Over the epoch of recorded history, a number of periods have been labeled as “golden ages”, a label that identifies them as the best of their kind. The term “golden age” implies in some sense a period of growth and progress within a society. Scholars generally date the “Islamic Golden Age” from 750 CE beginning with the overthrow of the Damascus based Umayyad dynasty and the rise of the Abbasid caliphate.[i] The end is often seen as 1258 CE when the Mongol armies of Genghis Khan conquered and sacked Baghdad, the Abbasid capital. During this period, knowledge of and advances in math, science, arts and culture flourished throughout the vast Abbasid Empire and in the Umayyad shadow caliphate in Andalusia – in modern day Spain.
Why did this “golden age” occur when and where it did? The answer to this question lies in a combination of factors that came together in a particular time and place. The term Islamic Golden Age is misleading in that it implies that there was something inherent in the religion of Islam that resulted in this specific period of growth and progress. In reality, this growth and progress had more to do with other societal factors that came together in a vast empire ruled by Sunni Muslim Caliphs. A critical impetus was the rise to power of a series of forward looking, progressive caliphs, beginning with Harun al-Rashid in 786 CE, who invested heavily in research and scholarship, created enormous libraries containing works of scholarship from around the world and filled Baghdad with the world’s greatest intellects. At that time the military was strong and the empire was secure. Therefore, rather than spending more money on defense, the caliphs were able to devote more resources to scholarship and research. Another factor was the vast size of the empire, which stretched from Persia in the east, through the Middle East, and into North Africa. This vast empire contributed to economic prosperity which provided resources to the caliph. This empire also broke down tribal and national barriers, resulting in diversity of culture, philosophy, religion and knowledge. The breakdown of barriers also meant that people and knowledge could flow much more seamlessly across the empire. The caliphate was open to people of all cultures and religions, particularly people who brought intellectual prowess.
Both internal and external factors also played a role in ending the Islamic Golden Age, even while the invasion of the Middle East by the Mongol armies was the defining event in the collapse of the Abbasid caliphate. As the Abbasid Empire began to get “long in the tooth,” various provinces and regions broke away, dissipating the advantages of a large contiguous land mass with no national or tribal borders, which facilitated travel and the transfer of knowledge. These breakaway entities engaged in almost continuous warfare; the resulting instability had a devastating effect on their economies. By the 12th century, Islamic orthodoxy began to negatively impact free-thinking philosophy; i.e. faith superseded reason which diminished rationalism and scientific inquiry.
In all states and empires, governments change. In a number of cases, narrow minded, conservative and intolerant leaders succeeded the more open minded progressive caliphs who had ushered in the Islamic Golden Age. These new leaders did not value the multicultural, multiracial, inter-religious environment of the caliphate and persecuted non-Muslims and intellectuals forcing them to flee. The hubris of these self-centered, corrupt new leaders led to political and financial mismanagement and resulted in accelerated decline.
Lessons for the United States
This tale of the rise and fall of a great empire offers pertinent lessons for the United States. These lessons deserve enumeration and examination if the United States is to continue to be seen as the “shining city on a hill”.
First, leadership matters. The tone and direction of a state or empire is set by the leadership. Their language, statements and actions empower and enable the best and the worst qualities and instincts of the population. The political system needs to produce the best and most qualified people to lead. If it fails to then this raises unsettling questions about the underlying political system.
Second, priorities matter. Where and how societies invest their resources indicates a lot about where their priorities lie. When societies choose to invest an inordinate amount of resources in unnecessary and prolonged wars at the expense of investments that make the lives of their citizens better, these societies are setting themselves up for decline.
Third, permitting the movement of people across borders matters. The day of large multi-cultural, multi-ethnic empires may have passed. Empires have been replaced by nation states based on a combination of ethnicity, religion, language and race. This system has resulted in the creation of national borders which impede the flow of migration. While globalization has, for the most part, facilitated the seamless movement of goods, services, knowledge and financial resources across national borders, human movement is restricted. We need a system that allows for the orderly migration of people to places where their skills and knowledge can be most productively utilized.
Bernard Lewis, the noted British-American historian of the Middle East, once wrote that “[before the rise of Islam] virtually all civilizations…were limited to one region, one culture and usually one race. The Islamic culture of the Middle East was the first that was truly international, intercultural, interracial, in a sense, even intercontinental, and its contribution—both direct and indirect—to the modern world is immense.” The enlightened leadership of the Islamic Golden Age – with its openness to diversity, migration and scholarship – brought unparalleled achievements. The challenge for the United States is to learn from the strengths of this enormous empire and avoid the pitfalls that led to its downfall. America was built on the principles of an enlightened set of ideas. Once we lose sight of these principles, we become just another large country with a big military.