The Transfer of Science Between India, Europe and China via Muslim Heritage

[Proceedings of the conference 1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in Our World organised by FSTC, London, 25-26 May 2010]. The Islamic realms served as a crucible for scientific learning from the ancient Greek world in the West and from China, India and Iran, in the East. Western Europe in turn benefited from the transmission of Arabic science into Latin, just as Chinese culture was indebted to Arabic texts travelling eastwards. There was a vast network of transmission over centuries and over continents. This short article presents three stories telling related to the transfer of science between India, Europe and China via Muslim Heritage.

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Professor Charles Burnett

Abstract | Short biography

Figure 1-2: Professor Charles Burnett presenting his lecture in the "1001 Inventions" conference. © FSTC 2010.

The Islamic realms served as a crucible for scientific learning from the ancient Greek world in the West and from China, India and Iran, in the East. Western Europe in turn benefited from the transmission of Arabic science into Latin, just as Chinese culture was indebted to Arabic texts travelling eastwards. There was a vast network of transmission over centuries and over continents. Today I would like to tell three stories.

1. The first story concerns astronomy

In 1160 CE, a Hebrew sage from Tudela in the valley of the Ebro, Abraham ibn Ezra, when introducing a commentary written by a Spanish Muslim, Ibn al-Muthanna', on al-Khwarizmi's procedures for observing and predicting the movement of the stars and the planets, gave the following account:

In ancient days, neither wisdom nor religion was found among the Arabs who dwelt in tents, until Muhammad arose and gave them a new religion from his heart. After him came wise men who composed many books on their religious law, until there arose a great king of the Arabs whose name was al-Safaah. He heard that in India there were many sciences, and so he ordered that a wise man be sought, fluent in both Arabic and the language of Indian, who might translate one of the books of their widsom for him. … (He found a Jew) and gave him money so that he might travel to the city of Arin on the equator under ths signs of Aries and Libra, where day is equal to night throughout the year, neither shorter nor longer, thinking ‘perhaps he will succeed in bringing one of their wise men to the king'. So the Jew went, and after many subterfuges, persuaded one of the wise men of Arin to agree to go the king...The scholar, whose name was Kanka, was brought to the king, and he taught the Arabs the basis of numbers, i.e. the nine numerals. Then from this same scholar, an Arabic named Jacob b. Sharah translated a book containing the tables of the seven planets..the rising times of the zodiac signs, ...the arrangement of the astrological houses, knowledge of the higher stars, and the eclipses of the luminaries (and it goes on in this way).

There are several elements in this story which sound like the stuff of legend, and Ibn Ezra clearly wishes to make some claim for Jewish participation in the transmission of knowledge. But in reality, what the text he translates introduces are Indian methods of plotting the movements of the planets and fixed stars scientifically. These had been brought to their most advanced form by Brahmagupta in Sanskrit in the Brahmasphutasiddanta in the late 7th century. These Sanskrit astronomical tables and their canons (descriptions of procedures) had been brought to Baghdad soon after its foundation at the beginning of the Abbasid era, in the time of the caliph al-Mansur (754-75). This was also the time when chess (Arabic shitranj) and a set of moralizing stories (Kalila wa-Dimna) concerning animals based on the Indian Pancatantra entered Islamic culture (also referred to in Ibn Ezra's account).

The astronomical tables, known as Sindhind, formed the basis of al-Khwarizmi's tables and canons in the early 9th century. These were brought to the Islamic Spain, al-Andalus, and adapted to the meridian of Cordoba by Maslama al-Majriti in the late 9th century, and translated into Latin by Adelard of Bath in the early 12th century, as the first complete set of astronomical tables and their canons in Christendom They paved the way for other sets, improvements, developments, and commentaries, including that of Ibn al-Muthanna, which was also translated into Latin by Hugo of Santalla in Tarazona, a couple of decades after Adelard's translation.

But that is not the entire story. In a Latin text on Arabic numerals, we find that they are described as being ‘especially useful for astronomy' (Liber ysagogarum in artem astronomiam). It may be no accident that the same al-Khwarizmi wrote the authoritative book on ‘calculating with Indian numerals'. For Arabic numerals are, indeed, Indian numerals—originally Sanskrit symbols brought over to the Arabic world, probably with the astronomical texts (as Ibn Ezra implies), and diffused, like the tables and their canons via Muslim Spain to the Latin West. The new way of calculation, with pen and paper (or rather quill and parchment), using symbols with place value, was quite appropriately called the ‘algorism'—named after al-Khwarizmi himself, the transmitter both of the numerals and the astronomical tables.

