Books: “The Caliph’s Splendor”

September 1, 2012


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.


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.


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.


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.”


3 Responses to “Books: “The Caliph’s Splendor””

  1. shoreacres Says:

    It’s impossible for me – or for many of the women I know – to read about the history of Islam, the Caliphate, the achievements of Islamic culture and so on without being painfully aware of the veils, metaphorical and otherwise, forced upon women in Islamic societies.

    Certainly, some women in some Islamic societies have various choices available to them. The laws of certain Islamic countries are less oppressive than others. In places like the U.S. many women choose to follow Islam, and their freedom to practice their religion should be preserved.

    Still, so-called “advances”, like the establishment of women-only universities in Saudi, can be ambiguous at best. Being allowed an education while being prohibited from working is hardly an advance. Being forbidden to drive a car or being forced to live under male guardianship is hardly an expression of human freedom.

    There’s no reason to question “the ‘intellectual awakening’ that took place during the reigns of Hasrun and his son Mamun”, or to deny the role of Islam in the preservation of human knowledge during the Dark Ages. But for many women alive today, longing to live a different life, the Dark Ages endure.

    • charlespaolino Says:

      We can make the same kind of observations about many societies that made important contributions to the advancement of civilization. We can cite our own history, for example, the history of the nation founded, as Abraham Lincoln pointed out, on the proposition that all men are created equal; the same nation that permitted men, women, and children to be held in bondage; the same nation that denied women the universal right to vote until 1920; the same nation that still has woven into the fabric of its life multiple ways of unfairly treating women differently than it treats men; the same nation that, almost four years after electing a black president, still wonders if it can live under a female head of state — something that India, Israel, Iceland, the Philippines, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka, and many others have already doine. What society hasn’t been guilty of this bias against women, and what society isn’t still guilty of it to some degree? This continues in part because it has for so long been sanctioned by major religious communities, including strictly observant Judaism and, to my constant embarrassment, Roman Catholicism.

  2. shoreacres Says:

    To be fair, one small irony has occurred to me since my original comment.

    When I lived in Liberia, I worked at a Lutheran Hospital which employed Muslims. There was a significant Muslim presence in surrounding communities, and many of our patients were Muslim. At the hospital, Muslim religious practices were respected, and in the community many of the most successful market women were Muslim. They were free to conduct business, and to pursue education.

    In a way, I think that supports your point, above – that cultural and social context will shape the expression of a faith in ways that aren’t often understood or taken into account. The lives of women I’ve met here in Houston who come from countries such as Saudi, Iran, and so on, are radically different from those of the women I knew in 1970s and 1980s Liberia.

    I also think many women in their late 60s and 70s watch unfolding events around the world with a sense of foreboding impossible for younger women. Many can’t imagine such things could happen here, in our country. We know they already have, and could again.

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