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Islam and the West in the Golden Age of Baghdad

by Benson Bobrick

Pub Date: Aug. 14th, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-4165-6762-2
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

A nonscholarly depiction of the cultured, cosmopolitan world of the early Abbasid caliphate.

Bobrick (Master of War: The Life of General George H. Thomas, 2009, etc.) gives a fresh overview of the turbulent state of the Middle East and Europe during the 8th century, just as Islam was consolidating power under the Abbasid caliphate of Abu Jafar Abdullah al-Mansur, who founded the new capital at Baghdad in 766. His grandson Harun al-Rashid acceded to the caliphate at age 23 in 786, becoming King of Kings, creating a diverse, hierarchical theocracy with many military and administrative trappings held over from the Persian kings. His enlightened rule was fancifully portrayed in the much later Thousand and One Nights, a legendary source Bobrick refers to constantly. At the same time that Harun was establishing Islam’s Golden Age with Baghdad as its jewel, Constantinople as the Christian capital of the East Roman Empire was feeling embattled from within, while Western Europe was overrun by the Lombards and Saxons, and was soon to be violently quelled by Charlemagne. The kingdoms of the Franks and the Abbasids opposed the Byzantines and Umayyads of Spain, and thus had communicated by diplomatic envoy, though inconclusively, as if only to prove to the Muslims that their caliph was of greater wealth and significance. The author helpfully compares the reigns of Charlemagne as the source of Carolingian Renaissance and Harun as instigator of Islam’s Golden Age, though the overall sprawl here, also encompassing Al-Andalus, Empress Irene’s Constantinople and “Iron Charles’ ” Aachen, rather overwhelms this modest effort.

A valiant, if superficial, attempt at rendering in readable format this significant period in Muslim history.