Two hundred and fifty years later, in the early years of the Ming dynasty, two sets of Arabic astronomical tables were translated into Chinese. The following words are found in the preface of one set:

In the autumn of 1382, the emprer T'aitsu … ordered this translation, saying: ‘The Western people are very good at observing astronomical phenomena. They have an ingenious method for the computation of the movements of the planets, which we have nothing comparable to'.

In the postscript to the other set of tables we read:

There has been no such book in our country since older times. In the eighteenth year of the Hunwu Era (i.e. 1385), a barbarian came from the Far West and he became naturalized in China. He offered to the emperor a set of astronomical tables written in Arabic numerals. It gave predictions of the occultations of the Moon and five planets. It was turned into Chinese numerals for the first time.

By this time, an Islamic observatory had been active in Beijing for over one hundred years. It had been set up under the Mongols, by Kublai Khan in 1271, who gave the directorship to a certain Jamal al-Din, and it lasted until 1656. To it were brought not only texts on astronomy and astrology, and Euclid's Elements, the basic textbook on geometry that any prospective astronomer had to start by studying, but also astronomical instruments: astrolabes, quadrants, armillary spheres.

2.The second story concerns medicine

There is a Tibetan legend that a doctor called ‘Galenos' settled in Lhasa during the reign of Sron-bcan sgam-po (i.e. during the 7th century). The legend tells us that Galenos arrived with the Yellow Emperor of Chinese medicine and the rishi (‘sage') Bharadhvaja of India. Although this cannot be substantiated, it does provide an origin-myth for the three major strands that can be recognized in Tibetan medicine: Greco-Arabic, Chinese and Indian, and an indication that these arrived in Tibet in ‘imperial times', when the Tibetan empire rivalled in size and importance the Abbasid Empire, founded in 750, on its Western border, and Tang China (618-907), with its capital of Chang-an (Xi'an), on its Eastern border.

The Arabic influence can be seen in certain Tibetan medical doctrines (especially in the humoral system and the importance of diagnosis by pulse and by urine) and in terminology: kur kum for saffron or turmeric from Arabic kurkum, bad kan for ‘phlegm' from balgham, and dar yak an from tiryâq (theriake) for a wonder medicine made of multiple ingredients. With the Mongol conquest of the whole of Asia from China to the borders of Hungary, and the consequent revitalizing of the Silk Roads, the spread of medical knowledge became even more remarkable. Rashid al-Din (1247-1318), at the court of the Ilkhanid Mongol Ghazan (who had converted to Islam), translated into Persian a Chinese medical book under the title Tansuqname.

In the contrary direction, Islamic medicine was adopted by the Mongols. As Paul Buell has written, "For the Mongolian world of the 13th and 14th centuries ‘Muslim' medicine became the mainstream, both in the Mongol east and in the west, but particularly in China. There it briefly superseded Chinese medicine in importance, at least at the court level." Buell shows that this ‘Muslim' medicine was transmitted mainly by Tibetans, who had an important role at the Mongol courts, as spiritual advisers and doctors. One result of this was a book known as the Huihui yaofang, literally ‘Muslims' Medicinal Recipes', an encyclopaedia once consisting of some 3200 pages (only a fragment remains). In this text, the Arabic names of the medicines are given both in Chinese script and the original Arabic script. Some recipes purport to go back to Galen himself. I quote:

An ointment of Jâlînuus: It is especially good for paralysis on the left hand side of the body, numbness on the right, weakness of the body, the preponderance of phlegm associated with an evil wind, etc.

The ingredients that follow are all Arabic terms, sometimes with explanations in Persian and/or Chinese: Ghârîquun (agaric), ishqîl (‘this is mountain onion; you roast it'), ushaq (gum ammoniac), saqamûniyaa (scamony), harbaq aswad (black hellebore), etc.

3. The third and last example concerns philosophy

In 1642, John Selden, the English Jurist, Legal Historian and Arabist, wrote:

The liberal and correctly taught sciences were formerly for a long time called by the English ‘the studies of the Arabs'—the studia Arabum—as if called from the race and the places were they were then alone seriously cultivated. This is clear also from the preface to his Natural Questions of Adelard the monk of Bath, which he wrote when bringing the sciences back to England from the schools of the Arabs.

