Allah’s Automata – A Review of the Exhibition

by Charles Savage Published on: 2nd December 2015

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Reflections on: A New Exhibition on Artifacts of the Arab/Islamic Renaissance ZKM, Karlsruhe, Germany: October 30, 2015 - February 28, 2016 by Dr. Charles M. Savage Knowledge Era Enterprises International Munich, Germany

“Allah’s Automata – Artifacts of the Arab-Islamic Renaissance (800–1200)”
Siegfried Zielinski and Peter Weibel (eds.)

Peter Weibel is the director of the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM – the Center for Art and Media Technology in Karlsruhe, Germany).
Siegfried Zielinski is a Professor of Media Theory at the Berlin University of the Arts and also teaches at the European Graduate School in Saas, Fee, Switzerland.  He is also a pioneer in the emerging field of “Varianotology,” which combines musicology, natural sciences, the fine arts, classical philology and theology.  In a wonderful way, both are today’s polymaths and we can thank their curiosity and drive to bring into dialogue ways the Arab and Western cultures have been in dialogue for longer than most have noticed.

They have prepared a fascinating exhibition catalogue (in both German and English, 152 pages) that contains more quality thought and reflection than what one normally expects.  They point out the following:

The first Renaissance did not take place in Europe, but in Mesopotamia. In terms of the archaeology of media, the Arab-Islamic culture of knowledge and the related art of engineering essentially interposed between antiquity and the early modern period in Europe. Accompanying the exhibition of the same name at ZKM | Karlsruhe, this publication contains essays, documents, and illustrations that illuminate in an exemplary way the fascinating world of automata developed and built during the Golden Age of Arab-Islamic culture between the ninth and thirteenth centuries.
The main focus is on four manuscripts by master designers and builders of automata from Baghdad, northern Mesopotamia, and Andalusia. The machines constructed and described by the “sons of Mūsā,” the Banū Mūsā ibn Shākir, and also by Ibn al-Razzāz al-Jazarī, Ibn Khalaf al-Murādī, and Abū Ḥātim al-Muẓaffar al-Isfizārī in praise of God the Almighty are primarily indebted to the Greco-Alexandrian and Byzantine traditions, and interwoven with aspects of the ancient Chinese, Indian, and Persian cultures. These machines incorporate spectacular innovations that in Europe are associated with modern times: permanent energy supply, motion, programmability, and universalism.”

It also contains essays by Mohammed Abattouy, Salim T S al-Hassani, Ulrich Alertz, Nadia Ambrosetti, Ayhan Ayteş, Baruch Gottlieb, Claus-Peter Haase, Daniel Irrgang, Clemens Jahn, Susanne Rühling, George Saliba, Imad Samir, Mona Sanjakdar Chaarani, Peter Weibel, Siegfried Zielinski.

The catalogue is available from the ZKM Museum shop (and well worth the investment):

The exhibition runs from October 30, 2015 – February 28, 2016 and is part of a larger exhibition on a variety of other themes and technologies shaping our future.  On behalf of the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation, UK, I attended the opening ceremony on October 30th and spent the next day in examining the exhibition in greater depth.  Here in a very passionate presentation, Prof. Siegfried Zielinski is opening the exhibition.

In a long opening article by Director Peter Weibel asks a powerful question: How Did the Knowledge of the Ancient Greeks reach Medieval Europe? If the European culture is based upon Greco-Roman roots, how did this knowledge get to us if the Library of Alexandria, perhaps one of the key repositories of this wisdom, was burned to the ground in 415 CE?  His answer, and it is a fascinating one, is that thanks for the first Renaissance of the Arab world between about 800 and the early 1,000s, the House of Wisdom in Baghdad collected, translated and preserved many of these works which allowed us to reconnect with the ancient Greek and Roman scholarship.  He bases this analysis upon the writing of Jim al-Khalili, Ahmad Y. al-Hasan, Donald Routledge Hill, George Saliba, among others.

Professor Siegfried Zielinski explores the ways ancient oriental learning intersected with and inspired early modern European science and the arts.  He also shares annotated portions of the Book of Ingenious Devices Banū Mūsā ibn Shākir.  Among other things, he mentions the Horologium (water clock) presented by Hārūn al-Rashīd, Caliph of Baghdad and then head of the House of Wisdom to Charlemagne at the beginning of the 800s, together with an elephant.  He notes that Ulrich Alertz and Ayhan Aytes have an article on this clock.

