Muslim Heritage in Mechanics and Technology: Outline of a Program for Future Research
Mohammed Abattouy *
1 | 2 | Next
The following text is the revised and expanded version of a lecture presented in The Royal Society in London (1st March 2007) at the meeting of the Muslim Heritage Awareness Group (MHAG).
Table of contents
- 1. Muslim Heritage in mechanics and technology: milestones in century long research
- 2. Outline of a Program for Future Research
- 3. References and further readings
- 3.1 Theoretical mechanics
- 3.2 Applied mechanics and engineering
1. Muslim Heritage in mechanics and technology: milestones in century long research
I am so glad and honored to be among you in this meeting and to address your venerable assembly as a new member of the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation in Manchester, an institution with which I share the approach and the method in disseminating knowledge about Muslim scientific and technological achievements.
The history of Islamic science has undergone great progress in the last three decades. The field has been almost completely rewritten. A great deal of work has been done in the study of Islamic technology and engineering. In this field, two main series of contributions must be mentioned: the work of the German school – mainly by Eilhard Wiedemann and his collaborators in the first quarter of the 20th century, and the research conducted by Donald Hill, Ahmad Yûsuf al-Hassan and their collaborators in the last quarter of the 20th century.
These two phases of scholarship established an inventory of the available knowledge and highlighted important aspects of the Muslim contribution to practical mechanics and engineering. Hence, significative texts were edited and translated, mainly the treatises of machines by Banū Mūsā, al-Jazarī and Taqī al-Dīn Ibn Ma'rūf. The book Islamic Technology by Hill and al-Hassan, published in 1986, produced a comprehensive survey of the field that showed the richness of Islamic technology and its various social and economic dimensions.
Figure 2a: Recent milestones in the study of Islamic technology and engineering: front covers of the edition and translation of the treatises of mechanics of Banū Mūsā and Al-Jazarī by Donald R. Hill, Ahmad Y. Al-Hassan and their collaborators.
Figure 2b: Front cover of Islamic Technology: An Illustrated History by A.Y. Al-Hassan and D.R. Hill (Cambridge University Press, 1986).
In theoretical mechanics, a main contribution is represented by the reconstruction of the corpus of the Arabic ‘ilm al-athqāl or the science of weights, a field touched upon previously by scholars in a very limited way but of which the scope remained uncovered. In the late 1990s, I had the privilege and honour to design an overall project of research to reconstruct the textual corpus of the Arabic science of weights. This project was supported by the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin with which I collaborated for several years. The first outcome of this research project stressed on one hand the Arabic transformation of Greek mechanics into an independent theoretical branch, and on the other hand made clear that the history of medieval mechanics is an intercultural history in which many common features shape both the Arabic ‘ilm al-athqāl and the Latin scientia de ponderibus. As my work has proven, the latter rose in Europe from the 13th century onwards in the works attributed to Jordanus and was at least partially a direct outcome of the translation of Arabic mechanical materials [for references, see the extensive bibliography appended below].
Figure 3a: Colorful diagram of mīzān al-hikma (the balance of wisdom) designed by Al-Isfizārī and Al-Khāzinī and described in detail by Al-Khāzinī in Kitāb mīzān al-hikma (515 H). This image was displayed in 2001 by Sam Fogg (www.samfogg.com) as part of an original manuscript that was being exhibited among its holdings. Since then, this manuscript is referred to among the holdings of the University of Pennsylvania: Lawrence J. Schoenberg Database of Manuscripts, MS LJS 386.
Figure 3b: Diagram of the balance of wisdom drawn by H. Bauereiss in his dissertation under the direction of E. Wiedeman: Zur Geschichte des spezifischen Gewichtes im Altertum und Mittelalter. Erlangen, 1914, p. 31.
Figure 3c-d: Two views of the balance of wisdom as reconstructed by H. Bauereiss and F. Keller (1908-1911), rediscovered by M. Abattouy in the Deutsches Museum in Munich in 2002 (item invent. Nr. 31116). © Max Planck Institut für Wissenschaftgeschichte, 2002.
In this respect, let me point out that among representative instruments relevant to the research on the science of weights are two Islamic steelyard balances kept in the Science Museum in London. The largest one has a wrought-iron beam of 2.37m long that can weigh until 1820 pounds. The smaller one is a medium balance of about 1.30m.
Figure 4: Arabic steelyard (10th century) kept in the Science Museum in London (accession number Inv. 1935-457). A scale of silver is inlaid along its 2.37m long, wrought-iron beam. It bears two suspending elements, and corresponding calibrations: one ranging from zero to 900 ratl-s ; the other ranging from 900 to 1820 ratl-s (1 ratl ≈ 1 pound). © The Science Museum, London.
Figure 5: Intercultural history of theoretical mechanics: Greek-Arabic-Latin.
The outstanding and unprecedented work done by Professor Salim al-Hassani and the FSTC on Al-Jazarī's machines yielded a new approach to the historical objects by reconstructing animated models of them so that we see the machines in action and understand their principles and functions. This approach was applied to the famous pump for raising water of Al-Jazarī and explained the transmission of force on the basis of the conversion of circular motion in rectilinear displacement, a discovery that has been credited for decades to Leonardo da Vinci, but which was performed by al-Jazarī three centuries earlier. This approach may be applied to a large variety of machines and will show the same efficiency. Indeed, when we see the machine working on the animation, it is hard to say, as some historians did, that the machines described in Arabic mechanical treatises were just toys or imaginary devices.
