Investigative Question

What were the multiple ways people of different cultures interacted at the sites of encounter, such as Baghdad?

The teacher introduces the new capital of Baghdad as the next site of encounter, with the question: What were the multiple ways people of different cultures interacted at sites of encounter, such as Baghdad? The teacher asks students to think about what they have just studied about the spread of the Muslim Empire as one way people of different cultures interact. That is, Arabs, who were nomadic tribesmen from Arabia, converted to a new religion, and inspired by that religion, fought wars against other cultures. One type of cultural interaction is war. After the conquest, people of other cultures had to live under Umayyad Muslim rule and pay special taxes if they belonged to another religion.

This type of cultural interaction is called coexistence in communities. Another type is adoption and adaptation. Some of these conquered people adopted the new religion for various reasons, such as religious conversion, access to political power, and socio-economic advantages. As they converted, they changed their names, their social identity, and associated with Muslims in their area, rather than with their home group of Jews, Christians, or others. Over time, they adopted more of Arab culture as well. However, as they adopted the Muslim religion and Arab culture, they also adapted religious and cultural practices to accommodate local customs. For example, the custom of secluding elite women inside a special part of the house and only allowing them to go out when their hair and most of their bodies were covered predates the religion of Islam. It was actually a Persian and Mediterranean (and ancient Athenian) custom. Before Islam, Arabian women were not confined to the household. The Persians and Mediterranean people who converted to Islam adapted social practices to include their custom. This is just one example of the cultural adaptation process.

Under the Abbasids, Baghdad grew from an insignificant village to one of the leading cities of the world. The city’s culture was a mix of Arab, Persian, Indian, Turkish, and other South Asian and Central Asian cultures. The Abbasids encouraged the growth of learning and borrowing from Greek, Hellenistic, and Indian science and medicine. They built schools and libraries, translated and preserved Greek philosophic, scientific, and medical texts, and supported scientists who expanded that knowledge.

In Baghdad and other Muslim-ruled cities, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish scholars collaborated to study ancient Greek, Persian, and Indian writings, forging and widely disseminating a more advanced synthesis of philosophical, scientific, mathematical, geographic, artistic, medical, and literary knowledge. To investigate the question What did the interaction of Arab, Persian, Greek, Hellenistic, and Indian ideas and technologies at Baghdad (and the Abbasid Caliphate) produce? , students analyze visuals of libraries, schools, and scientific drawings from Muslim manuscripts, the circulation of “Arabic” numerals, and words of Arabic origin (such as algebra, candy, mattress, rice). The teacher sets up a gallery walk and provides student groups with a source analysis template. The template asks students to record source information, describe the contents of the visual, and cite evidence from the visual that answers the lesson question. Students share some of their observations and answers to the whole class, as the teacher lists the products on the board. Then the teacher guides students through developing a one-sentence interpretation that answers the question. The students then return to their groups to discuss the evidence they have gathered. The teacher stresses that they should choose the best two pieces of evidence from their gallery walk. The group chooses two pieces of evidence and each group member completes an evidence analysis chart (with columns for evidence, meaning, significance, and source). The teacher displays several group charts on the document projector, clears up any misconceptions, and showcases examples of good evidence choices, analyses, and citations.

