Magazine | May 2, 2011, Issue

Eastern Light

The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance, by Jim al-Khalili (Penguin, 336 pp., $29.95)

I used to attend regularly at an office of the New York City government to transact some business with a very pleasant young female African-American city employee. On the wall of her office was a poster listing, in quite small print, all the scores of inventions and discoveries that, according to the poster, African or African-descended peoples had made: the alphabet, the magnetic compass, airplanes, X-rays . . . It used to make me think of the joke current among intellectuals in the late-Stalinist USSR, when the authorities were pushing the idea that Russians had invented or discovered absolutely everything: “Russia — home of the elephant!”

With this in mind I approached The House of Wisdom with suspicion. Insecure peoples will often make exaggerated claims about the achievements of their ancestors. Given the manifold pathologies of the Islamic world today, thoughtful persons in, or from, that world can be forgiven for nursing some civilizational insecurity. They salve their hurt with dreams of ancestral prowess; and they are encouraged to do so by the clumsy noblesse oblige condescension of multiculturalist Western elites. The New York Hall of Science recently ran an exhibition for schoolchildren titled “1001 Inventions — Discover the Golden Age of Muslim Civilization,” chockablock with such spurious items as (to quote from the exhibition website) “a model of a ninth century flying machine.”

On opening this book, my suspicion was quickly confirmed. The first thing I read, on the front inside leaf of the dust jacket, was the sentence: “The Arabic legacy of science and philosophy has long been hidden from the West.” What nonsense! My own very ordinary mid-20th-century English education gave full credit to Arabic scholarship. We were told that the words “alkali,” “alcohol,” and “algebra” were of Arabic origin. Popular children’s science books by authors like Lancelot Hogben dwelt at length on non-Western contributions. When the word “algorithm” came into common usage around 1970, everyone was told that it was drawn from the Latin name of the Muslim mathematician al-Khwarizmi. (Not, as schoolchildren of today are probably taught, that it is a tribute to Al Gore.) If we later picked up a work of popular philosophy — in my generation, usually Bertrand Russell’s History — we soon encountered Averroes and Avicenna. “Hidden,” indeed!

Some Internet browsing then turned up the fact that Jim al-Khalili, the author of The House of Wisdom, has been one of the boosters of that “1001 Inventions” exhibition (which, by the way, is merely one aspect of a much larger phenomenon that, to date, includes a 2006 coffee-table book, a 2009 BBC-TV documentary series presented by al-Khalili, of which this book is a by-product, a 2010 movie, and probably other ventures that have escaped my attention).

#page#In any case the notion being addressed here, the notion that we — and particularly our youngsters — don’t know half as much as we should about medieval Islamic science and technology, is open to doubt. I am sure that very few high-schoolers could tell you anything that al-Khwarizmi did, other than give his name to a useful word; but how many could describe the algebraic achievements of Descartes, or the astronomical discoveries of Herschel? What do our schoolchildren know about Lyell’s geology or Vesalius’s anatomy? In the matter of transmitting understanding to the rising generation, getting them acquainted with the seers of medieval Islam seems to me a long way down the priority list.

By the time I settled down to read this book I was therefore contemplating it from the bottom of a deep pit of skepticism. It is to Jim al-Khalili’s credit that by the time I put the book down at last he had hauled me some of the way out of that pit. Yes, this is a work of “identity” special pleading; and yes, where there is reasonable doubt about historical facts, our author takes the Muslim-triumphalist position. It’s not the worst thing of its kind I have seen, though. Al-Khalili is partial wherever there is scope for partiality, and trespasses into groundless speculation once or twice, but he is at least intolerant of the gross exaggerations too often found in ethnic boosterism.

The website for that “1001 Inventions” exhibition, for example, introduces us to “Alhazen (Ibn Al-Haytham), the Arab polymath who invented the camera obscura during the 10th century.” In The House of Wisdom our author, in spite of having lent his name to that same exhibition, shows more respect for the truth:

What I find disappointing — as is often the case with this subject — are the inaccuracies and errors one reads about Ibn al-Haytham’s life and achievements. For instance, it is widely stated that he invented the pinhole camera to explain the workings of the eye, and that he beat the Europeans to the law of refraction by six hundred years. Both of these claims are wrong . . . 

