Interview with Professor George Saliba

Welcome to another Muslim Heritage Radio Show. The aim of this show is to educate the listeners about the contributions Muslim Scholars have made from a classical perspective in a wide range of fields, but also today's contemporary day and age. This week, the theme we are looking at is Islamic science and the making of the European Renaissance. We are very grateful to have on the line all the way from the United States of America Professor George Saliba. Professor George Saliba is the leading world expert on the history of Arabic and Islamic science. He has worked as an advisor to the "1001 Inventions" Exhibition. He is professor of Arabic and Islamic Science at the department of Middle Eastern and Asian languages and culture at Columbia University. Professor George Saliba has focussed on studying the development of scientific ideas from the late antiquity till early modern times, with a special focus on the previous planetary theories that were developed within the Islamic civilisation and the impact of such theories on early European astronomy. Just to mention some of the books and occasional papers that Professor George Saliba has written: Islamic Science and the Making of European Renaissance published by MIT Press in 2007, The Origin and Developments of Arabic Scientific Thought (in Arabic), The History of Arabic Astronomy: Planetary Theories During the Golden Age of IslamThe Astronomical works of Mohyiuddin Al-Urdi (in Arabic) and The Role of Astrology in Medieval Islamic Society.

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Prof. George Saliba

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Welcome to another Muslim Heritage Radio Show. The aim of this show is to educate the listeners about the contributions Muslim Scholars have made from a classical perspective in a wide range of fields, but also today's contemporary day and age. This week, the theme we are looking at is Islamic science and the making of the European Renaissance. We are very grateful to have on the line all the way from the United States of America Professor George Saliba. Professor George Saliba is the leading world expert on the history of Arabic and Islamic science. He has worked as an advisor to the "1001 Inventions" Exhibition. He is professor of Arabic and Islamic Science at the department of Middle Eastern and Asian languages and culture at Columbia University. Professor George Saliba has focussed on studying the development of scientific ideas from the late antiquity till early modern times, with a special focus on the previous planetary theories that were developed within the Islamic civilisation and the impact of such theories on early European astronomy. Just to mention some of the books and occasional papers that Professor George Saliba has written: Islamic Science and the Making of European Renaissance published by MIT Press in 2007, The Origin and Developments of Arabic Scientific Thought (in Arabic), The History of Arabic Astronomy: Planetary Theories During the Golden Age of Islam, The Astronomical works of Mohyiuddin Al-Urdi (in Arabic) and The Role of Astrology in Medieval Islamic Society.

I would just like to say: "Professor George Saliba, thank you for joining us today".

Thank you very much Kaleem for inviting me to your programme.

If I can begin with the first question, can you explain for the benefit of the listeners how your interest in Arabic Islamic science came about?

It is a little bit of a long story but I will try and make it short. I started of as a student of mathematics; that was my undergraduate education at the American University of Beirut and during my last year of undergraduate work in mathematics, the American University in Beirut at that year hosted the famous Islamic scholar by the name of Seyyed Hossein Nasr currently now here in Washington. At the time Seyyed Hossein Nasr delivered 6 lectures at the American University of Beirut as a chair of the Agha Khan, at the time they were thinking of building up the programme in Islamic studies and he focussed on the rise of Islamic philosophy and what distinguished Islamic philosophy at the time. And of course he had also had written Science and Civilisation in Islam which everyone knows about this book. That was again material done in the 1940 and 1960s.

The lectures I noticed at the time, they started with an audience of about 50 people for the first lecture and the second lecture went to about 100 people, the third lecture they filled the room in which the lectures were assigned and by the 6th lecture, they were moved into the largest auditorium room at the American University of Beirut that could take about 1500 people at the time. It is obviously a testament to the absolutely charming skills of Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr when he speaks and his rhetorical abilities. He is literally a gifted speaker and there is no doubt about that. At the same time, it was also a testament to how much interest there was in the subject of the what the Arabs call the "turath", meaning the classical heritage of Islamic civilisation and on this aspect in particular meaning the natural sciences, philosophy etc, to fill in Beirut in the early 1960s an auditorium of about a 1500 people. That was an impressive site. I just happened to be standing right next to the most distinguished historian by the name of Niqula Ziadi, an historian of Damascus during Mamluk times par excellence. Ziadi looked at me and said: "Saliba you are a student of mathematics and you know Arabic, why can't you do something similar in the history of Islamic and Arabic Science. Right in front of your eyes you can see how much interest there is in this subject." I must confess that was the seed that was planted in my mind and I owe it to the late Niqula Ziadi for that question that he asked me at the time in the early 1960s and ever since I have studied devoting my work specifically to this subject.

