The period between the 8th and the 13th century is considered to be the ‘Golden Age of Islam’. Scholars present it as a period of major cultural revival in philosophy and science. Meanwhile the backbone of this ‘golden age’, a vast majority of Iranian scientists, writers and artists were persecuted, imprisoned and trialled for heresy. Almost a millenium later: did anything change?
Translated from German by OD4I.
The period between the 8th and the 13th century is considered to be the ‘Golden Age of Islam’. This was a period of major cultural revival in philosophy, the natural sciences, engineering, medicine, language and historical sciences not seen since the Roman era. As a consequence the Islamic empire flourished during these centuries.
These heydays of cultural and scientific blossoming in the Islamic world provide the roots of Islamic superiority towards the west. Ever since the crusaders battled with a more advanced civilization many things have changed. The balance shifted in favor of the Europeans while the Islamic world stranded more and more in ancient traditions until it faced a superior West in the mid 19th century.
The situation of science in pre-Islamic Persia
Long before the birth of Islam Persian Science influenced Greek philosophy. It is no coincidence that the first pre-Socratic thinkers settled in Asia Minor that was under Persian rule. Thinkers such as Thales of Miletus and Heraclitus of Ephesus introduced Persian science into a liberal Greek society that willingly embraced these new sources. The period of cultural flowering in Greece is not only a local miracle or achievement but was supported by the long tradition of scientific transfers from Persia to Greece between 600-300 BC.
The birth of Persian chemistry
Archeology has found traces of human settlers on the Persian plateau that are over 40.000 years old. These people began about 9000 years ago with agriculture, built the first cities Susa and started exporting their products to other countries over 5000 years ago. The so-called Persian Plateau is not only a region but also involves cultural phenomenas that can be found from the Ural Mountains in nowadays Russia to India in the East, the Indian Ocean in the south and the Euphrate river in the west.
With the construction of Persian city-states start the mythology of ancient people which is now one of the few sources on the history of antiquity. The Persian mythology contains, in comparison with other mythologies, concrete and practical material that can be used to link civilizations and put major events in perspective. Persian mythology provides a basic understanding on the early days of chemistry and pharmacology during antiquity.
Like may other Persian mythologies represent a history of tying human behaviour to celestial bodies. Ancient Persian associated, for instance, gold with our sun and silver with the moon. That’s why the raw materials of chemistry had a hint of philosophical hint over them. This gave Persian thinkers, the opportunity through analysis and recognition of these raw materials, to discover their physical characteristics. Ancient Persian scientists assumed that raw materials had specific characteristics ad that these could be used to create new structures with specific properties or characteristics. This new innovative way of thinking became the foundation for chemistry and pharmacology in ancient Persian.
Remarkable archaeological finds form areas in central Persian (sialk) suggests that the first pharmacologists in the world were women. They searched in fields and woods for edible herbs, roots, leaves and seeds and investigated how they interacted with the human body. As in ancient mythology women were important medicine conquered a place in religious thoughts and theology.
Ancient religions were observational by nature. The Sumarians, one of the first Aryan peoples, integrated astronomy and medical science. The medical profession of doctor goes as aback as far as 4000 years. Excavations at Nippur in Persian sampled clay tablets inscribed with names of medical instruments and recipes. Due to social and humane Sumarian legislation the profession of doctor was considered with great prestige. Sumarians produced thousands of years before the formal invention of soap their own soap from a mixture of alkaline ash and fat-containing substances.
The beginnings of pharmacology
Ibn Sina, known in Europe as Avicenna, writes that his elixir against bronchial asthma was exported to Oxymel in Greece. One of the older elixirs is Mitridat that derives from the period of the Parths. Mitri of Mitra is an ancient Persian word that meant ’sun’. The word Mitridad derives from mitri.
Persian scientific efforts contributed significantly to the academic development of clinical chemistry, pharmacology or pharmaceuticals. As an example we can look at the practical production in food industry. Neither the Chinese nor the Indians were capable of producing sugar in its clearest shape from sugar canes. However, Persian scientists improved the cooking process in such a way that long before others they could enjoy the taste of pure sugar.
