Mecca and Medina

Qurʼanic Fragment of Surat al-Fath (Victory), 9th century, Library of Congress

From its origins at the beginning of the seventh century, Islam began to spread, first as a spiritual movement in the Arabian Peninsula with the purpose of calling the Arabian tribes to the new monotheistic religion, this time expressed in their own Arabic language. From its very beginnings, Islam also saw itself as the culmination and natural heir to Judaism and Christianity, the previous two great monotheistic religions that were known but not very widely accepted in Arabia at the time of early Islam.

Within a matter of ten years or so from the time when Prophet Muhammad began to receive revelations from the archangel Gabriel, his followers in the Arabian city of Mecca began to constitute a force with which the tribal aristocratic leaders of Mecca had to contend. Within a relatively short time, the new Muslim community found itself exiled to the north, to the city of Medina, which was then known as Yathrib, and which was strategically located along the trade route that went northward from Yemen to the eastern Mediterranean.

At the time of their exile in the year 622, the Medinan hosts who were ansar (supporters) of the new faith welcomed into their midst Prophet Muhammad and the main group of his followers as emigrants (muhajirun). This historic event in the life of the new emerging community of Muslims marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar, usually called the Hijra or Hegira (migration) calendar, not only because it defined a turning point in the life of early Muslims who could now find a refuge from the Meccan persecution, but also because they then embarked on a communal project of self-governance. The community thus was transformed from being solely a group of believers into a political community that was set to lead a civil as well as a religious life. Muhammad continued to receive revelations concerning the new religion. Now, however, the new revelations of Medina began to change in tone, in that they started to be more and more directed at the regulation of the community’s life. Inheritance and dietary laws, for example, mostly date from the Medina period.

Those Muslims who emigrated from Mecca to Medina were not the wretched and the poor. Some came from wealthy families and had possessions of their own. Some, like Muhammad himself, had even engaged in trading activities with other nations, such as the Byzantines in the north, the Egyptians to the west, and the Persians and Indians to the east and southeast. They must have had some command of elementary mathematical problems, if for no other reason than to regulate their trade, and subsequently to calculate their inheritance shares as they were being apportioned according to the new revelations being received by their prophet. In the Medinan environment, Islam was transmuted from a purely spiritual calling to an earthly political power upon which a whole new civilization was to be founded.

Jabir ibn Hayyan (also known by the Latin form of his name, Geber), Geberi Philosophi ac alchimistae maximi De alchimia libri tres eiusdem liber investigationis perfecti magisterij, artis alchimicae (The three books on alchemy by Geber, the great philosopher and alchemist), 16th century, Qatar National Library  

In fewer than ten years after the flight from Mecca, this new community found itself once more returning to Mecca, this time as a political movement that could now bloodlessly take over the city and establish a new political order. Under the leadership of the Prophet Muhammad, the idols of Mecca were destroyed, the holy pilgrimage site of the cubical building, called the Ka’ba, was rededicated as a Muslim shrine, and the people of Mecca were magnanimously treated by the victorious prophet. Between the years 630 and 632 AD, the news of the Muslim polity’s success in recovering Mecca spread across the tribal areas of Arabia, and more and more tribes joined the new order. During the year 632, the Prophet Muhammad, the great spiritual leader and originator of the community and the chief architect of its transformation into a veritable political communal force, succumbed to death.

Concurrently with those events, the two major empires of the region, the Sasanian Empire to the east, covering all of present-day Iran and beyond, and the Byzantine Empire to the north and west, also known as the Eastern Roman Empire, were engaged in wars between each other that had been going on for centuries. As a consequence, these two empires were by then militarily exhausted. They were further weakened by the emergence of the Muslim power in the Arabian Peninsula, as the client Arabian tribes that used to fight proxy wars on their behalf now joined in alliance with their fellow Muslim Arabian tribes. These developments all produced new demands for mathematical and scientific expertise. Conversion to the new religion and membership in the new polity generated revenues that eventually needed to be parceled out; newly conquered lands had to be surveyed, and the management of other matters of political civil life required a modicum of basic scientific knowledge.

