New Internationalist

Key moments of Islamic civilization

Issue 345

570 Prophet Muhammad is born in Mecca. At the age of six he becomes an orphan and is taken into the care of his grandfather. When the latter dies, the young Muhammad is entrusted to his uncle.

610 Muhammad receives the first revelation while meditating in the cave of Hira near Mecca. He hears a commanding voice addressing him and becomes the Messenger of God.

622 After persecution in Mecca, Muhammad migrates to Medina. The migration — hijra — marks the beginning of the Islamic era.

623-631 After three battles, Muhammad conquers Mecca and forgives all his enemies. A written constitution is established as the basis of governance. The foundations of the Muslim civilization are laid in the city state of Medina.

632 Prophet Muhammad dies after giving his ‘farewell sermon’. Abu Bakr, a close companion of Muhammad, is unanimously selected as the first caliph of Islam.

633-643 After Abu Bakr’s death, the Prophet’s companion Umar al-Khattab is elected as the second caliph. Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Palestine come under Muslim rule. Jerusalem is captured, Caliph Umar declares that Christians will be honoured and protected. He introduces the Islamic calendar consisting of 12 lunar months.

644 Caliph Umar is murdered. An ‘Electoral Council’ elects Uthman ibn Affan, the Prophet’s son-in-law and close companion, as the third caliph.

650-652 Caliph Uthman compiles the Qur’an as it exists today. Islam expands into the Maghrib or North West Africa.

653-656 Islam spreads to Persia and Byzantium. Unrest spreads in Muslim lands. Caliph Othman dies in a revolt. Ali Abi Talib, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law becomes fourth caliph, but his selection is disputed. Muawiya, Governor of Syria declares himself the ‘first king in Islam’ in defiance of Caliph Ali.

661-680 The Muslim world begins to fragment. Caliph Ali is murdered. Disputes arise between those who want political leadership to be elected and those who want political and religious authority to reside within the family of the Prophet. Hussain, the Prophet’s grandson and son of Caliph Ali, is killed at the battle of Karbala which becomes the formative event in the emergence of the Shi’a tradition, splitting the Muslim community into two groups — the Sunnis and the Shi’as. The Umayyad dynasty is established in Syria.

700-750 Islam extends into India. Muslims enter Spain and reach the borders of France. The advance of Muslims is halted at the Battle of Tours on the Loire river in France in 732. The battle becomes a seminal event in shaping European stereotypes of Muslims. In Baghdad the Abbasid dynasty is established.

The paper industry emerges and Iraqi jurist Al-Shaybani publishes his famous work, The Concise Book of International Law.

751-800 A sophisticated book trade evolves, backed by a thriving publications industry. The great compilers of hadith — al-Bukhari, Abu Dawood, al-Tirmidhi, ibn Maja and al-Nasai — publish their works and ‘authenticate’ the sayings of the Prophet. Ibn Ishaq publishes the first biography of the Prophet Mohammad. Islamic Jurisprudence (fiqh) is codified and six ‘Schools of Thought’ emerge as the orthodoxy. A massive project to translate works of Greek thought and learning into Arabic begins. The Rationalist school of philosophy (the Mutazila) emerges. The Spanish Umayyad dynasty is established in Cordoba and the Arabian Nights stories make a first appearance. Abu Hanifa al-Dinawari publishes The Book of Plants.

800-850 Al-Kindi becomes the first Muslim philosopher, Jabir ibn Hayan establishes chemistry as an experimental science. Al-Khwarizmi invents Algebra. Ibn Qutayba, an ‘Inspector of injustices’ in Basra, publishes his seminal The Book of Etiquette. Translation of the works of Greece, Babylonia, Syria, Persia, India and Egypt reaches its peak. Muslims conquer Sicily.

851-900 Muslim astronomers measure the circumference of the earth and Iraqi scientist Ibn Hawkal publishes The Book of the Shape of the Earth. Al-Farghani publishes his Elements of Astronomy and al-Battani publishes On the Science of Stars. The Musa Brothers, who are engineers, publish the Book of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. Philosopher al-Farabi publishes his celebrated commentary on Plato, The Perfect State. Afghani scholar and advisor to administrators, Al-Harawi, publishes his pioneering work, The Book of Public Finance.

