How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization

Ziauddin Sardar in The Times:

ARISTOTLE_585x385_b_473289a When Baghdad opened its gates as the new capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, the prime site in the city was occupied by the royal library. Both the city and the library, completed around 765, were built by Caliph al-Mansur, who devised a method for measuring the circumference of the Earth and was second in a long line of Abbasid caliphs who valued thought and learning above all else. The Abbasids created, shaped and developed one of the most rich and fertile periods of science in human history.

The library was officially called “the House of Wisdom”. It was a monumental structure, accommodating translators, copyists, scholars, scientists, librarians and the swelling volumes of Persian, Sanskrit and Greek texts that flooded into Baghdad. Not surprisingly, it became a magnet for seekers of knowledge from across the Muslim empire.

Jonathan Lyons tells the story of the House of Wisdom, the caliphs who suppor-ted it and the people who worked there, at a riveting, breakneck pace. In quick succession we meet scholars such as al-Khwarizimi, the illustrious Muslim mathematician and founder of algebra, the geographer al-Masudi, who described major sea routes to Persia, Cambodia and as far as the Malay peninsula in The Book of Roads and Kingdoms, and al-Kindi, the first Arab philosopher. But Lyons is more concerned with how what was happening in Baghdad and other Muslim cities was transferred to Europe. So he focuses on a string of colourful translators and scholars who travelled to the Muslim world and took its knowledge and discoveries back with them.

Adelard of Bath, for example, travelled to Antioch and Sicily in his dogged pursuit of what he called studia Arabum, the learning of the Arabs.

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