The Golden Age of Islam & World History

The Islamic Golden Age, from 800 to 1200 CE, the time of the three great Islamic philosopher-logicians, al-Farabi, Avicenna, and Averroes, was one of the most important periods of human history, like the Tang Dynasty of China (618 – 907) just before it and the Italian Renaissance (1400 – 1600) just after it.  Sumerian, Babylonian, Syrian, Persian, Indian, Greek, Roman and Chinese culture was gathered and developed in Islamic lands, first Arabia, soon after Persia, and then a vast empire that stretched from Spain to China, the largest in history.

When we study the history of thought, it is wise to remember that we have not been doing history for very long.  Writing is only several thousand years old, the type-based printing press, one of the most important devices Muslims passed from China to Europe, is only a thousand years old, and popular literacy has been very rare until recently in the wealthiest parts of our shared world.

Muslims have a great appreciation for the golden age of Islam, but we who are American or European do not.  I myself didn’t until I was in graduate school, studying the history of philosophy and religion. Unfortunately, if we are not aware of what Islam gave the world, we do not understand European or modern history much, because what ancient India, Greece and China gave our modern world passed through Islamic hands across their vast caliphates and then through caravans reached beyond.

Without paper, press, compass, gunpowder, algebra, calculated insurance rates and countless other devices and ideas, the Italian Renaissance, European colonialism and our modern post-colonial would not have happened as it did.  The Western Europeans, a.k.a. the West, my Celtic and Germanic ancestors, did not have wealthy cities in the time of ancient Athens, but like the Arabs, ignored as barbarians until their age by the powers that bordered them, they conquered many who considered themselves civilization itself. 

Christian Europeans have, for centuries after getting Greek texts from Muslims, focused on connections between ancient Greece and Western Europe, ignoring connections between ancient Babylon, Egypt, Persia and Greece, and connections between India, China, Islam and Europe, which is a very partial and narrow view of our common world history.  When we do study Islam, Europeans, such as myself, focus on Plato, Aristotle and their impact on Islamic thought, the impact of this on Christian European Neo-Platonists, or Islam in the modern world after 1700, the time when Europeans had the upper hand in money and power, which was not so before the 1600s, the time that Newton used algebra to deduce cosmic laws of physics.  

Philosophy departments rarely offer courses on Islamic philosophy or logic, and few departments of any subject study Islamic literature, philosophy, or science.  In a recent book (2005) on al-Farabi, one of the most important Aristotelian logicians for later European logic, the author begins by stating we have many, many excellent studies of the ancient Greeks, and medieval Europeans, but “our” (European) understanding of Farabi and the history of Islamic logic is “in its infancy.”  Meanwhile, Farabi’s face is on the Khazakstani dollar.  As with Indian and Chinese thought, Islamic thought is covered, if at all, as Religious Studies, not as philosophy or the history of science.

I enjoy teaching Indian, Greek and Chinese comparative philosophy, and if you study these subjects, you will eventually find that understanding Islamic philosophy is very helpful, but quite hard to do, because there has been a greater appreciation of Indian and Chinese culture and thought in European scholarship and counter-cultural movements that involve the Bay Area, San Francisco and Berkeley.  Some have said this could be an example of the grandfather effect: If everyone in the family gives heck to the next one over, then the grandfather gives heck to the father, the father gives heck to the son, and so the grandfather and son share a bond, giving and getting heck from the father, the middleman, and they can go out for ice-cream.

Islam fought Europe, India and China, taking land, captives and converts.  This is why it is easier for we, and other scholars of East and South Asia, to avoid and ignore the positive side of Islam.  I have some excellent Ahadith, sayings of the prophet Mohammed, the second source of Islam after the Koran, much like the Jewish Talmud, which give a more positive view of Islam as a source of multiculturalism, science and logic: – Go in quest of knowledge, even unto China. – It is better to teach knowledge one hour in the night than to pray straight through it. – A moment’s reflection is better than 60 years devotion. – The ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyrs.

Many times after quoting these lines, first to professors and fellow graduate students, and then to my own students, I have been asked how Muslims can say such things and also be so authoritarian and traditional in ways.  Humanity is always capable, and in each civilization openly displays, both intelligence and ignorance, both innovation and brutality. We should use the best and the worst of Islamic civilization to better understand the best and the worst of our own.  Americans are seen by many Europeans in the same light, as sex-repressed, illogical, violent people who threaten logic, decency and civilization with pride, wealth, and power.

