The Islamic Golden Age is traditionally dated from the mid-7th century to the mid-13th century A.D. During this period, artists, engineers, scholars, poets, philosophers, geographers and traders in the Islamic world contributed to agriculture, the arts, economics, industry, law, literature, navigation, philosophy, sciences, sociology, and technology, both by preserving earlier traditions and by adding inventions and innovations of their own. Howard R. Turner writes: "Muslim artists and scientists, princes and laborers together made a unique culture that has directly and indirectly influenced societies on every continent."
During the Muslim conquests of the early 7th and 9th centuries, Rashidun armies established the Caliphate, or Islamic Empire, one of the largest empires in history. The 8th century ascension of the Abbasid Caliphate and the transfer of the capital from Damascus to the newly founded city Baghdad marks the beginning of this period. The Abbassids were influenced by the Qur'anic injunctions and hadith. During this period the Muslim world became a major intellectual centre for science, philosophy, medicine and education. They established the "House of Wisdom" (Arabic:بيت الحكمة) in Baghdad, where scholars, both Muslim and non-Muslim, sought to gather and translate all the world's knowledge into Arabic in the Translation Movement. Many classic works of antiquity that would otherwise have been forgotten were translated into Arabic and later in turn translated into Turkish, Sindhi, Persian, Hebrew and Latin. Knowledge was synthesized from works originating in ancient Mesopotamia, Ancient Rome, China, India, Persia, Ancient Egypt, North Africa, Ancient Greece and Byzantine civilizations. Rival Muslim dynasties such as the Fatimids of Egypt and the Umayyads of al-Andalus were also major intellectual centres with cities such as Cairo and Córdoba rivaling Baghdad. According to Bernard Lewis, the Caliphate was the first "truly universal civilization," which brought together for the first time "peoples as diverse as the Chinese, the Indians, the people of the Middle East and North Africa, black Africans, and white Europeans."
A major innovation of this period was paper – originally a secret tightly guarded by the Chinese. The art of papermaking was obtained from prisoners taken at the Battle of Talas (751), spreading to the Islamic cities of Samarkand and Baghdad. The Arabs improved upon the Chinese techniques of using mulberry bark by using starch to account for the Muslim preference for pens vs. the Chinese for brushes. By AD 900 there were hundreds of shops employing scribes and binders for books in Baghdad and public libraries began to become established. From here paper-making spread west to Fez and then to al-Andalus and from there to Europe in the 13th century.
Much of this learning and development can be linked to topography. Even prior to Islam's presence, the city of Mecca served as a center of trade in Arabia. The tradition of the pilgrimage to Mecca became a center for exchanging ideas and goods. The influence held by Muslim merchants over African-Arabian and Arabian-Asian trade routes was tremendous. As a result, Islamic civilization grew and expanded on the basis of its merchant economy, in contrast to their Christian, Indian and Chinese peers who built societies from an agricultural landholding nobility. Merchants brought goods and their faith to China, India, South-east Asia, and the kingdoms of Western Africa and returned with new inventions. Merchants used their wealth to invest in textiles and plantations.
Aside from traders, Sufi missionaries also played a large role in the spread of Islam, by bringing their message to various regions around the world. The principal locations included: Persia, Ancient Mesopotamia, Central Asia and North Africa. Although, the mystics also had a significant influence in parts of Eastern Africa, Ancient Anatolia (Turkey), South Asia, East Asia and South-east Asia.
Many medieval Muslim thinkers pursued humanistic, rational and scientific discourses in their search for knowledge, meaning and values. A wide range of Islamic writings on love, poetry, history and philosophical theology show that medieval Islamic thought was open to the humanistic ideas of individualism, occasional secularism, skepticism and liberalism.
Religious freedom, though society was still controlled under Islamic values, helped create cross-cultural networks by attracting Muslim, Christian and Jewish intellectuals and thereby helped spawn the greatest period of philosophical creativity in the Middle Ages from the 8th to 13th centuries. Another reason the Islamic world flourished during this period was an early emphasis on freedom of speech, as summarized by al-Hashimi (a cousin of Caliph al-Ma'mun) in the following letter to one of the religious opponents he was attempting to convert through reason:[dubious ]
"Bring forward all the arguments you wish and say whatever you please and speak your mind freely. Now that you are safe and free to say whatever you please appoint some arbitrator who will impartially judge between us and lean only towards the truth and be free from the empary of passion, and that arbitrator shall be Reason, whereby God makes us responsible for our own rewards and punishments. Herein I have dealt justly with you and have given you full security and am ready to accept whatever decision Reason may give for me or against me. For "There is no compulsion in religion" (Qur'an 2:256) and I have only invited you to accept our faith willingly and of your own accord and have pointed out the hideousness of your present belief. Peace be upon you and the blessings of God!"
Early proto-environmentalist treatises were written in Arabic by al-Kindi, al-Razi, Ibn Al-Jazzar, al-Tamimi, al-Masihi, Avicenna, Ali ibn Ridwan, Abd-el-latif, and Ibn al-Nafis. Their works covered a number of subjects related to pollution such as air pollution, water pollution, soil contamination, and municipal solid waste mishandling. Cordoba, al-Andalus also had the first waste containers and waste disposal facilities for litter collection.
A number of important educational and scientific institutions previously unknown in the ancient world have their origins in the early Islamic world, with the most notable examples being: the public hospital (which replaced healing temples and sleep temples) and psychiatric hospital, the public library and lending library, the academic degree-granting university, and the astronomical observatory as a research institute (as opposed to a private observation post as was the case in ancient times).
The first universities which issued diplomas were the Bimaristan medical university-hospitals of the medieval Islamic world, where medical diplomas were issued to students of Islamic medicine who were qualified to be practicing doctors of medicine from the 9th century. The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes the University of Al Karaouine in Fez, Morocco as the oldest degree-granting university in the world with its founding in 859 CE. Al-Azhar University, founded in Cairo, Egypt in the 975 CE, offered a variety of academic degrees, including postgraduate degrees, and is often considered the first full-fledged university. The origins of the doctorate also dates back to the ijazat attadris wa 'l-ifttd ("license to teach and issue legal opinions") in the medieval Madrasahs which taught Islamic law.
The library of Tripoli is said to have had as many as three million books before it was destroyed by Crusaders. The number of important and original medieval Arabic works on the mathematical sciences far exceeds the combined total of medieval Latin and Greek works of comparable significance, although only a small fraction of the surviving Arabic scientific works have been studied in modern times. For instance, Jamil Ragep, an historian of science from McGill University, says that 'less than 5% of the available material has been studied.' Salim Al-Hassani states that 50,000 of the surviving manuscripts have been reviewed and that there are 5 million more manuscripts still awaiting review. A Russian historian O. B. Frolova gives an idea of the numerical quantity of these manuscripts and works always findable:
"The results of the Arab scholars' literary activities are reflected in the enormous amount of works (about some hundred thousand) and manuscripts (not less than 5 million) which were current... These figures are so imposing that only the printed epoch presents comparable materials"
A number of distinct features of the modern library were introduced in the Islamic world, where libraries not only served as a collection of manuscripts as was the case in ancient libraries, but also as a public library and lending library, a centre for the instruction and spread of sciences and ideas, a place for meetings and discussions, and sometimes as a lodging for scholars or boarding school for pupils. The concept of the library catalogue was also introduced in medieval Islamic libraries, where books were organized into specific genres and categories.