Science in Adab Literature

A long standing topic of discussion among orientalists has been the question whether science in medieval Islamic society was a marginal activity, restricted to small elite circles and not rooted in society, or whether it was well assimilated and widely accepted in society. The former position, called the 'marginality thesis' was adopted by, for instance, von Grünebaum. This thesis was attacked by, for instance, Sabra. His position became known as the 'appropriation thesis'. Also Gutas opposed the marginality thesis.

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A long standing topic of discussion among orientalists has been the question whether science in medieval Islamic society was a marginal activity, restricted to small elite circles and not rooted in society, or whether it was well assimilated and widely accepted in society. The former position, called the 'marginality thesis' was adopted by, for instance, von Grünebaum.[1] This thesis was attacked by, for instance, Sabra.[2] His position became known as the 'appropriation thesis'. Also Gutas opposed the marginality thesis.[3]

That scientific knowledge was recommendable not only insofar as it was useful for religion and Muslim society, but also as an intellectual pleasure and as a recognition of the beautiful order and arrangement of God's creation, was testified by the philosopher al-Amin (d. 992).[4] It is this attitude to science which one also finds in adab literature. Books belonging to this kind of literature contain material about a variety of subjects, considered from various points of view, such as religious, scientific, historical, literary, etc. They contain knowledge and at the same time entertainment for educated people. Here we consider two adab works: (an extract of) Fasl al-Khitab by al-Tifashi (d. 1253) and Mabahij al-fikar wa-manahij al-‘ibar by al-Watwat (d. 1318).

The book of al-Tifashi as we have it discusses astronomical and meteorological subjects. The passages on astronomy give the usual Aristotelian cosmological picture of the world in a simplified version for non-specialists. The passages on meteorological subjects explain these phenomena in agreement with Aristotle's theory of the double exhalation, and it appears that they are based to a large extent on Ibn Sina's interpretation of this theory.

The book of al-Watwat consists of four sections, which deal with the heaven, the earth, animals and plants respectively. One chapter of the first section deals with meteorological phenomena and presents a survey of the explanations current in his time, such as could be found in the works of al-Kindi and Ibn Sina.

One will probably not find new and original scientific ideas in the adab literature, but one gets an impression of how besides knowledge of Qur'an, Wall, poetry and literary prose, scientific knowledge was a part of the education of a certain class of people, also of those whose special interest was not science. It also appears that the subjects of science were not restricted to those which were useful for religion and Muslim society. Science was an integrated activity in society, pursued for intellectual satisfaction and pleasure in knowledge, and most groups in that society held that there was nothing in it that would be incompatible with Islam as a religion.

Figure 2. "The Qur'an is the most important and authentic example of Arabic literature and definitely the most influential." (Wiki) Safavid manuscript splendor at the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts (Inv. No. 379) (Source

Al-Tifashi and his work

Al-Tifashi[5] was born in 1183 in Qafsa, the present Gafsa (Tunesia). At that time the country was ruled by the dynasty of the Almohads. The Tifashi family was in favour with the Almohad caliphs. Their name is derived from Tifash, a village near Gafsa, but that was not their native place. After his elementary education al-Tifrishi went to Tunis, and then at the age of fourteen, to Egypt and subsequently to Damascus for further education. He returned to Gafsa, where he married, got three children and became a judge (qadi). He was forced to give up this job when it was discovered that he stored wine in his house. Then he decided to leave Gafsa. He embarked to Alexandria with his children (his wife had already died). His ship was wrecked in a storm and his children drowned; he himself was saved by Bedouins, who brought him to Alexandria. Then he lived at the court in Cairo, under the protection of the Ayyubid sultan of Egypt, al-Kamil Muhammad al-Malik. Al-Kamil liked the company of scholars and literary men; he received them in his palace, let them sleep in his bedroom, and subsidized their living. From Cairo al-Tifashi travelled to various places throughout the Middle East. Among others, he visited the court of Muhyiddin al-Sahib, a representative of the Zanjid sultan Mu'izz al-Din Sanjarshah in Jazirah (northern Iraq). It is probably there that he wrote the work Fasl al-Khitab, making use of the books in the library of this Muhyiddin.

After this period of travelling he settled down in Cairo, a centre of culture and commerce where people from all parts of the world gathered. There he learned many things, for instance about gems, resulting in his well known book about gems and minerals Azhar al-afkar fi jawahir al-ahjar (Flowers of Thought about the Precious Stones). He died in Cairo in 1253.

