some remembered Alexander the Great as a saviour. There were other, lesser saviours too. Later, some saw Abu Muslim, who was the focus of the overthrow of the arab Umayyad dynasty as a saviour.

This is the context in which the new religion of the Arabs arrived. It also had a prophet (Mohammed), a book (the Qur’an) and a timescale: the unbelievers had ‘an evil cradling’ awaiting them, whereas believers could look forward to dwelling in gardens underneath which rivers flow (phrases repeated many times in the Qur’an). And it most decisively had one god, recognised to be the same as  the god of the jews and the christians. By 800 CE the arabs living in the Fertile Crescent had also compiled their commentaries, collections of sayings of Mohammed not included in the Qur’an. These are known as the hadiths. The extent to which the hadiths were influenced by the ideas of the bishops, rabbis and mowbeds, exponents of the other religions of the book living in the same region, is too contentious to even start to explore.


The heyday of the House of Wisdom, 820-860, generations 442-444

This was the time when Baghdad was the most exciting place to be, if you were a person who was interested in new ideas, in pushing back the envelope of human understanding. Philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, geography, engineering – all were explored and developed here.

Mathematics was further developed as a tool to make sense of the world. Algebra was invented (the system of balancing the sides of an equation to find the value of an unknown, usually described as ‘x’). This, we non-mathematicians may not realise, is a powerful tool indeed. As are five of the six trigonometric functions, the names of which I remember from school. The sine was brought from India. The others (cosine, tangent, secant, cosine, cosecant, cotangent) were developed in Baghdad in this period. The Indian numbering system that we still use, of nine digits and a zero, was promoted and explored.

The practice of philosophy, of studying how to think about the human situation, was brought into the modern monotheistic world from that of the Greeks.

Engineering techniques (the valve, the crankshaft, feedback controls) were rescued from the ancient world, understood, refined and applied in new ways.

banu musa lamp

This drawing for a self-trimming lamp is one of a hundred entries in the Book of Ingenious Devices by the Banu Musa brothers. The book also contains instructions and the design for a water-powered musical instrument, a concept not attempted again for a thousand years.

The Banu Musa brothers, as well as the multi-talented al-Kindi (known as the father of arabic philosophy) and the extraordinary mathematician al-Khwarizmi, were all employed in the House of Wisdom, the Bayt al-Hikma.

Their employer was the caliph al-Mamun.

How did this all come together? A combination of factors. Here are some of them, in no particular order.

The first paper mill opened in Baghdad in 795. The technology of paper-making was as profound in its significance as the development of the printing press in renaissance Europe or the internet in our own lifetimes. While northern Europeans used scraped animal skins to write on, educated Baghdadis had libraries with hundreds or thousands of books.

Baghdad itself was located at the meeting point of the Persian and Indian cultures to the east and that of the Mediterranean (particularly Greece) to the west. There is a long history of cultural exchange between India and Persia. Baghdad had been built 50km north of the ancient Persian capital of Ctesiphon. Indian mathematicians and their ideas were welcome in Baghdad.

The religion of the rulers, islam, was tolerant of (most) other faiths. Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians had to pay a poll tax but were otherwise largely left to pursue their own beliefs. In fact the administration sometimes preferred them not to convert to islam. Mass conversion meant a drop in tax revenues. As Constantinople was pursuing a less tolerant line to unorthodox christianity at the time, many non-mainstream christians found it healthier to live in the muslim world. They brought ancient Greek texts with them, and could read them.

The schools of Athens and Alexandria, with a continuous tradition of learning going back to ancient Greece, had been closed a century or so earlier.

Islam values literacy. The Quran is to be read and recited, in arabic.

Arabic was the common language from Cordoba in the west to Kabul in the east. Some said that they found it easier to express the new ideas in arabic than their native language. It was the language of learning, as latin was in the medieval world and English is now.

The translation movement had been in progress for some time. As well as Indian mathematical texts, Greek medical, scientific and medical texts were brought to Baghdad and translated into arabic. Translators were well paid for their work, sometimes the weight of the finished book in gold. Not only the caliph, but many of the elite joined in the search for ancient texts to translate. It is said that a condition of a peace treaty between Baghdad and Constantinople was that a copy of Ptolemy’s Almagest should be made available to Baghdad. To understand these texts well enough to be able to translate them, advanced knowledge of the subject is required. This then facilitated a comparison of the different traditions. Where do Greek geometry and Indian mathematics coincide, for example?

The culture of Baghdad was one of exchange, of ideas as well as goods. The Prophet himself had been a trader. There was a stable administration. Recently, a written cheque has been found which was issued in Baghdad and cashed in Cordoba. Baghdad became rich.

