The Islamic Khilafah and its illustrious Golden Age

The call for the Islamic Khilafah is growing in momentum the world over as each day passes by. From North Africa to Far East, Europe to Central Asia, Muslims are working tirelessly to restore the Khilafah. This has been recognised even by the western colonial powers and their puppet slaves who illegitimately rule the Muslim world today. In a major speech, delivered on 5th September 2006 to US military officers and US diplomats, George W Bush attempted to mislead the world about what the forthcoming Khilafah will look like in the 21st century. Bush sought to bolster support from the western world for the infamous “war on terror” and his speech was thus unsurprisingly littered with venomous propaganda and lies. Following the footsteps of his Crusader ancestors like Pope Urban II, Bush falsely declared that Muslims who want to regain their political destiny by restoring the Khilafah wish to,

“…establish a violent political utopia across the Middle East, which they call Khilafah, where all would be ruled according to their hateful ideology… This Khilafah would be a totalitarian Islamic empire encompassing all current and former Muslim lands, stretching from Europe to North Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia”.[1]

What Bush described as a “totalitarian empire” was in fact the leading civilisation that led the world in every known field. This article seeks to illustrate some of the great achievements of the Khilafah in the early Abbasid period, commonly referred to as the Golden Age. Due to its limited scope, this article adopts a thematic approach and therefore only examines the following aspects: life in the cities; economy, trade and industry; education, science and intellectual progression; life of non-Muslims and da’wah; and politics and governance.

Life in the cities of the Khilafah

The Abbasid period ushered in an era of city and infrastructure building, including markets, trade centres, roads and water systems, as large numbers of people settled in these thriving city centres. By the 9th and 10th centuries, a traveller who had travelled widely could differentiate the Islamic world from other parts of the world. This distinction was enabled by the magnificent architecture and buildings the Khilafah had constructed. Whether in Islamic Spain or Iraq, the common architectural features appeared unmistakably distinctive to any observer.

Cities such as Alexandria, Jerusalem, Damascus, and Aleppo, in addition to many of the eastern cities like Samarkand were established prior to the rise of Islam. However, the intellectual strength of Islam and its culture meant that the populations in these cities did not resist Islam and soon adopted its values and culture. As Matthew Gordon writes, “The Arab armies avoided these cities at first, but over time, the integration of Arab populations, and the adoption of Islam and Arab culture by long-established populations, transformed the older cities”.[2]

The history of Baghdad is absolutely fascinating. Built around 762 (CE) by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur (754 – 75), it housed the Abbasid rulers and was known as Madinat al-Salam (the City of Peace). By the 10th century and beyond it became the “premier commercial and cultural” centre within the Islamic world.[3] Baghdad under the Abbasid Khilafah is comparable to present day cities like London and New York because of its global significance at the time.      

The famous Muslim historian Muhammad al-Tabari narrated in his book, Tarikh that when Caliph al-Mansur had decided to build the capital of the Khilafah in Baghdad, he laid the first brick himself saying, “In the name of Allah, and to praise Him. The earth is Allah’s; he causes to inherit of it whom He wills among His servants, and the result thereof is to them that fear Him”. He then said to the workmen “Build and [may] Allah bless you”.[4] Contrast this Caliph’s humbleness and gratitude to Allah despite his grandeur and power to the present day rulers’ arrogance and ungodliness and one easily appreciates the qualities of these great Islamic personalities.

Major Islamic cities such as Cairo, Baghdad, Cordoba and Fez were well developed at a time when European cities were not even a comparison. During the Abbasid era Baghdad had an estimated population of 840,000, Cairo had 300,000 – 450,000 and other smaller Islamic cities had around 10,000 – 20,000 inhabitants. In contrast, Paris had an estimated population of 210,000, London had 40,000 and Venice had 180,000.[5] Therefore, Baghdad’s population was clearly larger than the population of several of the European cities combined together.

In addition to the Khilafah’s advancement, the citizens of the Khilafah enjoyed a high living standard. Bloom and Blair illustrate the high living standard of the citizens of the Khilafah, whether Muslims or non-Muslims, “In the Islamic lands, not only Muslims but also Christians and Jews enjoyed a good life. They dressed in fine clothing, had fine houses in splendid cities serviced by paved streets, running water and sewers, and dined on spiced delicacies served on Chinese porcelains”.[6]

People’s standard of living in Cairo is visualised by the following narrative written by a Persian spy in the 11th century. The spy’s narrative describes the spacious houses the people in Cairo enjoyed at the time and the wide number of shops that existed in Cairo alone, that he estimated to be around 20,000.

