Interview with Professor George Saliba

by Kaleem Hussain Published on: 27th May 2009

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Welcome to another Muslim Heritage Radio Show. The aim of this show is to educate the listeners about the contributions Muslim Scholars have made from a classical perspective in a wide range of fields, but also today's contemporary day and age. This week, the theme we are looking at is Islamic science and the making of the European Renaissance. We are very grateful to have on the line all the way from the United States of America Professor George Saliba. Professor George Saliba is the leading world expert on the history of Arabic and Islamic science.


Short biography: click here


Welcome to another Muslim Heritage Radio Show. The aim of this show is to educate the listeners about the contributions Muslim Scholars have made from a classical perspective in a wide range of fields, but also today’s contemporary day and age. This week, the theme we are looking at is Islamic science and the making of the European Renaissance. We are very grateful to have on the line all the way from the United States of America Professor George Saliba. Professor George Saliba is the leading world expert on the history of Arabic and Islamic science. He has worked as an advisor to the “1001 Inventions” Exhibition. He is professor of Arabic and Islamic Science at the department of Middle Eastern and Asian languages and culture at Columbia University. Professor George Saliba has focussed on studying the development of scientific ideas from the late antiquity till early modern times, with a special focus on the previous planetary theories that were developed within the Islamic civilisation and the impact of such theories on early European astronomy. Just to mention some of the books and occasional papers that Professor George Saliba has written: Islamic Science and the Making of European Renaissance published by MIT Press in 2007, The Origin and Developments of Arabic Scientific Thought (in Arabic), The History of Arabic Astronomy: Planetary Theories During the Golden Age of Islam, The Astronomical works of Mohyiuddin Al-Urdi (in Arabic) and The Role of Astrology in Medieval Islamic Society.

I would just like to say: “Professor George Saliba, thank you for joining us today”.

Thank you very much Kaleem for inviting me to your programme.

If I can begin with the first question, can you explain for the benefit of the listeners how your interest in Arabic Islamic science came about?

It is a little bit of a long story but I will try and make it short. I started of as a student of mathematics; that was my undergraduate education at the American University of Beirut and during my last year of undergraduate work in mathematics, the American University in Beirut at that year hosted the famous Islamic scholar by the name of Seyyed Hossein Nasr currently now here in Washington. At the time Seyyed Hossein Nasr delivered 6 lectures at the American University of Beirut as a chair of the Agha Khan, at the time they were thinking of building up the programme in Islamic studies and he focussed on the rise of Islamic philosophy and what distinguished Islamic philosophy at the time. And of course he had also had written Science and Civilisation in Islam which everyone knows about this book. That was again material done in the 1940 and 1960s.

The lectures I noticed at the time, they started with an audience of about 50 people for the first lecture and the second lecture went to about 100 people, the third lecture they filled the room in which the lectures were assigned and by the 6th lecture, they were moved into the largest auditorium room at the American University of Beirut that could take about 1500 people at the time. It is obviously a testament to the absolutely charming skills of Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr when he speaks and his rhetorical abilities. He is literally a gifted speaker and there is no doubt about that. At the same time, it was also a testament to how much interest there was in the subject of the what the Arabs call the “turath”, meaning the classical heritage of Islamic civilisation and on this aspect in particular meaning the natural sciences, philosophy etc, to fill in Beirut in the early 1960s an auditorium of about a 1500 people. That was an impressive site. I just happened to be standing right next to the most distinguished historian by the name of Niqula Ziadi, an historian of Damascus during Mamluk times par excellence. Ziadi looked at me and said: “Saliba you are a student of mathematics and you know Arabic, why can’t you do something similar in the history of Islamic and Arabic Science. Right in front of your eyes you can see how much interest there is in this subject.” I must confess that was the seed that was planted in my mind and I owe it to the late Niqula Ziadi for that question that he asked me at the time in the early 1960s and ever since I have studied devoting my work specifically to this subject.

What was the situation in Europe in terms of astronomical scientific ideas before the theories and ideas developed by Muslim scholars began to be translated?

