The founding of Baghdad. 760-820, generations 439-441

The caliph chose the location, thirty miles upstream from the Persian capital of Ctesiphon, on the banks of the Tigris at the narrowest point between it and the Euphrates. Three astrologers,  an ex-Jew from Basra, an ex-Zoroastrian and a muslim, selected the date to start construction: 30th July 762. Three years later it was deemed officially finished, and forty years later it was the most populous city on the planet.

The layout of the central citadel was a perfect circle, as Persian capitals had been (including Ctesiphon before the arab armies destroyed it a century previously). To the locals this must have been, to all intents and purposes, the next incarnation of the Persian Empire.

There were two crucial differences, however. The man living with his harem in the citadel was not a shah but a caliph. And he adhered to the new religion of the arabs rather than the one that had dominated Persia for the previous two thousand years: zoroastrianism. He was a muslim, and as caliph he was the official successor of the Prophet who had died six generations earlier, in the year 632.

This meant that the zoroastrian priests were without a job. They had two thousand years’ worth of learning to draw on, and almost nobody to pass it on to. It wasn’t obligatory to convert to islam, but your career prospects at court probably got a boost if you did.

The muslims continued the Persian dedication to learning, however, and even expanded it. Under the Sassanid Empire (which fell to the arabs in 638) the main seat of learning had been the academy of Gundeshapur, a few hundred miles to the east. The caliph in Baghdad indicated that he was interested in promoting scholarship. Scholars from Gundeshapur relocated to Baghdad.

middle east 765 ad

Not only zoroastrians came to Baghdad. The largest christian church in the world at the time (in terms of geographical extent) had centres in Nisibis, a few hundred miles to the north, Merv in Khorasan to the east, and Gundeshapur. A century or so earlier the church in Constantinople started enforcing its orthodoxy more rigorously, and many christians moved to join the church of the East, whose headquarters were then in the sassanid capital of Ctesiphon. When the arabs sacked Ctesiphon in 641 the catholicos (equivalent of the pope in the latin roman church) moved north, nearer to Nisibis. Once Baghdad was established, the Church of the East relocated its headquarters there. In 780 the catholicos Timothy I was invited to meet the caliph, maybe because he had translated Aristotle’s ‘Topics’ into arabic, and maybe because the caliph wanted to discuss religion with him. Thus began a sometimes mutually profitable and sometimes uneasy relationship between the Church of the East and the caliphate that continued for several hundred years. In the good times christians were viziers, doctors and translators. In the bad times they were persecuted.

But on the whole the Church of the East thrived in the new abbasid empire as it had done with the sassanids. It already had missions further east, beyond the muslim empire into India and China. These were consolidated and confirmed. Five hundred years later, when the Mongols sacked Baghdad, the christian residents were spared from the slaughter because the khan’s wife and mother were both christians, members of the Church of the East.

The jews were there too, as they had been since the Babylonian captivity a thousand years before. When they had the chance to return to their homeland, many opted to stay in Mesopotamia. In the towns of Sura and Pumbedita, both on the Euphrates River, the definitive version of the Talmud, the commentary on jewish law, had been compiled, completed a century earlier.

The arabs, adherents of the newest religion in the region, were based at Kufa and Basra. In this period the arabic equivalent of the Talmud, the Hadiths, were compiled in these towns.

History books often aim for a tidy storyline, one that is simple, accessible and reasonable. But as each of us knows from our own experience, real-life events are not so tidy. I wonder how much, at the time, people saw a clear distinction between adherents of these four and the other religions swirling around the area. Other religions included the Manicheans (whom the arab scholars decided were not ‘people of the book’ and so liable to persecution), the Sabians (mentioned in the Qur’an but even a century after it had been written, it was forgotten who exactly they were), as well as other gnostic sects and Buddhists and Hindus from further east. Another important centre of learning at this time was Harran, not far from Nisibis. In order to escape the fate of the Manicheans, the inhabitants of Harran declared themselves to be the descendants of the Sabians.

How much did these educated people interact and influence each other? How many under-employed zoroastrian priests, jewish rabbis or christians offered a hand to encode the sayings of the prophet? Sura is only a few miles downstream from Kufa, after all.

Here is an example of the confusion. The abbasids had defeated the ummayads, the previous dynasty, around 750 with the help of a remarkable man. The man’s real name is not known, but he called himself Muslim abu Muslim ibn Muslim: Muslim, son of muslim and father of muslim. A pretty clear statement of one’s credentials, one would have thought. He launched his campaign in the town of Merv in Khorasan, a campaign to overthrow the ummayads and set a member of the Prophet’s family as caliph. The best candidate they had was a descendant of the Prophet’s uncle Abbas. Hence the abbasids.

