How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilisation


Science & Islam: A History by Ehsan Masood plus The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilisation by Jonathan Lyons


Last November, scientists using the Hubble space telescope reported the first sighting with visible light of a planet circling a star other than our own sun. It orbits 25 light years away around one of the brightest stars in the sky, called Fomalhaut.

Isn’t that a curious name for a star? Not obviously mythological, it sounds as if it derives from some forgotten French astronomer. Not so; it is, in fact, from the Arabic fum u’l haut, meaning “mouth of the fish”. And Fomalhaut is not alone in having an Arabic derivation – there are well over 100 others, including Betelgeuse, Aldebaran and Deneb. How did the Arabs get to name stars?

The answer, as these two revealing books make clear, is that they once led the world in astronomy. Muslim scientists were mapping the heavens, and pondering our place in them, while Europeans were still gazing at the night sky with baffled awe. To judge from some scientific narratives, the baton of knowledge about astronomy passed directly from the Greek Ptolemy in the 2nd century AD to Copernicus in the Renaissance. In fact, just about everything that the western world knew of the celestial sphere in the 16th century had come to it via the Arabs, who translated and refined Ptolemy’s works between the 9th and the 13th centuries. And they didn’t just read Ptolemy; they added to and challenged him, with data gathered at observatories such as the one established in the 820s in Baghdad by the greatest of the “scientific” rulers, al-Mamun of the Abbasid caliphate.

Astronomy is just one example of the enormous debt that the West owes to the achievements of Islamic science during the periods we still insist on calling the Dark and Middle Ages. While Europeans struggled until at least the 12th century with the mere rudiments of mathematics and natural philosophy, the Abbasid caliphs of the 8th to 13th centuries were promoting a rationalistic vision of Islam within which it was a sacred duty to inquire into the workings of the world. This programme was founded on the remnants of Roman and Hellenic culture, to which the Muslims had direct access in centres such as Alexandria. They prepared Arabic versions of the works of Aristotle, Euclid, Ptolemy and Archimedes, and set up schools and libraries such as the House of Wisdom in Baghdad.

As well as preserving classical scholarship, Muslim thinkers also innovated in many fields: astronomy, optics, cartography and medicine. The camera obscura, for instance, a kind of pinhole camera in which an outside scene is projected onto a wall in a darkened chamber as light enters through a small hole, was first studied experimentally by Hassan ibn al-Haitham (Alhazen) in the 11th century. Roger Bacon later used the device to study solar eclipses, and old masters from