Arabic invaders became, during their military intrusion into Persia, familiar with the sugar cane factories in the Persian province of Khuzestan. Especially in Gondi Shapur, an ancient Persian university city, white sugar was produced in its present form. The Arabic invaders initially hesitated to use this new knowledge due to their origin. They destroyed many libraries in Persian as their culture was unfamiliar with books, schools or education. Even after the emergence of Islam there was hardly any change as it would take at least two centuries for this religion to adapt to the standards of higher developed civilizations. The Islamic-Arab leaders told them that a Muslim would need no book except the Quran.
Sa’d Ebne Abivaqqas asks: “What do we do with so many Persian books?” Omar replied: “We have the Quran, the most complete book ever and even if these Persian books are written in the meaning and purpose of the Quran wh have the original. And if they oppose the message of the Quran we do not need them.“ (Tarikhe Tabari, Ebne Hesham and Ebne Khaldun in their book ‘Moqaddama’)
Source and origin
Many western and Oriental scholars accept the thesis that with the emergence of Islam the illiterates of the Arabian peninsula suddenly became scientists and cultural zealots. That with the Islamic religion the Arabs spread their enlightenment to the joy of many that resulted in a so-called ‘Golden Age of Islam’.
The thesis dies knowing that all this was nothing more than a harmonious and continuous development of remaining ancient Persian culture and science. Only one discordant element disrupts this chain of development: Persian scientists were ordered by their Arabian conquers to publish their work only in Arabic language. And so they did for many centuries. But when these books finally arrived in Europe westerners assumed that these works were written by Arab Muslims.
Rhases was the first chemist to produce pure alcohol. Another Persian scientists, Biruni, developed a method to determine the specific weight of an inorganic substance in the 11th century. The list of Persian scientists that have enriched clinical chemistry, pharmacology, and thus medical therapy, medicine, mathematics, philosophy and architecture is almost endless. Unfortunately it goes beyond the scope of this article but an encyclopedia of scientists can be constructed.
The investigation of the oldest Persian and Greek literature and the comparison of medical therapy methods and pharmacology of both countries shows obvious that that the Persian medicine and pharmaceuticals before Hippocrates was more developed and progressive than Greek medicine. Furthermore scientists concluded that Greeks probably added Persian pharmacology and science to their heritage and significantly benefited from it.
The situation of Persian science during Arab occupation
It is wrong to link the scientific achievements of this era to the Islamic religion. There is no such thing as an ‘Golden Age of Islam’. In what way was Islam responsible for the blossoming of culture and science? Following the logic of the inventors of the so-called ‘Golden Age of Islam’ the polytheistic Greek religion should be elected as the most elevated religion as the most amazing Greek works of philosophy were written under the rein of Zeus.
No one proposes the idea to associate the thinking and achievements of Greek philosophers as Socrates and Aristotle with Greek gods such as Zeus and Aphrodite. Why would Islam be responsible for the scientific achievements in Islamic territories? Why has it lost its ability to define, research and publish on (new) scientific paradigms? The answer is plain simple: the beginning of the ‘Golden Age of Islam’ falls exactly within the 400-years occupation of Persian by the Arabs under the cruel Umayyads and Abbasids Caliphate. What some people define as ‘Gold’ is nothing more than the theft of what Persians performed and achieved based upon on their history and culture.
The Arabs those days knew nothing about art, architecture, mathematics, astronomy and chronology. Arab conquerors were even surprised when they robbed their first coins. So after four centuries of Islamization in Persia the light of science and knowledge had slowly faded away.
Arab influence on the emergence of Islam
The historians of the Islamic world have long debated on the question if their conquests were based on religious grounds or the need for economic expansion. Nowadays the famous and undeniable events of Arabs and their Islamic empire can be understood from the writings of the famous Arab historian Ibn Khaldun.
