Abu Ishaq Ibrahim Ibn Yahya Al-Zarqali

by Gunalan Nadarajan Published on: 7th August 2007

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This short paper introduces a longer essay by Prof. Gunalan Nadarajan, Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Studies in the College of Arts and Architecture at Penn State University. The essay draws on the work…

See the link below to the full article if you need to obtain PDF reading software This short article introduces the full paper by Prof. Gunalan Nadarajan, which is appended here as a full article in the 16 pages PDF file.

In his essay, Prof. Gunalan Nadarajan, Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Studies in the College of Arts and Architecture at Penn State University, draws on the work of al-Jazari, the famous 13th century Islamic scholar, engineer and scientist. He specifically reviews al-Jazari’s Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Devices as a means to develop an alternative history for robotic arts. He argues in particular that the various machines developed and conceptualized by al-Jazari reflect not only an alternative perspective on automation, which were radically different from those developed in the West, but they also present a range of new possibilities for contemporary explorations in robotics art.

Figure 1: Elephant clock of al-Jazari, from a MS copy of his treatise The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Device copied in Syria in 1315 by Farkh ibn ‘Abd al-Latif (Ink, colors, and gold on paper; height. 30 cm – width 19.7 cm). Source: Metropolitan Museum, New York.

Al-Jazari : biographical sketch

Al-Jazari was the most outstanding mechanical engineer of the Islamic tradition of technology. His full name was Badi’ al-Zaman Abu ‘l-‘Izz Ibn Isma’il Ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari. He lived during the 6th century Hijri (12th-13th centuries CE). Born in the middle of the 12th century, he lived in the region called al-Jazira, situated between the Tigris and the Euphrates. In 1174, he entered in the service of the Banu Artaq, the ruling family of a principality governing the region of Amid (today Diyar Bakir, southern Turkey). As related in the introduction of his book, he stayed in this function for 25 years, until he became ra’is al-a’mal (chief engineer). Upon the instigation of Prince Nasir al-Din Mahmud (reigned between 1200 and 1222), he began the composition of his monumental book in order to record his inventions. The task was completed in 1206. Written in Arabic, the treatise was entitled significantly: Al-Jami’ Bayna ‘l-‘ilm wa-‘l-‘amal al-nafi’ fi sinat’at al-hiyal, that is A Compendium on the Theory and Practice of the Mechanical Arts. This is the title we find in the most ancient of its manuscript copies (Topkapi Sarayi Library in Istanbul, MS Ahmet III 3472). This is the only written record left by al-Jazari. To describe it simply, the book is the most extensive treatise of mechanical engineering written until the time of the author and beyond. According to the manuscript conserved at the Bodleian Library in Oxford of al-Jazari’s work (MS Graves 27), al-Jazari finished writing his book on January16, 1206. On the other hand, we learn from the colophon of MS Ahmet III 3472, written in April 10, 1206, that al-Jazari had already passed away at this date. Therefore, his death must have occured in 1206, few months after the completion of his monumental encyclopaedia of mechanical arts.

Al-Jazari incorporated in his book the results of 25 years of research and practice on various mechanical devices as an engineer. The book describes in detail fifty devices (ashkâl, meaning figures or models), which are grouped into six categories (anwâ’): (1) ten water and candle clocks; (2) ten vessels and figures suited for drinking sessions; (3) ten pitchers and basins for phlebotomy (fasd) and washing before prayers (wudhu’); (4) ten fountains that change their shape alternately, and machines for the perpetual flute; (5) five water raising machines; and finally (6) four miscellaneous devices (including the first combination lock) [1].

There was obviously a demand for devices of this sort that would provide amusement and aesthetic pleasure, as well as providing answers to public and private needs in the field of technology for computing of time and for agriculture, such as raising water for irrigation. Al-Jazari’s devices, apart from being practical machines, incorporate techniques and components that were of decisive impact in the development of machine technology.

The book of al-Jazari represents the culmination of the Islamic achievements in mechanical technology, containing most of the devices and techniques of al-Jazari’s predecessors. The author acknowledged his debt to Greek and Arab mechanicians, mentioning by name Archimedes, Banu Musa, Hibat Allah b. al-Husayn, and al-Badi’ al-Astrulabi. Then he described the improvements he had added to the work of his predecessors and gave the list of the devices he invented that were completely new.

