By the beginning of the seventh century, Christianity had enjoyed centuries of largely unimpeded expansion; in one form or another, it had established itself in Asia and Asia Minor, the Near East and North Africa, eastern and western Europe. It had suffered local persecutions, but - at least, since the days of Constantine - had encountered no cultural power comparable to itself. By the end of the century, however, it would find itself challenged - and even, in vast stretches of the formerly Christian world, overwhelmed — by one of the most potent religious, political and cultural forces known to history: Islam.

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is thought to be the oldest surviving Islamic monument. Its spiritual significance to adherents of Islam stems from the belief that Muhammad himself once ascended to heaven from this sacred place.

Muhammad (c. 570-632) — according to Muslim belief the last and greatest of God's prophets on earth - spent his early adulthood as a merchant. Born in the city of Mecca, near the west coast of the Arabian peninsula, and brought up for a time among desert nomads, he became the ward of his uncle — a Meccan merchant - when still young, and on occasion apparently travelled with his uncle's caravans into Syria. According to Islamic tradition, however, he experienced a profound and terrifying vision of the Angel Jibril (Gabriel) when he was 40 years old, in around 610, in which he was called to become God's messenger (rasut) to the world.

The message he proclaimed was sublimely simple in its principles, and was, according to Muslim belief, the same message that had been proclaimed by all God's prophets since Adam, including Moses and Jesus - though it had been distorted by the Jews and the Christians. It was the message of submission (which is what 'Islam' means) to the will of God: obedience to divine law, prayer, reverence, good works and faithfulness. Islam was, above all, the strictest of monotheisms, reserving all devotion for God alone, hostile to any hint of polytheism or idolatry and censorious of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

Muhammad and his followers at first struggled to convert the Meccans from the indigenous Arabian polytheism, and were even obliged to leave the city for a time to take up residence in Medina, some 275 miles (440 km) to the north. But by 629 he and his movement had become sufficiently powerful that he was able to return to Mecca without encountering any resistance, and to purge the city of its idols and to establish Islam as its law and its faith. By the time Muhammad died, only three years later, almost all of the Arabian peninsula was committed to Islam.

The Islamic Empire

Islam is not merely a spiritual philosophy or ethical teaching, but a political order as well.There is no division between religion and state in Islamic thought, and Muhammad was not only a prophet, but a ruler. Thus, upon his death, it was necessary to find a successor (in Arabic, a caliph): not, of course, to his prophetic office, which was unique, but to his role as sovereign of the umma (the Islamic community).

The early years of the caliphate were a period of remarkable military expansion. After subduing a number of still recalcitrant Arab tribes, the soldiers of the caliphate were able - with astonishing rapidity — to exploit the weaknesses of the Persian and Byzantine empires (weaknesses induced in large measure by the constant warfare between them) and to occupy immense territories from both - indeed, in the case of Persia, to conquer the empire itself. Within ten years of the death of Muhammad, Arab forces had captured Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Armenia, Iraq and Iran. At the end of the first period of the caliphate (the 'patriarchal period') 20 years later, the empire of Islam reached from beyond Tripoli in the west almost to Kabul in the east, and from Aden in the south to the lands between the Caspian and Black Seas and to Turkestan in the north.

From 661—750, moreover, under the Ummayad dynasty, the Islamic Empire conquered even more of the Christian world. By the end of the first decade of the eighth century, the caliphate comprised most of North Africa, stretching far to the west of Roman Tingis (Tangier), as well as all of Portugal and Spain (with the exception of the small kingdom of Asturias in northern Spain) and much of transalpine Gaul. The Abbasid dynasty that succeeded the Ummayad went on to conquer many of the Mediterranean islands, such as Sicily and the Balearics.

During the years of the Abbasids, there were occasional divisions within the empire — in 756, for instance, an independent caliphate was established in Spain - but this was also the golden age of Islamic culture. All the material, cultural and interlectual riches of East and West had been drawn into the world of the umma, and a new civilization was created out of their interactions. Baghdad, the seat of the caliphate after 762, became a city to rival Alexandria and Rome in the days of their greatness.

The Christian world, however, in little more than a century, had been reduced to a fragment of its former dimensions. Rather than continuing to expand in all directions, it found itself for the first time confronted by a geopolitical power as great as — or greater than - itself.

