Muslim City Life during the Era of the Great Caliphs
By Amira Bennison
Historically Speaking, Volume 12, Number 1 (2011)
Introduction: It can be hard to believe in today’s climate of perceived opposition between Islam and the West that Muslims once ruled a vast part of the Old World and promoted a thriving, cosmopolitan culture, which shared some characteristics with the Western civilization dominant today. This culture reached its peak under the ‘Abbasid caliphs, who ruled a large part of the Islamic world from 750 until 1258. One of the ‘Abbasids’ greatest achievements was the foundation of Baghdad, which became a dynamic city where business, science, and the arts flourished. Baghdad and many other cities in this Islamic world were international melting pots that attracted entrepreneurs and intellectuals of many languages, ethnicities, and faiths, including Jewish astrologers and Christian doctors.
The foundations of this classical Islamic world lay in the 7th and 8th centuries, which witnessed the rise of Islam among the Arabs, the Muslim conquest of the Near East, and the establishment of the Syrian-based Umayyad caliphate (661-750), subsequently overthrown by the ‘Abbasids. Although Islam emerged in Arabia, the home of the Arabs, many early Muslims came from the villages and towns of the Hijaz and Yemen rather than the austere desert of the Empty Quarter. Therefore, they were not strangers to city life, and although they were tribesmen they were not necessarily nomads. Moreover, many of these tribes had traded with their imperial neighbors—Rome and Persia, as well as Ethiopia across the Bab al-Mandeb straits—for centuries, and they appreciated the commodities and culture offered by these great powers.