Scientific Contacts and Influences Between the Islamic World and Europe: The Case of Astronomy

by Paul Kunitzsch Published on: 25th January 2007

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For more than a thousand years the Muslim East and the Christian West, notwithstanding the differences in matters of creed, ideology and social traditions and the intervening opposition of defenders of orthodoxy on both sides, cultivated science in mutual contact.

See the link below to the full article if you need to obtain PDF reading softwareThis short article is taken from the full article (by Prof. Paul Kunitzsch) which is available here as 12 page PDF file

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Figure 1. A moon and sun figure of an Almanac. Topkapi Palace Museum, R 1711.

With the spreading of Islam through the lands of the Middle and Near East the Arabs came into contact with the inhabitants of the area and began to learn of their achievements in all fields of civilization, among which there was also what had been cultivated there of the remnants of Greek science. As it seems, not only scholarly texts had there been preserved and studied, but also astronomical instruments from Greek tradition such as the celestial globe and the plane astrolabe had survived.

The influx of Greek science into the Islamic world was of far reaching influence, not only for the formation and growth of Arabic-Islamic science itself, but later also for the medieval scientific “Renaissance” in Latin Europe. Already under al-Ma’mun – when the translation movement was still far from having come to its end – Arabic astronomers began to examine, to criticize and to improve parameters from the Greek tradition, notably in the Almagest. From now on Arabic-Islamic astronomy started its own life to flourish for many centuries. At its base there was the knowledge of the Greeks, the geocentric cosmic system of Aristotle and Ptolemy. And Arabic-Islamic astronomy remained Ptolemaic-geocentric through all times, apart from a few individual proposals of other models which, however, did not gain wider acceptance. But Arabic-Islamic astronomers more and more improved their observations of the motions of the celestial bodies and devised ever more refined methods to bring the observed phenomena in harmony with Ptolemy’s model of the world.

The Arab conquest of Spain began in 711, and soon most parts of the Iberian Peninsula were under Arabic rule which lasted for almost eight hundred years. In the course of this span of time the area governed by the Arabs continuously shrunk, one part after the other being regained by the Christian reconquista, until in 1492 the last Arabic principality, Granada, was captured by Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. Spain thus fell, in those centuries, into two parts, a southern part, al-Andalus, under the rule of many successive Muslim dynasties, and the northern, Christian, part, both parts continuously in motion, the Christians extending their dominion more and more southward. The Christian population of al-Andalus continued to live under Muslim rule. This convivencia was not free of problems; the reports of various sorts of oppression are numerous. At least, the Christians of al-Andalus more and more accustomed to the leading Arabic culture. Paulus Alvarus complains, in the ninth century, about the behaviour of the young Christians who neglect their own Latin culture and try to excel in the refinements of the Arabic language and even Arabic poetry. The “Arabized” Christians of al-Andalus were called Mozarabs (musta’rib), and individuals from this group were often helpful in the transfer of knowledge from the Arabian side to the Christians. It must be stressed here that all the translations of scientific texts from Arabic were always made in the Christian parts of Spain.

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Figure 2. A figure of armillary sphere. Erzurumlu Ibrahim Hakki, Ma’rifatnâme, Suleymaniye Library, Yazma bagislar, No. 2263.

In Sicily the Arab rule there, beginning in 827, lasted for about two hundred and fifty years. After the Christian reconquest, many Arabs remained in the area and left their traces in many fields, administration, architecture, the arts, etc. Speaking of the transmission of Arabic astronomy, we must here mention Michael Scot (d. around 1235) who, beginning his career in Spain, where he translated al-Bitruji’s critique of Ptolemy’s system, the De motibus celorum, in 1217, later moved to Sicily where he became court astrologer of the emperor Frederick II (r. 1212-1250), whose interest in Arabic science and whose contacts with Arab scientists of the time are well-known. Here Michael composed his Liber introductorius, a survey of astronomy and astrology in four books based both on classical and on Arabic sources. It seems also to have been in Sicily that the so-called “Sufi latinus corpus” was compiled, comprising an adaptation of Gerard of Cremona’s version of Ptolemy’s star catalogue to the data of al-Sufi’s star catalogue (964 AD) – therefore, not a Latin translation of al-Sufi’s book! – and adding illustrations of the 48 constellations as devised by al-Sufi and some other material; the oldest one of the eight manuscripts of the corpus, MS Paris, Arsenal 1036, was perhaps written in Bologna around 1270 and contains a number of hints to Sicily from the late twelfth to the early thirteenth century.

It so appears that through a thousand and four hundred years the Islamic and the Western worlds, notwithstanding the differences in matters of ideology and social traditions and the intervening opposition of defenders of orthodoxy on both sides, cultivated science in mutual contact. Neither the Muslims hesitated to search and appropriate the ‘ulum al-awa’il, “the sciences of the Ancients”, nor spared the Europeans their efforts in search of the doctrina Arabum, “the science of the Arabs”. In astronomy, technical terms and a wealth of names, for stars and other objects, testify until today to the role played by the Muslims in the development of this science.

In our days science has become universal. Muslim scholars are teaching in many Western universities; Arabs surrounded the Earth on board of spaceships; astronomical research on up-to-date level is conducted in several Arab countries; in 1998 the “Arab Union for Astronomy and Space Sciences” has been founded with its centre in Amman. For the orientalist and historian of Arabic-Islamic science it is a satisfaction to see that the fruitful contact between East and West begun in the Middle Ages is carrying on in the present time.

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