The History and Achievements of the Islamic Golden Age

Course No. 3863
Eamonn Gearon,
Johns Hopkins University
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Course No. 3863
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What Will You Learn?

  • Discover the astounding scientific and cultural achievements of the Abbasid Empire, from chemistry and mathematics to astronomy and philosophy.
  • Meet some of the scientists, philosophers, scholars, and travelers who changed the course of world history.
  • Learn about the texture of life in the Islamic Golden Age, from Baghdad's House of Wisdom to day-to-day domestic life.
  • Encounter the often-over-looked story one of the most important civilizations in world history, which is fascinating in its own right and also serves as an important bridge between antiquity and modernity.

Course Overview

The study of Western Civilization traditionally follows a well-known but incomplete arc: the grand achievements of Greece and Rome, several hundred years of the “Dark Ages,” and then the bright emergence of the European Renaissance. But most students of history have only a passing familiarity with a significant period known as the Islamic Golden Age in the Greater Middle East, from about 750 to 1258. Advancements in medicine, algebra and astronomy; influential figures like Avicenna and Averroes: these asides in the traditional story of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance only gloss the surface of one of the most important periods of world history.

It is nearly impossible to overstate the power and importance of this crucial 500-year history, headquartered in Baghdad but impacting the wider world. The History and Achievements of the Islamic Golden Age is your opportunity to get to know the story and the accomplishments of this great period in human civilization. Taught by acclaimed lecturer Eamonn Gearon, these 24 remarkable lectures offer brilliant insights into an era too often overlooked by traditional history textbooks. The philosophers, scientists, inventors, and poets of the Abbasid Empire paved the way for the Renaissance and continue to affect our world today in surprising ways, and The History and Achievements of the Islamic Golden Age brings the story to life in rich detail and will forever change your perspective on world history.

The Abbasid Empire, which ruled the Middle East as well as much of Northern Africa and Central Asia in much of the Middle Ages, is a vitally important bridge between the ancient and modern worlds. While much of Europe was quietly passing the time, the Abbasid Empire was an international, multicultural hub of trade, travel, education, art, science, and much more. Just a few of the many events and achievements of the era include:

  • Advancements in mathematics, including the birth of algebra and new insights into geometry and trigonometry.
  • The origins of the scientific method, along with the development of chemistry, physics, and astronomy as discrete fields of inquiry.
  • The invention of the modern “teaching hospital” and a medical encyclopedia that served Europe for the next 600 years.
  • The preservation and translation of the world’s great literature, from the Hadith (or sayings of Muhammad) to the master works of Greece and Rome.
  • Ontological philosophy that served future Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians concerned with the nature of God and the relationship between faith and reason.

Meet the People Who Revolutionized the World

While the period of the Islamic Golden Age was comparatively quiet in Europe, the Middle East was a multi-national, multicultural, cosmopolitan brew. The Abbasid Empire was a highly educated, highly mobile society, and you’ll follow in the footsteps of many travelers as they made their way around the empire, from the Mediterranean to Central Asia. For instance, you’ll meet Ibn Battuta, who traveled more extensively than even Marco Polo and whose life gives us an amazing window into a society little studied in the West.

The epicenter of the age was Baghdad and its House of Wisdom, the world’s preeminent center for learning, translation, and original research at the time. Thanks to the House of Wisdom, scholars, scientists, artists, and other great thinkers flourished. Among them, you will learn about:

  • Caliph Harun al-Rashid, who established the House of Wisdom and was later immortalized in Arabian Nights
  • Al-Jahiz, an Arabic writer who discussed evolution a thousand years before Darwin
  • Iman al-Bukhari, who sifted through hundreds of thousands of alleged sayings from Muhammad and compiled the official hadith
  • Moses Maimonides, one of the greatest Talmudic scholars of all time
  • Al-Jazari, the so-called “father of robotics” who lived nearly fifteen hundred years before the computer age
  • Ibn Sina—also known as Avicenna—one of the world’s most influential thinkers and one of the founders of modern medicine

In studying these astonishing individuals, you’ll get a glimpse at another side of history that has been often overlooked. While many of these names may be unfamiliar to Western audiences, their impact continues into our world today—from the all the benefits of the Scientific Revolution down to the humble three-course meal popularized by a trendsetting cook and musician named Ziryab.

