Who Saved Civilization?

Baghdad Summer

The empire of Islam reaches its apogee

Jesus Never Existed The Challenge of Islam

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Kenneth Humphreys



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A Tale of Four Cities

9th century urbanisation

Charlemagne ran his 'empire' from a village in Germany. Constantinople had a falling population within its ancient walls, devoted to piety and ritual.
Cordova was an up-and-coming 'university' town in Moorish Spain and Baghdad a thriving metropolis of an empire which ran from the Atlantic to central Asia.

Charlemagne's Aachen

Umayyad Cordova

Byzantine Constantinople

Abbasid Baghdad

1cm = 5km


'Hellenization' of Muslim Intellectuals

Just as the Greek empire of Alexander, 1500 years earlier, the new world order of Islam brought together a diverse heritage – Indian mysticism, Persian art, Greek science, Roman pragmatism, Christian artisans and Jewish traders. It was a crucible for innovation.

During the darkest of Christian centuries – the 9th and 10th – a confident, expansive Islamic empire nurtured an 'enlightenment' which preserved and extended much of classical knowledge. Urbane caliphs patronized art and science and encouraged the translation of classical literature. Muslim intellectuals adapted knowledge to the needs of Islam, but for the most part they were free to explore wide horizons and made inventions and discoveries unimagined in Christendom.

While Europe sank under vicious Christian despotisms, wrote nonsense-filled 'Lives of the Saints' and wrangled over the dating of Easter, scholars in the new cities of Islam established the basis for modern science and mathematics.

In this springtime of Islam – confined to the later Umayyad and early Abbasid dynasties – Muslim scholars began a serious study and analysis of the science of antiquity.

For eight hundred years Arabic would remain the major intellectual and scientific language of the world.



Modern mathematics was virtually invented by Islamic scholars.

It was a useful discipline for an empire of merchants.



780-850 The mathematician Muhammad ibn-Musa al-Khwarizmi writes 'ilm aljebr wa'Imuqabalah' ('the science of reunion and equation'), using ancient Greek and Indian source books.

From 'al-Khwarizmi' algorithm is derived; from 'al jeb'r algebra; from 'jayb' sine.

The Hindu 'sunya' ('empty') becomes the Arabic 'sifr' which in turn becomes the European zero in the 15th century, vital to the further advancement of mathematics. 'Sifr' is also the source of the word cipher.

In the 9th century Thabit bin Qurrah applies algebra to the solution of geometrical problems.

c 900 Arabs introduce decimal (base 10) numbers into Spain (recorded in the Codex Vigilanus, 976).

1010-1075 Arab Ahmad al-Nasawi ('al- Muqni'fi al Hisab al-Hindi') writes about Hindu calculation of fractions, square and cubic roots.

Early 15th century Al-Kashi writes Key to Arithmetic.


Christian Europe:

In 1130 Adelard of Bath translated an Arabic copy of Euclid's 'Elements'. 300 years later Johannes Campanus – chaplain to Pope Urban IV – published a fresh translation (1482).

In the 13th century Italy, Leonardo Fibonacci introduced Arabic numerals and 10-based notation ('Liber abaci' 1202; 'Liber quadratorum' 1225) from al-Khwarizmi's work.

Gerbert of Aurillac – later, the 'scientist pope' Sylvester II ! – wrote about them.

1335 saw the first original European work on mathematics – Richard of Wallingford writes work on trigonometry.


Codex Vigilanus


Euclid's Elements (3rd century BC)


Cordova versus Baghdad

Arab Conquest of Hispania – A 5 -Year Wonder

About 200,000 Goths ruled an indigenous population of about eight million Hispano-Romans. And yet the Arab/Berber armies overran the peninsular with breathtaking speed.


Rapid Muslim success was due in no small part to the brutality and divisions of the Christian-Visigothic kingdom. The Gothic aristocracy was riven by rivalry; the indigenous Hispano-Romans were treated as second-class citizens; heretics and Jews were penalised and persecuted.

Half the population was said to have perished from famine and plague during the reign of Visigothic king Erwig (680-686).

When the Muslim invaders arrived many Roman cities were already disappearing under subsoil, irrigations systems had fallen into disuse and the extensive Roman mining industry abandoned. The Arab armies followed the Roman roads to reach the major cities and as often as not left Jewish garrisons in command.

In the decisive battle of the River Guadalete in 711 a Berber army of 12,000 defeated a force several times its size but made up of ill-treated slaves led by a treacherous nobility. Visigothic King Roderick was never seen again.