The principal historian of the 20th century, Arnold J. Toynbee, regards Ibn Khaldun as the true founder of philosophy of history. Scientist Dr. Shojaedin Shafa quotes Ibn Khaldun and his book Al Moqaddama :
“The natural talent of Arabs is the plundering and exploitation of others. Belongings of others inspire them to theft and robbery. They feed through their lances and swords, robb and plunder without moral boundaries; on the contrary, they steal everything on their path. If they, during their conquests, occupy a country they paid no attention to the heritage of the people; therefore the property by the occupiers are all violated and robbed.
This process reduces prosperity and civilization dies out. They are also the reason why prosperity and a society become corrupted, because they ignore the artists, craftsmen and despise them […] A society’s wealth might disappear though the destruction of these professions.
Arabs did not bother to implement laws or rules against theft or aggression against citizens; the only thing they cared for was to obtain other people’s property through extortion and blackmail. Once this was achieved they knew no mercy for people and their well being. It was never their intention to improve a community but to find new ways to satisfy their greed and increase their wealth.
Ultimately, a nation controlled by Arabs lives in chaos and anarchy as if no statutory power exists. Chaos and destruction are causes for the destruction and corruption of wealth and civilization. This nation is naturally out to plunder and destroy, what they find, they take as booty […] Because of their nature it is hard for Arabs to accept authority as, on the basis of their characteristics, this rule would have the same degree brutality, greed and and rivalry that they impose on others. It seldom happens that they agree on anything. If, however, religious matters or possible conquests are involved Arabs unite and work together on a new road to victory.
And so, these Arabs, who are proud to eat scorpions and ticks, came together under the banner of the Prophet and undertook conquests in the direction of the Persian and Roman (Byzantine) empire. After destroying these empires they engaged themselves in earthly affairs and gathered enormous wealth. Any Arab conquest automatically entailed the destruction of the civilization in question as most cities were deserted by their inhabitants. Cultivated fields turned into a wasteland.
Yemen, a country with a history going back at least 3000 years, was left to ruins after the Islamic conquest. The Persian civilization in Iraq was completely destroyed. The same scenario took place in Syria. The Southern Arabian tribes Banu Hilal en Banu Sulaym, who penetrated Morocco and Tunesia and fought each other over 350 years to obtain local hegemony while destroying agricultural life. The areas between the Mediterranean and Sudan, which were has previously built and inhabited, are now just a desert, where ruins, flat terrains and only a few villages are left to to remind us that it once was a civilization. “(Al-Moqaddama – Ibn Khaldun).
These quotes are borrowed from the Al-Moqaddama and are part of the few criticism Ibn Khaldun directed tot the Arabs. About the nature of the Arabs the Qur’an states in sura 62-11: „But when they see some bargain or some amusement, they disperse headlong to it, and leave thee standing. Say: “The (blessing) from the Presence of Allah is better than any amusement or bargain! and Allah is the Best to provide (for all needs).”
The Arabs who imposed their ideology of war, rape, deportation, enslavement and murder on others were so backward, ignorant and hate filled against civilized Persians that they did not know how to handle our ancient treasures. After capturing the famous carpet Baharstan that, if it had not been torn in pieces and divided as war booty, would be now one of the wonders of the ancient world.
These barbarians did have the neither the cultural nor other skills to motivate the emergence of a so-called ‘Golden Age’. Everything that during the 400-year occupation of Persian in the Islamic region was performed was produced by Persians without any Islamic drive. Arabs deported Persian scientists and scholars and forced them to translate their books into Arabic solemnly to make these part of the Islamic and Arab heritage; knowing that it took them more than 100 years of occupation and destruction to recognize the value and importance of Persian books.