It helps that al-Khalili is himself a working scientist — a professor of theoretical physics at an English university. His mixed background — Iraqi father, British mother, educated through high school in Iraq — gives him the cultural equivalent of stereoscopic vision. It probably helps even more that he is irreligious: “As an atheist my interest in Islam is cultural rather than spiritual.”

Furthermore, his motives in writing are worthy and humane: to turn young Muslims in the West away from religious fanaticism by showing them their ancestral heritage of reasoned debate and empirical inquiry. I suppose this might work; though one is bound to wonder why, if Muslim youngsters cannot be assimilated to Western civilization without distorting our school syllabi in their favor, we allow Muslims to settle in our nations in such numbers. They have, after all, 57 nations of their own (i.e., in the Organization of the Islamic Conference) where presumably they would be more at ease. What advantage has any Western nation gained from mass Muslim settlement?

#page#And while The House of Wisdom is not the more obnoxious kind of ethnic boosterism, it still has a bill of goods to sell. In stretching the known facts to accommodate his own partiality, al-Khalili occasionally stretches them to breaking point. The circulation of the blood, for example, was first correctly described by the English physician William Harvey in a book he published in 1628, after decades of tireless experimentation. Ah, says al-Khalili, but “the groundwork for [Harvey’s] discovery was laid by the Syrian physician . . . Ibn al-Nafis (1213–88). . . . All this just goes to show, once again, the gradual and cumulative process of scientific progress.”

Does it? Did Harvey know of Ibn al-Nafis, then? Al-Khalili: “There is evidence that [Ibn al-Nafis’s] work, translated into Latin, may have been known to sixteenth-century European physicians such as [list of names], all of whom would in turn influence Harvey.” Oh come on: That doesn’t even rise to the level of circumstantial evidence.

On the vexed question of to whom the title “Father of Algebra” most properly belongs, al-Khalili not surprisingly declares himself a partisan of the aforementioned al-Khwarizmi, floruit early ninth century. The other principal contender for the title is Diophantus, who lived in Roman Alexandria in either the first, second, or third century. Champions of Diophantus (of whom I am one) point to the breadth and difficulty of the problems he tackled and his use of a rudimentary literal symbolism. Al-Khwarizmists note the absence of general methods — algorithms! — in Diophantus, and scoff at his symbolism as mere syncopation.

Al-Khalili gives fair coverage of the issue, though naturally from an al-Khwarizmist point of view. Diophantus’s notation is, he says, “very far from full symbolic algebra.” That is true, but we proceed by baby steps. As far as Diophantus may have been from a modern system of notation, al-Khwarizmi was yet farther, expressing everything in words. Diophantus’s symbolism contained the germ of a wonderful idea, the idea of using a, b, x, and y for the quantities given (data) and quantities sought (quaesita). Taken up 14 centuries later by European mathematicians, notably Viète and Descartes, that idea transformed mathematics and civilization. And while al-Khwarizmi may have the advantage in having spelled out general methods, generalizations of Diophantus’s actual problems would readily and naturally occur to anyone reading his book. One famously did so to Pierre de Fermat.

The scientific revolution that took place in Europe from the 17th century onwards was a unique event. Necessary conditions for it included prosperous, consensual societies with mature notions of liberty and law; low levels of respect for religious authority; a high “smart fraction” of curious and intelligent citizens; and a broad base of transmitted knowledge.

Some of that knowledge came from the ancients via medieval Islam; some smaller portion originated in Islam itself; some had more exotic origins in India or China. No one has ever denied these things, nor “hidden” them from students. The conditions for the take-off were, though, peculiarly Western. If we are to traffic in ethnic triumphalism, let’s teach our kids about that.

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