”Some Counter-Apologetics on the hypothetical Islamic Science, by Fjordman
Fjordman examines an inaccurate and misleading new book:
This text is written in response to the book The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization by Jonathan Lyons, which was published early in 2009. I have made a brief, early review of this book at the Gates of Vienna blog and will expand upon this here. Thematically related to this is John Freely’s Aladdin’s Lamp, which I have also evaluated. I don’t recommend buying either of these books, but Freely’s work is the least bad of the two because he has a better grasp of the history of science than Mr. Lyons does.
Stephen O’Shea of The Los Angeles Times in a very positive review claims that “Dust will never gather on Jonathan Lyons’ lively new book of medieval history.” I disagree. I consider The House of Wisdom to be a bad case of poor scholarship. The best thing I can say about it is that it is not as bad as God's Crucible by the American historian David Levering Lewis, which I have written about previously. Lewis says in more or less plain words that it would have been better if Islam had conquered all of
Let us start with one of the few worthwhile quotes in the book. Jonathan Lyons writes about the collapse of the (Western) Roman Empire and notes how “The Muslim conquests around the eastern Mediterranean three hundred years later sealed the West's isolation by choking off easy access to the Byzantine Christians based in far-off
This confirms my claim that the endemic Jihad raids in the Mediterranean for centuries severely disrupted normal communications between
From the eleventh century onwards, more political stability and an extension of the money economy to include the countryside combined with technological improvements such as the spread of water wheels and windmills generated a rapid growth of the European population.
As scholar David Lindberg explains in The Beginnings of Western Science, “exact figures are not available, but between 1000 and 1200 the population of
Peter Abelard, or Pierre Abélard (1079-1142), was a French scholastic philosopher and theologian who was very influential in his time as a thinker and teacher. He was a poet and a musician as well, and became famous for his luckless love affair with Héloïse. First and foremost, he was one of the greatest logicians of the Middle Ages. He championed the use of reason in matters of faith and was among the first to use “theology” in its modern sense.
While university-educated people were a minuscule fraction of the total European population, their cumulative influence should not be underestimated. A striking number of the leading scholars in early modern Europe, from Copernicus to Galileo and
This network constituted a crucial innovation compared to other civilizations at the time. Although the Scientific Revolution began in the seventeenth century with the systematic use of the experimental method and a more critical view of the knowledge of the ancients, exemplified by individuals such as Galileo, the institutional basis for these later developments was laid with the natural philosophers of the medieval universities. As Lindberg states, “for the most part the universities managed the rare and remarkable feat of securing patronage and protection with only minimal interference,” and “it must be emphatically stated that within this educational system the medieval master had a great deal of freedom.”
“A handful of anti-Arab conservatives launched a campaign to incite Christians to slander the Prophet Muhammad in public, in the hopes that severe treatment of the militants would provoke a rebellion. A small number of these so-called
There are so many things wrong with this paragraph that I hardly know where to begin. It is disturbing to notice that “good relations” between different faiths even during this supposedly “Golden Age of Tolerance” meant submission to Islamic rule and that non-Muslims were murdered for saying anything critical of Islam. Moreover, what broke the dominance of Latin in
No direct link has ever been proven between Gutenberg’s printing press and printing in East Asia, although it is conceivable that the very idea of printing had been imported to
“Certainly the Muslim world exhibited an active and sustained opposition to movable type technologies emanating from
It is likely that due to trade, Middle Easterners were familiar with this invention centuries before this incident, yet because of Islamic religious resistance they did not adopt it until a thousand years or more after printing had been invented in
It was a major stroke of historical luck that printing was introduced in Europe at exactly the same time as the last vestige of the
“The classical editions, dictionaries, grammar and reference guides issued from print shops made it possible to achieve an unprecedented mastery of Alexandrian learning even while laying the basis for a new kind of permanent Greek revival in the West.…We now tend to take for granted that the study of Greek would continue to flourish after the main Greek manuscript centers had fallen into alien hands and hence fail to appreciate how remarkable it was to find that Homer and Plato had not been buried anew but had, on the contrary, been disinterred forever more. Surely Ottoman advances would have been catastrophic before the advent of printing. Texts and scholars scattered in nearby regions might have prolonged the study of Greek but only in a temporary way.”
