I have published a brief early review of The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization by Jonathan Lyons at the Gates of Vienna blog, and will publish a longer and more thorough rebuttal of this book at some point in April, either at Jihad Watch or at Atlas Shrugs. Lyons’ subject matter is related to that of John Freely’s book Aladdin’s Lamp: How Greek Science Came to Europe Through the Islamic World, which I will concentrate on here.
The first chapters of Aladdin’s Lamp about the Greek scientific legacy and medieval scholarship are not too bad. I disagree with certain details here and there as well as with the relative emphasis on various scholars, but all in all this section is worth reading. However, you can get this information from other books which do not suffer from the same shortcomings as this one does.
The Greek engineer and mathematician Hero or Heron of Alexandria is usually stated to have lived in the first century AD, but some claim that he lived in the first century BC. Pneumatica is one of his most important works. He made devices that could open and close the doors of a temple using air pressure and made important contributions to mathematics and theoretical optics as well. Yet his devices were mainly viewed as amusements by his contemporaries. According to John Freely, “One is his famous steam engine, in which a glass bulb is made to rotate by two jets of steam escaping from it in opposite directions at either end of a diameter.”
Freely is far from alone in describing Hero’s steam-driven aeolipile as a “steam engine,” but I disapprove of this term. It was viewed as a toy and did not lead to any practical uses of steam. The first steam engine that did a useful work was created by Thomas Newcomen (1663-1729) in England in the early eighteenth century, and was to play a key role in the Industrial Revolution.
Thabit ibn Qurra (ca. 836-901) was a member of the Sabian sect of star worshippers who had earlier adopted much of Greek culture. His native language was Syriac (Eastern Aramaic), but he knew Greek and Arabic well. He was “discovered” by the Persian scholars known as the Banu Musa brothers and went to work in Baghdad, where he produced influential Arabic translations or revised earlier ones of Euclid’s Elements, Ptolemy’s Almagest and works by Archimedes and Apollonius. Evidence indicates that all later Arabic versions developed from his revision of the Elements. He was also an original mathematician who contributed to geometry and the theory of numbers. Another very important Baghdad translator was the Christian scholar Hunayn ibn Ishaq (809-873), who most likely studied Greek and Greek texts in the Byzantine Empire.
Al-Battani (ca. 850-929), or Albategnius, came from a Sabian family but may have been a Muslim. He was a talented mathematical astronomer who made accurate measurements of the stars and planets. The Egyptian mathematician Ibn Yunus (950-1009) was known for his accurate trigonometrical and astronomical tables. Ibn al-Zarqali, Latinized as Arzachel, was an eleventh-century Andalusian astronomer who was partly responsible for the so-called Toledan Tables, quite accurate for their time, later translated into Latin and used in Christian Europe. Abu'l-Wafa (940-998) was a Persian mathematician and astronomer. His trigonometric tables were accurate to 8 decimal places while Ptolemy's were only accurate to 3 places.
Arguably the most important mathematician who ever lived in the Islamic world was Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (ca. 780-850). His origins are somewhat obscure and I have encountered conflicting information about his place of birth in the literature. Historian Victor J. Katz writes that “Al-Khwarizmi, or perhaps his ancestors, came from Khwarizm, the region south of the Aral Sea now part of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.” He probably wasn’t an ethnic Arab and may have been born in Central Asia, but some sources claim that he was born in Baghdad. What we know with certainty is that he spent much of his life working as a scholar in Baghdad.
Next to al-Khwarizmi, the most important mathematician was the Persian scholar and poet Omar Khayyam (1048-1131). Ibn Warraq in the book Leaving Islam: Apostates Speak Out calls him the “Poet of Doubt.” Omar Khayyam may have been a good scholar but he wasn’t a very good Muslim, and he loved wine.
