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The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization Paperback – March 30, 2010

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Press; 1 edition (March 30, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1608190587
  • ISBN-13: 978-1608190584
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 0.8 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #72,998 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews



"Sophisticated and thoughtful... In The House of Wisdom, [Lyons] shapes his narrative around the travels of the little-known but extraordinary Adelard of Bath, an English monk who traveled to the East in the early 12th century.... Mr. Lyons's narrative is vivid and elegant."—Wall Street Journal

"With a storyteller's eye for the revealing detail and an artist's feel for the sweep of history, Jonathan Lyons has uncovered the debt that the Christian world--and Western civilization--owes to Muslim philosophy and science. House of Wisdom is a fascinating and picturesque page-turner."—Ian Bremmer, author of The J Curve

"Lyons capably delineates the fascinating journey of this knowledge to the West, highlighting a few key figures, including Adelard of Bath, whose years spent in Antioch paid off grandly in bringing forth his translations of Euclid and al-Khwarizmi; and Michael Scot, science adviser and court astrologer to Frederick II, who translated Avicenna and Averroes."—Kirkus

"The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization is a 320-page treasure trove of information for the uninitiated that packs a powerful punch of science, history, geography, politics and general knowledge at a time when so much disinformation about the Arab world is swirling around in various media."—Magda Abu-Fadil, Huffington Post

"Jonathan Lyons tells the story of the House of Wisdom, the caliphs who supported it and the people who worked there, at a riveting, breakneck pace."Times (UK)

“Sophisticated and thoughtful…In The House of Wisdom, Jonathan Lyons shapes his narrative around the travels of the little-known but extraordinary Adelard of Bath, an English monk who traveled to the East in the early 12th century and learned Arabic well enough to translate mathematical treatises into English…. Mr. Lyons's narrative is vivid and elegant.” –Eric Ormsby, Wall Street Journal

“Jonathan Lyons vividly conveys the excitement young European scholars travelling east must have felt as they glimpsed a dazzling new world of learning.” –Jo Marchant, New Scientist (UK)

“In unearthing this buried intellectual heritage, Jonathan Lyons gives us a new and important understanding of our historical and cultural relation to Islam and the Arab world… this is a well crafted, powerful account which asks us to re-examine our assumptions about East and West, a task never so necessary as now.” –Marc Lambert, Scotsman (UK)

“This is a refreshing book, one that discovers, or rediscovers, common ground between Islam and Christendom, a historical survey that reminds us that civilizations can converse as well as clash.” –Robert Cremins, Houston Chronicle

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Jonathan Lyons served as editor and foreign correspondent - mostly in the Muslim world - for Reuters for more than 20 years. He is now a researcher at the Global Terrorism Research Center and a PhD candidate in sociology of religion, both at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.

More About the Author

I have spent much of my professional and personal life exploring the shifting boundaries between East and West, first on both sides of the Cold War divide and, more recently, on the cusp between the Islamic and Western worlds. Over time, I have come to see the relationships between these seemingly polar fields as a problem not of geography or politics (or even geo-politics) but of thought, ideas, and knowledge - that is, as essential problems of epistemology.

This realization prompted me to leave behind more than 20 years as a foreign correspondent and editor, much of it in the Islamic world, and to complete a doctorate in sociology at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia.

Already, I had begun my journey from agency journalist to author with publication in 2003 of Answering Only to God: Faith and Freedom in 21st-Century Iran, co-authored with Geneive Abdo. My second book, The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization (2009), presents a narrative account of the West's extensive borrowing from the medieval Arab and Muslim world.

Columbia University Press has just published my newest book, Islam Through Western Eyes: From the Crusades to the War on Terrorism. This social history of ideas, based on my recent doctoral dissertation, attempts to explain the fact that Western images of Islam have remained to this day almost unchanged since they were first crafted from wartime propaganda at the time of the First Crusade, one thousand years ago.

Lately, I have shifted gears a bit to explore early American intellectual history as a way of uncovering the roots of today's technological nation. America, and by extension much of the modern world, has lost touch with Classical notions of wisdom and mystery. This new book traces the trajectory of our national consciousness.

