House of Wisdom

House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization

            Jonathan Lyon spent more than twenty years in Muslim lands working as a foreign correspondent and editor for Reuters. He has worked in Turkey, and is credited for re-opening the Teheran bureau after government agencies had closed its offices for a period of thirteen years. He has dedicated his life to studying on the earlier interactions between Europe in Asia, particularly the influence of Arab knowledge on the development of Western civilization. He was educated at Wesleyan University, graduating with BA with honors in Russian. Lyon also studied Russian at the Pushkin institute of Russian language situated in Moscow. Among his achievements is a fellowship at Columbia University’s Hawaiian Institute of Soviet Studies. He currently works at The Global Terrorism Research Center as a researcher, and is undertaking his PhD in Sociology of Religion in Monash University, situated in the Australian city of Melbourne. Some of his other works are ‘Machina’, a novel, and the short stories ‘Joy’ and ‘The Siren’.

House of wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization, is a historical illustrated book first published in February 2009 by Bloomsbury press, and is one of his most acclaimed works. In the book, he attempts to rightfully give credit to whom it is due by highlighting the travels and adventures of the little known drivers of the renaissance of Europe. It appears to the reader by simple observation that Jonathan Lyon is aiming for an audience consisting of current European residents, today’s Arab population and anyone with an interest in the origins of current civilization and medieval period history. He achieves this by focusing on the early development of Baghdad – an envious example of city planning

It is well-researched evocative and brilliantly written story of two contrasts both in terms of people and in terms of places. One such area is left desolate after the fall of its parent empire -The Roman Empire. In this part of the world, violence and anarchy are the chosen ways of life, sorcery is the tonic that heals the wounds and in the absence of intellectual pursuit, these people in Western Europe are guided by superstition, myths and blind beliefs. Augustine their ruler has banned any forms of scientific intellectual pursuits and theology is all that is studied in the land by their few scholars tucked in poorly stocked libraries. The people toil in their farms producing only for subsistence as trade is poorly developed-a result of their ignorance in arithmetic. They are lost in ‘darkness’ and cannot tell the time once the sun is set. Christianity is the religion of the land and their institutions in particular the church are the architects and propagators of vile behavior. Beginning 1096, the church has been constantly waging wars against their more prosperous neighbors, the Arabs, in the crusader wars. The cruelty and life costs of these wars are put across to the readers reminding them amongst many others, of important events in history to much credit of Lyon. In contrast, a lot of time is spent in giving the politics behind the wars to a point of being bothersome to the reader. Disease is a threat as their medicine can hardly remedy mild ailments let alone deal with war casualties. Peace does not seem to be an option as there is lack of a working judicial system to settle disputes amicably. Lyon spends up to a quarter of his two hundred-page novel highlighting the plight of Western Europe to great effect.

Lyon then uses the story of some of the unconventional Christian scholars who at the time unlike most of their war-obsessed compatriots, endeavor to learn of the ways of the great Arabs. The writer’s main goal is to enlighten the reader on the role of the true fathers of the renaissance of Europe and effectively manages to raise questions on what the plight of western Europe could have been save for the efforts of a few men. Heavily insistent on this point, his eagerness and bias show. In this respect, he fails to recognize the nimble efforts of the western Europeans who at the time have already begun their own forays into philosophy and science. Roger 11 of Sicily is the son of Norman mercenary who had managed to conquer Sicily from the Arabs .He was himself a champion of Arab intellect having been charmed by the depth, wealth and the sophistication of the Arab knowledge,

Adelard of Bath is acclaimed by Lyon for his role in translation from Arabic of Arabic texts thus facilitating the transfer and eventual adaptation of knowledge. The Arabs under the rule of the Abbasid dynasty whose caliphs ruled for a period stretching from mid 8th century to the earlier half of the 9th century had made great advances in the acquisition of knowledge. Unlike Western Europe where spirituality and achievement of salvation were considered as worthy purposes of life, the quest for scientific and philosophy were highly regarded. In a quick but informative way, we are educated on the origins and ways of the Arab culture. Prominent Christian and Islamic leaders such as Al Mansur, Harun -al Rashid, Al Mamum are brought to the reader’s attention in a lively way. Great Islamic scholars are made known to the readers. They include Al- Khwarizmi – the father of algebra, Al-Masudi – the great geographer who traced several sea routes to Persia and beyond, and Al-Kindi who was the first Asian philosopher.

Caliph Al Mansur is credited with the establishment of the House of Wisdom. This was a great library like no other at the time containing over four hundred thousand volumes of books. The books were Arabic translations of the works of the Indians, Persian and Greek works of Aristotle and Plato among other Greek works. Within its walls, were scores of astrologers, translators, philosophers and mathematicians interpreting, translating and expanding the scope of knowledge. The caliphs driven by the need to time planting and harvesting seasons and five prayer times and holy periods of the year encouraged the adaptation of in these foreign knowledge. In addition, the benefits of arithmetic such as algebra astronomy, which helped in the development of map and navigation, were direct and obvious. Astrology was an important for calming the nerves of Caliphs who felt like they were been stalked by bad omens. Over a period of two hundred years, the Arabs had autonomy on some aspects of knowledge. For instance, for a period of up to eight hundred years they were the only ones who could measure the earth’s circumference using arithmetic. They could also manufacture glass and lenses. It appears to me the author views Islamic land in a better light at the expense of Western Europe. On comparison, his account on Europe and that of the Arab empire differ in some regards. While he is harsh on Europe’s shortcomings, fails to enlighten the reader on the resistance by Islamic religious leaders to some aspects of Greek knowledge. It took about three centuries for Greek medicine to be accepted and Aristotle’s philosophical teachings also had problems being adopted.

