Rediscovering Arabic Science (Cont’d)
by Richard Covington*
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2. The Language
A thousand years before English emerged as the international language of science in the latter half of the 20th century, the Arabic language unified scholars across the Muslim world, generating a lively market of ideas from Samarkand to Córdoba. "A book published in Central Asia could be read in southern Spain less than a year later," explains Roshdi Rashed, an eminent Egyptian-born historian of science, in his office near Paris. "Islamic learning was not like Greek science, which was limited principally to the eastern Mediterranean, but was spread across most of the known world."
Figure 14: Animated orbit of 9936-Al-Biruni, a main belt asteroid which orbits the Sun once every 5.39 years. Discovered on August 8, 1986 by Eric Elst and Violeta Ivanova at the Bulgarian National Astronomical Observatory in Smolyan, it was given the provisional designation "1986 PN4" and later renamed "Al-Biruni" for his important contributions to anthropology, mathematics and astronomy. Orbit of 9936: Al-Biruni (blue), planets (red) and the Sun (black). Work of art in the public domain . (Source).
One celebrated example is the Kitab al-Istikmal, a treatise on geometry by Yusuf al-Mu'taman, the 11th-century king of Sarakusta (today's Zaragosa in northern Spain). The Jewish philosopher Maimonides brought it from Córdoba to Cairo and copies were soon circulating in Baghdad. The work was eventually republished in the 13th century in Central Asia.
Among the babel of scientists and scholars who crisscrossed the polyglot Muslim empire, the common language was Arabic. "Besides Maimonides, you have the great mathematician and physicist Alhazen (Ibn al-Haitham) moving from Basra to Cairo," says Rashed, "and the astronomer Nasir al-Din al-Tusi journeying every year from Khorasan in northern Iran through Iraq and on to Aleppo to teach." Even if scholars spoke Persian or another language at home, they wrote their papers in Arabic so that their colleagues in Baghdad, Toledo and elsewhere could understand them, he adds. Omar Khayyam may have penned his quatrains in Persian, but he explicated his mathematical concepts in Arabic. Correspondence among scientists—typically carried by cara- van messenger or carrier pigeon—was nearly as far-reaching in the 11th and 12th centuries as it was in the 17th, Rashed maintains.
But despite its ultimate ascendancy, scholarly Arabic had a slow start. "Before the advent of science, Arabic was the language of poetry; it soon became the language of the new religion of Islam, but paradoxically, it did not become the language of power right away," explains French science historian Ahmed Djebbar. Although the Umayyad caliph ‘Abd al-Malik decreed at the beginning of the eighth century that government institutions, schools, courts and communications conduct their business in Arabic, it took another 50 to 100 years before the translation of scientific texts from Greek, Syriac, Persian and Indian languages into Arabic got under way in earnest, with some 100 translators at work over the course of the ninth and 10th centuries, according to the 10th-century bibliographer Ibn al-Nadim of Baghdad.
Figure 15: The physicians of Islamic civilisation added hundreds of medicines to those recorded by the Greeks. In this Ottoman manuscript, two doctors give instructions on the preparation of prescriptions. (Source)
Baghdad's Bayt al-Hikmah ("House of Wisdom") became a vibrant center of translation. Works like Ptolemy's Almagest and Dioscorides' De Materia Medica were translated numerous times as scholars perfected Arabic terminology. The Greek word parabola was initially Arabicized phonetically as barabula, then subsequently refined to qat za'id, which literally means "thick section." Diabetes was first rendered as diyabita then transformed to da as-sukkar ("sugar sickness"). Over time, Arabic scientific terms and star names were adopted into other languages, a list that includes alkali, alcohol, algebra, algorithm, alembic, alchemy, azimuth, elixir, nadir, zenith, Betelgeuse, Aldebaran, Rigel and Mizar.
After some seven centuries in which Arabic dominated scientific discourse, it began to be eclipsed in the 15th century by Turkish as Ottoman rule expanded. Ghiyath al-Kashi's 1427 mathematical treatise Risala al-Muhitiya (Treatise on the Circumference), in which he calculated the value of pi to 17 decimal places, was one of the last significant scientific texts in Arabic. By the time Taqi al-Din, the director of the Istanbul observatory, wrote his books in Arabic on light and marvelous machines in the second half of the 16th century, Latin had largely supplanted Arabic as the universal language of science. Unlike Arabic, however, which was understood by all classes and gave ordinary Muslims access to scholarly knowledge, Latin was used principally by academics and clergy, fencing science in as the preserve of an educated elite
3. Lines of Transmission
Long before Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code popularized the Fibonacci sequence as an early clue to his murder mystery, the 13th-century Italian mathematician who gave his name to that number series was learning the principles of advanced arithmetic from Arab teachers in Bejaia, in present-day Algeria. In the Fibonacci sequence, every number after 0 and 1 is the sum of the previous two numbers, so that the sequence runs: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377, 610, 987, 1597, 2584, 4181, 6765, 10,946 and so on. The series appears in nature in many forms, including the spiral arrangements of sunflower seeds, pineapple fruitlets and pinecone scales; it appears in geometry, where, starting with the number 5, every other Fibonacci number is the length of the hypotenuse of a Pythagorean right triangle with integral sides; it recurs in mathematics, where the ratio between successive Fibonacci numbers approaches the classical "golden ratio" of 1:1.618033….
