Jim Al-Khalili shows us the forgotten and overlooked world of Arabic science.

We all know by now that it’s pretty much impossible for me to visit my local public library, even for a short period of time, without grabbing a few books. Even if I pop in just drop stuff off, I still find myself rummaging through the shelves and before I know it, I’m headed out the door with a small stack of books. One of the books I grabbed during one of those little forays happened to be Jim Al-Khalili’s The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance. Published last year in 2011,  Al-Khalili’s book is a readable and engaging account of not just the preservation, and but also the advancement of science during the Islamic Middle Ages. The author also describes how the details of these discoveries and rediscoveries would later filter to the West and help jump-start the European Renaissance.

Walking away from this book, I think one of the things that impressed me is Al-Khalili’s sense of fairness and cultural objectivity. In his quest to show the reader this long-forgotten and overlooked history, like the good scientist he is, Al-Khalili carefully and judiciously weighs the evidence, as based upon the scientific and historical record. To Al-Khalili, the fruits of this golden age can’t be rightfully labeled as Arab science since some of its practitioners hailed from Persia or even what’s now Uzbekistan. Nor could it be called Muslim science since one, science by its nature is religiously neutral, and two, many of those involved were Jewish and Christian. Inspired more by the scientific method as opposed to playing identity politics or appealing to special interest groups, I found Al-khalili’s interpretation and presentation much appealing, not to mention illuminating.

I was also struck by how many of the luminaries discussed in The House of Wisdom weren’t just accomplished scientists but also polymaths. To be a world-class mathematician or physician in 10th century Baghdad is incredible enough, but many of these scientific geniuses also excelled in theology, philosophy, astronomy, chemistry, logic, optics and even poetry. Sadly, such mastery of multiple disciplines seems virtually nonexistent in our current age of specialization and academic credentialization.

Sometime down the road I hope to follow-up The House of Wisdom with a few other books. Jonathan Lyons’ book, also called The House of Wisdom, seems like a logical choice. Michael Morgan’s Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers, and Artists sounds promising as does Mark Graham’s How Islam Created the Modern World. After reading the comments of one Amazon reviewer who took issue with Al-Khalili’s interpretation of scientific history, I might also read James Hannam’s The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution for a good counter-argument. Lastly, an old copy of Ibn Khaldun’s Philosophy of History has been sitting unread on my shelf for years and desperately needs to be read. Maybe Al-Khalili’s House of Wisdom will inspire me to finally read it.

13 thoughts on “Jim Al-Khalili shows us the forgotten and overlooked world of Arabic science.

  1. This sounds fascinating, especially since I just recently finished Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Future. In that one, Kaku talks about the future of culture, and the struggle between scientific and religion and how they impact cultural progress. As a scientist, he comes down pretty emphatically in favor of science over religion when it comes to making progress in the world, and mentions how science used to be a big deal in the Arab world, but overshadowed by religion. That’s not a very clear articulation of his argument, but the point is it seems like this book could be a cool comparison read.


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  3. Sadly, such mastery of multiple disciplines seems virtually nonexistent

    Hey! We academics are a more diverse lot than you think. The systems in which we work swing toward specialization but that doesn’t mean we don’t reach out through the bars. That said, the doors do tend to be closed. What closes them may well be the rapid pace of the modern world, the priorities set by the institutions in which we work, and our passive acceptance of those. It’s a relic, perhaps, the intellectual crossroads, the university as the house where the mind lives, but it is not quite gone, not yet.


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  5. This does sound fantastic, and incredible to think of how well-rounded and knowledgeable people could be then. Now we do specialize so much don’t we? Can’t b e good.


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