Foreign claims of Persian achievements
Many if these great Persian scientists were assassinated after working many years for the occupiers. Others, like Ibn Sina (Aviccena), were always on the run, spent time in prison or had to write their works under the most severe circumstances. It were man like Ibn Sina used by Turks and Arabs to enrich the grab of holy Islam while ignoring how orthodox islam despised men like Ibn Sina. The theologian Al-Magd Dine Baghdadi wrote: “I saw the Prophet in my dream. I asked him: What do you think about Ibn Sina? He replied: This is a man who wrongly claimed his right to enter heaven and thought he could do so without my guidance. That’s why I blotted him completely with a gesture of my hand so he fell into hell.” Another theologian, Ibn Al-Athir, mentions the names of the deceased in the year 1037 and writes: “During the month Shaban Abu Ali Ibn Sina, the famous physician and philosopher, died. He served ruler Ala ad Dawla. There is no doubt that he was an infidel who had the brutality to publish his works of heresy against the divine laws.”
The greatest work of Ibn Sina, the Canon of Medicine, would become a standard work for the the next 600 years amongst students in the Orient and European universities such as Montpellier, Paris and Jena. But the Islamic rulers called men like Ferdowsi, Hafez, Saadi, Khayyam, Ibn Sina, Razi and Biruni “Mortad” (heretics) and , they made their lives as bitter as possible.
The first Persian Renaissance
The more independent small states in the Islamic Empire became and the more Arab caliphs lost control of their empire science and philosophy could flourish. The Persian poet Ferdowsi composed in the 11th century his famous work Shahnameh, the ‘Book of Kings. With this book the poet elevates the Persian language, 300 years after the destruction of Sassanid empire, back into the position of being the literary language in Persian and thus saves the Persian language that was about to be pushed aside by the language of the conquerors.
While most of the conquered countries would lose their culture and language forever the Persian poet Ferdowsi prevented this tragedy for Persia. Ferdowsi’s story on the rise and fall of fifty noble families, starting in mythical times and ending as a national catastrophe with the Arab Islamic conquest of Persia. The book of kings tells us, using thousands of sentences and rhyming phrases, about Persian values, adventures of heroes and their heroic deeds, their affairs with stunning Persian women, slender as cypresses and shining as bright the moon, the exuberant life of the court, full of music, dance and wine; and most of all about the dilemma of good people who suffer from evil rulers.
Poet Ferdowsi reminds the Persians of the roots of their identity and till today his great work resonates in the minds of so many Persians. This was necessary as during the 400-year occupation of Arab invaders prison or exile was the penalty for valuable Persian scientific work. Occasionally, their work would be thrown into the fire or water or, following Islamic tradition, used to beat them until death or leave them at least seriously injured. Persian philosophers, scientists, artists and writers had simply no other choice to present their talents and abilities under the banner of Islam.
Dr. Zabihollah Safâs book, ‘Târixe Adabiyyâte Iran’, describes the tragic life and fate of fifty Persian scientists and thinkers during the Arabic occupation. The display of superlative hostile expressions against philosophers in general and Persian philosophers in particular continued until 1218, the year of the Mongol invasion.
Long before the Mongol invasion Persian scientists hastened the codification of Islamic law and wrote the first grammar of the Arabic language. They were also the principal translator of the newly established library of Baghdad. Over the next three centuries the texts of Aristotle, Plato, Galen and other thinkers of Antiquity would be translated into Arabic. This gave rise to a canon of knowledge in philosophy, mathematics, medicine, history and literature that would later finds its way through Spain and Sicily to Europe to present the seeds for the Renaissance.
The result today is that the Arabs and Turks define the gruesome 400-year occupation of Persia under the rein of the bloodthirsty Umayyads and Abbasids as the ‘Golden Period of Islam’. Nowadays many dubious figures and Islamists refer to sources that describe great Persian scientists such as Ibn Sina, Omar Khayyam, Ferdowsi, Biruni, Razi and many others as Arabs or Turks.
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A truly great article, the truth must be told.
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Your discussion is fascinating, but I wish you would write with Farsi script instead of transliterating your comments with Latin script. That way the rest of us could follow the gist of what you’re saying by using Google Translate.
I stumbled across this site in a search for the Persian influence on Islamic civilisation. In my reading of history over the years I was intrigued by the dominance of Persians in the literary, scientific and mathematical arts in classical Islam, and as a computer scientist, the particular importance of Al Khorasmi (hope I got the name correct) — from which the word algorithm derives — to my chosen field.