A disproportionate number of the at least nominally Muslim scholars who did leave some imprint upon the history of science were Persians, who could tap into their pre-Islamic heritage. Other examples are the physician and philosopher Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and above all the physician and alchemist Rhazes (al-Razi), who didn’t believe a single word of the Islamic religion. Arab historian Ibn Khaldun admitted that “It is strange that most of the learned among the Muslims who have excelled in the religious or intellectual sciences are non-Arabs with rare exceptions.” It is also interesting to notice that virtually all freethinkers and rationalists within the Islamic world were at odds with Islamic orthodoxy and were frequently harassed for this. Whatever discoveries they made were more in spite of Islam than because of Islam, and in the end, Islam won.
As Ibn Warraq sums up in Why I Am Not a Muslim, “orthodox Islam emerged victorious from the encounter with Greek philosophy. Islam rejected the idea that one could attain truth with unaided human reason and settled for the unreflective comforts of the putatively superior truth of divine revelation. Wherever one decides to place the date of this victory of orthodox Islam (perhaps in the ninth century with the conversion of al-Ashari, or in the eleventh century with the works of al-Ghazali), it has been, I believe, an unmitigated disaster for all Muslims, indeed all mankind.”
Author John Freely calls al-Azhar in Cairo, Egypt, the highest institution of religious learning in Sunni Islam, an “Islamic university.” It was not. The modern university is a European invention. Islamic madrasas taught “Islamic science,” theology, Arabic grammar, the Koran and the hadith. Greek philosophy was called “foreign sciences” and was not integrated into the core curriculum. As scholar Edward Grant says in his book Science and Religion, “Natural philosophy always remained a peripheral discipline in the lands of Islam and was never institutionalized within the educational system, as it was in Latin Christendom.” Another excellent book covering this subject is The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West by Toby E. Huff.
Al-Azhar was created in the tenth century and is often hailed as one of the oldest “universities” in the world. However, as late as the twentieth century, the blind Egyptian author Taha Husayn (1889-1973) complained about the total lack of critical thinking he encountered at the institution:
“The four years I spent [at al-Azhar] seemed to me like forty, so utterly drawn out they were....It was life of unrelieved repetition, with never a new thing, from the time the study began until it was over. After the dawn prayer came the study of Tawhid, the doctrine of [Allah's] unity; then fiqh, or jurisprudence, after sunrise; then the study of Arabic grammar during the forenoon, following a dull meal; then more grammar in the wake of the noon prayer. After this came a grudging bit of leisure and then, again, another snatch of wearisome food until, the evening prayer performed, I proceeded to the logic class which some shaikh or other conducted.
Throughout these studies it was all merely a case of hearing re-iterated words and traditional talk which aroused no chord in my heart, nor taste in my appetite. There was no food for one's intelligence, no new knowledge adding to one's store.”
Taha Husayn was the kind of intellectual who found absolutely no room for free inquiry at this leading Islamic madrasa. He enrolled at the new, secular University of Cairo, founded after European models, in 1908, and continued his education at the Sorbonne in Paris. Although best know abroad for his autobiography Al-Ayyam (The Days), he created a controversy in Egypt by daring to suggest that some passages of the Koran should not be read literally, and for claiming that some pre-Islamic poetry had been forged to give credibility to traditional Islamic history. For this he was accused of heresy. Had he lived in the more aggressively Islamic atmosphere a few generations later, he might well have been killed for this. Fellow Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006) was stabbed in the neck and almost killed by enraged Muslims in 1994.
The German-Syrian reformist writer Bassam Tibi points out that the Muslim thinkers who developed Greek rationalism are today often despised in their own civilization. As he writes in his book Islam Between Culture and Politics, “rational sciences were – in medieval Islam – considered to be ‘foreign sciences’ and at times heretical. At present, Islamic fundamentalists do not seem to know that rational sciences in Islam were based on what was termed ulum al-qudama (the sciences of the Ancients).”
The Islamic madrasa was not concerned with a process of reason-based investigation or unrestrained enquiry but with a learning process in the sacral sense:
“Some Islamic historians wrongly translate the term madrasa as university. This is plainly incorrect: If we understand a university as universitas litterarum, or consider, without the bias of Eurocentrism, the cast of the universitas magistrorum of the thirteenth century in Paris, we are bound to recognise that the university as a seat for free and unrestrained enquiry based on reason, is a European innovation in the history of mankind.”