Unlock the Achievements of the Golden Age

Although the word wasn’t coined until much later, today we would call many of the influential figures of the Islamic Golden Age “scientists”—experimental thinkers who researched everything from the circumference of the Earth to the classifications of chemical compositions. This period saw the birth of the scientific method—including the origins of the “control” in an experiment—and ushered in transitions from what we would call astrology to astronomy, and from alchemy to chemistry.

In this course, you will witness the era’s many forays into mathematics and the sciences, theology and philosophy, agriculture and architecture. For example:

  • Meet al-Khwarizmi, who built on the works of the Greeks and Babylonians to formalize algebra as its own discipline.
  • Explore the world’s first teaching hospitals and encounter several foundational texts on medicine and medical ethics.
  • Find out why so many stars have Arabic names—and how Islamic astronomers challenged Ptolemy’s worldview.
  • Study with al-Haytham, whose revolutionary book on optics offered the first modern insight into how light and vision interact.
  • Discover the delightful inventions of the Banu Masa, including automatic drinking fountains and a steam-powered flute.
  • Tour the rich architecture of the Muslim world, from mosques to military arches to the hanging gardens of the Alhambra and the Taj Mahal.

Finally, no discussion of the Golden Age’s achievements would be complete without a mention of the tension between faith and reason. You’ll encounter several philosophers who wrestle with the age-old question and consider how they resolve the dilemma—and how thinkers such as Ibn Sina influenced later theologians in all three Abrahamic faiths.

A Sumptuous Feast of Insights

Your lecturer, Eamonn Gearon, takes you inside this magnificent era, and introduces you to the people and ideas that make the Islamic Golden Age great. He also steps back and asks a few fundamental questions about the story: When did the Golden Age begin? Why did it come to an end? And why has it not featured more prominently in the history textbooks?

As with his previous popular course, Turning Points in Middle Eastern History, Mr. Gearon is a remarkable storyteller. He expertly draws the links between Aristotle and Ibn Sina, and between Ibn Battuta and the Renaissance poet Petrarch, who, like many history students today, had little understanding of the Islamic Golden Age.