Consider that 1492 was not simply the year Columbus sailed the ocean blue, for India, to get around the Muslims between India, him and Spain, but the year that Spain was reconquered from Muslims by Christians, and then Portugal soon after, as well as the first year of the Spanish Inquisition, and then the Portuguese Inquisition, the infamous persecutions of Jews and others deemed heretical by the Church.  Jews and Christians who were not Catholic such as Nestorians fled to Islamic lands from Catholic persecutions. Jews went from thriving and contributing much scholarship in Islamic Spain to outright persecution and secrecy underground in a year’s time. Maimonides (1135 – 1204 CE), the famous Jewish philosopher who thankfully lived long before all of this in Cordoba, Spain, and said he read Aristotle but could not understand him at all, until he read Farabi, which solved everything to perfection.

Few European Christians are aware of the reverence that Muslims hold for Jesus, who is mentioned in the Quran more than anyone, the greatest prophet before Mohammed, and Mohammed isn’t mentioned much, as he’s the one hearing it from God.  According to Islam, Jesus did not claim to be the solitary son of God, but rather taught that all are equally daughters and sons of God, and Muslims study the Torah and New Testaments and finding this in the words of Jesus himself.  For Muslims, Jesus is the patron saint of scholars and wisdom, similar to Confucius in China, who also centers his philosophy on compassion, and Jesus sounds much like Confucius in many of the sayings attributed to him by Muslims.

The worst man is the scholar who is in error, since many people will err due to him.

The one who has learned and taught is great in the kingdom of heaven.

When asked how he could perform miracles such as walking on water, he asked in return, “Are stone, mud and gold all equal in your sight?”

When asked, “Teacher, who are the people of my race?”, Jesus said, “All the children of Adam, and that which you would not have done to yourself, do not do to others”.

When asked “Who was your teacher?”, Jesus replied, “No one taught me.  I saw the ugliness of ignorance and avoided it.”

Abacus, Algebra & Abstraction

When we touch a table or look at a wall, what part of the experience is objective, and which part is subjective?  Is the solidity or surface itself simply objective, and is it something different than the subjective experience and feeling we get interacting with it?  It is difficult to say what is the form of the object itself and what is formed by the mind of the subject, a problem that has plagued philosophy all over the world at least since words were written down.

One of the most confusing things about what we call objectivity and subjectivity, which are words with several syllables that no one can simply point to or explain very well, even when they do try, is the modern contradiction of many saying logic and mathematics are symbolic abstractions, images on paper or thoughts in the mind, but also that they are the underlying objective truth, not intangibly abstract, but the reality of the real itself.  We have believed in invisible spirits, gods, and laws ruling things, as their very essence, and Greek, Islamic and European logicians often speak these ways about logic and truth.

Between the ancient Greeks, such as Aristotle, who thought the gods, our superiors, are rational, but also physical, like Aristotle’s unmoved mover, and modern Europeans, such as Descartes, who thought the soul, our innermost self, is immaterial, but superior to the lowly physical body, like the gods, with no French Christian in Descartes’ time daring to say God was a physical being for fear of being tortured as a heretic, there were Muslims, like Farabi and Avicenna, who argue thought, much like we imagine math, is ideal, and mental, thus not physical, like a fire in the head of the ancient world.

Muslims thus stand as a bridge between ancient polytheism, monotheism, and modern abstractions found in philosophy, science, mathematics, and logic. Islamic society developed new practices of imagination and abstraction, representing things as symbols, images, pictures and words, such as number symbols and psychological terms, and this fits the mental becoming more like an image, as something higher and meaningful, but strangely as immaterial and unreal, superior but invisible, graspable but beyond at the same time.

A base 10 system of symbols that represents reality is an easy number for us because we often have it in front of us as fingers, which often serve as a counting device, with five and five making ten together, a simple addition problem.  Once we have number words we can count our fingers, as we can use our fingers to point at other things and count them. Counting boards of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome and abacuses of China also group things by tens and tens of tens to count larger groups of things with a decimal, ten-based system.  The Babylonians had a six-based system we still use to tell time, with 60 minutes to an hour, and there are basic sixes in the five fingers and hand, with six including the palm for counting, as well as the head, torso, arms and legs as six. There are some tribes that count to twenty quickly using their knees, hands, feet and other parts to stand for particular numbers.

