Fjordman examines an inaccurate and misleading new book:
This text is written in response to the book The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization by Jonathan Lyons, which was published early in 2009. I have made a brief, early review of this book at the Gates of Vienna blog and will expand upon this here. Thematically related to this is John Freely’s Aladdin’s Lamp, which I have also evaluated. I don’t recommend buying either of these books, but Freely’s work is the least bad of the two because he has a better grasp of the history of science than Mr. Lyons does.
Lyons’ work is 200 pages long, Freely’s 255 pages. Neither of them mentions the terms “Jihad” or “dhimmi” even once in their accounts of Islamic culture. This says a great deal about the current intellectual climate. I didn’t notice these words while reading the books and they are not listed in the indexes. The authors certainly don’t devote much time to debating the violent aspects of Islamic expansionism through the Islamically unique institution of Jihad or the fates of the conquered peoples, as documented by Bat Ye’or and others. Is it a coincidence that whatever useful scholarly work that was done in the Middle East happened during the first centuries of the Islamic era, while there were still many non-Muslims living in the region? The question is never debated by these authors, but in my view it deserves to be.
Stephen O’Shea of The Los Angeles Times in a very positive review claims that “Dust will never gather on Jonathan Lyons’ lively new book of medieval history.” I disagree. I consider The House of Wisdom to be a bad case of poor scholarship. The best thing I can say about it is that it is not as bad as God’s Crucible by the American historian David Levering Lewis, which I have written about previously. Lewis says in more or less plain words that it would have been better if Islam had conquered all of Europe and wiped out Western civilization. Incidentally, another person who believed this was Adolf Hitler, who lamented the fact that he had to deal with Christianity, with its nonsense about compassion and love, rather than Islam, which would have been a better match for his Nazism. The feeling was apparently mutual, as Adolf Hitler is still a bestselling author in the Islamic world, including in “moderate” Turkey.
Let us start with one of the few worthwhile quotes in the book. Jonathan Lyons writes about the collapse of the (Western) Roman Empire and notes how “The Muslim conquests around the eastern Mediterranean three hundred years later sealed the West’s isolation by choking off easy access to the Byzantine Christians based in far-off Constantinople, where some traces of the Greek intellectual tradition could still be found.”
This confirms my claim that the endemic Jihad raids in the Mediterranean for centuries severely disrupted normal communications between Western Europe and the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire, where Classical texts were still preserved. There is great interest these days in the recovery of learning in Europe during the High Middle Ages, with focus on the translation movement which started with Arabic translations and later progressed to original Greek and Latin sources. This recovery of Classical knowledge was indeed important, but it couldn’t be fully implemented prior to the re-urbanization of the continent, which again wasn’t possible until some degree of political stability had been re-established after AD 1000 following the barbarian invasions. Since Jihad raids continued throughout the Early Middle Ages and this contributed to the instability, you could make a strong case for claiming that Muslims significantly delayed Europe’s recovery. Also, too much emphasis is currently placed on the translations themselves and too little on how the knowledge was actually used. After the translation movement, it is striking to notice how fast Europeans surpassed whatever scholarly achievements had been made in the medieval Middle East.
From the eleventh century onwards, more political stability and an extension of the money economy to include the countryside combined with technological improvements such as the spread of water wheels and windmills generated a rapid growth of the European population.
As scholar David Lindberg explains in The Beginnings of Western Science, “exact figures are not available, but between 1000 and 1200 the population of Europe may have doubled, tripled, or even quadrupled, while the city-dwelling portion of this population increased even more rapidly. Urbanization, in turn, provided economic opportunity, allowed for the concentration of wealth, and encouraged the growth of schools and intellectual culture. It is widely agreed that a close relationship exists between education and urbanization. The disappearance of the ancient schools was associated with the decline of the ancient city; and educational invigoration followed quickly upon the reurbanization of Europe in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.” Because of this, “An educational revolution was in progress, driven by European affluence, ample career opportunities for the educated, and the intellectual excitement generated by teachers such as Peter Abelard. Out of the revolution emerged a new institution, the European university, which would play a vital role in promoting the natural sciences.”
