The Great Caliphs: the Golden Age of the Abbasid Empire

Hugh Kennedy on a lively introduction to the Muslim world in the four centuries after the death of Muhammad

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Reviewed by: Hugh Kennedy
Author: Amira K Bennison
Publisher: IB Tauris
Price (RRP): £19.50

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It is almost a historical cliché to say that the Muslim world enjoyed a golden age of economic and cultural achievement in the four centuries after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 and commentators draw attention to the fact that Islamic states were much more ‘advanced’ and ‘civilised’ than contemporary ‘dark age’ Europe.

While it is certainly right to question these easy assumptions and point out that in some technologies, ship-building and sword-making for example, the people of Latin Christendom were rapidly surpassing their Muslim neighbours, there can be no doubt that in most areas of pre-modern human activity, the Muslim world showed a huge variety and vitality of achievement.

This is the achievement Amira Bennison’s book seeks to describe and bring to life. She starts off with a chapter outlining political history, which she takes from the earliest days of Islam up to the time of the Crusades. It is really the Abbasid caliphate from 750 to around 900 that forms the core of this lively and entertaining work.

The political history is necessary but full of names and details which will be unfamiliar and probably unmemorable to many readers. It is when she expands beyond this narrative that the author really comes into her own. She has a fascinating chapter on cities, rightly rejecting the orientalist view of an unchanging and chaotic Islamic metropolis and instead stressing the vitality and variety of urban centres. It is one of the strengths of this book that the author gives full weight to achievements of the western areas of the Muslim world, the Maghreb and al-Andalus: Cordoba, as well as Baghdad, gets its fair share of attention.

From cities the narrative moves on to inhabitants and they are all here, from rulers and their courts, their poets and their eunuchs to the beggars and prostitutes of the meaner streets and the peasants and nomads of the countryside, so often forgotten in general accounts of the Muslim world. Muhammad himself was a merchant and merchants always had a higher social status in the Muslim sphere than was the case in Christendom, and Bennison describes the wealth and ramifications of merchants’ activity.

In the final chapter, Bennison turns to intellectual life and here she stresses the vast variety of cultural practices, from the study of the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet, which form the foundations of Islamic law, the Sharia, to the movement to translate works of Greek science and medicine (though not of history or poetry) into Arabic.

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Bennison has a lively and engaging style and a way of using short extracts from original Arabic sources to bring particular features – the ruler’s audience or the market supervisor’s policing duties – to life. In a book of this size it is inevitable that some aspects of this great civilisation will be treated fairly cursorily but it will be the first port of call for anyone looking for an introduction to the ‘golden age of Islam’.