Book Review: Seek Knowledge as Far as China

Late-19th or early-20th-century drawing of Arabic astronomers immersed in study, artist unknown. Image courtesy of the Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge.

Late-19th or early-20th-century drawing of Arabic astronomers immersed in study, artist unknown. Image courtesy of the Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge.

The subsequent chapters analyze the critical approach of Arabo-Islamic astronomers who translated, used, and commented on Ptolemy's Almagest, eventually leading to the invention of new devices that later made their way to the European Renaissance. Saliba devotes an intriguing chapter of the book to the missing links that must have made this new knowledge available to Copernicus, who seems to have consistently relied on Arabo-Islamic mathematical findings. Finally, Saliba criticizes traditional explanations for the decline of the sciences in the Islamic world, maintaining that they are based on preconceived ideas rather than on historical evidence. He shows, for example, that the astronomical theories that influenced European thought during the Renaissance were mainly produced during precisely the period when, according to traditional scholarship, Arabo-Islamic science declined.

The book's rhetorical strength is weakened slightly in the central part of the work, where the subject is more technical. Moreover, while the title refers to Islamic science in general, Saliba's book is mostly devoted to a detailed analysis of the birth, growth, and fortunes of Arabo-Islamic astronomy, which is taken—as the author points out in several passages—as a template for the development of Arabo-Islamic sciences in general. Whether Saliba's theories prove valid outside of astronomy must be demonstrated by researchers in other fields of Arabo-Islamic studies.

The publication of these two books represents an important step for covering a much neglected aspect of Arabo-Islamic culture. In the present historical situation, in which studies of the Middle East tend to focus nearly exclusively on religion or politics, these two works offer the reader a different approach to Islam and the cultural heritage of Islamic lands. Together these two books continually stress the many historical interactions between the Arabo-Islamic world and the Latin West. This approach acts as a counterbalance for a prolific kind of literature that apparently aims at emphasizing differences and fomenting conflict.

Gabriele Ferrario recently received his Ph.D. in Oriental studies from Ca' Foscari University in Venice. He has been a fellow at the Warburg Institute in London and is now a Neville fellow at CHF.