Book Review: ‘The House of Wisdom’ by Jim Al-Khalili

The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the RenaissanceThe House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance by Jim Al-Khalili

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As you may have guessed, this book is about how the Arab/Muslim groups (really Arabic-speaking, something Al-Khalili explains early on; a number of the luminaries in this book had little to no Arab blood) did a lot more for science and the Age of Enlightenment than simply pass on some translated Greek texts. It’s a view that deserves more consideration, and he does a great job of giving it relevant context in the last chapter, which discusses what modern Muslim/Arabic-speaking countries should do to foment more scientific progress.

I managed to skip studying medieval history twice in school, but I remember the contributions of Arabic speakers being summed up in about one line before we moved on to the Age of Scientific Reason, which was itself rather abbreviated (Newton, for instance, was credited as the sole inventor of calculus). Al-Khalili, recounting his own education, says something similar about Europeans completely dominating the history of science…and he went to school in Iraq, so this is clearly not just Western bias.

A brief aside on bias: Al-Khalili is very open about his, and given that he’s lived in both Iraq and England and is also half-British, not to mention an atheist, this is fairly reassuring. He does insert a few opinions and anecdotes into the text, but I suspect these were done to liven up the otherwise dry and impersonal recounting of events. He’s a theoretical nuclear physicist and this shows in the work: one, for his healthy respect of the scientific method (which I share), and two, because he attempts to recount the facts without taking a particular side. I actually walked away from this book without being solidly convinced that Arabic work is the foundation of all Renaissance science; it’s not a view he himself holds, not when it isn’t backed up with the facts.

At least nowadays it’s not to the point where it’s suggested the Arabs added literally nothing to the Greek texts they preserved, but there is still this attitude that the ‘giants’ Newton references were solely Westerners or, if not his near contemporaries, Classical scholars.

I would call this more a work of historiography than anything else. (If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it refers to analyzing what is commonly accepted as historical fact, including the authenticity of primary documents and veracity of sources.) There are a lot of ‘but’s and ‘of course’s in this book.

As I mentioned above, Al-Khalili isn’t attempting to create a strongly opinionated narrative; he’s recounting facts that have either been obscured by selective reinterpretations or more recently discovered. Again, there has been a tradition of ignoring these accomplishments, and he frequently refutes himself (or stops the reader from concluding that so-and-so did it all first) by pointing out that the Arabic scholars were, for instance, necessary to Copernicus’ mathematical proof of heliocentrism but did not achieve the synthesis to reach that point. (They were, according to this book, pretty much all geocentric.)

Anyway, I think a more casual reader won’t like how dry this is. Al-Khalili doesn’t try to add narrative veneers to the history, although sometimes there is a hint of narrative in the way the solution to scientific questions (especially geometry) are approached. The big take-away from this is, as he says, that science is never really down to some total genius figuring everything out, but rather ends up credited to the person who happens to be in a position to both synthesize previous ideas and gain notice for them.

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One thought on “Book Review: ‘The House of Wisdom’ by Jim Al-Khalili

  1. Pingback: Book Review: ‘Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization’ by Steven Solomon | write lies

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