There were tensions, too. The differences of view about the human’s relation to God came into sharp focus. This is the time when the hadith, the sayings of the Prophet, were collected and catalogued. The ulama, the imams, theological scholars, valued the Quran and the hadith above any discoveries by the philosophers and scientists. Some of the points of contention: Was the Quran created at a moment in time, or as it is directly revealed from God is it co-eternal with God? The caliph and the scholars of the House of Wisdom thought the former, the scholars of the ulama thought the latter. Does a person find the way to God via reason, working it out, or inspiration, faith, devotion?

Caliph al-Mamun was an advocate of reason over revelation. He loved the inquiry, the finding it out. (Among other projects, he despatched his scholars to measure the size of the Earth. Ptolemy had given an estimate in the Almagest, measured in stades, but nobody knew what a stade was.) Towards the end of his life al-Mamun issued a decree that the Quran was created. As he was caliph and therefore successor to the Prophet, he declared himself authorised to make such a pronouncement. Any imam who disagreed with him was to be punished. This was a dangerous precedent for the ulama, who saw themselves as the ones best qualified to interpret the wisdom of islam.

Inevitably this hardening of positions led to the creation of heroes and martyrs in those who resisted the caliph. Fifteen years after his death in 833 the decree was revoked and the pendulum began to swing in the opposite direction. The scholars of the House of Wisdom went elsewhere.

Divisions in the Golden Age. Generations 445-447, 880-940

At the start of this period the largest, most influential and probably the richest city in the world was Baghdad. It was just over a century old, having been established in 762, but it was a magnet for scholars, attracted by its libraries of works translated from Greek, Syriac, Sanskrit, Persian and Chinese.

arabesque Samarra

The arts flourished too. This decorative panel is from Samarra, north of Baghdad and is one of the first appearances of the style now known as ‘arabesque’.

In this post I will focus on two men, both of whom lived in Baghdad. Both were highly accomplished and they came to very different world views.

The first was called Abu Bakr Muhammad al-Razi. He was born in Rayy (Razi) in Persia in around 860. Rayy is now a suburb of Tehran. He seems to have been a kind, clever and open-minded man, the sort of person you would feel richer for knowing.

As a young man al-Razi studied music, mathematics and philosophy, among other subjects. He was particularly renowned for his investigations into chemistry. However, his writings from his early life are now mainly known from quotes by later writers such as al-Biruni and Ibn Sina as the original documents have been lost.

Around the age of 30 he went to Baghdad, about 600 miles away. He studied medicine with Ali ibn Sahl, a famous physician of the city. (Ibn Sahl was a convert from Judaism. His father had translated Ptolemy’s Almagest into Arabic.) It is said that al-Razi soon surpassed his teachers. Around the year 900 the caliph al-Muktafi commissioned him to set up a hospital.

To select a site, he had pieces of fresh meat hung up outside at different places in the city. After a few days he checked each of them. The piece of meat that had shown the least putrefaction was deemed to be in the healthiest location, and that is where the hospital was built.

The hospital itself had a psychiatric ward as well as medical and surgical wards. There were baths for men and for women. It was organised as a series of circles. The most straightforward ailments were dealt with in the outer circle. Al-Razi himself looked after the inner circle of most difficult cases.

He kept copious records and wrote extensively. He even questioned the authority of Galen, the main reference for medicine in his world and in the west until the Renaissance. He questioned Galen’s theory of the four humours when he observed that the body of a patient who drinks a hot drink warms up by more than the temperature of the drink itself, suggesting that more is going on than the simple transfer of warmth.

He is the first person known to have used a control group in a medical trial. He divided  a group of people showing the symptoms of meningitis into two subgroups. To one group he applied bloodletting and he left the other alone. He reported that the group who received bloodletting fared better than the control group.

He wrote a book on medical ethics. He said, “The doctor’s aim is to do good, even to our enemies, so much more to our friends…”. He acknowledged that some diseases, such as advanced cancer or leprosy, are incurable. He also acknowledged that untrained healers, including wise women, were often more successful in treating certain diseases than trained physicians like himself. He wrote a medical self-help book.

Al-Razi’s open-mindedness extended to religion, too, and that got him into trouble. For him, God has given humans the ability to think for themselves. To unquestioningly accept the dicta of a revealed religion would be an affront to this God-given ability.

I really like this man.

The other influential man of this period took a different view. Abu al-Hasan al-Ashari was born in Basra, south of Baghdad in 874. Until he was forty he probably would not have disagreed too much with al-Razi. Then it is said that he had three life-changing dreams. In these dreams Mohammed commanded him to adhere to tradition, which he took to mean the Quran and the collected sayings, the Hadith.

As a young man he had studied philosophy and engaged in the debates of the time. As so much had been translated over the previous century, many of the discussions revolved around integrating the wisdom of the ancients with the revealed religion of Islam.

