The Dark Ages: Christian and Jewish Cultures at Their Nadir as Islamic Culture Reaches Its Zenith

It was the Italian poet, Petrarch, that characterized as “The Dark Ages” the period of European history from the fall of Rome to his own time in the 14th century which realized the resurgence of learning and the arts in Western culture. While Christian and Judaic cultures were indeed dark during that time, Islamic culture, on the other hand, was brilliant during that same period of time, as it rose to its zenith and gained a foothold in Europe through Spain.

The Islamic founding prophet, Mohammed (572 632 A.D.) was born and raised in Arabia.  He became familiar with Jewish and Christian Scriptures through a cousin, and he came to admire the monotheism of the Jews and the morals of the Christians. He came to value of the Jewish and Christian scriptures as a revelation from God. He was aghast at the tribal violence and petty vengeance prevalent in his native Arabia, and he came to believe in the need of a new religion, which might redeem and unify the tribes.

Mohammed had made a habit of going to the mountains to meditate. One day he heard a voice from heaven tell him, “Read!” He answered, “I do not read.” Again the voice said, “Read,” and, although illiterate, he read.  [The account bears remarkable resemblance to the story of Moses and the burning bush.  It also echoes the command to Augustine which led to his conversion to Christianity, described in the next prior post]. As Mohammed was descending the mountain, he heard a voice again, say, “O Mohammed! Thou art the messenger of Allah, and I am Gabriel.” He had many more such experiences in which he heard the word of Allah and transmitted it to his family and his people, who recorded what he dictated, that becoming the Koran.  From that the Muslim religion sprang. Affirming his respect for Judaic and Christian Scriptures, he considered Moses and Jesus to be prophets as was he. Unfortunately, the respect that he showed for both Judaism and Christianity, was not returned in kind.

At a time when Western culture, and Judaic and Christian civilizations entered their dark, uninspired, dark period, Islamic culture, recently born of the new Muslim religion, soared and reached its zenith from 1057 two 1258 A.D., long predating advances in the Western culture of science, math, and architecture.   Islamic culture contributed the following to science: the first treatise on trigonometry as a science; an historic account of physics, laws of the lever, tables of specific gravity for various substances, a theory of gravity as an attractive force, a celestial globe, geographers, an extension of Greek  technological principles, and extensive ophthalmology, treatises on medicine, advanced design and practices in hospitals, and even in insane asylums.

Not so different from ideological histories of Judaism or Christianity, there developed a rift in Islam between a conservative and sometimes reactive segment of the Orthodox elements of its faith and the progressiveness of its educated classes.  Also, as can be seen in Christianity, the Orthodox became suspicious of education, and, as in 20th and 21st century fundamentalist Christians, the perceived a chasm between religion and science. One Orthodox Muslim, Al-Ghazali, placed the intellectuals into a general category of infidels, identified as theists who believe in God and immortality but deny creation and the resurrection; the deists acknowledged Allah, but, much like Newton, considered the world to be a mechanical object created by Allah, wound up, and left to operate on its own; and the materialists, who went so far as to reject  the very notion of Allah.

Such high scientific and philosophic achievements were demonized in Muslim Spain as a result of Orthodox fear that the People’s faith would be seriously harmed.

As Will Durant describes it at page 341,

The rise and decline of Islamic civilization is one of the major phenomena of history. For five centuries, from 700 to 1200, Islam led the world in power, order, and extent of government, in refinement of manners, in standards of living, in humane legislation and religious toleration, in literature, scholarship, science, medicine, and philosophy.

Even the ribbed vault in Gothic architecture was predated in Islam. In general, Islamic cultural achievements so much exceeded the Dark Ages of Western culture that it seems that the fate of Europe could have been quite different had not Islamic culture fallen into decline toward the end of that period.

See  or an excellent article and pictures of Islamic architecture.  You will note at least two features in these pictures and articles: 1. the Roman arch  as a principal structural feature, and 2 .decorations that are primarily geometric with no features representing either human life or the divine.  Of particular interest to me is the Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque which uses, as I would describe it, a honeycomb of  large archical roof  structures, which may be seen at: .

See for an excellent article on Islamic arts. See for the source of the following photograph of the “Blue Mosque,” below:

See, also , examples of Islamic  artistic production.

Finally, see  for an excellent essay on the ideas and ideals exemplified in Islamic art.

For an excellent article on Jewish  architecture, and of the influence on it of  Islamic architecture, see .   See, also, .

Links to my site:


Graphic Arts




Home Page


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s