Customer Reviews

Somebody should rewrite this book in a more balanced way.
R. E. Verhoef
For centuries after the fall of Rome, Western Europe was unaccountably still locked in the dark ages, a period referred to as "dark" for good reasons.
Herbert L Calhoun
Jonathan Lyons has crafted a marvelous work that details Arab contribution to Western culture.
Neil Dapper

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

49 of 56 people found the following review helpful By C. Baril on January 24, 2009
Format: Hardcover
An excellent story teller, Lyons uses the curiosity, conversations and travels of Adelard of Bath to provide a historic context for Arabic influence on European thought. Traveling to the east from his home in England's West Country, Adelard hoped to increase his knowledge by learning the teachings of the Arabs. As the story of the wandering Adelard unfolds, the reader gleans some knowledge of the dominant beliefs of the middle ages, the philosophical debates of the day, of Church ideology in shaping views of the Muslim world, the crusaders, and the incorporation of Arab innovations by some of the Christian conquerors. Adelard returns home after seven years of travel with knowledge gained about Euclidean geometry, alchemy, and astrology. His publication of "On the Use of the Astrolabe" provides the west with an aid to timekeeping, navigation and measurement of the physical world as well as an introduction to astronomy.

One of the great centers of knowledge dissemination was the House of Wisdom. Located in Baghdad, it housed a library and translation/research center, and brought together from afar scholars as well as a very large collection of Persian, Sanskrit, and Greek texts of science and philosophy which became the bases of further advances in arithmetic, astronomy, medicine. For example, the Hindu "9 number system plus zero", which we use today, was explicated by Al-Khwarizmi, who later wrote "The Book of Restoring and Balancing", a study in algebra.

In like manner, Cordoba in Muslim Spain became an important center for the dissemination of knowledge. Bordering directly on Christian Europe, ideas, poetry, fashions, and foodstuffs flowed from east to west.
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46 of 54 people found the following review helpful By Alan A. Elsner VINE VOICE on February 11, 2009
Format: Hardcover
In this fascinating book, Jonathan Lyons uncovers a mostly-unknown period of our history. During the Dark Ages and early medieval period, western Europe sunk into a deep pit of ignorance and intellectual stagnation. The scientific and philosophical achievements of the ancient world were forgtten. Europeans could not even tell the time or know for certain when Easter would fall.
Europe was wrenched out of its ignorance, Lyons argues, by contact with the intellectually vibrant Islamic world, starting with the Crusades.
Under the Caliphs of Bagdhad and later the Muslim rulers of Spain, Arab scientists and philosophers rediscovered the great thinkers of ancient Greece and subjected them to a rigorous analysis. They also learned from the vibrant traditions of Hindu India. While Europe huddled in intolerant misery, these Islamic rulers were open to all ideas, tolerated religious minorities and produced amazing advances in math, medicine, astronomy and other sciences.
Lyons introduces us to Adelard of Bath, an Englishman who went to the Near East shortly after the First Crusade in search of the scientific secrets of the Arabs and came back laden with intellectual riches.
This book is clearly written and bears the marks of years of rigorous research. My one question after completing it was, what happened to sap the Islamic world of its vitality. How did the spirit of questioning and free inquiry disappear? How did the Arab world cede primacy to the West? What brought it to its current miserable state?
These are questions outside of the scope of this book but I wish the author had provided at least a brief outline.
Full disclosure: the author and I worked together at Reuters for several years.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Keith Otis Edwards on August 23, 2011
Format: Paperback
There are two books titled "The House of Wisdom." This one, by Jonathan Lyons was published in 2010, and, as far as I can determine, it preceded The House of Wisdom by Jim Al-Khalili. Two books of the same title, covering the same topic, and they even have remarkably similar dust jackets. Both books are of some interest, but I would recommend Al-Khalili's (he capitalizes the article in his last name) version, because it simply has more specific information it.

The House of Wisdom was a real place, an institute in Baghdad that existed from the eighth century until the Mongol invasion of 1258, during which time the level of civilization in the Mideast, fueled largely by learning imported from the Far East and ancient Greece, leapt far beyond the backwardness of Europe. Al-Khalili's book examines the specific advances of this remarkable place, as well as the similarly enlightened Alhambra in Moorish Spain, but the book by Lyons mainly depicts events in Europe, and dwells on an obscure writer, Adelard of Bath. It has scant information about the precise activities which took place in The House of Wisdom, because it focuses on unrelated affairs in Europe. For example, there are two pages devoted to the predictions of astrologer Michael Scot and how he may (or may not) have inspired the character of Prospero in "The Tempest." We are supposed to be learning about scientific achievements in Baghdad, but instead we are treated to a silly story about how a stone fell on Scot's head during mass.
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