Islamic Automation: Al-Jazari’s Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices

Dr. Gunalan Nadarajan

In the following essay, Dr. Gunalan Nadarajan, Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Studies in the College of Arts and Architecture at Penn State University, draws on the work of al-Jazari, the famous 13th century Islamic scholar, engineer and scientist, to develop an alternative history of robotics. The work of Al-Jazari is considered as a significant contribution to the history of robotics and automation insofar as it enables a critical re-evaluation of classical notions and the conventional history of automation and therefore of robotics. In his analysis, the author details the notion of "Islamic automation", where the notions of control that have informed the conventional history of automation and robotics are substituted by subordination and submission to the rhythms of the machines.

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Dr. Gunalan Nadarajan*

Table of contents

1. Introduction
2. Islamic Science and Technology
3. ‘Fine Technology' as Genealogical Nexus
4. The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices
5. Islamic Programming
6. Untoward Automation
7. Conclusion
8. References

Note of the editor

This essay was published originally as: Nadarajan, Gunalan, "Islamic Automation: A Reading of Al-Jazari's The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices (1206)", in Media Art Histories, edited by Oliver Grau, Cambridge (Mass.): MIT Press, 2007, pp. 163-178. The present publication is a newly copy edited version. All the illustrations were added by the editor. For the sake of clarity, words and phrases were added by the present editor between brackets in the text.

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1. Introduction

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Figure 1: Elephant clock of al-Jazari, from a MS copy of his treatise The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Device copied in Syria in 1315 by Farkh ibn 'Abd al-Latif. © The Metropolitan Museum, New York. (Source).

The Kitab fi ma rifat al-hiyal al-handasiyya (The Book of Ingenious Mechanical Devices) by Ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari was completed in 1206. It was arguably the most comprehensive and methodical compilation of the most current knowledge about automated devices and mechanics. The work systematically charted out the technological development of a variety of devices and mechanisms that both exemplified and extended existing knowledge on automata and automation.

Donald Hill, who translated and had done most to promulgate the importance of this text, claimed "it is impossible to over-emphasize the importance of Al-Jazari's work in the history of engineering. Until modern times there is no other document from any cultural area that provides a comparable wealth of instructions for the design, manufacture and assembly of machines… Al-Jazari did not only assimilate the techniques of his non-Arab and Arab predecessors, he was also creative. He added several mechanical and hydraulic devices. The impact of these inventions can be seen in the later designing of steam engines and internal combustion engines, paving the way for automatic control and other modern machinery. The impact of Al-Jazari`s inventions is still felt in modern contemporary mechanical engineering [1]."

This essay presents al-Jazari's Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices (1206) as a significant contribution to the history of robotics and automation insofar as it enables a critical re-evaluation of classical notions and the conventional history of automation and therefore of robotics. Al-Jazari's work is presented as exemplary of what is called here "Islamic automation", where the notions of control that have informed the conventional history of automation and robotics are substituted by subordination and submission to the rhythms of the machines. Al-Jazari is in some ways the most articulate of what is a long tradition of "Islamic automation" in Arabic science and technology wherein automation is a manner of submission rather than the means of control that it has come to represent in our times. It is proposed here that "Islamic automation" also provides some interesting examples of what I call "untoward automation", which involves deliberate and elaborate programming for untoward behaviour in automated devices. In addition to articulating the cultural specificities of technological development, this essay positions al-Jazari's work as a catalyst for critical readings of and new directions in robotic arts.

2. Islamic Science and Technology

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Figure 2: Two photos of the fascinating reproduction of the 8.5 meters high elephant clock of al-Jazari in the Ibn Battuta Mall, Dubai. This was the first clock in which an automaton reacted after certain intervals of time. In the mechanism, a humanoid automata strikes the cymbal and a mechanical bird chirps after every hour. See Salim Al-Hassani The Machines of Al-Jazari and Taqi Al-Din and Al-Jazari: The Mechanical Genius.

Before embarking on a presentation of al-Jazari's work, it is useful to contextualize Islamic science and technology that informed and substantiated his work. It is noteworthy that the Abbasid Caliphate that ruled over most of the Arab world between 758-1258 CE. emphasized and encouraged the systematic development of science and technology. With its new capital in Baghdad, the Abbasid caliphate, especially during the rule of al-Mamun (819-833), invested huge amounts of resources in cultural activities and scientific scholarship. Al-Ma'mun was a firm believer in the value of drawing from the intellectual traditions of Greek, Sanskrit and Chinese knowledge that thus infused Islamic science and technology. It is noteworthy that a substantial portion of Greek texts was translated into Arabic under the Abbasid Caliphate, especially between the mid 8th century till mid 11th century. The principal driving force behind these translation initiatives was the establishment of the library, Khizanat al-Hikma (The Treasury of Knowledge) and a research institute, Bayt-al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) in the early 9th century. This quest towards developing a comprehensive knowledge resource was so ambitiously pursued that by the middle of the 10th century, the caliphate had gathered close to 400,000 volumes and by 1050, all significant works of the Hellenistic period were available in Arabic [2].