901-950 Philosopher and physician al-Razi publishes his observations on smallpox and measles and Al-Tabari, publishes his history of the world, Annals of Apostles and Kings. The Postmaster General of Baghdad, Ibn Khurdadhbih, publishes The Book of Routes and Kingdoms, a comprehensive work on the distribution of post throughout the Muslim world. Mystic Al-Hallaj causes controversy by declaring, in a state of ecstasy, ‘I am the Truth’. And theologian Al-Ashari establishes the anti-philosophical Asharite movement.

951-1000 Physicist Al-Haytham publishes his monumental study Optics containing the basic formulae of reflection and refraction and announces that experiment and empirical investigation is the foundation of all scientific work. Al-Baruni publishes his Determination of the Co-ordinates of the Cities and travels to South Asia to study Hinduism and yoga. Philosopher and physician Ibn Sina publishes Canons of Medicine, the standard text for the next 800 years. Al-Azhar University, the first in the world, is established in Cairo. Humanist Al-Masudi lays the foundation of human geography and philologist Ibn Faris publishes his linguistic masterpiece, The Law of the Language.

1050-1100 Intellectual war breaks out between theologians, philosophers and Muslim mystics or Sufis. Thinker and theologian, Al-Ghazali laments the decline of Muslim civilisation, publishes The Revival of Religious Sciences in Islam and launches a monumental attack on Greek philosophy, The Incoherence of the Philosophers. Iraqi political scientist, Al-Mawardi, publishes his Rules of Sovereignty in the Governance of an Islamic Community and Libyan scientist Al-Ajdabi publishes his great work on meteorology, Seasonal Periods and Atmospherics. The Crusades, a series of Christian wars against the Muslims, begin with the first crusade in 1095.

1100-1150 Sicilian geographer Al-Idrisi produces his map of the world and Sufi psychologist Ibn Bajja publishes psychological masterpiece, The Knowledge of the Self. Spanish philosopher Ibn Tufail publishes The Life of Hayy, a philosophical novel and prototype of Robinson Crusoe; and Moorish physician Ibn Zuhr brings out The Book of Practical Treatments and Precautionary Measures. Mutazalite philosopher Ibn Rushd answers Al-Ghazali with an equally monumental defence of philosophy, The Incoherence of the Incoherence.

1150-1200 Timbuktu is established as a great centre of learning and book production. It’s the furthest point of the Muslim Empire and home of Sankore University. Geographer Yaqut al-Hamawi publishes his great Geographical Dictionary and Spanish horticulturist Ibn Al-Awwam brings out The Book of Agriculture. Iraqi engineer Al-Jazari publishes his great illustrated work on mechanics, Integration Between Theory and Practice in the Application of Mechanics.

The Kurdish Salahuddin Ayyubi (’Saladin’) takes on the Crusaders.

1150-1200 Al-Hariri publishes his linguistic masterpiece, The Assemblies and Fakh al-Din al-Razi tries to reconcile philosophy and religious thought in his book The Substance of the Ideas of Classical and Later Philosophers and Theologians. Persian philosopher and mystic, Al Suhrawardi, tries to establish an Islamic basis for philosophy in his work Philosophy of Illumination.

1200-1250 Al-Zarnuji publishes his celebrated pedagogical work, The Method of Learning and Spanish physician Ibn al-Baytor publishes The Comprehensive Books of Drugs and Diets. Fakhr al-Din Razi publishes his great Encyclopaedia of Science and biographer Abu Khallikan establishes philosophy of history as a distinct discipline. Mystic Jalal-al-Din Rumi publishes Masnavi, his influential anthology of mystical poetry and anecdotes. Spanish thinker Ibn Saad publishes his ideas on multiculturalism in the Introduction to the Classes of Nations and Moorish Spain is fully established as a multicultural society. Ibn abd as-Salam formulates the first statement of animal rights.

1250-1300 Mongols sack Baghdad and burn down the great House of Wisdom and the city’s other 36 public libraries with their vast store of manuscripts. Abbasid Caliphate ends but the Ottoman Empire is established. Biologist Ibn Nafis accurately describes the circulation of blood and Iraqi musician Al-Urmawi publishes his great Book of Musical Modes.