Once installed, the new abbasid caliph had his own agenda, which did not include Abu Muslim. He invited him to dinner, and had him killed. This was not well received back in Khorasan. Several further insurrections against the abbasids were brutally put down by the caliphs’ armies.

But here is the curious bit. The rebellions were led by self-declared zoroastrians, who claimed loyalty to or discipleship from Abu Muslim. Our tidy narrative of different religions starts to feel somewhat frayed. If you want to investigate this further, two of those rebels were Babak Khoramdin and al-Muqanna.

One fact is indisputable however: Baghdad prospered. The translation movement, with help from scholars from all of the cities named here, went into a higher gear. The golden age of islam took off.

It must have been an exciting place to be. A delegation from India (maybe via Gundeshapur) brought their latest cutting-edge mathematics, systematised a century previously by the great mathematician Brahmagupta. This included the concept of zero as well as the decimal system of nine numbers and the sine function. The numbering system currently in use in this world was the Babylonian one of base-60, which lives on in our measurement of seconds, minutes and the degrees of a circle.

The Indians also brought the game of chess, which was then adapted to local tastes. Chess pieces look as they do today because they were depersonalised to avoid muslim sensitivities about depictions of the human form. The word ‘checkmate’ comes from the Persian ‘shah-mat’, ‘the king is dead’.

The first home-grown scientist of the golden age was Jabir ibn Hayyan, remembered as Geber the Alchemist, the founder of the science of chemistry. He probably lived in Kufa and almost certainly spent time in the new Baghdad. He wrote prolifically. He developed theories of what matter is made of, partly based on received learning and part on his own researches. He advocated experimentation as a way to learning. However, much of his writing was so obscure that the word ‘gibberish’ was coined a few centuries later, meaning ‘as impenetrable as the works of Jabir’.



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.



Great human achievements. Generations 451-452, 1000-1040

This post concerns the third extraordinary thinker from this period. Ibn Sina is remembered for his contributions to philosophy and medicine. His philosophical insights influenced the direction of medieval christian and jewish thought, and brought about a turning point in  muslim thinking. His encyclopaedic medical textbook was the standard medical text for the next 500 years. To the non-muslim world he was known as Avicenna. He was clever and self-confident. He loved the good life and wrote about that too. He died relatively young, in his fifties. He wrote over two hundred books, of which about a quarter have survived and some are still in print. Amazon has an Avicenna author page.


Here is the cover of a latin translation of Ibn Sina’s Canon of Medicine, printed in Venice in 1520. Courtesy Muslim Heritage

Skeleton_system.,_Avicenna,_Canon_of_Medicine_Wellcome_L0040291 And here is a diagram of the human skeleton from the Canon.

Unlike his contemporaries, al-Biruni and ibn al-Haytham, quite a lot is known about him. He was born near Bukhara, in what is now Uzbekhistan. At the time it was one of the most vibrant cities  in the world, experiencing the flowering of Persian culture in the muslim golden age. Because of the political turbulence of the times he also had to move a lot, but that didn’t seem to cramp his style.

For me, his greatest contribution was his utter belief and confidence in the human faculty to make sense of the world we live in. He described himself as self-taught, but my suspicion is that the assertion was more to make a point than describe his own education. Especially as he referred to teachers elsewhere in his writings. However, he believed that the human does not need to resort to inexplicable outside agencies in order to understand all we perceive. In proposing this he challenged both popular culture (this was the world of the Thousand and One Nights with its stories of djinns in bottles and enchanters who could turn people into animals with their magic powers) and the established religion of islam, of which he was an adherent.

In the schools of philosophy at this time, Aristotle was the reference point. Ibn Sina updated Aristotle. He proposed a distinction between the seen and the unseen, which he described as essence and existence. He demonstrated that the two are distinct by the device of thought experiment. His ‘floating man’ thought experiment imagines a person with no sensory input at all. They can’t see, hear, smell, taste or feel anything. And yet, that person will still be self-aware even without any external confirmation that they exist. He described the part that knows this as the soul, the essence of the person.

He put forward a rational proof of the existence of God, working from first principles. Everything we see around us, from a blade of grass to a star in the heavens, owes its existence to something else. Its existence is not independent but contingent on something else. Just as you and I could not have come into existence if our parents had not got together, and they could not have appeared without the existence of our grandparents, so everything goes back and back. Where does it stop? There has to be an originating cause, which is not contingent on anything else. He called this the ‘Necessary Existent’ .

