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Vol. 14, No. 6, 2015
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islam's golden age

reviewed by


Nick Catalano is a TV writer/producer and Professor of Literature and Music at Pace University. He reviews books and music for several journals and is the author of Clifford Brown: The Life and Art of the Legendary Jazz Trumpeter, New York Nights: Performing, Producing and Writing in Gotham and A New Yorker at Sea. His latest book, Tales of a Hamptons Sailor, is now available. For Nick's reviews, visit his website:


In the past month horrific terrorism has occurred in Paris, Egypt, and Mali. Fanatical killers, some of them so brainwashed that they don’t even know why they are acting, wander about indiscriminately bombing and shooting innocent civilians. In reaction to this terror, emotional, hysterical, and even fanatical rhetoric uttered by westerners usually very sane in their commentary is just as frightening as the terrorist activity.

In America, this wild rhetoric is exacerbated by the presidential political campaigning currently underway, and candidates who normally employ extreme attention-getting rhetoric in any case are totally out of control. Some urge complete abandonment of the current humanitarian refugee rescuing, others demand national registration of all Muslims, and many call for all out vengeful war against anyone east of the Nile river.

Since the medieval crusades began in 1095 and continued for some 200 years, the religious, social and political hatred between east and west has continued unabated. The enmity has been so severe that a unique historical vacuum has developed and this vast void has completely stifled cultural and intellectual exchange – a huge wall has gone up between east and west and has stood for a thousand years. So much there is that we don’t know about them and they don’t know about us.

Awhile back I reviewed a book that went a long way towards educating readers about the vast accomplishments of the Arab-Islamic-Turkic-Persian renaissance that began in 9th century Baghdad. Working on a TV project in Uzbekistan, I had visited cities along the ancient Silk Road (Samarkand, Bukhara) and had been awestruck staring at the architecture of this amazing civilization and was exasperated that I had known of so little about it. This book I reviewed filled me in brilliantly and so I’m presenting the review once again:


How Arabic Science Saved Ancient
Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance By Jim Al-Khalili
302 pp. The Penguin Press

It is fair to say that even highly educated westerners know virtually nothing about a great eastern classical renaissance that occurred in Muslim lands from the 9th to the 11th centuries. Centered in Baghdad, this phenomenon featured a flood of astronomers, mathematicians, physicians, and philosophers who embraced the Greek legacy of Aristotle, Pythagoras, Archimedes and Hippocrates while it was being buried in the dark ages of medieval Europe.

This ‘western’ Asian golden age was propelled by the Qur'an (in the early stages of the rise of Islam), which saw no conflict between religion and science. By contrast, early Christianity railed against classical Greco-Roman rationalism while successfully launching faith-based feudalism -- a belief system that would prevail for a thousand years. In the fourth century, St. Augustine stated that curiosity was a “disease which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn.”

The enmity between Islam and Christianity was so deep that in the west that this Asian golden age was treated as if it never existed, while in the east later European achievements were similarly ignored. History has lied to both cultures, and we now live in dangerous ignorance of each other's past accomplishments.

Jim Al Khalili, an Iraqi-born physicist living in Britain and a professed atheist, has written about this Asian golden age and its heroes in a book which revises history and sets the record straight. In The House of Wisdom we learn of such Arab geniuses as Abu Ali al Hussein ibn Sina (Avicenna), whom the author ranks as the greatest philosopher between Aristotle and Descartes, and Abu Ali al-Hassan ibn al-Haytham, whom he names the greatest physicist between Archimedes and Newton. Al- Khalili also gives long-overdue examination to the notable Aristotelian philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes), and to al-Biruni, a seminal astronomer.

Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd were so pivotal that Dante, writing in 14th century Christian Italy, places them along with the great Islamic leader Saladin in limbo alongside Aristotle, Hippocrates and Galen. Dante is writing after the Crusades are finished, so the horrible void between east and west was yet to come. It was the last thousand years that virtually evaporated any meaningful awareness that east and west had of each other's culture -- an amazing vacuum which has contributed to the terrible tragedies of contemporary terrorism.

In such a light, The House of Wisdom contains revisionist history of the best kind. In addition to devoting whole chapters to the great Islamic scientists and philosophers and explaining in careful detail the nature of their specific contributions, Al- Khalili shows us the world of the great Caliph Al-Ma'mun, who arrived in Baghdad in 819 A. D. and transformed the city into a great cultural capital. He analyzes the great “translation movement” instituted by the Abbasid caliphs that resulted in a renaissance of Greek science and philosophy. He demonstrates how it was the Arabic translations of the original Greek that aided later Europeans in their own translating efforts of the ancients.

Al-Khalili acknowledges that his reference of this classical golden age as an achievement of Arabic science falls short of the mark. It fails to account for the contributions of the many Persian and Turkic figures such as the Persian astrologer Al-Balkhi, the Persian mathematician Al-Biruni, and the Turkish philosopher Al-Farabi. Much later, the Turkic grandson of Timur Ulugh Beg continued the great tradition of Asian astronomy with his world-class observatory in Samarkand. All of these ethnicities lived under the umbrella of Islam, so ‘Islamic golden age’ might be a better description than ‘Arabic science.’

But this difficulty does not compromise Al-Khalili's achievement. It merely indicates that the west's ignorance of eastern cultural and scientific history needs a great deal of investigation before the full record is understood. The House of Wisdom is an excellent primer.

It will be a difficult task to bridge the communication gap that has existed between the middle- east and the west for a millennium. But efforts must be made. The violence and vicious rhetoric of the past weeks makes one feel like the year is 1095 and not 2015. The House of Wisdom is a book that should be read by the terrorist destroyers and by those who would destroy these destroyers . . . It is always a good time to stop destroying.


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