The House of Wisdom

Jonathan Lyons’s The House of Wisdom provides an account of Muslim scientific and cultural superiority to Christian Europe during the Middle Ages and argues that the West owes a debt to the Arabs and Islam today. His account is structured around Islam’s mandatory five daily prayers. A brief prologue, headed “AL-MAGHRIB/SUNSET,” represents “the traditional start of the day in the Middle East.” The introductory note to readers then refers to “the nightfall (al-isha) of the Christian Middle Ages;the dawn (al-fajr) of the great age of Arab learning;the glory of midday (al-zuhr); andthe rich colors of afternoon (al-asr).”

The text’s very structure and chapter headings thus make clear that the medieval day and its light are Islam’s, while the blackness of night is Christendom’s. As early as the introductory note, then, some readers may begin to suspect that the book will present neither a nuanced vindication of an unfairly maligned religion or a slandered people nor a careful rebalancing of a culturally skewed scale. Lyons’s book expresses a simple Manichaeism, with the forces of prejudice, repression, and bloodlust represented by the West, while reason, toleration, and refinement are the almost exclusive possession of Muslims.

For Lyons, Pope Urban II’s call to liberate the Christian holy places from Muslim occupation let loose upon the civilized East armies of ignorant, greedy, and ambitious thugs. He points out that Western society was unable even to measure the passing of time except in the crudest manner and was thus incapable of establishing the date of Easter, the most important festival of the religion for which the crusaders purportedly fought. In this matter of time-telling as in others, Lyons portrays the Muslims as coming to the rescue, as it was they who perfected the astrolabe, an instrument invented by the Greeks that would enable considerable advances to be made not only in calendar-making but also in astronomy and cartography.

Some enlightened European scholars would rise above the brutal credulity of their time and place and take Arab knowledge back to the West after years spent living in and learning from a superior civilization. Indeed, the book is loosely structured around the life of one of these scholars, Adelard of Bath. Adelard’s respectful admiration for Muslims and their learning contrasts gratifyingly with the attitude of the crusaders, who are portrayed as rapists and pillagers fighting under the symbol of the cross. “Where the crusaders had seen only evil in the Muslim infidel, Adelard sought the light of Arab wisdom.”

The House of Wisdom ends with Adelard’s words distinguishing the provinces of faith and reason one from the other and hence justifying the scientific enquiry that would almost unimaginably change and improve the material conditions of human life: “Of course God rules the universe.But we may and should enquire into the natural world. The Arabs teach us that.” In so enquiring, the Arabs illustrated their role as, in Lyons’s rather bold phrase, “inventors of the West.”

Between Adelard’s setting out for the East at the beginning of the book and his validation of Arab intellectual superiority at the end, Lyons presents a number of Muslim scholars and Europeans sympathetic to Muslim learning. Al-Khwrizm’s name suggests that he was probably from present-day Uzbekistan. He worked with the Bayt al-Hikma, the so-called House of Wisdom that gives Lyons’s book its title, a royal library built in Baghdad to store Persian, Sanskrit, and Greek texts. The House of Wisdom also provided administrative and financial support for scholars studying and translating these texts and made possible centuries of sustained scholarly achievement. Al-Khwrizm himself created two star tables, careful records of planetary and stellar movements. What are now called “Arabic numbers” reached the West thanks largely to a Latin version of...

(The entire section is 1635 words.)


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