Interview with Dr. Rim Turkmani

by Kaleem Hussain Published on: 22nd May 2009

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The tradition of Islamic astronomy is the main topic of the following interview, in which Dr Rim Turkmani, an astrophysicist scholar, draws on her passion for Islamic science to present a survey on salient aspects of Islamic classical astronomy. At the end, she shows how this scientific tradition is still inspiring today. On that point, the attitude of openness, diversity and tolerance is highlighted.


We are very glad today to have with us an expert in the field of astrophysics and also looking at Arabic and Islamic science and philosophy by the name of Dr Rim Turkmani. Dr Rim Turkmani is an astrophysicist working within the space physics group at the Imperial College. She received an undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering from Damascus University in 1993 and followed it up by a Masters in Physics and a PhD in Theoretical Astrophysics from Chalmers University in Sweden in 2003. At the Imperial College, Dr Turkmani runs her own research project that is funded by the Royal Society. She has published several research papers in international journals and spoken in numerous international and national conferences. Dr Turkmani also has an interest in the history of Arabic-Islamic science and philosophy and its influence on the Renaissance, an influence that has been ignored for a long time in the West. She has also given numerous seminars and talks on the subject in many conferences and universities in Europe.

The first question I would like to ask is: can you explain how you became interested in the field of Arabic and Islamic science and philosophy itself?

My interest in this field actually started about seven years ago, before that I was more interested in the ancient history of the Middle East. A friend of mine who works on the history of Islamic intellectual thought drew my attention to this period and the fact that it is actually more related to our current times than the ancient history. Since I am an astronomer, I started reading more about the Arabic-Islamic history of astronomy in the Middle Ages and found it to be very interesting and stimulating. I expanded my interest to the general subject of science and philosophy in that era and before long I started giving public talks on the issue, and the feedback which I received was very encouraging. I gave talks in Sweden, Austria, England and other countries and I was always overwhelmed with the interest people would show. Of course that encouraged me to do more work in this field.

We hear a lot, especially from Muslim historical perspectives, on the idea of the “golden era of Islamic science” and the opposite of this is namely the “dark ages.” What are your observations on this kind of terminology that is used for these periods?

The golden era term usually refers to a period which starts at the 8th century and ends around the 16th century. Some people say this started earlier but that is roughly the time. During that period, the Arabs took a huge interest in science and the Arab world, particularly places like Damascus and Baghdad, became the world centres for science and philosophy. People from all over the world would come to these areas seeking knowledge. Many settled there and became permanent scholars. For example, Frederick the Second who was the Roman Emperor and ruler of Sicily, was educated in Damascus. Adelard of Bath is another example who is known to be the first English scientist. He actually roamed the world for nearly 7 years in the 12th century. He roamed the Arab world seeking knowledge and science and went back to England and taught his colleagues what he learnt from the Arabs. Arabic was also the language of science back then during that golden era, just like English is the language of science today. Most importantly, all those people regardless of their nationality and religions, found an atmosphere of freedom which enabled their thoughts to flourish and their knowledge to expand.

Focusing on the idea that Europe was in the “dark ages” whereas the Muslim world was at a period of peak in terms of scientific advancements and innovation, can you briefly mention why this dichotomy in terms of terminology is used for what is in essence the same period?

Just reading history, in general people go through falls and peaks. They fall and rise again and it’s a cycle. Just the Arab world and Europe happen to be out of phase as we say, the history in that period was one at the bottom and one at the top. The reasons are many. Some of them are external reasons. Some of them have to do with the historical settlements back then. Remember, for the Muslims it was the beginning of a new Empire and new world; for the Europeans it was not particularly a rich area. I do not know much about the dark era, the dark age of the Europeans, so they just happen to be out of phase back then.

What is the reasoning as to why the Muslims suddenly expressed an interest in this science in light of these peaks and falls? How did that actually came about?