Well, you will have to talk about different kinds of contacts with Europe. There are of course, as everybody knows, the contacts that took place during the Middle Ages. I think sometime between the 10th century CE up to about the 13-14th century. That period, although it is not comprehensively studied, but at least it is much better known than another period, and it should be distinguished from the later period that I will come to mention in a short while. If we just focus on the medieval period, the scientific material that the Europeans knew in the Latin language before the medieval period were very limited. I think the most sophisticated text that one could possibly think of is the “Encyclopaedia” of Isodor of Seville and that is more or less, if you could compare it to the material that was translated from Arabic language during this period, a folkloric kind of explanation on how the natural world works around us. It was nothing to compare with the sophistication of the earlier Greek material.

So one can say that Europe by the 10th century was in a period of intellectual decline and in a sense had not yet established contact with the glorious Greek past. It is only now in our modern mind that we think the Graeco-Roman period as a continuum and everybody was sort of knowing what everybody was doing but that is not really true. In the 11th, 10th, 9th centuries, you will find that the late Roman period was almost totally ignorant of the tremendous achievements of the classical Greek period. So you could say that the 10th century when they came into direct contact with the Islamic civilisation, not only because Muslims now are amongst the Europeans, you have to remember the presence of the Muslims in Andalusia despite being already in the 8th century and by the 10th century, it was already creating one of the most flourishing scientific and philosophical periods that Europe had ever known. So the sheer proximity of this flourishing activity in Spain of course produced a fantastic interest. And of course we can document and translate the text books of the people who supported them. It finished by about the 13th century more or less, where we can say in almost every case which Arabic text was translated and who was the Latin translator and what happened to the text afterwards. By the 14th century, this activity and of course the intervening period by the way from the 10th to the 14th century, is a very sad period. People do not realise. This was a period of war between Islam and Christendom under the flags of the crusades. It was not a very congenial period and was not a period where people could seriously try learn from each other.

By the 14th century, you could say there was some progress made in the Latin sciences in the sense that people benefited from this translation period. Names like Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, all those began to be known so we begin to see Latin authors in the 13-14th century using this material already. But this by itself did not produce the fantastic science that was produced during the Renaissance which is the second period I am talking about now, the period that follows the 15th century. Of course as I said, between the 13th up to the 15th century, you will find it was still early formulations in Latin. You look at people like Roger Bacon, people who are trying to begin to articulate in an encyclopaedic fashion again to make a statement of how the world works around us, benefiting of course from the explanation of Ibn Sina and so on.

We have just recently passed the 464th anniversary of the death of Copernicus. For the benefit of the listening audience, who was Copernicus and why are his works so influential for the times?

Copernicus is a Polish cleric who was born about 1478 and died in 1543. He worked mainly around the modern city of Krakow in Poland. But the most efficient time of his education was spent in Northern Italy. There is a very important reason why Northern Italy should be mentioned in all of these discussions because from the 15 to the 17th century, the crucible of the Renaissance thinking, of Renaissance science, it was in this Northern Italian corridor between the city of Venice all the way down through Padova, Ferrara, Bologna and all the way down to Florence. It was on this corridor that the most important activities were taking place, and of course Copernicus went down to Italy and he did get his canon degree in canon law and he also participated in astronomical activities in Bologna itself and spent about 10-15 years in that area.

He is important for two reasons. The first reason is that he was the first one to begin to undertake the re-writing of classical astronomy on a new scientific basis. In other words, he seems to have learnt that the ancient Greek astronomy as was transmitted through the Latin sources as well as through the classical Arabic sources was definitely flawed, and the Arabic sources spoke eloquently about how faulty were the ancient Greek astronomical texts. So he decided to undertake this enterprise and very quickly realised that to be able to do it properly, you needed to develop mathematics to a more sophisticated level. That mathematics was already developed in the Islamic world and he seemed to have known of these developments in the Islamic world. So he chose them and used them exactly the way they were used in the Islamic domain by Muslim astronomers, and he finally managed to clean the ancient Greek astronomical texts of their faults.

The next step – and that is the most important thing and everybody should understand this -, he took another step that Muslim astronomers never did. It is his step to say that now that we have finished the cleansing of the Greek astronomical texts from their faults, he wanted to go a step further and he wanted to speculate that now we can afford to move the centre of the universe from the Earth and to put it on the Sun. In other words to develop a heliocentric theory. People do not understand that this now in hindsight turned out to be a very good move, but at the time Copernicus did not have the benefit of Newton because he was born before Newton by 200 years or so. It was only Newton who articulated the law of universal gravitation that allows the formation of a centre around the Sun. At the time of Copernicus this was not cosmologically possible to think like that and yet he took that step for unexplainable reasons, people do not know why he did that. The most common explanation was that it was easier to teach astronomy if you speculate with the Sun at the centre. I am not so sure that it is much easier when you compare it to the models that were developed in the Islamic domain. With the geocentric configuration it was just as easy to teach, but it remains to be an insolvable problem. Many people have not really come to understood why he did it, but of course it is important since a 100 years later he turned out to be right. People in hindsight, in retrospect, they attribute to him this famous discovery although at the time he had no incline that it would turn out to be what it did.

