ABBASID PLACE, BAGHDAD

When I attended elementary and high school (that was between 1947 and 1960) history was taught as though its only dynamic was a westward movement from Europe to the Pacific Coast of North America. One result of this skewed point of view was that Islam was mentioned only with respect to the Crusades.

In actual fact, however, the history of Islam is an integral part of the history of the whole world; in particular, it was an important factor in shaping the western world we know today.

Benson Bobrick takes on a part of that subject in his popular history “The Caliph’s Splendor,” focusing especially on the ninth and tenth centuries. His topic is an institution that is virtually unknown to westerners—the caliphate. This was the structure under which most of Islam was governed for generations following the death of the Prophet Muhammad.

ABU BAKR

Islam was divided on the subject of who should succeed the Prophet as the administrative and political leader. The role fell first to Muhammad’s father-in-law and confidant, Abu Bakr as-Saddiq, who was supported by the Sunni. Abu Bakr was the first caliph (successor), a position he held only a few years until his death. In the centuries following his death, Islam spread through the Near East, North Africa, and Europe. Because of the difference of opinion about succession, and because of geopolitical realities, not one but several caliphs ruled over Muslim territories.

The focal point of Bobrick’s book is Caliph Harun al-Rashid, the fabled “Sword of God,” who ruled over a territory that spread from Spain across southern Europe and North Africa through the Middle East and Arabia to the western edges of  China. Most modern westerners who may be at least vaguely aware of the  later Ottoman Empire are unaware of the extent to which Islam spread from its beginnings in what is now Saudi Arabia. Nor are many aware of the level of wealth that the caliphs accumulated. In 766, Harun, who was a caliph of the Abbasid dynasty, established his capital at Baghdad, which became one of the most influential cities of  its time.

ABBASID PALACE, BAGHDAD

Bobrick writes that the administration of Baghdad “managed to harness the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for the cultivation of grain, and a brilliant system of canals, dikes, and reservoirs drained the surrounding swamps…. There were many rich bazaars and covered shops along the embankments, where all sorts of artisans and craftsmen—marble workers from Antioch, papyrus makers from Cairo, potters from Basra, calligraphers from Peking—plied their trades. … There was a large sanitation department, many fountains and public baths, and, unlike the European towns and cities of the day, streets that were regularly washed free of refuse and swept clean. Most households had water supplied by aqueducts. …”

By comparison, Bobrick writes, London and Paris during that same era were pest holes.

UMMAYAD COIN

As with the expansion of all empires, of course, the spread of Islam was accomplished in part by brute and bloody force, it was also accompanied at times by significant advances in learning, literature, and scientific discovery in areas such as mathematics and astronomy. The “intellectual awakening” that took place during the reigns of Hasrun and his son Mamun—and with their participation—was, Bobrick writes, “one of the most significant in the whole history of culture and thought.”

As much as it might fit some political agendas to believe that Islam arose and grew in a primitive desert context, nothing could be farther from the truth. It is well established, in fact, that a large body of western learning, including the works of such geniuses as Aristotle and Plato, would have been lost forever during the Dark Ages had they not been translated by Muslim scribes and preserved in Muslim libraries until they could be rediscovered by European scholars of a later period. Bobrick wrote this book for popular audience, and a popular audience might understand modern history a little better by learning more about such epochs as the “golden age of Baghdad.”