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The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance [Paperback]

Jim Al Khalili
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
Price: 10.68 & FREE Delivery in the UK. Details
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Product details

  • Paperback: 302 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (27 Mar 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143120565
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143120568
  • Product Dimensions: 21.4 x 14 x 2.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 38,914 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

The House of Wisdom Al-Khalili presents a myth-shattering view of the medieval Islamic world's myriad scientific innovations, which preceded--and enabled--the European Renaissance. Full description

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5.0 out of 5 stars A valuable and revealing book 17 Dec 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
A fine addition and support to the argument put forward by Edward Said in his "Orientalism"; a readable history and with the insights of a practising physicist.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wisdom indeed! 2 Jan 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I really enjoy Jim's excellent TV programmes.His books are just as good and his writing style and delivery make this subject readily accessible to non scientists like me!
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderfully comprehensive 23 Mar 2013
By Stella
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
the edition is wondefully comprehensive and just what I needed for research. arrived timely and well packed. Excellent product and service
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Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  21 reviews
22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars I Learned So Much 13 July 2011
By Timothy Haugh - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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.
63 of 73 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Read with Caution 14 July 2011
By philosophus - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book has many merits: it is written in a breezy, accessible style and contains interesting material, recounting a story that is too little known in the West. He brings out the magnificent achievements of scholars and scientists who flourished in the Islamic world during the European Middle Ages and shows how their work layed much of the groundwork for later scientific progress in Europe.

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.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Makes a strong impression, informally 17 Dec 2011
By ThirstyBrooks - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Jim Al-Khalili gives an overview of a lot of the history of Arab science in a casually written book. While The House of Wisdom is neither great prose nor a deeply scholarly publication, the story introduces us to many of the men who inspired Europeans to adopt the word 'genius' from Arabic. The legion of Arabic names makes the book seem a little awkward, because they follow the pattern in which John Smithson's father would be Smith Leeson, rather than another Smithson. Digesting this on every page made me grateful for Jim Al-Khalili's sometimes too informal style in the prose.

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?
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A bit overzealous 1 Feb 2014
By Larry N. Stout - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Scientists, like historians, are not categorically exempt from misperceptions, error, biases, and even ax-grinding. Here physicist-cum-historian al-Khalili exhibits his grasp of the history of science in a paean to "Arabic" science translated from Greek and other languages and further propounded in Medieval Baghdad of the Abbasid dynasty, where rationality was presumed somehow to demonstrate the righteousness of Islam. This, of course, has never been a secret among widely-read, informed people, but al-Khalili addresses those of lesser grasp in aspiring to revelation; here, as another reviewer has noted, he is perhaps less than impartial in praise of this "Arabic" science vis-à-vis contemporary scholarship beyond the ambit of Islam, providing counterpoise to slanted histories that excessively credit scholarship in Medieval Christendom. The author's personal research for the writing of this book, although of considerable scope, apparently was a bit facile here and there: for example, he blandly asserts that Hammurabi's law code was the first (it was not -- those of several other kings preceded it, by as much as a couple of centuries); and he tells us that historical Khurasan (Khorasan) was in western Iran (it is in northeastern Iran and adjacent areas). That the historical "House of Wisdom" was indeed a remarkable and creditworthy center of learning cannot be denied; however, reiteration of that truth does not require hyperbole or exaltation. In any case, the unenlightened are not to be swayed by books, Jim.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars For those interested in science during the period of Arabic ascendency. 17 Mar 2013
By M. Brian Stone - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Excellent historical review of early Arabic and Persian scientific achievements. Those achievements were subsumed by Western European achievements of the Renaissance and to the present. Iraqi born Jim al-Kahili speaks with an easy to read though not simple voice. Occasionally it gets bogged down with the math and physics of the times. For me, it demanded a fair amount of Internet review of concepts long unused and forgotten with time. It was well worth the effort.

I would have given It a five if he had answered more clearly why the original openness and encouragement of the caliphs and Islam was closed in the second century B.C.E.. I am still trying to understand that issue.
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