There is a mosque near my studio in east Paris. Passing by at the hour of prayer, I find myself intrigued by an Islamic culture that dates from the eighth century, occupies a central place in world culture, and yet remains a mystery for other societies.

The exhibition ‘The Golden Age of Arabic Sciences’, which can be seen at the Institute of the Arab World in Paris until 19 March, sheds light on a people who produced exquisite manuscripts, developed experimental sciences, and added new disciplines to those of the classical world.

The exhibition questions the idea that Arab-Islamic science simply translated key classical sources of knowledge and passed them on to the West. It shows how the Arabs of the expanding empire transformed and extended Greek, Mesopotamian, Persian and Indian ideas, and turned theory into practice. Analysis preceded assimilation.

The optics of Ibn al-Haytham (AD 965–1040), for example, encouraged an experimental approach to the pursuit of physics. In 830, al-Khwarizmi, the acknowledged founder of algebra, detailed the necessary mathematics for calculating inheritances, conducting commerce and constructing canals. Baconians would surely have approved.

By this time, paper was becoming the preferred vector for the transmission of Arabic science. Industrial-scale production began around 750, first in Samarkand and then in Baghdad. Cheap paper rapidly outstripped the use of papyrus and parchment. Almost 4 million individual Arabic writings from the eighth century onwards are known to have been conserved by libraries throughout the world.


Arab society integrated its knowledge by building hospitals, observatories and libraries, beginning with the House of Wisdom — Bayt al-Hikma — in Baghdad, shortly after 800. Translations and original writings were stored in more than a thousand different public and semi-public libraries scattered throughout the empire, catering for a widespread demand for scholarship. Knowledge was transmitted by scholars who travelled regularly, as well as through written correspondence. The Koran, incidentally, encouraged scientific activity.

Some 200 manuscripts and objects have been assembled in Paris for the exhibition, including this planispheric astrolabe from the Nasser D. Khalili Collection and a profusely illustrated copy of Dioscorides' Herbal. But the exhibition opens with a map. When we can associate cities such as Damascus or Maragheh with astronomy as readily as we associate Padua with anatomy or Leiden with electricity, Arab-Islamic culture will be on its way to a fuller appreciation in the West. This exhibition offers a fine lesson in the meaning of the word ‘civilization’.