During the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, reformers such as Martin Luther wanted the Bible to be available in the vernacular. Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin in The Coming of the Book estimate that about 77% of the books printed before 1500 were in Latin, with religious books predominant. While it is true that this would eventually give way to secular books in German, English, French etc., this process was gradual and “it was not until the late 17th century that Latin was finally overthrown and replaced by the other national languages and by French as the natural language of philosophy, science and diplomacy.”
As writer Peter Watson says in his book Ideas, “The death of Latin was slow. Descartes wrote the Discours de la Méthode in French but his correspondence was usually in Latin. It was still imperative to write in Latin if one wanted to address a European audience. Latin did not finally succumb until the seventeenth century, after which French became the language of science, philosophy and diplomacy, when every educated European had to know French and when books in French were sold all over Europe.”
Latin as a scholarly lingua franca was very much alive in seventeenth century
Mozart’s father was a respected composer and a competent musician. Beethoven, too, came from a musical family. This does of course not explain their genius - millions of people come from musical families without becoming a Mozart or a Beethoven - but it does at least provide a hint of where they got their talent from. In contrast, we have absolutely no indications as to where William Shakespeare (1564-1616) got his exceptional gift. Perhaps this is why there are so many nonsensical theories about how his plays were actually written by somebody else. As a matter of fact, we do know quite a bit about the historical person Shakespeare, often more than we know about some of his contemporaries.
He wrote from before 1590 until at least 1614. His reputation grew rapidly during the 1590s, and his plays were instrumental in changing the styles of acting. He had the good fortune to work most of his time for a single theatrical company as an actor and dramatist. This stability provided him with good working conditions and the opportunity to work with known performers and associates. Some of his actors were business partners, too. Theater was the closest thing to a modern mass entertainment industry in Elizabethan and Jacobean London.
According to the Arden Shakespeare Complete Works, “He was an actor, a ‘sharer’ in the acting company (that is, no mere hireling but a partner entitled to share in its profits) and, of course, a leading playwright. He began, however, more humbly. We know a remarkable amount, for this period, about Shakespeare and his family. He was born late in April 1564 in
He got a good education in the classics of Greco-Roman literature. As one online biography states, “young Shakespeare would have become thoroughly grounded in Latin, acquired some background in Greek, and developed enough linguistic facility to pick up whatever he may have wanted later from such modern languages as Italian and French. Along the way he would have become familiar with such authors as Aesop, Caesar, Cicero, Sallust, Livy, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, and Seneca. He would have studied logic and rhetoric as well as grammar, and he would have been taught the principles of composition and oratory from the writings of such masters as Quintilian and Erasmus.”
According to Stanley Wells in Shakespeare: For All Time, the knowledge of Latin among Elizabethan schoolboys, even in an English town of secondary importance such as
Practically nothing of what Shakespeare used as a literary inspiration was available in the Islamic world at any point, despite the fact that much of North Africa and the Middle East had for centuries been a part of the Roman Empire. Latin writers were completely ignored by Muslims whereas the Roman writer Cicero had a huge impact on Western political thought, from Machiavelli and Montesquieu to the American Founding Fathers (see my essay The Importance of Cicero in Western Thought). While many Greek works on science and philosophy were translated into Arabic, often by non-Muslims, works on history, drama, art or politics held no interest for Muslims at all. Many central works of Greek or other literature are still not available in Arabic, Persian or Turkish translations to this day, yet can be read in the languages of European nations that were never a part of the Roman Empire, for instance Norwegian, Finnish or Polish. So much for our “shared Classical heritage.”