What impresses me about this approach is not whether or not it was right, but the fact that he dared to try.

He then went on to demonstrate, by means of reason alone, that there can only be one necessary existent. The reasoning goes like this: If there were two, they would either be identical (in which case they would effectively be the same thing) or different. If different, what is the distinguishing quality? Is one larger than the other? Are they in different places? Our understanding of the two so-called necessary existent things then becomes  contingent on that quality that makes them different. And so we have to go back further in order to find the necessary existent.

These conclusions conveniently coincided with the tenets of islam, that there is one God. Ibn Sina’s  way of working influenced  Moses Maimonides, the medieval Jewish philosopher and Thomas Aquinas in latin Europe. A few generations later, al-Ghazali had Ibn Sina in his sights when he wrote ‘The Incoherence of the Philosophers’.

For me, Ibn Sina, al-Biruni and Ibn al-Haytham won something for us all. They won us the permission to trust in our own ability to understand the world we live in.  I thank them for that.

Measuring time and space. Generations 451-454, 1000-1080

Towards the end of this period a metalsmith in Toledo devised a universal astrolabe. His name was al-Zarqali, known later in the west as Arzachel.

earliest surviving astrolabe

Astrolabes were made of brass and were things of beauty. This one is from Iran, a century earlier. (Image from UC Santa Barbara) 

The astrolabe was a glorified protractor, but much more sophisticated. It allowed a person to measure the positions of the stars and planets, thereby enabling them to determine local time. It had been devised by the ancient Greeks, but had a drawback: each one was valid only for a given latitude. Al-Zarqali’s astrolabe had the advantage that it could be set for any latitude and so was much more useful. Over the following centuries it became known in northern Europe as a Saphaea. Abelard and Heloise, in Paris in the following century, named their son Astrolabe. Chaucer describes the use of one in the Canterbury Tales a couple of centuries later still. Astrolabes were leading-edge technology until the development of the telescope in the 1500’s.

Astrolabes were also used to measure the heights of buildings.

measuring height with an astrolabe

Here is a much later image, from the 16th century, demonstrating its use. (Image courtesy of the Whipple Library, University of Cambridge)

The muslim world stretched from Toledo across North Africa, through the middle east to what is now Afghanistan. The use of the astrolabe demonstrates a new departure in thinking that was taking place across this world. It used mathematical principles (straight lines, perfect numbers) to describe the observed world where lines are never straight and numbers never quite add up. For the ancient Greeks the two were irreconcilably separate. But islamic scholars demonstrated that precise mathematical principles could be used to describe the fuzzy physical world.

One of the greatest scholars lived at the eastern end of this world, between the Caspian Sea and Afghanistan. Al-Biruni was so influential that some have described the first half of the eleventh century as ‘the age of Al-Biruni’. Because the caliphs in Baghdad 1500 miles or 2500 km away were retreating behind the protection of their Mamluk guards, this region was left to fend for itself, and so al-Biruni lived in a time of political turmoil. Depending on who was ruling at any time he moved from one town to another, always continuing his wide-ranging researches.

He wrote a history of India, based on reports from captured Indian scholars brought back from the campaigns of one of his rulers. This was the first known dispassionate study of another culture, a heathen one at that, not one of a people of the Book. Here is an extract:

“With regard to God, the Hindus believe that he is one, eternal, without beginning and end, acting by free will, almighty, all-wise, living, giving life, ruling, and preserving; one who is unique in his sovereignty, beyond all likeness and unlikeness, and neither resembling anything nor having anything resemble him. In order to illustrate this, we shall produce some extracts from the Hindu literature, lest the reader should think that our account is nothing but hearsay.”

He wrote a book on pharmacology in which he listed each plant in five languages. And using the astrolabe and islamic advances in trigonometry, he developed a method to measure the circumference of the Earth.The previous best attempt had been in Egypt, and involved placing a stake in the ground in Cairo, pacing the distance north to Alexandria, and then measuring the angle of the sun’s shadow at each place. Al-Biruni introduced his method with the following sentences: ‘Here is another method for the determination of the circumference of the Earth. It does not require walking in deserts.’ (quoted in ‘Pathfinders’ by Jim Al-Khalili, Puffin Books)

Travelling on his patron’s military campaigns in Pakistan, he saw a mountain surrounded by a plain near the fort of Nandana, which was just what he needed to apply his new method. In a two-stage process, he first calculated the height of the mountain from the plain. Then he climbed to the top of the mountain and measured the angle to the horizon.This gave him the first triangle ABH in the diagram.Then by calculating the distance to the horizon he could project a second, larger triangle with the same angles between the mountaintop, the horizon and the centre of the Earth, triangle ACS.