What was the situation in Europe in terms of astronomical scientific ideas before the theories and ideas developed by Muslim scholars began to be translated?

Well, you will have to talk about different kinds of contacts with Europe. There are of course, as everybody knows, the contacts that took place during the Middle Ages. I think sometime between the 10th century CE up to about the 13-14th century. That period, although it is not comprehensively studied, but at least it is much better known than another period, and it should be distinguished from the later period that I will come to mention in a short while. If we just focus on the medieval period, the scientific material that the Europeans knew in the Latin language before the medieval period were very limited. I think the most sophisticated text that one could possibly think of is the "Encyclopaedia" of Isodor of Seville and that is more or less, if you could compare it to the material that was translated from Arabic language during this period, a folkloric kind of explanation on how the natural world works around us. It was nothing to compare with the sophistication of the earlier Greek material.

So one can say that Europe by the 10th century was in a period of intellectual decline and in a sense had not yet established contact with the glorious Greek past. It is only now in our modern mind that we think the Graeco-Roman period as a continuum and everybody was sort of knowing what everybody was doing but that is not really true. In the 11th, 10th, 9th centuries, you will find that the late Roman period was almost totally ignorant of the tremendous achievements of the classical Greek period. So you could say that the 10th century when they came into direct contact with the Islamic civilisation, not only because Muslims now are amongst the Europeans, you have to remember the presence of the Muslims in Andalusia despite being already in the 8th century and by the 10th century, it was already creating one of the most flourishing scientific and philosophical periods that Europe had ever known. So the sheer proximity of this flourishing activity in Spain of course produced a fantastic interest. And of course we can document and translate the text books of the people who supported them. It finished by about the 13th century more or less, where we can say in almost every case which Arabic text was translated and who was the Latin translator and what happened to the text afterwards. By the 14th century, this activity and of course the intervening period by the way from the 10th to the 14th century, is a very sad period. People do not realise. This was a period of war between Islam and Christendom under the flags of the crusades. It was not a very congenial period and was not a period where people could seriously try learn from each other.

By the 14th century, you could say there was some progress made in the Latin sciences in the sense that people benefited from this translation period. Names like Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, all those began to be known so we begin to see Latin authors in the 13-14th century using this material already. But this by itself did not produce the fantastic science that was produced during the Renaissance which is the second period I am talking about now, the period that follows the 15th century. Of course as I said, between the 13th up to the 15th century, you will find it was still early formulations in Latin. You look at people like Roger Bacon, people who are trying to begin to articulate in an encyclopaedic fashion again to make a statement of how the world works around us, benefiting of course from the explanation of Ibn Sina and so on.

We have just recently passed the 464th anniversary of the death of Copernicus. For the benefit of the listening audience, who was Copernicus and why are his works so influential for the times?

Copernicus is a Polish cleric who was born about 1478 and died in 1543. He worked mainly around the modern city of Krakow in Poland. But the most efficient time of his education was spent in Northern Italy. There is a very important reason why Northern Italy should be mentioned in all of these discussions because from the 15 to the 17th century, the crucible of the Renaissance thinking, of Renaissance science, it was in this Northern Italian corridor between the city of Venice all the way down through Padova, Ferrara, Bologna and all the way down to Florence. It was on this corridor that the most important activities were taking place, and of course Copernicus went down to Italy and he did get his canon degree in canon law and he also participated in astronomical activities in Bologna itself and spent about 10-15 years in that area.

He is important for two reasons. The first reason is that he was the first one to begin to undertake the re-writing of classical astronomy on a new scientific basis. In other words, he seems to have learnt that the ancient Greek astronomy as was transmitted through the Latin sources as well as through the classical Arabic sources was definitely flawed, and the Arabic sources spoke eloquently about how faulty were the ancient Greek astronomical texts. So he decided to undertake this enterprise and very quickly realised that to be able to do it properly, you needed to develop mathematics to a more sophisticated level. That mathematics was already developed in the Islamic world and he seemed to have known of these developments in the Islamic world. So he chose them and used them exactly the way they were used in the Islamic domain by Muslim astronomers, and he finally managed to clean the ancient Greek astronomical texts of their faults.

