Islam and the making of the West

Islam and the making of the West

During Europe's Dark Ages, the Arab world kept the candle of civilisation burning.

Helene Guldberg

Topics Books Long-reads World

The history of Christian Europe and the Arab world since the birth of Islam in the 7th century has consisted of wars, conquest and alliances. There has also been a great deal of trade between the two, and, most striking of all, mutually enriching cultural and scientific exchange. Indeed, Europe’s emergence from the Middle Ages was in no small measure spurred on by the intellectual and scientific breakthroughs of the Arab world, particularly in the 9th and 10th centuries.

However, as historian Peter Frankopan notes in The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2019), the importance of the Arab world to the West has largely been forgotten. ‘In part’, he writes, ‘this is because of what has been called “orientalism” – the strident and overwhelmingly negative view of the East as undeveloped and inferior to the West, and therefore unworthy of serious study’.

The birth of Islam

‘One hundred years after the death of Muhammad, his followers were masters of an empire greater than that of Rome at its zenith, an empire extending from the Bay of Biscay to the Indus and the confines of China and from the Aral Sea to the lower cataracts of the Nile.’ Thus Philip K Hitti, world-renowned Lebanese historian, opens his 1943 book, The Arabs: A Short History.

Muhammad, born into an Arab tribe in approximately 570 AD, is believed to have been a merchant in Mecca, Western Arabia. He was already in his forties when he began to receive a series of divine revelations from the angel Jibrīl – or Gabriel. These revelations were later written down to form the Koran.

Islam is the third and most recent of the three main monotheistic religions, and according to many historians, including Hitti, it is ‘closely allied to’ and an ‘offshoot of’ Judaism and Christianity. The messages conveyed to Muhammad ‘parallel’ the ‘message of the Hebrew prophets of the Old Testament’, Hitti writes: ‘God is one. He is all-powerful. He is the creator of the universe.’ The religion of the Koran was closer to the Judaism of the Old Testament than to the Christianity of the New Testament. But as Hitti writes, ‘it has such close affinity with both… that in its early stages it must have appeared more like a heretic Christian sect than a distinct religion’.

After the revelations from Gabriel, Muhammad became a prophet and sought followers among the people in Mecca. But the elites were ‘enraged by [his] criticism of traditional polytheistic practices and beliefs’, Frankopan claims, and ‘they laughed him to scorn’, according to Hitti.

In 622 AD Muhammad left Mecca for Medina. Whether he was driven out of Mecca or chose to leave of his own accord is unclear. However, he was welcomed in Medina as an important statesman – a lawgiver and judge and commander of the army. A religious community of his followers, the Ummah, or congregation of Allah, grew rapidly, not only in Medina but throughout Arabia.

‘Thus by one stroke the most vital bond of Arab relationship, that of tribal kinship, was replaced by a new bond, that of faith’, Hitti writes. By the time of Muhammad’s death, former warring polytheistic Arab tribes recognised ‘a single authority… based on religious revelation’, writes British historian Chris Wickham in his 2010 book The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000. Frankopan also emphasises Muhammad’s active role in ‘fus[ing] the many tribes of southern Arabia into a single bloc’.

This shift in loyalties was key to the ensuing rapid geographical expansion and the Arabs’ military and political conquests. The Arab tribes had previously survived by raiding neighbouring tribes. Now they were forbidden from raiding fellow followers of Muhammad. So they looked further afield. The objective of these raids beyond the deserts of Arabia was to acquire booty rather than gain a permanent territorial foothold somewhere else. As Frankopan writes: ‘Willing to sanction material gain in return for loyalty and obedience, Muhammad declared that goods seized from non-believers were to be kept by the faithful. This closely aligned economic and religious interests.’

As the Arabs moved northwards into what is now Syria and Iran, they met little resistance from fading empires exhausted by the great 7th-century Byzantine-Persian war. The Persian and Byzantine empires had also been weakened by devastating plague epidemics.

So it was that the Arabs moved from opportunistic raids to military and political conquests. ‘In 15 years, the whole of the Sassanian [neo-Persian] empire and half the [Byzantine] empire had been conquered by the Arabs. Only Alexander [the Great], and the Mongols, have ever matched them for speed of conquest’, Wickham writes.

