After reading James Hannam's new book on the rise of science in Europe during the Middle Ages, The Genesis of Science, I could hardly resist reading Jim al-Khalili's book on Arabic science during the same period, The House of Wisdom. In it, he makes the case that various scholars under Islamic rule did more than just preserve the wisdom of the ancients, but advanced it to the point that when Western Europe recovered this knowledge, it sparked the Renaissance. Much like Hannam, al-Khalili is partially successful.
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.