The House of Wisdom 

One often hears it asserted today that, during the so-called Dark Ages, Christendom was reduced to barbarism, while classical culture - including philosophy, science and medicine — became the exclusive preserve of the Islamic world. This is, to say the least, an exaggeration. In part, it is a claim that reflects the tendency of many to think of medieval Christendom as comprising nothing but western Europe, and so to forget the brilliant Byzantine civilization of the east or the great achievements of the Syrian scholars of Persia and beyond. It is also a claim, however, that so oversimplifies the history of the period as to reduce it to caricature.

In less than a century Islamic armies conquered a vast empire from Spain to Central Asia.


The superiority of the medical training available in the Islamic world over that found in the western Christian world, at least from the early centuries of the caliphate to the 11th century, was enormous. Much of that superiority was the result of Syrian Christian tradition, and of the subsequent development of ever better medical techniques by Muslim and Syrian Christian physicians. But medical science was more advanced in the East as a whole than in the West, and the Byzantine empire should be given credit too for its contributions to the art of healing the ill, and of easing the suffering of the incurable.

Until quite recently, historians of medicine believed that medieval hospitals, in either the East or the West, were little more than hospices and shelters, providing nothing resembling systematic medical treatment and making no particular effort to restore their patients to health. In fact, though, in the eastern Christian Roman world, at least as early as the sixth century (and probably earlier) there were free hospitals served by physicians and surgeons, with fixed regimes of treatment and convalescent care, and with regular and trained staffs. In their developed form, the hospitals of Byzantium offered a variety of specializations: some were sanatoria for the ill and injured, some were homes for the aged and infirm, some were foundling homes or orphanages and some were shelters for the poor.They were also generally almshouses, and provided food for the hungry.

In later centuries, Muslim society and - after the first crusade - Latin Christian society established hospitals of their own on the Byzantine model, the most famous of which was the massive Hospital of St John erected in Jerusalem by the Hospitallers in 1099, in imitation of which hospitals were built all over western Europe throughout the later Middle Ages.

Public hospitals had been an established feature of imperial Christian culture from the time of Constantine onwards, and providing medical care for the poor and afflicted had been a duty of monks from the earliest days of coenobitic monasticism. But the idea of a hospital as an institution devoted to the systematic and methodical care and cure of the ill seems to have originated specifically in Constantinople.

That said, it is most definitely the case that the Islamic empire was able — like all great empires — to produce a synthesis of the cultures it absorbed: Greek, Syrian, Persian, Chaldean, North African, Indian and so on. And, in assuming the Persian empire into itself, it inherited the entirety of Near Eastern Christian, Jewish and Persian scholarship and medicine. Thus, most definitely, from the end of the ninth century to the middle of the 13th, the Islamic world enjoyed a genuine measure of scientific superiority over Western Christendom, and even rivalled Byzantium in its achievements (though, in the area of technological innovation, western Europe in many respects surpassed both the Islamic and the Byzantine worlds). True there was, from the 12th century through to the 15th, a late introduction into the Christian West from the Islamic world of Greek classics not hitherto translated into Latin. But - to give all sides their due — Eastern Christian scholarship (particularly Syrian) had a considerable part to play in that story.

[The traditional Arabic interest in astrology — held from the earliest times, when stars were used for navigation in the desert - was developed into a rigorous science by Islamic scholars after they were introduced to astrological texts from Greece, India and Persia]

Before the rise of Islam, Syrian Christians had carried Greek medical, scientific and philosophical wisdom far eastward, and had already translated a great many Greek texts - classical and technical - into their own, Semitic tongue. The Christian academies of Edessa, Nisibis and Jundishapur were the principal vehicles of Greek thought's eastern migrations after the fifth century, and the latter two were the chief repositories of the medical learning for which Nestorian monks were so renowned. Under the caliphate, it was Syriac-speaking Christians who at first provided the caste of scholars and physicians who brought the achievements of Greek and Roman antiquity into Islamic culture.

After the caliphate was moved to Baghdad, a grand library and academy — the House of Wisdom — was established and administered principally by Syrian Christians. There the translation of Greek texts into Arabic, either directly from the Greek or from Syriac versions, was a constant occupation. Perhaps the greatest translator of all was the caliph's chief physician, the Nestorian Christian Hunayn ibn Ishaq (808—73) who, in addition to his own treatises, produced an enormous number of accurate Syriac and Arabic renderings of Greek philosophical and medical texts.

From Baghdad and the House of Wisdom, a vast body of translations went forth into the greater Islamic world, including Muslim Spain. And from Spain a great deal of the intellectual patrimony of ancient Greece at last entered into Latin translations, produced by Mozarabic Christians (that is, the Arabic-speaking Christians of Spam), western Europcan scholars and Spanish Jews.