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  • Muslim City Life during the Era of the Great Caliphs*
  • Amira Bennison

Too frequently the emergence of Islam is portrayed as an interruption in the flow of Western civilization. But as Amira K. Bennison argues in The Great Caliphs: The Golden Age of the 'Abbasid Empire (Yale University Press, 2009), the links between antiquity and Islam should not be neglected. The 'Abbasid empire (750-1258) was the inheritor and interpreter of Greco-Roman traditions. Bennison, who is senior lecturer in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge, explores the cosmopolitan Islamic world of the 'Abbasid era in the following essay, after which she responds to questions from senior editor Donald Yerxa.

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.

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An 8th-century map of Baghdad's Round City. From Guy Le Strange, Baghdad during the Abbasid Caliphate: From Contemporary Arabic and Persian Sources (Clarendon, 1900).

As the Arabs conquered Byzantine territory in Syria, Egypt, and North Africa and Persian territory in Iran, Iraq, and Central Asia, they founded new garrison towns and occupied the cities of the ancient world, creating a new urban network dominated by Muslims. Many Muslim conquerors rapidly swapped their weapons for familiar tools or set about selling the booty they had acquired during the conquest—coin, rich fabrics, weapons, and prisoners. One of the puzzles of this story is how a small minority of Arab Muslim tribesmen managed not to be absorbed into the vast sea of their Christian, Zoroastrian, Jewish, and pagan subjects, many of whom were bearers of ancient and sophisticated civilizations.

One reason was the Arab Muslim preference for living in concentrated communities apart from the majority of their subjects. Although this separation was by no means complete, it persisted through the Umayyad caliphate and helps explain why the new religion, Islam, and its language, Arabic, gained such power in subsequent centuries despite being the preserve of a very small ruling minority at the outset. The Umayyads further fostered an Arab-Islamic identity by making Arabic the language of administration as well as religion. It thus became essential to know Arabic to survive in the city: inhabitants and migrants needed to learn it regardless of their religion or ethno-linguistic background. Persians, Turks, and Iberians became Arabic speakers: in this world Arabic played much the same role as Latin in the Roman Empire or English in British India.

In addition to learning Arabic, non-Arabs soon began to convert to Islam. But the first generation of converts did so as clients affiliated to Arab tribal structures. The majority were either prisoners of war or members of pre-Islamic elites—Persian aristocrats, Visigothic lords, and many others...


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pp. 21-23
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