.           Adelard voyeurs to cities of Antioch, central Asia and Persia are testament to the efforts of the western Europeans to acquire knowledge. He describes his journeys by the term ‘studia arabum’, which means the study of Arabs including their language. The astrolabe is described by historians as the first analogue computer was developed by Arab mathematician Al Khwarizmi and had immense use in astrology. Its introduction to Europe and its subsequent development is attributed to Adelard. This changed the way Europeans used to understand the earth. Translation of Euclid’s elements from Greek to Arabic had been done almost three hundred years prior to the renaissance .Their translation into Latin was done by Adelard. These are important historical facts and a personal aspect should be a feather on Aldelard’s cap. It is a shame that in human history Adelard has not been accorded his rightful place. In House of Wisdom, the reader in a vivid narrative form is educated on this important part of history.

The interaction of Islam and Christianity led to a dramatic change in Christian lives and beliefs. This radical change led to what is known as the renaissance of Europe. He praises the activities of Roger Bacon an English man living at around the 13th centaury .Roger would camouflage his appearance dressed like an Arab and visit turkey where here learnt Arabic and philosophy. He was among the pioneer Caucasians to give talks on natural philosophy in cities like Paris. It is Lyons view that Europe’s existence and progress today is attributable to the transfer of knowledge from Arab world. Lyon is quite forceful in this assertion; one is made to think that he considers Europe to be an offshoot of Muslim world. The current reality is quite different given that Europe is considered progressive while the same is does not hold for current Muslim world. Later age European scholars are responsible for this as they launched a campaign against Islam. It was claimed that the Islamic prophet (Mohammed) was a rogue bent on violence; declarations were made claiming that all that could ever come out of Muslim empire was evil. In addition, and the Arabs’ proud history has been completely buried and forgotten. Lyon is justified in writing this novel as he highlights historical injustices and possible causes of current conflicts. He does well to give us some insights to into the history of Islam. This highlights the paradox that currently exists; Christianity is viewed as a peaceful religion. On comparison with Islam, it is seen as more liberal in matters concerning intellectual pursuit.

House of Wisdom is symbolic in that it tells of the story of the rise of the Islamic civilization in a manner that corresponds to the Islamic prayer times. First is the period before the rise of the civilization in the 10th century. A period when Europe is at war and ravaged by disease is known as Isha in Arabic referring to nightfall. Then the rise and peak of civilization in the 11th and 12th century referred to as Fajir meaning dawn in Arabic and Zuhur referring to midday. The period of rise of west during the 14th century corresponds to the afternoon known as ‘Asr’ in Arabic. Mahgrib refers to evening and corresponds to the fall in the Islamic civilization. Lyon in this book does not tell of the reason as to why despite the Islamic culture being so advanced it lasted for only a few centuries before its demise. He subsequently fails to provide reasons as to why it collapsed. This angle is not exploited leaving the reader in limbo.

In the book House of Wisdom, the influence of religion on politics is clearly brought out. Religion influences what are considered good and bad and thus how the rulers are going to govern the ruled. Politics in turn has a bearing on the social, economic and intellectual advancement of a people. Oppressive governments stifle the creativity of a people hindering the advancement as a people. The role of individuals in instigating change in society is highlighted and fortified. The liberators of Europe are portrayed as unassuming people whose only drive is the search of knowledge. This further reinforces the notion that the key to survival of a people lies in educating them. The benefits of technology sharing and transfer are also well elaborated. For any form of education to be of benefit, it should be part of a people’s culture. The description of the House of Wisdom reads like a guide as to the values by which universities should be founded on- the acquisition, interpretation, transfer, use and preservation of knowledge. They should also serve as areas of cultural excellence. The freedom of thought and expression should be natured and promoted not stifled .Specialization of persons into different professions is helpful especially if collaboration between different fields is encouraged.

In a well-written insightful and brilliant book, Jonathan Lyon not only educates but also takes us on a short trip into the medieval period through his vivid narration. He pays homage to the early Christian scholars for introducing Islamic culture and knowledge into Europe thus planting the seeds of renaissance. The reader is left with a basis of understanding of Arabic and European relations. A mind-altering event enhances the learning of the existence of once powerful Islamic civilization that even lorded over Europe. Although at times loaded with historical aspects that some readers might find bothersome to read and commit to memory, it is an otherwise brilliant book of great value to general readers.























Lyons, Jonathan. House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization. Bloomsbury USA, 2008

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