I don’t understand the maths myself, but I can see that the angle marked θ has the same value at the centre of the Earth, at ground level and between the top of the mountain and the horizon line, that another angle is a right angle and so the third must also be equal.

How ingenious! The calculations presupposed that the Earth was a perfect sphere and scientists now tell us it isn’t quite, but his work displays a confidence in the human ability to make sense of the world around us. The age of al-Biruni indeed.

Generations 453-455, 1040-1100. Constantinople calls for help

(As I said in my last post, I feel that I am travelling without a map. This post is an outline map. If it was in a book it would be in a textbox, next to the main narrative. It gives the background for the story I am interested in, which is not about kings and battles but ideas and perceptions.)

During the eleventh century there was an unstoppable movement of people expanding out from central Asia, and another uncannily similar one in northern Europe. Constantinople was caught between them, and suffered the attentions of both.

Let’s look at the Asian one first. For a long time the caliphs in Baghdad had bought boys in the slave markets on the northern border of their empire, from what is now Turkmenistan. They were mistrustful of local arab or persian vested interests and so chose an imperial guard who would be loyal to them alone.The boys were kept separate and trained to be the caliph’s personal bodyguard. They were known as the mamluks, the slaves. For most people in Baghdad the mamluks were the nearest they got to the caliphate. Eventually the caliph moved them out of Baghdad to Samarra, and then moved there to be with them.

The qualities that made the mamluks so desirable as elite soldiers were there also in the people left behind. They were brave and strong. One clan, the Seljuks, expanded out of Turkmenistan in 1040 and became known as the Seljuk Turks. They soon adopted islam, in a rough-and-ready version that suited them. They had no written language and didn’t bother to learn Arabic, the language in which the Qu’ran was written. In their rapid wave of conquest they left the caliphate alone and adopted the title of sultans, the sword arm of the caliphate.

Khorasan province, over the border from Turkmenistan in northern Persia, was undergoing a cultural renaissance at this time. The Seljuk prince to whom it was assigned appointed a brilliant Persian administrator, Nizam al-Mulk. When the prince became sultan in 1053, he took his accomplished secretary with him. In so doing, he was playing to the strengths of each culture. The Seljuks were the fighters, the sultans, the Persians with their sophisticated culture were the viziers, the administrators. And the Arabs, with their legacy going back to Mohammed four hundred years previously, carried the law.

Nizam al-Mulk (meaning ‘Order of the Realm’) organised tax collection, set up communication systems and a police force. But he is most remembered for the establishment of institutes of higher education. They were named ‘nezamiyah’ after him. They were sponsored by the ruling families and the elites.The brilliant thinker Al-Ghazali, whom we have already met, was appointed to run the nizamiyah in Baghdad in 1091.The nezamiyah inspired the establishment of madrasas across the muslim world, and some say that European universities can also be traced back to them.

khorasan_map_smImage courtesy of the Textile Museum, Washington DCUSA

The new sultan was named Alp Arslan, ‘heroic lion’, by his troops. He was over six feet tall. It was said that he grew his moustache so long that when he rode his horse it flew behind him like twin braids. Alp Arslan and his army moved along the southern shores of the Caspian Sea, along the edges of the Empire. By 1068 they had reached the Byzantine Empire in Anatolia.

Well, now we call it the Byzantine Empire. At the time it saw itself as a continuation of the Roman Empire, tracing its lineage back to Emperor Constantine and beyond. This was where the Roman Empire had adopted christianity. The current emperor, Romanos IV Diogenes, decided to take the invaders on.

With a large but ill-equipped, undisciplined army he was able to keep them at bay for three years. Alp Arslan was wary of confronting Romanos head-on, but the two armies eventually met at Manzikert in what is now eastern Turkey in 1071. Romanos was unlucky, lost the battle, was captured and brought to Alp Arslan. Surprisingly, Alp Arslan did not kill him but released him with the promise of a large ransom.

Map_of_the_Anatolian_Seljuk_SultanateManzikert is just north of Lake Van, below the ‘E’ of Armenia. Image courtesy of Muslim Heritage

Romanos IV did not survive the humiliation on his return to Constantinople. He was deposed, blinded and exiled. He died of his wounds from the blinding, in 1072 at the age of 42. Alp Arslan himself died the same year and at same age, murdered while on campaign in his ancestral homelands of central Asia.