According to Bassam Tibi, the situation has changed less than one might think:
“In Muslim societies, where higher institutions of learning have a deeply rooted procedure of rote-learning, the content of positive sciences adopted from Europe is treated in a similar fashion. Verses of the Koran are learned by heart because they are infallible and not to be enquired into. Immanuel Kant’s Critiques or David Hume’s Enquiry, now available in Arabic translation, are learned by heart in a similar manner and not conceived of in terms of their nature as problem-oriented enquiries.” As a result, “In contrast to the European and the US-model, students educated in a traditional Islamic institution of learning neither have a Bildung (general education) nor an Ausbildung (training).”
This is a problem members of this culture bring with them abroad. In Denmark, Århus city council member Ali Nuur has complained that one of the challenges certain immigrant groups face in the education system is that they are unfamiliar with tests rooted in a rational, critical and analytical way of thinking.
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 Euclid's Elements from Arabic sources, is a prominent figure in Jonathan Lyons’ book The House of Wisdom. But as we have seen, Euclid's Elements was translated into Arabic by non-Muslims such as Thabit ibn Qurra in the first place.
Monte Cassino is a monastery in southern Italy, founded by Saint Benedict in the sixth century, which was sacked and burned and its monks killed in AD 883 by Arabs in one of their many Jihad raids. It was later rebuilt, and from here the monk Constantine the African (ca. 1020-1087) from North Africa translated medical texts from Arabic into Latin, including those of Hippocrates and Galen done by the Christian translator Hunayn ibn Ishaq. Constantine the African translated texts written by the North African Jewish physician and philosopher Isaac Israeli ben Solomon, who was again influenced by Greek writers such as Hippocrates, Galen, Aristotle and others.
It is easy to track how Arabic translations of Greek texts from Byzantine manuscripts, often done by non-Muslims, made their way from the Islamic East to Sicily and southern Italy or to the Iberian Peninsula in the Islamic West, where some of them were translated by Christians, for instance in the multilingual city of Toledo in Spain, back to Latin. It is true that some ancient Greek texts were reintroduced to the West via Arabic, sometimes passing via Syriac or Hebrew translations along the way, but these were usually based, in the end, on Byzantine originals.
John Freely correctly indicates that many of the key translators of scientific works into Arabic such as Hunayn ibn Ishaq and Thabit ibn Qurra were non-Muslims, and he includes a chapter on the important translation movement directly from Byzantium to Italy and Western Europe. These are redeeming features of his book, but he fails to explain why science in the Middle East declined and how the non-Islamic communities of the region shrank. Their shrinking overlapped to a significant degree with the decline of science. Is there a connection between the two?
Freely writes that Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), the great Jewish rabbi and philosopher and one of the leading physicians of his time, “moved” from his native Cordoba, but he doesn’t say why. Maimonides was born in 1135 in Islamic-ruled Spain, but had to flee the country when the devout Berber Almohades invaded from Morocco and attacked Christians and Jews in a classical Jihad fashion. He eagerly read Greek philosophy, some of which was available in Arabic with commentaries by writers such as the Andalusian Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd (1126-1198), known in the West as Averroes or Averroës. Maimonides’ The Guide for the Perplexed was still read in the seventeenth century at the time of Baruch Spinoza. His attempts at reconciling Aristotelian philosophy with the Bible inspired leading Christian Scholastic philosophers such as the influential Italian Saint Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century.
Freely doesn’t really explain exactly why Europeans did so much more with the same Greek material than Muslims did. Why there was no Copernicus in the Middle East, and no Newton? After all, Europe and the Islamic world had essentially the same, Ptolemaic Greek starting point during the Renaissance. Through the work of Copernicus, Tycho Brahe and Kepler, European scholars had broken free of Ptolemaic astronomy even before the telescope had been invented. Why was there no similar breakthrough in the Middle East? The Greek language was spread from its historic home, the southern Balkan Peninsula and the Aegean islands, through two processes, one piecemeal and long lasting and the other organized and sudden. The first one was the colonization movement of the Mediterranean and Black Sea coasts by Greek cities from the eighth to the fifth centuries BC. Only the Greeks and the Phoenicians of all the ancient Mediterranean peoples ever set up colonies in this way.
