In Memoriam of Aydin Sayili: Biography and Account of his Scientific Activity

The following article presents a thorough intellectual biography of the late Aydin Sayili, the well known historian of Islamic science. The second part of the article is a comprehensive list of his works. This bibliography shows the richness and variety of his contributions to the history of medieval Islamic sciences, with a special focus on astronomy, mathematics and physics, the queen sciences that established the fortune of history of science as an independent discipline in 20th century scholarship.

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Mubahat Turker-Kuyel*

Table of contents

Aydin Sayili: An intellectual biography
List of Aydin Sayili's Publications


This article was first published in the Turkish review Erdem 25 (Ankara 1996), pp. 31-57. We are grateful to Imran Baba, editor of Erdem, for allowing publication.

Aydin Sayili: An intellectual biography

Figure 1: A Turkish notebank due to be circulated in January 2009 celebrating the legacy of Aydin Sayili. 5 TL banknote: Prof. Dr. Aydin Sayili.

Aydin Sayili was born in Istanbul in 1913. His primary and secondary education took place in Ankara for the most part. After completing his secondary education, he took part in competitive state examinations and was sent by the Turkish Ministry of Education to the United States for his higher education. The program of his university education was planned and organized under the guidance of Geroge Sarton, one of the foremost pioneers in the field of the history of science and one of the most central figures in securing for it the status of an independent academic discipline. Sayili's training at Harvard was broad in scope with his so-called "horizontal" specialization or concentration in the history of science being in the World of Islam and his "vertical" specialization in the history of physics. He obtained his Ph.D. degree in the history of science in 1942 from Harvard University which was apparently the first such degree to be given in that discipline anywhere (see Isis, vol. 33, 1941-42, p. 714; Isis, vol. 39, 1948, p. 240).

In 1943, Sayili returned to Turkey and entered the academic career in an auxiliary capacity at the Faculty of Letters (Dil ve Tarih-Cografya Fakultesi) of what became some three years thereafter the Ankara University. In 1946, he became assistant professor (docent) at the same faculty. In 1952, he was promoted to associate professorship and in 1958 to full professorship (ordinarius professor).

In 1952, an independent chair of the history of science was officially established in the Faculty of Letters of Ankara University. This is one of the earliest of the chairs of its kind in the world and the first in Turkey. Sayili was its director ever since its foundation until his retirement in 1983. He also served as chairman of the Department of Philosophy of the same faculty beginning with its official foundation in 1974 as an administrative unit. It consisted of six chairs.

In 1947, Sayili was elected to full membership of the Turkish Historical Society. In 1957, he became corresponding member of the International Academy of the History of Science. In 1961 he was made full member of the same academy, and in 1962 he was selected for a period of three years to its vice presidentship. Sayili is honorary member of the Society of Turkish Librarians and of "Die Deutschen Morgenländische Gesellshaft" (1989) and has served for several years as the head of the section for the Middle Ages of the Turkish Historical Society. In 1977, he received the "service award" of the Turkish Society for Scientific and Technological Research and in 1981 "the certificate of merit award" of Istanbul Technical University for work in the history of science. In 1992, he received also the "service award" of ILESAM. Sayili was also presented, in 1973, with a Copernicus medal by the Polish ambassador at Ankara for work done on Copernicus, and in 1989, with the Bronze Medal of Nehru, which commemorates the hundredth anniversary of his birth, by Federico Mayor, President of UNESCO.

In 1980, Sayili was elected to membership of the International editorial Committee for preparing a six-volume work on the history of Central Asian Civilizations for UNESCO's Paris Centre. Since October 1983, he has been serving as president of the Ataturk Culture Centre of the Ataturk Higher Society for Culture, Language, and History. He also continues to give postgraduate courses in the history of science in Ankara University.

