How I Obtained The House of Wisdom
I don’t quite remember how I got this book. I thought I bought it from Gleebooks on a sale but the back tag says its from Berkelouw books. I guess a relative of mine might have given it to me.
I took me 3 weeks to get through this book, even though it is about 200 pages. In addition to life getting a bit messy and disrupting my reading patterns, the book is quite technical. As a narrative, it reads fine, but it goes in depth descriptions of old technologies and science. And the science is not one you would have studied necessarily at school – its the science that made what you study at school possible.
The book doesn’t comprise a plot in the normal sense – it is a history book that mainly discusses the greatest scientific achievements during the Islamic Golden Age, which was simultaneous the Dark or Mediaeval ages in Europe. The book then narrates the trickle of the scientific knowledge into the West, and how the West faced the same religious dilemma that the Islamic world faced a few hundred years earlier.
While there are many distinguished old scientists mentioned in The House of Wisdom – such as Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Ibn Sinna (Avicenna) and Al Rhazi (Rhazes) – I’d say the most recurring character is Adelard of Bath. Adelard of Bath was a young English scholar who developed an interest in Arabic philosophy and science and embarked on his Studia Arabum journey. There he had his first encounters with Arabic philosophy and mathematics.
I also enjoyed Fibonacci’s comment on the Arabic numeral system ‘”The nine Indian figures are : 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1. with these nine figures, and with the sign 0 which the Arabs call zephyr (al-sifr), any number whatsoever is written.” – if you’ve had contact with the IT world and agile methodologies, you would have heard of Fibonacci.
There is much to take from The House of Wisdom.
It touches on a lot of different themes that are just as present today as they were a thousand years ago. Lyons discusses the wilful erasure of the scientific contributions Arabs made by the Europeans. He illustrates how texts that the Arabs had translated into Arabic by the Greeks were studies by the Europeans (Lyons refers to them as the Latins in his texts) in Arabic, but the commentary of the Arabs was forgotten with time. I suppose we could call that White washing.
However, I don’t want to linger on the nostalgic notion of an Arab past which is unreachable at this point (Many Muslims and Arabs like to do this) or be bitter about the erasure of their contributions. I do want to focus on the collective contribution to knowledge and learning made by all races to the human condition. The House of Wisdom discusses how the Arabs adopted the works of the ancient Greeks, Indians, Chinese and Persians and began to build on that knowledge. The Europeans, in turn, did the same.
I feel that this is particularly important, especially in the current pandemic humanity – once again, as a collective – is facing. It shows us that we are – in all of our colours, religions and races – the same. We all have the intellect to innovate, we are all vulnerable to the same illnesses and when one nation heads towards a depression, the rest of the world tends to follow.
We have never been quite as connected as we are now – I hope that those who are masters of divisive rhetoric would be a witness to that.