The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance

A myth-shattering view of the Islamic world’s myriad scientific innovations and the role they played in sparking the European Renaissance.

Hose of Wisdom

By Jim al-Khalili, who is a leading theoretical nuclear physicist, a trustee of the British Science Association, and a senior advisor to the British Council on science and technology. He has written a number of popular science books, which have been translated into thirteen languages so far.

Many of the innovations that we think of as hallmarks of Western science had their roots in the Arab world of the middle ages, a period when much of Western Christendom lay in intellectual darkness. Jim al- Khalili, a leading British-Iraqi physicist, resurrects this lost chapter of history, and given current East-West tensions, his book could not be timelier. With transporting detail, al-Khalili places readers in the hothouses of the Arabic Enlightenment, shows how they led to Europe’s cultural awakening, and poses the question: Why did the Islamic world enter its own dark age after such a dazzling flowering?

For a review in Guardian UK, please click here

A few reviews from Amazon.com

1.  After reading James Hannam’s new book on the rise of science in Europe during the Middle Ages, The Genesis of Science, I could hardly resist reading Jim al-Khalili’s book on Arabic science during the same period, The House of Wisdom. In it, he makes the case that various scholars under Islamic rule did more than just preserve the wisdom of the ancients, but advanced it to the point that when Western Europe recovered this knowledge, it sparked the Renaissance. Much like Hannam, al-Khalili is partially successful.

In many ways, al-Khalili had a better opportunity to impress me, as I have much less knowledge about Islamic science than I do about the history of Western science. And there is much here to impress. Al-Khalili clearly has an extensive knowledge of his subject and does a fairly good job getting it all out, considering how difficult it was for me to follow the barrage of unfamiliar names. Most interesting is his discussion of various discoveries like al-Khwarizmi’s development of algebra, Ibn Sahl’s discover of “Snell’s” law of refraction, or al-Razi’s work in medicine, to name but a very few. …

2.  This book has many merits: it is written in a breezy, accessible style and contains interesting material, recounting a story that is too little known in the West. He brings out the magnificent achievements of scholars and scientists who flourished in the Islamic world during the European Middle Ages and shows how their work layed much of the groundwork for later scientific progress in Europe.

But this work also has some serious flaws. One is that, instead of letting the achievements of Arabic science speak for themselves, he engages in unnecessary hyperbole. In fact, his presentation of major scientific figures all follow the same pattern: Muslim scientist “x” was the “first to discover” some theorem or scientific fact well before European scientist “y” only to learn a few paragraphs later that, well, he was not “really” the “first,” but he layed the groundwork for the later discovery. This may well be true and, indeed, significant. But why the deceptive hyperbole? …

3. Jim Al-Khalili gives an overview of a lot of the history of Arab science in a casually written book. While The House of Wisdom is neither great prose nor a deeply scholarly publication, the story introduces us to many of the men who inspired Europeans to adopt the word ‘genius’ from Arabic. The legion of Arabic names makes the book seem a little awkward, because they follow the pattern in which John Smithson’s father would be Smith Leeson, rather than another Smithson. Digesting this on every page made me grateful for Jim Al-Khalili’s sometimes too informal style in the prose.

Al-Khalili organizes and clarifies a huge array of scientific accomplishments that have long been taken for granted. The House of Wisdom cleanly accomplishes its goal of showing how much of Renaissance wisdom is due to the reexamination of the ancient Greek and Indian masters by the Muslims. What started as the process of making Arabic a written language became a movement to translate the Great Books. Sectarian challenges to the idea of wisdom from pagans led the Arabs to the scientific method, in which all theories had to be tested against observations of reality. From there, some moved on to advance the frontier of knowledge. Al-Khalili doesn’t mention this, but it means the Europeans got some value from the destruction of the European libraries in the Jihad, followed by translating those same books back with a skeptical eye.

A deeper philosophical question grabs our attention as the book comes to a close. How does an Age of Enlightenment come about, and why does it end? What made Arab science so good, and why didn’t that success continue? What does that mean about other societies in today’s world?

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