Sayili participated in the following international congresses and scientific meetings: The International orientalists' congress held in Istanbul in 1951; the international congresses of the history of science of the years 1953, 1956, 1959, 1962, and 1974 held respectively in Israel, Italy, Spain, the United States, and Japan; congress of the American History of Science Society held in New York City in 1956; International Colloquium on Sixteenth Century Science hold in Royaumont, Paris, in 1957; International Symposium of the History of Science held in Pisa and Vinci in 1958; the International Ibn Sînâ and Nâsiruddîn at-Tûsî congresses held in Tehran in 1954 and 1956; the millennial commemoration of Fârâbî's death held in Istanbul in 1950; Turkish Historical Society congresses held in Ankara in 1956, 1961, and 1970; the Congress of Balkan Mathematicians held in Istanbul in 1971; the International Beyrûnî Congress on the occasion of the one thousandth anniversary of his birth held in Pakistan in 1973; the Third World Conference on Education held in Istanbul by the World Council for Curriculum and Instruction in 1977; the International Symposium on the Observatories in Islam held in Istanbul in 1977 on the occasion of the four hundredth anniversary of the foundation of the Istanbul Observatory of Murad III; International Congress of the History and Philosophy of Science held in Islamabad, Pakistan, 8 to 13 December 1979; Conference on the Contributions of Islam to the Culture and Civilization on Mankind and Its Role in the Future, held in Islamabad, Pakistan, 7 to 10 March 1981; Science Polity in Islam held in the same year in Pakistan on the occasion of the one thousand and four hundredth lunar year of the Hijra; International Symposium on the occasion of the one thousandth anniversary of Ibn Sînâ's birth held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, June 29 to July 1, 1981; Symposium on Hunting, Food Gathering, and Food Production Types of Economy of the Neolithic Cultures in Central Asia held in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, in April 7-11, 1982; Colloquium on the history of mathematics held by the Centre International de Rencontres Mathématiques in Marseille, 16-21 April 1984.

The Chair of the History of Science in the Faculty of Letters of the Ankara University consists now of three members who have all been trained by Sayili. The senior member represents mainly the history of astronomy. Another, who is also a, represents the field of the history of natural sciences and medicine, and the remaining member is an assistant being trained in the field of the history of physics and mathematics.

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Figure 2: The young Aydin Sayili. Courtesy of Dr. Hüseyin Gazi Topdemir.

Sayili knew English, French, German, Persian, and Arabic.

Sayili's first publications go back to his student days at Harvard University. The main part of his research work at that time was naturally connected with his Ph. D. thesis, the Institutions of Science and Learning in Medieval Islam, even though there were also other subjects in which some research work was undertaken independently. But as a consequence of this, one general topic on which he worked considerably, beginning with his doctoral dissertation, has been the astronomical observatory, and, in addition to it, the madrasa, the hospital, and the library in Islam (see, list of publication, items, 10, 14, 15, 16, 17, 28, 30, 31, 33, 41, 42, 49, 58, 59, 62, 64, 79, 82, 84).

In his book on the observatory in Islam (list, item 41), Sayili has shown that the observatory as an organized and specialized institution for work in astronomy was born in Islam. This was the consequence of certain peculiarities and characteristics of the World of Islam and its feeling of dependence on astronomy in the conduct of religious and lay affairs. This book also claims to show that the observatories of Eastern Islam served as proto-type and model for the early observatories of Europe.

Sayili has proved in this book that the so-called Muqattam Observatory of AI-Hakim in Cairo, references to which are quite widespread within a period of nearly two hundred years especially in European works, is in reality a non-existent ghost observatory. A preliminary report concerning the non-existence of this observatory was presented in his paper entitled "Some Facts Concerning the Al-Hakim (or Muqattam) Observatory" read at the International Congress of Orientalists held in Istanbul in 1951. Sayili has moreover been able to fix the specific location of the Damascus Observatory of Al-Ma'mun (see also, list, item 42) and of the Malikshah Observatory, which was for the first time discovered to be in Isfahan. His investigations showed the possibility of gleaning fragmentary but clear and detailed information concerning Ma'mun's observatories in the writings of Habash al-Hâsib (see also, list, item 30), Beyrûnî, and Ibn Yunus, and thanks to these it has been possible to clear up the relationship between the Baghdad and the Damascus Observatories of Ma'mun, the somewhat strange situation that these two earliest and shortest-lived of Islamic astronomical observatories were seemingly contemporaneous or even simultaneous. It was also possible to ascertain the ties between these two institutions and the geodetical undertakings and field work organized under Ma'mun's patronage as well as the systematic and intense translation activities of the House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikma), thanks to Beyrûnî.

Light is shed in this book on the evolution of the observatory in medieval Islam from the standpoint of organization, range of work, richness and efficiency of equipment, length of life, type or nature of financial support, and the connection of the observatory with instruction in astronomy and different branches of mathematics. Sayili has shown for the first time that the astronomers of Ma'mun carried out daily observations of the sun and the moon throughout a year in these institutions (see also, list, item 30). It is of great interest that this methodological aspect of astronomical research work, to the desirability of which later medieval astronomical sources of Islam also refer, is reminiscent of Tycho Brahe, whose observatory building activity and astronomical instruments constitute a direct continuation of those of the Turkish-Islamic World of Eastern Islam. (See also, list, item 79). The Arno Press reprinted The Observatory in Islam in the United States in 1981.