Expansion and Conquest

ʻAli ibn al-Husayn ibn Ali al-Masʻudi, Murūj al-dhahab wa-maʻādin al-jawhar (The meadows of gold and mines of gems), 1927, Bibliotheca Alexandrina

In less than a decade from the death of Muhammad, the Muslim armies almost bloodlessly, in a limited number of crucial battles, quickly found themselves in full control of the whole Arabian Peninsula, the Egyptian and East Mediterranean possessions of the Byzantine Empire, and the whole span of the Sasanian Empire to the east.

While it was relatively easy to transform a group of religious believers into a political community when the community was confined to Mecca and Medina, it was a completely different matter for that same community to thrive as the heir to two major empires that had been entrenched for hundreds of years. That the subjects of those previous empires, long overburdened by the wars and taxes of their masters, were not keen to defend the status quo also helped in achieving this remarkably quick conquest.

The leaders of the incipient Muslim Empire must have been surprised themselves at these brilliant and quick successes. But their communal wisdom demonstrated itself in the way they tried to minimize their control over the lives of their new political subjects. They neither forced people to convert to the new religion (although they tried to make that conversion enticing by the offering economic and social benefits), nor did they change in any essential ways the system of government that touched the lives of individuals. The same bureaucrats who administered the Sasanian and Byzantine imperial lands continued to function in much the same as they had under the old empires. The taxes that used to be sent to the old imperial capitals, however, were now redirected to Medina, the new government center of the first four caliphs.

This situation continued for almost a quarter century. Nothing much seemed to change in the daily life of the new subjects, even when the seat of government was moved from Medina to Damascus around the year 661 AD. During this time, Muslims slowly gained converts to the new faith, but the daily routines of subjects continued as before. Even the currencies of the old empires continued to circulate in the new Muslim state. The new authorities accepted the prevailing exchange rates and left the actual administration of taxation almost intact. They only added to the system the new allocations of lands that used to be imperial communal lands, or lands that were taken by force from old imperial officials, and now gave those lands as fiefs to Muslims who became the new masters of the domain. Both the taxes collected from the new subjects and the continuous re-apportioning of the new conquests and the ever-changing fiefs must have required some basic mathematical knowledge. Nevertheless, no major upheavals were contemplated: leaders changed at the caliph level but the lower administrators remained in place.

Yuhanna Ibn Masawayh, Kitāb al-Azmān (The book of times), 9th century, National Library and Archives of Egypt

Caption for this figureAnyone witnessing these developments could easily see, however, that the new demands of the ever-expanding empire, which by about the year 680 had become even larger than the Roman Empire in its heyday, would require a new order. That order was inaugurated by one of the ablest of the caliphs, ‘Abd al-Malik Ibn Marwan (ruled 685‒705).

By the time of the fifth Umayyad caliph, the Muslim lands had extended from the farthest reaches of North Africa to the Central Asian plateau, close to the borders with China. The sheer vastness of these territories and the requirements of their normal day-to-day operation required at least a harmonization of administrative procedures. One of the bold moves of Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik was to require that all administrative procedures be Arabized and thus to have all offices of government administered in Arabic. The caliph also commanded that new Arabic coinage be introduced to replace the old Byzantine and Sasanian coins. The two acts, taken together, constituted the new foundation of an Arab Empire, Islamic in faith, and now administered in Arabic.

Islam, Arabization, and the Requirements of a New Science

Qurʼanic fragments of al-Ghafir (The forgiver), circa 10th century, Library of Congress 