Al-Tifashi was an attractive, clever and elegant person, and also social and kind-hearted. He was inquisitive and interested in new experiences, an eager observer of nature and society. He loved wine and wrote about it. He read many books, but what he wrote was also based on stories told to him by others and on his own observations and experiences, of which he was quick to make notes; what was told to him he checked by observation and experiment. Nevertheless he followed current ideas which included much superstition; for instance, he devoted a large part of his Fasl al-Khitab to astrology.

Arabic sources mention eighteen books written by al-Tifashi, a few of them still extant. His most well known books are the one on gems and minerals mentioned above, and Nuzhat al-albab , ring yujad fi kitab (Entertainment of the hearts about what one cannot find in any book),[6] a collection of anecdotes and poems about sexual matters, such as pimps, prostitutes, and the conditions for adultery.

Figure 2. "This book was translated into French in 1971 as Les Micas des wears, and in 1988 parts of it were translated into English as The Delight of Hearts: Or What You Will Not Find in Any Book by Winston Leyland"

Al-Tiashi also wrote the extensive work Fasl al-Khitab fi madarik al-hawass al-khams li-uli l-albab (Decisive Discourse on the Perceptions of the Five Senses for Intelligent People). This work is not extant as a whole, but we have an extract from it, made by Ibn Manzur. This Ibn Mansur is well known as the author of the Arabic dictionary Lisan al-‘arab. His fuller name is Muhammad ibn Mukarrram Jamal al-Din, known as Ibn Mare. His grandfather moved from Tunis to Cairo where his father Mukarram was born, two years after the birth of al-Tifashi. Mukarram was favoured by the sultan al-Kamil, who called him malik al-huffaz (king of those who have memorized the Qur'an), because after hearing eleven verses one time, he could memorize them all. He was often visited by al-Tashi. Mukarram's son Mubammad was born in 1232. He acquired an extensive knowledge of language, grammar, history and literature. He wrote summaries or extracts of many works, such as Kitab al-Aghani, and al-Yatima of Tha’allibi.

When Ibn Manzur was still a child he heard al-Tifashi talk to his father about a huge book which had taken almost his whole life to write, with the title Fasl al-Khitab fi madarik al-hawass al-khams li-uli l-albab. This title struck him as an insolence, for fasil al-khitab was something given by God to the prophet David. When al-Tifashi died, Ibn Maria was twenty-two years old, and he forgot about the whole matter, until he remembered the book when he was sixty. Then he got hold of the book at one of al-Tifashi's friends, and started to make an extract from it. He gave it the title Surur al-nafs bi-madarik al-hawasss al-khams (Enjoyments of the Soul by the Perceptions of the Five Senses).[7] According to al-Safadi the extract consisted of ten sections. What is extant is two sections, entitled: Nuthhar al-azhar fi l-layl wa-l-nahar (Fragments of Flowers about the Day and the Night) and Tall al-ashar ‘ala l-jullanar fi l-hawa wa-l-nar (Morning Dew on the Pomegranate Blossom about the Air and the Fire).

Ibn Manzar's editing of al-Tifashi's text consisted of the following: he omitted what he considered to be a repetition; he also omitted verses that he considered scabrous or jocular; he reordered the texts, and divided each section into ten chapters; one time he added a poem and two times he changed verses of a poem. He did not change anything in the 'lies of the astrologers'.

Figure 3. "Ziryab (789-857) a singer, oud player, composer, poet, and teacher who lived and worked in Iraq, Northern Africa, and Andalusia of the medieval Islamic period" (Source)

The book Surur al-nafs as we have it discusses the following subjects: night, day, sun, moon, stars, seasons, thunder, lightning, rain, winds and fire. These subjects are discussed from various points of view: natural philosophy (science), pseudo-science (e.g. astrology, oneiromancy, i.e. dream interpretation), religion, language, literature, etc. Poems and pieces of prose are quoted in which these subjects are mentioned. The sources from which the quotations come are often mentioned, but not always. Some of them are: Aristotle, Pseudo-Aristotle (Theology), al-Jahiz (K. al-Hayawan), Ibn Qutayba (K. al-Anwa’), Marzuqi (Azmina wa-amkina), Ibn Sina (al-Qanun), Abu Ma’shar, Kushyar, al-Biruni (K. al-Tafhim), Ibn Dawud (K. al-Zahr), Tha’alibi (al-Yatima), and the diwans of various poets, such as Ibn Mu`tazz.

