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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.

Among the early westerners who were eager to learn what the Arabs had to offer was Roger II of Sicily (1095 to 1154), son of the Norman mercenary who had conquered Sicily from the Arabs between 1068 and 1091. He was already very knowledgeable about the achievements of the Arabs and brought Arab scholars to Sicily to extend that knowledge still further. A contemporary of Roger's was one Adelard of Bath (ca. 1080 to 1152) who in 1109 set out for the East specifically to see what he could learn from the Arabs, and who in Antioch came upon a treasure trove of Arab books. He was the most important of those who first transmitted Arab knowledge to the West. Lyons gives an excellent account of this hugely influential man, who not only translated Arab texts (like Euclid's Elements, translated from the Greek by the Arabs three centuries before Adelard brought it to Europe), but entered deeply into the spirit of scientific thought which was at the time quite alien to the West. Adelard produced the first comprehensive work on the astrolabe (which Lyons calls `the most potent analogue computer until the modern era', whose use had been refined by al-Khwarizmi in the 9th century and which was the most important tool for astronomy) and he introduced a translation of Ptolemy's Amalgest from the Arabic. Adelard certainly ought to be very much better known than he is.

At the College of Translators set up in Toledo in 1130 by its Archbishop Raymond , the most prominent of those working there was the industrious Gerard of Cremona (1114 to 1187), who translated no fewer than 87 books from Arabic into Latin.

Roger II's grandson, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (reigned from 1220 to 1250), was another great patron of Arab learning, and it was under his patronage that Michael Scot produced translations from the great Arabic Aristotelians, Avicenna or Ibn Sina (980 to 1037) and Averroës or Ibn Rushd (1126 to 1198). From Italy the reception of Averroës spread to France and to the rest of Europe.

The earlier transmissions from the Arabic had for the most part been scientific, but now, with the reception of Avicenna and Averroës, they were also metaphysical, raising the question of the relationship between philosophy and religion. So when the Sorbonne became one of the great centres of Averroism, a battle broke out between the Averroists, headed by Siger of Brabant (1235 to 1281), and those who thought that the Aristotelian metaphysic was a threat to Christian orthodoxy. The immense achievement of the Dominican Thomas Aquinas (1225 to 1274) was to create a system in which Aristotelean/Averroist philosophy and Christian theology were seen as complementary and not as antagonistic. There was some resistance to this synthesis from the Franciscans, but in the end Thomism carried the day, and the canonization of Aquinas in 1323 ensured that the transformation of the West through Arab influence was safeguarded, and it is on that foundation that much of the later progress of western civilization would rest. Actually, the influence of Averroës would bear more fruit in the West than it would bear in the Islamic world - but that is another story.

Some readers may find some the technical details of both Arab science and Arab philosophy a little difficult to understand; but no reader will be left in any doubt that there was a time, lasting for at least three centuries, when the Islamic world was far more sophisticated and advanced than was the West and was indeed in many respects its teacher.
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on 4 April 2009
'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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on 1 October 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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on 30 January 2015
The book opened my eyes to how much hidden knowledge there is concerning the arabs contribution to science, philosophy, mathematics, optics, agriculture and so on, during a period in which Europe was going through the so called dark ages. Who would've thought this random book I came across was a gem!
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on 19 August 2009
Contrary to the other reviews, I found the book extremely poor. Lyons has no grasp of medieval Europe what so ever. He believes that T-O maps were actual attemps at drawing a map of the world. He ignores the actual theological basis of the maps. He also ignores many of the great European thinkers.

He tells us the West had no great scientist, but gives ample examples of the opposite. He takes many of his sources at face value. The speech of Uban II, for example, is not viewed as a rethorical speech of war, but as an actual account of Medieval life.

Moreover his account is largely about the rather obscure Adelard of Bath, a rather obscure monk whose influence is debatable. Historians doubt wether Adelard actually mastered Arabic. Lyons does not even mention this debate but assumes Adelard could read Arabic.

Most major books on the subject are not listed in the bibliography or the endnotes (how could he miss Hugh Kennedy's major book on the Arab conquest?). Much of his discourse on the Western European Dark Ages is based on works that are over 50 years old! He doesn't use any books that challenge his thoughts.

There are so many factual errors that it's impossible to name all of them. Just a few then.

On page 49 he qoutes from the Ecclesiastical history of the English people by Bede. The qoute relates, according to Lyons, to the battle of Poitiers, as Lyons calls it, but is known as the battle of Tours nowadays (as Lyons doesn't use any books on Western European history that postdate 1974 it's not suprising he has missed this name change). If so Bede must have been able to foresee the future. The battle took place in 732 (according to Lyons pre-1974 literature, 733 or 734 according to modern scholars), the book was written in 731.

Later on he mentions Al-Khwarizmi wrote a book that included the Christian Calendar, starting from 632, although the book was written in the 8th century. However in 632 there was no Christian calendar. Christians used the Roman calendar throughout the 7th and 8th century. It was Bede who thought of the Christian Calendar early in the 8th century, but it didn't catch on immediately.

West Europeans were capable of calculating Easter. The problem was not that they could not calculate but that they could not agree on the interpretations of the Bible. So the Celtic church celebrated Easter on the first day of Spring (regardless of whether this was on a Sunday), while the Romans did not. The Easter tables that were eventually adopted at the synod of Whitby (664 AD) are still in use today.

The Arabs did not invent the two cilinder pump. In fact this was an invention of the ancient Egypts. The Europans did not believe that disease was a punishment from God (if they did why would they need doctors?). They believed in the Greek theory of Galen and assumed there was an imbalance in the four humours. Of course there were Christians who believed that diseases were a punishment of God and took to exorcism, but this was by far a minority.

Medieval people did not think the Earth was flat. Isidore of Sevilla might have done, but this was not the general view of the Medieval academic world. How could he not mention the universities, by the way?

I could go on. But there are so many of them. Most derive from the imagination of Lyons, rather than from fact. None of the above fictions has an endnote.

This is by far the worst history book I have read in my life. And that's a pity because his central thesis is right! Large parts of Western science and Philosophy owe enourmous debt to Arabic learning (by the way, Arabic is not the same as Islamic and here again Lyons misses the point and does not mention that many achievements were reached despite Islam, as many Western inovations were made despite the church). And yes, European knowledge was remarkably poor at the beginning of the Middle Ages. Christians did destroy much of what the Ancients had written. But Medieval Europe was not as bad as Lyons thinks it was, and there was enormous progress, both thanks to the Arabs and thanks to Europeans themselves. Moreover he only focuses on The Franks and Normans (Vikings and Celts are not researched).

In his quest to hammer home his point, Lyons has recreated a Medieval world that never was. Somebody should rewrite this book in a more balanced way. For now, avoid this book.
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on 24 May 2009
This is the book i recommend for everyone to read. The clash of great civilizations and how Islam dealt with christian europe. In today's world its an irony how west is dealing with Islam/East.
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on 31 October 2013
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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on 9 March 2013
An excellent overview of Arab science and history. It makes you want to find out more and do further reading.
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on 23 August 2015
great introduction for those interested in early history of the rise of the middle east.
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on 13 April 2009
No doubt a good read but I was a bit miffed that the diagram by al- Biruni on the even side of page 111 is a mirror image or rather it is back to front. I paid 20 pounds for the hard back version and I expect a little more care should have taken place in proof reading the Arabic document mentioned.
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