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The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance
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The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance

3.92  ·  Rating details ·  890 ratings  ·  133 reviews
A myth-shattering view of the Islamic world's myriad scientific innovations and the role they played in sparking the European Renaissance. Many of the innovations that we think of as hallmarks of Western science had their roots in the Arab world of the middle ages, a period when much of Western Christendom lay in intellectual darkness. Jim al- Khalili, a leading British-Ir ...more
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published March 31st 2011 by Penguin Press (first published September 30th 2010)
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Oct 01, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: history
Jim Al-Khalili has managed to take a fascinating subject--and make it seem boring. The book floods the reader with facts, names, places, with the hope that the reader will make sense of it all. There are interesting insights in this book, but they are scattered throughout the book, and not easy to find. This book reads like a history major's doctoral thesis. This is unfortunate, because it is clear that the author has put an enormous amount of research into this book. But I felt like I was drown ...more
Nov 28, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: stem, bechdel-fail
An interesting feature of al-Idrisi's map, as with all medieval Arabic maps, is that it is drawn upside down, with the north at the bottom.
I've read a couple of other books on this subject, and in terms of thoroughness and synthesis, it's definitely the best one. It seemed extensively and carefully researched. It's arranged narratively, flowing through time from one time and place and person to another, making detours and links where appropriate, so it's the kind of book you'd want to read cover
May 20, 2011 rated it it was amazing
A well written, insightfull and smart read.

Jim Al-Khalili is obviusly proud of his roots. And i like that.

Without being to missionary about it, he makes a good point in the fact that the Mideastern knowledge that started in Mesopotamian times and evolved all the way through our dark ages until the renaissance, was very influential on the occidents development of not only medicine, or architecture but also poetry, astronomie and art.

The questions of how and why the Islamic knowledge is suddenly r
aPriL does feral sometimes
'The House of Wisdom' is a thorough history of science in the Arabic countries up to the fifteenth century.

Besides including biographies of early Arabic scientists, British-Iraqi physicist and author Jim al-Khalili shows how individual Arabic geniuses and polymaths eagerly sought Ancient Greek texts on science, encouraged by the leaders of Middle-Eastern empires to do so. Libraries and universities were built, experimentation was funded, brilliant students were encouraged, and ideas were freely
Jenny Brown
Aug 10, 2011 rated it it was ok
I'm a long-time reader of books on the history of science. I'm fascinated with non-European cultures and have been reading heavily in that topic area. So this book should have been perfect for me, but instead it bored me.

Too often it read like a string of names and places with very little substantive information about the people being discussed. The author covers so many people that none of them are given much space save for a few mathematicians whose contributions are discussed so technically
Mary Craven
Feb 25, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Excellent book filling in the gap of Western Civ. history. Answering how we left the Dark Ages and entered the Renaissance with shared knowledge, not our own invention. A strong case for world peace, understanding and tolerance.
While chemistry, algebra, medicine and so much more are written about, my favorite quote is "I shall mention in passing just one example of a gift from the Arabs that I for one am rather grateful: coffee - especially as it was originally banned in Europe as a 'Muslim drin
Sarah Dorra
May 10, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
(This review is originally published at

At school, one only gets to learn what he is taught. In the case of students in the Arab World, we only got to learn about Western scientists like Galileo and Einstein. It would be unfair though to claim that our curriculums left us entirely ignorant of our Arab and Muslim scientists because their names are still very familiar. Though their achievements may not. Feeling truly ashamed, I picked up Jim Al-Khalili's Pathfinders: The Golden A
Feb 09, 2013 rated it really liked it
Jim Al Khalili is a physicist whose family has deep roots in one of the culturally leading families of Iraq. His mother and first name are British and he was born and raised in Britain making him ideal to mediate between Islamic and European cultures in describing the wonders of this House. The founding of the "House of Wisdom" by Al Mamun in the 800s A.D. (C.E.) was necessitated by dream in which the instructions came right from Aristotle. However, Islamic culture did more than just conserve cl ...more
May 08, 2016 rated it really liked it
This book was excellent, beginning with the massive translation effort of known texts from Greek and Roman scientists into Arabic during the Abbāsid Caliphate and the subsequent pursuit of and development of chemistry, astronomy, medicine, and mathematics by Arabic-literate peoples (al-Khalili characterizes the science being done by its common language of communication, which at that time was Arabic rather than Latin or English -- the scientists he highlights were Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and ...more
Richard Healy
Jun 03, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Interesting so far.

I was one of those guilty of the simplistic reading of history that says Greek and Latin thought was absorbed into the Islamic Caliphate, translated, preserved and ultimately re-entered European thought kick-starting the enlightenment and the age of reason, without appreciating all the novel and new contributions that the arabic authors added to this pantheon of wisdom and learning.

