The Islamic Golden Age: The Torch Podcast

AN INTERVIEW WITH Professor Eamonn Gearon

On this episode of The Torch, we examine how the Islamic Golden Age was a time of shining achievements for Arab culture and all of humanity.

Here to discuss The History and Achievements of the Islamic Golden Age is Eamonn Gearon, Professorial Lecturer at Johns Hopkins University.

The following transcript has been slightly edited for readability.

Ed Leon: What was the Islamic Golden Age and what was so special about it?

Eamonn Gearon: Well, good to start with some basics isn’t it? So the Islamic Golden Age is a period in history that lasts from roughly 750 to about 1258 we’ll say. And what was it? It was a time of great learning. We think about Athens and the 5th century BC as a shining example of humanity learning and education. The European Renaissance and the 14th century another similar period. Well the Islamic Golden Age you can think of as a bridge between these two. I think one of the reasons it’s not as well known as it might be is because it took place in the Middle East. And often we reflect on the conflict between the two regions rather than the shared lessons we’ve got from them.

Ed Leon: Was this a longer period than the two others you mentioned?

Eamonn Gearon: Yes indeed it was longer. It also, remarkably, took in a lot more cultures than the previous ages. It was based on three continents and took in many different languages. And that’s one of the beauties of it. It’s that it didn’t just rely on Arabs at all. We might even say that Islamic Golden Age is sometimes seen as misleading, because it wasn’t about Islam. It was just countries and empires.

We might even say that Islamic Golden Age is sometimes seen as misleading, because it wasn’t about Islam. It was just countries and empires. We’re talking about events that took place in Islamic polities or empires. But the scholars working there were Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Zoroastrians, and Muslims all working together

Ed Leon: Well that’s my next question. It’s called the Islamic Golden Age, how tied is it to the religion and the beliefs?

Eamonn Gearon: Well because we’re talking about events that took place in Islamic polities or empires. But the scholars working there were Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Zoroastrians, and Muslims all working together to develop human knowledge and understanding.

Ed Leon: Let’s talk about some of the achievements. Give me a couple. There were many I know, let’s start somewhere.

Eamonn Gearon: The distillation of alcohol, how’s that for a start?

Ed Leon: Good! Drinks are on the Golden Age of Islam. Thank you very much.

Eamonn Gearon: We know that the Quran forbids Muslims from drinking it seems, it’s apparent. At least from drinking wine made from grapes. But the distillation of alcohol was important for the alchemaic and chemical advancements. There’s a lot of lab work going on. Sulfuric acid is one of the things that came out of the Golden Age. The examples are endless. Whether its astronomy we’re talking about or mathematical advances, or literature or medicine, architecture. This course has got literally thousands of examples in it.

Whether its astronomy, mathematical advances, literature, medicine, or architecture. This course has got literally thousands of examples in it.

Ed Leon: You mentioned alchemy. We know now they never got there but what were they trying to achieve? What were some of the real experiments they tried?

Eamonn Gearon: That’s a great question. The fact is, as we make clear in one of these lectures on alchemy and chemistry is that alchemy, itself an Arabic word, was just a precursor to chemistry. And so it was only later that alchemy has the bad name, the negative image of trying to create gold out of base metals. And at the time alchemists were real scientists. And while some of them were trying to do that, they were also trying to do all sorts of other things. So advances in medicine as I say.

Ed Leon: Algebra was another great contribution of its time.

Eamonn Gearon: Absolutely. And the man who’s responsible for, I hate to say popularizing algebra, but making it more comprehensible was a scholar called al Khwarizmi. And from his name, al Khwarizmi, we get the word algorithm. And it was one of his books had the word algebra in it in Arabic, which means completion or bringing together.

“…from his name, al Khwarizmi, we get the word algorithm.

Ed Leon: The Arabian Nights is a work of fiction but how closely did it represent what was going on at those times?

Eamonn Gearon: That’s a very good question. It is a work of fiction, a work of fantasy, but at the same time it did have real characters in it. So some of the khalifs, that’s the Muslim rulers of the time, such as Harun al-Rashid features very frequently in the stories of The Arabian Nights. I think there’s a difficulty of trying to say what 9th or 10th century Baghdad was like from looking at these fantasy works but certainly there are elements in it that tell us of everyday life at the time.

Ed Leon: Just last night I was at an exhibit about the preservation of Greek culture. That was an endeavor that was indicative of the Golden Age, and that was the preservation of classics. Talk a little bit about that and how important that was.

Eamonn Gearon: It’s fundamental. As at the very heart of the taking the wisdom of earlier cultures and translating it into Arabic first and then from there it was made available to the West. Not many people realize this but without the Golden Age, translating the work of the ancient Greeks, there is every reason to suspect we wouldn’t have most of that stuff in English today.

Ed Leon: Is that right? It would have gotten lost?

Eamonn Gearon: It was getting lost.

Image of Athens for The Islamic Golden Age article
Skyline of the city of Athens

Ed Leon: Did they translate it into Arabic and then from Arabic it came into the Romantics?