In the introduction to his book, al-Jazari wrote:

“I have studied the books of the earlier [scholars] and the works of the later masters of ingenious devices with movements like pneumatic [motions], and water machines for the constant and solar hours, and the transfer by bodies of bodies from their natural positions. I have contemplated in isolation and in company the implications of proofs. I considered the treatment of this craft for a period of time and I progressed, by practicing it, from the stage of book learning to that of witnessing, and I have taken the view on this matter of some of the ancients and those more recent [scholars]. I was fervently attached to the pursuit of this subtle science and persisted in the endeavour to arrive at the truth. The eyes of opinion looked to me distinguish myself in this beloved science. Types of machines of great importance came to my notice, offering possibilities for types of marvellous control” [2].

Then he added:

“I found that some of the earlier scholars and sages had made devices and had described what they had made. They had not considered them completely nor had they followed the correct path for all of them, for every [part] of construction” [3].

Each device or shakl is described in simple Arabic that is easy to understand, and each is accompanied by a general drawing. The fifty devices are numbered by the letters of the Arabic alphabet from one to fifty. For the complicated devices al-Jazari gave detailed drawings for their components so that the operation could be understood. The overall number of drawings amounts to 174. An alphabet letter marks each part in a device. The text explains the construction of the device with the aid of the letters so that the reader can understand the device by reading the text and referring to the illustrations [4].

Figure 2: Two photos of the fascinating reproduction of the 8.5 meter high elephant clock of al-Jazari in the Ibn Battuta Mall, Dubai. This reproduction was designed by Muslim Heritage Consulting and FSTC Ltd. Al-Jazari’s elephant clock was the first clock in which an automaton reacted after certain intervals of time. In the mechanism, a humanoid automata strikes the cymbal and a mechanical bird chirps after every hour. See link-1 and link-2.

A new interpretation of al-Jazari’s work

The Kitab fi ma rifat al-hiyal al-handasiyya (The Book of Ingenious Mechanical Devices) by Ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari, was arguably the most comprehensive and methodical compilation of the most current knowledge about automated devices and mechanics of its time. The work systematically charted out the technological development of a variety of devices and mechanisms that both exemplified and extended the then-existing knowledge on automata and automation [5].

The essay written by Prof. Gunalan Nadarajan and which is appended to this short introduction presents al-Jazari’s Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices as a significant contribution to the history of robotics and automation insofar as it enables a critical re-evaluation of classical notions and the conventional history of automation and therefore of robotics. Al-Jazari’s work is presented as exemplary of what is called “Islamic automation”, where the notions of control that have informed the conventional history of automation and robotics are substituted by subordination and submission to the rhythms of the machines. Al-Jazari is in some ways the most articulate of what is a long tradition of “Islamic automation” in Arabic science and technology wherein automation is a manner of submission rather than the means of control that it has come to represent in our times. It is proposed here that “Islamic automation” also provides some interesting examples of what Prof. Gunalan Nadarajan calls “untoward automation”, which involves deliberate and elaborate programming for untoward rather than predictable behaviour in automated devices. In addition to articulating the cultural specificities of technological development, Prof. Gunalan Nadarajan’s essay positions al-Jazari’s work as a catalyst for critical readings of and new directions in robotic arts [6].

Figure 3: 3D-model of the al-Jazari’s elephant clock, recreated by FSTC Ltd. Click here to view this animation.


Hassan, al-, Ahmad Yusuf (accessed July 2007). “Al Jazari and the History of the Water Clock”: online here.

Hasan, al-, A. Y.& Hill, D. R. 1986. Islamic Technology. An Illustrated History. Paris: UNESCO-Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press. Reprint 1988, 1992.

Hassani, al-, Salim (2001). “Al-Jazari: the Mechanical Genius”: online here.

Hassani, al-, Salim (2004). “The Machines of Al-Jazari and Taqi Al-Din”: online here.

Jazari, al-, 1974. The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. English annotated translation by Donald R. Hill. Dordrecht: Reidel.

Jazari, al-, 1979. Al-Jami’ bayna al-‘ilm wa al-‘amal al-nafi’ fi sina’at al-hiyal. Critical edition of the Arabic text by A. Y. al-Hassan et al. Aleppo: Institute for the History of Arabic Science.

End Notes

[1] Al-Jazari 1974, p. 16; al-Jazari 1979, English introduction by A. Y. al-Hassan , pp. 18-20

[2] Al-Jazari 1974, p. 15.

[3] Ibid.

[4] See for more details al-Hassan (July 2007): sections 1-2.

[5] For a detailed characterisation of the technology level shown in al-Jazari’s work, see Salim al-Hassani (2001) and S. al-Hassani (2001). The articles contain descriptions of 3-D models and video animated reproductions of some of his most oustanding machines.

[6] The essay was published originally in Media Art Histories, edited by Oliver Grau, Cambridge (Mass.): MIT Press, 2007, pp. 163-178. We reproduce it hereianfter for the benefit of our readers with the gracious permission of Prof. Gunalan Nadarajan.

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