Astronomer Nasir al-Din Tusi completes his major work Memoirs of the Science of Astronomy at the Maragha observatory, Persia, setting forward a comprehensive structure of the universe; and develops the ‘Tusi couple’ enabling mathematical calculations to establish a heliocentric worldview.

After the eighth crusade, when the last Christian city, Acre, falls to the Muslims, the Crusades come to an end.

1300-1400 Ibn Khaldun establishes sociology as a distinct discipline and publishes his celebrated Introduction to History. Ibn Battuta travels the globe and describes his adventures in Travels of Ibn Battuta. Al-Damiri develops the idea of zoological taxonomy in The Comprehensive Book of Animal Life and Egyptian vet Al-Baytar brings out The Complete Compendium on the Two Arts of Veterinary Practice and Horse Training. Syrian jurist, Al-Jawziyyah, publishes his great work on jurisprudence, Methods of Judgment in the Administration of Islamic Law and ibn al-Ukhuwwah brings out his book on The Clear Exposition of the Principles of (Public) Accountability.

The religious scholars close the ‘gates of ijtihad’ (‘reasoned struggle’); and establish taqlid (blind imitation) as the dominant mode of thought, leading to ossification in science, learning and innovation.

1400-1500 The Ottoman Empire expands after the fall of Constantinople. Muslims are expelled from Spain after the fall of Granada. Jewish refugees from Spain take refuge in the Ottoman Empire. Persian mathematician Al-Kashi publishes his theory of numbers in The Key to Arithmetic; and Cheng Ho, Muslim admiral of Ming China, leads voyages of discovery to Africa.

Arabian navigator Ibn Majid publishes The Book of Instructions in Principles of Navigation and Regulations and pilots Vasco de Gama from Africa to the Indian coast.

1500-1600 The Moghal dynasty is established in India. Ottoman architect Sinan builds the Blue Mosque complex in Istanbul. Turkish jurist Tashkopruzade publishes his elaborate classification of knowledge, The Key to Highest Attainment and Light of Leadership and Egyptian jurist Ibn Nujaym brings out his celebrated work of legal logic and reasoning, Similars and Parallels: Analogues and Precedents.

1600-1700 The Taj Mahal is completed in Agra, while the Ottomans lay siege to Vienna. Persian mystical thinker Mulla Sadra publishes his work on mystical philosophy, The Signs of Divine Grace. Europe embraces Islamic humanism whole-heartedly.

1700-1800 European imperial powers begin to colonize the Muslim world. Universities and institutions of higher learning are closed; Islamic medicine is banned; and Muslims are barred from pursuing higher education.

Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab establishes the Wahhaby movement in Arabia, Syria and Iraq, insisting on a literalist interpretation of the Qur’an.

1800-1900 The ‘Mutiny’ in India is crushed. Indian educationalist, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan establishes the Aligarh University to ‘re-educate’ the Muslims.

1900-1950 Reformer Jamal al-Din Al-Afghani, together with the Mufti of Egypt, Muhammad Abduh, establish the pan-Islamic movement for reform and ijtihad (‘reasoned struggle’). After eight centuries, the Ottoman Empire collapses. In the Arabian peninsular, Ibn Saud brings warring tribes together to establish Saudi Arabia.

Philosopher and ‘Poet of the East’, Muhammad Iqbal publishes his epic poem Complaint and Answer asking God to explain the reasons behind the lamentable state of Muslim people.

Pakistan is established as the first ‘Islamic state’.

1950-2000 Muslim states in Asia and Africa obtain their independence. Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan become the main components of a global Islamic movement. The Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) is established as a ‘Muslim United Nations’ and great hope is pinned on the emergence of OPEC as a global player.

‘East Pakistan’ breaks from ‘West Pakistan’ and becomes Bangladesh. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, six new Muslim countries emerge in central Asia. The revolution in Iran is hailed as the first ‘Islamic revolution’ but soon leads to despair and pessimism. The ‘Taliban’, a group of semi-literate students, take over Afghanistan.

2001-2050 Two possible futures. Crisis after crisis leads Muslim cultures to the edge of chaos — and over. Alternatively, Islam is reformulated, Muslims redefine modernity in terms of their own categories and concepts, and Islam re-emerges as a dynamic, thriving civilization.

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