There are actually so many theories as to why Arabs and Muslims suddenly took interest in science. I personally found Professor George Saliba’s theory, which actually is drawn on the account by the 10th century intellectual historian Ibn Al-Nadim who is actually usually most ignored by most scholars, I found his theory to be the most convincing. He basically argues that the early translation from the mainly Persian and Greek sources outlining the remaining scientific ideas, for a use of government department where the institute for the development of the Islamic science is petitioned. The Islamic Empire was expanding and developing and thus theere were growing needs for science and mathematics for the governance of the state. Initially in cities like Baghdad and Damascus, the ruler was used to the guidance of Al-Diwan [state administration]. In Arab it is diwan wujuh al-amwal, which is the source which details the methods that are crucial for finance, tax and economy. There was a whole department called Al-Diwan. The Diwan which was used back then in Baghdad for example was Persian. It was imported from Persia and written in Persian. The government for instance needed reliable methods to calculate the area of the lands, which is a very important issue, and to determine the timing for collecting the kharaj, which is a form of tax, which depended on the solar calendar, and that of course needed some basic astronomical knowledge. In the case of someone who was dead for example, they needed good knowledge in maths to divide the inheritance which was of course more complicated the higher it was and this led to the development of algebra. The government needs were growing and soon the Diwan had to be translated into Arabic and not anymore the monopoly of certain individuals who worked at the Diwan department. Further growth led Arabs to realise that the availability of the Diwan is not enough and they need to go back to the original sources and references which were often referred to in the Persian Diwan as the original source. Most of these sources were in Greek; I mean some were Indian or Persian, but most of them were in Greek and so interesting enough actually, those who started the translation movement were not the caliphs themselves but actually the government officials who worked at the Diwan. They knew very well that science is the way forward for a modern state, and that for a fresh start they need to go back to the sources.

Now, once these references were translated and people had access to them, they initiated a huge interest in science and philosophy which nothing was going to stop. So this social interest drew an interest in science for the sake of science itself and not particularly for the sake of governmental interests. Now what I have just talked about is just the rise. The peak was reached nearly in the 10th and 11th centuries with the high number of scientific activities and institutions that were built around the Empire. Novel books which later became classical references were written and brand new areas of science were developed.

Later, this tradition came to and end, which is called the fall or decline of Islamic science. The fall, yet another complicated subject of which there are many opinions on this period. Basically the fall is an inevitable phase after the rise and the peak. The question is how fast you stand the peak and how deep you fall. The fall had to do with the set of external and internal factors. One of the external ones, for instance, [is represented by] the many invasions which shattered the huge empire and exhausted it such as the Moghul invasion. The Islamic Empire was basically a trading empire, which depended heavily on the land trade routes such as the silk road. As this Empire lost its importance when the sea trade took over and won later with the discovery of the new world which is today the American continent. As for the internal factors, we have things like the many political disputes which led to the breaking up of many states into smaller ones. We have also the spreading of corruption on different levels in the political and economical spheres, and also the gradual losses of freedoms and increasing of taxes.

What influence did these scientific developments have on what is called the Renaissance period?

The influence is immense, it is difficult to summarise it. Just as the Arabs and others started their civilisation by interest in science, so did the Europeans. So just to remind us that all that time this transformation is related to international heritage, which has no nationality. In a way it is wrong to say Islamic or Arabic science for a pack of reasons, [however] we have to use this term. The Europeans knew very well that the source of knowledge in science lied in the Arab world. The early scientists roamed the Arab world seeking knowledge and later on they translated with great interest the Arabic manuscripts and used them as their ultimate source. We have evidence of this in many Latin translations of the Arabic manuscripts and books. We even have some Arabic transcripts that were even commented on in Latin in a way which indicates that whoever read them and wrote these comments actually understood Arabic very well. Many European scientists acknowledged that to Arab-Muslim scholars including scientists like Roger Bacon.

Can you also mention some of the major fields of science in which Muslims have made contributions and substantial innovations?

Actually the question is that of which area they did not contribute. They contributed in so many fields.