Beyond four or five, we lose count of things, like Danzig says of crows.  On the one hand, we could say four or five good things about things, but on the other hand, we could say four or five bad things about the same things.  Cultures share the words more and less before they share words for particular numbers, and then they often do not have words beyond ten or twelve, just as we say twelve but then thirteen, which is clearly three-ten in a way twelve isn’t two-ten.  Beyond twelve, two sixes, countable on both hands.  The word calculate is based on the Latin calculus, which means pebble, like a pebble on a counting board.  To calculate, particularly before algebra replaced previous practices like counting boards and abacuses with written symbols that we can work mechanistically, as a form of language that functions like a piece of counting and calculating technology.

The Egyptians had a base 10 system, but they sometimes wrote numbers in various orders, as two ones, one ten, and three hundreds to mean three hundred and twelve, but order doesn’t matter, so 1, 1, 10, 100, 100, 100 is one way of writing it, but you could also write 1, 10, 100, 1, 100, 100 or 100, 1, 100, 10, 100, 1, as with a small number of numbers, less than five, we can count the numbers and add them together all the same.  The Roman method is actually a 5 based system, as there are 5s (V), and other 5 based numbers as basic structures such that placing a one to the left or right of the five, unlike with the Egyptian method, matters.

The Indian numerals, which Islamic scholars used as the basis for algebra, is even better than the Roman improvement on the Egyptian numerals, as it has an order more like the Romans, but is a simple decimal system like the Egyptians, without fives or counting backwards or forwards from them.  The Roman numeral system actually has seven symbols, I, V, X, L, C, D and M, for 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, 500 and 1,000, but the Indian numeral system has ten symbols, and uses all ten to count from one to ten, unlike the Roman numerals, which make us count up or back as it uses three symbols, I (one), V (five) and X (ten) to count from one to ten.  This means Roman numbers are often much longer, like the strange long dates in Roman numerals on movies only some can read, using twelve symbols to say 1981, what Indian numerals can say in four, but if we want algebra to handle long division, taking steps to determine which number between one and ten several symbols are each time is preventatively difficult.

Before Islamic algebra, much of the world used the Egyptian doubling method (including ancient Greece and Rome) to do division.  Unfortunately, this method could not keep track of remainders and could not take account of series and other functions critical to the growth of math, trade and mechanical technology.  Islamic mathematicians and logicians took the Indian base 10 system, along with the Indian numerals that became our Indian-Arabic numerals we use today, and began doing math in the form of equations.  Algebra allowed trade caravans to keep greater accounts of goods, as well as sophisticated forms of insurance and banking. Islamic merchants traded by caravan all the way up through Russia and Scandinavia, as coins discovered attest.

European Castles are modeled on Islamic questles, the Persian word for fort, far more than they are on Roman palisades, forts surrounded by log fences.  Medieval dress and decoration are not modeled on Roman togas, but rather Persian and Turkish fashions. Consider hospitals with many beds, doses measured with algebra, and mechanical innovations that use gears, pistons and clocks were all passed from Islamic to European hands before Europe became wealthy and powerful.  Europe owes very much to Islamic mechanics and mathematics.

Central to logic, it was with Islamic mathematics, logic and science that equations became the language and device that structures our modern shared world.  The ancient Greeks such as Euclid and Aristotle talked out problems in long spoken form. Today, many scholars use algebraic logic to explain ancient Greek ideas, but it can be quite anachronistic and misleading to do this without acknowledging Islamic contributions.  For instance, the syllogisms of Aristotle seem much clearer and cleaner when presented in variables and equations of first India and then Islamic algebra. While Aristotle reasoned that if Socrates is a man, and all men are mortal, then Socrates is mortal, we today, using variables, can say that if all As are Bs, and all Bs are Cs, then all As are Cs, speaking about any groups or individuals.

