The Scholars of Cairo

by Salah Zaimeche Published on: 24th May 2005

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The scholarship within Cairo was one which flourished with great vibrancy. The schoalrs contributed to the fields of mathematics, science, astronomy, philosophy, medicine and numerous other areas which are notable and worthy of study.
Al-Azhar courtyard

Extracted from the full article:
Cairo by Salah Zaimeche

The first Egyptian of international renown and possibly one of the greatest scholars of Islam that ever lived, although he is hardly known, is Ahmad Ibn Yusuf ibn Ibrahim ibn Al-Daya al Misri, (the latter word means the Egyptian). He flourished in Egypt in the second half of the 9th century and died about 912. He set up some of the earliest foundations of modern mathematics and in medieval Europe, he was known as Ametus filius Joseph. A Mathematician and secretary to the Tulunids, who ruled in Egypt from 868 to 905, he wrote a book on similar arcs (De similibus arcubus), a commentary on Ptolemy’s Centiloquium, and a book on proportions Kitab Al-nisba wal tanasub (“De proportione et proportionalitate”). The latter book is significant due to its influence on medieval thought through Leonardo da Pisa and Jordanus Nemorarius (theorem of Menelaos about the triangle cut by a transversal; Al-qatta, sector; hence figura cata, regula catta). The Liber Hameti de proportione et proportionalitate and the Liber de arcubus similibus were translated by the famed twelfth century Latin translator, Gerard of Cremona. The translation of the commentary on the Centiloquium was possibly made by another translator, Plato Tiburtinus who wrongly attributed it to the other Egyptian scholar ‘Ali ibn Ridwan. This work was first printed in Venice, 1493 (“Incipit liber centum verborum ptholemei cum commento haly.“) Ahmad, or else his father Yusuf ibn Ibrahim ibn Al-Daya, may be the author of the History of the Astronomers, ascribed to one Ibn Al-Daya.

Abu Kamil Al-Hasib Al-Misri (850-930) (i.e the Egyptian calculator) originated from Egypt and flourished after Al-Khwarizmi, who died c. 930, and before Al-‘Imrani, who died in 955, and so can be placed about the beginning of the tenth century. He was a mathematician who perfected Al-Khwarizmi’s work on algebra and whose mathematics included a number of subjects such as determination and construction of both roots of quadratic equations; multiplication and division of algebraic quantities; addition and subtraction of radicals; study of the pentagon and decagon (algebraic treatment). His kitab Al-Jabr (Book on algebra) is available in many manuscripts, such as in Istanbul and Berlin, and also in diverse languages and translations such as Hebrew, German, and English. Abu Kamil wrote Taraif Al-Hisab (Rarities of arithmetic) which is available, but incomplete at Leiden (199/6), but there are more complete Latin translations of this treatise in Paris (7377 a/6), and Hebrew translations from Spanish. His treatise on the measurement of the pentagon and Decagon, in Arabic Misahat Al-Mukhamas wa’l muashar, is available in Istanbul (Kara Mustafa 379/2) and in Latin translation in Paris (7377 a/5) and in translation into Hebrew, German, Italian, and partial translation into Russian. Abu Kamil also wrote on inheritance by means of roots, inheritance by means of Algebra, a book on indefinite problems, a treatise on the measurement of the land, another on measurement and geometry, one on reunion and separation and another entitled Kitab Al-Kafi (Sufficient Book). Abu Kamil’s mathematics were largely used by his successors whether Muslims or Western Christians, such as Al-Karkhi and Leonardo da Pisa. There have been a number of modern studies of Abu Kamil including those by Weinbergand Levey.

Ibn Yunus (d. Fustat in 1009) was an astronomer and a mathematician whose father was a distinguished historian. Ibn Yunus came to fame in 1804 when a Leiden manuscript of his was first studied; Ibn Yunus’ main work was Al-Zij Al-hakimi (Zij meaning an astronomical handbook) which begins with a list of observations made by himself and others. Ibn Yunus made observations for nearly thirty years (977-1003) using amongst others, a large astrolabe of nearly 1.4 m in diameter, observations that resulted in the well known `Hakemite’ tables which contained more than 10,000 entries of the sun’s position throughout the years. Centuries later Ibn Yunus’s Al-Zij Al-Hakimi relied upon by the French mathematician Laplace who used the tables prepared by Ibn Yunus in his determination of the `Obliquity of the Ecliptic’ and the `Inequalities of Jupiter and Saturn’s’ and also by the American Newcomb who used his observations of the eclipse in his investigations on the motions of the moon.