The founder of the Abbasid dynasty, Mansur, created the city of Baghdad as the capital city for his new dynasty. Previously a farming village, it is located along the Tigris River in the heartland of ancient Mesopotamia and only 20 miles from one of the Persian capitals at Ctesiphon. Because the Umayyad caliphs had emphasized Arab culture, Mansur wanted to make a point about the multiethnic focus of his dynasty. In premodern empires, emphasizing diversity — in the sense of many different peoples — showed that the ruler’s power was truly universal. Mansur’s choice of Baghdad also made sense economically. It was in the center of Mesopotamia, which was a very rich agricultural region. It was also on one of the two major trade routes from the Silk Road and the Indian Ocean in the east to the Mediterranean lands in the west. Under the Abbasids, “Arab” or “Muslim” merchants (both are umbrella terms for merchants who lived in the Muslim world) became the middlemen of trade between east and west (Sources 1 and 2). The height of the Abbasid Caliphate’s rule was at the same time as the Tang dynasty in China. Both empires were very interested in trade, which greatly increased the number of exchanges overland. To answer the investigative question, this source set focuses on three types of interaction that took place in Baghdad and the larger Abbasid Empire: exchanges of products and people; exchange, translation, and spread of religious, mathematical, and scientific ideas; and new products and ideas created because of the synthesis of cultures. Like Rome, Baghdad was the capital of a multicultural and multireligious empire. People and products flowed into the city from all parts of the empire and beyond and then flowed out again to influence culture throughout the empire. While the religious/political leadership in the Umayyad dynasty was exclusively Arab, the Abbasids opened up access to power to any Muslim. The Abbasid leadership was Arab, Persian and increasingly Turkish. Under the Abbasids, there was a large infusion and integration of Persian culture into the Arab-dominated culture of Islam (Source 3). The Abbasid Caliphate was also home to a variety of religions (Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians), who in practice were treated like “people of the book. ” Although many converted to Islam, religious communities coexisted (Source 4). Another type of interaction was the collection and translation of mathematical, scientific and medical texts from Greek, Persian, and Sanskrit into Arabic. The caliphs played a significant role in this movement by supporting scholars financially, establishing libraries and academies such as the House of Wisdom in Baghdad and paying for translation and publication of works. The translated texts included Euclid’s text on geometry, medical books from Hellenistic Anatolia, and explanations of The Hindu Art of Reckoning (Sources 5 – 7. ) Abbasid policies — such as rewarding non-Arab converts, supporting merchants with laws and infrastructure, and sponsoring scholars, schools, libraries, circulation of books and ideas, translations, and research — helped create a vibrant culture and booming economy. The constant encounters between people of different ethnic and religious groups spread the ideas and technologies of the Arab, Persian, Greek/Hellenistic, Roman, and Indian cultures throughout the Abbasid lands. When Abbasid scholars had access to all of that knowledge, they extended it in areas they and the patrons prioritized: water management, astronomy, medicine, math, and other sciences. The knowledge and ideas that they preserved from ancient cultures and created in the cultural synthesis of the Abbasid Caliphate immeasurably contributed to future cultures. The translated texts also exemplify the synthesis that occurs at sites of encounter. The interaction of people, ideas, and products stimulates people to create new ideas and products. Because the texts were translated into new languages, written on new media (paper), they are in some sense new, and therefore examples of synthesis. However, an even better example of synthesis comes from new ideas, such as the concepts of algebra that al-Khwarizmi and other Abbasid mathematicians developed after they digested the translated texts. The remaining sources give students evidence of new, synthetic products, technologies, and ideas produced in the Abbasid caliphate. Abbasid authors combined Arabian, Persian, and Indian stories, rewrote them to fit the context of Islamic culture, and created the earliest versions of the collection of stories called The Arabian Nights (Source 8). The bowl and fabrics (Sources 9 – 11) provide some of the earliest evidence of the spread of silk production technologies from China and cotton weaving from India — not just the importing of the popular products but also the establishment of silk and cotton manufacturing in Persia, Syria, and Egypt. This evidence shows that China’s monopoly on silk making ended in this era. It also shows how the Abbasid craftspeople changed Chinese and Indian styles to suit their own culture and market.
7.3 Literacy Strategy for Folios from a Quran Manuscript (Source 3) California English Language Development Standards for Grade 7 Part 1, B. Interpretative 6. Read closely literary and information texts and view multimedia to determine how meaning is conveyed explicitly and implicitly through language. 8. Analyze how writers and speakers use vocabulary and other language resources for specific purposes (to explain, persuade, entertain, etc. ) depending on modality, text type, purpose, audience, topic and content area. Part II. A. Structuring Cohesive Texts 1. Understand text structure. Teacher Background: This excerpt from the Quran has some difficult vocabulary, but its most significant linguistic challenges for students relate to its structure as a sacred religious text and its complicated references and allusions (rather than narrative) to the story of Noah’s Ark. Religious texts often include sentences whose meaning is complex, abstract, and unclear, and sometimes they combine stories of events with spiritual ideas, such as conversations between God and man. Students need background information about the structure of the Quran to figure out who is speaking at different points in this text. The Quran did not have to recount the entire story of Noah’s Ark, since that story was (and remains) already well known to Muslims. The sentence deconstruction chart and the allusions activity will help students connect different points in the text with the story of Noah’s Ark. Directions
