Monday, 15 April 2013

the West's intellectual debt to the Arab world in The House of Wisdom

From The Week of April 8, 2013

Human history is defined by instability, a tumultuous sea of clashing cultures the waves of which bear aloft the victorious while its depths claim the defeated. And yet, such fortunes, or misfortunes, do not linger long. For like with the brief, violent life cycle of a wave, the victorious can be easily drowned. For in order for a culture to climb to the peak of civilization, it must innovate and create; it must streamline and strategize; but mostly it must supplant its foes, foes who, in the darkness of their subordination, nurse their battered pride and make of their wounds an enduring enmity that, someday, will contribute to a change at the top. Supremacy can never last forever. This much, if little else, Jonathan Lyons elucidates in his troubled history.

In the centuries following the death of the Roman Empire, while Europe was enshrouded in the gloom of cultural stagnancy and religious zealotry, the Middle East was experiencing a new dawn. The inheritors of the wisdom of the ancient Greeks, thanks to the alexandrian scholars who preserved such knowledge, the formerly disparate and warring tribes of Arabia had, under Mohammed, forged themselves into a new kind of empire, one built on the principles of a single book designed to provide a moral and political framework for their civilization. Eventually based in Baghdad, this Arab society flourished under a succession of rulers who encouraged scholarly learning, fashioning their subsequent insights into innovations that could transform their cities into palaces that would forever leave behind the plains of the dusty deserts from which they'd come.

From astronomy to philosophy, from the measuring of the earth to the understanding of the human body, this Arab awakening endured for more than three centuries, hundreds of years in which their doctors and metaphysicists would have been the envy of the world if the rest of the world, at least to the West, had not descended into superstition and ignorance. Thoughtful souls from far and wide came to learn at the court of these Arab masters until the rise of the Mongols ended all that they had built, smashing it beneath the hooves of their mountainous horses. Fragments remained. These same Arab tribes remained powerful enough to overthrow Byzantium and to make of Constantinople the seat of a new, Ottoman empire, but the dream of wisdom was over, leaving it to the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution to catalyze the advancement of civilization and transform the world into one empowered by western commerce and western technology.

For all its research, for all that it illuminates centuries of world history spitefully ignored by a self-referential West consumed by its own manifest destiny, The House of Wisdom is deeply flawed work. Mr. Lyons' intentions are good, to right a historical wrong by elevating to their proper place of prominence those Arab kings and thinkers who preserved and then improved upon the knowledge of the ancients and, in doing so, created an advanced civilization. However, instead of immersing the reader in the lives of these men and women, largely unknown to western minds, instead of bringing them to life with their histories, their struggles, their crowning achievements, the author chooses to castigate the dimness of western thought during the Middle Ages, devoting swaths of his history to describing Western barbarism and the many wars and tribulations that resulted from it. He must have intended for this to provide some kind of contrast to Arab learning. And yet, his tone is unavoidably reproachful of a culture that is now centuries dead and, thus, unable to hear his howls.

There are some exceptional Arab minds represented here. al-Haytham and al-Khwarizmi, amongst others, have numerous pages devoted to their deeds. And so the tome is not without moments of clarity that educate the reader. Moreover, Mr. Lyons is certainly right to argue that the Western mind receives an inexplicably skewed education in history, with the West forever marching towards enlightenment and freedom while the rest of the world is mired in chaos and darkness. And to whatever extend the author's work here corrects that gross misapprehension makes the enterprise worthwhile. But Mr. Lyons does not celebrate Arab learning. He uses it to sneer at a medieval West lost to doctrine. For proof of this, one needs only look to the work's protagonist,Adelard of Bath, who, despite being a fascinating character in his own right, is a westerner who realizes his culture is hopelessly behind Arab society. Yes, Adelard brings some Arab learning to the West, satisfying one of Mr. Lyons' themes here, but what he gains in this he more than loses in not truly embracing his subject, the prominence and power of post-roman Arabia.

This could have been wonderful work. But its twisted perspective ties it in knots from which it never untangles itself. A shame. For Its cause is just. The torch will have to fall to another to be carried forth. (2/5 Stars)

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