Ibn Al-Haytham was born in Basra (in modern day Iraq) in 965 and died in Cairo in 1039 CE. He is known under the Latin name of Al-Hazen. Although he made important contributions to mathematics, astronomy, medicine and chemistry, his main achievements were in optics. Due to his high reputation as a mathematician and engineer, he caught the attention of the Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakem (ruled 996-1021) who asked for his services. The Caliph received him personally and with great honours. However, although a patron of sciences, Al-Hakem was a cruel leader who murdered his enemies and had other dark sides to his personality such as ordering the sacking of the city of Al-Fustat; on one occasion he went as far as ordering the killing of all dogs since their barking annoyed him. Al-Hakem’s support for science may have been partly because of his interest in astrology. He had invited Ibn Al-Haytham to Cairo after hearing that he had a plan for regulating the annual inundation of the Nile. However, once having taken measures on the ground, Ibn Al-Haytham realised the plan was not feasible. Ibn Al-Haytham knew that Al-Hakem was a dangerous man whom he could not trust. It appears that Ibn Al-Haytham pretended to be mad, others say that he left Egypt altogether for Syria where he sought protection under the rule of one of its Emirs until after Al-Hakem’s death in 1021. During this time he undertook scientific work and after Al-Hakem’s death he was able to show that he had only pretended to be mad. According to the Muslim biographer, Al-Qifti, Ibn Al-Haytham lived for the rest of his life near the Al-Azhar Mosque, teaching, writing mathematics texts and earning money by copying texts. Ibn Al-Haytham died in 1039, a very devout man. His theory of light and vision is neither identical with nor originated from the mainly Greek theories that preceded his time and which he adequately corrected. It was Ibn Al-Haytham who resolved the century old issues of vision and set up the foundations for the modern science of optics. Ibn Al-Haytham rejects the axiomatic approach of his predecessors, whereby postulates were assumed to be self evident and any experiments were just meant to reinforce axioms. Ibn Al-Haytham also had the capacity to resolve complex issues into independent yet closely interrelated simple investigations (the whole-mark of every genius mind), subjecting every single problem to a quantitative analysis of its variable under strictly controlled conditions. (For more on Ibn Al-Haytham, see entry on Basra)

Abul Hasan Ali ibn Ridwan ibn Ali Ibn Ja’far Al-Misri was born in Jiza near Cairo, c. 998, the son of a poor baker in Al-Guzah. Flourished in Cairo and died there in 1061 or in 1067. Astrologer, physician, author of many medical writings of which the most popular was his commentary on Galen’s Ars parva which was translated by Gherardo Cremonese. In his treatise on hygiene with special reference to Egypt (fi dal’ mudar Al-abdan bi-ard Misr), Ibn Ridwan discusses preventive measures, sanitation, the rules of hygiene and the causes of plague. Ibn Ridwan subscribes to a code of strict ethics, which he himself describes:

‘I wear clothes that are adorned by the marks of distinguished people and by cleanliness. I use a delicate perfume, am silent, and hold my tongue where the failings of men are concerned. I endeavour to speak always decently and take care not to swear and to blame the opinions of others… I avoid eager desires and covetousness; and if adversity befalls me, I rely on Allah the Most High, and meet it reasonably without faintheartedness nor weakness.’

He also holds that a man should study medicine with the intent of acquiring the art and not money, but this did not mean that he would lose the chance of making money:

`When a doctor treats the ailments of the wealthy and they are in severe pain, he can make what financial conditions he likes, and when he knows that his patients will carry out their bargain, it is then his responsibility to produce the cure. The money that he earns should be spent on such useful ends as befits him. I mean on the assistance of relatives, charitable acts and the purchase of drugs suitable for curing disease. Nor should he refrain under any circumstances from tending the poor and associating with them.’

