Jonathan Lyons on the Islamic resolution of science and monotheism

Jonathan Lyons was a correspondent for Reuters for 21 years, the first American national to be based in Tehran after the revolution. He and his wife both wrote from Tehran, and between them, they published in Reuters, the Guardian, the Economist, and the International Herald Tribune, which made them very visible targets for the regime.

He tells us about talking to an ayatollah in Qom. He realized was receiving what might be the last vestige of an Aristotelian education in rhetoric and logic from this Shia cleric. He realized this didn’t jibe with our cartoon image of Iranian clerics. And he wondered what else there might be able to learn from this tradition.

This led him to the exploration of Islam’s influence on what we think of as western science and society. He focuses in particular on Adelard of Bath, wondering what kind of person goes to the Holy Land during the crusades not to kill, but to learn Arabic and bring back that scholarship?

His book, “The House of Wisdom“, starts with a description of the unschooled, barbarian European masses knocking on the gates of the learned and sophisticated Islamic lands. He explains that Fibonnaci’s father sent him to a Muslim family to learn his math – he would have learned double-entry bookkeeping, an innovation that hadn’t yet reached the North.

When European monestaries might hold a couple of dozen volumes, Arabic libraries held hundreds of thousands of books. When the sultan decided to donate books to a new school, he sent 80,000 from his personal collection.

The seat of knowledge was Baghdad, founded by the second Abbasid caliph, Abu Jahar al-Mansour. (Apologies on all transliterations – I’m blogging in a room without Wifi and I will certainly get terms wrong – please use comments to correct.) Lyons tells us that the calif was a student of Euclid, who wanted to build a palace in a circle so that people would be equidistant from his central palace. He ordered built a circle of cottonseed oil, which lit on fire, brought the city into relief in glowing fire. While Madina-al-Salam was a mathematically planned city, the magic of it came from a city governed by law rather than by tribal tradition.

Al-Mansour ordered translations of scientific works from Greek and Persian. Ordered the creation of the House of Wisdom – the Beit al Hikma. It was modeled after the libraries of great Persian kings. This effort was strongly supported by the general population, not just by the caliphs. If you weren’t a scholar yourself, you hired scholars who lived in your house and did work in your honor. And great translators were well compensated. The translation of Greek texts into Arabic allowed Arabic to become the language of the known academic world.

These translations were more than word for word paraphrasings – to translate these texts, the scholars needed to become deeply knowledgeable as scientists. They corrected, edited and revised these texts. The Arabic translation of a great Greek work was often better than the Greek original – this came to bite the West in the neck, when Renaissance thinkers developed a fetish for the Greek originals.

The desire for science wasn’t in conflict with relgious authority – there was deep Islamic support. And the precision of Arabic was a great advantage for scholarship. A great Persian scholar began writing in Arabic because it was more precise. Arabic has 42 words for the word that meant “to be” in Latin – this gets pretty important when you’re talking about metaphysics. Mohammed brought in a religious, economic and finally an intellectual revolution.

The requirement to know the Qibla – the direction of Mecca – for prayer, burial and preparation of halal meat – had a major effect on geographic technologies. When Mohammed left Mecca for Medina, he just needed to face south to pray. This was initially adopted by Muslims in the far flung empire. But the desire for scientific accuracy superceded religious tradition. Believers in Central Asia had four choices to determine qibla:

– Honor the niche in a mosque
– Face south and honor tradition
– Face the traditional pilgrimage route to Mecca
– Take the astronomers seriously

That final, scientific solution was the one adopted. Medieval religious opinion bowed to the scientists. And the qibla adopted wasn’t the straight line on the map, but the line that honored the curvature of the earth. By the 10th century, the Islamic world had accurate geometry of a spherical earth. A hundred years before, all six major triganometric functions were in wide use.

Urban mosques began to attract timekeepers – they were religious scientists paid by the mosques, and they compiled almanacs – al-manaq – rigorous time cycles of when to pray in different locales, from Morocco to China.

Religious injunctions called on doctors to heal the sick… a very different model than in Europe, where sickness was seen as spiritual weakness. The need for pilgrimage routes required complex cartography. And alchemists were doing basic chemistry, exploring the structural nature of compounds. From azimuth to zenith, algebra to zero, we use Arabic terminology.

The idea Lyons wants us to take away is the idea that we can understand the world scientifically without putting ourselves in opposition to God. St. Augustine, he tells us, rejects science and art in becoming a Christian. In the Christian world, we see bestiaries like Aesop’s fables. They tell us very little about animals and lots about Christian morality.

Adelard of Bath was born around 1080 in England’s west country. His father was a powerful ally of the local bishop, and he was a wealthy, highly educated man who’d studied at cathedral schools in France. But he condemned contemporary learning and longed for an idealized past – “I judge the ancients eloqhent and call the moderns dumb.”

