Friday, March 27, 2009

“The House of Wisdom” by Jonathan Lyons: A Brief Review by Fjordman

The Fjordman Report

The noted blogger Fjordman is filing this report via Gates of Vienna.
For a complete Fjordman blogography, see The Fjordman Files. There is also a multi-index listing here.

Stephen O’Shea of The Los Angeles Times has reviewed the book The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization by Jonathan Lyons. I will publish a longer and more thorough rebuttal of this book at some point in April, either at Jihad Watch or at Atlas Shrugs. I will publish a review of John Freely’s related book Aladdin’s Lamp: How Greek Science Came to Europe Through the Islamic World next week at The Brussels Journal.

I have read both of them, and Freely’s book is the best of the two, or the least bad, since he at a minimum has some understanding of the history of science, which Mr. Lyons in my view does not. That doesn’t mean that I would recommend buying his book; there are better and more balanced titles available on the market. Stephen O’Shea in his very positive review claims that “Dust will never gather on Jonathan Lyons’ lively new book of medieval history.” I strongly disagree. I consider The House of Wisdom to be a bad case of poor scholarship.

Lyons’ book is 200 pages long, Freely’s Aladdin’s Lamp 255 pages. Neither of them mentions the terms ‘Jihad’ or ‘dhimmi’ even once in their books about Islamic culture. This says a great deal about the current intellectual climate. I didn’t notice these words while reading the books and they are not listed in the indexes. The authors certainly don’t devote much time to debating the violent aspects of Islamic expansionism through the Islamically unique institution of Jihad, or the fates of the conquered peoples. Is it a coincidence that whatever useful work that was done in the Islamic world happened during the first centuries of the Islamic era, while there were still large numbers of non-Muslims living in the region? We don’t know because the question is never debated by these authors, but it deserves to be.

While we should give credit to scholars in the medieval Islamic world when they made real contributions, we should not forget the huge debt they owed to earlier cultures, to the Indians and the Chinese, the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians and above all to the ancient Greeks. Mr. Lyons talks extensively about the astrolabe, yet he does not mention the name of the man who is by many considered the likely inventor of that instrument, or at least a strong contributor to its development, namely the ancient Greek astronomer and mathematician Hipparchus from the second century BC. He was the greatest of all Greek astronomers next to Ptolemy, and even Ptolemy, whose astronomy ruled Europe until the sixteenth century and the Middle East even longer, owed much to him. Hipparchus is simply too important to ignore.
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What’s worse is that Lyons doesn’t even mention Ibn al-Haytham, or Alhazen. I searched in vain for his name, which is not listed in the index. It is embarrassing for a book written specifically to criticize Westerners for their lack of appreciation of ‘Islamic science’ to completely fail to mention arguably the greatest scientist ever born in the Islamic world with a single word. It’s like writing a history of European science without mentioning Newton or Galileo. By saying that I do not mean to imply that Alhazen was of the same stature as Newton or Galileo. He was not. No scientist of that stature has ever been born in the Islamic world. But Alhazen was a competent scholar who did have a significant influence in optics.

Another omission, though not as bad as Alhazen, is Ulugh Beg, who was one of the best observational astronomers in the medieval Islamic world. He, too, is totally ignored. I find it a bit odd that I, being a notorious Islamophobe and thus one of the persons Mr. Lyons keeps warning against, have to lecture him on which Muslims scholars deserve to be mentioned.

On page four of his book, Jonathan Lyons writes the following:

The arrival of Arab science and philosophy, the legacy of the pioneering Adelard and of those who hurried to follow his example, transmuted the backward West into a scientific and technological superpower. Like the elusive ‘elixir’ — from the alchemists’ al-iksir — for changing base metal into gold, Arab science altered medieval Christendom beyond recognition. For the first time in centuries, Europe’s eyes opened to the world around it. This encounter with Arab science even restored the art of telling time, lost to the western Christians of the early Middle Ages. Without accurate control over clock and calendar, the rational organization of society was unthinkable. And so was the development of science, technology, and industry, as well as the liberation of man from the thrall of nature. Arab science and philosophy helped rescue the Christian world from ignorance and made possible the very idea of the West. Yet how many among us today stop to acknowledge our enormous debt to the Arabs, let alone endeavor to repay it?

This isn’t serious scholarship; it is myth-making. Muslims clearly owe vastly more of science and technology to Westerners than we owe to them. Perhaps it’s time they start repaying their debt to us, not vice versa. I’m not suggesting that there was no good scholarly work done in the Islamic world. There are a few Muslim scholars from the medieval period whom I respect. Their contributions should not be ignored, but nor should they be inflated beyond all proportions, as Lyons does. If the Western scientific and technological contribution to the world is the size of an elephant then the Muslim one is the size of a squirrel, or a Chihuahua at best. There’s no shame in that. I like squirrels, but I would never confuse one with an elephant.