From Baghdad to Cairo, and Alexandria to Cordoba, the breadth of the Abbasid Empire is astounding. With a rich set design and authentic music recreated from the era, The History and Achievements of the Islamic Golden Age immerses you in the fantastic world of Golden Age art, education, prosperity, and innovation—and gives you an incomparable understanding of one of the most vibrant and influential civilizations to ever grace the world stage.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    From Camels to Stars in the Middle East
    Step back to one of the most important yet overlooked periods in human history. Your tour of the Golden Age of Islamic Civilization begins with the who, what, why, where, when, and how of this great period and its impact. Explore the Abbasid Empire and see how it bridged the ancient world and the Renaissance. x
  • 2
    Ibn Battuta's Search for Knowledge
    As a truly international, intercultural, interracial, and even intercontinental era, great travelers abound. Here, you will meet the Moroccan wayfarer Ibn Battuta and trace his journey across Northern Africa and the Middle East in the century after the Mongol sack of Baghdad. Gain new insights into the era-including whether it ever truly come to an end. x
  • 3
    Arabian Nights Caliph: Harun al-Rashid
    Get to know the great Caliph Harun al-Rashid and Baghdad's House of Wisdom, which was the largest depository of books in the world at that time-and served as the engine that drove much of the Golden Age. Then shift your attention to the Arabian Nights collection of stories and legends to discover the source of al-Rashid's enduring fame. x
  • 4
    The Arab World's Greatest Writer: al-Jahiz
    Considered by many scholars to be the finest writer of Arabic prose who ever lived, al-Jahiz was a brilliant stylist and author of more than 200 works, many of which survive today. In this lecture, you will uncover the origins of Arabic writing before turning to the life and works of al-Jahiz. x
  • 5
    Algebra, Algorithms, and al-Khwarizmi
    The field of mathematics owes a tremendous debt to the Islamic Golden Age. Mathematicians such as Omar Khayyam (who is perhaps better known today as a poet) and al-Khwarizmi built on the work of Babylonian, Greek, and Indian mathematicians to systematize and explain algebra and symbolic algorithms. Survey this critical period of mathematics history. x
  • 6
    Baghdad's House of Wisdom
    During the Abbasid Empire, Baghdad's House of Wisdom was the world's preeminent center for translation and original research. Find out why translation flourished in this era, and meet two of the Golden Age's most important translators: Hunayan Ibn Ishaq and al-Kindi. Then consider the intellectual legacy of the Arabic translation movement. x
  • 7
    Muhammad, the Hadith, and Imam Bukhari
    Hadith" refers to the collected sayings of Muhammad outside of the Quran, all of which were gathered and sifted in an amazing feat of research by Iman al-Bukhari 200 years after Muhammad's death. Journey with al-Bukhari as he wrestles with the authenticity of hundreds of thousands of hadith-and how his work continues to impact Islam today." x
  • 8
    Interpreting and Defending the Quran
    Delve into the realm of Quranic exegesis from the year 750 until about 1258. By considering the life of al-Tabari, one of the most important commentators in Islamic history, you will uncover the method and implications of tafsir, or exegesis. Your study will take you into controversial territory with a look at the infamous Satanic Verses. x
  • 9
    The Arab Herodotus: al-Masudi
    Examine the life and times of one of the era's great travel writers. Following the journey of al-Masudi gives you a broad tour of the Islamic Golden Age and its history. After reviewing his biography and reflecting on his reasons for traveling, you will survey the many subjects he wrote about, from geography and geology to the strategy of backgammon. x
  • 10
    Cairo, al-Haytham, and the Book of Optics
    Al-Haytham's seven-volume Book of Optics is one of the most fascinating works of scientific enquiry in the Golden Age. After reviewing the wider context of Cairo in the 10th century, delve into al-Haytham's experimentation with optics and the eye. Find out why many modern scholars have called him the world's first true scientist. x
  • 11
    Master Muslim Scholar: al-Biruni
    This lecture introduces you to al-Biruni, a scholar and polymath who left a mark on physics, math, astronomy, geography, anthropology, history, and much more. Born in modern-day Uzbekistan, his pursuit of learning and dissemination of knowledge is unparalleled. See what made his scholastic approach and his research methodology so groundbreaking. x
  • 12
    Astronomy in the Islamic Golden Age