He had no interest in crusading. Instead, he resolved to learn Arabic and return with Arabic learning. We believe he was in Antioch in 1114, based on evidence of an earthquake he survived. He know he learned to wash a cadaver until the neural systems emerge from under the skin to study their structure.

He came home a changed man, determined to teach his peers about the wonders he studied in the East. He is worried that his peers reject modern scholarship from the Arab world at their peril and overfocus (as he had) on the classics of Greek literature. He brings back a book of alchemy which teaches how to tan leather, color glass and dye cloth green. And he brings back the astrolabe, the most powerful computer of its day, capable of telling time, defining true north, and measuring the height of a building. Alas, they only work if you know the latitude – we can read astrolabes based on what latitude they’re set up for.

The astrolabe, Lyons argues, is the perfect metaphor for Arab science. It’s based on Greek knowledge, advanced, done beautifully and brought to the west. People other than Adelard had gotten their hands on astrolabes and knew how to use them, but didn’t understand the cosmology behind them. Lyons sees Adelard as a cosmologist who understood the astrolabe as a scientist, not just a technician. “You can take for granted that the universe is not a rectangle or a square, but a sphere.”

Adelard advised King Henry II, and know he told him to rule through philosopher kings and to tolerate all religions. We don’t know how he died, but we think he survived into his seventh decade, and provided personal advice to the King throughout his days, based on extremely complex horoscopes provided through 1151.

Lyons calls Adelard the “first Western man of science”. He offers a quote from Adelard to explain this perspective: “Of course, God made the universe. But we may and should inquire into the natural world. The Arabs teach us that.” This is science – we can explore and understand the universe and still believe in God, and this is a little-known gift of Arab culture.

The Arabs, he concludes, are the first monotheists to get their hands on Greek and Latin texts and figure out how to use these things in a monotheistic universe. Their work preceded Maimonedes and other great thinkers responsible for this sort of synthesis.

So how do we have such a negative view of Islam today? 46% of Americans believe Islam is intolerant, and that 70% say it has nothing in common with their own faith. Most Americans see little or nothing to admire in Islam, but this is based on media impression, not on actual experience.

The culprit is anti-Islam discourse, which can be traced back to crusade-era propoganda. In the 11th century, the Church needed to create propoganda to get people to give up their lives and fight enemies they’d never met. Indeed, those church leaders had never met a Muslim. The discourse posited Islam as the opposite of Christianity. This turned Islam into a false form of Christianity, an unchaste religion, a violent faith, and in direct opposition to Christ. And we see the vision today – that Islam is anti-science, sexually perverse, undemocratic, and inherently violent.

Lyons believes that Arab contributions were slowly and steadily written out of history books. This inhibits the understanding of Islam, which makes it extremely difficult to diffuse global tensions. This distorts our domestic policy and leads to a war against Islam instead of a war against the criminals who attacked us. We’re holding what Lyons calls (quoting a Turkish saying) “a dialog of the deaf”.


I asked Lyons my best tough question, which made reference to the Arab Human Development report and the fact that there’s been very little translation from the rest of the world’s languages into Arabic over the past thousand years – languages like Spanish translate orders of magnitude more works. Why is this, and doesn’t this mean he’s putting too much of the blame for a Western/Islam misunderstanding on the West?

Lyons parses my question pretty bluntly: “In nicer language, you’re asking what happened, why the Islamic world fell behind and why they don’t currently dominate science.” He offers a variety of answers:

– We don’t know enough to date the decline of Arab science or define its cause or causes.
– We accept a notion of an Arab golden age, and the longer we study, the longer that golden age gets
– Copernicus’s work is based around two key theorems from the Arab world – perhaps this means that Arabic scientific influence lasted hundreds of years beyond when we commonly think
– Maybe we overvalue Western science – perhaps we’ve lost something in losing the integrative nature of Islamic medicine
– The Mongols killed most of the scientiss and scholars

The most satisfying answer was his last one – before admitting “this is a complex way of saying ‘I don’t know'” – current Arab states need to take blame for allowing science and learning to lapse. These states are insufficiently Islamic, not in the sense bin Ladn means, but in the sense that they do not recognize the finest examples of Arab culture and history, the love of science, art, exploration.

I’m sympathetic to this notion, much as I’m sympathetic to work on the African continent to recognizing the roots of complex, abstract mathematics in African culture as a way of reclaiming and rebuilding a love of science and learning. But it’s very hard for Lyons to keep this thread going in conversation in the audience – it very quickly turns into a discussion of terrorism… which, in turn, is an interesting example of Lyons’s key point, that our impressions of Islam tend to focus on intolerance and violence, not on the history of science and learning.

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2 Responses to Jonathan Lyons on the Islamic resolution of science and monotheism

  1. Michael says:

    I’ve always been amazed by the translation movement and ended up with the same question. What went wrong?
    Thanks for posting. Beautiful.

  2. Zainab says:

    A very interesting post! Thanks for introducing us to Jonathan Lyons.

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