Peter Abelard, or Pierre AbÃ©lard (1079-1142), was a French scholastic philosopher and theologian who was very influential in his time as a thinker and teacher. He was a poet and a musician as well, and became famous for his luckless love affair with HÃ©loÃ¯se. First and foremost, he was one of the greatest logicians of the Middle Ages. He championed the use of reason in matters of faith and was among the first to use “theology” in its modern sense.
While university-educated people were a minuscule fraction of the total European population, their cumulative influence should not be underestimated. A striking number of the leading scholars in early modern Europe, from Copernicus to Galileo and Newton, had studied at these institutions. They emerged gradually out of preexisting schools, but it is customary to say that Bologna had achieved university status by 1150, Paris by about 1200 and Oxford before 1220. Later universities were generally modeled on one or another of these three.
This network constituted a crucial innovation compared to other civilizations at the time. Although the Scientific Revolution began in the seventeenth century with the systematic use of the experimental method and a more critical view of the knowledge of the ancients, exemplified by individuals such as Galileo, the institutional basis for these later developments was laid with the natural philosophers of the medieval universities. As Lindberg states, “for the most part the universities managed the rare and remarkable feat of securing patronage and protection with only minimal interference,” and “it must be emphatically stated that within this educational system the medieval master had a great deal of freedom.”
Lyons writes about the Iberian Peninsula in the Islamic period, where some silly Christian fanatics apparently had the nerve to object to their oppressed status under Islamic rule:
“A handful of anti-Arab conservatives launched a campaign to incite Christians to slander the Prophet Muhammad in public, in the hopes that severe treatment of the militants would provoke a rebellion. A small number of these so-called Cordoba Martyrs were in fact executed, but only after Muslim and Christian leaders tried without success to defuse the crisis peacefully. The movement never caught fire, and good relations among the faiths were restored. Yet the bishop’s deepest fears were not without foundation: The widespread use of Arabic did help break Latin’s stranglehold on Europe’s literary and learned speech, paving the way for the rise of the vernacular languages and the great works of ‘national’ writers. These include Cervantes, who uses the device of a lost Arab ‘original’ author, Sidi ben Hamed, to frame his story of Don Quixote; Dante, whose description of Paradise and the Inferno almost certainly spring from Islamic models then in European circulation; and Shakespeare.”
There are so many things wrong with this paragraph that I hardly know where to begin. It is disturbing to notice that “good relations” between different faiths even during this supposedly “Golden Age of Tolerance” meant submission to Islamic rule and that non-Muslims were murdered for saying anything critical of Islam. Moreover, what broke the dominance of Latin in Europe was the printing press, not Arabic.
No direct link has ever been proven between Gutenberg’s printing press and printing in East Asia, although it is conceivable that the very idea of printing had been imported to Europe. In contrast, we know with 100% certainty that Muslims were familiar with East Asian printing but aggressively rejected it. Scholar Thomas Allsen has described how the authorities in Iran under Mongolian rule in 1294 attempted to introduce Chinese-style printed banknotes but failed due to popular resistance:
“Certainly the Muslim world exhibited an active and sustained opposition to movable type technologies emanating from Europe in the fifteenth century and later. This opposition, based on social, religious, and political considerations, lasted well into the eighteenth century. Only then were presses of European origin introduced into the Ottoman Empire and only in the next century did printing become widespread in the Arab world and Iran. This long-term reluctance, the disinterest in European typography, and the failure to exploit the indigenous printing traditions of Egypt certainly argue for some kind of fundamental structural or ideological antipathy to this particular technology.”
It is likely that due to trade, Middle Easterners were familiar with this invention centuries before this incident, yet because of Islamic religious resistance they did not adopt it until a thousand years or more after printing had been invented in China. Minorities such as Jews or Greek and Armenian Christians were the first to use printing presses in the Ottoman realms. The first book printed in the Persian language was probably a Judaeo-Persian Pentateuch.
