The city of Baghdad is the capital of Iraq and one of the oldest Islamic cities in the world. The city has a rich history as being the center for the Muslim empire at one point in history. In the modern society, the city of Baghdad is known for its volatility caused by the warring Islamic factions. It is not easy to believe that this was once the center for civilization in the world, ahead of some of the currently coveted cities in the world. In order to understand the history of this city as the capital of the Abbasid Islamic world, it will be necessary to look at the events which took place from 8th to 11th centuries.
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Expansion of the Muslim Empire
In 634 A.D., the Muslim empire, which had just been newly created, started to expand eastward, from Syria to Iraq. At this time, Iraq was ruled by the Persian Empire. The Persians, who were Christians, did not expect the invasion by the new Muslim empire. This is one of the reasons why the Muslim empire easily defeated them and moved them out of this city. After occupying the city, the Muslim empire gave the predominantly Christian residents of Baghdad the options of either changing their faith to Islam or pay regular jizyah tax to the Islamic regime. Most of the residents opted to become Muslims. This was the beginning of a very prosperous city of Baghdad.
Capital of the Abbasid Islamic World
The Abbasid dynasty took over the Muslim world in 762 A.D. This dynasty came to power at a time when the Islamic world was expanding very fast in the Middle East region. The capital of the Muslim world was moved to Baghdad because the rulers considered it strategically located for a fast expanding dynasty. The decision to make this city headquarters for the Islamic world completely transformed the city. In what became to be known as Golden Age, the city started attracting some of the best brains at that time because of the security put in place by the Abbasid dynasty and the resources which were easily available.
According to Esposito (18), in the 8th and 9th century, Baghdad became a center for civilization in the world. It is during this time that many Arabic scholars made very important contributions in various fields of humanities, art and sciences in this Islamic city. They helped in the advancement of mathematics, medicine, chemistry, astrology, literature among others. The ruler of Abbasid saw Baghdad become city of mosques, libraries, museums, and hospitals. The leaders worked very closely with scholars in different fields to help develop the city to become relevant as headquarters for the Islamic world. The infrastructure within the city was developed, especially the road network to help connect the city to other Islamic regions.
The Golden Age
According to Doak (83), one of the greatest achievements of this city during the Abbasid dynasty was the advancement in education. The rulers of this dynasty realized that the best way of being ahead of its rival dynasties is to eliminate ignorance by enlightening its people through formal education. Even soldiers had to be subjected to formal education before they could be taken through military drills.
Bayt al-Hikmah- a leading center of education in this city during this time, attracted scholars from all over the world. One of the most unique characteristics of the rulers of this city at this time is that they allowed scholars from different religions and cultures from all over the world to engage freely in scholarly works without any form of intimidation. At Bayt al-Hikmah, teachers and students worked very closely in reviewing some of the works of great scholars of Greece. They started by translating their works from Greek to Arabic.
Large libraries were constructed within the city at some of the leading schools in order to store the knowledge that had been translated. It was during this period and in this city of Baghdad that some of the most accomplished Islamic scholars made serious contributions in the field of sciences. Al-Khawarizmi, popularly known as the father of algebra, transformed the field of mathematics with his new discoveries.
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Algebra remains one of the most important aspects of mathematics in the modern world, a sign that even though the city lost its glory at some point in time, some of the contributions it made are still being felt. Doak (92) observes that in the 9th century, Baghdad was the heart of a diverse and vibrant civilization way ahead of Europe that was in its Dark Ages. Baghdad was undisputedly the most intellectual and richest city at that time.
The Abbasid dynasty also flourished in the military front. The dynasty had a well-prepared army that went through rigorous drills in some of the best military academies at that time. Esposito (78) says that in 756, Abbasid rulers sent a large army to China to help the Tang Dynasty which was in the brink of losing war against Lushan. The Chinese Tang Dynasty established close relations with the Abbasid dynasty because of the desire to remain relevant militarily in a world that was becoming very volatile.
Another revolutionary area during this Golden Age in Abbasid dynasty was the enhancement of Islamic identity. The Abbasids came to power at a time when the society in the Middle East experienced social inequalities. They came to power by promising people that they would bring social equality and eliminate any form of discrimination. Once in power, the Abbasids rapidly developed an Arabic society in this region. They started by making Arabic language the main mode of communication, especially in the learning institutions.
The rulers, through its emissaries, helped in the translation of resources from other languages within the empire into Arabic (Kotapish and Webb 56). It was during the Abbasid dynasty that the region experienced Arab Agricultural Revolution. The Islamic world started using new methods to cultivate their lands in order to get more yields. Although this revolution was witnessed in various other parts of the Islamic world, the force that was driving it was coming from Baghdad. Industries for sugar, textile, matting, paper, rope-making, and silk developed in the city of Baghdad and in other cities within the dynasty. Baghdad became the center of power in a region that was rapidly getting Islamized.
The decline of the Abbasid dynasty started with an internal rift. The Abbasids and the Shias worked very closely to establish the formidable Abbasid dynasty. However, the Abbasids started embracing the Sunni Islam instead of the Shias. This created a major rift within the empire because the Shias were holding very powerful positions within the military. As a result of this, there became evident cracks among the army generals in the late 10th century.
During the reign of al-Radi, the internal rifts became worse. Berber Kharijites took advantage of this rift and the weakening power of the Abbasid dynasty to set up various independent states in the Northern part of Africa (Hugh 71). The army generals who were in charge of various regions within the Islamic world, especially those who felt short-changed by the Abbasid rulers, stopped paying taxes to the Caliphate. This was a big blow to the rulers in Baghdad because it reduced the capacity to finance the lavish expenses at this city.
With many regions becoming autonomous, the Abbasid dynasty lost its military glory that was revered in the entire world. The Mongols, under the leadership of Genghis Khan, attacked the city of Baghdad completely destroying it, killing its rulers in the process. This marked the end of the Golden Age and the beginning of a volatile city that it is to date.
Baghdad is one of the Islamic cities with very rich history, having been the headquarters for the Islamic world from 8th to 11th century. The city, under the Abbasid dynasty, developed very fast in the 8th and 9th century. It became the world’s center of civilization. From education, to industries, military, and entertainment, Baghdad became a very important city that controlled the entire Middle East, other parts of Asia, and North Africa. However, the internal wrangles among the army generals led to the weakening of the dynasty, making it easy for the Mongolians to defeat the Abbasid dynasty in the 11th century.
Doak, Robin. Empire of the Islamic World. New York: Chelsea House, 2010. Print.
This book was relevant in analyzing the achievements of the Abbasid dynasty in the 9th and tenth centuries.
Esposito, John. The Islamic World: Past and Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Print.
This book was used to investigate the expansion of Islamic world under the rule of the Abbasids.
Hugh, Kennedy. “The Early Abbasid Caliphate: A Political History.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 13.4 (1981): 524-525. Print.
This journal article was very relevant in explaining events that led to the decline and destruction of the city of Baghdad.
Kotapish, Dawn, and Ray Webb. Daily Life in Ancient and Modern Baghdad. Minneapolis: Runestone Press, 2000. Print.
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The book reflects on the life in Baghdad at a time when it ruled the Islamic world and how thing have changed in the current society.