The victors named their new territory the Sultanate of Roum, after the Roman Empire that they had won it from. In time it became known as Turkey.

Now we need to skip across a continent, to north-west Europe. A few centuries earlier a similar group of brave and fierce-looking invaders had moved out from Scandinavia in their beautiful sleek boats. They colonised Greenland and Iceland to the north-west. They travelled Russia through the river systems, making settlements as far south as the Caspian Sea and near Constantinople itself. They also moved down the North Sea and repeatedly raided settlements in the British Isles. In the tenth century one group settled in northern France, where they became known as the men of the north, Norsemen, and eventually Normans. Their land became known as Normandy. They adopted the local language and religion, and then set off on another wave of conquest in the period under discussion. I suspect that 1066, the year of the Norman invasion of England, is engraved on the English national psyche just as strongly as 1789 is in the French or 1776 in the USA.

In the early eleventh century some Normans went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and on the way back found some opportunities to do what they did best: fighting. Sicily was under muslim control and a large part of southern Italy was ruled from Constantinople. In 1047 Robert Guiscard, the sixth son of a minor noble and so with no prospects at home in Normandy, arrived with five horsemen and thirty foot-followers to take his chances. By 1070 he was the ruler of southern Italy and Sicily. A generation later his son was crowned king of Sicily.

The historian Anna Comnena, the daughter of Romanos’ successor Alexius Comnenus, was fascinated and appalled by the Normans. Here is what she had to say about Robert Guiscard:

“This Robert was Norman by birth, of obscure origins, with an overbearing character and a thoroughly villainous mind; he was a brave fighter, very cunning in his assaults on the wealth and power of great men; in achieving his aims absolutely inexorable, diverting criticism by incontrovertible argument. He was a man of immense stature, surpassing even the biggest men; he had a ruddy complexion, fair hair, broad shoulders, eyes that all but shot out sparks of fire. In a well-built man one looks for breadth here and slimness there; in him all was admirably well-proportioned and elegant… Homer remarked of Achilles that when he shouted his hearers had the impression of a multitude in uproar, but Robert’s bellow, so they say, put tens of thousands to flight.” (from the Alexiad of Anna Comnena)

The invasion of Sicily marked the beginning of the slow decline of muslim occupation of Europe. In 1085 the christian rulers of northern Spain captured Toledo from the muslim rulers. Al-Andalus was also in political disarray at this time after the disintegration of the central caliphate in Cordoba in 1031. It was known as the Taifa period, a taifa being a small emirate. From then on, the many states in al-Andalus never became strong enough to resist the christians from the north for long.

Muslim merchants were not permitted to settle in non-muslim countries, but christians and jews were. This period saw the beginning of the Italian trading city-states, first Amalfi, Pisa and Genoa, and later Venice. Another factor leading to the decline of muslim power and the beginning of the end of the muslim golden age?

There was one more destabilising factor in this period, a really strange one. South of the Caspian Sea not far from where Alp Arslan’s army would have marched, a teacher called Hassan-i-Sabbah captured the mountain fortress of El-Alamut, the Eagle’s Nest, in 1090. He was a member of a shia sect (definitely not mainstream shia) and he was going to put a stop to those sunni Seljuks. He didn’t have a large army so he turned to the most effective way he could think of. He trained young men in the art of political murder. They became known as the assassins. They planned each assassination well in advance for maximum impact. Most of them were carried out in public, during Friday prayers. The assassins themselves expected to be killed straight after they had accomplished their mission, as indeed they invariably were. Nizam al-Mulk, Alp Arslan’s secretary, was one of their victims. The assassins continued their activities, adding another layer of fear in an already uncertain world, until the Mongol invaders captured El-Alamut over a century later.

This is the context of the Crusades, which began in 1095. The Seljuk Turks with their robust version of islam were less tolerant of pilgrims to Jerusalem than the shia Fatimid caliphs, based in Cairo, whom they replaced. The news of harsh treatment at the hands of unbelievers began to filter back to Europe. Secondly Romanos’ successor as Emperor of Constantinople, Alexius Comnenus, decided to overcome his dislike of the papacy and ask for help against the Turks. He was concerned that otherwise they might be wiped off the map. He sent a delegation in 1095, to meet the pope at Piacenza.

