The Islamic Classical Period, is self-explanatorily considered to be the golden age of “classical” Islam. What exactly the term “classical” refers to in the context of Islam’s history or the faith itself, is vague in all that the term seeks to encompass. Does the term describe the original, Arabian rendition of Islam before its numerous cross-cultural metamorphoses? Does it concern Islam as a faith and practice before the prophet’s legacy established world-renowned strongholds in Khorasan and the Mahgreb? What is clear, is that Islamdom as it is known today in all its vastness and now-global, spiritual influence, should not have survived as a spiritually unified entity across mountains and seas in the way that it did. The three empires birthed at the dawn of the sixteenth century, Ottoman, Safavid, and Moghul, all distinctly different in cultural practice and spiritual vision, should not have gone on to establish vast Islamic populations that now exist as the main centers of Islamic spirit in the modern day. Surely, the spread of land covered by the four rightly-guided Caliphs within the first hundred years of the holy Prophet Muhammad’s death was both too geographically and demographically dense for any real grassroots change to sprout in lawless and misguided lands. With all this said, every single event mentioned here, did in fact occur – so much so in the sense that it appears with the advent of Islam, came the power of the cosmic anomaly. The overall spiritual survival of Islam across high-risk conquests, the rise and fall of several empires, and the extensive development of differing ideologies can only be attributed to the initial principles and insitutions that grounded it – this is the gift of classical Islam as the growing agent of the faith. If the Prophet Muhammad and his cousin Ali gave the seeds of morality and order to an ideologically vulnerable Arabia to grow a spiritual superpower on Earth, the Islamic Classical Period took those seeds and planted them deeply in the dry, cracked, but spiritually fertile land of Islamdom, and watched them grow thick roots that would go on to span across the globe.
To a clan-ridden and primally divided Arabia, the honest prophet Muhammad gave law, morality, and ethics. Still, the growth of the prophet’s seeds of cosmic assistance did not truly manifest until the advent of the High Caliphal Period (750 C.E.), well over a hundred years after the Prophet’s Night Journey. Restoring a universal code of morality, ethics, and jurisprudence to a lawless land was the primary vision of early Islamdom in the Islamic Classical Period. With the trend of Shi’i esotericism came a hero of Islamic moral institutionalism in Jafar Al-Sadiq (702-765 C.E.); the father of ulama, or the institution of “learned ones” in High Caliphal Period Islam. The new champions of Shi’ite esotericism in Baghdad, the ulama interpreted the Qu’ran and sections from prophetic hadith to spin societal standards for ethics, morality, and law from divine word. With this power, the ulama began to create something of an ethical and philosophical counter-culture against the lavish Umayyad courts that ruled Iraq, instituting religious laws and edicts as standards for societal fairness. The ulama were trained in madrassa, or schools of Islamic study. The concept of checks and balances within Islamic states and the office of the holy qadir, or Islamic judge were direct products of the Ulama and the shift towards maintaining religio-ethical integrity in everyday Islamic life. The Islamic tradition of monetary endowment, or waqf was another such invention, derived from a prophetic hadith that states,
If you like, make the property itself to remain inalienable and give the profit in charity
In regards to waqf, the concept of divine property existing in charitable perpetuity was a profound philosophical invention of the ulama, in honoring the sacredness of intention and the spiritual bond between a man and his property. In this way, a man does not die and lose all that God has given him in his life, rather, his legacy and purity of heart can live on in the form of waqf, and in the cause that the property goes onto assist.
The jurisprudential emphasis on contracts were another monumental addition to the collection of moral, ethical, and judicial worldviews that began to philosophically shape Islamdom. Arguably the most important ethical contribution of the ulama are the five levels of moral judgement that can be assigned to each human action. In Islamic law, they are classified as wajib (obligatory, or what a good Muslim should do if it is within ones power), mandub (recommended, or what a good Muslim should consider doing if it it is within ones power), mubah (actions in which spiritual/cosmic judgement utters no word, irreligious affairs), munkar (actions that are despised), and haram (actions that are strictly forbidden). In the sense of these five levels of morality in human Muslim action, it is just as important, if not more so, for a Muslim to abstain from bloodstained interactions as it is for a Muslim to pray five times a day. A Muslim that prays five times a day but steals, or commits haram, is not considered spiritually clean no matter how devout he may consider himself to be. Ultimately, this is but an example of the philosophical beauty of ulama-instituted order, or the quest of the alim (individual scholar) to derive a universal standard of fairness and common Islamic good for all Muslims.
Arguably the most prevalent invention of the Islamic Classical Period was the cultivation of Islamic denominations. At the roots of this phenomenon, intensive philosophical clashes and concrete designations of Islamic ethical standards from the ulama created institutional differences between the Shi’a and Sunni Muslims. Beyond the question of seniority against the knowledge of religion and political succession after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 C.E., of which both denominations consider to be their fundamental difference, emerged two schools of thought that still define the denominations in different ethical, moral, and jurisprudential ways. The Shi’ite school follows a methodology of modern quranic and prophetic interpretation from tradition while Sunni school follows a guide of the classical Medinese lifestyle at the time of the prophet, as the way that Muslims should live. The relevance of the Islamic Classical Period in this perpetual, religious difference between the two denominations ultimately lies in the advent of Islamic scholarship and the institutional spread of interpretative religious practices during the time.
It would not be entirely adequate or accurate to say that the Islamic Classical Period only “grew” the faith further past the death of the Prophet Muhammad. While it is true Islamdom expanded geographically, the real growth that occurred within this time was internal – a fundamental, existential development in how Muslims thought to see their lives in the new light of the Prophet Muhammad and his legacy. The evolution of Islamic ethics, morality, and jurisprudence through the Ulama is a large example, but one of many that defined Islam at this time as a concept beyond the worship of a new God. In this period, Muslims discovered how to navigate their new lives – a spiritual reimagining of Islamdom, perhaps.
Daniel W. Brown, A New Introduction to Islam, 3rd. Ed. Oxford:Wiley-Blackwell, 2017
Class Notes, Muslim Oral Culture 191, October 2019