2. Outline of a Program for Future Research
Nevertheless, despite the progress that I have just outlined rapidly, the field of Islamic science as an academic discipline seems to get winded on the institutional level and suffers from a real isolation in the academic world and among the general public. Besides general reasons linked to cultural remains, one of the reasons of this deplorable situation is to be found in the inflation of textual and philological concerns, and the isolation of science from the spiritual, cultural, and material components of Islamic civilisation. In this respect, it is not by chance if the sociological analysis of Islamic science is yet almost inexistent even though a very large amount of original texts and critical literature is available since several decades.
Given this situation, I think it is time to open a new phase in the history of Islamic science and technology, by putting the focus on the interconnected fields of mechanics, technology and engineering with the ambition to stress the scientific and technological dimensions of the material culture of the Islamic civilisation, especially in what concerns objects, artifacts, machines and instruments, whether this analysis concerns instruments already scrutinized by historians or those still to be investigated. It is not easy to outline a detailed program of research in such a limited time. Therefore I mention just a short insight of what we might do together through the cooperation that I enjoy with my colleagues in the FSTC in order to contribute to the renewal of our knowledge of the contribution of Islamic civilization to the exciting and successful human adventure of science and technology.
This cooperation will focus on three main domains:
1. To reconstruct the history of mechanics, technology and engineering in the classical civilisation of Islam in a global approach including the Islamic West. A lot of information is already available but it still needs to be organized and systematized. In this respect, special attention should be paid to the real extent the influence of the Islamic technology had upon medieval and pre-modern Europe. This decisive influence is proven in science (mathematics, astronomy, optics), but in technology we don't as yet know precisely if and how something similar had occurred. For instance, as far as we know, no Latin translation of Al-Jazarī's text was performed, but the knowledge of Arabic in Europe until the 17th century was far more developed than what we may think now. Given the wide circulation of Al-Jazarī's treatise in the Islamic world, as it is proven by the numerous existing manuscripts that were preserved, we shouldn't discard the very plausible hypothesis that the text attracted the attention of European travelers in the 15th or 16th centuries and was brought to Europe. A systematic research in the European archives, especially in Italy, may yield a great surprise in this respect.
On the other hand, special interest will be devoted to the work the 11th century Andalusian ‘Alī Ibn Khalaf al-Murādī, author of the unique technological manuscript we received from the brilliant Andalusian tradition. The text is entitled Kitāb al-asrār fī natā'ij al-afkār; it is preserved in the Codex Medicea-Laurenziana Or. 152, Florence, Italy. It was copied and used at the court of Alphonse VI in Christian Spain in the 14th century, where Arabs, Jews and Christian scholars worked together for decades. Even if the manuscript is presently in a bad material shape, it deserves close scrutiny and should be checked carefully. Only one of its machines was described by Spanish scholars led by Juan Vernet; the rest will certainly repay investigation.
Figure 7: Two pages from the MS of al-Murādī's treatise Kitāb al-asrār fī natā'ij al-afkār preserved in the Codex Or. 152 preserved in the Library Medicea-Laurenziana, Florence, Italy.
Figure 8: Two views from the graphical reconstruction of al-Murādī's clock by Spanish scholars: see J. Vernet, R. Casals and V.M. Villuendas, Awraq (Madrid ), no. 5-6, 1982-83.
Figure 9: Original drawing of a clock from al-Murādī's manuscript and its reconstruction by J. Vernet, R. Casals and V.M. Villuendas.
2. The second mission regards research related to the restoration of machines and technological remains, in order to show that these were not just toys or ornaments, but real machines that worked at their time and were identical to the historical descriptions we have in the sources where they were described. Examples here are numerous. The most significant of them are several clocks disseminated around the Islamic world, from Damascus in Syria to Fez in Morocco. Some of these machines are the oldest of their kind in the world, like the Bouanania clock in Fez, and should be taken care of not only by Muslims but by humanity at large. The restoration of these jewels of ancient technology will not only make them live again, in their original milieu, but will also produce a tremendous cultural and symbolic impact on the people living in their vicinity.
3. The third aspect of our collaboration regards the reinforcement of the use of the internet as a media to popularise the results of professional research and to introduce the debate on Islamic science and technology in education, mass media and culture. This means that we continue our policy of putting different materials on the internet and to improve it by providing free access to more sophisticated materials such as original and translated texts, virtual museums, pictures and video presentations. The aim is to attain a critical mass of materials in order to make the presence of Islamic science on electronic media effective and not just symbolic. In this respect, a special attention should be devoted to building a digital library of scientific and technological texts, with the tools available now to the last generation of data bases, like a technical dictionary, powerful search facilities, analytic short articles, appropriate links to the existing materials on the net, etc.
The work in this field has begun several years ago and the websites of the FSTC are massively visited every day. Our common ambition is to enlarge the community that benefits from the work done so far and gain new visitors, like the scholars and experts who, for the most, work as individuals or in small groups, and receive little feedback on their academic work.
Figure 10: Scheme of the program "Electronic Media at the service of Muslim Heritage".
The new methodological shift to orient the history of Muslim science and technological heritage will certainly correct the philological and textual inflation that marked the history of Islamic science as a discipline and turned it out as a narrow domain of research for scholars cut from other parts of historical knowledge and from present day life.
On another level, we should think also of the way to promote Muslim heritage and popularize it in the Arab and Muslim world. I am attempting this in Morocco, where the young people and students have a great thirst to learn and are highly receptive. Within our collaboration and with the conjunction of our efforts, I am sure we will achieve great results.
Click here to view the next page of References and further readings.
1 | 2 | Next
by: FSTC Limited, Wed 20 August, 2008