The re-writing of European history has become so bad that Shakespeare has been proclaimed a closet Muslim. “Shakespeare would have delighted in Sufism,” said the Islamic scholar Martin Lings, himself a Sufi Muslim, in 2004. According to newspaper The Guardian, Lings argued that Shakespeare's work “resembles the teachings of the Islamic Sufi sect” in the International Shakespeare Globe Fellowship Lecture at Shakespeare's own Globe Theatre in
As Robert Spencer commented back then, “Shakespeare is just the latest paradigmatic figure of Western Christian culture to be remade in a Muslim-friendly manner: recently the State Department asserted, without a shred of evidence, that Christopher Columbus (who in fact praised Ferdinand and Isabella for driving the Muslims out of Spain) was aided on his voyages by a Muslim navigator. It is a sign of the times when this kind of thinking is no longer confined to Islamic apologetics websites, but is taken up by the Globe Theatre and the
However, the very concept of “theater” hardly existed in medieval or early modern Islam; it’s another part of the Greco-Roman heritage that was NOT “shared, preserved and passed on to us” by Muslims since they were never interested in it even at the best of times. The theater, perhaps because of its association with pagan rites in Antiquity, disappeared from the
“The notion of a play - of a connected performance with a narrative thread and a more or less prepared text - is first attested in the fourteenth century, notably in
Muslims rejected most aspects of the Roman heritage and many aspects of the Greek one, from wine, sculpture and pictorial arts to theater. In fact, the only aspect of Greco-Roman civilization I can think of which was more compatible with Islamic culture than with Christian culture was slavery, which was very widespread in Greco-Roman society. While the specific nature of slavery in the Islamic world was admittedly quite different from its Roman counterpart, the very concept of slavery was certainly more acceptable to Muslims than to Christians. This does not mean that it was never practiced by Christians; the transatlantic slave trade is one of the darkest chapters in Western history by any standard. What it means is that it coexisted quite well with Islamic doctrines, but not with Christian ones. It triggered internal tension in the Western world, contributed to a civil war in the
As historian Paul Fregosi puts it, “Slavery was accepted as normal by Muslims. It was also tolerated by Christians, with this difference: slavery was considered by Christians to be a reprehensible institution, notably in the later days of Wilberforce and Harriet Beecher Stowe and even well before, when Bartolomeo de Las Casas preached in
There was never any serious native opposition to slavery within the Islamic world before they encountered external Western pressure in the nineteenth century. In fact, slavery remains perfectly legal according to Islamic law to this day and may well resurface as soon as this external pressure disappears. We can already see signs in the early twenty-first century, with a weaker Western world, of resurgent piracy and kidnappings of non-Muslims for ransom, similar to traditional Jihad raids of earlier times. Fregosi writes in his book Jihad in the West:
“Since the Qur’an, unlike the Bible, is for the Muslim eternal and uncreated, and every word of it valid for all times, it makes slavery today, and certainly also in the sixteenth century, as admissible as it was in the days of the Prophet. In the year 1625 there were some twenty thousand Christian slaves in Algiers. The Order of the Holy Trinity, founded in the twelfth century, ransomed a total of ninety thousand Christians from slavery during its centuries of work in
The great Spanish novelist, playwright and poet Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) was a contemporary of Shakespeare, and his novel Don Quixote or Don Quijote from the early 1600s pioneered that genre in
It is interesting to ponder why, despite the alleged glory of “Islamic Spain and
We should also remember how much Islamic Jihad has destroyed, in
As Ibn Warraq writes in his excellent book Defending the West:
“Where the French presence lasted fewer than four years before they were ignominiously expelled by the British and Turks, the Ottomans had been the masters of
Frankly, I suspect that the reason for the Crusades was that Europeans did know something of Islam and its teachings. They had by then been at the receiving end of unprovoked Jihad warfare for centuries. More about that in The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) by Robert Spencer. Here is what Bernard Lewis writes in The Crisis of Islam:
“Jihad is sometimes presented as the Muslim equivalent of the Crusade, and the two are seen as more or less equivalent. In a sense this is true - both were proclaimed and waged as holy wars for the true faith against an infidel enemy. But there is a difference. The Crusade is a late development in Christian history and, in a sense, marks a radical departure from basic Christian values as expressed in the Gospels. Christendom had been under attack since the seventh century, and had lost vast territories to Muslim rule; the concept of a holy war, more commonly, a just war, was familiar since antiquity. Yet in the long struggle between Islam and Christendom, the Crusade was late, limited, and of relatively brief duration. Jihad is present from the beginning of Islamic history - in scripture, in the life of the Prophet, and in the actions of his companions and immediate successors. It has continued throughout Islamic history and retains its appeal to the present day.”
