Aladdin’s Lamp

As adults, the more literary-minded among us retain precious little from our high school classes in algebra or higher mathematics. (As Marge Simpson confided to daughter Lisa recently, “Since , I haven’t been able to do any of the calculus I’ve encountered in my daily life.”) But one bit of linguistic trivia, I’ve personally found, invariably sticks, if you were lucky enough to have a teacher thus inform your impressionable mind: the fact that the very word “algebra” derives from an Arabic term, al-jabr.

This tiny seed of history — with its perhaps counterintuitive implications that at some point in time and space an Islamic tradition favoring the pursuit of mathematics and allied sciences flourished and anticipated Western disciplines — now receives, in the entertaining form of John Freely’s new book, a flood of top-notch factual support that causes the seed to bloom into a brilliant and captivating oasis of revelations.

Freely — a physicist and professor of the science of history who has authored some 40 books — subtitles his layperson-friendly study “How Greek Science Came to Europe through the Islamic World.” And indeed, this true, mostly hidden tale, as exotically rich in romance as any myth or legend, forms the core of the book. But this central material rests on a three-chapter foundation up front — with a parallel coda at the book’s end. This complementary intro and outro veer from the captivating Islamic venue but are, ultimately, essential to the whole.

Aladdin’s Lamp opens with a summary of what made classical Greek and Roman natural philosophy so groundbreaking, such a vast step forward on humanity’s journey out of superstition and ignorance, forming the rudimentary underpinning of our current scientific method. This context is given immediacy in Freely’s early portrait of the city-state of Miletus and its prevailing support for astronomy, physics, and engineering. We encounter revolutionary sages such as Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, and Heraclitus. Here we first discern Freely’s mode of shaping his material: he will trace the vast river of ideas through capsule biographies of the thinkers, offering us the salient details of their lives (insofar as they remain known) and their intellectual contributions, as well as the connections among them across geography and years, all summarized cleanly and cogently.

But just as crucially, Freely knows how to construct a grand, sweeping tale, one as stirring as any Tolkien fantasy. Here is the painstakingly forged “ring” of scientific knowledge threatened by barbaric enemies. As darkness falls across Western civilization, the prize is in danger of being lost forever. But a cohort of brave comrades from foreign climes sweeps in to the rescue. For centuries they protect and enhance the treasure, and then pass it on after long guardianship to the descendants of the founders, resulting in a true renaissance. Tragically, the guardians themselves then go down into anti-science dogma.

After Miletus, the book’s prelude encompasses Athens, Alexandria, Rome, and Constantinople. Then the curtain falls on the West! But scholars are busy in Baghdad, turning Greek texts into Arabic, and the caretakership is under way.

Freely shifts as need be through both time and space. We traverse not only the centuries but also such diverse scenes as Cairo, Damascus, and Moorish Spain. This is the core portion of the book, and it’s stuffed with heroic savants mostly unknown to us here, all toiling away to add their increment to science. Each has some identifying quirk or trait to endear him to us. Take, for instance, the Banu Musa, three sons of a highway robber who were adopted by a caliph. They grew up to be advisers, collectors, and authors of “some twenty books on astronomy, mathematics, and engineering.”

In due time, the Islamic texts begin to be translated into Latin and trickle out among European universities, monasteries, and courts. Slowly the Moslems disappear from Freely’s narrative, and we are wholly in a realm more familiar to us: the spread of the heliocentric theories of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and their peers. Freely ventures east once more for a brief chapter to the waning and extinguishment of science in the Islamic sphere, and then the stirring saga is done.

If there’s a fault to found with the author’s presentation of this material, it’s the occasional absence of a larger cultural context that would cement these admittedly fascinating biographies into place. No wider matrix of mores and customs, architecture and dress, cuisine and politics is discussed. Freely assumes, rightly or wrongly, that our conceptions of ancient Rome, medieval Oxford, Haroun al-Rashid’s Baghdad, and the other relevant milieus are already as sharp and well formed as his and do not need expansion. This results in a certain nebulosity that looms just outside the lives of these men. (History, alas, finds only one or two women involved in this millennia-spanning Great Work.) The quotidian societies inhabited by these explorers of nature remain but lightly sketched. And especially when the litany of Islamic names uncommon to Western ears begins to accumulate, the book begins to resemble the bewildering “begat” portions of some scientific Bible, which a moderate leavening of human interest might have lightened.

But it remains Freely’s wide personal experience in the Islamic world — he taught for years at a Turkish university, and many of his prior books chart his globe-hopping — that lends his tale insight and verisimilitude that other authors cannot provide. Additionally, his knowledge of literature allows him to cite passages from Donne, Dante, Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Spenser that help chart the diffusion of ideas from East to West. And his affection for both science and its practitioners, of whatever heritage, is manifest on every page.

From Thales, the oldest philosopher cited in the book, to Isaac Newton, the most recent, stretches an immensely consequential chain of rationality, inquiry, and discovery that remained unbroken only because — for well over a millennium — its links were forged by Islamic scholars and scientists, brothers in all but name to their Western compatriots. We have Freely to thank for burnishing that long golden tether.