In your ground breaking research and lectures, you have demonstrated that Copernicus acquired his ideas from a range of Muslim scholars. Some of the names are such as Ibn Shatir, Nasiruddin Al-Tusi and Mohyiuddin Al-Urdi. What role and influence did the works of such scholars have on the theories and works produced by Copernicus during this time phase, previously or afterwards?

Here again we should be very clear and I hope the listeners will follow very closely. What those earlier Muslim astronomers did, the starting as a matter of fact, the earliest of those people that you mentioned is Mohyiuddin Al-Urdi who died about the year 1266 CE. He worked jointly with Nasiruddin Al-Tusi at the most famous observatory the Islamic civilisation had ever known which is the Maragha observatory that was built in 1259 CE or so. It was Urdi who jointly with Tusi working in that environment where you had 3 or 4 students like Qutbuddin Shirazi was there, Yahya Abi Shukr al-Maghribi. So there were several astronomers working in the same environment and he began to smell the interest and the importance of having a team of scientists working in a research institution. It did happen at that time. Now what these people did? They developed the new mathematics that could actually cleanse the Greek astronomical material of its cosmological failings. Starting with Urdi, together with Tusi then completing with Ibn Shatir, they managed to literally solve every cosmological problem that was still lurking in the Greek astronomical texts. They solved it by developing new mathematical theories for them.

What Copernicus did is that he used those theorems and in some instances used them wholesale, i.e. he took them all through without even at times understanding how they functioned in the original Arabic text. I will give you an example. When Ibn Shatir developed a very complicated mathematical construction to explain the movements of the planet Mercury, he did it with great success over and above what was said about the movement of the planet Mercury in the Greek tradition. When Copernicus took that model from Ibn Shatir and wanted to describe how it works, he made mistakes in the description. This is the kind of evidence that I use in this new book that you so grateful mentionned [Islamic Science and the Making of European Renaissance, 2007]. I use that kind of evidence to say that this is impeccable proof that here is a man who was using a model that he did not invent, and we know who invented it because it is still there in the Arabic text of Ibn Shatir, and now Copernicus was using it without fully understanding how it operated. It is these kinds of connections that I pursue in this text book together of course with the theorems of Urdi, Tusi and so on.

There are some other European scholars apart from Copernicus that you mentioned in your lecture in Birmingham such as Alpago, Postel, Raimondi and even Galileo. What is the correlation in terms of the works produced by these Muslim scholars and these European scholars that came down later on?

What I was trying to demonstrate in that lecture after I had established -if you remember- this impeccable connection between Copernicus and the earlier astronomers particularly Urdi, Tusi and Shatir. The question was how did he know about them, and up to this very minute, we do not have a confession statement from Copernicus. As I said, the only proof that I have is that he used a model which he did not know how it works. To me, this is good enough proof but if it is in a court of law it does not have a confession with a signature of Copernicus right next to it. I tried to create what was the environment in which Copernicus was working, and there I began to find that -yes- the 16th century, when Copernicus was developing his astronomy, was full of people who had already made contact with the Islamic civilisation in a variety of fields that it was not only in astronomy, and I was trying to contextualise this context and hence to allow people to think what was in the mind of the European scientists in the 16th century.

That is when I began to find people like Andreas Alpago, who were almost in a duplicated age as Copernicus. He was born at the same time as Copernicus and almost died at the same time as Copernicus. Contemporary of Copernicus, who was in this city of Venice, who says that he did not like the medieval translations of Avicenna because they were filled with mistakes and the nation, the Republic, sent him to go and stay at the consulate in Damascus to learn Arabic and re-translate Avicenna. Now you begin to find people instead of waiting for the text to be translated they are undertaking the project of learning Arabic and studying the sciences in their original language and then producing them in Latin. That is how Andreas Alpago stayed for 15 years in Damascus. That sort of translation then comes back to Padova and he is appointed in Padova University as professor of medicine, in the chair of medicine, from 1505 to about 1525. Copernicus had just left Ferrara, which is right next to Padova about the year 1503 or 1504.

