My Reading List Grows

As if I didn’t have enough books piling up, now I read about one that sounds particularly awesome:
The House of Wisdom; How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization by Jonathan Lyons.
Here’s the LA Times review, the Guardian UK review, and a review on Juan Cole’s site, Informed Comment, that I somehow managed to miss.

From the Guardian’s review:

The theory of permanent Muslim-Christian enmity, though it flourishes in the caves of Tora Bora and parts of the American academy, was long ago exploded by the historians. In this clear and well-written book, Jonathan Lyons delves into all sorts of musty corners to show how Arabic science percolated into the Latin world in the middle ages and helped civilise a rude society.

With the fall of the Roman empire in the west, Europe lost touch with much of its classical inheritance and was isolated by the Arab invasions from the Byzantine empire where some ancient learning survived. Lyons recounts how early medieval Christendom was unable accurately to measure the time of day for monastic offices, or fix the date of Easter, while dogmatic schemes of scripture and hierarchy left little scope for natural science. Aristotle’s influence was confined to the logic and rhetoric of the schools. Bishop Isidore of Seville promulgated the idea that the Earth was flat.

In contrast, when the Arabs conquered Iraq in the first half of the seventh century AD, they came upon living schools of Hellenistic learning in natural science and medicine, along with Indian mathematics and astronomy that had come by way of Iran. Systematic reasoning, driven out of Muslim jurisprudence in favour of precedents from the Prophet’s life and conduct, found a new field of inquiry in ancient geography and cosmology. After the founding of Baghdad in AD762, the Abbasid caliphs established a library and a team of translators at the Beit al-Hikma, the “House of Wisdom” of Lyons’s title.

He begins with a vivid contrast. In 1109, 10 years after the Crusaders sacked Jerusalem and put Muslims, Jews and eastern Christians to the sword, Adelard of Bath, a well-born scholar, set off for Antioch not to kill Muslims but, as he put it, “to investigate the studies of the Arabs” (studia arabum). As so often in medieval biography, a few “facts” are made to work hard, and some scholars (though not Lyons) doubt Adelard ever mastered Arabic. Nonetheless, he is thought to have taken part in translations from Arabic of Euclid’s geometric system, the elements, and the astronomical tables of al-Khwarizmi, and composed such original works as On the Use of the Astrolabe. For Lyons, Adelard is the “first man of science”. Such was the prestige of Arabic learning in England, according to a startling passage here, that partisans of King Henry II, during the quarrel with Rome over Thomas Becket, threatened the king would convert to Islam.

Actually, just a few years ago nutcases in the US and the UK put forward their case that Prince Charles must have converted to Islam. I will not link to their blogs because I find them objectionable, but a Google search is just like turning over rocks in your backyard after a rain.

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Filed under arab, arabic, arabist

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