It was a major stroke of historical luck that printing was introduced in Europe at exactly the same time as the last vestige of the Roman Empire fell to Muslims. Texts that had been preserved in Constantinople for a thousand years could now be permanently rescued. As Elizabeth L. Eisenstein says in her monumental work The Printing Press as an Agent of Change:
“The classical editions, dictionaries, grammar and reference guides issued from print shops made it possible to achieve an unprecedented mastery of Alexandrian learning even while laying the basis for a new kind of permanent Greek revival in the West….We now tend to take for granted that the study of Greek would continue to flourish after the main Greek manuscript centers had fallen into alien hands and hence fail to appreciate how remarkable it was to find that Homer and Plato had not been buried anew but had, on the contrary, been disinterred forever more. Surely Ottoman advances would have been catastrophic before the advent of printing. Texts and scholars scattered in nearby regions might have prolonged the study of Greek but only in a temporary way.”
During the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, reformers such as Martin Luther wanted the Bible to be available in the vernacular. Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin in The Coming of the Book estimate that about 77% of the books printed before 1500 were in Latin, with religious books predominant. While it is true that this would eventually give way to secular books in German, English, French etc., this process was gradual and “it was not until the late 17th century that Latin was finally overthrown and replaced by the other national languages and by French as the natural language of philosophy, science and diplomacy.”
As writer Peter Watson says in his book Ideas, “The death of Latin was slow. Descartes wrote the Discours de la MÃ©thode in French but his correspondence was usually in Latin. It was still imperative to write in Latin if one wanted to address a European audience. Latin did not finally succumb until the seventeenth century, after which French became the language of science, philosophy and diplomacy, when every educated European had to know French and when books in French were sold all over Europe.”
Latin as a scholarly lingua franca was very much alive in seventeenth century Europe; it was studied and used by the leading names of the Scientific Revolution, from Francis Bacon via RenÃ© Descartes to Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, and while its importance steadily declined it was still worth knowing in the eighteenth century and beyond. Even Shakespeare, who wrote for the popular theaters in English, added numerous Latin quotes and references.
Mozart’s father was a respected composer and a competent musician. Beethoven, too, came from a musical family. This does of course not explain their genius – millions of people come from musical families without becoming a Mozart or a Beethoven – but it does at least provide a hint of where they got their talent from. In contrast, we have absolutely no indications as to where William Shakespeare (1564-1616) got his exceptional gift. Perhaps this is why there are so many nonsensical theories about how his plays were actually written by somebody else. As a matter of fact, we do know quite a bit about the historical person Shakespeare, often more than we know about some of his contemporaries.
He wrote from before 1590 until at least 1614. His reputation grew rapidly during the 1590s, and his plays were instrumental in changing the styles of acting. He had the good fortune to work most of his time for a single theatrical company as an actor and dramatist. This stability provided him with good working conditions and the opportunity to work with known performers and associates. Some of his actors were business partners, too. Theater was the closest thing to a modern mass entertainment industry in Elizabethan and Jacobean London.
According to the Arden Shakespeare Complete Works, “He was an actor, a ‘sharer’ in the acting company (that is, no mere hireling but a partner entitled to share in its profits) and, of course, a leading playwright. He began, however, more humbly. We know a remarkable amount, for this period, about Shakespeare and his family. He was born late in April 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon. The parish church records his baptism on 26 April; his unrecorded birthdate is conventionally set three days earlier on the 23 April, St George’s Day (and also, apparently, the date of Shakespeare’s death). His father was John Shakespeare, a glover and later a wool merchant, and his mother was Mary Arden, daughter of a well-established farmer in the nearby village of Wilmcote. Though the records have not survived, we can safely assume that he attended the King’s New School, the Stratford grammar school with its strenuous classically based curriculum, but we know for certain that at the age of eighteen he married Anne Hathaway, also of Stratford, and that a daughter, Susanna, was born to them, as the parish records note, on 26 May 1583. On 2 February 1585 the register records the birth of twins, Hamnet and Judith.”