There is a honest intersection of people like the one I mentioned is Guillaume Postel, a French Orientalist who was also contemporary with Copernicus. He was born in 1510 and died in 1583. He also undertook a trip to go to Constantinople, as I showed you in one of the manuscripts mentioned in the lecture, which is still housed at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, in which he tells us that he bought this manuscript in Constantinople in the year 1536. That is during the lifetime of Copernicus. And then I showed you in the lecture that I saw the extensive annotations on the margins of that manuscript that he must have used to deliver his own lectures when he came back to Paris and was appointed as Professor of mathematics and oriental languages at the Collège de France. I use him, I use people like Raimondi and all of those people who began to absorb the scientific material from the Islamic domain and deliver it in their own Latin words without necessarily translating the works that they were using. Here I wanted to show that there is a different level of transmission. It is completely unlike the period of the medieval times when we know the text and the translators, etc. Here we have people who are picking up the ideas as they are, reading and formulating these ideas and incorporating them in their Latin words and then they become part and parcel of the Latin production.

From your research in this area, are there any correlations between the works that Galileo produced and the Muslim scholars previously?

There is none. Galileo is a different order. Galileo – you have to remember – is about 50 years later than Copernicus and Galileo also does not have his own astronomical planetary theories at the time, and hence was satisfied by simply promoting the Copernicun planetary theory; and also Galileo still did not have the law of universal gravitation to explain the heliocentric system, so he was rhetorically supporting it. He was already beginning to develop suspicions about the viability of the Aristotelian cosmology but he still did not have the solid evidence that Newton had after a few years after Galileo. Galileo was a different order and I never said at any one point that Galileo himself had known of the earlier Arabic material.

Can you mention about the role of Arabic scientific manuscripts in European libraries and why is it that such knowledge about these theories and the links to Muslim scholars have only began to come out now in recent times. I remember you mention in the lecture that you visited the Vatican quite frequently to do research on this kind of area. Why is it just now that we are learning about this correlation and this link with Muslim scholars and their contribution in this field?

That is a good question. I think we should all pay attention to this question in the sense that Europe itself, if you begin to think about Europe as a unity, it is also a very modern concept. Europe of the Renaissance is a collection of royal houses. Medieval Europe is [based on] feudal systems and so on. There was at the beginning in the 16th century an interest in Europe to collect and to gather Arabic manuscripts, particularly scientific manuscripts, and that I explain it as part and parcel of the developments of the 16th century in Europe, where people began to discover, like after the discovery of the new world, that there are many worlds to discover and also I explain it as part of the expansion of the Ottoman empire in the European domain. So Islam through the face of the Ottoman empire began to make itself felt into the European domain and in fact throughout the European history of this period of the 16th century, we find approaches between royal houses in Europe; their connections with the Ottoman court sometimes concluding treaties with the Ottoman court against their next door neighbour in Europe. All of these interactions are taking place at this time and so as a result of this, the trade was developing, book learning was developing. The curiosity to know about the other was developing. So the collection of the manuscripts was already taking place in the 16th century and, as I have already said, we even have the documentation of people like Guillaume Postel who bought this manuscript from Constantinople.

Now the next part of the question, these manuscripts became part and parcel of the European legacy of the age of discovery. It becomes part and parcel of the construction of the European history itself. Now they used them as much as they could, in fact as we have shown, and as I have shown already in this book and in the lecture, that people like Copernicus were not at all hesitating to use them. They used this material quite freely but then when you come to ask the question why were these connections not known until now, you really are implying as of why was the history of science so badly written before, but now we are awakening to a different kind of history of science.

That actually is a very serious question, how to write the history of science and who writes it, what culture wants to write it, because writing your own history is a part of preserving the future as a matter of fact. The Europeans were very satisfied from the age of enlightenment onwards to reconnect themselves with the classical Graeco-Latin antiquity and to jump over that period because they could construct an ideological growth and of course this gets supported further by philosophical speculation like Hegel’s speculation and the like that there is honest continuity from the ancient Greek all the way into 19th-century Germany. They were not in the project of writing the history of Islamic science, despite the fact that Orientalist attempted to do things of this nature, but they did it as a second interest. It is not the major burning interest. It was only an accident in 1957, a pure accident, that allowed one of the manuscripts of Ibn Shatir that is kept at the at the Bodleian library to surface to the attention of a man, a genius historian of science by the name of Otto E. Neugebauer, who, as soon as he saw that manuscript, he could see a connection with Copernicus and it was then in 1957 that this whole Pandora’s box was opened up. People were not looking for these connections and obviously if you are not looking for this, you will not find it.