From this I strongly suspected that it was Persian culture that was the source of the so-called Golden Age of Islam. This site has helped reinforce it for me. A people can’t go from subsistent desert dwellers to high civilisation overnight. We see that even today with the Arab people.
Thank you very much!
If it weren’t for Islam I bet Iran would be a leading country like countries such as The Netherlands and Scandinavian countries not only in techonolgical terms but also in human rights. Sadly, Iran has a horrible reputation, infamously known for its merciless persecution and killing of gay people.
Yes Iran doesn’t have good rulers, but they don’t hang gay people!! can you give an example? Just Iran is not a heaven for gay people, but homosexuality is practiced discreetly.
Without Islam, Persia would be one of the world’s super powers. It’s disgusting to hear that Arabia had a golden age without giving you Persians the credit. I assure you that the golden age of Islamic technology and the arts would not exist if it were not for you Persians who were forced to be under their rule without being credited. You Persians (Iraq and Iran) must unite and return back to your beautiful culture and religion of Zoroastrianism.
This is coming from a Canadian Filipino currently studying the beautiful history and development of Persia before the Muslims came
Hey, sometimes I get a 500 server error when I arrive at your webpage. I thought you may wish to know, best wishes
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There are many, many things wrong with this article.
First off, the Sumerians were not „aryan“. Where did you get this idea from? The Sumerians were a collection of non-Semitic, non-Indo-European peoples living in modern day Iraq who evolved from the Proto-Ubaidian and Proto-Euphrates cultures. We have no idea where they actually come from but they certainly weren’t Aryan/Iranian. They literally existed before the Indo-European migration and before Andronovo and Sintashta. It is impossible for them to be aryan as they didn’t speak an Indo-Iranian language nor did they had the genetics of them. No cultural similarities either as the Sumerians didn’t have horses. The fact that you made this glaring mistake puts serious damage to your credibility for this article but I will continue my critiques nonetheless.
Your next claim is that the Persians were somehow responsible with the transfer of philosophy/science into Greece. While there was certainly cultural exchanges between both peoples you’re grossly exaggerating it. First of all, there is no proof that the Persians were responsible for the influence of western philosophy. Thales lived a very short time under the Achaemenids. By the time they came knocking into Anatolia, Thales already concluded many of his thoughts and theories. If anything, Thales was influenced by the Egyptians and Babylonians instead. Him and the Greeks in general were more influenced by the Semitic peoples than Persians. How? They got their alphabet from the Phoenicians, Arithmetic from the Egyptians, some of their deities are of non-Hellenic origin. They even admitted it themselves. Hell, Thales and Zeno were Phoenician. The Greeks were the first to prove the Pythagorean theorem with formal logic. Is there any proof the Persians did it before them?
Susa is not the first city, Uruk and Ur predate it. Hell, you could argue Jericho was the first. You also shouldn’t use mythology as proof of some advance chemistry development happening. It’s just stories and fables not rooted in historicity. The history of Pharmacology started with the Greeks. It was almost entirely a European development that Persians and other non-Europeans had little to do with so you’re overselling Persians once again.
I believe that the name denoting the period of the Abbasid caliphate’s golden age is a misnomer. I agree that Islam had little to do with it, with it just being about intellectuals and peoples who just so happen to be Muslim. It would be like if we label the renaissance and other European Pax periods as Christian golden ages. However, your attack on Arabs is unfounded and blatantly false. First off, the invading Arabs were mostly literate. You’re referring to the Bedouins who were in fact illiterate and recruited by the Arabs in their army. There is evidence of writing in the Arabian desert before Islam. Much of the soldiers in the Arab army also consisted of Yemenis who of course were civilized peoples who long knew the feel of civilization. So what is this crap about Arabs being illiterate? It’s funny that you say that the „Islamic“ golden age is a continuous period from the Sassanian era as many of the scholars of Gondishapur and others were of Syriac and Nestorian origin. It seems Christians did much to fuel this pre-Islamic Persian development.
