How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization

Reviewed: The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization, by Jonathan Lyons. Bloomsbury Press, New York. 2009.

In revealing the great contributions that Muslims have made to the West, Jonathan Lyon’s new book, The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization serves as a corrective to some of the prevailing, and highly toxic, misunderstanding between East and West.

In 1095 Pope Urban II called upon the Christian kings and princes of the West to end their warring with each other and to turn their energies against the "barbarians." Within months as many as eighty-thousand people set out for the East, a People’s Crusade that preceded the main military effort.

This crusade against Islam was the perfect vehicle for the Church to prevail in its ongoing battle with these same unruly kings and princes. But the war against Islam, like all wars, needed propaganda against the enemy to justify it. So the image of the Saracen that came to prevail in the West has nothing to do with the actual beliefs, lives, and practices of Muslims. As Lyons summarizes, "theology begat history; the values and beliefs of Muslims, about which the West was almost wholly ignorant at the time, was beside the point."  

Although Church ideology was powerful enough to mobilize tens of thousands for the hardships of holy war in a far-off land, it wasn’t the only inducement. There were enormous opportunities for territorial acquisition, opportunities often taken by men who had little interest in the goal of the crusade. Baldwin of Boulogne, for example, eventually became the Count of Edessa, while Bohemond of Taranto became the Prince of Antioch. Much rarer were men like Adelard of Bath, who deplored the intellectual confinement of medieval Europe and set off in 1109 to explore learning in the Arab East.

Earlier the powerful Caliph al-Mansur had decided to forsake Damascus and to build a new city in Mesopotamia to be his capital. The Caliph predicted, accurately, that this new city, Baghdad, would stand for centuries as a leading nexus of trade, commerce, and intellectual and scientific development. As Baghdad spread along the banks of the Tigris River, it acquired vast wealth: Syrian glassware, Indian dyes and spices, silks and other luxury goods from China and Persia, and gold from Africa all passed through the markets and enriched the traders.

The energetic al-Mansur set out to turn his dominions into a scientific superpower and to secure the future of the new state by associating it with the great classical traditions that had come before. For example, delegates to the Byzantine court successfully secured works by Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates, Galen, Euclid, and Ptolemy. To accommodate the vast scale of work needed to translate, copy, study, and store the enormous volume of Persian, Sanskrit, and Greed texts al-Mansur established a royal library modeled after that of the great Persian kings. He gave financial assistance to the small army of scholars who took up these tasks and through research built upon them. This was the origin of what came to be known, translated from the Arabic, as the House of Wisdom.

The fruit of all this activity was centuries of steady advances in medicine, optics, astronomy, mathematics, and other pursuits. In these last two, for example, the caliph invited to Baghdad an Indian delegation skilled in the movement of the stars. They brought with them Hindu scientific texts that became important jumping-off points of early Arab astronomy and mathematics. The Hindu scholars knew how to solve equations based on the trigonometric sine function; but only the sine function was an import. The other five trigonometric functions were all worked out by the Arabs. In addition, the Indians brought with them ingenious ways to predict eclipses. Thus Arab science absorbed and extended the vast knowledge available from the great civilizations of Persia, India, and Greece.  

The translations and subsequent commentaries on the ancients, in particular Aristotelian ideas and their antagonism to traditional religious thinking, eventually became central to Arab thought. The House of Wisdom emerged as the first great battleground for the conflict between the new sciences and medieval religion. Any desire on man’s part to understand and even control his environment clashed with traditional notions of God’s omnipotence. This paved the way for the same fateful struggle in Christian Europe centuries later.

Not everyone in the West accepted the anti-Muslim bigotry that prevailed there. In particular, thirsty for knowledge, Adelard of Bath learned Arabic and traveled to Antioch to satisfy his thirst. The scope of his interests is breathtaking: from the royal art of falconry to applied chemistry, from geometry to mathematical astronomy and cosmology. He studied techniques for using the powerful computer, the astrolabe, and became especially interested in the geometric system of Euclid. In all, about a dozen surviving works can be traced to the Englishman.
Virtually all of the remaining examples of the three early Latin Euclids explicitly identify the work as that of Adelard. The great scientist Roger Bacon repeatedly invokes Adelard’s special edition of Euclid as an authority for the idea, just beginning to take root in the West, of the uses of proof in both logic and the theory of knowledge, or epistemology. Bacon draws on Adelard for his own work on theories of vision and, more broadly, on the question of the role of experimentation in science.

Euclid gave the West its first explicit model of scientific thinking and exposed it to the classical approach to logical deduction. In more practical terms, his geometry was crucial to the development of medieval astronomy because it allowed measurements of distant bodies in terms of angles and degrees and helped explain, and predict, their movements.

Adelard’s other great revolutionary work was the translation of star tables that reflected centuries of Muslim scientific activity and rested on mathematical assumptions that far exceeded anything that Christendom had ever seen This material occupied Latin scholars for hundreds of years, and it wasn’t until the sixteenth century that, with the arrival of Copernicus, the West could field an equal to the classical Arab astronomers. Even the great Polish scientist could not have completed his groundbreaking work without the crucial accomplishments of his Arab forerunners.

When Adelard returned to England he brought with him what he had accomplished in Asia Minor: dozens of manuscripts and basic ideas that he had learned from the Arabs. He brought the knowledge, for example, that experimentation, rational thought, and personal experience trumped blind acceptance of authority.

In passing on these ideas to Western thought, Adelard, who Lyons describes as the first man of science, paved the way for the Renaissance.

The medieval West, rooted in religious bigotry, found it easy to condemn the Muslim world as barbarian. That there was little or no direct experience for this conclusion didn’t matter. Significantly, this harsh view of the Muslims still prevails today in much of the West.       

At the same time that the Christian West was condemning them, the Arabs were building the House of Wisdom. Scholars in residence there were exploring, and even extending, the great works of the Persian, Hindu, and Greek civilizations. There were striking advances in the sciences and mathematics, but more fundamentally, the Arabs taught the importance of experimentation and rational thought. Eventually, through the efforts of men like Adelard, the accomplishments of the Arabs got through to the West, and shaped it.