Monday, January 11, 2010

Are Arabs only footnotes in history?

Not according to Jonathan Lyons, author of “The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization” (Bloomsbury Press, 2009). “Arab science and philosophy” he writes “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?” Jonathan Lyons was a long-time editor and foreign correspondent – mostly in Islamic countries - for Reuters.

His fascinating book joins a growing corpus of studies on the mighty role of Arab scientists and philosophers in the development of Western civilization. These books will influence scholars and educate laymen on the Arab roots of the civilization we all share. “The House of Wisdom” will be released in paperback in March 2010.
The “House of Wisdom” (Bayt Al-Hikma) was one of the greatest intellectual centers in the history of the world. It was founded in Baghdad during the early years of the illustrious Abbasid Caliphate (749 -1258). The “House of Wisdom” was an ecumenical home to brilliant scientists, philosophers, translators, mathematicians and astronomers.

Jonathan Lyons introduces us to many of these intellectual giants, such as mathematician Al-Khwarazmi (c. 800-47), philosopher Al-Kindi (c. 801-66) and translator Hunyan ibn Ishaq (808-73).
Their achievement was to “absorb, master, and build upon classical knowledge,” according to Lyons. They followed all the clues of knowledge left in the languages of Persian, Sanskrit and Greek.
The great works of Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates, Galen, Euclid and Ptolemy were all translated into Arabic, which replaced “Greek as the universal language of scientific inquiry.” The “House of Wisdom” gave the Abbasid dynasty reason to beam with pride in “the religious superiority of Islam” because Muslims “had the good sense to recognize the genius of ancient Greece.”

A passionate spirit of inquiry also defined the important works of Persian physician and philosopher Ibn Sina (980-1037) and Andalusian philosopher Ibn Rushd (1126-98). Known as the “Father of modern medicine,” Ibn Sina wrote “The Canon of Medicine” (1025), which was a leading text in the West for nearly half a millennium.
Ibn Rushd - who appears in Raphael’s Vatican fresco “The School of Athens” - exercised enormous influence over the philosophical debates on the compatibility of faith and reason by leading medieval Christian philosophers, especially Thomas Aquinas.

Lyons also shows how the early Arab critique of Greek astronomy and cosmology paved the way for the foundation of the scientific revolution in the West. Specifically, Lyons posits a plausible theory that Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) might have relied on the work of Arab scientists for many of the critical theorems in his historic book, “De Revolutionibus” (1543).

The revolution that Copernicus inspired changed the scientific world forever, but, as Lyons notes, it was contemplated long before by Greek and Arab scientists.

Lyons laments the way in which Arab contributions to philosophy and science have been deliberately marginalized: “The West’s willful forgetting of the Arab legacy began centuries ago, as anti-Muslim propaganda crafted in the shadow of the Crusades began to obscure any recognition of Arab culture’s profound role in the development of modern science.”

He also criticizes Western historians, who “cast the Arabs as benign but effectively neutral caretakers of Greek knowledge who did little or nothing to advance the work of the ancients.”

It is clear that the “House of Wisdom” marked a turning point in the history of philosophy and science. The Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258 may have destroyed the physical structure of the “House of Wisdom,” but its vision still survives. In Thuwal, Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) was founded to carry on the original mission of Bayt Al-Hikma.

At its opening in September 2009, King Abdullah stated that KAUST “shall be a beacon for peace, hope, and reconciliation and shall serve the people of the Kingdom and benefit all the peoples of the world in keeping with the teachings of the Holy Qur’an, which explains that God created mankind in order for us to come to know each other.”

Jonathan Lyons’s book is a fitting tribute to the Arabs in their search for knowledge and meaning in history. Their journey has transformed the world as we know it. - SG

Joseph Richard Preville is an American writer living in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

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