He got a good education in the classics of Greco-Roman literature. As one online biography states, “young Shakespeare would have become thoroughly grounded in Latin, acquired some background in Greek, and developed enough linguistic facility to pick up whatever he may have wanted later from such modern languages as Italian and French. Along the way he would have become familiar with such authors as Aesop, Caesar, Cicero, Sallust, Livy, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, and Seneca. He would have studied logic and rhetoric as well as grammar, and he would have been taught the principles of composition and oratory from the writings of such masters as Quintilian and Erasmus.”
According to Stanley Wells in Shakespeare: For All Time, the knowledge of Latin among Elizabethan schoolboys, even in an English town of secondary importance such as Stratford, was sufficient to enjoy the Classical literature. Shakespeare was familiar with Roman writers Virgil, Cicero, Julius Caesar and the historian Plutarch and probably knew Ovid’s poems in the original Latin. During the Renaissance, students were taught how to argue both sides of a case in the manner of Cicero, who was himself extensively educated in Greek philosophy and knew the concept of Socratic Method or Dialogue well. His method of showing both sides of the story in order to uncover the truth was extensively used by Shakespeare in his plays, although the passages of Socratic dialectic in Cicero’s works are not as prominent as in Plato’s writings about Socrates. Shakespeare had an enormous vocabulary and expanded it in imaginative ways. Among the words he allegedly introduced that are still in use in English today are “accommodation,” “addiction,” “comply,” “discontent” and “reinforcement.” His most important source of linguistic inspiration, next to Greco-Roman writers, was the Bible.
Practically nothing of what Shakespeare used as a literary inspiration was available in the Islamic world at any point, despite the fact that much of North Africa and the Middle East had for centuries been a part of the Roman Empire. Latin writers were completely ignored by Muslims whereas the Roman writer Cicero had a huge impact on Western political thought, from Machiavelli and Montesquieu to the American Founding Fathers (see my essay The Importance of Cicero in Western Thought). While many Greek works on science and philosophy were translated into Arabic, often by non-Muslims, works on history, drama, art or politics held no interest for Muslims at all. Many central works of Greek or other literature are still not available in Arabic, Persian or Turkish translations to this day, yet can be read in the languages of European nations that were never a part of the Roman Empire, for instance Norwegian, Finnish or Polish. So much for our “shared Classical heritage.”
The re-writing of European history has become so bad that Shakespeare has been proclaimed a closet Muslim. “Shakespeare would have delighted in Sufism,” said the Islamic scholar Martin Lings, himself a Sufi Muslim, in 2004. According to newspaper The Guardian, Lings argued that Shakespeare’s work “resembles the teachings of the Islamic Sufi sect” in the International Shakespeare Globe Fellowship Lecture at Shakespeare’s own Globe Theatre in London. Lings spoke during Islam Awareness Week.
As Robert Spencer commented back then, “Shakespeare is just the latest paradigmatic figure of Western Christian culture to be remade in a Muslim-friendly manner: recently the State Department asserted, without a shred of evidence, that Christopher Columbus (who in fact praised Ferdinand and Isabella for driving the Muslims out of Spain) was aided on his voyages by a Muslim navigator. It is a sign of the times when this kind of thinking is no longer confined to Islamic apologetics websites, but is taken up by the Globe Theatre and the U.S. State Department – hardly representatives of the cultural fringes – and even American textbook publishers. The state of American education is so dismal today that teachers themselves are ill-equipped to counter these historical fantasies. They will become willing propagators of the new history: nothing to fear from Muslims, you see. Shakespeare was one of them. Oh yes, and Goethe. And Abraham Lincoln’s mother.”
