The House of Wisdom and the Legacy of Arabic Science


*A summary of the lecture given by Prof. Jim Al-Khalili, theoretical nuclear physicist.

**italics are my own take

The lecture kicked off with the Prof. explaining what prompted his interest in the legacy of Arab science. Born in Baghdad to a Iraqi father and English mother he was raised in the UK, and when he got older he became interested in the scientific history of his ancestors. He felt it may something he should be taking pride in, and wanted to promote knowledge of this era of scientific history which neither the West nor the Islamic/Arab east knew much about, or at least an era whose significance in modern-day science is under-appreciated.

Arab science is often viewed as merely presentational, the scientists of the age are assumed to have only translated and kept the scientific discoveries of the Greeks, then passing them on to Europe once it began its emergence from the Dark Ages. The Prof. aimed to present an argument that the Arabs did more than this, and that in fact they can be credited with the foundation of many of the theories and philosophies that drive modern day science.

The “Golden Age” of Arab science began roughly in the 9th century in Baghdad, a city built from scratch as a seat of power for the Abbassid Caliph, Harun Al-Rashid. This Golden Age was characterised by an “obsession with learning and original thinking. Haruns son, Al-Ma’mun, whose mum was a captured persian slave, took over the caliphate after his father. Like his father he had a thirst for knowledge, and claimed to have dreamt of Aristotle. He built what was known as the “house of wisdom”, or Beit Al-Hikmah, which was an academy filled with scholars and books. Today, some western historians try to play down the significance of this house by labelling it as little more than a library, when it was in fact a seat for science and rational thinking.

This interest in science and rational thought without any hint of any conflict with religion contrasts with the more modern viewpoint of some sort of clash between science and religion. 1000 years ago, Muslims took their duty to seek knowledge seriously, whereas today, a minority of Muslims now view with suspicion the advances in science. They wonder why we bother with the study of cosmology when the “Quran tells us all we need to know”.

Al-Khalili then spent the next 1/2 hour or so giving us a crash course on all the scientists of this golden age and their impact on science today. He started with Al-Kindi, a philosopher and polymath who imported and adapted Greek philosophy for the Islamic world. Then he spoke about Al-Khawarizmi, who is credited as the father of algebra, a title which he felt needed explaining since it is known that the balylonians were solving quadratic equations well before he came on the scene. Up until Al-Khawarizmi people were solving specific problems, and even though they used symbols these symbols represented real numbers, and their approach was geometrical and can be classified best as “number theory”. Al-Khawarizmi was the first to treat the symbols as free entities which can be manipulated, which through the algorithm that is used is ‘fixed’ or ‘forced’ to take a value (jabara=forced in arabic). In fact his seminal work in written entirely in prose, no mathematical symbols appear, and as such is accessable to anyone.

He then mentioned Al-Razi, the physician and founder of the modern day hospital. The of Al-Biruni, the persian polymath who provided a very clever and concise measurement of the radium of the earth. And f Ibn-Sina, the persona physician and author of the well known “Canon of Medicine”. Then of Ibn-Alnafis, the Syrian anatomist who first understood that blood must circulate via the lungs and into the heart.

Throughout the talk, Al-Khalili was careful not to over-inflate the contributions of Arab scientists. He was careful to mention that, for example, Al-Biruni was not the first to measure the circumference of the earth, he was beaten by the Greek Eratostheres in 250 BC, and that the Greek Gaelin thought the blood flowed from the right to the left chamber of the heart and that the true nature of blood circulation was figured out by William Harvey. His argument that no science springs out of the vacuum, and that people must stand on the shoulders of the giants that predated them to progress, and as the Arabs stood on Greeks, Indians, Persians and Babylonians, the West today stands on the shoulders of Arab giants.

This brings us to the question, do we call this age the Arabic revolution or the Islamic revolution? He argued that we can’t call it the ‘Islamic revolution’  because the early scientists were not all Muslim, and even though they were not all Arab, the language in which the texts were written in was Arabic. But it was not Arabic culture that prompted the revolution was it? It was Islamic philosophy, so shouldnt we pay credence to this?

He also briefly addressed the issue of the decline of science in Arabia. His reasoning for this was that there was no real answer to it. In the 14th and 15th centuries scholars such as Al-Ghazali came on the scene, he was more orthodox and criticised the early scholars and philosophers for being too pro-Greek (aka Pagan) philosophers. Added to this the Empire fragmented, the Mongols invaded (leading the loss of alot of literature), and the Ottomans took over. The Ottomans were not so much into pure science as they were into architecture (one of the Turkish members of the audience rightly argued that necessity is often the impetus for science and many engineering advances were made from the Ottoman interest in architecture). There was an overall loss of appetite for science, and no one other than Europe to carry the baton of scientific progress. I.e. the natural ebb and flow of life.

Moving on to Arabs today: the Gulf states are really in the best position to ignite another Arabian scientific revolution due to their financial resources, but up until recently they followed the science=technology=economy mentality which left little room for the pure sciences. Now things are changing, and Saudi Arabia for example is building (or has built?) a university dedicated to science for the sake of it.

Who know? Maybe we will shake of the cobwebs and become scientific revolutionaries once more? But will this require political and humanitarian stability in the regio or will it force it I wonder?

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