If you want to also know, there is a much more sinister reason of why people were not looking, because they were fully convinced by generations of Orientalist thought that there was no science in Islam to develop after the fatal coup that Ghazzali delivered to it with his Tahafut al-Falasifa (The Incoherence of the Philosophers) which I am sure you have read many times. Orientalists had told us, had convinced even the Muslims, they had convinced even the Arabs, that after Ghazali there was no science to be sought or to be looked at. It turns out that all those brilliant mathematical developments, brilliant planetary theories, were written after Ghazali. So if you are not looking, you will not find them, and that is what happened. Neither people in Europe nor in the Muslim world were looking and if it was not for the accident of 1957, and if it was not for the genius of Otto E. Neugebauer, this connection would be still buried in the manuscripts, not only in Europe, in manuscripts all over the Islamic world and nobody would have known about them.

Can you briefly mention about what level of understanding Muslim scholars had about the knowledge of astronomy such as the planets. Some of the scholars that I have come across such as Abdul-Rahman al-Sufi about the stars, Al-Farghani on astronomy, Ibn Shatir on lunar months and Caliph Al-Mamun on observatories and Al-Biruni on the eclipses of the Moon. Obviously there is a range of scholars there.

This is a question where one would need two semesters to actually go thorough all these scholars and their ideas. I will briefly tell you about some of these names.

Somebody like Abdul-Rahman al-Sufi, who worked in the 10th century CE, received two traditions of star law, meaning of descriptions of the stars that we call the fixed stars, which are different from the planets. He received, on the one hand, the ancient Arabian law which described the sky, because the ancient Arabians knew the sky as a matter of fact, Ancient Mesopotamians knew the skies, Indians knew the sky. Every culture had its own description of the stars and so on. On the other hand, Sufi knew the tradition that was translated about 100 years earlier from the Greeks, so he had two traditions and they were not the same. If you take any two consulate descriptions of the constellations, the Greek for example had their own Gods painted all over the sky in every single quarter. You look at them, they are the mythology of the ancient Greeks. The ancient Bedouin Arabs do not have these Gods, so they had completely different descriptions. They had places where the camel rest, places where the gazelles run away, places where the lion roars. They had all of those different constellations related more or less to their natural environment. Sufi decided to take those two laws together and superimpose them and try to explain one in terms of the other so that both traditions become coherent to a normal reader in Arabic in the 10th century. To his credit, as a matter of fact, it was he who introduced the old Arabian names of the stars, and it is those names that got picked up by Renaissance scientists like Peter Apianos, who also preserved those names for us, so that when you open nowadays, by the way, any modern atlas of the sky, you will find star names like Al-Tair, Al-Mizza, Al-Qaid. They are still the modern names transliterated from the ancient Arabian laws through Sufi, Apianos and so on. It is this focus role of Sufi that gives us this.

Farghani was doing a different project. He did it during the Mamun period, and he was really basically an engineer and not an astronomer of the highest order. But he is a person who read the Greek astronomical law and tried to write a small introductory text that can be used if you were to educate students like undergraduate students on astronomy. And of course because he was writing in the Mamun period, he picks up some of the new values and the new astronomical law that was already being formulated in his time. So it was an update of the ancient Greek material, and because of his brevity and because it is a small book with a maximum of 30 to 40 pages, it became a very useful text book. It was later translated into Latin and of course became important.

Somebody like Ibn Shatir, his importance is not only that he worked as a Muwaqqit, that is for a religious function at the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus, and hence we have a religious person becoming a planetary theorist of the highest order at the same time, refuting the old ideas that religion and science cannot cohabit at the same time. Shatir’s brilliance was not only to teach us the new planetary theories but to develop a whole new model for the movement of the Moon, to describe mathematically how the Moon moves around the Earth with precision that it can predict its position at any time we wish. It is this model that got picked up verbatim by Copernicus. Again in the case of the Moon, and it’s a geocentric body, it has to move around the Earth. Hence if you compare the model of Copernicus to that of Ibn Shatir, you will find them in identical arrangement, identical predictions and so on.