He is referring to the opening of the popular dialogue on Natural Questions, written by Adelard, a scholar and teacher at Bath (no evidence that he was a monk), the scholar who translated al-Khwarizmi's astronomical tables, in which he says that he has gone abroad to pursue the studies of the Arabs. After seven years, he returned to England and there he meets his nephew and they engage in a kind of intellectual competition in which Adelard espouses Arabic studies, and the nephew draws on his French studies. Adelard characterises Arabic studies as being new and exciting and French studies as being traditional and boring. But the main point of contrast is that the Arabs use their brains (they use ‘ratio'--‘reason'), whereas the French rely on authority. To quote Adelard's own words:

I have learnt one thing from my Arab masters, with reason as guide, but you another: you follow a halter, being enthralled by the picture of authority. For what else can authority be called other than a halter? As brute animals are led wherever one pleases by a halter, but do not know where or why they are being led, and only follow the rope by which they are pulled along, so the authority of written words leads many people into danger, since they just accept what they are told, without question. So what is the point of having a brain, if one does not think for oneself?… If I am going to talk to you, you must give and provide rational arguments.

One may quote another anecdote, by a scholar of the generation after Adelard, Daniel of Morley, who tells us that, like many young scholars, he left England with the intention of studying at the university of Paris (which was now replacing the cathedral schools as the main centre for advanced study), but found that the professors there were more like donkeys than men; they spent their time engaged in minutiae and had no interest in science. But then he heard that Arabic learning concentrated on the mathematical sciences (using the terminology of the time, he calls these the ‘quadrivium', the four-fold path to wisdom, consisting of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy), and that it was possible to study this in Toledo. So he hastened there and was not disappointed. He studied both with the greatest of the translators of Arabic science and philosophy, Gerard of Cremona, and with his Arabic colleague, Ghalib, a Christian from al-Andalus. This allowed him to write a book about how the universe functioned (‘On the natures of the heavens and the earth'), in which he begs his readers to accept the ‘simple and clear opinions of the Arabs' rather than the obscure statements of Latin scientists who ‘veil their ignorance under a blanket of unintelligibility'.

The liberal arts that John Selden was referring to were the mathematical sciences of the quadrivium. These, together with the three ‘arts of speech' of the trivium (grammar, rhetoric and logic), made up the curriculum of ‘philosophy' which Adelard described in another work, called ‘On the Same and the Different'. As the 12th century progressed, the mathematical sciences were incorporated into another philosophical scheme, by being added to works by, or deriving from, Aristotle in natural science and metaphysics. Many of the central texts of this new philosophy were translated from Arabic, and to the original works of Aristotle, were added the paraphrases, re-writings and commentaries of al-Farabi, Avicenna, Algazel and Averroes. These Arabic-Latin translations were incorporated into the curricula of the nascent European universities, in Oxford, Bologna, and Paris.

Bearing in mind the emphasis in Arabic learning on reasoned argument, one scholar, Christopher Beckwith, has recently put forward evidence that the scholastic method pursued in the West according to quite strict rules of procedure, owed its structure to that used in Islamic madrasas. These, in turn, may have been modelled on central Asian Buddhist viharas in which the same method was pursued. Whether or not this can be substantiated, the reputation of Arabs for rationality and pre-eminence in the mathematical and natural sciences persisted in the West, and remained strong until at least the 17th century. Fortunately, that reputation is being revived today through the work of the FSTC.

Brief Bibliography:

The stories come respectively from:

For (1), see:

  • B.R. Goldstein, Ibn al-Muthanna's Commentary on the Astronomical Tables of al-Khwarizmi, New Haven, 1967.
  • Charles Burnett, ‘Common Sources of Astrology and Astronomy in West and East', in The Mutual Encounter of East and West, 1492–1992, ed. P. Milward, Tokyo, 1993, pp. 81-87.
  • W. Hartner, ‘The Astronomical Instruments of Cha-ma-lu-ting: their Indentification, their relations to the instruments of the observatory of Maragha', reprinted in Oriens-Occidens, Hildesheim, 1968, pp. 215-226.
  • Benno van Dalen, ‘Islamic and Chinese Astronomy under the Mongols: a Little-Known Case of Transmission', in From China to Paris: 2000 Years Transmission of Mathematical Ideas, eds Y. Dold-Samplonius, Joseph W. Dauben etc., Stuttgart, 2002, pp. 327-356.

For (2), see:

  • Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim, ‘Islam and Tibet, Cultural Interactions—an Introduction', and Paul D. Buell, ‘Tibetans, Mongols and the Fusion of Eurasian Cultures', in Islam and Tibet: Interactions along the Musk Routes, eds Anna Akasoy, Charles Burnett and Ronit Yoeli-Tlalim, Farnham (forthcoming in 2010).

For (3), see:

  • Charles Burnett, The Introduction of Arabic Learning into England, London, 1997.
  • Adelard of Bath, Conversations with his Nephew, ed. Charles Burnett et al., Cambridge, 1998.
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