Islamic science was the flavour of the month for January with a three part show on BBC4 called Science and Islam: A History presented by Jim Al-Khalili, professor of physics at the University of Roehampton and an Iraqi émigré. In the same month, two new books have been released. The first, by Ehsan Masood, is based on the BBC series and the second is The House of Wisdom by Jonathan Lyons.
I have not had a chance to read either of the books but have caught up with the TV shows. Generally, I thought they were quite good. The production values were very high, as we expect from the BBC, and Jim Al-Khalili is an enthusiastic and engaging presenter. The factual content was fairly lowbrow but accurate as far as it went (apart from a few infelicities from Al-Khalili himself which I’ll mention below). Laypeople who don’t know much about Islamic science will learn plenty. I learnt something new myself – Arab scholars went a long way towards deciphering ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. They expected to discover the magical secrets of the Egyptians and abandoned the project when the writings in hieroglyphs turned out to quite mundane.
I would have liked to have seen a few more academic talking heads. The shows made plenty of use of Simon Schaffer from Cambridge, but we heard relatively little from George Saliba. Occasionally, Al-Khalili let his enthusiasm get the better of him. For instance, he kept telling us that Arabic philosophers were following the scientific method when it was obvious that they were doing nothing of the sort. And an expert on the show explained clearly that Avicenna’s canon of medicine ceased to have any influence in the nineteenth century when modern medicine took off. But, in his summary later, Al-Khalili said we had seen how Avicenna was still relevant today, contradicting his own expert. Finally, he seemed to blame the decline of Islamic science on western imperialism even though the decline happened centuries before Muslim countries were colonised in the nineteenth century.
There was also a very subtle mistake that few people will have noticed as it was never mentioned in the script. We see Al-Khalili playing around in an alchemist’s lab and some of the filler film shows a clearly-labelled bottle of nitric acid being used to dissolve gold. This is a neat party trick which caused a lot of excitement in the Middle Ages because Moses appears to dissolve the golden calf at Exodus 32:20 (except he doesn’t really. Alchemists were always looking for scriptural justification for what they were up to). The problem is that nitric acid was first isolated by Christian alchemists in the 13th century and not Muslim ones. For a long time, no one realised this because the Christians wrote up their discoveries under the name of Geber, a mythical Islamic alchemist of the eighth or ninth century. Quite a substantial Latin Geber Corpus survives but it records Christian alchemy. A separate body of Arabic alchemy is also attributed to the same mythical individual, but even that was written a couple of centuries after he supposedly lived. Thus the filler film showing nitric acid is not appropriate as part of a discussion of Islamic alchemy.
Overall, despite a few slips, I enjoyed Science and Islam. It is a good starting point for anyone interested in the subject.
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