Eamonn Gearon: Correct. Into Latin and then Romance languages. Exactly. You have to remember The Golden Age, as I said, starts in about the year 750. So by this time the Islamic Empire is only just over 130 years old. The Arabs recognize their limitations. They may have been powerful and had a great army and conquered lots of land but they weren’t an ancient sophisticated culture like the Greeks, the Persians, the Indians, the Chinese. And that’s why they were so keen, almost Magppie like, to take what they could, bring it to central sorting houses in places like Baghdad and Cairo, distill the information, and then it got sent out from there.

Ed Leon: That’s kind of what we do at The Great Courses. We’re kind of Magpie like. You mentioned astronomy. Talk about the connection between astronomy, what they accomplished,Image of Astrology and alchemy sign background for The Islamic Golden Age article and maybe the astrology. It was kind of close at the time.

Eamonn Gearon: Very interesting. And again, some scholars believed both in astrology, the idea that the stars tell what’s going to happen down here on Earth and others didn’t. But most astronomers of the day, who were doing star gazing for other purposes, were forced to do astrological projections for the kings or the khalifs because this was something they thought was important. When should I get married? When should I invade?

Ed Leon: Why was that important to the khalifs, or were the common people just as interested?

Eamonn Gearon: We don’t know so much about what the common people were interested in, I think it was much more in the royal courts. It was important because you want to set off on some important endeavor on an auspicious date.

Ed Leon: Talk about some of the astrological achievements of the time.

Eamonn Gearon: In fact, the founding of Cairo, the city of Cairo in 969, the founding of Baghdad in 762, they struck dirt on the very day when the astrologists told them to. They only started digging and creating these new cities when the stars apparently told them it was a good time to. I would also like just to say, while we’re still in the skies, that of all the hundreds of stars that have names in the night sky, more than half of them have Arabic names. And these come out of the Golden Age and that’s the legacy that we all know. Whether Betelgeuse, Vega, they’re all Arabic names.

Ed Leon: There’s a subject area that you talk about in the course called prophetic medicine. What is that?

Eamonn Gearon: Prophetic medicine is a very narrow field. And rather than being a forecast of medicine it means medicine as it was practiced during the time of Muslim’s main prophet, which is Muhammad. So in the sayings of Muhammad, he has comments about what’s good for your health. And that’s what prophetic medicine deals with. For instance, there’s a saying of Muhammad’s that there is no disease that doesn’t have a cure apart from old age.

Image of Olives with drop oil on wood spoonHe says that God only gives us diseases so that we can use our brains to find solutions to these. He also talks about things that you should take for such aliments. Stomach ailments for instance, drinking olive oil was very popular. Another home remedy was a mixture of milk and camel urine.

Ed Leon: Sure. On the rocks.

Eamonn Gearon: I’ll stick to the olive oil.

Ed Leon: The olive oil is being touted today.

Eamonn Gearon: Still there. And honey, honey was good for so many things that they recognized in the day.

Ed Leon: Wow. You make the point in the course that the Victorian Gothic Revival movement in architecture owes its beginnings to this time.

Eamonn Gearon: If you imagine any number of Ivy League colleges in the states or cathedrals in Europe, you can see those great, big, high pointed arches. That is a direct import from the Muslim Middle East. And in fact, when we talk about Gothic and the Gothic Revival, no lesser personage than Sir Christopher Wren said, “This shouldn’t be called the Gothic because the Goths didn’t do this. It should be called Garrison architecture,” after the word that was common in the day for the Muslims. If Christopher Wren thinks that there was a direct link then I’m going with him.

Ed Leon: In studying this, what strikes you about the culture and the times that just kind of blows your mind?

Eamonn Gearon: It’s not all one thing or the other. What I really am impressed by though is how they were trying to bring together knowledge from different sources. The Muslim leaders at the time hadn’t closed their minds to the outside world but were rather happy to take this information in and make it their own. I don’t want to make any terribly close parallels to our own day because we’re talking about a period, a long time ago, but there was a sense that at the time there was an excitement about being open minded to other ideas and philosophies and ways of thinking that perhaps isn’t the case in much of the world today. Whether it’s East or West.

Ed Leon: By the way, do we get any sense from the course of what an evening was like in those times?

Image of an Oud
The oud is a short-neck lute-type, pear-shaped stringed instrument with 11 or 13 strings

Eamonn Gearon: I have a lovely lecture on dining during the period and what was involved, what they would eat, and they would have musicians there, and what the musicians were playing. There’s and instrument in the Middle East, still very widespread today, called the Oud. Well, the Oud is an instrument that came from Baghdad, and from the Muslim Middle East.

Ed Leon: What is that? Is that a string instrument?

Eamonn Gearon: Stringed instrument, not dissimilar to the medieval lute. But then it comes across north Africa into Muslim Spain. Now it’s in the Muslim Spain that the lute transforms itself into the guitar as we know it.  The guitar is a direct result of the Islamic Golden Age too.

Ed Leon: Okay. Wow. There’s so much to learn here and you bring it to live as you always do. Your previous course, awesome, it’s called, “Turning Points in Middle Eastern History.” It’s on the great courses plus. And the new one is called, “The History and Achievements of the Islamic Golden Age.” Thank you so much for joining us today.

Eamonn Gearon: Great pleasure Ed, Thank you

Professor Eamonn Gearon’s new course The History and Achievements of The Islamic Golden Age is now available to stream on The Great Courses Plus.
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