The next step - and that is the most important thing and everybody should understand this -, he took another step that Muslim astronomers never did. It is his step to say that now that we have finished the cleansing of the Greek astronomical texts from their faults, he wanted to go a step further and he wanted to speculate that now we can afford to move the centre of the universe from the Earth and to put it on the Sun. In other words to develop a heliocentric theory. People do not understand that this now in hindsight turned out to be a very good move, but at the time Copernicus did not have the benefit of Newton because he was born before Newton by 200 years or so. It was only Newton who articulated the law of universal gravitation that allows the formation of a centre around the Sun. At the time of Copernicus this was not cosmologically possible to think like that and yet he took that step for unexplainable reasons, people do not know why he did that. The most common explanation was that it was easier to teach astronomy if you speculate with the Sun at the centre. I am not so sure that it is much easier when you compare it to the models that were developed in the Islamic domain. With the geocentric configuration it was just as easy to teach, but it remains to be an insolvable problem. Many people have not really come to understood why he did it, but of course it is important since a 100 years later he turned out to be right. People in hindsight, in retrospect, they attribute to him this famous discovery although at the time he had no incline that it would turn out to be what it did.

In your ground breaking research and lectures, you have demonstrated that Copernicus acquired his ideas from a range of Muslim scholars. Some of the names are such as Ibn Shatir, Nasiruddin Al-Tusi and Mohyiuddin Al-Urdi. What role and influence did the works of such scholars have on the theories and works produced by Copernicus during this time phase, previously or afterwards?

Here again we should be very clear and I hope the listeners will follow very closely. What those earlier Muslim astronomers did, the starting as a matter of fact, the earliest of those people that you mentioned is Mohyiuddin Al-Urdi who died about the year 1266 CE. He worked jointly with Nasiruddin Al-Tusi at the most famous observatory the Islamic civilisation had ever known which is the Maragha observatory that was built in 1259 CE or so. It was Urdi who jointly with Tusi working in that environment where you had 3 or 4 students like Qutbuddin Shirazi was there, Yahya Abi Shukr al-Maghribi. So there were several astronomers working in the same environment and he began to smell the interest and the importance of having a team of scientists working in a research institution. It did happen at that time. Now what these people did? They developed the new mathematics that could actually cleanse the Greek astronomical material of its cosmological failings. Starting with Urdi, together with Tusi then completing with Ibn Shatir, they managed to literally solve every cosmological problem that was still lurking in the Greek astronomical texts. They solved it by developing new mathematical theories for them.

What Copernicus did is that he used those theorems and in some instances used them wholesale, i.e. he took them all through without even at times understanding how they functioned in the original Arabic text. I will give you an example. When Ibn Shatir developed a very complicated mathematical construction to explain the movements of the planet Mercury, he did it with great success over and above what was said about the movement of the planet Mercury in the Greek tradition. When Copernicus took that model from Ibn Shatir and wanted to describe how it works, he made mistakes in the description. This is the kind of evidence that I use in this new book that you so grateful mentionned [Islamic Science and the Making of European Renaissance, 2007]. I use that kind of evidence to say that this is impeccable proof that here is a man who was using a model that he did not invent, and we know who invented it because it is still there in the Arabic text of Ibn Shatir, and now Copernicus was using it without fully understanding how it operated. It is these kinds of connections that I pursue in this text book together of course with the theorems of Urdi, Tusi and so on.

There are some other European scholars apart from Copernicus that you mentioned in your lecture in Birmingham such as Alpago, Postel, Raimondi and even Galileo. What is the correlation in terms of the works produced by these Muslim scholars and these European scholars that came down later on?

What I was trying to demonstrate in that lecture after I had established -if you remember- this impeccable connection between Copernicus and the earlier astronomers particularly Urdi, Tusi and Shatir. The question was how did he know about them, and up to this very minute, we do not have a confession statement from Copernicus. As I said, the only proof that I have is that he used a model which he did not know how it works. To me, this is good enough proof but if it is in a court of law it does not have a confession with a signature of Copernicus right next to it. I tried to create what was the environment in which Copernicus was working, and there I began to find that -yes- the 16th century, when Copernicus was developing his astronomy, was full of people who had already made contact with the Islamic civilisation in a variety of fields that it was not only in astronomy, and I was trying to contextualise this context and hence to allow people to think what was in the mind of the European scientists in the 16th century.

That is when I began to find people like Andreas Alpago, who were almost in a duplicated age as Copernicus. He was born at the same time as Copernicus and almost died at the same time as Copernicus. Contemporary of Copernicus, who was in this city of Venice, who says that he did not like the medieval translations of Avicenna because they were filled with mistakes and the nation, the Republic, sent him to go and stay at the consulate in Damascus to learn Arabic and re-translate Avicenna. Now you begin to find people instead of waiting for the text to be translated they are undertaking the project of learning Arabic and studying the sciences in their original language and then producing them in Latin. That is how Andreas Alpago stayed for 15 years in Damascus. That sort of translation then comes back to Padova and he is appointed in Padova University as professor of medicine, in the chair of medicine, from 1505 to about 1525. Copernicus had just left Ferrara, which is right next to Padova about the year 1503 or 1504.