The other expansion came with Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire. One of the cities named after him, Alexandria in Egypt, became a center of Greek culture in the Mediterranean world with its Library and Museum (temple of the Muses). After the conquests, outside of Anatolia, Syria and Egypt there is little evidence for the Greek language in everyday use spreading much beyond the community of emigrants; it did exist for some generations in the Eastern regions of Alexander’s conquests, in Mesopotamia, Afghanistan and northwestern India. Their presence was historically significant and affected the development of Buddhist art, among other things, but in the end, no lasting Greek-speaking communities were established there.
Greek did have some influence in Egypt, above all in the major urban areas, yet it seems to have remained a language for the ruling elite. The last of Ptolemies, Queen Cleopatra VII (69-30 BC), is said to have been the first of them to learn Egyptian, which means that the popular language was still worth learning even after three hundred years of Greek government.
Greek linguistic influence in Hellenistic times was arguably strongest in Anatolia, where it gradually supplanted other languages. The western periphery of Anatolia had enjoyed Greek influence many centuries before Alexander and had indeed been an early center of Hellenic civilization, producing thinkers such as Thales of Miletus, but now Greek language and culture spread to the interior as well. Anatolia soon became an overwhelmingly Greek-speaking area.
After the downfall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century AD, the Eastern Roman/Byzantine Empire continued to exist. Greek had been used in this region for a thousand years or more and had remained an unofficial language throughout the Roman period. It is likely that a young Palestinian Jew such as Jesus of Nazareth would have been familiar with the languages of the empires which had ruled the Eastern Mediterranean before the Romans: the Aramaic of the Persian Empire and the Greek of Alexander’s men, but probably not Latin.
Greek was thus still important far beyond what we now call “Greece” in the seventh century AD. The major force behind the decline of Greek language and culture was Islam. Nicholas Ostler explains in his fascinating book Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World:
“A single decade from the death of Muhammad in 632 sufficed to draw a thin, but indelible, line under 950 years of Greek control and Greek language, and to turn the page, opening what is so far 1300 years of Arabic sway in these same lands….This was a devastating blow to the empire politically and economically: the losses included Egypt, still after 650 years the major supplier of grain to the empire’s capital. And the best estimates suggest that the Arab conquests deprived the empire of over half its population. But it could have been worse. The Arabs failed in repeated attempts to take Constantinople itself, and also failed to detach Anatolia, despite raiding it virtually every year for the next two centuries. The region had been reorganised by Heraclius, effectively combining civil and military administration, and imposing martial law. The clear perception that the enemy was at the gate imposed this new discipline, and kept the empire effectively mobilised for defence. There is an interesting pattern to the Byzantine losses in the mid-seventh century. The places that held firm were precisely those where Greek was the majority language, spoken by the people at large and not just elites.”
The diminished, Greek-dominated version of the Eastern Roman Empire (for its inhabitants still considered themselves as Romans, as did their Muslim enemies), is usually called the Byzantine Empire. The southern provinces, where Greek was a minority language although an important one, were lost to Arab Muslims, yet the final blow to Greek as a major international language came when Turkish Muslims conquered regions where it had been the majority language. Greek dominance in Anatolia lasted until 1071. In that year the Byzantine Empire lost the battle of Manzikert to the sultanate of the Seljuk Turks, who came from Central Asia. Turkish settlers within a hundred years deprived the Greek language community of the heart of its major territory.
