Happy Ramadan! Celebrate with a look into the lives of thirty notable figures who shaped the world’s second-largest religion, from the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century to the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in the fifteenth.

In Islamic Civilization in Thirty Lives: The First 1,000 Years, Chase F. Robinson weaves these ambitious lives together to create a rich narrative of Islamic civilization over a millennium while beautiful images throughout vividly depict the pre-modern Muslim world. A few snapshots from the book follow:

Miniature of the Battle of the Camel, which took place at Basra in 656. ‘A’isha is depicted top left riding the camel that gave the battle its name. From the “Siyer-i Nebi,” a Turkish epic about the life of Muhammad, 16th century.

‘A’isha, wife of the Prophet

‘A’isha was a native Meccan, and a daughter of Abu Bakr, one of the earliest converts to Islam. She was also one of the Prophet Muhammad’s wives, the third and his favorite, called the “Mother of the Believers.” Robinson notes that relatively few accounts exist about her, but each say something interesting about gender. One such account involves her leading a force of 1,000 men to oppose ‘Ali, who had come to power as a result of the caliph ‘Uthman’s assassination. She can be seen as an unforgettable heroine who spoke her mind.

Detail of a Persian miniature from al-Biruni’s “Chronologt of Ancient Nations,” copied in 1307, showing Bihafarid, a religious leader from Iran, trying to convince a peasant to join his sect.

Al-Biruni, cataloguer of nature and culture

As Robinson notes, Al-Biruni’s “supranational celebrity-scientist” status is well earned. Not only did he write prolifically, tacking topics in astronomy, applied physics, geography, astrology, and medicine, he was also interested in the humanities, in history, culture, and comparative religion. No other Muslim scholar wrote so widely and authoritatively. His polymathy was staggering, linguistic range extraordinary.

Indian miniature of Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyya, c. 1725.

Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyya, renunciant and saint

Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyya was a Muslim saint. Her ethnic and social background is contested, but according to the earliest surviving biographical details, which were circulated a generation or two after her death, Rabi’a was from a high-status lineage of the Quraysh tribe and never married. “The marriage knot,” she once said, “can only tie one who exists. Where is existence here? I am not my own — I am His and under His command.” Known for her piety, she was only one of several female renunciants who made names for themselves in eighth century Basra.

Islamic Civilization in Thirty Lives: The First 1,000 Years is an illuminating read for anyone interested in learning more about this often-misunderstood civilization. Read our previous post on the Sufi poet Rumi and take a closer peek at some of the images throughout the book.

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