Book Review: The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilisation

The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilisation by Jonathan Lyons Bloomsbury, 291pp, £20

WHEN THE FIRST CRUSADER ARMY took Jerusalem in 1099, it is said the slaughter was such that blood ran in the streets even up to the bridles of their horses. Given the Crusaders had hardly come to the Promised Land on Shetland ponies, that's a lot of blood, even if the image owes more to the Book of Revelation than strict historical accuracy. There's no doubt Jerusalem's Muslims and Jews were massacred in great numbers, but the lurid description of the results reminds us that the first casualty of war is truth.

Much the same might be said of more recent interventions in the Muslim world, fictitious weapons of mass destruction being only one case in point. Larger than this, however, and potentially more dangerous, is the ignorance of Muslim and Arab culture that has licensed a unilateral response to problems in the Middle East. The polarisation between East and West – it is not for nothing that Bin Laden recently urged followers to rise up and throw out the "Crusader-Infidel" – is based on nothing so much as a wilful desire to stereotype and misunderstand, thus enabling the obscenities of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, Gaza and the indiscriminate terrorism that followed 9/11.

This ignorance bears a heavy price, a point animating Jonathan Lyons's timely survey of Arab culture from the eighth to the 13th centuries. A rich, cross-cultural account of the Muslim civilisations that flourished after Muhammad's journey to Medina in 622, it recovers the huge intellectual debt owed by West to East. Cutting across the standard fable of our classical pedigree, it disabuses the assumption that we are the direct intellectual descendants of the Greeks.

Instead, argues Lyons, we are really the inheritors of highly sophisticated Arab cultures such as the Baghdad-based Caliphate established by al-Mansur in 762, or later by the extraordinary hybrid civilisations of Norman Sicily and Andaluca. It is our commerce with these civilisations, in war as in trade, which gave us the rational philosophy we call our own and which we are so proud of. Never mind Descartes; nearly five centuries before him Averroes, or Ibn Rushd, a philosopher based in Cordoba, gave us Reason through his distinguished commentaries on Aristotle which Michael Scot, Frederick II's court philosopher, translated and disseminated throughout the universities of the West in the early 1200s. "Denial of cause implies denial of knowledge," Averroes wrote, "and denial of knowledge implies nothing in this world can really be known."

No better epitaph on the western culture of the early Middle Ages could have been penned. Since the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe had wallowed in a confusion compounded by political instability, the loss of ancient wisdom, and a suspicious attitude towards knowledge itself, based on St Augustine's insistence on God's unknowable purposes and his disdain for those who "wished to know simply for the sake of knowing". Here was a culture that could not yet measure the hours of the day or create a calendar. To the remarkable Adelard of Bath, one of the great cross-cultural figures of the age, it was a society of brutish credulity. Returning from seven years of investigation into Arab culture, bearing the stupendous treasure of Euclid, he reflected on England: "I found the princes barbarous, the bishops bibulous, judges bribable, and patrons unreliable…"

No wonder, when the Crusaders finally made it to the East, they couldn't understand what they had stumbled upon. Not only were they too prejudiced to admit to the superiority of what they found, they were unable to recognise it. The incomprehension was mutual. "The Franks", as they were known, were alien in every way, the geographer al-Masudi observed: "their bodies are large; their natures gross, their manners harsh, their understanding dull…". It was not only because they came from a land without sun; Christianity had driven them to turn their backs on Greek philosophy and independent thought.

That torch, however, had long since passed to the Arabs. Bursting out of the Arabian peninsula in the 700s, they drove east and west, creating a huge empire that was by force of circumstance pluralistic, diverse and tolerant. The great historian Ibn Khaldun had characterised his people as nomads – "all the customary activities of the Arabs lead to travel and movement" – yet after the initial period of conquest, this became more true of their minds than of their increasingly urban civilisation. Restlessness and curiosity gave rise to a voracious search for knowledge and an objective attitude towards it.

The epitome of this gives Lyons his title: the House of Wisdom, created by al-Ma'mun in Baghdad in the early 800s. Here he assembled a huge library peopled by scholars determined to search out, interpret, apply and develop knowledge wherever it came from. Lyons shows how the seeds of this intellectual attitude were already present in Arab religion and modes of worship. Muhammad had enjoined his followers to "seek for science, even in China", and one of the great achievements of his people was to construct a world view where science, far from being in opposition to religion, served and illuminated it.

Their achievements covered nearly every area of human endeavour. From China came paper, creating a real culture of the book and speed and ease of communication; from Byzantium came the works of Aristotle and Euclid; from Cairo the works of Ptolemy; from India and Persia came a numerical system with the zero which would aid the great mathematician al-Khwarizmi in his creation of algebra and algorithms, the first word taken from the title of one of his books, the second from his name. Aided by the astrolabe, the world's first portable computer, Arab civilisation was centuries ahead of the West in astrology, engineering, map-making, as well as medicine, agronomy and architecture.

All of this was eventually of immense benefit to the West. Even if, as Lyons quite rightly points out, it is barely acknowledged today, traces of this debt persist in much of the technical language of English, with Arab words like "check", "tariff", and "zero". And it led, in the 13th century, through the work of figures such as Adelard of Bath and Michael Scot, to the gradual, hard-won triumph of Thomist thinking over the superstition and ignorance promoted by the Augustinian world view. In 1270 the church authorities were unable to enforce a ban on Thomas Aquinas's work and the intellectual freedom it spoke for. The genie, as it were, was truly out of the bottle. Lyons traces a line from this and early scientists such as Roger Bacon through to the achievements of Copernicus and Newton.

The influence was not just technical. The development of chivalric ideas which so animated medieval Europe grew out of the sophisticated love poetry of the Spanish Muslim courts, while the Arab device of the framed tale had a direct influence on authors now regarded as integral to the western canon – Chaucer, Boccaccio, Dante and Cervantes.

In unearthing this buried intellectual heritage, Lyons gives us a new and important understanding of our historical and cultural relation to Islam and the Arab world. By covering so much ground in just 200 pages he does leave the reader slightly breathless, and seriously underplays the divisions within the Muslim world itself. But for all that, this is a well crafted, powerful account which asks us to re-examine our assumptions about East and West, a task never so necessary as now.