The long history of science in the Arab-Islamic civilisation is all but hidden and unknown to most educated people in the West. Many times I have heard a speaker or read a book where the history of science is made to jump from the Greeks to the Renaissance. I would imagine that few physicists today would identify the name and the work of Ibn Al Haytham, one of the greatest scientists of pre-modern times and a pioneer of optics.
In the past few years, however, there has been a burst of interest in "Islamic science" (the contributions of scientists during the Islamic era) — a three-part BBC TV series, a three-part BBC radio series, the successful 1001 Inventions: Discover the Muslim Heritage in Our World international exhibition and several general-public books, including one by John Freely just 18 months ago (Aladdin's Lamp: How Greek Science Came to Europe Through the Islamic World).
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 past 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 all the way to the modern times, devoting about a third of the book to the Islamic era.
In Light from the East, save for a few preliminary chapters and one on modern times at the end, he is almost entirely focused on Islamic science. He tends to be encyclopaedic 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 the book carefully, one finds interspersed remarks about various achievements or direct/indirect influences on the West that Muslim scholars should be but are rarely credited with.
Freely spends the first 20 pages reviewing the main scientific knowledge that the Greeks had produced, lest it be — as Muslim enthusiasts unfortunately tend to often do — too quickly ascribed to Muslims. He then spends another 20 pages on describing "the roads to Baghdad", that is the various legacies and influences that Muslims received: from Athens, Alexandria, Constantinople, Khorrasan and India.
He then turns to the main subject and reviews both the better and the lesser known achievements (from Bayt Al Hikma in Baghdad to Istanbul's observatory), the great traditions (more than a hundred paper-mills in Baghdad, dozens of libraries in Cordoba, etc), and the great ideas and theories (Al Khwarizmi's algebra, Razi's atomism, Biruni's geology and astronomy, Ibn Sahl's law of optical refraction, Ibn Sina's canon of medicine, etc).
The book is also rich in delightful anecdotes and titbits, such as Al Jahiz's sarcastic description of Al Kindi's difficult character or the list of little-known book titles by Al Razi indicating a fine self-deprecating kind of humour. In many of these cases, Freely points out that knowledge that is often attributed to Western scientists was either 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."
Nidhal Guessoum is Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the American University of Sharjah.
Light from the East: How the Science of Medieval Islam Helped to Shape the Western WorldBy John Freely, IB Tauris, 256 pages, $28