There is a honest intersection of people like the one I mentioned is Guillaume Postel, a French Orientalist who was also contemporary with Copernicus. He was born in 1510 and died in 1583. He also undertook a trip to go to Constantinople, as I showed you in one of the manuscripts mentioned in the lecture, which is still housed at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, in which he tells us that he bought this manuscript in Constantinople in the year 1536. That is during the lifetime of Copernicus. And then I showed you in the lecture that I saw the extensive annotations on the margins of that manuscript that he must have used to deliver his own lectures when he came back to Paris and was appointed as Professor of mathematics and oriental languages at the Collège de France. I use him, I use people like Raimondi and all of those people who began to absorb the scientific material from the Islamic domain and deliver it in their own Latin words without necessarily translating the works that they were using. Here I wanted to show that there is a different level of transmission. It is completely unlike the period of the medieval times when we know the text and the translators, etc. Here we have people who are picking up the ideas as they are, reading and formulating these ideas and incorporating them in their Latin words and then they become part and parcel of the Latin production.

From your research in this area, are there any correlations between the works that Galileo produced and the Muslim scholars previously?

There is none. Galileo is a different order. Galileo - you have to remember - is about 50 years later than Copernicus and Galileo also does not have his own astronomical planetary theories at the time, and hence was satisfied by simply promoting the Copernicun planetary theory; and also Galileo still did not have the law of universal gravitation to explain the heliocentric system, so he was rhetorically supporting it. He was already beginning to develop suspicions about the viability of the Aristotelian cosmology but he still did not have the solid evidence that Newton had after a few years after Galileo. Galileo was a different order and I never said at any one point that Galileo himself had known of the earlier Arabic material.

Can you mention about the role of Arabic scientific manuscripts in European libraries and why is it that such knowledge about these theories and the links to Muslim scholars have only began to come out now in recent times. I remember you mention in the lecture that you visited the Vatican quite frequently to do research on this kind of area. Why is it just now that we are learning about this correlation and this link with Muslim scholars and their contribution in this field?

That is a good question. I think we should all pay attention to this question in the sense that Europe itself, if you begin to think about Europe as a unity, it is also a very modern concept. Europe of the Renaissance is a collection of royal houses. Medieval Europe is [based on] feudal systems and so on. There was at the beginning in the 16th century an interest in Europe to collect and to gather Arabic manuscripts, particularly scientific manuscripts, and that I explain it as part and parcel of the developments of the 16th century in Europe, where people began to discover, like after the discovery of the new world, that there are many worlds to discover and also I explain it as part of the expansion of the Ottoman empire in the European domain. So Islam through the face of the Ottoman empire began to make itself felt into the European domain and in fact throughout the European history of this period of the 16th century, we find approaches between royal houses in Europe; their connections with the Ottoman court sometimes concluding treaties with the Ottoman court against their next door neighbour in Europe. All of these interactions are taking place at this time and so as a result of this, the trade was developing, book learning was developing. The curiosity to know about the other was developing. So the collection of the manuscripts was already taking place in the 16th century and, as I have already said, we even have the documentation of people like Guillaume Postel who bought this manuscript from Constantinople.

Now the next part of the question, these manuscripts became part and parcel of the European legacy of the age of discovery. It becomes part and parcel of the construction of the European history itself. Now they used them as much as they could, in fact as we have shown, and as I have shown already in this book and in the lecture, that people like Copernicus were not at all hesitating to use them. They used this material quite freely but then when you come to ask the question why were these connections not known until now, you really are implying as of why was the history of science so badly written before, but now we are awakening to a different kind of history of science.

That actually is a very serious question, how to write the history of science and who writes it, what culture wants to write it, because writing your own history is a part of preserving the future as a matter of fact. The Europeans were very satisfied from the age of enlightenment onwards to reconnect themselves with the classical Graeco-Latin antiquity and to jump over that period because they could construct an ideological growth and of course this gets supported further by philosophical speculation like Hegel's speculation and the like that there is honest continuity from the ancient Greek all the way into 19th-century Germany. They were not in the project of writing the history of Islamic science, despite the fact that Orientalist attempted to do things of this nature, but they did it as a second interest. It is not the major burning interest. It was only an accident in 1957, a pure accident, that allowed one of the manuscripts of Ibn Shatir that is kept at the at the Bodleian library to surface to the attention of a man