When the Umayyad dynasty of Damascus were murdered en masse by the Abbasids in 750, one Umayyad prince – Abed Al-Rahman I – escaped to the distant Muslim province of al Andaluse (Spain). Here he re-established Umayyad rule in an independent and enlightened emirate. His lavish court life nurtured a 'golden age' of Islam in Spain which lasting nearly 300 years (756-1031). In 929, in a challenge to the weakening Abbasids in Baghdad and rival Fatamids in north Africa, emir Abd al-Rahman III proclaimed himself caliph.

Cordoba, his capital, was Europe's greatest city for more than two hundred years, not only in population but also in the richness of its cultural and intellectual life. In the 10th century the city's Jewish Academy and Talmudic school – headed by a wealthy Jew in the diplomatic in the service of the caliph, Hasdai Ibn Shaprut – eclipsed the Babylonian academies of Sura and Pumbeditha. Muslim rule continued in a shrinking al Andaluse for another 600 years.

In the Spain of the Umayyads, Christians and Jews (known as the 'Mozarabes') enjoyed the same liberties as the Muslims, prospered in commerce and were admitted into the schools and universities.



On the Bones of Giants

Corduba/Cordova was the largest city of Roman, Visigothic and Umayyad Spain. The Great Mosque of Cordova (begun in 784 and eventually as large as St Peters in Rome) was the wonder of the medieval world. Hundreds of marble, granite and onyx columns – spoil from the local Roman temple and other more distant sites – were mounted by stunning double arches and held a ceiling of cedar.

Converted to a cathedral by Ferdinand in 1236 the building was safe – and used by both Christians and Moslems – for 300 years. But then Christian fanaticism in the 16th century vandalised the structure.

A monstrous Gothic 'cathedral' was raised in the centre of the great prayer hall, a 300' high belfry replaced the minaret, and most of the many doors were sealed shut, making the structure gloomy inside and uninviting from the outside. But for local protest, Christian fanatics would have demolished the whole thing.


Double Take

Mosque to the left, cathedral to the right!

A peeved Emperor Charles V, expressed regret for the ill-conceived pious vandalism.

"You have built here what could have been built as well anywhere else; and you have destroyed what was unique in the world."



The Mezquita or Great Mosque (showing its best side).

Predictably, the mosque was built on the site formerly occupied by a Visigothic church and before that, a Roman temple.

The bizarre cathedral-within-a-mosque.

The city of Cordova had a special place in Christian triumphalism. When Constantine I seized the Roman throne in 312 his theological advisor was Hosius, Bishop of Cordova.




The triumphant Abbasid dynasty relocated the centre of Islam from the ancient city of Damascus in Syria to a new city of Baghdad in Iraq. Here the new overlords of Islam, Arabs themselves, became increasingly Persianized

In 832 the astute caliph al Mamun – a patron of the Mutazilites – established a 'House of Wisdom' for the purpose of translating Greek and Latin science texts into Arabic. The choice of texts for translation was a privilege of the ruling class, with astrology (astronomy) ranked highest for its reputed powers of 'prediction'; alchemy (chemistry) promised the creation and control of wealth; and medicine the alleviation of suffering. This initial focus on 'useful' texts in time gave way to greater latitude for translators to select the best examples of abstract knowledge. Al Mamun also established an observatory at Jundeshapur. The new 'university' which had come into being served as a model for al-Azhar ('the splendid') mosque/seminary of Cairo (969) and the earliest medieval universities in the West.

Centuries later, the barbarian Christian kingdoms of Europe acquired the science and technology developed by the empires of Islam. By the end of the 13th century, universities had been established in Paris, Bologna, Padua, Ghent, Oxford, and Cambridge. The Renaissance and European imperial conquest became possible.

In a tragic irony, the Islamic world, trapped in oligarchic theocracy, stultified further development and began centuries of stagnation and decline.



England's "Muslim" Coinage

Original: 8th century Umayyad gold Dinar

By the mid-8th century Muslim traders had excelled Roman merchants, crossing the Sahara and establishing themselves as far south as Ghana where they exchanged salt for gold; and crossing the Gobi and establishing themselves in Canton, China.

Christian Europe:

Copy: A gold coin of 8th century Saxon King Offa of Mercia (757-796) 

England's Muslim coinage with Arabic inscription: in Kûfic script the coin proclaims 'OFFA REX' but also 'Muhammad is the Apostle of Allah'.

Should we be surprised? Charlemagne (771-814), Offa's illustrious contemporary, was using the Greco-Egyptian deity Serapis on his official seal.


Astronomy: the oldest of sciences

The sophisticated instruments which made possible the European voyages of discovery, such as the astrolabe, the quadrant, and accurate navigational maps, were all developed by Muslims.

Arab astronomers built on the knowledge known in antiquity and dominated astronomy for over a thousand years.



Early in the 9th century, an observatory was founded in Jundeshapur, south-west Persia.

Also, during the 9th century al-Khwarizmi draws up astronomical tables.

