Islamic Golden Age

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Was there an Islamic Golden Age in the period 700-900AD, and what impact did it have?

The claims that Islam had a remarkable golden age are often exaggerated, and are not well supported by physical evidence.


Archaeology and the lack of an Islamic Golden Age

O'Neill (2009) argues:

In the twentieth century, a whole new body of evidence became available to historians; evidence unavailable to previous generations of scholars: The evidence of archaeology. And what archaeology tells us has been devastating to the traditional view.....

On the word of the written histories, then, archaeologists expected to find, from Spain to eastern Iran, a flourishing and vibrant culture. An Islamic world of enormous cities endowed with all the wealth of antiquity and the plunder gathered in the Muslim wars of conquest. They hoped to find palaces, public baths, universities and mosques; all richly decorated with marble, ceramic and carved stone.

In fact, they found nothing of the sort.[1]

The archaeological non-appearance of the Islamic Golden Age is surely one of the most remarkable discoveries to come to light in the past century. It has not achieved the sensational headlines we might expect, for the simple reason that a non-discovery is of much less interest to the public than a discovery....

Normally, we find one or two finds attributed to the seventh century, then nothing for three centuries, then a resumption of archaeological material in the mid- or late-tenth century. Take, for example Egypt, the largest and most populous Islamic country during the Early Middle Ages. The Muslim conquest of the country occurred in 638 or 639, and we should expect the invaders to have begun, almost immediately, using the wealth of the land to begin building numerous and splendid places of worship, but apparently they didn’t. Only two mosques in the whole of Egypt, both in Cairo, are said to date from before the eleventh century: the Amr ibn al-As (641) and the Ahmad ibn Tulun (878). However, the latter building has many features found only in mosques of the eleventh century, so its date of 878 is disputed. Thus, in Egypt, we have a single place of worship, the mosque of Amr ibn al-As, dating from the mid-seventh century, then nothing for another three-and-a-half centuries. Why, in an enormous country with up to, perhaps, five million inhabitants, should the Muslims wait over 300 years before building themselves places of worship?

And it is the same throughout the Islamic world. No matter where we go, from Spain to Iran, there is virtually nothing between circa 650 and 950....

The sheer poverty of these remains makes it clear that the fabulously wealthy Cordoba of the eighth, ninth and early tenth centuries is a myth;[2]

Contributions of Subjugated Cultures and Islamic Apostates

Regarding Arab contributions to the arts and sciences, O'Neill relates that much of what was transmitted from the Arabs was learned from the cultures they subjugated, not really discovered by their own, often illiterate nomad people:

The Arabs who emerged from Arabia with Caliph Umar were mostly illiterate nomads, whose knowledge of what we call science was non-existent. Like all barbarians, they were of course impressed, to begin with at least, by the advanced and civilized cultures which they overran. Egypt, Babylonia, and Persia were ancient civilizations with unique attributes. Each had long-established universities, libraries and traditions of learning. When the Arabs conquered these regions there is evidence that they permitted these institutions, for a short time at least, to continue. Furthermore, these nations, and Persia in particular, were conduits through which flowed new ideas and techniques from the great civilizations of the Far East, from India and China. Much, indeed most, of the new technologies and methods that medieval Europeans learned from the Arabs, were not Arab or even Near Eastern at all, but Chinese and Indian. Europeans used the Arabic names for these things (such as “zero” from the Arabic zirr), because it was from Arab sources that they learned them. But they were not Arab.[3]

Islam and the decline of Classical Civilization

John O'Neillin Holy Warriors: Islam and the Decline of Classical Civilization (2009) examines the historical evidence for Islam's influence for the loss of Classical Antiquity, and the lack of archaeological support for such an age.

In his 1936 book, ‘Mohammed et Charlemagne’, Belgian historian Henri Pirenne argued in great detail that the Dark Ages of Europe began rather suddenly in the middle of the seventh century; and that this sudden and catastrophic decline in civilization was due to Islam’s blockade of the Mediterranean. Up to that time, Pirenne showed, there was no evidence of a decline in Classical culture. True, the Western Roman Empire as a political entity had disappeared in 476, but the literate, prosperous and urban civilization, which we call "Classical", continued virtually uninterrupted. The Goths and other "Barbarian" peoples, who ruled the provinces of the West after 467, did not try to destroy Roman civilization and civil society. Indeed, as Pirenne showed in great detail, they did everything in their power to preserve it. They adopted the Latin language, accepted Imperial titles from the Emperor in Constantinople, and minted gold coins with the image of the Eastern Emperor emblazoned upon them.[4]