Al-Mamun, there is a lot of folklore about him. My basic feeling is that the only politician I know of from Islamic civilisation that had any serious interest and any competence to actually control scientific material is Ulugh Beg of the 15th century. Mamun was just busy managing his own side, and if we only know a little bit about the history of Al-Mamun you will realise that. Also if we look at the material that was really produced during the 9th century, it was not during the Al-Mamun period, it was during al-Mutawakkil period. People like Habbash al-Hasib, Hunayn ibn Ishaq, all of those were really working during the Mutawakkil period.

Finally Al-Biruni to his credit in this instance, we should only imagine that he was one of the people who actually did pass the possibility of the movement of the Earth around the Sun and of the movement of the Earth around its axis. Then at the very end he says: ” for us, to observe phenomena that we see, it does not make much difference whether we are sitting on the Earth or sitting on the Sun”. But because he is a brilliant mathematician, he could see that it is only mathematical connection of the last vector, and he said: “perhaps at the very end we still have to compute it, because we are observers and we are sitting on the Earth and we have to go back to the position of seeing the world from the Earth’s perspective”. So he was capable of thinking of these kinds of possibilities and hence credit should go to him as well.

One of the events which many contemporary scientists and astronomers look forward to is the eclipse of the Moon. Did Muslim scholars come across this during their time in terms of predicting when that happens?

In terms of predicting, the eclipses of the Moon were already known to ancient Babylonians. We even have ancient Babylonian texts of astronomers writing to the King of Ashur and they say we expected the Moon to be eclipsed tonight but there was a cloud and we could not see it. It simply means that they were predicting and they were calculating. In other reports they would state “we are expecting the Moon to be eclipsed on such and such a night and so on and it did eclipse”. People knew and these computations were known to the Greeks, were known to the Muslim astronomers and they were known very well. They could be predicted within a plus or minus of an hour or so. It is not a novelty at this point. Al-Biruni was simply just refining the computations for this and the computations were a little bit involved but they were not beyond the reach of a normal astronomer. This is not where his glory rests.

Throughout Islamic history, Muslims have been great travellers. Names such as Ibn Batutta and Ibn Fadhlan spring to mind. Can you explain, based on your knowledge of astronomy, how the following instruments were made, the astrolabe and the armillary spheres?

The astrolabe is an instrument maximum size, usable size, that we have and most people can see in museums etc. It is in the order of maybe 5-10 inches, they are all in that range. It is really a series of brass discs turning one on top of each other. You can manage to solve with all sorts of mathematical problems. The same Abdul Rahman al-Sufi, who worked on the stars, also wrote a book on the construction and use of an astrolabe. He gave us the list of 385 astronomical mathematical problems that could be solved with an astrolabe. Put briefly to our modern use and to our young people nowadays, it is nothing different, it is in change of function, it is just as efficient as your little pocket calculator that you use nowadays. Unfortunately nowadays most kids in schools use it to find the sum function and to multiply functions, which is what an astrolabe does. It is an ingenious application of mathematics onto a technology that allows you to solve mathematical problems.

The armillary spheres are even less sophisticated. Why? Because they keep this sphere as a sphere whilst the astrolabe projects this sphere onto a plane, so it adds a little bit more complexity to it. Of course astronomers have used both of those tools across the centuries and we have them in the museums, and that is why I think the “1001 Inventions” and any museums that you go to must have at least an astrolabe or two if it is worthy of being called a museum.

One of the instruments Muslims use for finding the Qibla is the compass. Based on your knowledge of astronomy, do you know how this instrument was developed?

Yes and no. The same astronomer I mentioned earlier by the name of Habash al-Hasib who worked during the Mutawakkil period in the city of Samara, it was Habash al Hasib who developed as a matter of fact a geographical map centred on Mecca itself and he developed what looks like a Qibla finding compass. Examples of it by the way survived from an artisan’s work of the 17th century from Iran which were published and a whole book is devoted to that specific instrument that can actually tell the direction of Mecca. It is Habash al-Hasib who also applied the theoretical projection of the spheres onto plain surfaces, meaning he used mathematical skills to be able to make that projection that allowed you to determine in any city in the non-Muslim world at that time to be able to tell, not only the direction of Mecca from their city, but the distance of that city to Mecca, because the other parts of religious obligation was not only to face Mecca but also to form a pilgrimage once in a lifetime, so you need to know the distance. So it was Habash al-Hasib who developed the mathematics for all of this. Whatever we see nowadays and whatever comes around, is really a variation on the theme of the genius of Habash al-Hasib.

