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

Although I had a hard time imagining ancient knowledge in distress, on a ledge, waiting for a saviour :), I wanted to love this book so, so badly. And in a way, I do love it. But this book suffers from arabicentrism much like European history of science suffers from eurocentrism, and it fails to be convincing on 3 important points:

1. You don’t fight fire with fire.
A good nonfiction book has a clear premise and an agenda. This one is set to prove that major European scientific breakthroughs were possible thanks to previous advancements in Arabic science (in separating astronomy from astrology, in creating mathematical algorithms, in a methodical approach to medicine etc.).

However, it is as culturally skewed, blind, and narrow, as European history of science is in its eurocentrism. Arguments made and substantiated with historical evidence are defended against eurocentrism with arabicentrism, but that bridge is not crossed in a convincing way.

For example, the author conceides that the culture of scholarship introduced under the Abassid Caliphs (VIIIth century onwards) led to a revival of Persian science and culture in the Arab world, mostly through translations. This Greek-Arab syncretism will not be surpassed until the IXth century, when original Arab works will be commissioned – the Arabic science now enters a new era but it remains unclear to what degree it will shake off its earlier syncretism.

But if we are to make a case in defense of an independent Arabic science, how far back should we look? Should we start with the IXth century, or should we look back to its Persian – and by that European roots? The same question applies to European history of science.

In short, you don’t fight culturally skewed arguments with culturally skewed arguments. It’s not strategic, it’s counterproductive in terms of your premise, and inconsistent, in terms of deduction.

2. You don’t shoot two rabbits at once.
Despite its focus on Arabic science, the author shifts the focus back and forth from Arabic to Islamic science, in an attempt to defend or differentiate between the two, depending on the context. Overall, the argument is made in defense of the Arabic science under Islam, and its European reverberations in Europe, through Spain and merchant routes.

Given the premise of this book, a distinct chapter addressing this preference and the difference between the Arab and Islamic worlds would have been useful in clarifying the author’s intent and the scope of this book.

3. “Actions speak louder than words” – ancient Arabic proverb.
If we look at the sources used to write this book, there is a 20-80% ratio in favor of Western scholars, with the rest being Arabic/Islamic scholars. I personally feel that the author took the easy way out, in terms of research, and would have expected more primary, root sources to be analysed.

Lastly, I do believe that it is almost impossible to claim the advent of a concept/ a science under a certain culture – people and ideas travel, human needs are the same and catering to them can lead to similar inventions. But if you are to make this argument convincingly, you have to make it one by one – concept by concept (e.g. the history of zero).

However, I do recommend this book, as it holds interesting information, from a different point of view.


My copy: Jim Al-Khalili: The House of Wisdom. How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance, Penguin, New York, 2010


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