Al-Tifashi's book, of which Surur al-nafs is an extract, belongs to the kind of adab literature which intends to explain knowledge for a general educated audience and at the same time shows the pleasure one may derive from knowledge for its own sake. It exhibits the various ways and forms in which poets, natural philosophers, geographers, encyclopedists, etc. talked about natural phenomena. Later similar works would be composed by al-Nuwayri (Nihayat al-‘arab fi funun al-adab), (Masalik al-absar fi mamalik al-amsar), al-Watwat (Mabahij al-fikar wa manahij al-‘ibar).

We present a survey of the passages of Sulfer al-nafs that deal with astronomical and meteorological subjects, discussed from the point of view of science or natural philosophy. The passage on astronomy gives the usual Aristotelian cosmological picture of the world; it is a simplified picture for non-specialists; it does not go into details of planetary motions and it does not mention anything of the Ptolemaic model for these motions. The transformation of one element into another is not described as a change of one the four qualities (hot, cold, dry, wet), as was done by Aristotle, but simply as a change in density: when fire becomes denser, it becomes air, etc. The cosmology of the heaven is Ibn Sird's cosmology of nine revolving celestial spheres, each with its intellect, soul and body. The passages on meteorological subjects (lightning and thunder, rainbow and halo, rain, snow, etc.) explain these phenomena in agreement with Aristotle's theory of the double exhalation. According to this theory, the heat of the sun dissolves two exhalations from the earth: a dry warm kind of smoke (dukhan), dissolved from the earthy parts, and a wet, warm vapour (bukhar), dissolved from the watery parts (sea, lakes and rivers). All phenomena in the atmosphere are explained as being effects of these two vapours. This theory was adopted by most Islamic scholars. Some of them, such as Ibn Sina added further descriptions and explanations that are not found in Aristotle. It appears that the passages from Surur al-nafs are based to a large extent on Ibn Sina’s explanations of meteorological phenomena. For example, the phenomenon of the halo is explained as follows:

If the cloud is between the observer and the luminous object, while the latter is around its highest position, then you will see a halo; this is a circle, in the middle of which one sees the moon, surrounded by a white ring which is secluded by the darkness of a moist cloud. Sometimes a cloud is situated below another cloud; then another halo arises from it, which is larger than the one caused by the cloud above it and is similar to it as seen from the observer."[8]

The rainbow is explained as follows:

If the observer is between the cloud and the luminous object, while the latter is in a low position, near the horizon, then he sees half a circle with various colours; it is necessarily half a circle, since the luminous object is at the horizon. This is called a rainbow. The extension (width) of the rainbow varies in accordance with the height of the luminary above the horizon. Since the luminary should be near the horizon one seldom sees the rainbow at midday in summer, in contrast to the winter. One can imagine this occurring only when there is behind the smooth cloud something dark, another cloud or something else, so that it will be possible for the smooth cloud to transmit what is impressed on it to the observer via a transparent medium, the cloud acting as a mirror."[9]

In the section about the philosophers’ opinion about air a passage is quoted from Book I of Ibn Sina's al-Qanun,[10] where he states that the air we breathe is the atmospheric air, which is not the same as the element air. The atmospheric air is a mixture or elemental air, water in the form of vapour, particles of dust and smoke, and fire.[11] The (atmospheric) air may undergo a change and become obnoxious for human health. Such a change may be substantial or it may be a change of qualities. In the former case the air becomes spoiled, just as stagnant water may become spoiled and putrid. In the latter case the extent in which the air has the qualities dry, moist, hot and cold changes. Then Ibn Sina mentions the various influences of putrid air and of hot, cold, moist and dry air on the condition of the human body.

Figure 4 Inside image of the Canon of Medicine book (Source)

Al-Watwat's Mabahij al-fikar wa-manahil al-ibar

The author of this work is Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn Yahya ibn 'Ali al-Ansari, known as Watwat; his laqab is Jamal al-Din al-Kutubi. He was born in Egypt in 1235, where he seems to have spent his whole life. He made his living as a copyist of manuscripts, which gave him the opportunity to collect books and to develop a broad knowledge in many fields. He died in 1318.