However, the very concept of “theater” hardly existed in medieval or early modern Islam; it’s another part of the Greco-Roman heritage that was not “shared, preserved and passed on to us” by Muslims since they were never interested in it even at the best of times. The theater, perhaps because of its association with pagan rites in Antiquity, disappeared from the Middle East in the Islamic Middle Ages and did not reappear until centuries later. Bernard Lewis explains in The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years:
“The notion of a play – of a connected performance with a narrative thread and a more or less prepared text – is first attested in the fourteenth century, notably in Egypt and Turkey. The characters were played by puppets or by shadows projected on a screen. The words were spoken by a puppet master….Puppets were known from antiquity. The shadow-play, far more popular in the central Islamic lands, appears to have been introduced from east Asia, possibly in the time of the Turks or Mongols, who opened new lines of communication between eastern and western Asia. The introduction of the theatre in the strict sense, with human actors playing roles in a developing story with a prepared text, dates from the Ottoman period and was almost certainly the work of Jewish refugees from Europe, chiefly from Spain, who came in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. We hear of Jewish and later also Christian – Armenian and Greek – troupes performing, presumably in Turkish, at court and other celebrations. All this, however, was very limited in scope and effect, and the real introduction of the theatre as an art form dates only from the period of European influence in the nineteenth century.”
Muslims rejected most aspects of the Roman heritage and many aspects of the Greek one, from wine, sculpture and pictorial arts to theater. In fact, the only aspect of Greco-Roman civilization I can think of which was more compatible with Islamic culture than with Christian culture was slavery, which was very widespread in Greco-Roman society. While the specific nature of slavery in the Islamic world was admittedly quite different from its Roman counterpart, the very concept of slavery was certainly more acceptable to Muslims than to Christians. This does not mean that it was never practiced by Christians; the transatlantic slave trade is one of the darkest chapters in Western history by any standard. What it means is that it coexisted quite well with Islamic doctrines, but not with Christian ones. It triggered internal tension in the Western world, contributed to a civil war in the United States and was eventually abandoned. In a wide historical perspective, there is no doubt that that major force behind the abolishment of slavery in European history was Christianity.
As historian Paul Fregosi puts it, “Slavery was accepted as normal by Muslims. It was also tolerated by Christians, with this difference: slavery was considered by Christians to be a reprehensible institution, notably in the later days of Wilberforce and Harriet Beecher Stowe and even well before, when Bartolomeo de Las Casas preached in Peru in the sixteenth century.”
There was never any serious native opposition to slavery within the Islamic world before they encountered external Western pressure in the nineteenth century. In fact, slavery remains perfectly legal according to Islamic law to this day and may well resurface as soon as this external pressure disappears. We can already see signs in the early twenty-first century, with a weaker Western world, of resurgent piracy and kidnappings of non-Muslims for ransom, similar to traditional Jihad raids of earlier times. Fregosi writes in his book Jihad in the West:
“Since the Koran, unlike the Bible, is for the Muslim eternal and uncreated, and every word of it valid for all times, it makes slavery today, and certainly also in the sixteenth century, as admissible as it was in the days of the Prophet. In the year 1625 there were some twenty thousand Christian slaves in Algiers. The Order of the Holy Trinity, founded in the twelfth century, ransomed a total of ninety thousand Christians from slavery during its centuries of work in North Africa. One of them was the writer of Don Quixote, Cervantes, for whose release the Trinitarians paid five hundred gold ducats. At one time Barbarossa had thirty-six galleots, all his personal property, raiding hither and thither out of Algiers, of which he was virtually the king. Some seven thousand Christian slaves, most of them captured at sea or on raids in Spain, Provence, and Italy, labored on the defenses of the port.”
The great Spanish novelist, playwright and poet Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) was a contemporary of Shakespeare, and his novel Don Quixote or Don Quijote from the early 1600s pioneered that genre in Europe. Tradition has them dying within a day of each other, Cervantes on April 22 in Madrid and Shakespeare on April 23 in 1616. They both created a fascinating and expansive literary world of morally and psychologically complex characters. Cervantes affected the development of the Spanish language almost as much as Shakespeare influenced the English one. He personally participated in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 to prevent the Ottoman Turks from advancing further into Europe. He fought bravely and due to wounds he received lost his left arm to amputation, but nevertheless proceeded to write his greatest works after that. He survived years of Islamic captivity as a slave after having been captured by Algerian Muslim corsairs. I am fairly certain that Cervantes would have challenged Mr. Lyons to a duel had he been alive and heard that Lyons used his name to praise Islamic culture. I feel equally certain that Cervantes would have won that duel.