“In the midst of the houses in New Cairo are gardens and orchards watered by wells. In the sultan’s harem are the most beautiful gardens imaginable. Waterwheels have been constructed to irrigate these gardens. There are trees planted and pleasure parks built even on roofs… These houses are so magnificent and fine that you would think that they were made of jewel…”[7]

It is evident that people had comfortable living conditions under the Khilafah in cities that were not just larger than London or Paris but also far exceeded in terms of material progression. When the Crusaders attacked the holy land the lifestyle, which the people in the holy land were enjoying, made the Crusaders rather unsurprisingly envious and resentful. “The rough-and-tumble Crusaders were knocked off their feet by the luxuries they found for sale in the Near Eastern bazaars”.[8]    

Economy, trade and industry

As Islam’s intellectual, political, economic and military strength grew stronger, it triggered an inevitable demise of the nearby Sasanid and Byzantine empires and eventually they collapsed at the hands of the Khilafah. The Khilafah, covering a massive geographical territory, offered its citizens the opportunity of unfettered travel and trade, which resulted in considerable prosperity in all fields of life. During this period the growth in agriculture added to the commercial boom. Rice and sugarcane, mainly found in India, were transported through Iran to the Mediterranean region where they were deemed to be luxury commodities. In addition, various fruits such as oranges, apricots, mulberries and bananas were introduced in the region at the time. Various spices, precious stones, fine and luxurious cloth and porcelain came from India and China.

However, Muslims did not just import goods for consumption but also exported finished goods. Whilst the European industrial revolution may have triggered the practice of mass production, Muslims had produced goods such as military armaments, sugar, paper, fine textiles etc in large scales for export a thousand years earlier.

The textile industry was of huge importance to the Islamic economy. The four main fibres – wool, silk, cotton and linen – were very widely produced by farmers in the region. The textile industry was as important as the automobile industry in the west today. Other successful industries included metalworking, glassblowing, and pottery. Gordon write that this “…growth of regional and trans-regional trade, and of urban manufacturing, produced new level of prosperity across the city landscape”.[9]

Due to this vibrant economy, an internationally recognised monetary system based on the gold and silver standard had developed. “The Abbasid gold dinar remained an instrument of exchange for centuries…”[10] This economic system was not merely based upon primitive coinage; Muslims had also developed a credit issuing system comparable to the modern system of cheque, which was used by traders travelling across the globe. These letters of credit would not have been acceptable to traders in parts of the world unless there was an established economic system. This was also made possible partly by the fact that the Khilafah was expanding over vast territories whose populations were also becoming Muslim.

It is narrated that when Caliph Harun al-Rashid died in 808 CE, his treasury department had 900 million gold dinars in surplus cash.[11] Unlike the worthless paper currencies of the 21st century, the Abbasid gold dinar had in intrinsic value. Therefore, this astounding sum of money in any nation at that time would have made it a very wealthy nation indeed. This material wealth of the Abbasid Khilafah was a direct result of the Islamic economic system.       

Education, science and intellectual progression

The growth in trade and the general prosperity directly contributed to the rise and proliferation of Islamic culture and learning internally and led to its promotion externally to other peoples. The urban wealthy Muslim traders understood the purpose of life and hence extended their support to scholars and artisans alike. These early Muslims made a concerted effort to strengthen the culture and values of Islam in their societies.

As the Caliphs governed an ever-growing state, they did not shy away from embracing science and technology to aid their governance. The Khilafah needed scientists and mathematicians to assist in matters such as keeping accurate records of revenue collection or survey of lands. The bureaucrats made use of the available knowledge even if they were from Indian, Persian or Greek scientists at the time.

However, Muslims scientists or mathematicians neither dogmatically accepted the available contemporary scientific knowledge, nor did they reject it because they came from the Greeks or the Persians. Instead, Muslim scientists conducted their own empirical research and experiments to assess the strength of scientific theories available at the time and, “thereby initiating a new era of scientific inquiry”.[12] They challenged fundamental Greek scientific theories and often offered refutations based on their improved research findings.

Therefore, Muslim scientists introduced a revolutionary new method of progressing knowledge, a method that is valid to this day. They focused on the scientific methods and instruments used for experiments and their reasoning qualities to elicit impressive results.

By the 8th century, there was a flourishing paper industry in Islamic world, which facilitated the growth of scholarship and wide availability of books. In addition to religious knowledge, expertise in various scientific fields was actively promoted. Wealthy families, including from the Abbasid household, funded research in scientific scholarships.

Muslims started the translation movement, which translated into Arabic works in other languages such as Greek, Persian and Indian in order to progress scientific knowledge. This was a well-funded movement, receiving funds from across society. People of all religious background participated in this search for knowledge in fields such as philosophy, medicine and astronomy. Amongst many pioneering scholars was Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi. His work on astronomy was the standard work for many centuries whilst his book Kitab al-Jabr was the first work of algebra (the name “algebra” originated from the title of this book).    