The title of his book Mabahij al-fikar wa-manahij al-‘ibar (The Pleasures of Thoughts and the Ways of the Lessons) is also given as Manahij al-fikar wa-mabahij al-‘ibar in the manuscripts, as well as in the texts that mention the book. The subject matter is considered from two points of view, that of adab —this includes the poems and adab fragments which the author has found concerning the subjects under discussion— and that of science —this includes the scientific matters mentioned by the author about his topics.

There is an abstract of the Mabahij under the title Nuzhat al-‘uyun fi arba’at funun (Pleasures for the eyes in four disciplines). This abstract mainly omits the adab part and only contains the scientific part. It only exists in manuscript form. An article about it has been published by Kama al-Ghazz1.[12]

A facsimile edition of the Mabahij has been published by Fuat Sezgin in 1990.[13] The book consists of four sections, entitled The Heaven and its Adornments, The Earth and What is Connected With it, The Animals and Their Natures, and The Plants and Their Cultivation. An edition of the third section, about animals, was published in 2000 ‘Abd al-Razzaq Ahmad al-Harbi.[14] For this section al-Watwat used the following sources: for the scientific aspect he used K. al-Hayawan of Al-Jahiz, K. al-Hayawan of Aristotle, K. al-Hayawan of Abmad ibn Abi al-Ash`ath and the works of `Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi; for the aspect of adab and language he used many sources, such as the diwans of poets, and general works of adab. He especially mentions ‘Uyub al-akhbar of Ibn Qutayba, al-‘Umda of Ibn Rashiq, al-Gharib al-musnaf of Abu ‘Ubayd, al-Mujmal of Ibn Faris, al-Awa'il of Abu Hilal al-`Askari, Kitab al-masayid wa--Imutarid of Kashajim. He also took information from some books on history, such as Kitab murujal-dhahab of al-Mas’udi and al-Kamil of Ibn al-Athir, and from works on philosophy and tafsir.

Figure 5. "The first encyclopedia to appear during this era was Mabahij al-Fikar wa Manahij al-’Ibar, published by Jamal al-Din Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn Yahya al-Kutubi, a well-known writer who went by the name of al-Watwat (d. 718/1318)" (Source)

Chapter 5 of the first section deals with the meteorological phenomena. After an exposition of the four elements and the way they are ordered in spherical layers around the center of the universe, first special attention is paid to the elements fire and air. About fire it is stated that it has a resemblance to human beings, a resemblance that does not exist between the other elements and human beings. This resemblance consists in the fact that human beings come into being and live in the same environment where also fire comes into being and lives, and they perish and die where also fire perishes and dies. This became known to the people who work in shafts and mines. Whenever they are about to enter a shaft in the earth or a cave, they carry in front of them a burning wick at the tip of a lance, and if the fire remains burning, they enter, and if the fire is extinguished, they do not enter.

Air is discussed as being the material of wind. Since Aristotle has stated that wind is not moving air, but moving dry exhalation, the problems that arise if one adopts this explanation give rise to many rather confining explanations by Greek and Arabic commentators. Al-Watwat says that, according to Aristotle, wind is flowing air and air is wind that is stagnant. The air is set in motion by the rising of much vapour, which pushes it into various directions. Another explanation is that wind is a motion caused by the dry and wet exhalations. After having risen they return independently with a motion that is hitting the air and stirring it up; this return is either due to the heaviness that comes to them when they get to the cold layer of the atmosphere, or due to the fact that they are obstructed from penetrating into the higher air because of the speed with which this layer of air is moving. This explanation is clearly taken from Ibn Sina.[15]

Sometimes wind occurs due to the expansion of the parts of the air that are made less dense by the heat that occurs to them, so that they flow and move. This alternative explanation is also mentioned by Ibn Sina.[16] It is also the explanation of wind by al-Kindi.[17]

Snow is caused by moist vapour. When the higher air between the heaven and the clouds becomes very cold, it freezes the rain that descends from the clouds and changes it into snow. It can also happen that the atmosphere becomes very cold by a wind that cools it down so that the air, which is mixed with watery vapour, freezes before it condenses into clouds. Then it falls down, while the sky is bright, as oblong snow, since its parts coalesce with each other due to the cold wind —this is called zamharir. This special type of snow was discussed by al-Kindi.[18]

Other meteorological phenomena discussed are thunder and lightning, shooting stars, thunderbolts and the rainbow. Al-Watwat mentions the phenomenon that the rainbow is half a circle when the sun is at the horizon and becomes less than half a circle when the sun is rising until it completely disappears when the sun is at a certain height. He also says that according to some people observing the rainbow is like observing something in a mirror. Therefore the rainbow is only seen behind a smooth cloud, which acts as the dark backside of a glass mirror. This is clearly based on Ibn Sina, like the similar passage in al-Tifashi’s work (see above note 9).

