The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance (Anglais) Broché – 27 mars 2012
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Présentation de l'éditeur
Many of the innovations that we think of as hallmarks of Western science had their roots in the Arab world of the middle ages, a period when much of Western Christendom lay in intellectual darkness. Jim al- Khalili, a leading British-Iraqi physicist, resurrects this lost chapter of history, and given current East-West tensions, his book could not be timelier. With transporting detail, al-Khalili places readers in the hothouses of the Arabic Enlightenment, shows how they led to Europe's cultural awakening, and poses the question: Why did the Islamic world enter its own dark age after such a dazzling flowering?
Biographie de l'auteur
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In many ways, al-Khalili had a better opportunity to impress me, as I have much less knowledge about Islamic science than I do about the history of Western science. And there is much here to impress. Al-Khalili clearly has an extensive knowledge of his subject and does a fairly good job getting it all out, considering how difficult it was for me to follow the barrage of unfamiliar names. Most interesting is his discussion of various discoveries like al-Khwarizmi's development of algebra, Ibn Sahl's discover of "Snell's" law of refraction, or al-Razi's work in medicine, to name but a very few.
The problem is that al-Khalili tends to overstate his case and make illogical comparisons. He has a tendency to compare the work of Islamic scholars to more modern scientists (particularly Newton), and claim that their work is easily as original and important. I would rather drawn this type of conclusion myself based on what I learn of the actual work done and, frankly, I don't think the comparisons usually stand up.
He also uses personal anecdotes throughout the text, particularly from his youth in Iraq that I felt took away from what he was trying to accomplish. Granted, he's trying to write for an audience that is less familiar with his culture as well as speak to the Muslim world to encourage a return to scientific achievement, but these digressions are distractions from the strength of his book--the history.
Still, I'm very glad I read this book. I learned a tremendous amount and I gained a lot of respect for what Islamic scholars achieved during the Dark Ages of Western Europe. I'm even more glad I read this in conjunction with Hannam's book. Covering the same time period and quite often the same people, they gave completely different perspectives on what lead to the scientific revolution. It is fascinating stuff.
But this work also has some serious flaws. One is that, instead of letting the achievements of Arabic science speak for themselves, he engages in unnecessary hyperbole. In fact, his presentation of major scientific figures all follow the same pattern: Muslim scientist "x" was the "first to discover" some theorem or scientific fact well before European scientist "y" only to learn a few paragraphs later that, well, he was not "really" the "first," but he layed the groundwork for the later discovery. This may well be true and, indeed, significant. But why the deceptive hyperbole?
Second, Al-Khalili recycles the worn-out "Enlightenment" cliche of Europe being in the dreaded "Dark Ages" during this period only to be "wakened out of ignorance" by the fabled Renaissance - a view now no longer accepted by any serious historian of science (or any historian of the Middle Ages or Renaissance either). I nearly laughed aloud when I read how Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham were "lonely lights shining in the darkness"! He also recycles all sorts of myths and half-truths about the "barbaric" Europeans, none of which has any evidence or citation. In fact, if you check his references, he makes heavy use of histories of science written well over seventy years ago, making his historical "research" astonishingly out-of-date.
Ironically, in order to dispell one myth - that Arabic thinkers contributed nothing original to science - he perpetuates another myth -that nothing worth mentioning went on in European universities during the Middle Ages. I stongly suggest you read in tandem with this book James Hannam's "The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution" for a more balanced treatment.
The achievements and inherent importance of Arabic science in the Middle Ages deserve a much better and more nuanced treatment than this book offers.
Al-Khalili organizes and clarifies a huge array of scientific accomplishments that have long been taken for granted. The House of Wisdom cleanly accomplishes its goal of showing how much of Renaissance wisdom is due to the reexamination of the ancient Greek and Indian masters by the Muslims. What started as the process of making Arabic a written language became a movement to translate the Great Books. Sectarian challenges to the idea of wisdom from pagans led the Arabs to the scientific method, in which all theories had to be tested against observations of reality. From there, some moved on to advance the frontier of knowledge. Al-Khalili doesn't mention this, but it means the Europeans got some value from the destruction of the European libraries in the Jihad, followed by translating those same books back with a skeptical eye.
A deeper philosophical question grabs our attention as the book comes to a close. How does an Age of Enlightenment come about, and why does it end? What made Arab science so good, and why didn't that success continue? What does that mean about other societies in today's world?
Professor Al-Khalili concentrates most of his attention on pure sciences such as astronomy, chemistry, mathematics, and medicine. In contrast to Western Europe until the early fifteenth century, the Arabic world progressively created the favorable conditions in which the great polymaths such as Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen), Ibn Sina (Avicenna), al-Biruni, and Ibn Khaldun were able to rise to prominence. The Arabic world was host to dozens of thriving centers of excellence in science, not only in Baghdad, but also across North Africa and Spain and to the east in Persia and Central Asia.
Professor Al-Khalili clearly explains that Spain became the main conduit for transferring the Arabic science to Western Europe in the wake of the Reconquista. The rebirth of European scholarship benefited greatly from the capture of Toledo, Cordoba, and Granada. This rebirth also found fertile ground first in Florence, and subsequently in the rest of Europe because of the favorable conditions existing in these locations.
Professor Al-Khalili is at his weakest when he reviews the reasons behind the slow decline of Arabic science between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. The author rightly rejects the argument that the golden age of science in the Arabic world came to a sudden end with the fall of Baghdad to the Mongols in 1258. Science continued to flourish in other locations within the Arabic-speaking world after this event. In contrast, Professor Al-Khalili is clearly ambivalent about the rise of religious conservatism in the eleventh century that has inflicted lasting damage to the spirit of rationalism within the Arabic-speaking world to this day. Hiding behind the legacy of colonialism cannot erase the fact that there are undeniable tensions that still exist between science and religion in some parts of the Muslim world.
To his credit, Professor Al-Khalili notes that some Muslim countries are investing in the infrastructure conducive to the further development of science. Both the volume and quality of scientific research in the Arab world have been negligible on a worldwide basis. At the same time, the author reminds Muslims and non-Muslims that what is even more important than money thrown at this poor showing is the political will to reform and to ensure real freedom of thinking.
In summary, Professor Al-Khalili wants to sensitize Muslims and non-Muslims about the numerous contributions that the Arabic science made to the development of humanity during the Middle Ages. Hopefully, the Arab Spring will turn out to be a decisive catalyst to convince more Muslims that science is not the adversary of their spiritual beliefs.