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Book Commentary/Review – The House of Wisdom times two; authors Jonathan Lyons, and Jim al-Khalili September 17, 2011

Posted by rwf1954 in Baghdad, book review, books, history, House of Wisdom, Islamic Golden Age, Islamic Science, Jim al-Khalili, Jonathan Lyons, medieval period, Middle Ages.
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(Richard Warren Field wrote the award-winning novel,
The Swords of Faith. Read why this book will make a great movie.)

A few years ago, as I considered my concept for The Ghosts of Baghdad, a book that will be the third novel in my trilogy started last year with the publication of my award-winning novel, The Swords of Faith, I became interested in the “Golden Age” of Islam. Even though The Ghosts of Baghdad is still down the line a bit, I like to stockpile books on future projects. In 2009, I bought a book called The House of Wisdom by Jonathan Lyons, about “How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization.” I read it, underlined it (as is my practice), and set it aside. In 2011, I bought another book called The House of Wisdom through Scientific American Book Club.  When it arrived in the mail, it looked familiar to me. I pulled out the 2009 The House of Wisdom. Even the covers looked similar. It looked to me as if I had purchased the same book twice. I was all set to return it when I took one last look. The 2011 The House of Wisdom is subtitled “How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance.” The author is Jim al-Khalili, and the book is offered by a different publisher. A closer look—these are two completely different books! I read the 2011 The House of Wisdom and now offer comments about both books in this blog post.

The two books, of course, cover a lot of common ground. For me, they complement each other, each providing unique information for readers interested in this subject.  Both books reflect the backgrounds of their authors. Lyons is a journalist now working with the Global Terrorism Research Center. Al-Khalili is a nuclear physicist who grew up in Iraq (leaving the country in 1979), son of a Muslim father and a British mother. (Al-Khalili is a self-described atheist.)

The House of Wisdom by Jonathan Lyons, Bloomsbury Press, 2009. Lyons’s book brings us into “the House of Wisdom” through a Westerner’s historical route. “Part I, Al-Isha/Nightfall,” starts with an overview of the Crusades, and a discussion of how the Crusades brought Arabic/Muslim learning to the West. From there, we move to “Part II, Al-Fajr/Dawn,” back to the beginnings in Baghdad. We learn how the new religion of Islam embraced learning from the ancient Greeks, and from sources to the east as well. “Part III, Al-Zuhr/Midday,” discusses 12th Century scholar Adelaide of Bath and others of this period who absorb Islamic learning and bring it back to the West. “Part IV, Al-Asr/Afternoon” closes the book out with the final stages of the transfer of knowledge from East to West that would plant the seeds for the Renaissance. Lyons’s book focuses on the path to the West, though he certainly details the innovations and information that came down that path. This The House of Wisdom gives us a well-documented, eloquent discussion of the debt owed by the modern “West” to the intellectual accomplishments of the medieval Islamic “East,” and how that knowledge made its way from medieval Islam to our world.

The House of Wisdom by Jim al-Khalili, Penguin Press, 2011. Al-Khalili starts us in Baghdad, a city he knows well, the city where the intellectual activity known as the Arabic/Muslim “Golden Age” of learning began. He brings a personal perspective to this material, though he acknowledges present-day Baghdad is a much different place from “Golden Age” Baghdad. His The House of Wisdom brings us to this information through a Muslim chronology, explaining how early Islam developed and gave rise to an emphasis on science and learning. He describes the translation movement, the reaching out from Baghdad for knowledge from ancient Greeks, and from Persia and India as well. He continues on with the Arabic/Islamic additions to the knowledge collected by focusing on the stories of scholars/early scientists based in and around Baghdad. He also visits Spain/Andalusia, another area where learning blossomed during the Middle Ages. His focus is on the Arabic/Islamic figures themselves, and less on transmission than the Lyons book. Al-Khalili’s The House of Wisdom takes us from his personal connection with the area to specifics of the great Islamic scholars, giving readers an entertaining, enlightening look at what exactly Arabic/Islamic scholars contributed to our world.


Though there is some overlap between these books, there is enough distinct material to make both of these books good additions to the library of anyone interested in this aspect of history.



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