As Frankopan points out, ‘the Muslim conquests completed Europe’s shunt into the shadows that had begun with the invasions of the Goths, Huns and others two centuries earlier. What remained of the Roman Empire – now little more than Constantinople and its hinterland – shrivelled and teetered on the brink of complete collapse.’ At the time in Europe, trade had become primarily local, living standards and literacy rates had plummeted, populations had declined and cities had almost disappeared. Wickham describes this period in Europe as one of ‘radical material simplification’.

‘The contrast with the Muslim world could not have been sharper’, Frankopan writes, adding: ‘The Islamic conquests created a new world order, an economic giant, bolstered by self-confidence, broad mindedness and a passionate zeal for progress. Immensely wealthy… it was a place where order prevailed, where merchants could become rich, where intellectuals were respected and where disparate views could be discussed and debated.’

The Islamic Golden Age

In his 2012 lecture, The Splendour of the Abbasid Period, historian Paul Freedman describes Islam as one of the key heirs of the Roman Empire. Unlike the Germanic tribes of Europe, which sacked the western Roman empire, the Arabs kept most of the Roman – and indeed Persian – administrative structures intact. Indeed, the conquerors saw in the Roman and Persian empires wonderful civilisations to be preserved – ‘a garden protected by our spears’, as one Arab conqueror put it. But the conquerors did not want just to protect these civilisations — they also wanted to cultivate and develop them.

The early conquerors were not particularly interested in converting the conquered to Islam. Their strong Arab patriotism meant that they tended to see Arabs alone as worthy of their new religion. But there were also practical reasons for tolerating Christians and Jews and allowing them to worship freely.

Woodcut of astronomers using sighting devices, said to be Caliph al-Mamun of Baghdad, late 15th century.(Getty).
Woodcut of astronomers using sighting devices, said to be Caliph al-Mamun of Baghdad, late 15th century.(Getty).

As Islamic scholar Bernard Lewis explains in The Muslim Discovery of Europe (1982): ‘Islam came into a predominantly Christian world, and for a long time the Muslims were a minority in the countries they ruled. Some measure of tolerance for the religions of the subject majority was therefore an administrative and economic necessity, and most Muslim rulers wisely recognised this fact.’

However, even under the early caliphate, Christians and Jews were forced to pay special taxes. ‘They were not supposed to wear certain colours; they could not marry Muslim women; their evidence was not accepted against that of Muslims in the law courts; their houses or places of worship should not be ostentatious; [and] they were excluded from positions of power’, writes Albert Hourani in A History of the Arab Peoples (1991).

Tolerance often gave way to intolerance, too. ‘Although there were periods of acceptance of other faiths, there were also phases of persecution and brutal proselytisation’, writes Frankopan. ‘While the first hundred years after Muḥammad’s death saw limited efforts to convert local populations, soon more concerted attempts were made to encourage those living under Muslim overlordship to embrace Islam’, he continues. In the 8th century, less than 10 per cent of the population of what are now Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia and Spain was Muslim. By the end of the 10th century, however, a large part of the population had converted to Islam.

The Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties

Since 661 AD the caliphate had been run by the first Muslim dynasty, the Umayyads, and the capital had been moved out of the Arabian desert to Damascus. However, in 750 AD the Abbasids drove the Umayyads from power. Afterwards, they invited the Umayyads to attend a supposed banquet of reconciliation, where they brutally slaughtered every one of them. However one member of the Umayyad family, Abd Al-Rahman, had the foresight to say he was busy. He fled to Spain where he succeeded in getting himself proclaimed ruler, or emir, and became the first Islamic ruler to defy the Abbasid caliphate. The new Umayyad dynasty proceeded to rule Spain for almost three centuries, with its capital in Cordoba, which, by the 10th century, was deemed one of the most splendid and cultivated cities in the world.

Under the Abbasid Caliphate – which survived until the Mongol invasions of the 13th century – the orientation was mainly eastwards. The capital was moved from Damascus to a newly constructed city in the desert, Baghdad – which was later sacked, burnt and destroyed by the Mongols, in 1258. The rapid expansion westwards under the Umayyads came to a halt under the Abbasids.