It is true that the Greek language suffered another setback with the conquests of Slavic or Slavonic-speaking peoples in the Balkans in the Early Middle Ages. Scholar Julia Smith explains in her book about the Early Middle Ages, Europe after Rome: A New Cultural History 500-1000:
“The central Balkans and the southernmost tip of Italy had long since stabilized as its western limits, and although knowledge of Greek had formerly been common among the educated elite of the western Roman provinces, this accomplishment had become rare by c.500. The declining use of Greek had an additional cause, however, in the appearance of Slavonic. Despite losing much ground to it during the early Middle Ages, Greek nevertheless remained the main language of the southern part of the Balkan peninsula, and in the course of the sixth century replaced Latin as the administrative language of Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine (eastern Roman) Empire. In Italy, where the southernmost provinces remained under Byzantine rule, Greek remained a language of elite literary culture alongside Latin for as long as the administrative bond with Constantinople persisted. Slavs are first mentioned by Byzantine writers in the middle years of the sixth century, who located their kingdoms north of the lower reaches of the Danube. It is debatable whether the Slavs ever shared any sense of common identity, however.”
However, just as the Western, Roman Catholic Church spread Christianity and literacy in Western Europe, so the Eastern Orthodox Church of Byzantium spread Christianity and literacy among the Slavs of Eastern Europe. (The split and indeed rivalry between the two great churches was a reality long before its formalization in the East-West Schism or the Great Schism in 1054.) Byzantium secured its legacy among the Slav peoples by spreading its Greek Orthodox version of Christianity with the work of the missionary brothers St Cyril and St Methodius in the ninth century. They are credited with devising the Glagolitic alphabet, the first alphabet used to transcribe the Old Church Slavonic language. The Cyrillic alphabet, which was based on the Glagolitic alphabet, is used in a number of Slavic languages to this day.
The Slavic-speaking peoples of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia would in the end have closer cultural ties to the West. The Slavs of Poland had been converted to the Roman Church and German bishoprics pushed forward in the Baltic coastlands and Bohemia. The Bulgars were soon Slavicized and converted to Christianity. Scandinavian Vikings, especially from Sweden, at this time expanded by using the river system of Eastern Europe, thereby reaching the Black Sea and establishing themselves in Novgorod and Kiev. They were eventually linguistically assimilated, as almost all of the Germanic invaders were elsewhere in Europe during the Early Middle Ages, too, but they did have an impact on the formation of the earliest Russian state.
Historian J. M. Roberts, who is not good at all when it comes to Islamic Jihad but is otherwise worth reading, writes in The New Penguin History of the World:
“In 980 a series of dynastic struggles ended with the victorious emergence of the prince who made Russia Christian, Vladimir. It seems possible that he had been brought up a Christian, but at first he showed the ostentatious paganism which became a Viking warlord. Then he began to enquire of other religions. Legend says that he had their different merits debated before him; Russians treasure the story that Islam was rejected by him because it forbade alcoholic drink. A commission was sent to visit the Christian Churches. The Bulgarians, they reported, smelt. The Germans had nothing to offer. But Constantinople had won their hearts. There, they said in words often to be quoted, ‘we knew not whether we were in heaven or earth, for on earth there is no such vision nor beauty, and we do not know how to describe it; we know only that there God dwells among men’. The choice was accordingly made. Around about 986-8 Vladimir accepted Orthodox Christianity for himself and his people. It was a turning point in Russian history and culture, as Orthodox churchmen have recognized ever since.”
As is frequently the case, there were political reasons for the conversion as well. Kiev Rus was rich by European standards at the time and more open to outside influences than Russia would be for much of her subsequent history. Kiev in present-day Ukraine was famous for its beautiful wooden churches, few of which have unfortunately survived. The city was destroyed by the invading Mongols in the thirteenth century, an event which in the long run shifted the gravity of the Russian state northwards to Moscow. To this day, many of the Orthodox Christian peoples retain cultural and emotional ties to Byzantium, even if they did not adopt its Greek language.
