The Arabic Transformation of Mechanics: The Birth of the Science of Weights
This short article is taken from the full article (by Prof. Mohammed Abattouy) which is available here as a PDF file **
This is a short extract from the main paper by Professor Mohammed Abbatouy. The paper brings out the contribution of Muslim scholars in the subject of mechanics; a subject hitherto little known. An overview of the textual tradition of a core part of Arabic mechanics, dealing with the science of weights is first given. Then the historical significance of the Arabic science of weights is analyzed. Thus, the transformation brought about by this important segment of mechanics is interpreted as the reorganization of a core-part of ancient mechanics into an independent science of weights. On this basis, a strong claim is made in favor of the independent status of ilm al-athqal, which should no longer be confused with ilm al-hiyal, understood as a general descriptive discourse on different types of machines. A final section is devoted to a preliminary survey of the institutional setting of the control of weighing instruments in the Islamic society, during medieval Europe, through the office of the hisba.
The balance (al-Mizan) has a very special status in Islam as the Quran mentions it when referring to justice and fair dealings. It has been used and developed to high level of accuracy. It is still an important instrument of our modern life. In Islamic classical times, it was the object of an extensive scientific and technical debate of which dozens of treatises on different aspects of its theory, construction, and use are the precious remains. Detailed studies are made of different kinds of balances, including the normal equal-armed balance, the steelyard and sophisticated balances for weighing absolute and specific weights of substances.
Several drawings of balances are preserved in Arabic manuscripts, such as those of al-Khazini, al-Hariri, and al-Qazwini. Further, some specimens of the ancient balances survived and are presently kept in museums. For illustration, we refer to two such Islamic steelyards from the 10th-12th centuries. The first, built in Iran, is preserved in the National Museum in Kuwait (LNS 65M). It is made of steel, and bears marks on its beam. Its dimensions (height: 11.5 cm, length: 15.6 cm) show that it was used for weighing small quantities. The second is kept in the Science Museum in London (accession number Inv. 1935-457). This balance came to the Science Museum in 1935 from University College in London, together with a large selection of archaeological material consisting of ancient weights and measures collected from the Near East by the British archaeologist Flinders Petrie.
The interest in balance in Islamic scientific learning was culturally nurtured by its role as a symbol of good morals and justice. The Qur'an and the Hadith appealed extensively to a strict observance of fair and accurate weighing practices with balance. Considered the tongue of justice and a direct gift of God, balance was made a pillar of right society and a tool of good governance. These principles were recorded explicitly in several treatises on balance, such as the introduction to Kitab mizan al-hikma by al-Khazini, where balance is qualified as "the tongue of justice and the article of mediation." Furthermore, it was counted as a fundamental factor of justice, on the same level with "the glorious Book of God," and "the guided leaders and established savants."
The emergence of Arabic mechanics is an early achievement in the scientific tradition of Islam. Actually, already in the mid-9th century, and in close connection with the translation of Greek texts into Arabic, treatises on different aspects of the mechanical arts were composed in Arabic, but with a marked focus on balances and weights. These writings, composed by scientists as well as by mechanicians and skilful artisans, gave birth to a scientific tradition with theoretical and practical aspects, debating mathematical and physical problems, and involving questions relevant to both the construction of instruments and the social context of their use. Some of these Arabic treatises were translated into Latin in the 12th century and influenced the European science of weights.The corpus of the Arabic science of weights covers the entire temporal extent of scientific activity in medieval Islam and beyond, until the 19th century. The reasons for such an abundance of literature on the problems of weighing can be expla
ined only by contextual factors. In fact, the development of the science of weights as an autonomous branch of science was triggered by the eminent importance of balances for commercial purposes. In a vast empire with lively commerce between culturally and economically fairly autonomous regions, more and more sophisticated balances were, in the absence of standardization, key instruments governing the exchange of currencies and goods, such as precious metals and stones. It is therefore no surprise that Muslim scholars produced numerous treatises specifically dealing with balances and weights, explaining their theory, construction and use. This literature culminated in the compilation by Abd ar-Rahman al-Khazini, around 1120, of Kitab mizan al-hikma, an encyclopedia of mechanics dedicated to the description of an ideal balance conceived as a universal tool of a science at the service of commerce, the so-called ‘balance of wisdom.' This was capable of measuring absolute and specific weights of solids and liquids, calculating exchange rates of currencies, and determining time.
A complete reconstruction of the Arabic tradition of weights is currently being undertaken by Professor Abbatouy, the author of the paper, see the full article (PDF). This project began in the context of a long-term cooperation with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. The work on the establishment of the Arabic corpus of the science of weights started in Fall 1996 by the systematic reconstruction of the entire codicological tradition of the corpus of texts dealing –on theoretical and practical levels–with balances and weights. By now almost two-thirds of the entire corpus has been edited and translated into English; this part, including texts dating from the 9th through the 12th centuries, is being prepared for publication with the appropriate commentaries.
The preliminary analysis of the texts investigated so far established the importance of the Arabic tradition for the development of the body of mechanical knowledge. The Arabic treatises turned out to be much richer in content than those known from the ancient tradition. In particular, they contain foundations of deductive systems of mechanics different from those inferred from extant Greek texts, as well as new propositions and theorems. On the other hand, the Arabic treatises also represent knowledge about practical aspects of the construction and use of balances and other machines missing in ancient treatises.
The first phase of the research on the Arabic science of weights focused on establishing the scope of its extant corpus. Surprisingly, this corpus turned out to be much larger than usually assumed in history of science. To date, more than thirty treatises dating from the 9th through the 19th centuries have been identified which deal with balances and weights in the narrow sense. The majority of these treatises have never before been edited or studied, and only exist in one or more manuscript copies. Some important manuscripts have been discovered or rediscovered even in the course of the research activities conducted by the author.
The textual constituents of the Arabic works on the problems of weights can be classified chronologically into three successive units. First, there is the set of Greek texts of mechanics extant in Arabic versions. Despite their Greek origin, these works can be regarded as an integral part of the Arabic mechanical tradition, at least because of the influence they exerted on the early works of Arabic mechanics. In the case of some of these texts, although they are attributed to Greek authors, their Greek originals are no more extant nor are they ascribed to their supposed Greek authors in antique sources. The second unit comprises founding texts composed originally in Arabic in the period from the 9th through the 12th centuries. This segment of writings laid the theoretical basis of the new science of weights, in close connection with the translations and editions of texts stemming from Greek origins. The third phase covers the 14th through the 19th centuries, and comprises mainly practical texts elaborating on the theoretical foundations laid in the earlier tradition. In the following, the texts belonging to these three phases will be described in brief, with a short characterization of some theoretical contents.
Image (top): Al-Khazini, Kitab mizan al-hikma, Hyderabad, 1940
Image (bottom): Al-Khazini, Kitab mizan al-hikma, Hyderabad, 1940
Image (front): Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islamic Science an Illustrated Study. Kent 1976.
** This version of the article includes only the Latin fonts. The article with the original fonts can be found in the Resources section below.
by: FSTC Limited, Mon 13 November, 2006