Ptolemy's Geography


In 827 Hajjaj Ibn Mater translated Ptolemy's Geography into Arabic.

Muslim geographers produced numerous books on the geography of Africa, Asia, India, China and the Indies from 8th to 15th centuries.

These writings included geographical encyclopedias, almanacs and road maps. Ibn Battutah's 14th century masterpieces provided a detailed view of the geography of the ancient world.

Muslim geographers and navigators learned of the magnetic needle from contact with China and pioneer the use of magnetic needles in navigation.


Christian Europe:

European navigators relied on Muslim pilots and their instruments when exploring unknown territories. From them, the west acquired the compass and the astrolabe.






During the 9th century Ptolemy's 'Syntaxis Mathematica', was translated into Arabic as the Almagest.

The Syntaxis was the first comprehensive mathematical study of astronomy, and used observations made everywhere from Ceylon to Britain.

Nadir – from Arabic 'nazir' (point of heavens directly under observer); zenith – from 'samt arras' (path overhead); Azimuth – the arc from zenith to horizon – from 'assumut'.

Abu Rayhan al-Biruni (973 -1048)wrote an elaborate astronomical treatise on the elliptical motion of the planets and the movement of the earth around the sun, commenting on the obliquity of the ecliptic, the precession of the equinoxes, and the length of the solar year.

Al-Biruni also posits the finite nature of matter, centuries before Lavoisier.


Christian Europe:

in the 12th century the Almagest was translated into Latin by Gerard of Cremona;

The Tables of al-Khawarizmi were translated by Adelard of Bath, Robert of Chester and Gerard of Cremona.



Invented by pagan Greeks in the 2nd century BC – preserved and improved by Arabs

Arabs acquired the astrolabe from the Christian school at Jundishapur in the 8th century and by the 9th century had developed it into a far more sophisticated instrument, used among other things to determine prayer times and the orientation of mosques towards Mecca.

In the 8th century Mashallah bin Muhammad al Nahavandi writes treatises on the astrolabe, the armillary sphere and the movements of heavenly bodies.


Christian Europe:

In 1091, Wilhelm of Hirsaw in 'De astronomia' described Islam's astrological instruments.

In 1110 Spaniard Pedro Alfonsi brought Islamic knowledge of astronomy tothe court of English king Henry I.

During the 12th century the astrolabe re-entered the Christian west via Muslim Spain.



al manac


858 - 929 The Sabian scholar Abdallah al-Battani at Samara makes a remarkably accurate calculation of the year (356 days, 5 hours, 46 minutes, 24 seconds). He also developed the concept of cotangent and furnished their table in degrees.

1087 Al Zarqellu produces astronomic tables in Moorish Toledo ('Toledan Tables') describing positions of planets.



Christian Europe:

During the 12th century, 'Toledan Tables' were translated into Latin by Gerard of Cremona and were used in Europe for the next 300 years. Users included Nicolaus Copernicus, Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler

In the mid-13th century Roger Bacon used the Arab almanac in his major work, 'De scienta stellerum - De numeris stellerum et motibus.'





9th century: Ibn Firnas of Islamic Spain invents eyeglasses and they are manufactured and sold throughout Spain for over two hundred years.

965 - 1038 Al Hassan ibn al Haytham (aka 'Alhazen') writes work on optics. He makes reference to the camera obscura, spherical and parabolic mirrors, study of spherical aberration, spectrum and refraction.



Christian Europe:

In 1270, Al-Haytham translated into Latin and influenced the work of Witelo and Kepler. 'Alhazen' becomes the most quoted physicist of the Middle Ages.

Roger Bacon mentioned eyeglasses after studying the work of al-Haytham whose research he frequently referred to.




W. Cook & R. Herzman, The Medieval World View (OUP, 1983)
B. F. Relly, The Medieval Spains (Cambridge UP, 1993)
R. McKitterk, The Early Middle Ages (OUP, 2001)
John Gribbin, Science a History (Penguin, 2003)
William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain (Flamingo, 1998)
N. H. H. Sitwell, Outside the Empire-The World the Romans Knew (Paladin, 1984)
Edward Gibbon, Decline & Fall, Chapters 50-52 The Coming of Islam, Arab Conquests
M. Brett, W. Forman, The Moors, Islam in the West (Orbis, 1980)
Justin Wintle, History of Islam (Rough Guides, 2003)
J. Bloom, S. Blair, Islam - Empire of Faith (BBC Books, 2001)
J. J. Norwich, Byzantium, The Early Centuries (Viking, 1988)
C. McEvedy, The Penguin Atlas of Medieval History (Penguin, 1987)
Robert Marshall, Storm from the East (BBC Books, 1993)


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Copyright © 2004 by Kenneth Humphreys.
Copying is freely permitted, provided credit is given to the author and no material herein is sold for profit.