Sayili has other and more specific publications on the Maragha, the Gazan Khan, the Samarqand, and the Istanbul Observatories, as well as on certain other relatively minor institutions of a similar nature (list, items 10, 14, 13, 17, 31, 33, 42, 43, 51). He has somewhat clarified the contributions of Gazan Khan in this field by showing that what he accomplished was the construction of an observatory building and that the main importance of this institution lay in its officially being supported by waqf revenues and its affiliation with instruction in astronomy and auxiliary disciplines (list, item 10).

The impression prevalent was that the Istanbul Observatory of Murad III was demolished before any work had started to be done in it. Alauddin Mansur's rather elaborate poems (list, item 33) contain clear assertions, however, to the effect that the Istanbul Observatory was the scene of rather important scientific work. Moreover, this document shows that the staff of the Istanbul Observatory was made up of sixteen astronomers although only the name of one has come down to us, and also that there was a "Small Observatory" attached to this institution.

Reviews of The Observatory in Islam appeared in Isis, (vol. 53, 1962, pp. 237-239), in Archives Internationales d'Histoire des Sciences, (vol. 14, 1961, pp. 429-431), in Revue d'Histoire des Sciences, (vol. 13, 1960, pp. 359-360), in the Japanese journal for the history of science Kagakusi Kenyu, (No. 56, Tokyo 1960, pp. 37-38), and in Arastirma, vol. 2, 1964, pp. 337-352).

Figure 3: Aydin Sayili and George Sarton. Courtesy of Dr. Hüseyin Gazi Topdemir.

References to The Observatory in Islam are quite numerous. The following may e.g. be mentioned: Shigeru Nakayama, "The Possibility of Scientific Revolution in the East-Specifically in the Case of Astronomy" (in Japanese), Scientific Revolution (in Japanese, journal), 1961, pp. 168, 186; C. Doris Hellman in the British Journal for the History of Science, (vol. 1, part 4, 1963, pp. 304-305); J. Needham, Sciences and Civilization in China, (vol. 4, part 2, 1965, p. 695); E. S. Kennedy, The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 5, 1968, p. 661; Abulqasim-i Qurbânî, Fâshânînâma, Tehran 1970, pp. 4, 251; Qurbani, Hasawînâma, Tahran 1971, pp. 8, 194; Qurbânî, Riyâzîdânân-i Irânî ez Khwârazmî td Ibn-i Sînâ, Tehran 1971, pp. 60, 93,333; David A. King, Journal for the History of Astronomy, vol. 4,1973, pp. 107, 110; The Legacy of Islam, Oxford 1974, p. 488; Y. Dold-Samplonius and S. H. Nasr, The Dictionary of Scientific Biography, vol. 11, 1975, p. 24 and vol. 13, 1976, p. 514; Willy Hartner and David A. King in the Journal for the History of Astronomy, vol. 9,1978, pp. 202-203, 2U, 213, and 217.

George Saliba, in his article "The First non-Ptolemaic Astronomy at the Maragha School", (Isis, vol. 70, 1979, pp. 571-576), refers to The Observatory in Islam and quotes from it three passages taken from the Kitâb al-Hay'a of Al-Urdî, using them to identify for the first time clearly and correctly a certain Bodleian manuscript of unspecified author. This book had previously been wrongly ascribed to others, e.g. and especially to Ibn Sînâ. He also fully agrees, after initial hesitations he generously recounts, with the estimate set forth in The Observatory in Islam that the Kitâb al-Hay'a was written before the foundation of the Maragha Observatory. It may be added here that the statement of a relatively little studied source to the effect that the Ilkhâni Tables of the Maragha Observatory were largely based upon the tables of Ibn al-A'lam and Ibn Yunus, a point brought to the attention of the historians of science and astronomy in Sayili's The Observatory in Islam, has proved to be correct. Needless to say, this is a type of information that could be reached only through, a process of trial and error, which, otherwise, especially in the case of Ibn al-A'lam, would very likely have been a very long if not completely unrewarding one.

Sayili has published only parts of his work on the hospital (see, list, items, 16, 54, 59, 64, and 74). Most of this work was done in connection of his Ph.D. thesis, and Sarton refers to this part in his Introduction to the History of Science, (vol. 3, part 1, 1947, p. 293, part 2, 1948, p. 1248-1249). In the same work, he refers also to Sayili's article on Turkish medicine (ibid, pp. 1217, 1226). See also, Isis, vol. 40, 1949, p. 362).