In contemporary science we are constantly learning about new celestial objects in our universe or solar system. Recently scientists have discovered new planets even further away from Pluto and even have decided to omit Pluto from the planetary spectrum, maybe due to its distance away which is about 3,6 billion miles. Can you explain – based on your knowledge and experience in this field – what are the latest discoveries in this field and what opinion Muslim scholars may have had on the discovery of these new planets in our solar system. For example, there are many verses in the Holy Quran mentioning about the Sun, the Moon and the stars and how the universe is constantly expanding. So were Muslims scholars aware of the planetary spectrum in terms of how many planets are there, etc?

Here we are treading on very dangerous grounds for two reasons. What modern astronomers do by classifying one day a planet like Pluto as a planet and declassifying it in the second day, reminds me very much of what the Pope did a few decades ago by declassifying Saint George, to the chagrin of the British empire (by the way because Saint George was the guardian of that empire). Declassifying him from the sainthood is this kind of level, meaning it’s a definition of what constitutes a saint. It seems that what constitutes a planet is also looked at in a similar light, and that’s why the poor Pluto got the rap. As far as classical astronomers of Islam were contemplating on the universe and looking at it, I do not know of a single astronomer who speculated about the possibility of the increase in the numbers of the wandering planets. The planets that they knew were the classical seven planets that were known from the ancient Mesopotamian times all the way to that time, and there were no speculations of an expanding or shrinking universe at that time.

The second part of the question which I think is extremely dangerous, and I want the listeners to listen very carefully, and here I stand on the shoulders of the distinguished Nobel laureate Abd Salaam who says we should be very careful on how to translate and how to read the Quranic texts in terms of modern science. Because modern science is a continuously developing truth, there is no capital ‘T’ for truth in the modern science. It is a constantly changing spectrum, and if we try to tag a Quranic verse to a scientific theory that applies today, we’ll be very embarrassed tomorrow when the scientific theory changes and a Quranic verse is still tagged onto it. It is an extremely dangerous ground and I advise the listener, I advise ourselves, to read the Quranic text for what it is, a moral message to teach the human beings how to be good human beings, how to be good to each other and how to understand their place in the cosmos, their relationship to God and their relationship to their own spirituality. The Quran is not to be taken in hand to the physics lab to check the modern scientific value of a modern scientific theory or not. What we will do, and Abd Salaam (may his soul rest in peace) was brilliant to raise this question, is to ask what do we do when we discover tomorrow that the universe is not really expanding but is shrinking. Otherwise, shall we change the Quranic text accordingly?

What kind of reaction have you had in scientific circles from your research and lectures on the topic of Islamic Science and the making of the European Renaissance? In particular, how European scholars have used the works Muslim scholars used many centuries earlier which you have discussed in this interview. I am referring here to the general audience’s reactions when you have been given these lectures. Obviously you visited the United Kingdom recently, and I am sure you have given this presentation to other parts of the world. What kind of reaction have you had from the listening audience on this kind of knowledge which you have been transmitting to them?

You won’t be surprised how opened minded people are. I also have been speaking about these issues for the last 35 years now. I do remember distinctly, and I think it was one of those memorable meetings we had at the New York Academy of Science in the late seventies [1970s], I would say. When I first mentioned that there is a direct connection between the works of Ibn Shatir and Copernicus, in the audience was a very distinguished Copernican scholar. He snapped and stood up and left the room in objection. So you could see, there were people who were very angry at the time, which is okay. Years later, now I begin to get e-mails, I begin to get people asking the right questions. People are beginning to see the evidence, to evaluate it for what it is, and I think we have made a dent and it is only natural. It takes 50 to 60 years for any new finding to make its way into the public consciousness and people being able to assess it. Again as signs of this progress by the way that we had made a dent in this discovery. Now even on the Vatican website itself they do put one of the manuscripts they owned in the Vatican Library, a copy of the work of Nasiruddin al-Tusi. They put it on their own website and they annotate it and said that this is the manuscript that shows the connections between the work of Tusi and Copernicus. So if you get the Vatican to do that, at least you have made quite an important step.

