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The Diffusion of Islam

For a thousand years after the death of Muhammad (570-632), the expansion of Islam formed one of civilization's greatest empires. By the seventh century, Muslims had spread from Arabia to Damascus, Jerusalem, Cairo, Alexandria, and Isfahan. In the year 711, they invaded Spain via the Straits of Gibraltar and entered into India. Between the lands they controlled and the regions with which they traded, Muslims were in contact with almost the entire known world. Their situation, between the eastern reaches of Europe and the central plains of Asia, allowed for an unprecedented transfusion of knowledge.

Today, historian Glen Bowersock is working to make mosaics an accepted form of historical documentation. He contends, for instance, that a set of 8th century mosaics discovered in the Christian church of St. Stephen in Jordan speaks volumes about the nature of historical change and cultural assimilation. Created by Christians nearly 100 years after the Islamic conquest of Jordan, the mosaics bear the stamp of both Christian and Greek traditions, suggesting that not only had the Christians retained elements of their pagan cultural past, but that the new Muslim rulers had not tried to snuff out either of these influences.

"I think the Muslims were far too intelligent to suggest that the people they conquered should immediately be flushed out," says Bowersock. "If they were going to survive in the newly conquered territories, they had to absorb and accept what was there -- in terms of religion, in terms of people, in terms of the Greek language."

In Jerusalem, an architectural masterpiece speaks of the melting pot quality of the medieval Middle East. The Dome of the Rock is an octagonal-shaped building enclosing a domed, cylindrical core. Not a mosque for public worship, but a mashhad, a shrine for pilgrims, the Dome of the Rock was built on the order of Abd al-Malik, the ninth Islamic Caliph, and completed in 691.

Hardly fifty years after the Muslims had taken control of Jerusalem in 637, the completion of the Dome of the Rock came at a time when the Muslims did not occupy the Christian region of the city. Instead, they limited themselves to the southeastern portion of Jerusalem where the remains of the old Jewish Temples, destroyed by the Babylonians and the Romans hundreds of years earlier, were located. As a way of letting their presence be known to the Christians, the Muslims constructed the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount, where its impressive structure would be visible to Christians departing from services at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

"Now, before the Dome of the Rock, you would see nothing," explains Islamic art historian Oleg Grabar. "This was the space of the destroyed Jewish Temple, [a symbol denoting that] Judaism has been replaced by Christianity. The caliph Abd al-Malik wanted to create a monument that would sort of show the presence of the new faith. Not merely its physical presence, but the fact that it now is the final message that superceded the Christian message."

Islamic art is just one example of the way in which Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and pagan traditions coexisted during the Middle Ages, resulting in the sometimes subtle, often profound, influence Islamic society has had on the Western world. From a study of tessellated Islamic mosaics, for instance, the importance of geometry to the Muslims becomes evident. In fact, Islamic contributions to our current understanding of mathematics were tremendous.

Sometime around 825, the Muslim mathematician Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi wrote ON THE CALCULATION WITH HINDU NUMERALS, the book chiefly responsible for delivering the Indian numeral system to Europe. Far less cumbersome than Roman numerals, the Hindu-Arabic numbers allowed merchants and bankers to multiply and divide easily. al-Khwarizmi also wrote an important book on solving quadratic equations, a revelation that provided the foundation of algebra. In fact, the word "algebra" is derived from the Latin translation of the title of this treatise. The word "algorithm" also found its origin in the Latin translation of this work. The use of the variable "x" in the solving of quadratic equations came from the Spanish translation of the Arabic word "shay," which means "thing."

A century after al-Khwarizmi's innovations in mathematics, a man named Ibn al-Haytham was changing the way we see. The "father of optics," al-Haytham (ca. 965-1039), wrote the first book on the subject, OPTICS. Based on experimental evidence rather than past authority, OPTICS influenced Descartes and Kepler, among many others in the East and West. In 1050, Ali Ibn-Isa wrote A NOTE FOR OCULISTS, the first book on diseases of the eye.

Beyond the field of optometry, the medieval Muslims' gifts to medicine were extraordinary. The Egyptian physician Ibn al-Nafis (1213-1288) discovered the pulmonary circulation of the blood. Ibn Sina (980-1037), also known as Avicenna, was a philosopher whose CANON OF MEDICINE was once the most famous medical book in the Eastern and Western worlds. The Muslims were experienced in the administration of medicinal drugs and anesthesia; they were practiced in the use of surgical techniques. They even created a system of medical ethics.

Our understanding of what a hospital should be emerged as medical institutions were built across the Islamic Empire. The construction of hospitals became a common way in which charitable foundations made use of their endowments. These hospitals were secular, offering care to anyone, regardless of his or her background. They kept records of the patients they treated, included pharmacies, and were divided into different wards. Often the establishment of a hospital was followed by the creation of a medical school. Ibn al-Nafis (discoverer of pulmonary circulation) was trained at such an institution, the medical school at Al-Nuri Hospital, which originated from the donation of a medical library by King Nur Al-Din Zinki.

The establishment of libraries was an incidental benefit of the Muslim import of paper making techniques from China. Islamic libraries contained hundreds of thousands of volumes and were far superior to their European counterparts, which at that time were mostly limited to monastic and university collections. The first known paper manuscript of the Koran was created in 972. Paper allowed Islamic society to incorporate credit into their economy, creating orders of payment that functioned like today's checks. Our word "check," for instance, comes from the Persian word "sakk."

These are just a few of the more outstanding ways in which the golden age of Islamic civilization continues to resonate in our culture. It would, of course, be naive to suggest that the influence of this religion, its society and their traditions, ended after the Middle Ages, yet the intellectual exchange between East and West subsided as an era of religious crusades created a rift between the two regions. During the 13th century, the Mongols descended from the central Asian steppes and devastated the eastern lands of Islam. In 1453, the Turks captured Constantinople. Thirty-nine years later, in 1492, Muslim rule in Spain came to an end. Islam was pushed back from the West, and three new empires began to take shape across Asia: the Ottoman Empire in Asia Minor, the Safavid Empire in Persia, and the Mughal Empire in India.

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