Ibn Ridwan dwells on many issues including the causes of pestilence, and remarkably he states as one of the causes the following:

`Psychic events create epidemic disease when a common fear of a ruler grips the people. They suffer prolonged sleeplessness and worry about deliverance or the possibility of trouble. As a result their digestion becomes bad and their natural heat is changed. Sometimes people are forced into violent action in such condition. When they expect a famine in some years, they increase their hoarding. Their distress intensifies because of what they anticipate may happen.’

Abd Al-Rahman ibn Nasr ibn Abdallah ibn Muhammad Al-Nabarawi Al-Shafi’i (Al-Adawi Al-Shairazi) is an Egyptian scholar who flourished probably in the time of Salah. Al-Din (sultan 1169-1193). He wrote a handbook for the use of police officers in charge of markets (muhtasib; hence, Spanish almotacen; their function was called hisba), enabling them for instance to verify weights and measures and to test the genuineness of wares.(See entry on Malaga for greater detail on the functions of the Muhtassib). That handbook, divided into forty chapters, is entitled Nihayat Al-rutbat Al-zarifat fi talab Al-hisbat (Summus terminus auctoritatis politae de quaerendo munere honorifico praefecturae annonae). An elaboration of it bearing the same title was edited by one Ibn Bassam in the thirteenth or fourteenth century; it contains 114 chapters dealing with almost as many trades or industries. The interest of such handbooks from the cultural point of view needs no emphasis. Sarton refers to the work Walter Behrnauer, to make a note that it contains a long analysis of the Nihayat Al-rutbat, and of various extracts relative to the same subject, for example, extracts from Ibn Khaldun and Al-Maqrizi. A complete translation of this work seems very desirable, also a comparative study of it and others of the same kind. This would perhaps help to identify this ‘Abd Al-Rahman and to determine which books may be ascribed to him.

Ibn Mammati Abul Makarim Assad ibn Al-Khatir ibn Mammati was born in an important Christian family of Egypt before he embraced Islam soon after the conquest of his country by Salah Al-Din (1169) and became eventually secretary of war. The wazir’s enmity obliged him to fly to Aleppo, where he died in 1209 at the age of 62. He wrote an account of the Egyptian government under the Ayyubid sultan Salah Al-Din (Saladin, 1169-1193), the Kitab qawanin Al-dawawin (Statutes of the councils of state). He wrote also a satirical work called Kitab Al-fashush fi ahkam Qaraqush (Weak mindedness in the judgments of Qaraqush), whether this referred to Salah Al-Din’s famous chamberlain Qaraqush Baha’ Al-din (d. 1201) or not, the stupid Qaraqush of Ibn Mammati’s story is the ancestor of the Oriental Punch (Qaragyuz).

Abd Al-Latif Al-Baghdadi (1162-1213) was born in Baghdad where he studied philosophy and philology and later chemistry and medicine. During his career he taught medicine and philosophy at Damascus, Aleppo and Cairo. Of the 166 works he is credited with, many of which were on medical subjects, only one is in print, Compendium memorabilium Aegypti, which is based on his studies and experiences in Egypt, where he visited at the request of Salah Al-Din (who must have been at an old age by then). The Arabic manuscript now in the Bodleian Library was translated by Joseph White of Oxford in 1782 and published at Tubingen in 1789 under the title Abdolatiphi compendium… An Arabic Latin edition containing the Arabic text was published by J. White at the Clarendon Press in 1800; a good French translation appeared in Paris in 1810, and a German translation by Wahl was published at Halle in 1790; other editions of this work were by Hunt in 1746, Mousley 1808, and De Sacy in 1803.

It is important here to quote Briffault on a crucial aspect of scientific progress, in which Abd Al-Latif has a role:

`Contrast that spirit of scientific minuteness and perseverance in observation (amongst the Muslims) with the speculative methods of the ancients who scorned mere empiricism; with Aristotle who wrote on physics without performing a single experiment, and on natural history without taking the trouble to ascertain the most easily verifiable facts, who calmly states that men have more teeth than women, while Galen, the greatest classical authority on anatomy, informs us that the lower jaw consists of two bones, a statement which is accepted unchallenged till ‘Abd Al-Letif takes the trouble to examine human skulls.’