Alexios_I_KomnenosAlexius Comnenus

The request reached a pope who had difficulties of his own. Pope Urban continued the work of his predecessors, trying to carve out the authority of his church and impose it on rulers such as Robert Guiscard and the equally troublesome German Emperor. Giving them all an external enemy seemed a perfect opportunity. But not to save Constantinople: Jerusalem would be the target. Recover the holy places from the saracens! (even though they had been under saracen control for the last 400 years).

He launched the idea in a speech at Clermont in central France in 1095. As an incentive, he announced that those who agreed to do this from devotion rather than the prospect of honour or gain would be absolved of their sins when they died. In other words, it didn’t matter what dreadful things they did while on crusade because they would be going to heaven anyway. And some dreadful things were done.

The appeal was successful way beyond Urban’s expectations. The main crusader army set off two years later, in 1097. Ironically, the vanguard of the army were Normans, some of whom were related to Robert Guiscard. No wonder Alexius Comnenus didn’t let them in when they arrived at Constantinople.

Note: much of this post is based on chapter 8 of Destiny Disrupted, a history of the world through islamic eyes by Tamim Ansary. Highly recommended.

Scholars, scientists, philosophers and mystics: Islamic culture after 500 years

And poets, architects, artists, glassworkers, doctors, potters, calligraphers, merchants …

Islam counts its calendar from the Hjira, the flight of the prophet Mohammed and his companions from Mecca to Medina in the year 622 of the Common Era. So the year 1122 of the Common Era is the year 500 of the islamic calendar.

Those five hundred years had seen a flowering of learning and creativity that incorporated the wisdoms of the cultures that the muslims met. From China they learned how to make paper. They adopted the numbering system, including the symbol of zero, from India. From the christians who had moved east into Asia they met the learning of the ancient Greeks. But the muslim world didn’t just copy this wealth of learning. They added to it, with insights of their own. Their religion encouraged them to explore and learn, and they did so.

But first we need to backtrack. After Mohammed died in 632 his successors made a point of collating the recitations that he had received from the angel Gabriel. Those recitations became the Quran. It became the guidance on how to organise the ummah, the community of believers. It instructed the members how to look after orphans, how to manage divorce or inheritance. It was the basis of their law.The second successor, Omar, funded a group of scholars to study the Quran so that they could make sound judgements on difficult questions that the community encountered. This group became the ulama, the learned ones.

For example, one question that Omar put to the ulama was about the drinking of alcohol. The Quran does not expressly forbid drinking alcohol, although drunkenness is disapproved of. However, it does prohibit slander. Omar’s reasoning was that when a person drinks alcohol they become slanderous, and so merit the same censure. Drinking of alcohol was thus forbidden in the community. In the absence of specific instructions, the ulama used similar analogous reasoning to find how the community could live together.

But Mohammed had said a lot more that people remembered and passed on and that was not included in the Quran. There were thousands of such remembered sayings. The next step was to verify and collate these, too. This took much longer – a couple of centuries – but eventually the collected utterances became the hadith, the sayings, and was the second most important source of reference after the Quran.

Anyone who studied the Quran and the Hadith and was recognised for their learning could become a member of the ulama. The ulama were the legal system, the educational system and advisors to the politicians. They developed a body of literature, commentaries on the Quran and the Hadith. They became the establishment.

The instructions in the Quran had other side-effects. The people had to be able to read them, for a start. A largely illiterate desert people became highly literate within a couple of generations.

Quran_rzabasi1 This early Quran is now in the Reza Abbasi Museum in Tehran

As the community expanded out of the Arabian peninsula into Africa, Asia and Iberia, the people had to be able to locate the direction of Mecca in order to face towards it when performing their daily prayers. They had to be able to determine when the month of Ramadan began and ended. This required the study of astronomy. The inheritance laws required the study of mathematics. The Quran was written in Arabic, and Arabic became the common language from Cordoba to Kabul, so the astronomers, mathematicians and philosophers could communicate with each other.

Because there were philosophers, too. The learning inherited from the Greeks gave them mathematics, and also brought up some awkward questions. Was the world eternal, as Aristotle said, or was it created? Was the path to learning via enquiry and reasoning, or by divine revelation?

Others grew wary of the pronouncements of the scholars, scientists and philosophers and sought a more direct communion with God. The arabic word ‘sufi’ may originate from ‘suf’, meaning the rough wool of the simple garments the adherents wore, or ‘safa’ meaning purity, or possibly both. The sufis developed devotional practices, particularly recitation of the names of God, and are known today for the whirling meditations of the dervish order. They also passed on their wisdom from teacher to student down through the generations.

