Between the appointment of Abū Bakr in 632 to the death of the fourth caliph, Alī, in 661, Islam spread until half of the known world was under Muslim rule. Then in 750, after a century of consolidation, the start of the Abbasid caliphate (or dynasty) heralded the golden age of Islamic civilization. The arts and sciences flourished in equal measure. Islamic craftsmen bequeathed us magnificent paintings, ornate carvings, and the most elaborate textiles in history, while the legacy of Islamic scientists is evident from the number of Arabic words that pepper the lexicon of modern science such as algebra, alkaline and zenith.
The richness of Islamic culture was to a large part the result of a wealthy and peaceful society. The Abbasid caliphs were less interested than their predecessors in conquest, and instead concentrated on establishing an organized and affluent society. Lower taxes encouraged businesses to grow and gave rise to greater commerce and industry, while strict laws reduced corruption and protected the citizens. All of this relied on an effective system of administration, and in turn the administrators relied on secure communication achieved through the use of encryption.
As well as encrypting sensitive affairs of state, it is documented that officials protected tax records, demonstrating a widespread and routine use of cryptography. Further evidence comes from many administrative manuals, such as the tenth-century Adab al-Kuttāb (“ The Secretaries’ Manual”), which include sections devoted to cryptography. The administrators usually employed a cipher alphabet which was simply a rearrangement of the plain alphabet, as described earlier, but they also used cipher alphabets that contained other types of symbols. For example, a in the plain alphabet might be replaced by # in the cipher alphabet , b might be replaced by +, and so on.
The monoalphabetic substitution cipher is the general name given to any substitution cipher in which the cipher alphabet consists of either letters or symbols, or a mix of both. All the substitution ciphers that we have met so far come within this general category. Had the Arabs merely been familiar with the use of the monoalphabetic substitution cipher, they would not warrant a significant mention in any history of cryptography. However, in addition to employing ciphers, the Arab scholars were also capable of destroying ciphers. They in fact invented cryptanalysis, the science of unscrambling a message without knowledge of the key. While the cryptographer develops new methods of secret writing, it is the cryptanalyst who struggles to find weaknesses in these methods in order to break into secret messages . Arabian cryptanalysts succeeded in finding a method for breaking the monoalphabetic substitution cipher, a cipher that had remained invulnerable for several centuries. Cryptanalysis could not be invented until a civilization had reached a sufficiently sophisticated level of scholarship in several disciplines, including mathematics, statistics and linguistics. The Muslim civilization provided an ideal cradle for cryptanalysis, because Islam demands justice in all spheres of human activity, and achieving this requires knowledge, or “ilm”.
Every Muslim is obliged to pursue knowledge in all its forms, and the economic success of the Abbasid caliphate meant that scholars had the time, money and materials required to fulfill their duty. They endeavored to acquire the knowledge of previous civilizations by obtaining Egyptian, Babylonian, Indian, Chinese, Farsi, Syriac, Armenian, Hebrew and Roman texts and translating them into Arabic. In 815, the Caliph al-Ma’mūn established in Baghdad the Bait al-Hikmah (“ House of Wisdom”), a library and center for translation. At the same time as acquiring knowledge, the Islamic civilization was able to disperse it, because it had procured the art of papermaking from the Chinese. The manufacture of paper gave rise to the profession of warraqīn, or “those who handle paper,” human photocopying machines who copied manuscripts and supplied the burgeoning publishing industry. At its peak, tens of thousands of books were published every year, and in just one suburb of Baghdad there were over a hundred bookshops. As well as such classics as Tales from the Thousand and One Nights, these bookshops also sold textbooks on every imaginable subject, and helped to support the most literate and learned society in the world.