A fast ride down a narrow valley

Aladdin's Lamp, by John Freely

A prominent literary editor once told me that a good reviewer did not have to like every book that he read, but that he absolutely had to have the capacity to like every book. In this spirit, I make a habit of opening a new book with the greatest optimism and eagerness, convinced that I’ll enjoy both the process of reading it and the comparative chore of writing the review itself.

It doesn’t always come to pass, of course. Fortunately, most books I’ve reviewed have been fascinating and well-written. A minority have turned out to be well-conceived and reasonably well-executed, but significantly flawed in logic or perspective (of course, in some ways these are more fun to review, since they offer more room for argument). But only one book so far has made me want to give up and put it away, and this before I had read even a third of it. To clarify, it’s not an atrocious book at all, but rather one that again and again refuses to rise to its own potential. And that can be a more painful experience than it sounds.

Hooked (and how could you not be)? Then by all means, read on…

Aladdin’s Lamp: How Greek Science Came to Europe Through the Islamic World
By John Freely
(Alfred A. Knopf; 303 pages; $27.95)

Review published in the San Francisco Chronicle (March 22, 2009)

After nearly eight years of conflict in the Middle East and Central Asia, it is hard to say that the American public is much more knowledgeable about the Islamic world than before the war began.

Admittedly, “Lawrence of Arabia”-style imaginings of desert sheikhs and bejeweled camels have been updated to include suicide bombers, beheadings and oppressed women in burqas, but this is hardly an improvement in comprehension. Islam must undergo a reformation, declare the Sunday pundits, and until that day will remain unenlightened and unprogressive, trapped in a Dark Ages of its own making.

This view is as simplistic and as one-dimensional as it sounds and gives no hint, for example, that the Islamic world was once the repository of much of the world’s scientific knowledge at a time when Europe was busy learning how to build stone structures again. To remind us of this important fact, and of the long and winding story that attends it, is the aim of John Freely, a historian of science at Istanbul’s Bosphorus University.

Freely’s tale begins with the ancient Greeks, the standard jumping-off point for large-scale histories. Having colonized Ionia – an area that included the central western shore of Asia Minor and its nearby islands – the Greeks began to interact with several of the advanced civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean basin. Importing mathematics and astronomy from their new neighbors, they improved upon these disciplines while extending their speculations to the broader natural sciences and to the nature of the universe itself. Science advanced, but it also began to move.

Over time the gravitational center of intellectual activity shifted west to Athens, and to Greek colonies in Italy and Sicily. With the decline of classical Greece, the center shifted again to the thriving Egyptian metropolis of Alexandria and its new library. From there it seeded the rising republic of Rome and, after city became empire and then divided itself into eastern and western halves, Greek science found in Constantinople a refuge from the approaching storms. With the rise of Islam in the second half of the first millennium came the translation of much of the classical world’s science and philosophy into the languages of the greater Middle East, a project sponsored with particular enthusiasm by the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad.

During the Middle Ages, Europe benefited from its own preservation of Latin texts in monasteries, but the mind of Greece itself had to trickle back into the continent through translations from Arabic texts obtained from Moorish Spain. Eventually the transmission path became more direct, as increasing numbers of classical Greek works were imported from Byzantium and translated into Latin. From 1500 onward a rejuvenated European science surged ahead, but Islamic science declined, undermined by the skepticism of rulers who were increasingly under the influence of powerful religious leaders.

This is indeed a tale worth telling, and Aladdin’s Lamp does so mainly by providing capsule profiles of scientists and philosophers, explaining some of the more interesting scientific discoveries, and making note of important works. It is an efficient and systematic approach as far as it goes, but it leaves a lot to be desired. Freely offers no explanation of precisely how science came to be transmitted across each civilizational and cultural boundary, no analysis of how it was received or transformed after it arrived, and no reflections on just what it is we mean by the term “science” in the first place. The book is full of who, what and where, but entirely empty of how and why.

This is a missed opportunity, and a serious one. The issues that are raised by Freely’s subject matter are difficult, but as such are very much worth tackling. Consider the most obvious of questions. If Herodotus himself acknowledged the superiority of Egyptian astronomical observations, is ancient Greece really the correct starting point for a narrative of scientific progress? If Pythagoras advanced geometry but also founded a religious cult based on numerology and mysticism, can we really justify our self-congratulatory categorization of the Greeks as rational and the Persians as religious? If modern science is composed of activities like observation, speculation and experiment, which of these did the West contribute, and which the East? What was the relationship between science and magic in medieval and early modern Europe, and how did this compare with the same relationship in medieval Islam? And what effect on accuracy and understanding did serial translations (for example, from Greek to Syriac to Arabic to Latin to English) have on scientific works?

Freely can offer no answers to these questions because he simply doesn’t ask them. Well intended and full of factual learning, Aladdin’s Lamp promises sweeping vistas but delivers no more than a “one damn thing after another” carriage ride down a narrow valley, with individual sights pointed out as they flash by the windows. Disoriented and exhausted – not to mention disappointed – the reader is relieved to get out at the end of the journey.

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