675px-Porte_mosquee_Sidi_Boumediene_TlemcenThis mosque in Algeria is named after the sufi master Abu Madyan, born in 1126.

One man who lived in this period was in turn a scholar, a philosopher and finally a mystic. Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali was born in the province of Tus in eastern Persia, in what is now Iran, near the border with Afghanistan, and died there in 1111. As a young man he established himself as an articulate scholar of the Quran and the Hadith. In his time there was already a rift between the scholars and the philosophers. The scholars felt that the philosophers were encroaching on their territory. Al-Ghazali resolved to study their subject for himself. His book, ‘The Aims of the Philosophers‘, explored the ideas of his predecessors, in particular those of Ibn Sina (known in the west as Avicenna). It was so even-handed that when it reached Europe in translation it was taken to be a textbook of Greek philosophy.

Then he moved back into scholar mode. His next book was entitled ‘The Incoherence of the Philosophers‘. In it he presented a detailed criticism of philosophy as he had described it, citing from the learning he had absorbed from the Quran, the Hadith and the commentaries. The human function is not to better understand the world, he declared, but to know God better! He accused the philosophers of apostasy, a crime punishable by death.

In modern discussions of Al-Ghazali I recognise and recoil from the hard, hectoring, intolerant tone that I hear. That tone was my experience of islam before embarking on this project.

Al-Ghazali’s legacy divides opinions to this day. Some see him as a Muhajjid, a renewer of the faith. For others, his writings mark the beginning of the end of the golden age of islamic culture. Any muslim who explored philosophy after this time had to take into account what Al-Ghazali had said, and tread carefully. The only part of the muslim world that records criticisms of al-Ghazali’s conclusions was the far west, in al-Andalus. The novel by Ibn Tufayl, Hayy ibn Yaqzan or Alive the son of Awake, is in part a defence of the human ability to reach revelation through reasoning as put forward by the philosophers. And later still the man known to the west as The Philosopher, Averroes, wrote a refutation of ‘The Incoherence of the Philosophers‘, with the unwieldy title of ‘The Incoherence of the Incoherence‘. Perhaps it sounds better in Arabic: Tahāfut al-Tahāfut. 

Al-Ghazali himself had a spiritual crisis when he was in his forties. He tidied up his affairs in Baghdad where he was living at the time, provided for his family and after a pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina he returned to Tus in 1096. There he lived in seclusion for the rest of his life, adopting the ways of a sufi. For him, all that counted now was to find ways to know God. Learning and study were irrelevant in comparison to that intense experience. He continued writing, however. And with his customary brilliance he wrote about what he experienced, with the result that sufism became integrated more thoroughly into mainstream islam. His books became the most revered in the islamic world after the Quran and the Hadith.

Munqidh_min_al-dalal_(last_page) Here is a page from his autobiography, written shortly before he died.

He must have been an extraordinary man.

Generation 457, 1120-1140. Creativity in turbulent times

Stories from this generation illustrate the fragility of the historical record, how some events are remembered, some writings are preserved and others are lost.

Some that did survive were the works of Averroes, or Ibn Rushd, written in al-Andalus a couple of generations later than this one, towards the end of the twelfth century. His older friend the vizier introduced him to the caliph, who invited him to write a summary of the works of Aristotle as they were difficult to understand. These summaries were translated into latin and caused convulsions in northern Europe in the next century.

The vizier who introduced Averroes to the caliph was called Ibn Tufayl and he lived in this generation. Ibn Tufayl was an accomplished man in his own right – but most of his writings are lost and so he is a lesser figure in our story.

One writing of Ibn Tufayl’s that has survived, however, is a story about a baby boy who was abandoned on a desert island. ‘Hayy ibn Yaqzan‘ (‘Alive the son of Awake’) tells how the baby was adopted by a gazelle, grew to adulthood and along the way explored the meaning of life from what he observed around him. The story illustrates the philosophical debates that were flourishing across the muslim world. The theme comes from the writings of Avicenna, a Persian philosopher from a century earlier. However, Ibn Tufayl develops it further. One of the questions explored is reason versus revelation: does learning come from reason, by working it out, or is it divinely inspired, by revelation? Or a combination of the two?

He was not the only creative writer of the time. North of the Almohad caliphate and south of the Pyrenees was the christian kingdom of Navarre, including the town of Tudela. A jewish poet and philosopher called Judah Halevi lived there. Here is one of his poems, a wry look at his greying hair:

One day I observed a grey hair in my head;
I plucked it right out, when it thus to me said:
‘You may smile, if you wish, at your treatment of me,
But a score of my friends soon will make a mockery of you.’