The move eastwards, however, led to the flourishing of poetry, architecture, philosophy, science, mathematics, astronomy and more. Because Baghdad, the capital, was situated on the crossroads of the East and West, it brought the realms of India, Persia and the Mediterranean together. By the 9th century Baghdad had become the largest, wealthiest and most civilised city in the world.

Learning flourished, too. The caliphate funded the translation of Greek and Persian scientific, philosophical and medical texts into Arabic. In 830 AD a centre of learning, the House of Wisdom (Bayt al hikma), was established in Baghdad, where texts were stored and original research was conducted.

The Abbasids were inspired by Persian literature, poetry and astronomy, and by Greco-Roman medicine, mathematics, astronomy and philosophy. The Arabs adopted a numerical system from India – which has proven far superior to the Roman numerical system. Indeed, Arabic numerals ‘provided the basis for leaps and bounds in algebra, applied mathematics, trigonometry and astronomy’, writes Frankopan.
Ibn Sīnā, latinised as Avicenna, was one of the most famous Muslim philosophers and physicians of this Islamic Golden Age. His impact on Medieval Europe’s medical schools was immense and his philosophy was incorporated into European scholastic thought.

‘Just as the Abbasid caliphate brought the lands of the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea into a single trading area, so too the Greek, Iranian and Indian traditions were brought together, and it has been said that for the first time in history, science became international on a large scale’, Hourani writes. And ‘all this took place while Europe was almost totally ignorant of Greek thought and science’, Hitti adds.

Hitti is largely correct about Europe’s backwardness in comparison to the Muslim world during the Middle Ages. However, his dismissal of ‘Charlemagne and his lords’ as merely ‘dabbling in the art of writing their names’ is unfair. After all,it was under Charlemagne, crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor in 800 AD, that the Carolingian Renaissance began in the late 8th and early 9th centuries. The Carolingian Renaissance introduced a system of Latin spelling and a more legible form of handwriting, with capital and lower-case letters – which is the form we use today.

The Arab impact on Christian theology and the European Renaissance

The Arab contribution to European thought did not merely involve preserving Greco-Roman texts. Muslims made many breakthroughs, too. By the 12th century ‘the scientific and intellectual achievements of the Muslim world were being actively sought out and devoured by scholars in the west, such as Adelard of Bath’, Frankopan writes, adding: ‘It was Adelard who scoured the libraries of Antioch and Damascus and brought back copies of algorithmic tables that formed the foundation for the study of mathematics in the Christian world.’

The Italian Renaissance architect, Brunelleschi – most famous for designing and building the magnificent dome of Florence cathedral in the early 15th century – is also known for having introduced linear perspective, or the creation of an illusion of depth on a flat surface. For this, he relied on the mathematics of the 10th-century Arab scientist, mathematician and astronomer, Ibn al-Haytham, latinised as Alhazan. Alhazan also wrote a groundbreaking thesis about how vision and the brain are linked and is often known as ‘the father of modern optics’.

The 14th-century Andalusian Arab, Ibn Khaldun, was described by the Florentine philosopher and diplomat, Niccolò Machiavelli, and the German Enlightenment philosopher, Georg Friedrich Hegel, as one of the greatest philosophers of the Medieval world. As Islamic scholar Adam Silverstein explains in Islamic History (2010), rather than see history as ‘teleological’ or ‘God-driven’, Ibn Khaldun described it as ‘cyclical and subject to rules and patterns.’ And in doing so, he helped put man more at the centre of history.

Scholars in library of the House of Wisdom, by Yahya al-Wasiti (1237 AD).
Scholars in library of the House of Wisdom, by Yahya al-Wasiti (1237 AD).

Ibn Khaldun argued that every dynasty or empire contains the seeds of its decline. They can be undermined by extravagance – of which there was no shortage in the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties – or leaders’ loss of authority and structures of command. After all, even the mightiest can fall. Indeed, the great powers of the Greco-Roman world, and their Byzantine and Persian heirs, had been replaced by formerly tribal nomadic Arabs.

But Ibn Khaldun’s universal history had its limitations. He showed no interest in the barbarians of the north – the Franks, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Lombards and more – nor in sub-Saharan Africans or the Far East. All of this damaged his attempts at formulating a universal history. And despite his many fascinating insights and inspiring descriptions of the immense scientific and intellectual breakthroughs made under the Abbasid Caliphate and Umayyyad Spain, he had a bigoted view of many non-Arabs, particularly sub-Saharan Africans.