As Nicholas Ostler says, “Slavs could be assimilated; Turks could not.” Turkish Muslims captured Constantinople in 1453 and converted the Hagia Sophia, which had long been the grandest church in Christendom, into a mosque. Yet they did not stop there. The Turks conquered much of southeastern Europe, made travel in the entire Mediterranean region unsafe for centuries and advanced to the gates of Vienna several times before being stopped. Scholar Dimitar Angelov elucidates the impact of the Ottoman Jihad on the vanquished Balkan populations:
“…the conquest of the Balkan Peninsula accomplished by the Turks over the course of about two centuries caused the incalculable ruin of material goods, countless massacres, the enslavement and exile of a great part of the population — in a word, a general and protracted decline of productivity, as was the case with Asia Minor after it was occupied by the same invaders. This decline in productivity is all the more striking when one recalls that in the mid-fourteenth century, as the Ottomans were gaining a foothold on the peninsula, the States that existed there – Byzantium, Bulgaria and Serbia – had already reached a rather high level of economic and cultural development….The campaigns of Mourad II (1421-1451) and especially those of his successor, Mahomet II (1451-1481) in Serbia, Bosnia, Albania and in the Byzantine princedom of the Peloponnesus, were of a particularly devastating character.”
In 1809, after the battle on Cegar Hill, by order of Turkish pasha Hurshid the skulls of the killed Serbian soldiers were built in a tower, Skull Tower, on the way to Constantinople. 3 meters high, Skull Tower was built out of 952 skulls as a warning to the Serbian people not to oppose their Muslim rulers. Some years later, a chapel was built over the skulls. The Christian of the region during the nineteenth century rebelled against the brutal Muslim rule. The great English poet Lord Byron (1788-1824), a leading figure in European Romanticism, became personally engaged in the movement for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire after hearing about the Turkish oppression of the Armenians and other subject peoples. He died in Greece in 1824.
Jihad massacres were committed not only against the Serbs, but against the Greeks, the Bulgarians and other non-Muslims who slowly rebelled against the Ottoman Empire throughout the nineteenth century. Professor Vahakn Dadrian and others have clearly identified Islamic Jihad as a critical factor in the Armenian genocide in the early twentieth century, which allegedly inspired Adolf Hitler in his plans for a Holocaust against Jews and Gypsies a generation later.
As Efraim Karsh notes, “The Ottomans embarked on an orgy of bloodletting in response to the nationalist aspirations of their European subjects. The Greek war of independence of the 1820’s, the Danubian uprisings of 1848 and the attendant Crimean war, the Balkan explosion of the 1870’s, the Greco-Ottoman war of 1897 – all were painful reminders of the costs of resisting Islamic imperial rule.”
In 2008, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on the international community to treat “Islamophobia” and criticism of Islam as a “crime against humanity.” At the same time in Istanbul, or Constantinople as it was once known as, the Patriarchate of Constantinople, still formally the spiritual center for hundreds of millions of Orthodox Christians, has been reduced to a small, besieged enclave in a decaying corner of Istanbul. Almost all of its property has been seized by successive Turkish governments and its prelates are taunted by hard-line Muslims who demonstrate almost daily outside the Patriarchate, calling for its ouster from Turkey. The ecumenical patriarch is often threatened when he ventures outside his walled enclave and the authorities frequently block his efforts to make repairs of the few buildings still under his control (one of the traditional stipulations of dhimmi status) and issue veiled threats against him.
Anatolia or Asia Minor, the region we now call “Turkey,” was a thousand years ago a land inhabited predominantly by Greek-speaking Christians. The gradual Jihad eradication of these communities has extended well into our own time. As late as in 1955, riots broke out in Istanbul with looting in Greek neighborhoods and the destruction of churches and synagogues. More than 5,000 shops belonging to the Greek minority were looted by an emotional crowd of several thousand people. The Muslim riots resulted not only from “fervid chauvinism, or even [from] the economic resentment of many impoverished rioters, but [from] the profound religious fanaticism in many segments of Turkish society.” Greeks and Armenians were savagely beaten and there were gang rapes. In some cases, Turks carried out “circumcisions” on the spot with knives.