To a modern reader, the simple acts of Arabization or of minting a new coin may not seem to entail much social or intellectual change. If one thinks of the daily lives of the subjects, however, accustomed to paying taxes in the old coinage, having their lands surveyed and assessed according to techniques of the old empires, then one can then appreciate the sudden and sweeping changes these administrative orders must have necessitated. To give a few examples, inherited land that passed from one taxpayer to his or her heirs had to be resurveyed and reapportioned according to the inheritance laws under which the subject lived. Islamic inheritance laws were all new, utterly unlike the old Byzantine and Sasanian laws, nor anything like the pre-Islamic tribal inheritance laws of Arabia. New divisions and apportionments thus had to be recalculated according to new Islamic inheritance laws. This step alone must have entailed learning new surveying techniques that previously were not applicable in tribal Arabia, where tribal properties did not require such calculations. The administrative bureaucrats of both the old Sasanian and Byzantine Empires must have had their own surveying manuals that facilitated these subdivisions; if they did not have them in writing they must have passed their methods on orally from one functionary to the next within the bureaucracy. The Arabization of the administrative procedures ordered by ‘Abd al-Malik therefore must have included these manuals and instructions.

Similarly, introducing the new coinage must have entailed knowledge of the alloys of precious metals so that the old coins could be replaced without creating economic upheaval. In ‘Abd al-Malik’s time, the only people with access to such information about metals and their alloys were the old alchemists. Translating alchemical works into Arabic thus must have become a necessity.

Knowledge about public health and market supervision also became necessary to ensure the health of subjects and to protect their dealings in products available in the marketplace. These tasks also must have required educated people who knew some basic medical science and who were knowledgeable enough to recognize if products were genuine or counterfeit. Market supervisors and public health administrators also must have had manuals or sources of information similar to those of the bureaucrats and the alchemists. Public engineers, responsible for digging irrigation canals, building bridges and the like, also must have had similar works and/or instructions.

Yaqub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi, Kitāb khawas al-jawāhir (The book on the properties of precious gems), 9th century, National Library and Archives of Egypt

Thus it becomes apparent that the administrative reforms of the Islamic Empire also engendered new scientific knowledge, now expressed in Arabic, which was quite different from the science of pre-Islamic Arabia, and at least linguistically different from the science that was available in the Byzantine and Sasanian Empires. Incorporation of the older sciences into the new order and the modification of those sciences to fit the new environment now can be seen as a motivating engine. This process also helps to explain the statements often encountered in the historical sources about the new Islamic science being a translation of the sciences of the pre-Islamic cultures, be they Persian, Indian, Greek, Roman, or Syriac.

In sum, one can say that Islamic science originated as a direct result of the administrative needs of an empire – one that came to encompass the largest territory known to man until that time. The new empire set in motion many social and scientific changes. The former class of bureaucrats, who lost their jobs as a result of the new administrative reforms, knew where to find advanced and sophisticated scientific practice and theories in the languages that they had used in their former positions in the bureaucracy. The only chance for those former bureaucrats to gain jobs in the new administration or to teach their children how to acquire those jobs was to seek and help to provide access to the more advanced scientific knowledge that could be found in the older languages.

Charlemagne, Denier, circa 812–814, National Library of France

Some activity of this type indeed must have taken place. The historical sources have preserved for us accounts of different bureaucrats who came to government offices in less than a century after the reforms of ‘Abd al-Malik were put in place, mostly by providing and using translations of scientific texts from the older cultures. At times they would seek out the most sophisticated scientific texts of classical Greek or Persian scientists as they competed among each other for government jobs that kept requiring more and more-qualified candidates.

This environment of competition became a veritable bonanza both for the growth and spread of scientific knowledge, now constantly enriched by translation of more and more sophisticated texts, and for the caliphs who could employ the most qualified bureaucrats in a given domain. The proof that something of the sort must have taken place can be seen in the list of bureaucrats who came into the highest echelons of government about a century after the reforms of ‘Abd al-Malik. The names of those listed clearly indicate that they descended from old Persian families from the east and from old Syriac-speaking and Greek-competent families from the west. Most of them were not even Muslim, but their expertise was undeniably in high demand.

Referenced Items

  1. Denier
  2. Qurʼanic Verses
  3. Deliverance from Error on Knowledge of Times of Day and the Direction of Prayer
  4. The Book on the Properties of Precious Gems
  5. The Introductory Epistle on Sinusoidal Operations
  6. The Book of Times
  7. What A Physician Cannot Afford to Ignore
  8. Qurʼanic Verses