The “clock and the “elephant,” were to come together, as he notes, thanks to the work of al-Jazari.  And as one enters the display area at the ZKM, the first thing seen is the Elephant Clock.

What is truly fascinating is not only the inner mechanism that operates the Elephant Clock, as illustrated with a video from the 1001 Inventions project, but also the ways this clock brings together the inspirations of the various cultures: Egypt, Alexandria, Arabia, Mesopotamia, India, Persia and Greece.  Is there not a message here for our times?

Although the exhibition was not a large one, it was intensive and thought provoking.  It combined some well-scaled graphics and working models with key original reference works, reminding us of the fact that the Arabs did not just translate to preserve the works from Egypt, Greece and Rome, plus Indian and Chinese works, but they made their own unique scientific, technological and ascetic contributions.  Here is the exhibition area:

Interestingly enough, we were treated to actual working models of the time.  Push the button and it actually played a tune.  That is bringing the past tooting into the present in such a wonderful way!

One of the books on display referred to Vitruvius, the Roman architect who in about 23 BCE suggested that the proportions of the human body might well be reflected in our architecture.  As we know, Leonardo sketched this as the human standing in a square and a circle in what is today called “The Vitruvian Man.”  In a sense, Leonardo is suggesting we bring the practical (square) and the visionary (circle) as “man” takes responsibility for both.  To put it another way, the practical keeps us grounded in SPACE and PLACE, where “time is movement in space.”  This is Kronos.  The other time, Kairos, is where “meaning emerges within our reflections and conversations.”  Kronos is linear and Kairos is circular.

In reading a fascinating review of Prof. Zielinski’s book, Deep Time of the media: Towards an Archeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means, [MIT Press, 2006], I realized this is what he has reached for in the exhibition.  By helping us to see the inventiveness of the Arabs, he is expressing his passion that there are energizing insights and meaning for our challenges ahead to possibly invent the mechanism of a low-carbon economy. See:

Deep Time may well shift us from our linear arrogance and instead bring back a sense of humility and appreciation that we are not just Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Chinese, Indian, Arab or Western, but we are humans seeking to appreciate, in all humility, the very gift of life for us all.

Although not shown in the exhibit, ibn al-Haytham’s (Alhazen) work in optics is well known to Prof. Zielinski.[1]  In this spirit, we might ask, with what optics do we see this exhibition?  In addition, does it help us to take off our “ethnocentric eyeglasses?” [My term; not his.]  I ask this because I came away with a deep appreciation that I am part of a rich and varied human striving to understand and master the optics of life so I (and we) can see its wiser possibilities in the future.  The Elephant Clock does not just tell us the hours, it also tells us that by drawing upon the wisdom of all cultures we can break our chains of narrow self-interest in the now and instead to bring the Past, Present and Future into a much richer and more meaningful and energizing dialogue.


Chapters in the book (if not possible to attend the exhibition, the exhibition book is a treasure) and contains the following chapters:

  • Peter Weibel, How Did the Knowledge of the Ancient Greeks Reach Medieval Europe?
  • Siegfried Zielinski, Allah’s Automata. Where Ancient Oriental Learning Intersects with Early Modern Europe. A Media-Archaeological Miniature by Way of Introduction
  • Banū Mūsā ibn Shākir, Kitāb al-ḥiyal [The Book of Ingenious Devices], ca. 830
  • Nadia Ambrosetti, Wavering Between the True and the False: A Short Excursion through Greek and Arab Automata
  • Eilhard Wiedemann, “Über Musikautomaten,” 1915, first page
  • Eilhard Wiedemann, On Musical Automata (1915), Translation by Baruch Gottlieb
  • The Flute Player: Automata from Ancient Sources
  • George Saliba, The Mysterious Provenance of Banū Mūsā’s Treatise on Music
  • Banū Mūsā ibn Shākir, al-Āla allatī tuzammir bi-nafsihā [The Instrument Which Plays by Itself], ca. 850
  • George Farmer, The Organ of the Ancients, 1931, front page
  • Banū Mūsā ibn Shākir: A Programmable Universal Musical Automaton. Two Translations
  • The Instrument Which Plays by Itself (1931), Translation by George Farmer
  • Das Instrument, das selbstständig blasen kann (2015), Translation by Imad Samir
  • Mona Sanjakdar Chaarani, The Automatic Mechanical Hydraulic Organ of the Banū Mūsā ibn Shākir
  • Berlin University of the Arts: Reconstruction of the Banū Mūsā’s Music Automaton According to Their Description
  • Susanne Rühling, Audible Splendor – The Organ: Development and Effects in Classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages
  • Ayhan Ayteş, Divine Water Clock: Reading al-Jazarī in the Light of al-Ghazālī’s Mechanistic Universe Argument
  • Ibn al-Razzāz al-Jazarī, al-Jāmiʿ bayn al-ʿilm wa-’l-ʿamal an-nāfiʿ fī ṣināʿat al-ḥiyal [A Compendium on the Theory and Praxis of the Mechanical Arts], 1206
  • Ulrich Alertz, The Horologium of Hārūn al-Rashīd, Presented to Charlemagne: An Attempt to Identify and Reconstruct the Clock Using the Instructions Provided by al-Jazarī
  • Massimiliano Lisa, Edoardo Zanon, and Mario Taddei, The Manuscript by al-Murādī from Andalusia
  • Mohammed Abattouy and Salim T S al-Hassani, The Mechanical Corpus of al-Isfizārīin the Sciences of Weights and Ingenious Devices: New Arabic Texts in Theoretical and Practical Mechanics
  • Claus-Peter Haase, A Women’s Ensemble in Syrian Late Antiquity


GLOBAL DIGITAL Exo-Evolution at the ZKM

This exhibition is an integral part of the GLOBAL DIGITAL Exo-Evolution at the ZKM, running from Oct. 30, 2015 to Feb. 28, 2016.  See:

The Center for Art and Media is more than the “typical museum.”  Instead, it is a center of dialogue and reflection upon what is happening in today’s world.  The Director, Peter Weibel is brilliant and challenging in the ways he introduced these events and brings together scientists and artists in amazingly unique ways.

For example, in his introduction to the Exo-Evolution exhibition, he references Herder:

“Already in 1791, Johann Gottlieb Herder presented a vision of the impact of the industrial revolution as a turn in the history of ideas, when he formulated: “The human is the first of creation let free; he stands upright. The scales of good and evil, of false and true, hangs inside him: He can research, he is to choose. Just as nature gave him two free hands as tools and an outlooking eye to guide his steps, he has the power not only to place the weights, but also, if I amy say so, to be a weight himself upon the scale.” [2]

Johann Gottfired HerderIdeen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit

I might add, interestingly enough, that 1791 was just fifteen years after Adam Smith published his “Wealth of Nations” which was to become the underlying story of the Industrial Era with the “division and subdivision of labor” and the “invisible hand.”

Today, thanks to our growing awareness of Climate Change, we are realizing that Herder was right, humans are becoming the “weight” on our little planet and weighing down (slowing down) the wellbeing of future generations.  The Deutsches Museum in Munich presently is running a yearlong exhibition on the Anthropocene, which, in effect documents this weighting down of the future.

In two other concurrent exhibitions at the ZKM, on the Infosphere and Global Control and Censorship, we see how our rapid movement into the Digital Era can, unfortunately, weigh us down further.  The key question raised here, “if we have the technology to do it, should we do it?”

In short, we can be thankful that the ZKM is not only looking ahead, but it is looking back to the roots of our first Renaissance and how the inspirations of various cultures have benefited us all, as showing in the Allah’s Automata exhibition.  More work is needed here to show how the Chinese, Indian, Arabic, the European, the African, the Americas and more have inspired and enhanced one another’s cultures.

Exo-Evolution Introduction:
Please look at the bottom of the page for pictures and a video (in both German and the beginning and English near the end).

[1] The UNESCO launched a global initiative, IYL2015 to celebrate this year at the International Year of Light 2015 in which the life and works of Ibn al-Haytham are recognized through a dedicated International conference and in partnership with 1001inventions, organized a world touring exhibition, see

[2] Source: Johann Gottfired Herder, Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit [Outlines of a Philosophy of History of Mankind], 1784-1791, 2 Vols, vol. 1, Berlin, Weimar, 1965, p. 144; translated from German by Lonnie Legg.

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