Sunday, January 25, 2009

Book Review: Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers and Artists by Michael Morgan

Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers and Artists by Michael Morgan is an exploration into the "Islamic Golden Age," which is when the Middle East was a wellspring of intellectual flourishing. The second half of the 8th century to the 12th century in the Near East is a keystone of the intellectual history of human civilization. Many great thinkers of this time period, such as Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Al-Kindi are responsible for translating, preserving and adding to the wealth of knowledge created by the great intellectuals of Classical Greece and the Roman Republic. During the Islamic Golden Age, there were countless advancements in medicine, astronomy, mathematics, optics, engineering and surgery while the Western world intellectually wallowed in the Dark Ages. Because many Muslim scholars kept the Aristotelian tradition of recognizing that the universe can be known through reason, it was possible for the Western world to eventually rediscover these values (by gaining access to the Islamic works) and to ignite the Renaissance.

Unlike many other books that touch upon this subject, this book recognizes the individuals who made specific intellectual achievements. Most other books typically credit the accomplishments of this era to the Muslim world in general. Needless to say, such a false attribution is as misleading as stating that 19th and 20th century Americans invented the light bulb, the telephone and the transistor.

In this book, amongst many other things, you will learn about:

* al-Haytham and his seminal work on optics
* Omar Khayyam, and his written eloquent and insightful attacks on religious mysticism that were ahead of his time
* Ibn Firnas and his designing and testing of a flying contraption
* Ibn Sina's impressive list of accomplishments in medicine, including his extensive study of human anatomy, of various infectious diseases, of bone fractures, of cancers, his introduction of over 700 drugs and a rudimentary understanding of a scientific approach to clinical trials.
* Al-Zahrawi's advancements in suture, antiseptics, and obstetrics
* And many more, including the great mathematician al-Khwarzimi, the chemist Jabir ibn Haiyan, the physician Maimonides, the staunch Aristotelian Ibn Rushd and the prolific translator of the classical works Al-Kindi.

Unfortunately, this book has a number of salient flaws. First of all, the style of presentation is very unpleasant for those who read history to accumulate facts. Each chapter begins with several pages of a contemporary fictional account that intends to serve as a lead in, but, in my opinion, is uninteresting and detracts from the book. More importantly, the author provides no citations. This blurs the divide between fact and speculation, which is in particular very bad here, since the author warns the reader that he dressed up the factual content with "imaginary recreations."

Second of all, this author is an explicit Multiculturalist, which makes reading this book nauseating at times if not downright awful. The author does a great disservice to many great thinkers by arguing that all cultures, including Muslim culture, have their own achievements instead of recognizing the many of the accomplishments from the Islamic Golden Age are genuine achievements for individuals of any kind.

Furthermore, the author intentionally does not answer the most important questions: "What caused the deluge of intellectual achievement in the Muslim world of the Middle Ages?" and "What brought this brilliant era to a halt?". Thus, the author fails to recognize that it was a commitment to reason that lead to the intellectual flourishing of the Islamic Golden Age (which suggests that this period should be renamed) and that it was a devotion to religious mysticism (triggered by al-Ghazali) that ended this age. The author indicates that he does not wish to "settle any academic debates" but instead seeks to incorporate elements from each of many competing and contradictory viewpoints. Unfortunately, this leaves the reader with a sense of incompleteness and suggests that while the author sought to present the truth when it came to individuals and their accomplishments, he was not interested in identifying the causal, intellectual forces that drive history.

Despite its many flaws, I still think this book is definitely worth reading for those who enjoy intellectual history. An accessible book on the Islamic Golden Age is such a rare commodity and this time period is so essential to fully understanding what happened to Aristotelian philosophy between the fall of the Roman Republic and the Renaissance. A much better book (one that lacks the awful Multiculturalism) can and should be written. Once this happens, I will withdraw my endorsement.

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1 comment:

Burgess Laughlin said...

Doug, thank you for the book review. If the book is flawed but still gives the beginning reader a readable introduction to this important historical subject then it is worth reviewing.

I can suggest further reading, for more serious students of history:

- Part 5 ("Arabic-Islamic Branch [450-1198 AD]) of The Aristotle Adventure: A Guide to the Greek, Arabic, and Latin Scholars Who Transmitted Aristotle's Logic to the Renaissance, my 1995 book, available on Amazon. Aristotle's logic was the foundation and prerequisite of Muslim and later western Christian cultural advances.

-A History of Islamic Philosophy, 2nd ed., Majid Fakhry; a scholarly but (for philosophy students) readable account of the historical setting, the advent of Greek culture into eastern Christian and Muslim culture, the dominance by Platonists, the rise and dominance of mysticism, the revival of Aristotelianism, and the decline. Fakhry takes the account up to modern times in the last chapter.

- Islamic:Technology, an Illustrated History, by Ahmad Y. al-Hassan and Donald R. Hill. Not footnoted, this heavily illustrated book intended for a wide audience does contain a bibliography for each chapter. So, it is a place to start for students of history. A careful reader will distinguish which technological achievements originated in the Middle East, and that few of those were "Islamic." The authors however pump up Islam as being a supportive culture. An objective reader can read around that message.