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The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization [Paperback]

Jonathan Lyons
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
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Book Description

1 Mar 2010
For centuries following the fall of Rome, Western Europe was backward and benighted, locked into the Dark Ages and barely able to tell the time of day. Arab culture, however, was thriving, and had become a powerhouse of intellectual exploration and discussion that dazzled the likes of British adventurer Adelard of Bath. The Arabs could measure the earth's circumference (a feat not matched in the West for eight hundred years); they discovered algebra; were adept at astronomy and navigation, developed the astrolabe, translated all the Greek scientific and philosophical texts including, importantly, those of Aristotle. Without them, and the knowledge that travelers like Adelard brought back to the West, Europe would have been a very different place over the last millennium. Jonathan Lyons restores credit to the Arab thinkers of the past in this riveting history of science - from its earliest and most thrilling days.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC (1 Mar 2010)
  • Language: Unknown
  • ISBN-10: 1408801213
  • ISBN-13: 978-1408801215
  • Product Dimensions: 1.7 x 19.8 x 12.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 190,335 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I have spent much of my professional and personal life exploring the shifting boundaries between East and West, first on both sides of the Cold War divide and, more recently, on the cusp between the Islamic and Western worlds. Over time, I have come to see the relationships between these seemingly polar fields as a problem not of geography or politics (or even geo-politics) but of thought, ideas, and knowledge - that is, as essential problems of epistemology.

This realization prompted me to leave behind more than 20 years as a foreign correspondent and editor, much of it in the Islamic world, and to complete a doctorate in sociology at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia.

Already, I had begun my journey from agency journalist to author with publication in 2003 of Answering Only to God: Faith and Freedom in 21st-Century Iran, co-authored with Geneive Abdo. My second book, The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization (2009), presents a narrative account of the West's extensive borrowing from the medieval Arab and Muslim world.

Columbia University Press has just published my newest book, Islam Through Western Eyes: From the Crusades to the War on Terrorism. This social history of ideas, based on my recent doctoral dissertation, attempts to explain the fact that Western images of Islam have remained to this day almost unchanged since they were first crafted from wartime propaganda at the time of the First Crusade, one thousand years ago.

Lately, I have shifted gears a bit to explore early American intellectual history as a way of uncovering the roots of today's technological nation. America, and by extension much of the modern world, has lost touch with Classical notions of wisdom and mystery. This new book traces the trajectory of our national consciousness.

Product Description


'A wonderful and important book which for the first time presents the Western debt to medieval Arabic learning in a clear, accessible manner. From the azimuth to the zenith, from algebra to the zero, so much of what the West takes for granted came to us from the Arab world ... A fascinating book' William Dalrymple 'Lyons tells the story of the House of Wisdom, the caliphs who supported it and the people who worked there, at a riveting, breakneck pace' The Times 'In this clear and well-written book, Jonathan Lyons delves into all sorts of musty corners to show how Arabic science percolated into the Latin world in the middle ages and helped civilise a rude society' Guardian 'Sophisticated and thoughtful ... Lyons's narrative is vivid and elegant' Wall Street Journal


`Jonathan Lyons tells the story of the House of Wisdom, the caliphs who supported it and the people who worked there, at a riveting, breakneck pace' --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

3.7 out of 5 stars
3.7 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
42 of 46 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The book's subtitle says it all 12 Mar 2009
By Ralph Blumenau TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover|Amazon Verified Purchase
The subtitle of this book is `How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization'; and in order to show this, Jonathan Lyons devotes the first 50 pages of a 200 page text principally to show how badly the West needed to be transformed.

When the First Crusade (about which we are given many unnecessary political details) began in 1096, the people of the West were rightly looked upon by the Arabs as coarse, brutish, and dirty; so ignorant that they could not even tell the time with any exactitude; their notion of justice involving trial by ordeal; their `medical' procedures which killed rather than cured; a clumsy numerical system they had inherited from the Romans; and with only scraps of knowledge of the achievements of antiquity having survived the barbarian invasions. In Europe, there was indeed some scholarship - we speak of a Carolingian and of an Ottonian Renaissance - but most learning was theological, and the official line of the Church was that any pragmatic attempt to understand the material world was suspect as being at best a distraction from seeking salvation and at worst a danger to it.

But there was also, among the violence, more peaceful interaction between the western invaders and the Arabs (and between the Arab invaders of Spain and the Christians there). Lyons describes how Arab scholarship of every kind had been promoted by the early Abbasid caliphs from the middle of the 8th to the first half of the 9th century (i.e. well before the First Crusade of 1096): by al-Mansur, Harun al-Rashid, and especially by al-Mamun, who had established the House of Wisdom as a great centre of learning and translations from Greek, Persian and Indian manuscripts.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
'The House of Wisdom' shows how many of the fundamental principles of modern science were firstly collected by early Arab scholars from disparate sources: Greek, Sanscrit and Hindu and then further refined and developed in the Arab world before being disseminated to scholars in Western Europe. A must-read for anyone interested in the history of science and the international nature of scientific research and scholarship.
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9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A must-read for Europeans 1 Oct 2010
This book is a delight to read and full of startling information about the many contributions of the medieval Arab world to the intellectual life of Europe. Baghdad, Damascus and Cordoba were very active centres of learning and philosophy, where new knowledge was created and written down and old knowledge translated and passed on. Aristotle and other ancient Greek scholars came to Europe via Arab translations made in the Middle East. Muslim Spain translated them from Arabic into Latin and proto Castilian and provided the stuff of thought ad enquiry at the budding universities of Paris, Oxford and Bologna. Baghdad and Damascus also developed and made available some Chinese inventions and Hindu learning to the West. They laid the foundations of modern mathematics, geography, astrology and the scientific method long before the protestant humanists. The art of paper-making, fireworks, the astrolabe, irrigation and drinking water, keeping time are some of the contributions of the Arabs. Arab learning stimulated the rise of European universities and made the Renaissance possible. Cordoba passed on the great legacy of Greece and the Arab world to Europe.
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1.0 out of 5 stars Small text. 12 April 2014
Format:Paperback|Amazon Verified Purchase
I can not really comment on is book as the text was so small I gave up. What a shame
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5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliantly informative 31 Oct 2013
By Stella
Format:Paperback|Amazon Verified Purchase
This is an excellent book. It gives a comprehensive historical background and has been used for research.
It arrived on time and well packed
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4.0 out of 5 stars Good 9 Mar 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Amazon Verified Purchase
An excellent overview of Arab science and history. It makes you want to find out more and do further reading.
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