In The Muslim Discovery of Europe, Lewis explores the ways in which Europe and the Muslim world perceived, interacted with and shaped each other. He notes the almost total lack of interest displayed by Middle Easterners in the language, cultures and religions of Europe. ‘It may well seem strange’, writes Lewis, ‘that classical Islamic civilisation which, in the early days, was so much affected by Greek and Asian influences should have so decisively rejected the West’. This might be explained by the dynamism, and philosophic and scientific breakthroughs of the early Muslim world and the backwardness of Medieval Europe, which served to flatter Muslim pride ‘with the spectacle of a culture that was visibly and palpably inferior,’ Lewis writes. ‘Muslim civilisation, proud and confident of its superiority’, he adds, ‘could afford to despise the barbarous infidel in the cold and miserable lands of the north’.

By the time Europe had awoken from its slumber and given us the Renaissance, and the scientific and industrial revolutions, ‘Islam was crystalised in its ways of thought and behaviour and had become impervious to external stimuli’, Lewis argues. ‘The peoples of Islam continued until the dawn of the modern age to cherish – as some of us in the West still do today – the conviction of the immeasurable and immutable superiority of their own civilisation to all others.’ A view that by the end of the Middle Ages was ‘dangerously obsolete’, Lewis argues.

The rise of the Ottomans

In the early Abbasid period, the need for an effective army ‘was met by the purchase of slaves, and by recruiting soldiers from the Turkish speaking pastoral tribes on or across the frontier in central Asia’, Hourani writes. Centuries later, these Turks rose to establish the Ottoman Empire that survived for six centuries, from the 1300s onwards. In 1453 the Ottomans took Constantinople, now named Istanbul, and what was left of the Byzantine Empire.

‘The Ottoman Empire’, Hourani continues, ‘was one of the largest political structures that the Western part of the world had known since the Roman Empire disintegrated: it ruled eastern Europe, western Asia and most of the Maghreb, and held together lands with very different political traditions, many ethnic groups – Greeks, Serbs, Bulgarians, Romanians, Armenians, Turks and Arabs – and various religious communities – Sunni and Shia Muslims, Christians of all the historic Churches and Jews. It maintained its rule over most of them for 400 years or so, and over some of them for as many as 600.’

The peak of the empire’s power was under Suleyman the Magnificent in the 16th century. In 1529 his army reached the gates of Vienna.


There is a tendency to underestimate the positive contribution of the Arabs and Islam to the Western world. At the same time – with so much focus in the West on ‘white guilt’ – there is a tendency to downplay the brutal, centuries-long Arab practice of enslaving Africans, Slavs, Turkic tribes and European Christians. During the reign of Suleyman the Magnificent, Barbary Corsairs terrorised European coastal settlements and captured thousands of ‘infidels’ who were sold into slavery. ‘To the Europeans, the sea rovers of the North African states were pirates. For themselves they were fighters in the holy war, [carrying out] jihad against the enemies of the faith’, Lewis writes

‘Demand for slaves in these cash-rich locations was intense’, Frankopan writes, with the numbers of slaves being sold likely being ‘far greater even than those of Rome’. As Frankopan explains, we can gain an idea of the likely scale of slavery from the fact that one account talks of a caliph and his wife owning a thousand slave girls each, while another was said to own no fewer than four thousand. Although the numbers are uncertain, historians have estimated that the total number of African slaves taken by Arabs could be in the region of 12million – as many as those taken in the Atlantic slave trade. But rather than primarily being forced to work on plantations or in mines, those enslaved by Arabs were placed in domestic servitude, including concubinage.

A historical legacy

Just as Europeans should feel no guilt for the actions of their ancestors, neither should contemporary Arabs feel responsible for the actions of their ancestors. We should face up to and learn from the horrors of the past. But we should also acknowledge how much we have gained from the ingenuity, determination and intellectual accomplishments of our ancestors. And none more so than those in the Arab world. They provided some of the vital building blocks of the world we live in today.

Helene Guldberg is author of Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and Play in an Age of Fear, and Just Another Ape?. Visit her website here.

Main picture by: Getty Images.

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