Sayili's earliest book is of the nature of a popularization of science. Its approach is through the history, methodology, and philosophy of science. It bears the title "Science is the Truest Guide in Life" (list, item 19), an aphorism of Ataturk or, rather, a shortened version of such an aphorism. This book propounds the idea that the growth of civilization is highly influenced by technology but that pure technological research and discovery are not sufficient by themselves. It is only technology supported and guided by science that can take up the problems of man and society methodically and prove itself equal to the task of finding answers and solutions for them. It is therefore, in the first place, science and not purely empirical technology, which enables man to ameliorate his life and adapt him to the problems, he encounters. (For the third impression of the Book, see, Erdem, 6, 18, Sept. 1990, 1992, p. 933-937).

This is not to preclude or disregard the need for virtue, conscience, and judgement of value as major components of man's activity of creating a civilization wherein good will and constructive achievements constitute the leitmotivs. On the other hand, however, science is not responsible solely for the material aspects of civilization. It is also a major factor in guiding man in the moral problems and issues he encounters. Thus, science is the main force responsible for constructive change, material and spiritual improvement and development in human life. For man otherwise tends to show inertia towards change. Science achieves its influence upon human life more directly through applied science or technology and more indirectly, through what may be called the intellectual culture sector of our culture or civilization.

This book has been reviewed in the Turkish journal Ilk Ogretim, (vol. 14, 1 August 1949, No. 275-277, pp. 3622, 3624) and in Isis, (vol. 40, 1949, p. 286). Reference has been made to it by Halil Inalcik in his article "Ataturk ve Turkiye'nin Modernlesmesi", Belleten, (vol. 27, 1963, p. 630) and in particular to the idea propounded in it that science oversteps particular social circumstances and brings dynamism to human societies, that science is indifferent to boundaries of language, race, or religion.

Sayili has lately returned to the general subject of the fundamental place of science in human life and in man's unremitting activity of forging ahead with the creation of better and mightier civilizations and has treated it in greater detail in connection with the theme of Turkish as the language of science and learning" as well as within the context of the "Turkish movement of Westernization. (See, list, items, 74, 90, 105, 106 and 109). Sayili's interest in Turkish as a language of science and culture also goes back to his student days. In fact, he had occasion to be of help to Sarton in this respect, as can be seen from the latter's acknowledgements (Introduction to the History of Science, vol. 3, part 1, 1947, pp. 29, 104, 972, 1014).

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Figure 4: Page from the astronomical book Sharh al-Mulakhkhas fi al-hay'a by Mahmud ibn 'Umar al-Jaghmini (d. after 1221) in Princeton University Library (Islamic Manuscripts, Garrett no. 1350Y). (Source).

It is a well-established fact that the translation of books on science, philosophy, and medicine from Arabic into Latin during twelfth century ended the Dark Ages in Western Europe by ushering in the so-called Renaissance of the Twelfth Century. It has been Sayili's contention that infiltration of ideas and scientific knowledge from Islam into Western Europe did not cease after this initial "renaissance" but that it continued in a more subtle manner and restricted measure up to the seventeenth century, so that the World of Islam exerted appreciable influences in some of the initial phases of the European scientific revolution brought about by men like Copernicus, Galileo, and Harvey. Conversely, Ottoman Turkey established cultural and scientific contact with Europe in periods as early as the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries not only in technology and fine art but also in scientific and intellectual matters.

Sayili has taken up these questions more specifically in his articles "Islam and the Rise of the Seventeenth Century Science" (list, item 36), "Murad III's Istanbul Observatory Terrestrial Globe and Cultural Contact with Europe" (list, item 45), and he has touched this question in his book The Observatory in Islam (list, item 41), in his Turkish article on the basic causes of the slowing down of the rate of scientific work in Islam (list, item 52), and in his Turkish and English publications on Copernicus (list, items 63, 66). He has also conducted two Ph.D. theses in these subjects, one indicating influence proceeding from the Turkish-Islamic World into Western Europe in the field of astronomical instruments during the sixteenth and earlier centuries and the other on influence received in Turkey in the earlier parts of the seventeenth century from Renaissance Europe in the field of anatomy.

Another view Sayili has held and tried to establish and ascertain is that science is one of the firstborn and most ancient of human activities. It went side by side with magic, technology, and religion, rather than grow out of them. It was much older than philosophy, but at times, it established close ties with philosophy and became incorporated in it. It consequently had from time to time to rescue its independence and cut or reduce its ties with philosophy. This was tantamount, in general, or, at least at times, to the emergence of a more systematic and theoretical conception of science. This circumstance has given rise to the widely held view that science was born in Greek antiquity and also that science came into being in the true sense of the word and in a somewhat limited range of its meaning only with the Renaissance, i.e., in the sixteenth century. A more empirical and older brand of scientific activity is also held widel