Like the Polish astronomer Copernicus and the Spanish physician Michael Servetus in the 16th century, Fibonacci, who was one of the founders of western mathematics, constructed a substantial portion of his pioneering scientific research on the foundations laid by his Arabic-speaking predecessors. Using Latin translations of Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi's treatises on algebra and algorithms, Fibonacci, also known as Leonard of Pisa, wrote the Liber abaci, the first widely available book on Arabic numerals and arithmetical problems, expanding Indian-based concepts that had arrived in Spain starting in the 10th century.
On an expedition to Catalonia around 967 in search of unknown manuscripts, Gerbert, a Benedictine monk from Aurillac in Provence who later became Pope Sylvester II, came across Latin texts explaining Arabic numerals. He later taught about them, in Rheims and Rome, using a rudimentary abacus. From these modest beginnings, ancient Greek knowledge preserved in Arabic texts, as well as original Muslim science, was translated principally into Latin, Hebrew and Castilian Spanish to blossom gradually across Europe. In the courts of Toledo, Palermo and London, and the universities of Salerno, Padua, Paris and Oxford, a network of intellectual cross-pollination arose that spanned more than half a millennium, ushering in a European scientific renaissance.
Translators such as Gerard of Cremona from Italy, Adelard of Bath from England, Constantine the African, who brought an entire library of Muslim medicine to Salerno, and Michael Scot, a Scotsman who studied in Spain and Sicily, crisscrossed Europe. These itinerant scholars disseminated critical Arab revisions of Greek learning and popularized the revolutionary innovations made by generations of Islamic astronomers, physicians, mathematicians and physicists. Roger Bacon, the 13th-century proponent of the experimental method, astronomers Tycho Brahe in the 16th century and Galileo in the 17th, English physician William Harvey, who formulated his theory of blood circulation on Arab models in the 17th century, and many others owe a direct debt to Muslim knowledge brought to the West in this period.
Figures 16:A specutacular Arabic astrolabes from Islamic Spain, made by Ibrahim ibn Said al-Sahli in 1086. They come with many exchangeable dials and is amazingly well preserved in the Landesmuseum Kassel, Germany. The instruments were displayed on the occasion of the fifth annual conference in November 2008 of the historical section of the Vereinigung der Sternfreunde (German Amateur Astronomical Society). (Source).
Occasionally, there was a distinctly personal link between East and West. Journeying to Aleppo and elsewhere around the Middle East, the 17th-century Dutch Orientalist Jacobus Golius, who spoke and read Arabic, brought back the tracts of Alhazen. Since his son was secretary to Descartes in the Dutch city of Leiden, Golius excitedly showed his acquisitions to the exiled French mathematician, who incorporated the Muslim physicist's findings on optics and geometry into his own writings, according to French science historian Roshdi Rashed.
The transmission of Islamic science to Europe was not a fixed event like the delivery of a package whose contents launched the Renaissance. It was an ongoing, fluid exchange over time, a transfer that traveled in both directions, although it flowed mostly from East to West. Once Christian armies began to retake Spain in the 11th century and Crusaders returned from the Middle East over the course of the 12th and 13th centuries, western scholars began a dogged search for Arabic texts. Some key Arab and Persian documents, such as Alhazen's Kitab al-Manazir (Book on Optics) and al-Khwarizmi's Book on Indian Calculation, lost in their Arabic editions, have survived thanks only to Latin translations. "The translators were very important, but there was also a great deal of direct contact among the scientists themselves," points out Rashed. "This explains why you find the same information in Arabic and Latin texts even though they are not exact translations; there was also verbal transmission of the knowledge."
The Castilian city of Toledo, which was reconquered by King Alfonso vi in 1085 after nearly four centuries of Arab rule, became a magnet for scholars intent on harvesting Arab and Greek science. According to science historian Ahmed Djebbar of the University of Lille, more than 100 major scientific and philosophical essays were translated in Toledo from Arabic into Latin and Hebrew between 1116 and 1187. In a typical example illustrating the cosmopolitan nature of this mountaintop city, the English philosopher Daniel of Morley recounts meeting the Italian linguist Gerard of Cremona near the banks of the Tagus River. The two foreigners were awestruck by the vestiges of several monumental water clocks built by Ibrahim ibn Yahya al-Zarqali (Azarchel in Latin) shortly before the city fell to Alfonso.
