Book: Light from the East


Bill Condie reviews a book examining how the science of medieval Islam helped to shape the Western world.


NON FICTION
Light from the East: How the science of Medieval Islam helped to shape the Western world, by John Freely

I.B. Taurus (2015)

In their frustration and disgust at the barbarity of the modern day Islamic extremists, many commentators in the West, groping for a context in which to place the cruelty and inhumanity they have witnessed, have branded Islam mediaeval – by which they mean the antithesis of science and reason.

It is understandable that a westerner would equate the mediaeval period with ignorance. Mediaeval times in Europe were also the “Dark Ages”, a long period when humanity went into reverse, un-learning the science, technology and art that had made Greece and Rome beacons of ancient civilisation.

But in the Islamic world the cultural climate at this time was quite different. During the years Europeans were wallowing in mud, ignorance and disease, Islamic lands were experiencing a golden age – an era as far removed from the perversions of the religion being expressed in Iraq and Syria today as modern Europe is from the Spanish Inquisition.

During this great awakening in the Islamic world, the arts and sciences flourished. They helped to preserve the wisdom of the ancients and added to the legacy that helped shape the Western world – a contribution that is still felt today. Freely’s book elegantly explains the scale of this achievement and how the blaze of creativity that began in Baghdad eventually gave birth to modern science in the West.

Fittingly, Freely himself is something of a renaissance man. Now aged 85, he is a physicist with a PhD from New York University, post-doctoral studies in the history of science from Oxford and a string of history and travel books to his credit. He taught physics at Bosphorus University in Istanbul from 1960.

He tells the story of the birth of Islamic science with the translation of Greek manuscripts into Arabic in eighth-century Baghdad and how these were enhanced by the knowledge acquired from Mesopotamia, India and China. He describes the “Roads to Baghdad” that brought influence to Islamic thinkers from Athens, Alexandria, Constantinople and Khorrasan. Then he charts how Islamic scientists developed and expanded this knowledge and how astronomers, physicians, philosophers and mathematicians – along with those prototype fraudsters, the astrologers and alchemists – carried what they had learnt and discovered around the world, from Samarkand and Baghdad to Cordoba and beyond.

With a great deal of wit and a good ear for wonderful anecdotes and tidbits, Freely lists the achievements this melting pot culture produced. There are the institutions such as the Bayt al-Hikma, the great House of Wisdom in Baghdad, that brought together Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars from the ninth to the 13th centuries, the dozens of libraries in Cordoba and the more than 100 paper mills in Baghdad.

They helped to preserve the wisdom of the ancients and added to

the legacy that helped shape the West.

Algebra, geology, astronomy and medicine were all born or thrived at this time, nurtured and developed by some of the greatest scientific thinkers the world has seen – Al Khwarizmi, the father of algebra, Al Biruni, whose pioneering pharmacopoeia describes more than 700 drugs and their therapeutic properties, Ibn Sahl, who developed the law of optical refraction and Ibn Sina, whose canon on medicine, Al Qanun fi al-tibb, became the essential guide for Western physicians.

And in these pages there is hope.

Islamic scholars of the time were no strangers to clashes with clerics but were happy to take them on, as philosopher Al Shirazi did with his five-volume defence of Ibn Sina against the theologians. Lessons, perhaps, for moderate Muslims today.

Though the outlook may seem bleak at times, perhaps a greater awareness of the heritage of Islamic scholarship – and the debt the West owes to it – will mean that science can once again play a pivotal role in bringing two disparate worlds together.

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