The House of Wisdom

by Jim Al-Khalili

Americans have developed a harsh attitude towards the Islamic world. The anger over the 9/11 attacks fueled an ugly prejudice that continues to stain America. The problem has been exacerbated by the repugnant moral codes prevalent in some Islamic countries: the honor codes that lead to the killing of women for dancing in the rain, the genital mutiliation of women, the frequent taking of innocent hostages, the brutal reliance on terrorism – there’s a lot about Islamic societies to disdain. 

Lost in this, however, has been an appreciation of the admirable aspects of Islamic culture, most especially when it comes to Islamic intellectual history. It is all too common to dismiss Islam as a superstitious, backwards, anti-rational culture.

This prejudice is completely wrong when it comes to history. There was a time when the roles were reversed, when Muslims were the civilized people and Christians were the ignorant barbarians. That time ran for about 300 years, from about 800 CE to about 1100 CE. For the next 400 years, Islam and Christendom were closely matched; it was only after about 1500 CE that the Christian world began to demonstrate a clear intellectual edge, an edge that grew into a chasm in modern times. 

Mr. Al-Khalili, a nuclear physicist, has assembled a clear, readable, and impeccable presentation of the Islamic contribution to science prior to the ascendancy of Christian civilization. That contribution is far greater than most Westerners realize. The simplest evidence of the importance of Islamic science lies in the large number of Arabic words that speckle our scientific vocabulary: alcohol, alembic, algebra, algorithm, alkali, average, azimuth, calipers, camphor, chemistry, cipher, and many more.

This process began when a series of caliphs funded a major effort to assemble and accumulate as much of the vast storehouse of Greek and Roman knowledge as they could. The title of this book is taken from an institution established in Baghdad by one of the early caliphs. Initially, its assignment was simply that of a library: to accumulate lots of old Greek and Roman manuscripts and translate them into Arabic. Eventually this “House of Wisdom” grew into the greatest library in the world. It was at least as big as, and possibly bigger than, the library at Alexandria, which had been destroyed in Christian riots during the decline of the Roman Empire. A goodly portion of our knowledge of Greek and Roman literature comes to us through Arabic manuscripts that were translated into Latin during the 12th through the 15th centuries. 

But after mastering the classical heritage of science and mathematics, the Islamic scholars began their own researches and went much further. They pretty much invented algebra (named after an Islamic mathematician). Realizing the value of the decimal numerals, along with the concept of zero, invented by Hindu mathematicians, they embraced the new system enthusiastically and passed it on to the West.

Islamic researchers invented chemistry. They established the rigorous study of the chemical behavior of different substances, and the procedures for extracting and refining various compounds. More important was their development of the concept of empiricism. The Greek notions of empiricism were vague ideals, but the Islamic scholars hammered out the rigorous details of how to carry out quantitative scientific research, thereby transforming empiricism from a notion to a practice.

They also made important contributions to astronomy, although these contributions were confined to the compilation of astronomical data; in terms of theory, the Islamic scholars never went beyond the geocentric theories of Aristotle and Ptolemy. Islamic scholars also made important contributions to medicine, recognizing the circulation of the blood 500 years before Europeans stumbled upon it. 

Sadly, the intellectual golden age in Baghdad lost its shine after a few hundred years; a kind of intellectual sclerosis set in and progress ebbed. There was a great renewal in Spain during the period from the 12th century to the 14th century. Under the enlightened guidance of the Islamic leaders there, Muslims, Jews, and Christians worked together to power another leap forward. The greatest significance of this effort, however, was the transmission of that knowledge to Christendom through Spain. Many of the most important Islamic books were translated into Latin and became the foundation of education in the new universities springing up all over Western Europe. 

They were just in time, too: Islamic intellectual efforts dried up by the 15th century. There are many reasons why, but the end result is undeniable: the fire in the Islamic mind died and stale orthodoxy set in.

Mr. Al-Khalili goes, I think, a little too far in extolling the brilliance of Islamic achievement. This is certainly understandable as compensation for the ignorant disregard that most Westerners have for that achievement.