One of the sources of algebraic science was code-breaking or cryptography (also cryptanalysis).  Between questles, codes had to be sent and algebra was used to make and break these codes. As nature was studied with mathematics, the philosophers and scientists discovered that algebra is an amazing tool for code-breaking nature.  What we call “science” is still very much the mathematical decoding of nature today. Consider the constant of gravity as a hidden code or message to be discovered and phrased in algebraic language. As Islamic scientists began using algebra to crack the codes of nature, they believed that they were finding the numbers that were the thoughts and speech of God.  Islamic art, which makes much use of geometric patterns, reflects this too. Isaac Newton, like many Muslim scientists, believed that mathematics is the language of nature, laws pronounced in mathematics by God over nature which cannot be contradicted.

Algebraic equations allowed for Wittgenstein’s later truth table logic and other forms that we study as Logic today.  However, equations present us with a new problem that was recognized by the central philosophers of the golden age of Islamic civilization: Is the world truly structured by equations, or are they a model in the human mind?  

Consider the infamous proof that one equals two.  Say that we start with two variables, a and b, and that they are equal.  If we multiply both sides by b, then subtract a squared, then factor out (b – a), we are left with (a = b + a), which is the same thing as saying a is equal to twice itself, which is the same thing as saying that one is equal to two.  How did we come to such a ridiculous conclusion?

This is one example where the mechanics of algebraic mathematics breaks down, and we have to add additional components, such as the rule that we cannot divide by zero.  When we factor out (b – a) and then eliminate it, it is easy to forget that if b and a are equal, we are dividing by zero, and should be left with infinity equal to twice itself, not a equal to twice itself.  The rule has to be added to the system much as a safety device has to be added to a machine to prevent it from breaking down in particular circumstances, like a safety valve that releases steam when it builds up to critical levels.  This is good evidence that mathematics is a human cultural practice, not an ideal self-existent structure.

Al-Ma’mun & Al-Kindi

In 529 CE, the Roman emperor Justinian closed Plato’s Academy, which sent several prominent members to the Royal Court of Persia, what is today Iran.  Greek works were translated into Syrian, and then with Islam a century later, Arabic. This is the time when Pseudo-Dionysius, a.k.a. Fake Dennis, wrote his Neo-Platonic skeptical mysticism and angelology in Syrian, a major source of Christian Platonism and philosophy, and this and other Platonic and Aristotelian works were increasingly brought to Baghdad, the seat of the Abbasid dynasty.  Fake Dennis, Dionysius, is “fake” because the original Dionysius was the first Christian bishop of Athens, and the later Syrian wrote under the same name, and was thought wrongly to be him. Dionysius argued positive and negative knowing, belief and doubt, katophania and apophania, work back and forth dialectically to bring our consciousness into the greater light.

Debates about logic, grammar, law, theology and philosophy between Muslims, Christians and Jews in Arabic were held in royal courts for centuries from the time of Mohammed to the present day, but it was particularly in its golden age from 800 to 1200 CE, from Al-Kindi’s discussions of the scientific, experimental method to Averroes’ extensive commentaries on Aristotle.  The Greek word philosophia was transliterated in Arabic as falsafa, distinguished from kalam, theology, which also involves logic, argument and debate.

Al-Ma’mun (786-833 CE) was the most passionate caliph in supporting scholarship and science, creating an environment that encouraged free thought and debate like no other Islamic ruler.  His father, al-Rashid, had diplomatic ties with Emperors of China and Charlemagne in Europe, and sent Charlemagne an elephant and elaborate brass water clock. In return, Charlemagne gave al-Rashid what may have been the world’s largest emerald.   At the time, Baghdad was the largest city in the world, with a population of more than a million, far larger than Athens or Rome had ever been.

The grand vizier (minister) Ja’far, featured in the 10,001 Nights (as well as Aladdin, unfortunately as the villain) was Ma’mun’s personal tutor, and instilled in him a lifelong love of knowledge and scholarship.  Ma’mun mastered theology, history, poetry, mathematics and philosophy while young, and was particularly gifted at kalam, dialectical debate and argument.  Al-Ma’mun was a supporter of the Mu’tazilites, who openly questioned literal interpretations of the Qur’an, and he founded the House of Wisdom, a center for study and inquiry which drew scholars and philosophers from all over his empire to Baghdad, becoming central to the Islamic Golden Age.