Regarding the decline of Classical Civilization, O'Neill claims history shows that it was not the Barbarians or the Christians that killed Classical Civilization, but the Islamic Arabs:

One of the most enduring problems of history is the decline of Classical Civilization. How was it that the civilization of Greece and Rome, which had endured almost a thousand years, a civilization which prized learning, science and reason, gave way to the world of the Medieval; an age which saw, for a while, the almost complete disappearance of the rationalist spirit of Greece and Rome? The traditional view was that after their seizure of Italy in the fifth century, the Barbarian tribes of Germany and Scythia had reduced Europe to an economic and cultural wasteland, initiating a Dark Age, which was to last half a millennium. After the Reformation, another suspect was added to the list: Christianity, or, more accurately, Catholic Christianity. In this view Christianity was corrupted beyond recognition after the time of Constantine and from the fourth century onwards a power-hungry Church hierarchy, in cahoots with the Imperial authorities, kept the population of Europe in subservience and ignorance, effectively completing the destructive work of the Barbarians.

In this ground-breaking work, historian John J. O'Neill examines a great variety of evidence from many specialties and reaches an astonishing and novel conclusion: Classical Civilization was not destroyed by Barbarians or by Christians. It survived intact into the early seventh century. The Vandals and Goths who seized the Western Empire in the fifth century had become completely Romanized by the start of the sixth century. Artistic and intellectual life flourished, as did the economy and the cities built earlier under the Empire. Yet sometime in the middle of the seventh century everything changed. Cities were abandoned, literacy plummeted, royal authority declined and local strongmen, or "barons", seized control of the provinces. The Middle Ages had begun.

Who or what had caused this? As O'Neill notes, by the 1920s Belgian historian Henri Pirenne had located the proverbial "smoking gun"; but it was not in the hands of the Barbarians or the Christians: it was held by those who, even then, it had become fashionable to credit with saving, rather than destroying, Classical Civilization: the Arabs.[5]

The Darker Impact of Islam on Europe

O'Neill (2009) relates how most historians are cowed into silence by modern political correctness, avoiding the facts that the Islamic philosophers who did make valid contributions were considered apostates from Islam in their day, and that the real impact of Islamic philosophy is seen in the paranoia of war in Europe:

It is of course widely accepted nowadays that Islam had an enormous ideological impact upon Europe. Historians tend to focus on certain scientific and philosophical ideas, especially those of philosophers such as the tenth-century Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and the later Averroes (Ibn Rushd), who made extensive commentaries upon Aristotle, and who are routinely touted as examples of Islam's benevolent impact upon Europe. But there was a darker, a much darker, side to Islamic influence, the side that modern historians, chained by the bonds of political correctness, do not dare mention. The real ideological impression of Islam was not the enlightened thinking of Avicenna and Averroes, who were in any case rejected and expelled from the Muslim canon, but the darker thinking found in the Koran and the Haditha: the doctrines of perpetual war against non-believers; of holy deception (taqiyya); of death for apostates and heretics; of judicial torture; of slave and concubine-taking as a legitimate occupation. These were the teachings, and not those of the philosophers, which left an indelible imprint on medieval Europe.[6]

A similar and even more detailed analysis of Islam's impact on Europe can be found in Egyptian scholar and historian Bat Ye'or's The Decline of Eastern Christianity: From Jihad to Dhimmitude (1996), in which she meticulously documents the destruction of Western culture under the hands of Islamic conquerors.

Further reading

  • Graham, Mark. How Islam Created the Modern World (2006) [ excerpt and text search] argues there was a golden era
  • Lombard, Maurice. The Golden Age of Islam (2003), argues there was a golden age
  • O'Neill, John. Holy Warriors (2009) excerpt and text search
  • Pirenne, Henri. Mohammed et Charlemagne (1936)
  • Ye'or, Bat. The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam : From Jihad to Dhimmitude : Seventh-Twentieth Century (1996)


  1. Europe’s Dark Age and Islam’s Golden Age: Two Facets of The Same Fiction?
  2. Europe’s Dark Age and Islam’s Golden Age: Two Facets of The Same Fiction?
  3. The Real Islamic 'Golden Age'
  4. Islam and the Dark Age of Byzantium
  5. Europe’s Dark Age and Islam’s Golden Age: Two Facets of The Same Fiction?
  6. The Impact of Islam on Medieval Europe