The History and Achievements of the Islamic Golden Age by Eamonn Gearon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
These lectures are a captivating tour of the Islamic world from the 8th to the 13th centuries. Eamonn Gearon is a great storyteller and each lecture in this series could stand on its own as fascinating and engaging. His deep knowledge of the history and ideas of the Islamic world is evident throughout all the lectures.
The breadth of Gearon’s discussion shows that the Islamic Golden Age produced achievements in nearly all branches of science, philosophy, mathematics, and technology. The achievements during the Islamic Golden Age across all areas of human thought and life is unparalleled until the European Enlightenment – which owes no small influence to the Islamic Golden Age. There is much in our modern world that has its roots in the Islamic Golden Age. Gearon makes a point to underline that these intellectual and practical achievements are not necessarily religious or particularly tied to or driven by Islam. The achievements came from all kinds of people, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Arab, European, African, Persian, and so on. What makes it the Islamic Golden Age is that this a period ruled by Muslims, by states that had Islam has the state religion.
One of the most interesting questions that runs throughout the lectures is why was there so much progress during this period and then why did it come to an end? The thread one gets from these lectures is that with regional stability from the Abbasid Empire came the relatively free movement of goods, peoples, and ideas. This along with the relative toleration and interaction of ideas and people set the ground for the flourishing of human thought and achievement. As the Abbasid Empire weakened, the stability, tolerance, and trade weakened as well. And as a consequence, as Gearon says, the Golden Age become silver and then the bronze.
So why did the Abbasids weaken? Gearon explores this a bit but not in great detail. Essentially a combination of foreign invasions (Christians and Mongols), internal divisions (the Fatmids, the Almohads), and the natural complacency of the ruling class contributed to the Abbasids fall and with it the Islamic Golden Age.
There are remarkable parallels to the Roman and English empires. In all these, there was a general correspondence of (relatively) liberal trade and immigration policies, (relative) tolerance of ideas, and the health of the culture and achievement of people under the empires. This is not to say that there were not awful problems, people excluded and dominated, and so on, but compared to other periods and other regions, there was remarkable growth and achievement. And when these more liberal and tolerant policies ebbed, so do the achievement and progress, and then the empires themselves. Important lessons for our times.
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