Islam - Rise and Fall

Jump to: navigation, search

During the European Middle Ages, there was a huge development in progress in the Middle East. Islam emerged in the early 7th century and, after an aggressive military conquest of the entire Middle East, North Africa and most of the Iberian Peninsula, Islam brought impressive cultural developments with it in the early centuries. But from the 12th century this changed.

The rise of Islam

In the early 7th century, the Byzantine Empire and Persia were locked in a gruelling war with each other. (The Byzantine Empire has its name from the main city of Byzantium, which has also been called Constantinople, and is now known as Istanbul. Persia is present day Iran.)

At the same time, Islam was developing on the Arabian Peninsula, and Muhammad and his warriors gradually spread the new religion to the entire Arab region. Thanks to the exhausting war between the Byzantines and Persians, it was not difficult for the Muslim forces to conquer the Byzantine Empire as early as 626 and Persia by 641. In the aftermath of conquest, Islam combined with the highly developed Persian and Byzantine cultures and from this arose a new, dynamic synergy. By 711, the Muslims had conquered most of Spain and, during the next 500 years, the greatest developments here took place in the Muslim regions.

Islam was tolerant of both Jews and Christians and also disseminated a written culture. In the Caliphates of Cordoba, Alexandria and Baghdad, Jews, Christians and Muslims cooperated and philosophy, science and technology flourished, as long as pluralism remained paramount.

Among the great Muslim thinkers of the time were the philosopher al-Kindi (d. 866), who introduced Aristotle's philosophy to Islam; the scientist Alrazi (d. approx. 923), who drafted a universal compendium of medical research; the philosopher al-Farabi (870-950), who was the first to really rethink Aristotle's and Plato's philosophy and metaphysics; and the doctor, philosopher and physicist Ibn Sina (about 980 to 1037) who excelled in metaphysics and logic. Ibn Sina is especially known for furthering Aristotle's basic principles and for his medical textbook, which was a seminal work in the art of medicine during the Middle Ages and long after.

The stagnation of Islam

From the 9th century, a theological split arose within Islam: Is the way to God through revelation or through reason? Gradually, revelation theology triumphed and, in the 12th century, Islam became deadlocked and dogmatic and development stagnated. One of those responsible for this development was the theologian al-Ghazali (d. 1111). He proclaimed the infallibility of Islam and argued that "one cannot argue to the contrary."

There is no doubt that Ibn Rushd (1126-98) took issue with Islamic dogma using reason, but he could not reverse developments. Along with Ibn Sina, he is best known for reinstating Plato and Aristotle with Europeans.

Among the Jewish philosophers during Islam's golden age, Maimonides (1135-1204), who insisted that religion must not be in conflict with reason, deserves special mention.

Developments in the Muslim regions stalled as reason was pushed into the background. At the same time, Muslim forces suffered a series of military defeats, leading to them gradually being forced out of Spain. In 1492, Spain had been reconquered by the Catholics, after which both Muslims and Jews were banished from the country.


In relation to Europe's later democratic development, Islam has had an important impact, because Muslims reintroduced reason and paved the way for the European Renaissance. It was thanks to Muslims that Europeans rediscovered Aristotle and other ancient Greeks and it was also with inspiration from the thoughts of Muslim philosophers and scientists that 13th century Christian philosophers began to contradict the biblical world view. At that time, however, Islam itself was becoming dogmatic, which halted further development.

Next chapter: Summing up: Democracy the First Time