Rise of Islam
Learning and Culture
For religious scholars (ulama), knowledge from Quran and the model behavior of the Prophet (sunna) was the only way to know the will of God. The ulama focused on writing tafsir and documenting Muhammad’s authentic hadith. Some of them prepared a body of law or sharia to govern the relationship of Muslims with God through rituals (ibadat) and with the rest of the humanity through social affairs (muamalat). In framing Islamic laws, jurists also made use of reasoning (giyas). In the eighth and ninth centuries, four schools of laws (mazhab) were formed, viz. Maliki, Hanafi, Shafii and Hanbali schools. Each was named after the leading jurist (faqih). The Sharia provided guidance on all possible legal issues within the Sunni society. It was more precise on questions of personal status than on commercial matters or penal or constitutional issues.
Before taking its final form, the sharia was adjusted to take into account the customary laws of the various regions as well as the laws of the states on political and social order. In most regimes, the ruler or his officials routinely dealt with matters of state security and sent only selected cases to the qazi (judge).
The Sufis were religious minded people who explored God through asceticism (rahbanjya) and mysticism. In the eighth and ninth centuries, ascetic inclinations were elevated to the higher stage of mysticism by the ideas of pantheism and love.
Influence of Greece
Under the influence of Greek philosophy and science, the Islamic philosophers developed an alternative vision of God and the universe. In the schools of Alexandria, Syria and Mesopotamia, Greek philosophy, mathematics and medicine were taught along with other subjects. The Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs commissioned the translation of Greek and Syriac books into Arabic by Christian scholars. Scholars with a theological bent of mind, such as the group known as Mutazila, used Greek logic and methods of reasoning (kalam) to defend Islamic beliefs. Philosophers (falasifa) posed wider questions and provided fresh answers.
In medieval Islamic societies, fine language and a creative imagination were among the most appreciated qualities in a person. These qualities raised a person’s communication to the level of adab, a term which implied literary and cultural refinement.
At the beginning of the eleventh century, Ghazni became the centre of Persian literary life. Poets were naturally attracted by the brilliance of the imperial court. Rulers, too, realised the importance of patronising arts and learning for enhancing their prestige.
From the ninth century onwards, the scope of adab was expanded to include biographies, manuals of ethics (akhlaq), Mirrors for Princes (books on statecraft) and, above all, history (tarikh) and geography. The tradition of history writing was well established in literate Muslim societies. History books were read by scholars and students as well as by the broader literate public. For rulers and officials, history provided a good record of the glories and achievements of a dynasty as well as examples of the techniques of administration.
Geography and travel (rihla) constituted a special branch of adab. These combined knowledge from Greek, Iranian and Indian books with the observations of merchants and travellers. In mathematical geography, the inhabited world was divided into seven climes (singular iqlim) parallel with the Equator, corresponding to our three continents.
By the tenth century, religious buildings became the greatest external symbols of the Islamic world. In the first Islamic century, the mosque acquired a distinct architectural form throughout different regions. The mosque had an open courtyard (sahn) where a fountain or pond was placed. The courtyard led to a vaulted hall to accommodate long lines of worshippers and the prayer leader (imam). There was a niche in the wall of the hall, indicating the direction of Mecca. There was a pulpit from where sermons were delivered during noon prayers on Friday. A minaret was attached to the building. It was utilized to call the faithful to prayer. The minaret also symbolized the presence of the new faith.
The same pattern of construction, of buildings built around a central courtyard appeared also in caravanserais, hospitals and palaces. Representation of living beings was rejected in religious art of Islam. This helped in promoting two art forms, calligraphy and arabesque (geometric and vegetal designs).
The history of the central Islamic lands brings together three important aspects of human civilization: religion, community and politics. These three aspects merged and appeared as one in the seventh century. However, these aspects tend to separate in the next five centuries. Influence of Islam became minimal on politics. However, religion and community overlapped.