Michael J. Totten visited Varosha, the Ghost City of Cyprus, in 2005. The city was deserted during the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, fenced off and patrolled by the Turkish occupiers. The Turks carved up the island. Greek Cypriot citizens in Varosha expected to return to their homes within days. Instead, the Turks seized the empty city and wrapped it in fencing and wire. This Ottoman Jihad tradition is continued by the “secular” NATO country Turkey to this day.
In March 2006, Italian Luigi Geninazzi made a report from the same area. 180,000 persons live in the northern part of the island, 100,000 of whom are colonists originally from mainland Turkey. According to Geninazzi, the Islamization of the north of Cyprus has been concretized in the destruction of all that was Christian. Yannis Eliades, director of the Byzantine Museum of Nicosia, calculates that 25,000 icons have disappeared from the churches in the zone occupied by the Turks. Stupendous Byzantine and Romanesque churches, imposing monasteries, mosaics and frescoes have been sacked, violated, and destroyed. Many have been turned into restaurants, bars, and nightclubs. Geninazzi confronted Huseyn Ozel, a government spokesman for the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, with this. Most of the mosques in Greek Cypriot territory have been restored. So why are churches still today being turned into mosques? The Turkish Cypriot functionary spreads his arms wide: “It is an Ottoman custom…”
Muslims have spent almost 1400 years wiping out Greek-speaking communities throughout the entire Eastern Mediterranean, yet they now want credit for “preserving the Greek cultural heritage.” If we are supposed to talk about what Muslims have “preserved,” shouldn’t we also talk about what their Jihad activities have historically destroyed, in Europe, Africa and Asia? Frankly, I suspect that if you make two columns, one for what Muslims have “preserved” and one for what they have destroyed, then the list over what they have destroyed will greatly exceed whatever they may have preserved through translations. And I’m being polite when I say that.
Lyons’ book The House of Wisdom is 200 pages long, Freely’s Aladdin’s Lamp 255 pages. Neither of them mentions the terms “Jihad” or “dhimmi” even once in their books about Islamic culture. This says a great deal about the current intellectual climate. I didn’t notice these words while reading the books and they are not listed in the indexes. The authors certainly don’t devote much time to debating the violent aspects of Islamic expansionism through the Islamically unique institution of Jihad, or the fates of the conquered peoples. Is it a coincidence that whatever useful work that was done in the Islamic world happened during the first centuries of the Islamic era, while there were still large numbers of non-Muslims living in the region? We don’t get to know because the question is never debated by these authors, but it deserves to be.
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. If the Western scientific and technological contribution to the world is the size of an elephant then the Muslim one is the size of a squirrel, or a Chihuahua at best. There’s no shame in that. I like squirrels, but I would never confuse one with an elephant.
I will conclude by recommending some serious books which people can read instead of The House of Wisdom or Aladdin’s Lamp. About Islam I recommend essentially everything written by Robert Spencer. Bat Ye’or’s books are groundbreaking and important, though admittedly not always easy to read. The Legacy of Jihad by Andrew Bostom should be considered required reading for all those interested in Islam. It is the best and most complete book available on the subject in English, and possibly in any language. Ibn Warraq’s books are excellent, starting with his Defending the West. Understanding Muhammad by the Iranian ex-Muslim Ali Sina is also worth reading, as is Defeating Jihad by Serge Trifkovic.
If you are looking for books about the history of science, I recommend everything written by Edward Grant. The Beginnings of Western Science by David C. Lindberg is very good, though slightly more politically correct than Grant when it comes to science in the Islamic world. The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West by Toby E. Huff is excellent and highly recommended. These books are easy to read for an educated, mainstream audience.
For books that are excellent, yet more specialized and slightly more difficult, I can recommend Victor J. Katz for the history of mathematics and The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy by James Evans for the history of pre-telescopic astronomy up to and including Kepler. Evans’ book is extremely well researched and detailed, almost too much so on European and Middle Eastern astronomy, but contains virtually nothing on Chinese or Mayan astronomy. For a more global perspective, Cosmos: An Illustrated History of Astronomy and Cosmology by John North is good and not too difficult to read.