The Bayt al-Hikma (House of Knowledge) library in Baghdad, founded by Caliph Harun al-Rashid, by the end of 9th century housed Arabic translation of all the major works of Persian and Indian geography and science. Moreover, the Al-Azhar University in Egypt, which was the first of its kind in the world, was founded in 970. Whilst education and learning may not have been universal, it was certainly very common under the Khilafah. The general masses could read and write; but at the very least they could read. Bloom and Blair argue, “the general level of literacy was greater in the medieval Islamic lands than in Byzantium or western Europe. Writing was found everywhere in this culture…”[13]

The Khilafah invested heavily in the nation’s education and scientific research and development. Higher education institutions (madrasa) were established by the 11th century in all major cities. The curriculum included Islamic sciences such as studies about the Qur’an and hadith, in addition to natural sciences such as mathematics, medicine, geometry, astronomy, philosophy and literary arts such as Arabic language and grammar. A graduate from such a madrasa was well equipped to enter diverse career paths including teaching, scholarship and legal positions.

As a result of this successful education system, it is “highly probable” that the European higher education and college systems, e.g. in Spain and Italy, were modelled along the madrasa system. This proposition is supported by the fact that the Islamic world had a well-established education system more than a century prior to its European counterpart. As Europe had regular encounters with the Islamic world, both within commercial and intellectual spheres, it is perfectly conceivable that Europe learnt from the Muslims.[14]

The Khilafah produced some of the best personalities in the world at the time because under Islamic rule, there was no dichotomy between the temporal and the spiritual spheres and hence society excelled in all fields. As Armstrong writes, “Muslim scholars made more scientific discoveries during this time than in the whole of previously recorded history”.[15]

Scholastic giants such as al-Khwarizmi (mathematician/ scientist), Ibn al-Haytham (the “father” of optics), Ibn al-Nafis (physician), Ibn Sina (physician/ scientist), Ibn Hazm (philosopher), Ibn Khaldun (philosopher/ historian) and al-Ghazzali (theologian) are only a few to name. These are only some of the figures known to western academics, whilst there are countless others who remain unknown in the west. Yet they too made similarly extraordinary contributions to humanity. In acknowledgment this point, Gaston Wiet comments, “People of the west should publicly express their gratitude to the scholars of the Abbasid period, who were known and appreciated in Europe during the Middle Ages”.[16]

Life of non-Muslims and da’wah

Islam’s tolerance of other faiths is exemplified by the fact that one did not have to be Muslim to be affluent and established in society. In fact, western academics acknowledge that Jews and Christian citizens of the Islamic state flourished in trade. Merchants came from all background within the Islamic state. Even traders from the Byzantine Empire and Italian city states like Venice an Genoa were known to have traded freely within the Khilafah.

However, Muslims did not restrict their business relationships to mere monetary exchange. Armed with a confident and powerful value system, Muslims in the Abbasid era actively promoted and disseminated Islamic culture and its way of life to outsiders. As a result of interactions between Muslim traders and non-Muslims, large number of people became Muslim. 

The Jews were at ease with living alongside Muslims in the holy land and elsewhere in the Khilafah. The following example illustrates this point. When the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem in 1099 and mercilessly slaughtered Jews, Christians and Muslims, the Jews sided with Muslims. A Jewish pilgrim to Jerusalem wrote to a relative in 1100, “The Franks arrived and killed everybody in the city whether of Ishmael or Israel… Now all of us had anticipated that our sultan – may God bestow glory upon his victories – would set out against the Franks with his troops and would chase them away…”[17] Unlike the states in the Middle East today, including the apartheid state of Israel, non-Muslims lived happily under Islamic rule and prospered.

Islam safeguarded the rights of non-Muslims and generally they were not oppressed under the Khilafah. The heads of non-Muslim communities ensured that the terms of the dhimma (contract of protection, which consisted of peace, order, obedience to the state and it laws) between the state and the non-Muslim citizens were honoured. Non-Muslims participated in all aspects of civic life. The Coptic Christians in Egypt worked within the financial services whilst the Jews commonly worked within the medical profession. Hourani mentions, “Relations between Muslims and Jews in Umayyad Spain, and the Muslims and the Nestorian Christians in Abbasid Baghdad, were close and easy”.[18]

Islam’s ideological and cultural strength can be appreciated when one studies the rate at which many different nations and peoples accepted Islam as their way of life. By the middle of the 8th century less than 10% of the populations in Spain, North Africa and the Middle East (excluding the Arabian peninsula) were Muslim. However, within two centuries there was a completely different picture, as these populations had entered Islam in their masses. Whilst some polemicists may claim that Islam was spread by the sword, those who objectively examine the spread of Islam appreciate that “in general they were not forced to convert” to Islam; rather “the inducement to convert existed”[19] because of the strength of Islam together with the Islamic state’s active policies which encouraged populations to embrace Islam.

