The Royal Society: European Discovery of Arabic Culture

by Ian Kendrick Published on: 10th November 2011

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This public lecture was organised jointly by the Royal Society and FSTC. It traced the stages in the discovery of Arabic culture by European scholars from the early middle ages until the early-modern period.


European Discovery of Arabic Culture

Reception and Lecture at the Royal Society 24th October 2011,5.30 pm -7.00pm

This public lecture was organised jointly by the Royal Society and the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation (FSTC). It traced the stages in the discovery of Arabic culture by European scholars from the early middle ages until the early-modern period.

Reception (5.30-6.00pm)
Celebrating 12 years of a journey: Uncovering the Past to Built a Better Future

Lecture (6.00-7.00pm)
European Discovery of Arabic Culture

(Left to Right) Prof. Lorna Casselton and Mr. Peter Fell

(Left to Right) Dr Rim Turkmani, Ms Bettany Hughes, Prof. Jim Al-Khalili, Prof. Lorna Casselton,
Prof. Mohamed El-Gomati, Sir Crispin Tickel and Prof. Salim T S Al-Hassani

Prof. Charles Burnett giving his lecture at The Royal Society

Professor Charles Burnett’s Lecture

The subject of the influence of Arabic/Muslim culture on Europe is becoming increasingly important in today’s socio-political-economic environment. The cultural roots of science, technology and art can play a significant role in enhancing inter-cultural respect.

In his lecture, Charles Burnett traced the stages in the discovery by European scholars of Arabic culture from the early middle ages until the early-modern period, through their translations of secular and religious works from Arabic into Latin. He addressed questions such as:

  • Why did the early European scholars, including some founders of the Royal Society, study Arabic?
  • How did the acquisition of manuscripts take place?
  • How was the study of Arabic established in European universities?

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(Left to Right) Prof. Charles Burnett and Prof. Lorna Casselton

Professor Lorna Casselton’s Speech

It’s a great pleasure to welcome you to the Royal Society this evening to hear Professor Burnett’s lecture and to see the wonderful exhibition, which I hope you may have time to see afterwards, which the exhibition curator Dr. Rim Turkmani will show you later in the evening.

Now, as Jim’s just said, I’m foreign secretary of the Royal Society and my brief from the 1663 charter, the 1663 charter which was three years after the Society was founded, it said that Fellows had to go out and have affairs with all manner of foreigners… well, it’s been a very good job for the past five years, I have to tell you!

Well the early Fellows were not just interested in living scientists, but in the giants of science that went before. When the Society was founded, as I said in 1660, 350 years ago, the Fellows were not content to just think about science: they were experimentalists. They had to carry out experiments and make observations. Their motto, as it still is, was nullius in verba, which sort of loosely translated, is “take no man’s word for it”. From the very beginning, they were interested in the observations and experiments of others, of course, which is why they were so interested in the Arabic and Persian manuscripts arriving at that time in England and describing so many experiments and observations, some written by scholars living centuries before. And not content with translation, they wanted to read them in the original script. The most famous chemist at that time, Robert Boyle, had studied Arabic for other reasons, but he was able to use this knowledge and that of his friends, who were familiar with Arabic and Persian, to read many treatises. Edmund Halley, the astronomer, learned Arabic when he was 50 because he had spotted errors in a Latin translation he was reading. The Royal Society does not just elect Fellows from the UK and the Commonwealth, it always elects foreign Fellows each year, who we always welcome, but it is interesting to note that the Society elected three Arabic Fellows in the 17th and 18th centuries.

I should like to thank the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation(FSTC) and the Qatar Foundation for sponsoring the curating and research of the Arabick Roots exhibition, and of course that was done by Dr Rim Turkmani, who will show you round later, and I also think this is a really wonderful occasion for us to meet together and hear about the Arabic world.

(Left to Right) Prof. Lorna Casselton and Prof. Salim Al-Hassani

Highlights of Prof. Salim T S Al-Hassani’s Speech

  • Thanked Professor Lorna Casselton.
  • Thanked Bettany Hughes for flying all the way from Geneva to lead this reception, when Peter Fell was standing by. Such is the passion of our members and associates. Another example of the passion of our supporters is an unbelievable story. A recent member of FSTC, who shall be nameless, was lying down in hospital bed undergoing a surgical procedure for inserting a stent in his heart arteries. Whilst observing video screen showing the catheter being navigated through arteries, he though he must of think of something to take his mind away from that. So he said let me think of Salim’s Royal society’s speech to be given on the 24th Oct. At that moment his heart stopped. After few seconds he was resuscitated back to live by electric shock. The following day he wrote to tell that story with bullets points he had wished that I consider in my speech. Fantastic ! What a demonstration of passion and loyalty to the cause of our noble mission. I now tell you a mixture of his thoughts and my words.

The FSTC journey…

  • 12 years go with a single question from my colleague professor Donald Cardwell saying there is a gap of a 1000 yrs , which we call the dark ages, How can we filled it with the contributions of other cultures and civilizations? and another question from the Lord Mayor of Watford, Dorothy Thornhill, asking why are none of the inventions and scientific achievements of non-European civilizations in our National curriculum?
  • It was a humble beginning in one room. We recognized when we look at history through the lens of science and inventions, we see harmony and mutual respect. We saw how male and female Muslims, Jews, Christians and others worked together within the Muslim civilization. We saw how Muslims inherited and added upon knowledge from previous cultures and how Christian Europe inherited and added upon all that, hence the use of the term “Muslim Heritage”. We understood the meaning of Newton’s famous sentence of “I stood on the shoulders of giants”.

Prof. Salim Al-Hassani giving his speech at Royal Society

  • We had resonance very quickly.
  • Since then we have been round the world, met many many people
  • Our academic portal and our book, 1001 Inventions have reached 100’s of thousands of people.
  • Via 1001 Inventions Exhibitions, films and websites, we have helped millions to enrich their identity and to see that we can work together for the future
  • The key point is that we all have a partly shared past. This means that we have a partly shared identity. This in turns means that we can look at how we work in the present for a better shared future in new ways.
  • Along the way we have always focused on the cultural roots of science as new space for dialogue, neutral to religion and politics

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Dr Rim Turkmani’s Speech

Dr Rim Turkmani is a Dorothy Hodgkin Research Fellow of the Royal Society and FSTC. She works at the Astrophysics group at the Imperial College London. She also specialises in the impact of the Arabic science on the scientific revolution, and has conducted original research in this area which was developed into the ‘Arabick Roots‘ exhibition. Having studied and worked as a scientist in many countries, including her home Syria, she has particular appreciation of cultural diversity in science and the importance of dialogue in the making of modern science.

Exhibition Curator Dr Rim Turkmani said: “This exhibition uncovers the never-before told story of the connections between the early Royal Society and contemporary and classical Arabic learning, and how they were used to solve some of the most pressing problems of the day.”

“This was a time when British society as a whole was largely ignorant of the cultural achievements of the Arabic world – yet we find that the early Royal Society’s group of ‘ingenious and curious gentlemen’ included three Fellows from the Arabic world. This forgotten history reveals a rich tradition of communication between two very different cultures, and shows that then – just like today – collaboration across linguistic and cultural boundaries can lead to great results.

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Dr Rim Turkmani giving her speech at Royal Society


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