I will conclude by recommending some serious books which people can read instead of The House of Wisdom or Aladdin’s Lamp. About Islam I recommend essentially everything written by Robert Spencer. Bat Ye’or’s books are groundbreaking and important, though admittedly not always easy to read. The Legacy of Jihad by Andrew Bostom should be considered required reading for all those interested in Islam. It is the best and most complete book available on the subject in English, and possibly in any language. Ibn Warraq’s books are excellent, starting with his Defending the West . Understanding Muhammad by the Iranian ex-Muslim Ali Sina is also worth reading, as is Defeating Jihad by Serge Trifkovic.

If you are looking for books about the history of science, I recommend everything written by Edward Grant. The Beginnings of Western Science by David C. Lindberg is very good, though slightly more politically correct than Grant when it comes to science in the Islamic world. The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West by Toby E. Huff is excellent and highly recommended. These books are easy to read for an educated, mainstream audience.

For books that are excellent, yet more specialized and slightly more difficult, I can recommend Victor J. Katz for the history of mathematics and The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy by James Evans for the history of pre-telescopic astronomy up to and including Kepler. Evans’ book is extremely well researched and detailed, almost too much so on European and Middle Eastern astronomy, but contains virtually nothing on Chinese or Mayan astronomy. For a more global perspective, Cosmos: An Illustrated History of Astronomy and Cosmology by John North is good and not too difficult to read.


xoggoth said...

They claim everything. Was reading some "proofs" of the truth of the Qu'ran recently where divine guidance was demonstrated by the fact that it contained things that science has only much more recently discovered, eg:

That the Earth is round (a theory advanced by Pythagorus in 3rd century BC)

That the universe separated from a single mass. (Believed by the ancient Egyptians 4000 years before)

The medicinal properties of honey. (also known to the ancient Greeks)

The important role water plays in life (apart from being bleeding obvious, part of various belief systems including that of American Indians)

Fjordman said...

As I wrote, the book Aladdin's Lamp is significantly better, but still not good enough. Author John Freely doesn't explain why Europeans did so much more with the same Greek material than Muslims did, and he says virtually nothing about how Muslims have for 1400 years wiped out Greek-speaking communities across the Eastern Mediterranean, a process which has continued on Cyprus until the twenty-first century. If we are going to talk about how much Muslims have "preserved," shouldn't we also talk about how much they have destroyed, in Europe, Asia and Africa? How are the few Christian communities still left in Anatolia, now called "Turkey," treated, and what happened to what was once a Greek-speaking region? What happened to the Greek-speaking community in Alexandria, Egypt?

It is true that Muslims translated many Greek scientific works, which provided the basis for much of the scholarly activity that they did have. But these works were based on Byzantine originals and were not "lost" in the first place. Moreover, the author largely fails to explain why there was no Copernicus in the Middle East, and no Kepler. After all, Europe and the Islamic world had essentially the same, Ptolemaic Greek starting point during the Renaissance. Through the work of Copernicus, Tycho Brahe and Kepler, European scholars had broken free of Ptolemaic astronomy even before the telescope had been invented. Why was there no similar breakthrough in the Middle East? Toby Huff is the man to ask about this, or Grant. Frankly, Western astronomy and mathematics owes much more to the pre-Islamic Middle East, especially to Babylonian planetary astronomy, than we owe to the Islamic Middle East.

He calls al-Azhar an Islamic university, which it was not. The modern university is a European invention. He says virtually nothing about the 1400 years of continuous warfare against the non-Muslim communities on several continents, of which Greek-speaking communities were often at the front lines. The word “Jihad” is not listed at all in the index of his book; neither is the word “dhimmi.” As far as I can see, it is not mentioned once in a book of several hundred pages specifically dealing with Islamic history.

The first chapters about the Greek scientific legacy are not too bad. I disagree with a few details here and there, as well as with the relative emphasis on various scholars, but all in all this section is worth reading. The problem is that you can get this information from other books which do not suffer from the same shortcomings. He correctly indicates that some of the key translators of scientific works such as Hunayn ibn Ishaq and Thabit ibn Qurra were non-Muslims, and he includes a chapter on the translation movement from Byzantium to Italy and Western Europe. These are redeeming qualities, but the overall balance is dishonest, as he fails to explain why "Islamic science" declined and how the pre-Islamic cultures and non-Islamic communities of the region shrank. Their shrinking overlapped to a significant degree with the decline of “Islamic science.” Is there a connection between the two? Why are the last remaining Christians in Turkey under siege now?

ChrisLA said...

Excellent review. Perhaps Fjordman, or someone else who has read the book, could post a review of "The House of Wisdom" on Their reader reviews have become an invaluable tool in discerning the good books from the mediocre ones.

Regarding the Arab world's squirrel-sized contribution to Twenty-first Century scholarship, it was interesting to read in former King Saud University Professor Sami Alrabaa's book, "Karin in Saudi Arabia," that the aspiring Saudi lecturers have their scholarly papers ghost-written by Egyptians, or they translate parts of foreign-language textbooks into Arabic and claim authorship. I hope these purloined acorns aren't counted as Arab contributions to science and culture.

Robert L. said...