Ibn Abi Al-Hawafar (13th century) wrote a treatise on ophthalmology Natijat Al-Fikar`alaj amrad al bassar (The thoughtful conclusions on the treatment of the diseases of visions). The work has been written for the last Ayyubid sultan of Egypt Al-Salih Najm Al-Din Al-Ayyubi (ruled Egypt 1240-1249). The work was publicised on the occasion of the congress of medicine held in Cairo in December 1928, presented by N. Kahil under the French title: Une Ophtalmologie arabe par un practicien du Caire du 13em siecle (an Arabic ophthalmologic work of the 13th century by a doctor of Cairo). The work’s therapeutical and surgical parts contain many facts unknown to the Greeks. According to Kahil, this treatise is superior to every European treatise up to the beginning of the eighteenth century. It includes fifteen chapters, such as:

Diseases of the cornea; problems of imaginary vision; diseases of the iris; diseases of the crystalline; diseases of the optical nerve; diseases of the eye muscles; diseases of the eyelids; poor eyesight; hygiene of the eyes.

One of the historians of Mamluk Egypt was Muhyi Al-Din ibn Abd Al-Zahir (1223-92) who wrote a contemporary biography of Baybars (ruled 1260-1277). He also wrote biographies of his successors, Qalawun (ruled 1279-90) and his son Al-Ashraf (1290-3). Al-Zahir received traditional Islamic education and rose to become the chief clerk of Baybar’s chancery. An eminent Arabic stylist, which was an important qualification for the post, he was responsible for the drafting of state papers. The greater part of Al-Zahir’s biography of Baybars (Al-Rawd Al-Zahir fi sirat Al-Malik Al-Zahir) was written during its subject’s lifetime. Of the manuscripts there are two extant copies, one nearly complete, the other covering approximately the first third of the work.

Ibn Al-Furat was born in Cairo and lived between the years 1334-1405. He was a Hanafite scholar of Cairo, where he studied with notable scholars of the time. Amongst these are his shuyukh Abu’l Faraj Ibn Abd Al-Hadi, Abu’l Futuh Al-Dallasi and Abu Bakr ibn Sannaj, and was licensed by the two great scholars of Damascus Al-Mazzi and Al-Dhahabi. Ibn Al-Furat eventually became a teacher and a khatib (preacher) in the Mu’izziya school in Cairo, and also issued marriage contracts and gave authentic witness testimony at the courts. He wrote his book, Tarikh Al-Duwal wal Muluk, which depicts best Mamluk crusade history. This treatise survives, incomplete, in the National Library of Vienna, whilst a section from it, unknown, has long been preserved in the Vatican Library until discovered by the scholar Le Strange. It was he who described this part in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. Parts of Ibn Al-Furat’s work have been selected and translated by U and M.C. Lyons. They gave those extracts in two volumes, the first of which being the Arabic text, the second its translation. From those extracts can be gleaned some very interesting events of the later stages of the Frankish presence on Muslim land such as the recovery of Jerusalem, Tiberias, Ascalon and other places from the Franks. Most of all, in Ibn Al-Furat’s work, the focus is on the rise of and campaigns of Baybars. The History of the States of the Kings (Tarikh Al-Duwal wal Muluk) has attracted the attention of other scholars such Reinaud who uses extracts relevant to the sixth crusade and the occupation of Damieta. More recently, ElShayyal has been engaged in bringing back to light this great historian of Islam. ElShayyal enlightens on previous scholarly works on Ibn Al-Furat’s history, the manuscript of Ibn Al-Furat’s treatise, his sources, and the edition of his text. El Shayyal’s contribution to the knowledge of Ibn Al-Furat was enhanced by his own edition of Ibn Al-Furat’s work in a doctoral thesis at the university of Edinburgh. In the following, it is worth citing briefly an extract from Ibn Al-Furat to gather both impact and scale of the crusades on Muslim history. Ibn Al-Furat writes:

Sultan Baybars received news that the French king, Louis, son of Louis, together with the kings of the Franks, had set sail for an unknown destination. These kings were: the king of England (Lord Edward), the king of Askusina, the king of Nevers (John Tristan), the king of Navarre (Theobald V) who was the count of Champagne, the king of Barcelona (James I of Aragon), the nephew (Robert II Count of Artois) of the French king, the Count of Flanders (Guy) accompanied by his mother (Margaret) who had five hundred knights with her, the Count of Toulouse (Alphonse of Poitou and Toulouse), and the Count of Albano. The Sultan devoted his attention to his frontiers and his galleys, and on his return to Egypt he built bridges of boats for the troops to cross from Fustat to the island of Al-Rauda, and from Al-Rauda to Al-Jiza. He turned his thoughts to the region of Ascalon and considered whether Louis might make for it to build it up as he had built up Caesarea in the past. For Ascalon contained the remains of walls, more particularly those of its citadel. So he set off there himself.

Kamal Al-Din Al-Damiri was born in 1349 and died 1405. He was nominally a religious preacher at several mosques in his birth place, Cairo, especially at the Koubbah or the cupola of Baybars. He then went on to occupy one of the chairs at the university of Al-Azhar. He was a very pious person who accomplished many trips to Mecca. He wrote two main works on jurisprudence, a commentary on the Sunah of Ibn Madjah and another work on Minhadj of Nawawi. However, he also wrote one of the greatest medieval works on zoology and animals. This work, Hayat Al-Hayawan (The life of animals) has been edited repeatedly and has also been translated into English by Lieutenant Colonel Jayakar. Extracts in French have been published by Silvestre de Sacy. The treatise is organised in alphabetical order. The Lion, whose Arabic name begins with A (Assad) comes first. The author tells of many traditions relating to the animal, giving names, epithets, or honorific surnames by which the animal is depicted. The author then dwells on issues such as whether the lion’s flesh could be consumed or not. In this specific instance, we are informed that the flesh of animals, such as the lion, which have canine teeth that are used to grab their prey, are forbidden for use. Thus the jackal, for instance, is equally forbidden because it too lives thanks to the use to its canine teeth.

Al-Damiri also dwells on the moral character of the beasts, also adding proverbs related to each of the animals and also the use of animal, or parts of it, for medical purposes. A brief extract on a scorpion variety (Djerrarah) can be given here:

`It is a species which when moving about, drags its tail. These scorpions are small, and are of yellowish colour. We find them in Askar Mokram in Khuzistan, generally in wells dug for making of sugar, or on molds prepared for sugar… Djahiz says that these scorpions can kill, and can cause the flesh to rot very quickly. Ibn Djami tells that the venom is hot and dry, and that it creates within the chest a feeling of suffocation; but the place of the bite itself is not painful. As a counter poison can be used water of barley, or cheese water, or a puree of apples mixed with cold water.’

Al-Maqrizi (d.1441) was a man of the law and a teacher in Cairo who collected his material, a great deal of which is absolutely unique, to compile his major work Kitab Al-Khitat. Al-Maqrizi also compiled Kitab Al-Suluk li Ma’rifat Duwal al Muluk (Book of Entrance to the knowledge of the dynasties of the Kings) which is a history of Egypt from the time of Salah Al-Din (1169) to 1440-1. It is thus a history of two dynasties, the Ayyubids and the Mamluks. The Frenchman Quatremere made a translation of a large portion of this work, and also an edition of the Arabic version up to 1354. Al-Maqrizi informs us of all that happened in Egypt throughout the few centuries preceding him in extensive details: places, towns, events, daily life, culture, economy and even finance. Al-Maqrizi also describes the Crusades and Crusaders especially those that involved the French ruler St Louis. His focus is on Mamluk Egypt and Cairo. It is thanks to Al-Maqrizi that we know so much about the history of the institutions of Cairo and its structures. We find, for example, information in the descriptions about the actual buildings of the hospitals; Al-Maqrizi provided details of the history, situation and structure of five hospitals in Cairo.

