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PATRICK SKENE CATLINGBOOK OF THE DAY : The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization By Jonathan Lyons Bloomsbury 248pp, £20
THE TIMING is apt: now that Barack Obama’s America seeks conciliation rather than confrontation in the Middle East, here is a thoughtful book revealing how Islamic culture helped the West to emerge from the Dark Ages into the Renaissance.
Author Jonathan Lyons is well-qualified for the task. He spent many years as a Reuters foreign correspondent in Islam and is affiliated with the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Monash University in Melbourne. As he describes, it was centuries of Arab scholarship that enabled Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Einstein and their successors to develop mathematics and cosmology. Lyons’s history validates the proposition that science transcends rival national ideologies. In consideration of how Iraq has been devastated in the past few years, it is ironic to reflect that Baghdad was founded 1,246 years ago and soon afterwards became a supreme centre of international intellectual enlightenment.
Caliph Abu Jafar al-Mansur, the founder, built a great library in Baghdad, Lyons relates, “modelled after those of the great Persian kings”. Arab chroniclers later praised his mastery of logic and law and his interest in philosophy and astronomy, and gave him credit for directing translation into Arabic of numerous important works by Greek, Persian and Hindu philosophers and scientists. Data were gathered from across the widespread Islamic empire for development by Baghdad’s men of learning. His library was named The House of Wisdom.
Arabs adopted the efficient Hindu decimal system, with the nine numerals and zero we use today. On the basis of Euclid’s geometry and Ptolemy’s astronomy, the Arabs devised algebra and trigonometry and made astronomical observations of their own. At a time when the Christians of Europe believed the world was flat, found it difficult to fix the date of Easter and could not even tell the time of day, the Arabs, aided by a gadget called the astrolabe, made astronomical and terrestrial measurements to discover that our world is spherical and to calculate its size almost exactly. The astrolabe was also a valuable navigational instrument, determining latitude.
The Arabs made great progress in cartography, chemistry and medicine at a time when the Christian Church was telling adherents that diseases were divine punishments for human sins. Flagellation was one of the atonements for the Black Death.
In every discipline, Arab scholars were assisted by the manufacture of paper, while Europe’s relatively few literates were writing on cumbersome and expensive parchment. Libraries in Islam then contained hundreds of thousands of volumes, when books in Europe were very scarce.
Lyons traces the influences of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas on the Arabs. “Today many tend to see religion as the enemy of scientific progress,” Lyons writes. “Yet early Islam openly encouraged and nurtured intellectual inquiry of all kinds.” Muhammad himself said: “Seek for science, even in China.” In contrast with the Crusaders who rampaged through the Holy Land at the end of the 11th century, there were European scholars, such as Adelard of Bath and Michael Scot, who travelled to Islam and brought back Arabic texts for translation into Latin and beyond. Cultural go-betweens connecting East and West were helped by Muslims in Sicily and Spain to transmit knowledge.
The House of Wisdom is an exciting collection of facts and ideas that stimulate the imagination. There has always been more than oil in the Middle East.
Patrick Skene Catling is an author. His most recent book is the memoir Better Than Working
This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times