  1. Explain to students the historical context of this text. Tell them that the Quran is the most sacred religious text of the religion of Islam. Muslims believe that God spoke the exact words of the Quran into the mind of his prophet, Mohammed, a man who lived in Mecca, Arabia, in the early seventh century. The words came out of Mohammed’s mouth while he was in a trance, and people wrote them down. Therefore, the “we” in the Quran means God. The Quran is divided into chapters, called surahs, and the surahs are divided into verses. The round symbols with the brown loops and the green dot in the center mark the end of each verse. The Arabic page begins in the middle of one verse and ends in the middle of another verse. For that reason, the rest of those two verses is provided in brackets in the translation.
  2. Divide students into pairs and distribute Student Handout 7.3. Read aloud the summary of the Noah’s Ark story. Ask students where they have seen or heard this story before. Remind them that the story appears also in the Hebrew Torah and the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. Muslims believe in the same God as Jews and Christians and respect Jewish and Christian figures such as Noah, Moses, Abraham, and Elijah as prophets sent by God. Those prophets often appear in the Quran.
  3. In the first verse of the primary source text, have students circle the three pronouns — them, our, and he — and find the noun that each pronoun refers to. Have them draw lines connecting the pronouns and their noun antecedents. Do this first sentence with them as a model. Then have each pair circle the pronouns through the rest of the primary source text and draw lines connecting them to the corresponding noun antecedents.
  4. Have each pair complete the first four columns of the sentence deconstruction chart under the primary source text. Then have them use that information to discuss the questions in the final fifth column.
  5. As a whole class, go over each completed chart to make sure students understand how the parts of the text function and give meaning.
  6. Have the pairs decide which sentences in the summary of the Noah’s Ark story match each of the verses from the Quran excerpt. They should write the number of the verse in the margin next to the matching sentence in the summary.
  7. Have the pairs discuss the questions below the sentence deconstruction chart. Guide them to think through how common stories, religious figures, and beliefs among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam would affect the ways that Muslims, Jews, and Christians interacted at Baghdad. Direct them to the historical context about this copy of the Quran, which was actually made in Isfahan, Persia, two centuries after the first Qurans were copied and read. What does this source tell us about how the religion of Islam spread?
Handouts 7.3 Interactions in Baghdad and the Abbasid Caliphate Student Handout 7.3 Interactions in Baghdad and the Abbasid Caliphate Teacher Key
  • The Library of Congress. The Library of Congress’ Primary Source Analysis Tool supports an inquiry model of instruction by asking students to first observe, then reflect, then question. Their customizable tool includes specific prompts for student interrogation of books and other printed materials, maps, oral recordings, photographs and paintings, and many other types of primary sources.
  • The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). NARA has developed a vast collection of document analysis worksheets, ready for classroom use. Their website offers teachers a wide collection of customizable tools – appropriate for working with photographs, maps, written documents, and more. NARA has also customized their tools to meet the needs of young learners, and intermediate or secondary students.
This set should not provoke sensitive issues in general, but the secondary context and literacy activity for one source — from the Quran — could pose difficulties because of the identification of God and the connections among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The point of using that source is to emphasize that Muslims worship the same God as Jews and Christians, and that Noah and other Jewish and Christian figures appear in the Quran and are respected by Muslims. These concepts may be offensive to some. We recommend that before teaching about any religion — even those that no longer have any believers — the teacher explain to students that studying religion in history class is different from studying religion in a church, synagogue, mosque, or temple. Learning about religion in history should not affect students’ beliefs or anything about their spiritual lives. Historians do not ask whether a certain religion, belief, or ritual is right or wrong, true or false. Historians just want to understand how people at a certain time in history understood, believed in, and practiced their religion. Historians try to be objective, to not judge, and to understand that their personal religious, spiritual beliefs are not at all involved in studying religion as a historical topic. The two are separate. Of course, no one can do this perfectly, but students should try not to judge, but to think about how people thought at the time in history they are studying. Students should always be respectful of all religious beliefs and practices while they are in history class (and outside. ) Although this set does not concern modern Islam directly, students often ask questions about modern practices. Students may see their peers wearing the hijab and/or fasting during the daylight hours of Ramadan, and they may view these practices as cruelties imposed by parents. It helps to explain that both practices have religious significance for Muslims. Girls are not obligated to wear a hijab before puberty, but some want to do so while they are younger. Wearing a hijab is a sign of being grown up as well as being a devout Muslim. Fasting during the daylight hours of Ramadan is an obligation for adult Muslims, but not for children. However, some children choose to fast to show their maturity and faith. Some parents impose these practices on their children before they are adults, but many do not. It might be useful to point out that fasting is important in many religions, and many Christians and Jews emphasize that women should wear modest clothing.