Maqrizi has left us a vivid description of the progress of what was probably the most costly outbreak of the plague which happened during 1347-9. It broke out in Egypt in the autumn of 1347. By April 1348 it had spread throughout the country and reached its peak in November 1348 and January 1349 before finally subsiding in February 1349. During these one and a half years it wreaked havoc throughout Egypt from Alexandria in the North to the outskirts of Aswan in the south. In Alexandria the plague carried off one hundred people each day and at its height this number rose to two hundred. The royal tiraz factory was closed down for lack of workers; the markets and customs houses suspended operations for lack of merchants and travellers. The Delta areas were similarly affected. In Mahalla the plague was so intense that the prefect (walli) could find no one to come to complain to him; and the qadi, when approached by people to validate their wills, because of their small number, could find no witnesses except with great exertion. In the countryside, there was almost no one left to cultivate the land or collect the harvests.

Because of the plague, an expanse of land in upper Egypt which was previously inhabited by 6,000 tax payers contained only 116 who could pay taxes. In Cairo, the number of daily deaths rose from 300 at the beginning of October 1348 to 3000 towards the end of the month. Many streets were left with empty houses. Survivors helped themselves to abandoned property, houses, furniture and money. Maqrizi claims that in Cairo alone 900 000 people died, and that the figure would be doubled were it to include some of its suburbs and adjacent areas.

The history of Egypt is also handled by Ibn Taghribidi (d.1469) who wrote an-Nujum az-Zahira fi Muluk Misr wAl-Qahira (the Brilliant Stars in the Kings of Misr and Cairo. It gives excellent accounts of events from the time of the Muslim arrival until 1468, that is to the eve of the author’s death. It is divided into seven volumes of annals; so extensive that Juynboll, Matthe, and Popper all worked on the edition of extracts from the work.

Hasan ibn Hussain Al-Tuluni who was born in Cairo in 1432/3 belongs to a famed family of architects. In 1453, he became the chief architect Mu’allam Al-mi-mariyya. He is known to have erected the mausoleum of khusqadam in Cairo, for which he received a robe of honour in 1462. He also was commissioned to restore the mosque in the Citadel, and to enlarge and renew parts of it. Between 1481 and 1491 we find him in charge of the restoration of the Main Mosque on the island of Rauda and the construction of mills with waterwheels, a feat of engineering which was considered at the time to be one of the sights of Cairo. Ibn Iyas mentions that the Sultan ordered the Nilometer to be repaired and restored at the same time and Al-Tuluni too was responsible for this work. In 1487 he restored the bridge of Abu-l-Munajja. In 1493 he made pilgrimage to Mecca and in 1502-3, he is mentioned as chief architect again. He died in 1517 to be succeeded by his son Shihab Al-Din.

This outline has missed many scholars of Cairo but ought not miss a little known scholar, Izz Al-Din Al-Wafai, whose accomplishments seem remarkable as can be shown in the following brief outline based on the large entry devoted to him by Rosenfeld and Ihsanoglu. Al-Wafai (d. 1469) was primarily a mathematician, muezzin and muwaqqit at the Muayyad mosque in Cairo who wrote a staggering number of forty treatises as listed by Rosenfeld and Ihsanoglu. These treatises are concerned with mathematics including arithmetic, operations with sexagesimal ratio (Kept at Oxford I 967/5, 1034/2), and a large number of works dealing with instruments. Amongst these is Al-Nujum Al-zahirat fi amal bi’l rub Al-muqantarat (Brilliant stars on operations with the Almucantar quadrant, in 25 chapters and an introduction – manuscript kept in Cairo, Miqat 197, Istanbul, Leiden, Paris, Tunis, etc…). Other treatises include Nuzhat Al-nazar fil amal bi’ shams wa’l qamar (Delight of the observer on operations with the sun and the moon), a treatise on the sine quadrant, a treatise on instrument called equatorial circle, a treatise on operations with the shadow plane, a treatise on operations with concave sundials, a treatise on the perfect astrolabe, various guides to pupils on how to make astronomical operations, a speech on almucantars on terrestrial equator and so on. From the list it appears that Al-Wafai’s works can be found in libraries stretching from Cairo to Istanbul, Turin, Manchester, Princeton, Oxford, Tunis, Leiden, Paris, Berlin, Beirut, Jakarta and Rome.

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