It is noteworthy though that our current notions of science and technology are significantly different from those that mediate the quest for knowledge in Islamic societies. The word, ‘ilm that is most commonly used to denote ‘knowledge' in Arabic, Hill reminds us, included a wide range of fields as astronomy, mechanics, theology, philosophy, logic and metaphysics. This practice of not differentiating between seemingly separate fields is best understood in the context of the Islamic view of the interconnectedness of all things that exist and wherein the quest for knowledge is a contemplation on and discovery of this essential unity of things. It is this essential unity and coherence of all things in the world, referred to in Islamic philosophy as tawhid [oneness], which makes it almost impossible to articulate and maintain the distinctions between the sciences and other areas of inquiry and experience.

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Figure 3: 3D-model of the al-Jazari's elephant clock, recreated by FSTC Ltd. Click here to view this animation.

According to Avicenna, a significant philosopher-scientist and an important Islamic proponent of this view, "there is a natural hierarchy of knowledge from the physics of matter to the metaphysics of cosmological speculation, yet all knowledge terminates in the Divine. All phenomena are creations of Allah, His theophanies [visible manifestations of divinity], and nature is a vast unity to be studied by believers as the visible sign of the Godhead [divine nature or essence]. Nature is like an oasis in the bleak solitude of the desert; the tiny blades of grass as well as the most magnificent flowers bespeak of the gardener's loving hand. All nature is such a garden, the cosmic garden of God. Its study is a sacred act [3]. In Islam, Avicenna's notion of "visible sign" is embodied in the term a'yat (sign), where the scientific study of the natural world and its manifestations does not issue from an impassioned curiosity but a passionate quest to discover these signs and thus arrive at a better understanding and appreciation of God's magnificence. The Qur'an has several instances where this invocation to Muslims to decipher the a'yat is made. For example, in Surah 10: "He it is who has made the sun a [source of] radiant light and the moon a light [reflected], and has determined for it phases so that you might know how to compute years and to measure [time]...in the alternative of night and day, and in all that God has created in the heavens and on earth, there are messages indeed for people who are conscious of Him" [4].

Bakar argues that in thus deciphering the peculiar ways in which each thing manifests itself and exists in this world, one is arriving at an understanding of its specific islam (manner of submission), i.e., of how that thing submits to the will of God [5]. This notion of islam as a "manner of submission" is a useful reference point to begin a discussion of the Islamic notion of technology. While, it is logical to assume that the Islamic notion of technology is related to and continuous with its notion of ‘ilm, there are practically no scholarly studies that are dedicated to the exploration of the Islamic conceptualization of technology. While there are several works that exhaustively describe the various technologies developed by Islamic societies and scholars, these works rarely deliberate on their specific philosophical and cultural underpinnings. This paucity might be indicative of the refusal within Islamic thought to present technology as a material application of scientific knowledge, a practice that is common in many conventional histories of technology. It is suggested here that in the Islamic lifeworld, technology is yet another a'yat but of a different sort. It is suggested that technological objects are signs that have been made to manifest as such by human design. And it is important here to clarify that this design itself is a sign of the submission of the person who ‘makes' the technological object as much as the object's functional operations reflect its own manner of submission. In Islamic aesthetics and technology alike, the notion of the human creator is philosophically subordinated to that of God the creator. The task of human creativity in Islamic thought is thus conceived as that of referring to and making manifest God's creative work rather than ‘showing off' one's own ability to create. In this sense, then technological objects are also a' yat that manifest the islam or "manners of submission" of those forces and processes that are implicated in them [6].

3. ‘Fine Technology' as Genealogical Nexus

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Figure 4: A creative model of a device designed by al-Jazari (chapter 6 of category III) used for measuring blood lost during phlebotomy (bloodletting) sessions, a popular therapy in the medieval world. Taken from a MS of al-Jazari's treatise copied in Egypt in 1354. (Source).

In this reading of al-Jazari's work I draw on Foucault's genealogical method. It is well beyond the scope of this essay, however, to engage in a full explication of the specific details and values of the genealogical method in reading histories of technology. Thus, what will be presented here is a very brief introduction to the principal elements of the genealogical method as formulated by Michel Foucault via his reading of Friedrich Nietzsche.

According to Nietzsche, who first formulated the critical possibilities of genealogy as historical method, "whatever exists, having somehow come into being, is again and again reinterpreted to new ends, taken over, transformed, and redirected by some power superior to it; all events in the organic world are a subduing, a becoming master, and all subduing and becoming master involves a fresh interpretation, an adaptation through which any previous 'meaning' and 'purpose' are necessarily obscured or even obliterated" [7]. Thus, the meaning of a thing in history is not fixed and unchanging as it is sometimes conveniently assumed in conventional historical methods. The conventional historiographical practice usually seeks out the Ursprung (origin), wherein there is, Foucault claims, "an attempt to capture the exact essence of things, their purest possibilities and their carefully protected identities because this search assumes the existence of immobile forms that precede the external world of accident and succession" [8]. The genealogical method in contrast is governed by the Herkunfts-Hypothesen (descent-hypothesis) that turns away from such metaphysical preconceptions and "listens to history"; leading the historian to the discovery that there is no eternal essence behind things; that things "have no essence or that their essence was fabricated in a piecemeal fashion from alien forms". [9] With his ears cocked up to detect the faintest of sounds made within the historical space, the genealogist finds "not the inviolable identity of their origin", but rather "the dissension of other things".