It is interesting to ponder why, despite the alleged glory of “Islamic Spain and Portugal,” there never was a writer of Cervantes’ stature in Spain during the Islamic era. Pictorial arts were never encouraged in Islamic culture, which means that all of Spain’s great painters, from El Greco (1541-1614) and Diego VelÃ¡zquez (1599-1660) to Francisco Goya (1746-1828) and for that matter Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), could not have been produced within that culture.
We should also remember how much Islamic Jihad has destroyed, in Europe and elsewhere. Muslims have spent almost 1400 years wiping out Greek-speaking communities throughout the entire Eastern Mediterranean, yet they now want credit for “preserving the Greek cultural heritage.” I have made a brief account of the devastation brought in various regions of Europe by Muslims in my book Defeating Eurabia. Some of it can be read online in the essay Fourteen Centuries of War Against European Civilization….
As Ibn Warraq writes in his excellent book Defending the West:
“Where the French presence lasted fewer than four years before they were ignominiously expelled by the British and Turks, the Ottomans had been the masters of Egypt since 1517, a total of 280 years. Even if we count the later British and French protectorates, Egypt was under Western control for sixty-seven years, Syria for twenty-one years, and Iraq for only fifteen – and, of course, Saudi Arabia was never under Western control. Contrast this with southern Spain, which was under the Muslim yoke for 781 years, Greece for 381 years, and the splendid new Christian capital that eclipsed Rome – Byzantium – which is still in Muslim hands. But no Spanish or Greek politics of victimhood apparently exist.”
Despite this, Lyons in The House of Wisdom unilaterally blames “the potent Christian propaganda machine” behind the Crusades for the bad Western image of Muslims: “At the time, the West knew little of Islam and its teachings, but church ideologues successfully sowed the seeds of holy war by painting a highly damaging portrait of the Muslims.”
Frankly, I suspect that the reason for the Crusades was that Europeans did know something of Islam and its teachings. They had by then been at the receiving end of unprovoked Jihad warfare for centuries. More about that in The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) by Robert Spencer. Here is what Bernard Lewis writes in The Crisis of Islam:
“Jihad is sometimes presented as the Muslim equivalent of the Crusade, and the two are seen as more or less equivalent. In a sense this is true – both were proclaimed and waged as holy wars for the true faith against an infidel enemy. But there is a difference. The Crusade is a late development in Christian history and, in a sense, marks a radical departure from basic Christian values as expressed in the Gospels. Christendom had been under attack since the seventh century, and had lost vast territories to Muslim rule; the concept of a holy war, more commonly, a just war, was familiar since antiquity. Yet in the long struggle between Islam and Christendom, the Crusade was late, limited, and of relatively brief duration. Jihad is present from the beginning of Islamic history – in scripture, in the life of the Prophet, and in the actions of his companions and immediate successors. It has continued throughout Islamic history and retains its appeal to the present day.”
Jonathan Lyons is not too reliable or balanced in his writings about the history of science, either. He admits that none of the scholars in the Islamic world ever did anything as bold as placing the Earth in orbit around the Sun, as Copernicus did, but he claims that “highly sophisticated Arab scientists” facilitated this great breakthrough. So why didn’t these Muslim scholars make the same breakthrough on their own when they had the same starting point?
He makes absolutely no mention whatsoever of the heliocentric theory of Aristarchus of Samos from the third century BC. Indeed, the name “Aristarchus” is not listed in the index of the book, which means that either is Mr. Lyons unaware of the fact that a heliocentric theory had been proposed before Copernicus or he deliberately chooses to ignore this in order to artificially inflate the alleged virtues of “Arab science” vis-Ã -vis the ancient Greeks as well as modern Europeans. In both cases it undermines his credibility as a writer.