Nine centuries later, I can relate to that.

Further north still, in Paris, a philosophy teacher and his gifted female student had fallen in love.

Pierre Abelard was a prolific and clear-thinking philosopher whose outspoken opinions often got him into trouble. He was a popular teacher – and at this time a teacher earned his living by donations from the students he could attract to his classes. Paris University had not yet been established. An example of his inability to keep his mouth shut happened when he stayed at the abbey of St Denis near Paris for a while. St Denis is the patron saint of France. Abelard discovered that there were two historical St Denis (or St Dionysus) and told the abbot that they had mixed them up. For pointing this out he was expelled from the abbey.

While at St Denis he wrote a textbook entitled ‘Sic et Non‘, (‘Yes and No’ or ‘On one hand and on the other’) in which he listed 158 questions concerning contradictions in the writings of the church fathers and other classical authorities. He provided no answers – only questions. It has been said that his style of thinking would not be out of place in a 21st century university.

His emotional maturity was more questionable, however. When their affair was discovered by Heloise’s uncle, Pierre decided that they should both take holy orders. Heloise agreed, possibly because she had already decided that they should not live as man and wife. How could either of them continue their academic work with a household and children to look after? Pierre asked Heloise to take the vows first, admitting later that he did not want her to have relationships with other men if he was not allowed to.

The letters of Abelard and Heloise were preserved by accident: a century later they were translated from latin into French by Jean de Meung, the author of the Romance of the Rose.


Abelard and Heloise, from the Roman de la Rose

Heloise’s intelligence and maturity shine from the pages of their letters. Here is one extract, in which she contemplates whether she is guilty by loving him still, a decade after she has taken the veil:

“And, though exceedingly guilty, I am, as thou knowest, exceeding innocent. For it is not the deed but the intention that makes the crime. It is not what is done but the spirit in which it is done that equity considers.”

I wonder what else Heloise wrote, that has been lost.

Abelard and Heloise lived at the beginning of the intellectual flowering in Europe that was stimulated by the translations coming north from the muslim world, particularly al-Andalus. Al-Andalus itself was an outpost of a larger world which was undergoing transition. New invaders from central Asia, the Seljuk Turks, had overrun it in the previous century, from Afghanistan through to Anatolia.

But the Turks adopted the new culture they met. They left the caliphate in place in Baghdad, called themselves sultans (rulers) and employed bureaucrats from Persia as viziers to look after the administration, so that the creativity and learning continued uninterrupted.

Architecture too.             Kalyan minaret

The Kalyan minaret in Bukhara in what is now Uzbekhistan was built in 1127, under the reign of the Seljuk ruler Mohammed Arslan Khan.

A learned man who may have seen the building work in progress has also become a victim of the vagaries of the historical record. Omar Khayyam lived in Bukhara for part of his life. He died in 1131. He is best known in the west for a long poem, most of which he may or may not have written. The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam was (loosely) translated into English by Edward Fitzgerald in the nineteenth century from a fourteenth-century copy and became immensely popular. It is beautiful and lyrical, a tribute to the richnesses, joys and transitory nature of our human lives.

But Omar Khayyam was not known as a poet in his own lifetime. He was an astronomer and a mathematician specialising in algebra. He found a way to solve cubic equations by means of drawing the problems geometrically. He investigated problems with parallels and cube roots. He wrote textbooks.


This page, now in Tehran University Library, was written by Omar Khayyam. It shows a solution to cubic equations.

Earlier in his life the sultan had appointed him to head up a commission to reform the calendar. The Jalali calendar they devised was the most accurate in the world until the Gregorian reforms in Europe several centuries later. He calculated the length of the year to be 365.24219858156 days. Using 21st-century calculations, this is believed to be accurate to six decimal places. What skill, what confidence could lead him to even attempt such detailed calculation.

‘Rubaiyyat’ means ‘quatrains’ in Persian: verses of four lines. Further quatrains may have been added to the poem after Omar’s lifetime. ‘Khayyam’ means tent maker, which may have been his father’s profession. Here is a verse that was probably written by him during a difficult period:

Khayyam, who stitched the tents of science,
Has fallen in grief’s furnace and been suddenly burned,
The shears of Fate have cut the tent ropes of his life,
And the broker of Hope has sold him for nothing!


A modern bust of Omar Khayyam in Nishapur, Iran, where he was born and his body was buried.