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BOOK REVIEW

'The House of Wisdom' by Jonathan Lyons

A look at the significant impact of the Arabic world on Western civilization.

March 27, 2009|Stephen O'Shea | O'Shea's latest book is "Sea of Faith: Islam and Christianity in the Medieval Mediterranean World."

Dust will never gather on Jonathan Lyons' lively new book of medieval history -- the opening page of his "The House of Wisdom" cites a cleric scandalized by the Crusader ladies of Antioch and their penchant for the plunging neckline and the bejeweled merkin.

If this is the Middle Ages, thinks the reader, bring it on! But this pleasure gradually gives way to another beguilement, to be found in Lyons' subtitle: "How The Arabs Transformed Western Civilization." That phrase suggests a brave viewpoint for a historian nowadays, one at odds with the us-vs.-them mentality copied from the Cold War and pasted on to any consideration of things Islamic.

Whether it's the ecstatic Lt. Gen. William Boykin claiming his Christian god is "bigger" than the Muslim god, or the late Harvard professor Samuel Huntington peddling, like some harebrained imam, an inevitable "clash of civilizations," the twain of East and West has seldom seemed less likely to meet than in the last few years.

This pernicious, self-fulfilling polemic has been countered by a few peeps of scholarship, led by Yale's Maria Rosa Menocal and her "Ornament of the World" (2002), an accessible evocation of the glory and the culture of tolerance that was al-Andalus, or Muslim Spain.

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Scholarship

For Lyons, a former Reuters reporter who roved the Middle East for two decades, the task is much greater than reminding the general reader of the splendors of Umayyad Cordoba. He is out to reverse a long-standing prejudice regarding the stupendous flowering of scholarship in medieval Islam. (A related read is John Freely's new, encyclopedic "Aladdin's Lamp: How Greek Science Came to Europe Through the Islamic World.")

Even when that flowering is recognized -- but does anyone really remember learning about it in school? -- it is usually brushed off as an unfortunate hiccup in the transmission of classical Greek thought to the Renaissance. In this view, the translators and scholars of Baghdad, Cairo and Toledo were mere copyists, or at best librarians, unwittingly preserving the genius of antiquity's philosophy and science in their dimly lit mosques -- until the West recovered its brilliance.

Lyons' brief survey demonstrates the magnitude of the insult in denying (or downplaying) the role of Islamic civilizations in the elaboration of the natural sciences, mathematics and philosophy. The book's title refers to the name given to the palace library and study center in the Abbasid capital of Baghdad. A planned city laid out in the 8th century by a converted Jew from Basra and a Persian Zoroastrian, the so-called City of Peace served as the intellectual center of the world, and its library, much like the Library of Congress, the world's foremost, thanks to the caliph's largesse.

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Math and science

The notion that these avid Abbasid thinkers desired only classical Greek treatises betrays yet another condescending view of Islamic scholarship. Lyons convincingly shows the flow of many influences to Baghdad -- Chinese, Egyptian, Persian and especially Indian.

The latter's superiority in mathematics -- our "Arabic" numerals actually originate in India -- contributed to the Arabs' ability to correct and improve on what had been posited in Western antiquity. From this admixture of Baghdadi intelligence emerged "algebra" and "algorithm" -- Arabic words -- and also the work of the greats, such as Euclid's and Ptolemy's, revised, corrected and disseminated. Added to that were advances in just about every field of intellectual endeavor, along with learned disquisitions on the relation between reason and revelation -- Christian Europe's bugaboo centuries later.

Lyons tells his multilayered story deftly, forsaking the tyranny of chronology to flesh out ideas and personalities. Hence a fascinating history of the astrolabe, and its importance to Gerard of Aurillac, the pope of the year 1000, who as a youth looked longingly southward from Christian Barcelona to the scientific wonders of Muslim al-Andalus.

Lyons lingers on the life stories of the intellectual buccaneers who realized long before anyone else in the West that the action was taking place in the East. Other great centers of cultural exchange -- Cairo, Palermo, Naples, Seville -- pass in review under Lyons' steady gaze, as do measured digressions on particular problems and disciplines, many of them enlivened by citation ("see: Antioch, Crusader ladies"). Unexpectedly, and persuasively, Lyons lauds the contribution of astrology and alchemy, both Arab strong suits, in the development of modern science.

His subject is vast, and Lyons takes a maximalist view in stating the influence of Arab and Muslim thought on the West. But why not make an argument as strongly as you can, especially about a subject that has been hidden in our Western closet like some a shameful family secret? The great Christian thinkers of the Middle Ages harbored no such qualms: They repeatedly acknowledged their debt to Muslim thinkers. Indeed, Andalusi philosopher and astronomer Averroes, a peerless commentator of Aristotle, was the foremost influence on Thomas Aquinas.

The book's final chapter deals with the "Arab Aristotle" -- not the original pagan fellow but the philosopher as he was constructed by the Muslims. It is this figure, Lyons writes, who informed the West's re-invention of itself. If true, Islamophobes might want to drop "clash" for the far more accurate "mash."

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