"learning is prescribed for us all" -- The Arab Golden Age (a Zoom talk)

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An overview of the history and achievements of the early centuries of Arab Islamic civilization, its fabled "Golden Age".

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The region Europeans call “the Middle East” or "Near East" has been the most civilized region of the Western world for 10,000 of Western Civilization’s 11,000 years. The torch of our civilization has been carried by many different Middle Eastern societies over those millennia. One of its peak periods was the early centuries of Arab Islām. We will follow the arc of the Arab Islāmic story through its greatest cities—Mecca (focusing on the life of Muhammad and the Haj, pilgrimage), to Damascus (Umayyad), to glittering Baghdad (Abbasid), to learned Cairo (Fatimid), and ending with the decline of Arab civilization after the Crusades--interweaving tales of history, faith, governance, art, great scholarship, and storytelling.

schedule (6 lectures on Zoom):

Tuesdays, 10:00 a.m. - 12:00 p.m. PST

December 1, 8, 15

(holiday break)

January 5, 12, 19

N.B.: recordings can be sent to anyone who misses one or all of the lectures.

Islamic cultures spread halfway around the globe, from Morocco to Indonesia. For this short lecture series, we cannot hope even to sample that vast diversity, so we will focus on Islām's homeland, the Near and Middle East. And since the greatest energy in any culture occurs in its cities, we will focus on a selection of the great cities of Islām in that region, and focus on Islām’s foundation people, the Arabs, and on the greatest achievements of their civilization. We will investigate Islām’s beginnings, its history, customs and beliefs, and tell the story of its Golden Age through the great urban centers where it happened: Mecca, Damascus, Baghdad, and Cairo.

December 1: Week 1 — Mecca

Over two million people come to Mecca every year just during the month of the Hajj; millions more arrive during the rest of the year to do the minor pilgrimage, the Umrah. But we who are not Muslim are not among them, for the city where Islām began is sacred, protected, restricted. Yet, in this class, we will enter Mecca as virtual pilgrims, beginning as all do with an understanding of the life of Muhammad, then following a trail of images through each day of the enthusiastic and joyful ritual of the Hajj, in hopes of intuiting a small sense of its power and deep connectedness.

December 8: Week 2 — Islām leaps upon the world scene: the Rāshidūn Caliphate

The first four leaders of the community after Muhammad (called caliphs, “successors”), expanded the faith militarily by causing the implosion of the two prevailing regional empires: the Persian Sassanid Persians collapsed completely and the Byzantine Empire reeled to a fraction of its former strength. These early Caliphs also established the laws, financial system, and social rituals that have bound the faith ever since, including the codification of the Qur’ān. Another legacy, however, was the permanently wounding split between Sunnī and Shi’a, which we will discuss as well.

December 15: Week 3 — Damascus

One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, captured by Alexander, ruled by the Romans, becoming the great Eastern Christian city under Byzantines, Damascus reached its apogee under Umayyad rule as the capital of the first international Islamic state. We will explore its moment of Umayyad glory by a visit to the old walled city, a maze of narrow alleys and inward-turning houses, with beautifully wrought doors leading to private, verdant courtyards. Wars old and new are familiar to Syria, where life went on regardless, the great mosque thrived, and the rediscovery of Greco-Roman learning made the city a great intellectual center. We will finish this day by following the Umayyads to Iberia where they lingered gloriously, long after the eclipse of Umayyad rule in the eastern Mediterranean.

January 5: Week 4 — Baghdad

In Mesopotamia, the most ancient region on earth, Baghdad appeared as a new city in the eighth century, when the Abbasid Caliphate sought to move the center of Islāmic culture away from Umayyad Damascus. The richest city of the world soon after its founding, the City of the Caliphs and birthplace of Sinbad, for nearly five centuries Baghdad boasted legendary palaces, public buildings, mosques, baths, markets, and gardens. Here beat the heart of Islam during its most vibrant period. Baghdad’s institutions attracted the world’s greatest scholars, who in philosophy and mathematics and astronomy defined these fields for all time; its wharves were lined with ships bringing Chinese porcelain, Malaysian spices and dyes, Turkestani lapis lazuli and slaves, African ivory and gold dust, and Persian stories.

January 12: Week 5 — Cairo

In 969, the inevitable Shiite revolt against Sunnī rule brought forth the Fatimids, who wrested the energy of Islamic culture away from the Abbasids in Baghdad and built their own new capital, this one in the shadow of ancient Egyptian Memphis and the pyramids. With Cairo, Egypt turned the corner away from being defined by its pharaonic past. Ever since then, Cairo has ruled as the center of the Arabic world, from the scholars who define and adjudicate the tenants of the faith, to the artists who define the standards of art and entertainment. Struggles against the Byzantines continued.

January 19: Week 6 – Fatal Blows: the Crusades & the Mongols

At the crossroads of West and East, Arab civilization, Fatimid Cairo and Abbasid Baghdad, was battered from the west by the Crusades and from the east by the even more devastating Mongol invasion. The most vibrant and sophisticated culture of the Western World was erased, as the Tigris River ran black with the ink of scholarly books. The Christians and Mongols were but as a violent but evanescent desert storm. But with the rise of the Ottoman Turks, the Arab world began a decline from which it has not recovered.

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