Persians indeed have an impressive portfolio of intellectuals and scientists during that period but there were many great Arabs ones too. You had Alhazen who made significant contributions to the study of visual perceptions where he proved that eye sight is a result of light bouncing on objects and into the eyes of people, causing many to dub him „The father of Optics“. He was considered by Europeans to be the second Ptolemy (An Egyptian). Al-Nafis was the first to describe pulmonary circulation and so on. You claim Persian medicine and techniques to be more advance than Greek ones without evidence. It’s „probably“ to you.
As I make mention before, I agree that the Islamic Golden Age doesn’t own itself to the religion. Instead, this time of prosperity was greatly aided by the expansion of the Arab caliphates where the wide breadth of knowledge was possible thanks to the taking of ideas from Iberia all the way to China. Frankly speaking, most of those Persian thinkers wouldn’t have been as effective if it weren’t for the wealth of translated Greek material. They were influenced by the Greeks to a degree so it was thankful that the Arab Caliphs and Nestorians made a push to translate and preserve the Greek knowledge for all of the Muslim world to have. Also, let me get this straight. The cruel occupation by the Arabs is bad but the thousands of years of occupation in Iraq, the Levant and Egypt is fine? Never mind the fact that many Shahs actively persecuted minorities and even flat out committed genocide against the Manicheans, it goes both ways. You’re also lying once again about the Arabs „knowing nothing“. Not only did several advanced civilizations existed in the peninsula (Saba, Himyar, Dilmun, Nabatea), one of them, Saba, was responsible for the Ma’rib Dam considered to be one of the engineering marvels of the world.
Ibn Khaldun’s diatribe was against the Bedouin Arabs, not Arabs in general. He makes a clear distinctions between Urban Arabs and the Arabs of the desert. The „lizard eaters“ clearly refering to nomadic Arab populations in the gulf. Tell me, how is that proof that of the Arabs being rape happy murderers? He was an Arab himself for christssake! If there is any Arab population that deserves criticism, it’s the Bedouins. While he does say that Persians were mostly responsible for the contributions, he also says that Persia’s scientific output decline and was surpassed by Egypt. You’re literally twisting quotes to create a false narrative of an attack on all Arabs. Sucks to hear about your carpet but a wonder of the world? Lol.
Quit playing up the „destruction“ of heritage and culture by the Arabs narrative. By the time they arrived, the Egyptians, Syrians and many others have long been Hellenized/Romanized. Aramaic was also responsible for killing many other languages in the near east. It was the lingua franca of it before Arabic. Their culture changed dramatically from their pre-occupation days. If anything, the Arabs helped save the middle east as it was undergoing pointless wars between the Byzantines and the Sassanids which resulted in razed lands and made the lives of the people miserable. It’s no wonder that the Egyptians mutinied the Byzantines. The Arabs provided liberation in exchange for a tax to be paid. Their lax rule allowed the various non-Islamic religions to survive to this day in the Middle East. Contrast that with all the religions put under genocide by the christians in Europe.
You are once again exaggerating the impact that the Persians made on Islamic society. Most of the important Islamic authorities were of Arab origin. Al-Farahidi predates Sibawayh as a linguistic expert of Arabic (in fact, he was his teacher) and provided much of the basis of the language.
This was a long post but it is clear from reading your article that you have no interest in knowing the truth. You rather swallow the anti-Islamic, anti-Arab slant because it is easier. You not only failed to give citations for your claims of Persian advancement, the ones you did give are folly and don’t support your point. You also mistakenly believe Persians did all the work when there were several significant Arab minds that existed. You misconstrued the writings because you didn’t see the bigger picture. This and some of the other posts here just regurgitate the same old talking points of Iran being better without Islam. It’s no coincidence that all those great Persian thinkers and writers came after the Sassanids fall. I believe the Arabs had some part into that.
The more I know about life the more I am convinced that ignorance and lack of knowledge stimulates the perception. I know that I know nothing. – Socrates. We as human beings are connected through the knowledge of our ancestors. The cultures have always mixed, died out, were found, influenced others.