While we should give credit to scholars in the medieval Islamic world when they made real contributions, we should not forget the huge debt they owed to earlier cultures, to the Indians and the Chinese, the Egyptians and Mesopotamians and above all to the ancient Greeks. Lyons talks extensively about the astrolabe, yet he does not mention the man who made strong contributions to the development of this instrument, the astronomer and mathematician Hipparchus from the second century BC. He was the greatest of all Greek astronomers next to Ptolemy, and even Ptolemy, whose astronomy was standard in Europe until the sixteenth century and in the Middle East longer still, owed much to him. Hipparchus ranks among the top twenty, probably top ten, of the greatest astronomers in history. He is, briefly put, just too important to ignore and should be included in any serious work dealing with these subjects.
The English monk and scholar Adelard of Bath, who traveled to the East in the early twelfth century and made Latin translations of texts such as Euclid’s Elements from Arabic sources, is a prominent figure in The House of Wisdom. However, as far as I can see, Jonathan Lyons doesn’t mention the important and prolific Flemish translator William of Moerbeke, who was fluent in Greek, made highly accurate translations directly from Byzantine Greek originals and improved earlier, flawed translations of some works. His Latin translation of Aristotle’s Politics was completed around 1260 and helped to expand the political vocabulary of Europe.
William of Moerbeke’s friend Thomas Aquinas, who was also a friar of the Dominican order and had contacts at the highest levels at the Vatican, used these translations of all of Aristotle’s texts as the basis for his highly influential work Summa Theologica. Aquinas referred to Maimonides and to Muslim interpreters of Aristotle such as Averroes and Avicenna, but he was critical of Averroes and refuted some of his use of Aristotle.
One of the worst omissions in the entire book is Ibn al-Haytham, or Alhazen. I searched in vain for his name, which is not listed in the index. It is embarrassing for a book written specifically to criticize Westerners for their lack of appreciation of “Islamic science” to completely fail to mention arguably the greatest scientist ever born in the Islamic world with a single word. It’s like writing a history of European science without mentioning Newton or Galileo. By saying that I do not mean to imply that Alhazen was of the same stature as Newton or Galileo. He was not. No scientist of that stature has ever been born in the Islamic world. But he was a competent scholar who did have a significant influence in optics, and arguably represents the highest peak of scholarship in the medieval Middle East.
Another omission, not as bad as Alhazen but bad enough, is Ulugh Beg. He was one of the best observational astronomers during the Middle Ages, yet he, too, is totally ignored. I find it a bit odd that I, being a hardened critic of Islam and thus one of the persons Mr. Lyons warns against, have to lecture him on which Muslims scholars deserve to be mentioned. When the author manages to leave out so many crucial figures entirely, one is left with the strong impression that he simply doesn’t know what he is talking about.
Even though medieval Europeans invented mechanical clocks and Muslims did not, despite a similar starting point, on page four of his book Jonathan Lyons writes the following:
“The arrival of Arab science and philosophy, the legacy of the pioneering Adelard and of those who hurried to follow his example, transmuted the backward West into a scientific and technological superpower. Like the elusive ‘elixir’ – from the alchemists’ al-iksir – for changing base metal into gold, Arab science altered medieval Christendom beyond recognition. For the first time in centuries, Europe’s eyes opened to the world around it. This encounter with Arab science even restored the art of telling time, lost to the western Christians of the early Middle Ages. Without accurate control over clock and calendar, the rational organization of society was unthinkable. And so was the development of science, technology, and industry, as well as the liberation of man from the thrall of nature. Arab science and philosophy 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?”
This isn’t serious scholarship; it is myth-making. Muslims clearly owe vastly more of science to Westerners than we owe to them. Perhaps it’s time they start repaying their debt to us, not vice versa. I’m not suggesting that there was no good scholarly work done in the Islamic world. There are a few Muslim scholars from the medieval period whom I respect. Their contributions should not be ignored, but nor should they be inflated beyond all proportions as Lyons does. If the Western scientific and technological contribution to the world is the size of an elephant then the Muslim one is the size of a squirrel, or a Chihuahua at best. There’s no shame in that. I like squirrels, but I would never confuse one with an elephant.