Gradually in the last few years I've become increasingly aware of the arabic influence on, i
Abdullah Diab
Jun 23, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I have seen the documentary (Science and Islam - BBC) that Jim has done before, and I wanted to get a better grasp on my history, so I bought the book.

It's a very good book, with many references to many names, as an Arab I was taught many of those names, but like Jim says in the last chapter, we heard only of those names in history lessons, which really tended to be so boring back in my days, I assume they're more boring now. Only few science teachers ever mentioned these great names in their cl
Jun 10, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I learned about evolution in high school biology class (no one thought to mention it before this time), and I certainly never learned about (Allah forbid) the Arabs/Muslims/Islam in history class. (And I went to New Trier!) I learned about the "Closing of the Western Mind" by reading Charles Freeman's book of the same name, the same man who writes about the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, antiquity, etc. (This book is well worth a read!) The closing of the western mind allowed the eastern mind to ope ...more
Saba Aftab
Jul 07, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Just finished this book. And to write a review for it, I just checked other reviews so as to choose good words to describe this luminous work of Al-Khalili. But then closed the page for the reason that whatever mediocre words I'm going to choose, it will be with a sincere heart anyway. So back to the motto! It's a well written and insightful book. Although some of its parts, like where he goes into details about latitudes or mathematics, I didn't understand fully, because of an average person's ...more
Jan 07, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Jim Al-Khalili takes you on a journey to explore the golden age of Arabic science which occured during Europes' dark ages. It is commonly thought (and this is the view I had during history class in school) that the great scientists were the Greeks, and the Renessaince masters.

In 'Pathfinders' you learn about some of the greatest masters and polymaths of the Arab world at the time.. all intertwined with historical tellings of the khalifs, mongols and others. In reading 'Pathfinders' you will lear
Vidur Kapur
This book has the alternative title of The House of Wisdom, which is the same title of Jonathan Lyons' slightly earlier book on similar topics, and it is worth briefly comparing the two.

This book has a logical, chronological structure that the latter lacks, and is more focused on mathematics, science and astronomy: individuals such as Jabir ibn Hayyan, the father of chemistry, and al-Kashi, who first derived the cosine rule in trigonometry, are not mentioned in Lyons' work. Neither are al-Razi
Sep 15, 2014 rated it did not like it
There are books that are badly written. There are books that are factually incorrect. There are books whose intellectual underpinnings are a mess. Then, there are books that are all of the above. The House of Wisdom is supposed to show how the Arabic world saved all the ancient knowledge of the world, expanded upon it, and reintroduced it into the west when the time was right. Instead, House of Wisdom is a poorly written and horribly argued car crash pushed in the reader's face with a maximum of ...more
Nuruddin Azri
Jul 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
Without any sugar-coating, I can only say that I really enjoy reading this book other than few previous books that I have ever read on the same topic due to the fairness and compendiousness of this writing.

I know Jim al-Khalili from a good and engaging BBC documentary entitled Science and Islam where Dr. Afifi al-Akiti (the first Oxford graduate from Malaysia) is the specialist researcher for the three hour documentary.

Jim al-Khalili started his writing cautiously with his depthness and broadnes
Oct 24, 2011 rated it it was ok
Al-Khalili goes to great lengths in The House of Wisdom to document and celebrate every historical Arabic, Persian, or more generally, any Islamic effort to sustain, promote and advance scientific, mathematical, or astronomical discovery. While reading this book, it came across to me that his main objective was to prove that the Arab world had something to offer in these fields of study, too.

I would have liked to have read more detail about the individual lives of the many Arabs and Persians (an
Vuk Trifkovic
Mar 17, 2012 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Very poor. Perhaps I expected something incisive and insightful, but it's a typically confused "sci pop" or rather "history of ideas light" book. In fact, I think it might have been an offshoot of a TV series.

So, it's not like the author is not an expert. It's just that he does not know what is he writing and for whom. The history bit is way too light, the history of ideas bit slides into taxonomy too quickly ("and this is what they did in chemistry, and this is what they did in algebra") and th
Jun 09, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Enjoyable read, very informative and a subject that I now realise I knew very little about. Enjoyed the quotes from medieval scientists extolling the benefits of scientific analysis over blind faith - 1000 years later and this argument needs brought to the fore again sadly, in all parts of the world. Also fascinated to discover the derivation of many scientific and mathematical words is so obviously Arabic once someone points it out (algorithm, algebra, alkali, etc).
Jul 09, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Really interesting book on the contributions made by Arabic scientists, many of which are either unknown or under appreciated in the west. From the invention of algebra (an Arabic word al-jebr); advances in medicine, astronomy, engineering, economics. It really makes the point that Arabic scientists made important and revolutionary contributions to science as well as providing links between the Ancient Greek world and the Renaissance in Europe.
May 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2020
Jim al-Khalili in his "The House of Wisdom" often notes that in the Dark Ages, Islamic Empire was in its Golden Age.

