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House of Wisdom by Jonathan Lyons

As vaunted as the minds of the scientific revolution might be, their achievements were only possible thanks to the philosophers, mathematicians, physicians, and scientists that came before them. The House of Wisdom focuses on such thinkers of the Arab realms of the Middle Ages. In the West, such minds as Averroes, Avicenna, Al-Khwarizmi, and many others are largely forgotten, but their work was instrumental in moving knowledge forward. The House of Wisdom introduces readers to these thinkers as well as the Arab realm’s general approach to learning and research. From there, it goes on to explain how European scholars began to absorb Arab knowledge. (While the book’s name is a nod to the ancient Baghdad library The House of Wisdom, this is not a book dedicated to the building. There is a chapter discussing it, but that’s the extent to which the library is mentioned.)

While the book starts out early in the time of the Crusades, things do bounce around a bit to cover everything Lyons sets out to explore. One of the main Europeans featured prominently in the book is Abelard of Bath, who was a rare, open-minded individual who went to Antioch himself to learn as much as he could from Arab thinkers and bring that knowledge back to his homeland.

Even before then, Europeans were slowly learning from them, especially in Spain. At the time, much of the Iberian peninsula was held by the Ummayad dynasty, where all manner of subjects were being researched ranging from astronomy to agriculture to medicine. By comparison, Europe was downright backward. Scholars there were working with highly questionable interpretations of Greek thinkers. They still believed the Earth was flat thanks to a mistranslated Greek work (the Arabs were already well aware that it was a sphere at this point).

Early on, Europeans sought more practical advice from the Arabs like accurate ways to tell time during the day and night, and how to make an accurate calendar. Interestingly, this shows that both faiths looked to science and mathematics for help for the same reasons: they needed to know the time of day so they knew when to pray, and they also needed reliable calendars so that they knew when their most important events were approaching (Easter and Ramadan). In the case of Islam, they also started to research math and geography a lot more so that people could figure out what direction to face while praying. It was interesting to see how such practical needs in the Middle East drove parts of their research with Europeans later adopting their methods for similar reasons. This resulted in the astrolabe, a tool that could make calculations for all of these, and was portable enough to take anywhere. The device was a real game changer in the world of astronomy, geometry, and mathematics.

The book spent a lot of time talking about this tool. It really became all the rage in Europe and was a catalyst for young students at cathedral colleges to make the trip to places like Spain and Sicily where they could learn from the Arabs. If they were particularly adventurous, they’d brave the journey all the way to major Arab cities of the Middle East like Damascus, Antioch, or Baghdad.

Of course, there was a lot of push from conservative members of the Church, but even when they put out edicts banning the study of this or that Arab leader, the response from many of these young students was basically, “Yeah, whatever” and they kept on learning more and more from them.

Some of the stuff was pretty difficult to bring into the fold both in the Islamic and Catholic world. In particular was some of Aristotle’s ideas. He brought forth the notion of the eternal world that was always there, which was in conflict with those religions’ view that God willed the world into existence. It also got people asking what God was up to before creating the world. For all involved, these ideas were really tough to embrace, which was vexing because so much of his other work is useful on a practical level. Eventually, the Arab physician Averroes came along and did his best to create a framework where Aristotle’s thinking could be brought into the fold, at least with regards to Islam. He had his detractors at home, but for the most part his theories stuck. When his works were translated into Latin and made their way into Europe, scholars there became extremely interested in his ideas. The higher ups in the Church weren’t keen on this and tried to put a stop to it, but when this proved futile, they eventually brought in Thomas Aquinas to find a way to make as much of Averroes / Aristotle’s ideas work as possible within Catholic framework.

Besides Abelard, it was interesting to learn about other Europeans far more inclined to learn from the Arabs than to continue with some of the backward ways of thinking so common on the continent. In particular, it looks like Sicilian rulers were very much interested in what could be learned from their scholars. King Roger II had more Arabs than Europeans in his army, many of his physicians were Arab, as were the scholars working for him. He felt that there was much to be learned from the thinkers of the Middle East and North Africa. The same held true for Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor during the first half of the 13th century. He routinely got into huge arguments with the Pope because he was so eager to learn from Arab scholars while the Church was trying to reduce their influence. Their fueding became so bad that Frederick was actually excommunicated three times and even labelled as the Antichrist by the Pope.

The book also discussing quite a lot about how the Arab regions were both eager to learn more and to build upon what they have learned. Whenever they came across forgotten texts from the ancient Greeks, they were quick to translate and copy them, learning everything they could from them. When they heard all of the progress being made by thinkers in India across a number of fields, they sent representatives to India, and invited them to Baghdad in hopes of learning from them as well. They were very happy when India agreed and taught them more than they could have hoped (introducing our modern number system, the concept of zero, and how to use sine for basic trigonometry). Beyond this, Arab scholars put a lot of emphasis on building upon what they learned on their own. It was common for a scholar to bequeath his research to a protoge upon his death so that the work could continue.

Overall, The House of Wisdom was a very interesting journey, introducing a number of scholars from the Arab world. They really are the foundation of a lot that would come along centuries later in Europe. Their contributions to countless fields were massive. They were even working on establishing the basis of the scientific method centuries before Europe. If these thinkers hadn’t come along, one has to wonder what sort of state the world would be in today.



May 22, 2021

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