In astronomy, we have scholars like Abdul Rahman al-Sufi who mentioned about the stars, Al-Farghani on star science, Ibn al Shatir on lunar months, these are just some of the scholars that come to mind. If you can briefly elaborate on this?

If you want me to elaborate on the Muslim’s contributions to astronomy, I would rather talk about the major intellectual contribution rather than the names and the other technical astronomers. The first and probably the most important contribution to astronomy is that they made it into a science to start with. The astronomy which the Arabs inherited from the Greeks was a mixture of astronomy and astrology. Even the word which was used in the Greek was astrology. It is a mixture between astronomy and astrology. So the same Greek scientist who wrote on astronomy also wrote treatises in astrology. Muslims, who strongly condemned astrology, set the records straight in separating the two. So they called astrology ‘ilm ahkam al-nujum translated to the “science of the governance of the stars” and they gave the astronomy a new name which is ‘ilam al-hay’a. It is difficult to translate, but in essence this is the science of the description of the universe or the cosmology. From that certainly there are other topics like ‘ilm al-miqat, the science of time keeping, which was mainly instigated by the ritual needs such as the timing of the prayers and the lunar calendar, the fasting, the eating, things like that. The other major contribution is that they actually redefined mathematics to be language of science, practically astronomy. As much as this may sound as a common sense to us today, before Arabs, maths was not really effectuated to be the language of science in the way the Arabs did later on. There are many other major contributions, it is a vast field and there is a case of arguing that the modern astronomy actually emanates from Islamic astronomy who made it into a science to start with. There is no doubt that modern astronomy does need to pay a very high debt to Arab astronomers.

One aspect you touched on was this idea of daily prayers. I have seen some other pictures in terms of their kind of designs the scholars developed to cater for the five daily prayers. What was the process upon which they went through to devise such tools whereby people could decide what times to pray, because obviously it is based on the times of the day from morning till evening?

It is not as easy as it sounds, I mean it is not only the day but also the time of the year and where you are on Earth, it also has to do with the location as well. It is a sophisticated topic and they needed not only to know roughly the time they need to come with the accurate answers, and this is particularly becoming more important in months like Ramadan. You have to eat after the time of Maghrib [sunset]. So this initiated the whole science of time keeping and all the tools which they developed with that.

One thing we know of from our history is that Muslims had been great travellers over the years. Can you also explain how the field of astronomy contributed towards developing instruments to help navigation for example, to find the direction of the Qibla, you have the compass which people use around the world today. Just a brief comment on that if you could?

Finding directions was indeed a very major issue for travellers, not only to find the direction for prayer but often it can be a question of life or death. Finding the Qibla was particularly an interesting problem as it is not relative directions which they needed to find such as north and west or east and west, but it is the fixed point on Earth which they need to locate, wherever they are on Earth. And of course that led to further developments of observations of astronomy and certain tools such as the astrolabes and the compass.

The final question is that of how can we draw inspirations today from the legacy and contributions of scholars of the past, in terms of how their works are still benefiting us today and how we may be indebted to them?

We owe a huge debt, if you take things like optical science, lenses, we use for our daily lives, for our glasses, even for the astronomical observation. The science of optics was developed by Ibn al-Haytham, who is known as Alhazen. Generally speaking, this area is very interesting and inspiring. It makes one feel proud not only as an Arab, or a Muslim, but also as a human. The most important thing is that when we go back to this era, we should not just use it to help us forgetting the not very golden present, but also to draw lessons from it. For example, it is crucial to understand that the openness and diversity were one of the key aspects of that era. These scholars were very open to other ideas, and the question that the colleague was a Jew or Christian did not really matter, and it actually contributed to the diversity and the richness of that period. Also, that statesman realised that there is no way forward but through science and knowledge. This is a very important question that we need to draw out of that era, and we need to realise that there is really no way forward but through science and knowledge, for the state as well as for the people. There are so many things really that we can learn.

Thank you very much for joining us and participating in this interview.

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