The noted blogger Fjordman is filing this report via Gates of Vienna.
For a complete Fjordman blogography, see The Fjordman Files. There is also a multi-index listing here.
Stephen O’Shea of The Los Angeles Times has reviewed the book The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization by Jonathan Lyons. I will publish a longer and more thorough rebuttal of this book at some point in April, either at Jihad Watch or at Atlas Shrugs. I will publish a review of John Freely’s related book Aladdin’s Lamp: How Greek Science Came to Europe Through the Islamic World next week at The Brussels Journal.
I have read both of them, and Freely’s book is the best of the two, or the least bad, since he at a minimum has some understanding of the history of science, which Mr. Lyons in my view does not. That doesn’t mean that I would recommend buying his book; there are better and more balanced titles available on the market. Stephen O’Shea in his very positive review claims that “Dust will never gather on Jonathan Lyons’ lively new book of medieval history.” I strongly disagree. I consider The House of Wisdom to be a bad case of poor scholarship.
Lyons’ book is 200 pages long, Freely’s Aladdin’s Lamp 255 pages. Neither of them mentions the terms ‘Jihad’ or ‘dhimmi’ even once in their books about Islamic culture. This says a great deal about the current intellectual climate. I didn’t notice these words while reading the books and they are not listed in the indexes. The authors certainly don’t devote much time to debating the violent aspects of Islamic expansionism through the Islamically unique institution of Jihad, or the fates of the conquered peoples. Is it a coincidence that whatever useful work that was done in the Islamic world happened during the first centuries of the Islamic era, while there were still large numbers of non-Muslims living in the region? We don’t know because the question is never debated by these authors, but it deserves to be.
While we should give credit to scholars in the medieval Islamic world when they made real contributions, we should not forget the huge debt they owed to earlier cultures, to the Indians and the Chinese, the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians and above all to the ancient Greeks. Mr. Lyons talks extensively about the astrolabe, yet he does not mention the name of the man who is by many considered the likely inventor of that instrument, or at least a strong contributor to its development, namely the ancient Greek astronomer and mathematician Hipparchus from the second century BC. He was the greatest of all Greek astronomers next to Ptolemy, and even Ptolemy, whose astronomy ruled Europe until the sixteenth century and the Middle East even longer, owed much to him. Hipparchus is simply too important to ignore.
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What’s worse is that Lyons doesn’t even mention Ibn al-Haytham, or Alhazen. I searched in vain for his name, which is not listed in the index. It is embarrassing for a book written specifically to criticize Westerners for their lack of appreciation of ‘Islamic science’ to completely fail to mention arguably the greatest scientist ever born in the Islamic world with a single word. It’s like writing a history of European science without mentioning Newton or Galileo. By saying that I do not mean to imply that Alhazen was of the same stature as Newton or Galileo. He was not. No scientist of that stature has ever been born in the Islamic world. But Alhazen was a competent scholar who did have a significant influence in optics.
Another omission, though not as bad as Alhazen, is Ulugh Beg, who was one of the best observational astronomers in the medieval Islamic world. He, too, is totally ignored. I find it a bit odd that I, being a notorious Islamophobe and thus one of the persons Mr. Lyons keeps warning against, have to lecture him on which Muslims scholars deserve to be mentioned.
On page four of his book, Jonathan Lyons writes the following:
The arrival of Arab science and philosophy, the legacy of the pioneering Adelard and of those who hurried to follow his example, transmuted the backward West into a scientific and technological superpower. Like the elusive ‘elixir’ — from the alchemists’ al-iksir — for changing base metal into gold, Arab science altered medieval Christendom beyond recognition. For the first time in centuries, Europe’s eyes opened to the world around it. This encounter with Arab science even restored the art of telling time, lost to the western Christians of the early Middle Ages. Without accurate control over clock and calendar, the rational organization of society was unthinkable. And so was the development of science, technology, and industry, as well as the liberation of man from the thrall of nature. Arab science and philosophy helped rescue the Christian world from ignorance and made possible the very idea of the West. Yet how many among us today stop to acknowledge our enormous debt to the Arabs, let alone endeavor to repay it?
This isn’t serious scholarship; it is myth-making. Muslims clearly owe vastly more of science and technology to Westerners than we owe to them. Perhaps it’s time they start repaying their debt to us, not vice versa. I’m not suggesting that there was no good scholarly work done in the Islamic world. There are a few Muslim scholars from the medieval period whom I respect. Their contributions should not be ignored, but nor should they be inflated beyond all proportions, as Lyons does. If the Western scientific and technological contribution to the world is the size of an elephant then the Muslim one is the size of a squirrel, or a Chihuahua at best. There’s no shame in that. I like squirrels, but I would never confuse one with an elephant.
I will conclude by recommending some serious books which people can read instead of The House of Wisdom or Aladdin’s Lamp. About Islam I recommend essentially everything written by Robert Spencer. Bat Ye’or’s books are groundbreaking and important, though admittedly not always easy to read. The Legacy of Jihad by Andrew Bostom should be considered required reading for all those interested in Islam. It is the best and most complete book available on the subject in English, and possibly in any language. Ibn Warraq’s books are excellent, starting with his Defending the West . Understanding Muhammad by the Iranian ex-Muslim Ali Sina is also worth reading, as is Defeating Jihad by Serge Trifkovic.
If you are looking for books about the history of science, I recommend everything written by Edward Grant. The Beginnings of Western Science by David C. Lindberg is very good, though slightly more politically correct than Grant when it comes to science in the Islamic world. The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West by Toby E. Huff is excellent and highly recommended. These books are easy to read for an educated, mainstream audience.
For books that are excellent, yet more specialized and slightly more difficult, I can recommend Victor J. Katz for the history of mathematics and The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy by James Evans for the history of pre-telescopic astronomy up to and including Kepler. Evans’ book is extremely well researched and detailed, almost too much so on European and Middle Eastern astronomy, but contains virtually nothing on Chinese or Mayan astronomy. For a more global perspective, Cosmos: An Illustrated History of Astronomy and Cosmology by John North is good and not too difficult to read.