04 November, 2009

Lyons Book Review

Well, I finally finished the Lyons book, The House of Wisdom, and what can I say other than it is such a great read! While it seems to be a little dry at first, part way through the first chapter the pace picks up. I found myself not wanting to put it down, but my tired eyes required that I do. Following is the actual review that I submitted as my class assignments:


Jonathan Lyons breaks his book, The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization, into four sections: night, morning, mid-day, and afternoon. Each of these sections represents a specific time in the day of a Muslim – that is a specific time of prayer. In contrast, they also seem to represent a specific time in Muslim or Arab history. The first section, night, represents the end of a “golden age” while at the same time the coming of new ideas into Western Europe from the East. Lyons discusses the Crusades at length during the “night”. His main “character” here, and throughout the book, is Adelard of Bath who was considered one of the top intellectuals from England. Another way to look at the “night” section is “the Dark Ages” as this is the time when Europe and the West were in the throws of the Dark Ages and intellectual life was at a stalemate.

The next section, “morning”, could be equated to the dawn of the new intellectual age in the Middle East. This was a time period when knowledge was being translated from Persian, Hindu, and Greek texts into Arabic. In this section, Lyons discusses the role of the Abbasid Caliph Ma’mun in bringing a plethora of knowledge into the Middle East. He also discusses the establishment of a centralized location where this scholarly work can be accomplished: that being the House of Wisdom. It is because of and within the House of Wisdom the Arabs were able to make a number of scientific and mathematical improvements on existing texts. It is also for this same reason that a new way of thinking began to emerge from the Middle East: deductive reasoning or critical thinking.

The third section, “mid-day”, goes back to the time of the Crusades and Adelard of Bath. Here, Lyons discusses the new knowledge coming into Europe and the welcome it received, both positive and negative. Because Europe relied heavily on the teachings of the church, this new knowledge was not welcomed in theological circles. In academia, however, this same knowledge was highly welcomed. It created new university towns such as the University of Paris and Oxford University. Much of the works in Arabic were translated into Latin so scholars in the West could understand them. Ironically, much of this translation took place in the monasteries by monks.

The final section, “afternoon”, pushes forward with the continuing of translation into Latin those works from the East. Lyons discusses, at length, the patronage of Frederick II to learning all that he could from the Arabs. He brings into his realm learned men such as Michael Scot, Leonardo of Pisa (aka Fibonacci), and even Thomas Aquinas, all of whom were eager to learn from the Arab texts. The primary focus of this section is the theological disputes between Frederick II and the rest of Christendom. Frederick II is said to have taken on a Muslim lifestyle including chanting the five daily prayers; and his court followed his example.

Overall, this book has a lively read to it and the subject matter is crucial to the understanding of Arab thinkers during the Abbasid Caliphate. Lyons does a good job of showing the overall progression of knowledge from Baghdad into the realm of Europe. He also does a wonderful job of explaining not just the initial contact of the East with the Greeks, Persians, and Indians, but of the improvements made upon these works by the Arabs within and without the House of Wisdom.


I formatted as if I would submit it to a scholarly journal in order to get the practice. I am still waiting on feedback from both professors (as I submitted to both classes for different purposes). Next on my reading agenda is a book by Dr. Bernard Lewis, The Arabs in History, as well as a book by Howard R. Turner, Science in Medieval Islam.

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