The first pillar of Islam requires the adherent to attest to the unity of God: ‘There is no God but God, and Mohammed is his messenger’.

To me, that sounds fairly straightforward, but the scholars went into contortions over it. Is the Quran separate from God or, as it is God’s words, is it therefore part of God? Does God know everything, down to every flap of a butterfly’s wing? Where is human free will? Has the universe existed forever or was it created at a certain moment?

Islam is a practical religion. It is based on action rather than beliefs as is the case with christianity. All of the five pillars are actions. The first pillar is known as the shahada, which is translated as the attestation, the bearing witness. In other words, an action. There were debates about how to behave, what to do, and people looked to the Quran and the Hadith for guidance. Al-Ashari had been trained in the mental gymnastics of the philosophers, so when he joined the traditionalist camp he was well-prepared to engage the philosophers with their own tools.

For al-Ashari the focus became to know God better. The Quran was the word of God and so part of God and so eternal and uncreated. It was to be taken literally rather than metaphorically. When it talked of God’s hands or eyes, it meant that God has hands and eyes. To al-Ashari’s credit, he didn’t think that everything was understood. He believed that there was always room for improvement, so he didn’t think that the scholars had the final word yet. Although he declared that God is omnipotent, he found a way to incorporate free will (which I confess is too subtle for me and so I won’t go into it). He is remembered as one of the foremost sunni theologians.

Al-Razi had probably gone back to Rayy to set up a hospital there when al-Ashari moved to Baghdad. I don’t think they would have had much in common if they did meet.

And on a completely separate issue, the first reported use of the decimal point dates from the end of this period.  The Book of Chapters of Hindu Arithmetic by al-Uqlidisi (literally, ‘the Euclidean’) was written in Damascus. He set a problem of calculation to which the answer was 179.685, which he wrote as 179’685. More to follow on the Indian contribution to mathematics as we go on …



Pearls in the desert. generations 446-450, 900-1000CE

Samarkand, Bukhara, Nishapur … to me, these names are exotic and evocative. They are cities in Khorasan that witnessed one of the flowerings of the golden age of islam.

Ark Fortress, Bukhara

Carvings and tilework at an entrance to the Ark Fortress in Bukhara

Where is Khorasan? It is a region of central Asia. The Caspian Sea is to the west. North are the steppes, south are the mountains of Afghanistan. Persia (now Iran) is to the south-west.

The region is dry. Each city is an oasis, fed by a delicate system of irrigation canals carrying the precious water from the rivers and wells to the fields. The Silk Road crosses through here. At Samarkand the caravans from China continue down into Persia or carry on further west to Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo and the Mediterranean.

The caravans brought silks and spices, and different foods from all over the known world. And technology. The Arabs conquered Khorasan in around 710, and discovered the art of papermaking from the Chinese. They turned it from an art into an industry. The  first water-driven paper mill was at Samarkand. In the markets of these cities one could buy carpets, soaps, cotton and silk cloth, foods from as far away as China, India and Africa – and have your purchase wrapped up in paper.

The Arabs brought a legal system, too. The second of the five pillars of islam instructs those with wealth to distribute some of it for the benefit of those in need. This was embodied in law as ‘waqf’, a tax break for charitable endowments. Hospitals and schools were built for the public good using waqf funding. A larger city such as Bukhara had several hospitals. It was said that admission was free of charge. All were treated, regardless of religious adherence. However, some of the physicians became very rich, so maybe they charged their wealthier patients.

There was a flourishing of learning. Its location on the Silk Road and its inclusion in the islamic world made Khorasan a meeting point of cultures. Indian mathematics, Chinese medicine, Persian sophistication, Arabic law based on the Quran – all mixed here. Added to that, there was now access to the body of knowledge translated from the ancient Greek into Arabic a century earlier, which could now be transcribed on to paper and made more widely accessible. Although nominally within the Abbasid caliphate, this region was self-governing and open to other influences than those emanating from Baghdad.

kalyan mosque and minaret, bukhara

Kalyan Mosque and minaret, Bukhara

Advances in medicine spread across the known world. In this period a surgeon in Cordoba in al-Andalus developed a range of surgical instruments, some of which, such as the forceps, are still in use today. He also wrote several books. I am sure that al-Zahrawi’s work was known to his counterparts 7000 km away in Khorasan.

Scholars from this region pushed back the boundaries of knowledge. We have already met Ibn Sina and al-Biruni, who lived here a century or so later. Of the many original thinkers who come from this region, another stands out in this period. Al-Farabi grew up here and then moved to Baghdad, where he spent the rest of his life. He wrote on music, cosmology, philosophy and mathematics. His understanding of Aristotle was so clear that he was one of the few sources acknowledged by the otherwise self-taught Ibn Sina. Ibn Sina wrote that Aristotle was impenetrable to him until he read al-Farabi’s commentary. As Ibn Sina’s work became the primary reference for later thinkers including Thomas Aquinas (who went on to influence the direction of Catholic thought) this means that al-Farabi was influential indeed. He was known to his students as the ‘second master’ (the first being Aristotle).