    It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the Islamic Golden Age on the field of astronomy, as evidenced today by the number of stars with Arabic names. Focusing on the work of three Islamic astronomers, you'll explore the difference between astronomy and astrology, and unpack the many scientific advancements of the era. x
  • 13
    Medieval Muslim Medicine and Hospitals
    Continue your study of the Golden Age's many scientific achievements with a look at the development of medicine and the rise of what today we would call the teaching hospital. Along the way, you will encounter one of the greatest medical minds of all time, Ibn Sina (better known in the West as Avicenna). x
  • 14
    Alchemistry and Chemistry in Early Baghdad
    The word scientist" wasn't invented until the 19th century, but we would nonetheless apply the word to the many scientific thinkers of the Golden Age. Here, you'll witness the process of experimentation that was the start of the scientific method, and you'll see how scientists of the time advanced the field of chemistry." x
  • 15
    The Fertile Crescent, Water, and al-Jazari
    The Middle East's river systems and irrigation methods were vital for the Abbasid Empire to thrive. After learning about the geography and agricultural techniques of the Golden Age, you'll turn your attention to the link between agriculture and politics-and round out your study of water with a look at some beautiful gardens. x
  • 16
    Jewish Scholar in Cairo: Moses Maimonides
    The 12th century Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides offers great insight into the relationship among the three Abrahamic religions-Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Delve into the politics of Cordoba in Andalusia, Spain, during the Golden Age, and then consider Maimonides' scholarship-including his philosophy about the relationship between faith and reason. x
  • 17
    The Banu Musa's Inventions and Automatons
    From water fountains to self-playing musical instruments, the Golden Age saw an astounding amount of ingenuity. Take a look at a few of the era's most interesting and delightful inventions and automations, and then examine the life and work of al-Jazari, who today is considered the father of robotics."" x
  • 18
    Mosques, Architecture, and Gothic Revival
    The development of architecture is a gradual process of shifting styles from one generation to the next, and the 500 years of the Islamic Golden Age gave the world striking advancements in both religious and military architecture. Here, tour the architecture of great mosques and arches, and see how the era influenced the later European Gothic Revival. x
  • 19
    Arabic Verse, Love Poetry, and Wine Songs
    Examine the lives and work of three powerful poets: Abu Nuwas, Abu Tammam, and al-Mutanabbi. Reflect on the role of poetry in the Golden Age, including forms and subject matter, and examine the relationship between poetry and the multicultural world of the Abbasid Empire. x
  • 20
    Medieval Mastermind: Avicenna (Ibn Sina)
    Ibn Sina-or Avicenna-is arguably the most important philosopher in Islamic history, as well as one of the most influential thinkers of all time. Find out what makes him such an important figure in the history of philosophy, and how he built on the tradition of Aristotle. Then shift your attention to his arguments in the realms of ontology and cosmology. x
  • 21
    Entertaining in the Time of the Abbasids
    Shift your attention from the great minds of the Golden Age and find out how people of the time relaxed. As you learn about the era's food and music cultures, you'll uncover quite a few surprises-such as the origins of the traditional three-course meal. You'll also discover that celebrity cookbooks promoting the latest dietary fad are not a modern invention. x
  • 22
    Calligraphy, Carpets, and the Arabic Arts
    We're all familiar with the geometric designs of the mythical flying carpets, but there is an astounding array of Islamic art from the period. Here is your chance to revel in the fine arts of the Islamic Golden Age, which in addition to geometric patterns, included stunning calligraphy, plant or vegetal designs, and figurative representations. x
  • 23
    When Did the Islamic Golden Age End?
    Scholars conveniently cite the Mongolian sack of Baghdad in 1258 as the end of the Golden Age, but as you have seen in this course, the truth is more complex. Consider several reasons why the era came to an end-including outside invaders, shifting finances, changes in faith, and plain old human folly. x
  • 24
    Ibn Khaldun on the Rise and Fall of Empire
    Conclude your survey of the Islamic Golden Age with a big-picture look at what followed, including the rise of the Ottoman Empire, the Black Death, and the emergence of gunpowder. While golden ages must inevitably subside, this final lecture gives you the opportunity to reflect on one of the most stunning eras in all of human history. x

