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).