From the few examples discussed here we conclude that scientific knowledge was considered to be a part of the education of 'civilized' people, not only of those whose special interest was philosophy and science. Also, the subjects of science discussed were not restricted to those which were useful for religion and Muslim society. Science was also pursued for intellectual satisfaction and pleasure in knowledge, as is made clear by some of the titles of the works discussed here. The examples also show the influence of Ibn Sina: his explanations are quoted without his name being mentioned; apparently his ideas were more of less common knowledge. A further study of the scientific aspects of adab literature seems recommendable.

"Al Maqamat: Beautifully Illustrated Arabic Literary Tradition" (Source)


[1] Von GrUnebaum, G.E., "Muslim World View and Muslim Science" in: Islam. Essays in the Nature and Growth of a Cultural Tradition, London 1955, 2"d ed. 1961, repr. Westport, Conn. 1981, 111-126.

[2] Sabra, A.I., "The Appropriation and Subsequent Naturalization of Greek Science in Medieval Islam: a Preliminary Statement" in: History of Science 25 (1987), 223-243.

[3] Gutas, D.. Greek Thought. Arabic Culture, London 1998.

[4] The relevant passage from al-Amid is quoted in F. Rosenthal. Das Fortleben der Amike im Islam, Zurich 1965, translated as The Classical Heritage in Islam. London and New York 1975. pp. 63-70

[5] This sketch of al-Tlfashi's life and works is taken from the introduction to Surur al-nafs bi-madarik al-hawass al-khams by the editor Ihsan 'Abbas. See also Brockelmann, C., Geshichte der arabischen Literatur. Leiden 1937-1949. vol. I p. 652 and Suppl. I p. 904.

[6] This book was translated into French in 1971 as Les Micas des wears, and in 1988 parts of it were translated into English as The Delight of Hearts: Or What You Will Not Find in Any Book by Winston Leyland.

[7] Al-Tifashi, Surur al-nafs bi-madarik al-hawass al-khams. revised by Ibn Manzur. Edited by Ihsan 'Abbas. Beirut 1980.

[8] The issue of multiple haloes is mentioned by Ibn Sing, see Kitab al-Shifa’, al-Tabi’yyat 5,  ed. A. Muntasir, S. Zayid, A. Isma’il, I. Madkur, Cairo 1964, pp. 48 ff.

[9] The cloud acting as a mirror is a feature typical for Ibn Sing, see Kitab al-Shifa’, , al-Tabi’yyat 5, pp. 50f.

[10] Ibn Sina, al-Qanun, Bulaq 1294, Book I, p. 90.

[11] Cf. Ibn Sina. Kitab al-Shifa’, al-Tabi’yyat 4, ed. M. Qasim, I. Madkur, Cairo 1969, p. 204.

[12] Kamil al-Ghazzi, "Kitab Nuzhat al-‘uyun fi arba'at funun", in: Majallat al-majma' al-ilmi al-arabi (Damascus), vol. 9 (1929), pp. 681-687.

[13] Jamal al-Din al-Watwal, Manahil al-fikar wa-mabahij al-‘ibar, ed. Fuat Sezgin, Publications of the Institute for the History of Arabic-Islamic Science, Series C. Vol. 49, 1-2, Frankfurt am Main, 1990.

[14] Muhammad b. Ibrahim al-WatwAt. Mabahij al-fikar wa-manahij al’ibar. ed. 'Abd aI-Razzaq Abmad al-Harbi, Al-dar al-'arabiyya li-l-mawsu‘at, 2000.

[15] lbn Sina, Kitab al-Shifa’, al-Tabi’yyat 5. p. 58

[16] lbn Sina, Kitab al-Shifa’, al-Tabi’yyat 5. p. 59

[17] al-Kindi, "On the reason why in some places it almost never rains" in Rasa’il II 70-75

[18] al-Kindi, "On the causes of snow, hail, lightning. thunderbolts, thunder and zamharir” in Rasa’il II 80-85.

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