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(p. 18) The upshot was, while the Greek works in particular were disappearing in Europe, they were being preserved in Arabic to be retranslated later into Latin for a rebirth of “lost” knowledge. This is one half of the point the author makes frequently in the text and, in boldface, as the book’s subtitle.
The other half is that contrary to some doubters, the Arab interest in learning extended well beyond translations: thinkers working alone or in observatories and houses of wisdom were conducting original research during “the world’s most impressive period of scholarship and learning since ancient Greece.” Accordingly, al-Khalili writes that al-Mamun stands as “the greatest patron of science in the cavalcade of Islamic rulers.”
Sometimes al-Khalili, like a lawyer who suspects a jury of unyielding skepticism, strains to give stature to the leading lights of Arabic science in the Middle Ages. But modern historians of science agree that more attention should be given to the Arab contribution to the preservation and expansion of knowledge at this critical period, and the author has done so in considerable detail and with rising passion.
But that was then, and al-Khalili is obligated to end on an inescapable but deflating note: science today is in a chronic state of neglect in the Arab world and the broader Islamic culture of more than one billion people. Al-Khalili spreads the blame widely, citing inadequate financing for research and education, sclerotic bureaucracies, religious conservatism, even an ingrained fear of science. The Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam, perhaps the greatest Muslim scientist of the last century, won a Nobel Prize in 1979 and did what he could to promote a scientific renaissance among his people, without success. “Of all civilizations on this planet, science is weakest in the lands of Islam,” Salam said in despair. “The dangers of this weakness cannot be overemphasized since the honorable survival of a society depends directly on its science and technology in the condition of the present age.”
By recounting Arabic science’s luminous past, al-Khalili says, he hopes to instill a sense of pride that will “propel the importance of scientific enquiry back to where it belongs: at the very heart of what defines a civilized and enlightened society.”
For the full review, see:
JOHN NOBLE WILFORD. “The Muslim Art of Science.” The New York Times Book Review (Sun., May 22, 2011): 18.
(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 20, 2011.)
The full reference for the book under review, is:
al-Khalili, Jim. The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance. New York: The Penguin Press, 2010.