The House of Wisdom

The House of Wisdom

How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance

Book - 2011 | First American edition.
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A myth-shattering view of the medieval Islamic world's myriad scientific innovations, which preceded-and enabled-the European Renaissance.

The Arabic legacy of science and philosophy has long been hidden from the West. British-Iraqi physicist Jim Al-Khalili unveils that legacy to fascinating effect by returning to its roots in the hubs of Arab innovation that would advance science and jump-start the European Renaissance. Inspired by the Koranic injunction to study closely all of God's works, rulers throughout the Islamic world funded armies of scholars who gathered and translated Persian, Sanskrit, and Greek texts. From the ninth through the fourteenth centuries, these scholars built upon those foundations a scientific revolution that bridged the one-thousand-year gap between the ancient Greeks and the European Renaissance.

Many of the innovations that we think of as hallmarks of Western science were actually the result of Arab ingenuity: Astronomers laid the foundations for the heliocentric model of the solar system long before Copernicus; physicians accurately described blood circulation and the inner workings of the eye ages before Europeans solved those mysteries; physicists made discoveries that laid the foundation for Newton's theories of optics. But the most significant legacy of Middle Eastern science was its evidence-based approach-the lack of which kept Europeans in the dark throughout the Dark Ages. The father of this experimental approach to science-what we call the scientific method-was an Iraqi physicist who applied it centuries before Europeans first dabbled in it. Al-Khalili details not only how discoveries like these were made, but also how they changed European minds and how they were ultimately obscured by later Western versions of the same principles.

With transporting detail, Al-Khalili places the reader in the intellectual and cultural hothouses of the Arab Enlightenment: the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, one of the world's greatest academies, the holy city of Isfahan, the melting pots of Damascus and Cairo, and the embattled Islamic outposts of Spain.

Al-Khalili tackles two tantalizing questions: Why did the Arab world enter its own Dark Age after such a dazzling enlightenment? And how much did Arabic learning contribute to making the Western world as we know it? Given his singular combination of expertise in both the Western and Middle Eastern scientific traditions, Al-Khalili is uniquely qualified to solve those riddles.
Publisher: New York : Penguin Press, 2011.
Edition: First American edition.
Copyright Date: ©2010
ISBN: 9781594202797
Branch Call Number: 509.1767 ALK
Characteristics: xxix, 302 pages :,color illustrations ;,24 cm


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Oct 14, 2018

“There are different layers of sophistication in understanding the concept of zero. We are not looking for a mathematician who simply woke up one morning & thought ‘I know what is missing from the number system that would make arthimatic much more versatile & useful: the zero.’ “
“Sleepless, I watch the heavens turn
By the notion of spheres;
Those stars spell out (I don’t know how)
The weal & woe of future years.
If I flew up to the starrry vault
And joined the heavens’ westward flow
I could learn, as I traveled the sky
The fate of all things here below.”
-Caliph al-Ma’mun
“The extremist among them would stamp the sciences as atheistic, & would proclaim that they lead the people astray in order to make ignoramuses, like him, hate the sciences. For this will help him to conceal his ignorance, & to open the door for the complete destruction of sciences & scientists.”
“The Iranian philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush, who is one of the most influential intellectuals in the Muslim world today, has stressed that censorship in today’s Muslim world is stronger than at any other time in history. A cultural renaissance leading to knowledge-based is urgently required if wider Muslim society is to accept & embrace not only the brick & mortar of modern research laboratories along with the shiny particle accelerators & electron microscopes that they house, but the spirit of curiosity that drives mankind to try & understand nature, whether it is to marvel at divine creation or just know how things are the way they are.”
“The ink of a scholar is more sacred than the blood of a martyr.”
-The Prophet Muhammad

ser_library May 08, 2014

i read every word, and learned lots. The presentation was clear and encourages all readers to learn more with open minds.

Sunny39 Jan 22, 2012

didn't finish because it's very scholarly and long, but i agree totally with its premise. also, well researched.

BigMoose Nov 08, 2011

It was a bit disappointing that Al-Khalili focused on quantity rather than quality in his account of Arabic/Islamic scientific achievement. A massive number of names, dates and places revealed precious little about any one individual's singular accomplishments. I am newly informed of their history and the expansive nature of their influence, but I am left unconvinced of (what I suspect is) their wished for "peer-equivalent" greatness with European scholars, which Al-Khalili (again, as I suspect) so desperately wanted to reveal.

All in all, I appreciate Al-Khalili's premise and recognize the difficulty in bringing it convincingly to light in a Western, European-centric or English language focused world. No doubt, there were and are philosophers of major prowess in other parts of the world before, during and after the Renaissance. Too bad Al-Khalili's telling of their stories wasn't more compelling.

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