Fjordman- I'm wondering if you're familiar with the work of Stanley Jaki? Hungarian-born physicist and priest (with PhD's in both theology and physics), he's an historian of science. One of the things for which he is reviled by the "politically correct" is his perennial assertion- it's practically a theme throughout all of his books- that all cultures that preceded and were outside of Christianity were only capable (at best) of giving "still births" to science. The self-perpetuating nature of science- i.e., as a continuous, evolving, cumulative enterprise over the course of generations- is something that occurred only in Christian civilization (for complicated reasons having ultimately to do with the belief in the reality of matter, and that this is somehow linked to "Truth becoming incarnate," i.e., Christ. I know, sounds terribly hair-brained by giving such a quick description, but one has to read Jaki to grasp the point).

Fjordman said...

ChrisLA: If somebody wants to publish this review at Amazon or other venues they have my blessing to do so. I would even encourage them to do so, so that people are not fooled to buy this bad book.

Fjordman said...

Robert L.: Yes, I am familiar with Jaki. His views are related to those of Rodney Stark. I'm not sure I always agree with him, but then I am not a religious man.

The world view of senior Western scientists during the early modern era could be described as “God meets geometry,” the idea that the universe could be described mathematically and rationally. Muslims shared the concept of a universe created by a single God, but their particular version of God wasn’t helpful in this regard. The Koran is deeply inconsistent. The notion that Allah is incomprehensible and provides no correlation between cause and effect had a serious impact on the development of empirical sciences in the Islamic world. In contrast, for Jews and Christians, God has created the universe according to a certain logic, which can be described and predicted. Kepler firmly believed the solar system was created according to God’s plan, which he attempted to unlock. Sir Isaac Newton was passionately interested in religion and wrote extensively about it. Even Albert Einstein, who was certainly not an orthodox, religious Jew, still retained some residue of the idea that the universe was created according to a logic which is, to a certain extent, comprehensible and accessible to human reason: “I believe in Spinoza’s God, Who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God Who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.”

As I've mentioned before, I would claim that out of all the scholarly disciplines I have read about, the European global leadership position was strongest in mathematics. Before the Italian Renaissance we assimilated some outside influences via the Middle East, prominent among them the Hindu numeral system as well as some advancements in algebra made by Muslim scholars. However, after that, from about the fourteenth to the twentieth century, Europe outperformed all other civilizations in mathematics. By that I don't just mean that Europeans outperformed all other civilizations individually, but combined.

The same was true of the sciences. The ancient Greeks made great advances in science and in mathematics. The Romans after them contributed virtually nothing to science and virtually nothing to mathematics. The correlation between mathematics and science is obviously quite strong. The question is why.

I admit this is the most challenging dilemma for those of us who are not religious: Why can nature be described mathematically and rationally, if it has not been created by a rational Creator? If the language of nature is written in mathematics, as Galileo famously said, do we decipher that language when we develop mathematics, or do we invent it? The question has huge philosophical and religious implications.

Robert L. said...

Indeed, it is a challenging dilemma- like you, I'm not a religious believer (I've simply found Jaki to be an incredibly fascinating writer). The way I've tried to think about these things- i.e., how can the world be rational be described in mathematics if it is not the product of a god of ultimate creativity- has been to understand that metaphysics is not primary, indeed that metaphysics does not precede things like, say, politics (in the comprehensive sense of the term of politics. Politics = what the individual holds to be right/just, or the right course of action).

Harry Jaffa (I hope no one shrieks at my mentioning his name) actually gets at this very point, in his subtle/prudent way, in his dispute with the Intelligent Design people: "Who Owns the Copyright to the Universe?" which you can read here. Intelligent design does not automatically imply an intelligent designer.

Profitsbeard said...

Islam paralyzed itself mentally with their medieval decree that Allah is irrationlistic and unpredictable and that the scientific method is thus arrogating Allah's position as the sole "creator" and "orderer".

Why Islam failed to take advantage of the science they stole is the true unspoken subtext in all of these egregregiously-selective-in-their-evidence paens to Mohammedan "advancement" over the "Dark Age"-stultified West.

The West lost far more to the depredations of Islam (lives, libraries, inventions, history, art, music, literature) than what its puling apologists~ in our academic class~ ever dare admit.

Thanking Hitler for the Volkswagen and the autobahn would be as rational a historical point for a book to make about the Nazi holocaust as this fulsome praise for Islam is by these authors, who ignore the centuries of Islamic genocidal warfare and intolerant theocratic tyranny in order to present this slanted vision.

To glibly gloss over the centuries of monstrosities in favor of over-emphasizing some borrowed glory by the Koranic conquerors is perverse "scholarship".

Anonymous said...

Fortunately modern historians are finally doing the research instead of just blindly accepting everything Muslim historians have said about history.

Here are two good books that show the 'Dark Ages' in Europe was a myth created by the French philosophers to discredit the Church, which they hated. Also that the Greek philosophers never disappeared from Europe and the notion that Europe believed the earth was flat is a myth too:

"Flat Earth" by Christine Garwood, with a Phd in the history of science, and

"AD 500" by Simon Young

This article from Jihad Watch is also good for debunking much of the 'glorious' Islamic science idea: