Top critical review
22 people found this helpful
on 25 August 2009
This wide-ranging and well researched book fills a real need, since there is so little understanding in the West of the achievements of Islamic civilisation, the extent of our indebtedness to it, and the historical length, the geographic breadth, and the intellectual depth of its accomplishments.
Unfortunately, the book is written in a breathless style more appropriate to a historical novel. There are lengthy descriptions of imagined scenes, and lengthy quotations from contemporary documents that serve no apparent purpose. There is no clear continuity either of time, or of topic. We are treated to a description of al-Biruni's entry to India, but are not told about his clear acceptance of the rotation of the Earth, or his balanced neutrality on the heliocentric question. We are at times left unclear about important questions of fact,and the line between imaginative reconstruction and factual reporting is hopelessly blurred. For example, did al-Mamun really dream about Aristotle, and if so how do we know? More importantly, was he really committed to the explicit view resulting from this dream that the path to revelation led through reason? Convoluted syntax stops us from finding out whether the author regards the Mutazilites as a faction within Kalam, or as opposed to it. These are not small matters, given the complex interactions between the God-centred philosophy of al-Ghazali, the independent thinking of the Mutazilites, and the sometimes excessive reverence of the falsafa for their Greek masters. al-Ghazali himself, by the way, gets only two brief mentions and nothing is said about the content of his doctrine, although this is central to at least one of the five possible perspectives on Islam discussed in the Introduction.
Ah, the Introduction! Enjoyably readable and delightfully lucid prose, clearly arranged, laying out complex intellectual issues in a way that makes them easy to follow. If only the whole book had been written in this style!