As Islam spread amongst people of different races and ethnicity, it uniquely shaped their identity. The notion of Ummah was very deeply engraved in the Islamic society as Islam won people’s hearts and minds and gelled all Muslims together. Hourani explores the state of the Muslim identity by the 10th century:

“men and women in the Near East and the Maghrib lived in a universe which was defined in terms of Islam… [Muslims] were aware of belonging to something broader: the community of believers (the umma). The ritual acts which they performed in common, the acceptance of a shared view of man’s destiny in this world and the next, linked them with each other…”[20]

The notion of modern ethnic nationalism based upon a common language and territorial entity was completely alien to Islam. The nation state model, which exists today, is a foreign concept to Islam and indeed stands diametrically opposed to the history and culture of Muslims.

Politics and governance

The Abbasid Caliphs from the very beginning ruled only by the Shariah. The judiciary had a very distinct role separate from the executive, at the apex of which sat the chief qadi (Judge). The Abbasid Caliphs understood and practically implemented the concept of an independent judiciary. Hourani notes that the judge’s “functions were separated from the governors. He had no political or financial duties…”[21] The judges’ role was to resolve conflicts and give decisions in accordance with the Shariah. The judges were specially trained in the madrasa.

The Abbasid Khilafah had administration systems divided into various departments, which was certainly complex for its time. To put it into contemporary context, they had departments for military, legal, revenue collection, treasury, security and intelligence. The Caliphs and their governors used to conduct joint public gatherings whereby they heard the people’s concerns directly. To prevent the governors from being overly entrenched in their positions and thus becoming neglectful, the Caliphs kept them in regular checks through the various intelligence gathering mechanisms.

The Islamic scholars kept themselves independent of the Caliphs in order to maintain their ability to keep the rulers in checks and acted as the protectors of Islam. Unlike today, Islamic scholars under the Khilafah were multidimensional in their professional skills. They were scholars, teachers and traders etc, as their education was of a high standard.

The Abbasid era was a time of rapid changes in many ways, as the Khilafah experienced demographic and territorial expansion, in addition to scientific and technological and intellectual challenges. The Muslims however faced these challenges within the framework of Islam. They resorted to Ijtihad to deal with new situations, and therefore, the Islamic state prospered.

The Khilafah was not an oppressive police state, as the Shariah safeguards the individual in society against state oppression. Armstrong states, “…no institution, such as the Khilafah or the court, had any power to interfere with the personal decisions and beliefs of the individual”.[22] This had particular implication for the non-Muslims because they were left alone to practice their beliefs so long as they obeyed the laws of the state.


The Abbasid Khilafah was a “political and economic success” from its infancy, as Caliphs like Harun al-Rashid maintained peace, security and prosperity for all citizens of the state.[23] The Khilafah was a state that led the world in every field, whether scientific, intellectual or philosophical. Unlike secular liberal capitalist states, the Islamic Khilafah was a balanced nation that maintained the equilibrium between the spiritual and the temporal spheres. It is however absolutely clear that this astonishingly successful civilisation was founded upon Islam. Therefore, far from being a “hateful ideology”, Islam guided many races and peoples out of backwardness. Islam again has the unique opportunity to lead this world out of the misery created by the cataclysmic failure of capitalism, which can only be achieved once the Khilafah is restored.    



[1] George W Bush, President Bush Delivers Remarks on the War on Terror, accessed via

[2] Matthew S Gordon, The Rise of Islam, Greenwood Press, London, 2005, p-51/2

[3] Ibid, p-55

[4] Muhammad al-Tabari, quoted in Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples, Faber & Faber, London, 2005, p-33

[5] Jonathan Bloom & Sheila Blair, Islam – A thousand years of faith and power, Yale University Press, London, 2002, p-105

[6] Ibid, pp-79/80

[7] Ibid, p-117

[8] Ibid, pp-111/2

[9] Gordon, p-52

[10] Hourani, p-46

[11] Akbar Shah Najeebabadi, The History of Islam, Darussalam Publications, Riyadh, 2001,Vol-II, p-375 (Translated by Abdul Rahman Abdullah & Muhammad Tahir Salafi)

[12] Bloom & Blair, p-130

[13] Ibid, p-120

[14]  Ibid, footnote 5, p-123

[15] Karen Armstrong, Islam – A Short History, Phoenix, London, 2002, p-47

[16] Gaston Wiet, Baghdad: Metropolis of the Abbasid Caliphate, University of Oklahoma Press, 1971, chapter-5, accessed via

[17] Quoted by Bloom & Blair, p-95

[18] Hourani, p-118

[19] Ibid, p-47

[20] Ibid, p-57

[21] Ibid, p-36

[22] Armstrong, p-52

[23] Ibid, p-47