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.”

The land of the free

September 8, 2010

I started walking into my editor’s office one morning about 35 years ago, but stopped after two or three steps past the door. This man was usually red-faced and loud; he usually would greet me with an obscenity and a coarse reference to my ethnicity — just to let me know he still loved me.

On this morning, I could see that there would be none of that, because he sat behind his desk, ashen-faced, with a New York City newspaper spread out in front of him and, when he was aware of my intrusion, only muttered something that I could not hear.

Nazi youth burning books

Eventually, I learned that he had just read a story about a group of students at a New York college who had reacted to some beef they had with the school administration by burning copies of the campus newspaper. While I didn’t need my editor to explain to me the principle that was at issue, seeing this brash man nearly made physically ill by the very idea of Americans burning a publication brought the weight of it down on me as nothing has before or since.

A great deal has been written and said about the plan to burn copies of the Qur’an at the Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla. It is born of the ignorant idea that there is something inherently incompatible about being a Muslim and being an American — and idea John Adams debunked in the 18th century. John Adams — one of the “founding fathers” we hear so much about these days.

University of Alabama students burn desegregation literature in 1956.

There is nothing inherently incompatible about being a Muslim and being an American, but there is something inherently incompatible about calling ones self an American and burning books. And I wouldn’t be too quick — as some have been — to dismiss the Gainesville congregation as a fringe group. American “values” are being evoked these days by a lot of people who are not associated with that church but whose idea of American values is no less distorted. For every one willing to burn a book, there are plenty who would stifle any viewpoint other than their own. Anyone who hasn’t heard that in the rhetoric of the past two years hasn’t been listening hard enough.

Meanwhile, what comes after burning the Qur’an? Detention camps?