The arts flourished, too. Nishapur, in the south of Khorasan, was already a centre for pottery making. With the influx of new techniques from China along the Silk Road, it went up a gear. There were two styles of decoration. For the muslims there were sayings, or quotes from the Quran.


The inscription on this bowl is in a style of arabic called kufic script. it reads: “Magnanimity has first a bitter taste, but at the end it tastes sweeter than honey. Good health.” Bowl in the Louvre Museum, Paris

But there was also a continuation of Persian art traditions, with depictions of humans, birds, animals and plants.

bowl, Nishapur

This polychrome slip-ware bowl is in the National Museum of Oriental Art, Rome.

Here is another world that I knew nothing of. It flourished for another three centuries until Genghis Khan and his army came from the steppes to the north, destroyed the irrigation channels and levelled the cities. Some of them never recovered and only now are being excavated from the sand. Others, like Bukhara and Samarkand, were rebuilt nearby. But for a while this was the place to be. These cities formed links in the chain of transmission of human learning from the ancient world until now.



Generations 448-449, 960-1000. The city of victory and the luminous university

At the beginning of this period the Fatimid rulers of Ifriqiyah (now known as Tunisia) expanded their realm into Egypt. In 969 they established a new capital near the existing town of Fustat. They called it al-Qahira, Victory. By the end of this period Qahira (or Cairo) was a vibrant and flourishing city. A millennium later, Cairo is still arguably the cultural centre of the muslim world.

Skilled craftspeople soon came to the new city. Lustreware, ceramics with a metallic glaze, was now made here. Producing it is a complicated process, so an entire industry shifted its base of production 2000km west from Basra to Cairo in this period.
fatimid lustreware bowl



Here is a lustreware bowl from the end of this period, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.





The Fatimids quickly set about establishing a centre of learning. Al-Azhar mosque was built in 972. (Al-Azhar means ‘The Luminous’, one of the names used to describe the Prophet’s daughter Fatima.) Scholars were invited to base themselves there. By 975 it had a library and is now considered to be the oldest continually-operational university in the world. Philosophy, astronomy, law, logic and grammar were studied there. Some of these subjects were deemed heretical in the Abbasid capital of Baghdad, and so the scholars moved to the freer air of Cairo. At Al-Azhar they continued the line of learning that that had been inherited from the Greeks, Persians, Indians and further developed in the muslim world. In the following generation the founder of the scientific method, ibn al-Haytham, moved to al-Azhar from Basra in the footsteps of the lustreware makers. At the Luminous University he developed a new theory of the nature of light.

Ewer_birds_Louvre_MR333Talking of luminosity, for me one of the outstanding artistic achievements of this period is the carved rock crystal ewers.
This one made the journey from Egypt to King Roger in Sicily, to Italy (where it acquired the gold filigree lid) to the abbey of Saint-Denis in Paris. It is now in the Louvre Museum.

They are exquisite. Only a few survive. Perhaps only a few were made; after all, how many solid pieces of rock crystal of such clarity could be found?


The Fatimids were not only tolerant of ideas. They were accepting of the beliefs of other People of the Book, including the Coptic Christians who formed a large minority of the population of Egypt. Thanks to a cache of documents discovered in the store room  of a Cairo synagogue, it is now known that there was an extensive trading network of Jewish merchants across the Mediterranean and through the Middle East.  The Genizah (Hebrew for ‘storeroom’) documents tell us of a regulated world where people conducted their business affairs, paid their taxes, petitioned the administration in cases of injustice. The officials they petitioned may have been christian or muslim: all worked together in the ordered world so rapidly established during this caliphate.

The first caliph, al-Muizz, is credited with inspiring the invention of the fountain pen. He asked for a pen that would not stain his clothes with its ink, and it is said that a pen with a reservoir of ink was made (although none survive). Maybe he didn’t want to stain his beautiful silk garments.

linen-silk veil

This veil of linen and silk, was made in the year 983. It is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

With the exception of al-Hakim, the caliph who had ibn al-Haytham imprisoned, the Fatimid dynastywas open and tolerant. In the following century christian pilgrims were able to visit Jerusalem. Good relations were established with the christian kings of Sicily (who defeated client emirs of the Fatimid caliph to gain control of the island). When the shi’a Fatimids were defeated by the sunni Seljuk Turks, this window of opportunity came to an end and the light of learning moved elsewhere.