By far the most prolific translator of the era, Gerard had left Italy chiefly in quest of Ptolemy's Almagest, which existed only in Arabic and Syriac, a pre-Islamic language of ancient Syria. Uncovering an Arabic transcription in Toledo, he stayed there 30 years, making Latin translations of Ptolemy, Ibn Sina's Canon, astronomical coordinates by al-Zarqali that became known as the "Toledan tables," and al-Zahrawi's manual on surgery, featuring a tonsillectomy technique as gruesome as it was efficacious.
Figure 17: Diagram of the eye from Risner's edition of Opticae thesaurus. Alhazeni Arabis libri septem Opticae thesaurus... (Basilea, 1572), the first edition of the Latin translation of Ibn al-Haytham's Kitab al-manazir, the most important and most influential Arabic treatise on physics, that exercised profound influence on Western science in the 16th and 17th centuries. Sarton calls Ibn al-Haytham "the greatest Muslim physicist and one of the greatest students of optics of all times..." (Source).
Around the same time, Adelard of Bath, who had spent seven years traveling as far as Antioch seeking learning based on "reason rather than authority," as he wrote in Quaestiones Naturales, returned to the court of English king Henry i. There he introduced Muslim research on trigonometry, botany, falconry and other subjects. Soaking up Muslim mathematics and astronomy in Córdoba and Toledo, his compatriot Daniel of Morley later lectured his Oxford students that they should "not despise the simple and clear opinions of the Arabs, but should note that Latin philosophers make heavy weather of these subjects quite unnecessarily." Although Daniel of Morley's books from Spain were destroyed in English religious wars, Oxford's Bodleian Library later built up one of the most important collections of medieval Arabic manuscripts and 12th- and 13th-century Latin texts translated from Arabic sources.
Landing in southern Italy around 1060 from Qayrawan, in today's Tunisia, Constantine the African became a Benedictine monk at the abbey of Montecassino, 130 kilometers (80 miles) south of Rome. He transcribed numerous Arabic books, including Hunayn ibn Ishaq's versions of discourses by Galen and Aristotle, Ibn Ishaq's manual on ophthalmology and the physicians' encyclopedia of Ali ibn Abbas al-Majusi. Rapidly adopted by doctors at Salerno's medical school, Constantine's translations eventually filtered into France, England and Germany.
Even the Crusades failed to slow the pace of intellectual discourse—quite the contrary, argues Roshdi Rashed. "The Crusaders brought back a great deal of science, medicine, foods and so forth from the Middle East," he explains. In the first half of the 13th century, in fact, the Arabic-speaking Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II maintained a thriving correspondence with Muslim philosophers and scientists from his court in Palermo, Sicily, and even during his occupation of Jerusalem. "When you consider the two sides were in the middle of fighting one another, this is fairly astonishing," marvels Rashed.
Frederick enthusiastically encouraged Muslim scientists, an enlightened policy of Arab–Christian cooperation begun by his grandfather, Roger II, who had sponsored the geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi (See Richard Covington, The Third Dimension, Saudi Aramco World, May/June 2007, 17-21). In addition, Frederick financed translations of Arabic works, enlisting the services of Michael Scot, the astronomer-alchemist-wizard who later earned a place in Dante's Inferno. Scot had achieved renown in Toledo for transcribing Nur al-Din ibn Ishaq al-Bitruji's astronomical treatises on planetary motion and Averroes' commentaries on Aristotle into Latin, according to French science historian Danielle Jacquart. Both texts represented heretical challenges to Catholic doctrine, and hiring such a subversive character no doubt contributed to the emperor's ongoing problems with the church, which ultimately excommunicated Frederick II not once, but twice.
Around 1277, Toledo again became the focus of Muslim science, as King Alfonso X commissioned the first renditions of Arabic texts into Castilian Spanish instead of Latin. Apart from sponsoring the Libros del saber de astronomía (The Books of Astronomical Knowledge), which incorporated Thabit ibn Qurra's revision of the Almagest and translations of Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi's Suwar al-kawakib al-thabita (Treatise on the Fixed Stars), Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni's text on the spherical astrolabe and other Muslim texts, the king also promoted research into astrology, magic and philosophy
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*Richard Covington is based in Paris; he writes about culture, history and science for Saudi Aramco World, Smithsonian, The International Herald Tribune, U.S. News & World Report and the London Sunday Times.
by: Richard Covington, Wed 12 August, 2009