Daily Life in the Medieval Islamic World

Muslim pilgrims at Mecca.
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Islamic culture is very much embedded in its own history. With Muslims continually searching for guidance in examples of the Prophet Muhammad's life, a man who lived nearly 1,500 years ago, it is clear that the religion's past is always, in some way, present. The Medieval Period was particularly influential within Islam, because it is when Muhammad experienced his first divine revelation in the year 612, marking the birth of the religion itself. Medieval Muslim communities like Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus held preeminence in the world of science, mathematics and commerce, furthermore. Due to the influence that history has on Islam, daily life of Muslims during this period reveals a great deal about the religion today.

1 Housing

As with any society, medieval Islamic dwellings displayed a wide variety depending on what their inhabitants did for a living and, of course, how much they could afford. Pastoral nomads, for instance, lived in tents made of hair, wool and leather gathered from herds of sheep, goats, or camels. Because most Muslims at the time lived in desert regions, mud proved an invaluable material for building homes, particularly mud huts. Oases that contained enough water to sustain plant life provided people with reeds to build huts, as well. Other types of housing included single-story residences, four- and even five-story apartments, as well as lavish palaces. Medieval Muslim rulers made sure to include the latest luxuries, as accounts tell of stone columns, indoor plumbing, courtyards and fountains. Residential compounds known as qasrs, or castles, were often home to several families and were marked by high walls, stables for livestock, corrals, gardens and store-houses in the form of towers.

2 Warfare

A scimitar, or Arabic sabre.
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From a Western perspective, the primary source of warfare in Medieval Islam was no doubt the Crusades, an extensive military operation in which European Christians attempted to reclaim holy sites, namely Jerusalem. There were, nevertheless, many armed conflicts between warring factions within the Muslim world. Muhammad himself, for instance, led an army against his opponents in the Battle of Badr in 624 and again in the Battle of Uhud a year later. Extensive raids were carried out during this time as a way to collect supplies, and women were often present at battlefields to increase morale by "beating tambourines and drums to incite their men to battle," according to the book "Daily Life in the Medieval Islamic World," by James E. Lindsay. Soldiers of this time employed an array of equipment that included naft (liquid fire used during sieges), knives, scimitars, iron maces, bows, arrows, crossbows, helmets, spears, coats of mail, warhorses and especially the lance, which was usually favored above all.

3 Commerce

Most trade at this time was conducted using camels.
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Islam was founded in Saudi Arabia, located between the Mediterranean, India, Africa and Mesopotamia (present day Iraq.) This key position led to a variety of occupations including farming, skilled artisanship, herding and trade. Merchants were an integral part of commerce, forming huge caravans of camels to carry goods across vast distances. The Prophet Muhammad himself began as a merchant, a position that led to him to his wife, Khadija. The government was in charge of minting coins while market inspectors kept market activity, like weights, payments, etc., honest and legal. Goods traded on the open market could include anything from foodstuffs to medicine, textiles, livestock, paper goods and even slaves.

4 Schooling

Being that the Qur'an, Islam's sacred text, is considered God's speech, it played a central role in education during the medieval period. It was not enough, however, to simply read the text; rather, students at this time were required to memorize the entire book. Beginning at the age of 6, children began committing the 114 chapters to memory while learning Arabic grammar since it was considered the only way to understand God. Students also received lessons on morality and conduct, with teachers often employing corporal punishment when their pupils were "ill-mannered, use[d] bad language, and [did] other things against Islamic law," according to "The Book of the Islamic Market Inspector." Curriculum did not solely focus on religion, nonetheless, with students learning a great deal of disciplines which included Ancient Greek, Persian, Sanskrit, philosophy, theology, medicine, mathematics, astrology and many more.

  • 1 Lindsay, James E. (2005.) "Daily Life in the Medieval Islamic World." London: Greenwood Press.
  • 2 "The Book of the Islamic Market Inspector" Trans. RP Buckley. (2000.) New York: Oxford University Press USA
  • 3 Hillenbrand, Carole. (1999.) "The Crusades." New York: Routeledge.

Jose Maldonado teaches literature at several colleges. He has contributed to various online publications and holds a master's degree in creative writing.