The great Arab intellectual awakening
The Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, opened in 715
Inspired by the universalism of Islam, many early Arab-Muslim thinkers saw all intellectual disciplines as part of a larger truth
By the mid-8th century, the Umayyad Arab-Muslim caliphate, with its seat in Damascus, had replicated much of the old Roman Empire around the Mediterranean, plus Arabia, Persia, Central Asia, and North India, but in 751 the Umayyads were overthrown by another old Arab family, the Abbasids. This was triggered in part by family rivalry, and partly by the Persian belief that they were being excluded from power, even as they were supplying much of the intellectual and material wealth of the young caliphate. The alliance of Abbasid Arabs and Persians rose up against the Umayyads and their Syrian allies and overwhelmed them in battle.
Yet in an amazing feat of defiance, the sole surviving Umayyad teenaged heir, Abd al Rahman, escaped spies and assassins, led a tiny force across the Strait of Gibraltar in 756, and swiftly seized the rough frontier land of Al Andalus in the name of the fallen Umayyads.
The victorious Abbasids moved their capital to Baghdad, both to close the door on the Umayyad era and to signify their closeness to Persia. But the reconstituted Umayyads set up a rival Arab state and put their capital at Cordoba.
Even as the Abbasids, in particular the Caliphs Harun al Rashid and Al Mamun and their heirs, embarked on turning Baghdad into the smartest, most creative, and most modern city on Earth, the Umayyads led by Abd Al Rahman I and his heirs, set out to do the same thing in Cordoba and the other Andalusian cities.
This competition created twin centres of Arab-Muslim art and ideas that would soon be emulated in Egypt, Persia, Morocco and other parts of Africa, Sicily, Central Asia, and India.
Why were so many Arab-Muslim leaders in agreement on the importance of intellect, even though they may have despised each other and their regimes? Some historians point to the early Arab tradition of debate and discussion, which predated Islam. Though the stereotype of ancient Arabia is of a non-urban, pastoral society, its heritage of debate, poetry, and tribal diplomacy would later give rise to rationalism and enlightened political theory.
Another recognised trigger for the rise of Arab intellect was the acknowledged intellectual traditions of the older societies that fell under Arab and Muslim influence. Places like Alexandria, Damascus, Tunis, Spain, the Byzantine lands, Persia, and India had been urban and intellectual centres for hundreds of years when the Arab armies arrived. So people who had long been trained in the ways of research, study, debate, and invention were eager to continue their work within the Arab context.
But perhaps the most important catalyst was the widespread belief that the teachings of the Prophet (pbuh) and the faith of Islam itself encouraged study, thinking, and discussion, as well as a scientific understanding of the world.
Historians of Arab science point to various statements in the Qur'an and in the body of other statements attributed to the Prophet (pbuh). They point to statements like:
"Even if you must go to China, seek knowledge."
"Acquire knowledge, because he who acquires it in the way of the Lord performs an act of piety; who speaks of it, praises the Lord; who seeks it, adores God."
The Prophet (pbuh) had also made various statements discussing the orbits of the planets, explaining human reproduction, proposing quarantine against disease, and setting the number of months in the calendar at 12. Aside from being uncannily close to modern scientific views, they opened the door to a modern and scientific perspective.
So it is clear that the young Arab-Muslim civilisation had fuel for an intellectual explosion. But what would provide the final spark? That would come from all the daunting intellectual requirements of governing vast states, building and administering large cities, motivating diverse societies, feeding huge populations and keeping them healthy, staying true to the faith, and overseeing vast new economies and commercial activities. These various needs would provide the final spark for the explosion in mathematics, in astronomy, and in the various sciences as well as in culture, the arts, and leadership styles.
But what was also fascinating about this early Arab period was not only the amazing impact of the many discoveries that would come in all these fields and more... but that for several hundred years, what would later be seen as separate, specialised intellectual disciplines would all be considered part of one larger body of knowledge. The same men and women who composed music theory would ponder the stars and thread their way through mathematical problems... taking time out to write about medical treatments and chemical processes along the way.
This way of cross-disciplinary thinking would one day come to be embodied in the European 'Renaissance man', master of many disciplines. What would be forgotten was that the real birth of the Renaissance man had come hundreds of years before, in the Arab world.
The conventional Western view of this early Arab-Muslim 'unity' of intellectual disciplines, is that it was pre-modern, possible only in a less sophisticated time, when multiple fields of knowledge could still be mastered by single individuals.
Muslim historians of science disagree, saying that it was no coincidence; rather the obvious expression of the Muslim concept of the unity of all creation, expressed at the scientific level.
A third possibility is that this early Arab holistic approach to knowledge was uniquely modernistic. The unity of all disciplines would seem to resemble modern complexity theory, which says that the same organic patterns replicate themselves throughout biology, human behaviour, market shifts, and chemical reactions.