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 228-page printed course guidebook
  • List of Arabic Places and People
  • Photographs and illustrations
  • Suggested readings

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Your professor

Eamonn Gearon

About Your Professor

Eamonn Gearon
Johns Hopkins University
Eamonn Gearon is a Professorial Lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies, in Washington DC. He received his M.A. in Near and Middle Eastern Studies and Arabic from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, and has also taught at the American University in Cairo. Mr. Gearon is the cofounder and managing director of The Siwa Group, a specialist...
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Reviews

The History and Achievements of the Islamic Golden Age is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 53.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Islamic History! I brought this video over a week ago and I really enjoy it. It has enlightened me on the Islamic Golden Age and gives me a truly unique perspective on the fathers of Islam great achievements. The guidebook that comes with it is wonderful. I can easily follow the narrator and the pictures help me to get a better understand of the events.
Date published: 2018-11-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A wealth of knowledge. Content heavy. Just what I like. Well worth the time spent listening to the course.
Date published: 2018-10-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Scholars of Many Backgrounds Welcomed Eamonn Gearon deserves credit and commendation for his insightful analysis of the Islamic Golden Age that thrived in a broad expanse of territory from India across the Middle East and North Africa as far as Spain. Mr. Gearon presents his material evenhandedly as “a mixed bag, enlightened but flawed,” and I feel sure that his Great Course can demystify a portion of world history too often ignored, can correct some present-day biases, and can even build religious and ethnic tolerance. It is an important and timely course, as well as a fascinating one. Mr. Gearon’s credibility as a lecturer is enhanced by his personal experience as a solo traveller in the Sahara and by his impressive research in matters both military and religious. He appears to know the geography, the history, and the socio-political issues of the lands he discusses all equally well. Additional strengths of the course include: *the lecturer’s gentle wit and helpful analogies; *engaging biographical sketches of many talented and colourful individuals from the years under discussion (750–1258 AD); *comparisons drawn to what was going on contemporaneously in other parts of the world; *a tracing of how later developments like the Italian Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Gothic Revival in architecture, and even modern astronomy and mathematics all had some of their roots in the Islamic Golden Age; *a wealth of beautiful visual accompaniments to the lectures; *attention paid to well-funded centres of learning established at Cordoba, Cairo, and Samarkand—besides the more famous House of Wisdom at Baghdad; *and, perhaps most edifying to me, well-supported evidence of the respect shown to scholars, inventors, artists, translators, poets, and other writers representing a great variety of backgrounds, and shown as well to the wisdom of prior cultures, such as those of Greece and Rome. The strengths of the course outweigh a few minor weaknesses. If Mr. Gearon ever revises the course, I would urge him to be not quite so repetitive. I do not know if there was ever any intent to make each lecture useable in a stand-alone way, but I wonder if that might be the motivation for reporting some of the same chronological information and individuals' introductions over and over again in successive lectures. In a “rewindable” course which also comes with a guidebook, this is hardly necessary. I have mixed feelings, too, about some of the speaker’s digressive anecdotes, which are not uninteresting but which occasionally sap a lecture’s momentum. A few of the admittedly lovely visual accompaniments should have captions or clearer specification of just what is depicted on-screen. One that especially puzzles me is of astronomers apparently using telescopes, though telescopes were invented well after the era under discussion. Simple sighting tubes would have been era-appropriate, but when I located the very same illustration on the Internet, I found it identified there as dating from the later “age of telescopes.” “The History and Achievements of the Islamic Golden Age” is a course I look forward to viewing and studying more than once. I recommend it very enthusiastically!
Date published: 2018-10-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating History great history, and very interesting presentation. The instructor kept the course interesting with great details.
Date published: 2018-09-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Discover the wonders of the Medieval Middle East This was an insightful course. I had first studied Islam in middle school and it awakened in me an interest in learning more about this misunderstood faith. ‘Golden Age’ looks at some of the accomplishments that came about because of Islam’s transformation of the Middle East. Professor Gearon was informative and effective at conveying the course content. He looked at not just the intellectual achievements of Islam, but also the artistic and scientific as well. He made me want to read some of the works of Averroes and Moses Maimonides and I think that is the mark of a good teacher; wanting you to learn more. If you want to learn more about the culture that Islam produced in the centuries after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, this course will show you.
Date published: 2018-07-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Informative and full of bio info! This course contains information in an excellent format and gives the viewer/listener information that is not readily available in such a compact form that the professor ties together very well. I highly recommend it!
Date published: 2018-06-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting Information Regarding Islamic History. I do work for a Muslim, and best friends with a Muslim, and live across the street from a Mosque. The Administrator of said Mosque is also a good friend. All that being said, as a Roman Catholic and also novice student of Islamic History I found this series both of interest and very educational.
Date published: 2018-04-22
Rated 3 out of 5 by from So So We tried this as we found that Prof Gearon's five star 36 lecture course on 'Turning Points in Middle Eastern History' rationally and charmingly worked through an important aspect of world history - about which we were taught essentially nothing other than random jingoistic nonsense in our long ago schooldays in England and Ireland - and about which it is hard to find an impartial account these days. Unfortunately this 24 lecture course did little more than make us regret the impossibility of presenting topics such as: i] the extraordinary attempts made in the Islamic Golden Age to translate the works of the rest of the ancient world, ii] Avicenna, iii] Maimonides, iv] Islamic advances in math or astronomy - in 30 minutes - not to mention the difficulty presenting math based material meaningfully to the non-mathematician. This course represents a good try that only works part of the time - and which needs many more illustrations - and expanded sections on many topics such as medicine and architecture.
Date published: 2018-03-16
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