The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance

Image of The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance
Release Date: 
March 26, 2012
Penguin Books
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The Islamic Golden Age is traditionally dated from the middle of the 8th century to the Mongol invasion in the middle of the 13th century.

During this time, poets, philosophers, artists, mathematicians, scientists —in short, the most remarkable men around the globe—contributed their work in a wide variety of scholarly endeavors to the collection of human learning. These were not only Muslim scholars. During this time a tolerant Islamic society was filled peacefully with practitioners of other religions, including Jews and Christians.

These scholars preserved earlier traditions, often translating the materials into Arabic. They also contributed their own learning. The central repository of this learning was The House of Wisdom, and the activities were centered in Baghdad. But these activities were not exclusive to Baghdad, rather, they took place in Muslim Spain, North Africa, and parts of Asia.

The Translation Movement took place during this time: when scholars actively translated texts from the original Greek into Arabic. This is the time period that Jim Al-Khalili writes of in The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance.

A British-Iraqi physicist, Dr. Al-Khalili was born and raised in Baghdad, then trained as a scientist at The University of Surrey, where he holds the Surrey chair in the public engagement in science. In House of Wisdom, he presents to the West long-hidden information about the many ways in which the Muslim culture protected and preserved Greek learning during the Dark Ages.

In our own time, rife as it is with hostility toward the Muslim culture, it may come as a surprise to many that the Qu’ran urges its followers to study all of God’s works closely. Had it not been for the deep respect and dedication shown during this time by the community of scholars, protected and supported by Muslim rulers, much of the knowledge of classical civilizations would have been lost.

Instead, these rulers funded thousands of the most learned, who gathered texts, translated, studied and expanded on this knowledge, keeping a flame alive during a time in Christian history when it most certainly would have been extinguished.

Dr. Al-Khalili states, “The Arab empire was hugely powerful by late 8th and early 9th century; its rulers were getting taxes from across the empire and had money to spend on translations and patronage of scholarship. About this time the House of Wisdom was set up in Baghdad by one of the Abbasid caliphs, al-Ma’mun. It began as a translation house, translating Greek texts into Arabic and rapidly started to attract the greatest minds in the Islamic world . . .”

Many are stunned to learn that Islamic cosmology understood the heliocentric nature of our solar system before Copernicus wrote of it. During a time in Western history when the power of Christian Rome forbade much in the way of innovative learning, physicians in the Muslim world were writing about the system of blood circulation, or of optic functioning. It was during the Islamic Golden Age that the Scientific Method was applied, developing an experimental approach to science that didn’t exist for centuries in Europe.

Many of the changes that took place in European thought and art during the Renaissance were influenced by the learning occurring in the Muslim world. Places like Spain, which had been under 900 years of peaceful Islamic rule, offered opportunities for Muslims, Jews and Christians alike to study, and to share ideas.

This wonderful book covers a lot of time, beginning with its examination of Aristotle, and ending with a discussion of Islam today.

Dr. Al-Khalili leads us on a journey through antiquity to modernity, and asks hard questions about the rise and fall of cultures, and the ways in which our societies can both encourage and destroy learning and human intellectual endeavor.

The House of Wisdom is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of civilizations, or the history of science. A student of the Renaissance will find it invaluable. In short, it is a book that offers so much information about the Golden Age of the Islamic Empire that anyone interested in human history will find it exciting and mind-expanding.