About advancements of Arabic Science I had known when I was already young boy studying algebra and realizing that Al-Khwarizmi was its founder. I tried to ignore this fact assuming textbook overestimated Al-Khwarizmi's influence due to, in fact, he was my ancestor. During school time, I also heard about scientists such as Al-Biruni, Avicenna and Ulugh Beg more than any other Ancien
Feb 18, 2019 rated it it was ok
Surprisingly dull and unanalytical. al-Khalili is good-natured and knowledgeable, but he puts in too many people, too many dates, and too little science. He tries to cover seven hundred years and multiple kingdoms, and the theological and military context, and ends up shallowly mentioning these things and little more. It would have been better to focus on the greats - Khwarizmi, Kindi, Haytham, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd - and explain their actual achievements, then note that work of this calibre was d ...more
Indy Sahota
Dec 19, 2018 rated it really liked it
The House of Wisdom, from the Arabic translation of the great library and research institute of Baghdad, is a nice account on the way Arab and Persian scholars in the so-called Dark Ages (it really wasn't that dark outside of Europe to be honest) contributed to science for almost 700 years between the Greeks and the Renaissance. Without the initial translation of Greek texts into Arabic and then the building on those theories by Arab and Persian scholars, most of Greek thought that we know today ...more
Aug 11, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Absolutely amazing! Illuminating. The grand and not well-known history of science in the middle east, and a very inspiring point of view regarding development, scientific achievement, and the very history of humankind learning and discovering our place in the cosmos. I recommend it wholeheartedly, I´m an art historian specialized in Islamic Art, and this book came as a surprise o, it's something that was necessary to clarify and fill the vacuum of the Islamic golden age. It's really amazing to s ...more
Andy Vale
Aug 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Very readable overview of a topic that is woefully underappreciated by a lot of people. A frustrating theme runs through it whereby great work was put in jeopardy by combative rulers or religious pressures and their egos (both from within and outside Islamic culture). A trait that's far too common throughout history, makes you wonder what we could achieve if we stopped letting power corrupt so much.
Zainab Marzah
Generally the book was more like history class than an interesting journey to the golden age of Arabic science. I looked up online the names of scientists brought up in the book and I literately found the information displayed on Wikipedia more interesting and informative.
if you care to view the complete review here's the link :
Ivor Armistead
Mar 04, 2019 rated it liked it
I had hoped for more.
Mar 23, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A well researched and laid out book but sometimes bogged down with too many numbers and figured and math formulas which, I skimmed. But the history side of things was absolutely fascinating
Jan 06, 2020 rated it really liked it
Impressions after reading introductory material and Chapter 1: I am filled with respect for the author and am making a great effort to retain the information that is so caringly, convincingly, and accessibly presented by him. This is non-fiction prose at its best.

After completing the book: Although I suspect that some of the later chapters were more hurriedly written or less carefully edited (there is a typo in the book's penultimate sentence), each one contained vast amounts of well-presented i
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Science and Inquiry: October 2017 - House of Wisdom 12 109 Oct 28, 2017 09:03AM  

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Jim Al-Khalili(born Jameel Sadik Al-Khalili) is an Iraqi-born British theoretical physicist, author and science communicator. He is Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey. He has hosted several BBC productions about science and is a frequent commentator about science in other British media venues.

(taken and modified from Wikipedia

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Ashley Poston made her name with Once Upon a Con, a contemporary series set in the world of fandom, and her two-part space opera, Heart of...
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“It is a fact of life that oversimplified accounts of the development of science are often necessary in its teaching. Most scientific progress is a messy, complex and slow process; only with the hindsight of an overall understanding of a phenomenon can a story be told pedagogically rather than chronologically. This necessitates the distilling of certain events and personalities from the melee: those who are deemed to have made the most important contributions. It is inevitable therefore that the many smaller or less important advances scattered randomly across hundreds of years of scientific history tend to be swept up like autumn leaves into neat piles, on top of which sit larger-than-life personalities credited with taking a discipline forward in a single jump. Sometimes this is perfectly valid, and one cannot deny the genius of an Aristotle, a Newton, a Darwin or an Einstein. But it often leaves behind forgotten geniuses and unsung heroes.” 4 likes
“for we have been deprived of all the people of knowledge save for a group, small in number, with many troubles, whose concern in life is to snatch the opportunity, when time is asleep, to devote themselves meanwhile to the investigation and perfection of a science; for the majority of people who imitate philosophers confuse the true with the false, and they do nothing but deceive and pretend knowledge, and they do not use what they know of the sciences except for base and material purposes; and if they see a certain person seeking for the right and preferring the truth, doing his best to refute the false and untrue and leaving aside hypocrisy and deceit, they make a fool of him and mock him.” 0 likes
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