"Genealogy", he thus claims, "is gray, meticulous, and patiently documentary. It operates on a field of entangled and confused parchments, on documents that have been scratched over and recopied many times" [10]. Foucault also argues that genealogy is able and attempts to record events in their singularity without reference to some teleological design or purpose. He recognises the usefulness of the genealogical method in subverting the totalizing histories that drew from the Hegelian teleological versions of history where usually notions of ‘purpose' or ‘utility' tended to predetermine the specific ways in which a thing's history was ‘always-already' interpreted.

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Figure 5: Automat arbiter for dispensing liquids for drinking: al-Jazari 1974, category II, chapter 3, p. 103. Held at the Topkapi Palace Museum Library in Istanbul, al-Jazari, Al-Jami' bayn al-ilm wa'l-amal al-nafi fî sina'at al-hiyal, MS Ahmet III 3472.

The primary value of the genealogical method in interpreting histories of technologies, it is proposed here, is in its suspension of utility or instrumental rationale of a technological object in its readings [11]. The genealogical method forgoes the notion of ‘original' utility in predetermining interpretation but instead seeks out the specific discourses and practices that constitute a particular technological object/experience. In this essay, it is proposed that there is a genealogical nexus between what has been variously described and discussed as machines, automation and robotics. In formulating the link between them as genealogical, the conventional practice of identifying either one of them as preceding or proceeding from the other (i.e., the habit of origin-seeking) is problematized.

It is suggested here that one develops a better appreciation of their complex historical interactions and contemporary constitution by working from this temporary suspension of their differences within this nexus. It is proposed here also that the notion of ‘fine technology' provides a useful reference point to instantiate and analyse this nexus between machines, automation and robotics. "Fine technology", science and technology historian Donald Hill states, "is the kind of engineering that is concerned with delicate mechanisms and sophisticated controls" and that "before modern times, comprised of clocks, trick vessels, automata, fountains and a few miscellaneous devices." Hill notes that the "apparent triviality of these constructions should not…be allowed to obscure the fact that a number of the ideas, components and techniques embodied in them were to be of great significance in the development of machines technology" [12].

Some of the earliest examples of fine technology are recorded in the works of an Egyptian engineer, Ctesibius from Alexandria (ca. 300 BCE). Vitruvius, the architect and theorist claims that Ctesibius invented the organ and monumental water clock. According to Devaux, "Diodorus Siculus and Callixenes gave this description of animated statues of gods and goddesses that featured at the festivities organized in 280 BCE by Ptolemy Philadelphus in honour of Alexander and Bacchus: a four-wheeled chariot eight cubits broad, drawn by sixty men, and on which was a seated a statuette of Nysa measuring eight cubits, dressed in a yellow, gold-brocade tunic and a Spartan cloak. By means of a mechanism she would stand up unaided, pour out milk from a golden bottle, and sit down again" [13].

The works of Philo from Byzantium (230 BCE) whose text Pneumatics exists in a number of Arabic versions has also described a variety of automata and trick vessels that exemplify early fine technology. Another early text, that again only exists in Arabic versions, is On the Construction of Water Clocks by Archimedes. This work, though suspected to have been only partially written by him with later additions by Islamic scholars, was instrumental in introducing some of the principles of water-mediated control and power generation that was systematically developed by Islamic engineers. Hero from Alexandria (1st century CE) is probably one of the most well known and most widely read of the authors of fine technology. His primary texts are Pneumatica and Automata where he expounds on the fundamentals of pneumatics and plans for a variety of machines and automata that embody and are driven by such pneumatic forces.

While there are several important and interesting exponents of fine technology exemplifying Islamic automation, for the purposes of this essay, we will restrict our discussion to the work of the Banu Musa. Kitab Al-Hiyal (The Book of Ingenious Devices) by Banu Musa bin Shakir (9th century) is one of the foundational texts for the development and systematic exploration of automated devices in the Islamic world. It is clear from the various references in their text that they knew of Heron's work that had already been translated by Qusta Ibn Luqa during their time (ca. 864) and possibly with their support. In fact, of the slightly more than hundred devices that they describe in their book, Hill identified twenty five devices having similar features to and in some cases almost completely resembling Hero's and Philo's automata. However, it is crucial here that despite these similarities in the physical and operational features between these automata, the culturally specific ways in which these machines were conceived and used by the Banu Musa are significantly different enough for one to be cautious not to perceive their work as simply derivative. It is also noteworthy that the Banu Musa were inventors in their own right and there are several machines described in this book that are uniquely theirs and perhaps even invented by them. For example, their fountains are unique in their designs and mechanical features. Hill claims that the Banu Musa "display an astonishing skill in the manipulation of small variations in aerostatic and hydrostatic pressures." This attention to and ability to harness minute variations required the use of several innovative mechanisms including the crankshaft (which Hill suggests might be the first recorded use of this historically significant technology); a vari