The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

In his inaugural address, a cosmopolitan and well-traveled President Barack Obama reached out to the Muslim world, acknowledging its presence, influence and contributions to Western society.

His gesture was mostly well received by Arabs and Muslims, all too often stereotyped as terrorists, underdeveloped and out to destroy the West.

His Western listeners and viewers would do well to read a captivating new book by an American journalist featuring the Arabs' contributions to the sciences and philosophy that helped catapult the West from Medieval and Crusading fundamentalism into "real" civilization.

"The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization" is a 320-page treasure trove of information for the uninitiated that packs a powerful punch of science, history, geography, politics and general knowledge at a time when so much disinformation about the Arab world is swirling around in various media. 2009-02-02-HouseofWisdomcover2.jpg

Ignorance is not bliss, author Jonathan Lyons argues, retracing the venom spewed by the early Crusades that has, ironically, been carried down the centuries through xenophobic and paranoid expressions like "war on terror," "Islamophobia" and "Islamofascism."

"Antipathy for the followers of Islam was particularly charged in those parts of Western Europe most distant from Muslim life...the less the Christians knew about the infidel, the more they hated him," he wrote.

Lyons, a former reporter and editor for the Reuters news agency with over two decades' experience covering the Arab and Muslim worlds (not necessarily one and the same), delved into the subject with the meticulous care and dexterity of a physician performing nano surgery.

"There's that old saw in journalism and non-fiction - "show 'em, don't tell 'em," he explained.

And he told 'em eloquently and articulately in his treatise.

"In The House of Wisdom," I am trying to show that the notion these days of a clash of civilizations, which really only took hold after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, is not without serious shortcomings," he explained.

He does much if it by revealing the stories behind the transplanting of Arab knowledge to the medieval West, often by intrepid Europeans who deliberately set out to pursue Islamic astronomy, mathematics, medicine, cartography, etc., not long after the holy war known as the First Crusade, he added.

His book is an invaluable resource, a portable encyclopedia, on the dynamic and thriving Arab culture and sciences including chemistry, physics, algebra, engineering and architecture that were adopted by a reluctant and suspicious West seeped in church-imposed dogma and intransigence.

"Already, European building and architecture had begun to show a marked technical improvement, as had the art of draftsmanship. This sudden upturn, as well as the appearance of specific skills and techniques not present earlier, dates to the direct transfer of practical technology from the master builders and masons of the East. In at least two well known cases, Arab artisans arrived in the West and shared their knowledge." Asked what prompted him to write the book, the 50-year-old Lyons pointed to a confluence of factors.

"For one, the sophistication that you encounter when - and if - you really listen to people in the Muslim world," he said. "While interviewing the ayatollahs in Qom for my previous book, "Answering Only to God: Faith and Freedom in 21st-Century Iran," I was struck by the 'classical' nature of their arguments, their speech, and their thinking in general. At times, it was like reading Aristotle - very formal, very logical, very structured."

Lyons said this sophistication was at odds with just about everything one hears and reads in the West about the Islamic world, adding that his own personal experiences in Iran, Egypt, Turkey, and elsewhere led him to question traditional notions of East-West relations.

"Muslim conquest and empire building also restored ancient ties among historic centers of civilization across a huge landmass. This created an invaluable melting pot for intellectual traditions that had been forcibly kept apart for centuries by political divisions: Hellenistic learning that evolved in Greece and, later, Alexandria, on the one hand, and Sumerian, Persian, and Indian wisdom on the other. Muslims, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, the star-worshipping Sabaeans, and assorted other pagans were all able to exchange ideas and teachings."

Once Lyons started exploring the subject, he knew he would focus instead on science and philosophy. "The case is so strong, as you know, but the characters and stories involved in the Western assimilation - one could just as easily say cultural theft - were just too compelling," he told this writer. "I felt I had to open the reader to their stories."

From the outset, Lyons was determined not to make this a book about Arab or Muslim scientific and philosophical achievements as much as to show the enormous and largely unacknowledged ways in which those achievements reached and then shaped what we call "the West."

Along the way he had to tell the story of Muslim science, but largely as the context in which to set the process of Western assimilation, he said.

"Aristotle's great works of cosmology and physics, already widely read in Arabic for centuries, remained largely unknown in the West, as did the insightful and provocative commentaries of the Muslim philosophers, particularly the peerless works of Avicenna and his rationalist successor Averroes. These texts, which reflected hundreds of years of debate within the Islamic tradition but were unknown in the West, would have an immediate and powerful impact on young minds across Europe. Soon they would be all the rage at Paris, Oxford and other universities."

Although his formal study of Arabic while on assignment in Cairo was short-lived, Lyons' depth of knowledge and ability to put the data he collected in context is amazing. He did his homework with incredible diligence and wrote the book -- published this month by Bloomsbury Press - in a style that leaves the reader thirsting for more.

"The Muslim conquest had already brought the Arabic language to the western edge of Europe, and it quickly became the accepted medium of high culture and often of everyday life within and among the Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities of Al-Andalus (modern-day Spain)."

2009-02-02-JonathanLyonsRichardMalloryAllnutt2008.jpg Jonathan Lyons (Richard Mallory Allnutt@2008)

Lyons, who teaches courses on Islam and how to cover it journalistically at George Mason University in Virginia, is completing a PhD in sociology of religion.

Interested browsers/readers can learn more at