Simanaitis Says

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HAVING ONCE MET Sir John Bagot Glubb, aka Glubb Pasha, I now and again enjoy perusing his authoritative and most readable account of the founder of Islam. 

The Life and Times of Muhammad, by Sir John Bagot Glubb, Scarborough House, 1970.

The Los Angeles Times calls Glubb’s book the “best popular life of the Prophet of Islam available in the English language. An extraordinary accomplishment.” I find it useful in putting Islam in perspective as one of the today’s great religions (more or less chronologically, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam).

Coincidentally, The New York Times Style Magazine, November 13, 2022, is devoted to “The Worlds That Were: Searching for echoes of lost cultures—in Spain, Singapore and Tajikistan.”

Here in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow are tidbits gleaned from both fascinating sources, together with some Internet sleuthing.

Muhammud ibn Abdullad, c. 570–632. Arab religious, social, and political leader; founder of Islam. Islamic practice precludes iconography.

This image reads “Muhammud, The Messenger of God,” inscribed on the gates of the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. Notable dates in the life of Muhammud: Commencement of Preaching 613. Migration to Medina 622. Pilgrimage to Mecca 629. Return to Medina 630. Pilgrimage and Death 632. 

The Arab Empire at its Greatest. We tend to clump Islamic origin with those of today’s other great religions. However, as Glubb notes, “The Arab Empire reached its greatest territorial extend in 732, exactly one hundred years after the death of the Messenger of God.” That is, Muhammad ibn Abdullah lived from c. 570 to 632, roughly the beginning of Europe’s Middle Ages. 

“By 712,” Glubb says, “the Arabs had reached the frontier of China north of Tibet, and occupied what is now West Pakistan. They reached their maximum expansion to the West in 732, when they were defeated at Tours, in Central France, only 250 miles from Dover.”

Image from The Life and Times of Muhammad.

Muslim Wealth, European Dark Ages. Glubb writes, “Baghdad was the wealthiest and the most luxurious city in the world. This was the period when Europe had relapsed [after Roman times] into a state of semi-barbarism, and which is contemptuously dismissed in two or three paragraphs in our history books as The Dark Ages. They were dark only for Europe but, in the Muslim world, they were brilliantly illuminated.”

Learning from the Ancients. Glubb continues, “Arab civilization was, of course, built on the ancient cultures of Greece, Rome and Persia… Arabic textbooks on medicine and ophthalmology were standard works in European universities until the sixteenth century. Arab astronomers measured the circumference of the earth with surprising accuracy, eight hundred years before Europe recognized that the world was not flat.” 

Mathematical Achievements. Glubb observes, “Their most outstanding contribution to human knowledge, however, was in the field of mathematics. It was they who introduced to the Western world the use of zero and with it our modern system of writing numbers in tens, hundred, thousands and so on….. The clumsy Roman system of writing numerals had, until then, been a bar to progress in mathematics.”

Contrasts. “All this learning,” Glubb says, “was widely diffused among the people in the Muslim countries. For example, in Baghdad in the ninth century there were hundreds of bookshops…. At a time when even peasants and farmers could read in Muslim Spain, kings, princes and dukes in Christian Europe were mostly illiterate.” 

“At a time when European rulers kept their financial reserves in the form of sacks of coins,” Glubb says, “the Arabs had a well developed banking system. Their business men could cash cheques in Canton on their bank accounts in Baghdad.”

Glubb Pasha in Amman in 1940. Image from the Matson (G. Eric and Edith) Photograph Collection, U.S. Library of Congress.

Tomorrow in Part 2, The New York Times Style Magazine has a modern say on matters. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2022


  1. Tom Phillips
    November 16, 2022

    Eratosthenes measured the circumference of the earth 300 years BC.

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