There is another thing which disturbs me always, and from public audience it only comes to me as a surprise. It is only when I am lecturing about these things in Muslim and Arab countries, and when the question comes and is always formulated in the same language that an Orientalist in Europe would have formulated it in the 19th century, meaning our own readers in the Islamic and Arab world are not up to date with their own history. That is the only part where I really feel abandoned, and I feel like I am singing a lonely voice in the desert. Otherwise I think in the United States, in Europe, in England, the reception was extremely warm and I did not have the single question that was off the mark. I would say we are making a dent. There is progress being made.

One thing you mentioned in the interview thus far is this idea of observatories. The Maragha observatory and you also mentioned Ulugh Beg in Uzbekistan and in Baghdad you have the Bayt al-Hikmah (The House of Wisdom). Can you briefly mention the role of these observatories during their times?

Again the story of Bayt al-Hikmah in Baghdad needs to be rewritten altogether. It has nothing to do with the observatories. There is no observatory that was in Baghdad itself. There was a small quarter of astronomers that observed in their own backyard and that is really not an observatory. The only site that was during the Mamun period, but actually starting from Harun al-Rashid up to Mutawakkil time, is the Mount Qasyûn which is very close to Damascus and where somebody like Khalid al-Warudi and these people made some observations, but that is again not really an observatory in the technical sense. You really don’t get an observatory in a serious sense until you get to Abdul Rahman al-Sufi during the Buyid times. And then the next observatory of major importance, not only because we know a whole lot about, is the observatory built in Maragha. Also because we know the engineer who built the instruments, who is Mohyiuddin al-Urdi. He is the same astronomer as well as the engineer who constructed that observatory, and he noticed the description of the instruments built over there. These are the same instruments and the same descriptions that used to be mimicked later by Ulugh Beg in the 1440s to build the Samarkand observatory. It is the same description by the way that appeared in the 18th century India with Jai Singh’s Chandar Manter. You see them in Jaipur, in New Delhi, and if you go down to Madras, you see these observatories. All of them are conscious at times to duplicate the Maragha observatory. The importance is not that they discovered the new stars, planets or anything of that nature. The importance is that they constituted institutions of research. Of course they brought scientists together to talk, to solve problems, and educate each other and to discuss problems. This is the most important function of the observatories.

I know you have just recently produced some works in the field of Islamic science and the making of European Renaissance. Are there any further pending works by yourself that we can look forward to read in the near future?

Yesterday I just started working on my next book. In the new book again that you were so graceful to mention at the beginning of the programme which we called the Islamic science and the Making of the European Renaissance, the last chapter of that book had to deal with the issue of why did we stop? Did the Islamic civilisation stop producing that science and when did it stop? And there, I placed the beginning of the decline not because of Ghazali and not because of the upsurge of Islamic fundamentalism, whatever these people speak about when they write books like What Went Wrong in Islam and all that. To be very polite, I call them simply misguided kinds of interpretations. I begin to place that age of decline in the 16th century, and I place it for economical and political reasons and as a result of the discovery of the new world. It is not only that the Islamic science lacked behind, all science lacked behind, the European science after the discovery of the new world and the tonnes of silver and gold that came to Europe.

My next book is going to be specifically dealing with the importance of this period from the 16th to the 20th century; what happened in Europe and why did modern science rise in Europe and why did modern science as we know it could not have risen in the Islamic civilisation, not for religious reasons per se but because of all of those complexity of economics, politics, social issues, etc. that we now simply briefly all group them under the concept of underdevelopment. Underdevelopment is not particular to the Islamic societies. It is universal to non Europeans societies.

Are there any final comments you have on the themes that we have touched on today?

I desperately want to send a call to any young man or woman who feels that they are comfortable in reading scientific texts and who feels a little bit of interest in the reconstruction of their own culture. To begin to read their own culture and not to read it as interpreted by the 19th century Orientalists, to read the texts for themselves and to understand how their forefathers and their foremothers, how did they work and how did they solve the problems of constantly describing the universe around them and to benefit from that. There we need tremendous amount of people. We do not have enough people to read. Just to give you sad news that of the seven to eight hundreds of theoretical astronomical manuscripts that I know by name, only two or three of them have been published. So you can imagine how much work we still have to do and how many young men and women need to be recruited into this work.

I would just like to thank you very much for taking your time to be with us today and to enlighten us on this amazing subject.

Thank you very much Kaleem and I am absolutely delighted that you have given me this opportunity to address your audience.

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