Monday, October 10, 2011

Review of John Freely’s “Light from the East: How the Science of Medieval Islam Helped to Shape the Western World”

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.


Gulf News, the English daily with the largest circulation in the Gulf, this past Friday published my review of John Freely’s book on Islamic science (the scientific tradition and the contributions of scientists during the Islamic classical era).
Before I give you some excerpts from it, I would like to make a remark: in the text I sent to the editor, I used the expression “Arabic-Islamic civilization” but the editor replaced it with the usual “Arab-Islamic civilization”. This may seem like splitting hairs, but since a large majority of the great scholars of that era were not Arabs, though most of their works were written in Arabic, it seems to me rather more appropriate to refer to it as Arabic-Islamic. In fact, George Saliba refers to it only as “Arabic Science/Astronomy”, but since I think the civilization stemmed from and was really rooted in Islam, and its scholarship was oftentimes affected by Islam (one way or another), I think it may best to include both the “Arabic” and “Islamic” adjectives (though I sometimes use “Arab-Islamic” from a habit of mind). Anyway, just wanted to mention that "little" issue.
Here are a few paragraphs from that review:
Freely is a kind of “renaissance man”: he is an American physicist, teacher, and author of 40 popular history, science, and travel books, three of them in the last two years; he has lived in Turkey for the past 50 years (he is now 85 years old).
His previous book attempted a grand narrative of the history of science, starting from the earliest Greek tradition and reaching all the way to the modern times, devoting about a third of the book to the Islamic era. In the present work, save for a few preliminary chapters and one on the modern times at the end, he is almost entirely focused on Islamic science. He tends to be rather encyclopedic and meticulous, describing as accurately as possible the contributions of all the main figures of the scientific tradition of Islam. And while there is rarely an insightful exploration of the socio-religious and political factors that led to a rise here or a decline there, he does give readers an excellent and up-to-date account of what scholars know today about this period of history and science. Most importantly, if one reads carefully, one finds interspersed remarks about various achievements or direct/indirect influences on the west that Muslim scholars should but are rarely credited with.
In many of these cases, Freely points out that knowledge that is often attributed to western scientists either was transmitted and at most was refined, or was known to the Muslims and was rediscovered by Europeans many centuries later.
The author ends his book on a positive note: “But now at least [Muslim scientists’] accomplishments are being recognised, as the heritage of Islamic technology and science is being rediscovered and exhibited in libraries and museums around the world.”
You can read the whole review here.

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