Jonathan Lyons is not too reliable or balanced in his writings about the history of science, either. He admits that none of the scholars in the Islamic world ever did anything as bold as placing the Earth in orbit around the Sun, as Copernicus did, but he claims that “highly sophisticated Arab scientists” facilitated this great breakthrough. So why didn’t these Muslim scholars make the same breakthrough on their own when they had the same starting point?
He makes absolutely no mention whatsoever of the heliocentric theory of Aristarchus of
While we should give credit to scholars in the medieval Islamic world when they made real contributions, we should not forget the huge debt they owed to earlier cultures, to the Indians and the Chinese, the Egyptians and Mesopotamians and above all to the ancient Greeks. Lyons talks extensively about the astrolabe, yet he does not mention the man who made strong contributions to the development of this instrument, the astronomer and mathematician Hipparchus from the second century BC. He was the greatest of all Greek astronomers next to Ptolemy, and even Ptolemy, whose astronomy was standard in Europe until the sixteenth century and in the
The English monk and scholar Adelard of Bath, who traveled to the East in the early twelfth century and made Latin translations of texts such as
William of Moerbeke’s friend Thomas Aquinas, who was also a friar of the Dominican order and had contacts at the highest levels at the
One of the worst omissions in the entire book is Ibn al-Haytham, or Alhazen. I searched in vain for his name, which is not listed in the index. It is embarrassing for a book written specifically to criticize Westerners for their lack of appreciation of “Islamic science” to completely fail to mention arguably the greatest scientist ever born in the Islamic world with a single word. It’s like writing a history of European science without mentioning Newton or Galileo. By saying that I do not mean to imply that Alhazen was of the same stature as
Another omission, not as bad as Alhazen but bad enough, is Ulugh Beg. He was one of the best observational astronomers during the Middle Ages, yet he, too, is totally ignored. I find it a bit odd that I, being a hardened critic of Islam and thus one of the persons Mr. Lyons warns against, have to lecture him on which Muslims scholars deserve to be mentioned. When the author manages to leave out so many crucial figures entirely, one is left with the strong impression that he simply doesn’t know what he is talking about.
Even though medieval Europeans invented mechanical clocks and Muslims did not, despite a similar starting point, on page four of his book Jonathan Lyons writes the following:
“The arrival of Arab science and philosophy, the legacy of the pioneering Adelard and of those who hurried to follow his example, transmuted the backward West into a scientific and technological superpower. Like the elusive ‘elixir’ - from the alchemists’ al-iksir - for changing base metal into gold, Arab science altered medieval Christendom beyond recognition. For the first time in centuries,
This isn’t serious scholarship; it is myth-making. 6 Perhaps it’s time they start repaying their debt to us, not vice versa. I’m not suggesting that there was no good scholarly work done in the Islamic world. There are a few Muslim scholars from the medieval period whom I respect. Their contributions should not be ignored, but nor should they be inflated beyond all proportions as
Tuesday, 30 June 2009
About the Famous “House of Wisdom”
”Some Counter-Apologetics on the hypothetical Islamic Science, by Fjordman