Islam’s Golden Age of Science

House of WisdomJonathan Lyons’ book House of Wisdom is about the most splendid period for science in Islamic – and particularly the Arab Islamic – history. This corresponded with Europe’s Dark Ages when a “great struggle between faith and reason was about to come crashing down on an unsuspecting Europe.”

The arrival of Arab science and philosophy “transmuted the backward West into a scientific and technological superpower.”

Too many Westerners think of Arabs as mere guardians of ancient Greek scholarship, holding it safely until it could be recovered by its rightful European heirs. Lyons wants you to see that Muslims made vast additions to this ancient base, and that the religion of Islam was a driver for many of their efforts.

Lyons feels the “Western consensus… that Islam is inherently hostile to innovation” is a “persistent notion” that is wrong. Because of this, Lyons tells the story from the viewpoint of Arabs – invaded by brutal, ignorant, and unsanitary barbarians (they tended to call all Europeans “Franks”) as the Crusades began.

Anyone clinging to a romantic of the Middle Ages will be disgusted by accounts of the People’s Crusade, fueled as much by political machinations as religious furor. A rabble swept towards the Middle East, killing and sacking through Christian Europe as they went, only to be slaughtered by Muslim troops. A few years later, a Crusade of troops had better luck in war.

The first couple chapters cover this period and amply document its horrors, but I was more interested in Muslim science.

“Early Islam openly encouraged and nurtured intellectual inquiry of all kinds,” which was encouraged by many sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad.

Caliph al-Mamun was anxious to collect knowledge from Hindu, Persian, and Greek scholars, and initiated the House of Wisdom, “the collective institutional and imperial expression of… intellectual ambition.” But they didn’t simply translate and copy the works of others.

Here’s what I found most interesting – how the religion of Islam encouraged science.

  • It’s important to pray in the direction of Mecca, so “unlike Christendom,” Muslims accepted that the Earth was a globe and knew Great Circle routes (the routes modern airplanes use to fly internationally) marked the shortest distance between two points.
  • Muslim geographers didn’t merely copy Ptolemy’s maps; they corrected and expanded them, which aided in their flourishing trade.
  • Writers preferred personal knowledge when they wrote of foreign lands rather than anecdotes.
  • Muslims wash before each of their prayer sessions, so cleanliness was valued and hygiene was studied.
  • Islam emphasizes care of the sick, so medicine made “important discoveries in the field of vision and optics and advances in surgery.” They began to understand disease pathways – one hospital was located by setting raw meat out in various places and building on the site with the least rapid purification – combining experimentation with an insight that sickness had causes beyond God’s wrath.
  • Muhammad had taught social justice and the need for good works. Non-Muslims were tolerated in Arab countries – paying a special tax to the government and otherwise generally left to thrive. A wide mixture of faiths and ethnicities were part of the government and of science. The caliph’s postmaster was also “head of intelligence.” Shades of the NSA!
  • Lyons includes some nitty-gritty Arab technology, like a “twin-cylinder pump with true suction and the crankshaft.”
  • He draws on a wealth of references, and I doubt I’ll run into “Decagonal and Quasi-Crystalline Tilings in Medieval Islamic Architecture” anywhere else.

The book was fun to read and interesting.
I also found it optimistic. Today, when Islamist extremist demonstrate the worst sort of barbarism, it gives me hope to know Islam once led Muslims in such a different direction. Perhaps it can again.

Lyons does not cover the decline of Muslim science and innovation, perhaps to preserve his pro-Islamic presentation. But he does recommend readings on the decline in his footnotes.

4 star average from 35 reviews on Amazon.
Since I liked the book, I’ll offer a few comments from readers who did not. One recommends a different book – with the identical title – by Jim Al-Khalili as more specific. Others found Lyons disorganized, and he does skip around  chronologically. Some disliked Lyons giving so much prominence to Arab Muslims when other ethnic groups – especially Persians – were involved. Some readers disliked the stated positive bias towards Islam and feel Lyons interprets history too much in their favor.

I’m not a scholar of this era, and I haven’t tried to validate Lyons book. But I’ll stick to the optimism he leaves me with – something to carry me through what no-doubt will be a very pessimistic period in the Middle Eastern now and in the coming years.

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