The Scholars of Damascus

by Salah Zaimeche Published on: 12th April 2005

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Scholars of Damascus specialised in numerous fields including medicine, economics and astronomy. Their vast knowledge, discoveries and developments in their fields contributed to the advancement of Damascus.


Extracted from the full article:
Damascus by Salah Zaimeche

Abul-Fadl Jaafar ibn Ali al-Dimishqi is an economist who flourished in Damascus and other places in Syria. He composed in or before 1175 the Kitab al-ishara ila mahasin al-tijara wa matrifa aljayyid al-atrad wa radiha wa ghushush al-mudallisin fiha (Book explaining the benefits of commerce and the knowledge of good and bad qualities [of wares] and the falsifications of counterfeiters). One of the two manuscripts of it (both Damascene) was completed April 20, 1175. It is a work of great importance dealing not only with the knowledge of many wares and their falsifications, but also with the theory and practice of commerce, and even with economic subjects. It examines such questions as the true meaning of wealth or ownership (haqiqat al-mal), the various kinds of possessions, the origin and use of money, the means of testing money, how to pack and preserve goods, how to determine their average prices, and how to protect property, whilst the chapters relative to wares contain abundant information on stones and metals, perfumes, textiles, etc., and the connected arts and trades.

Ibn Asakir (d.1176) distinguishes himself with his great History of Damascus: Tarikh Dimashq. He lived in Damascus, and taught tradition at the Ummayad Mosque, then in college. The first two volumes of his are devoted to Damascus and its monuments, and the two others, by alphabetical order, give the entries on the main figures of the city: princes, governors, judges, poets…

Ibn Abi Usaybia (1203-69) is a Muslim physician and historian of medicine. He was born in Damascus where he studied medicine before emigrating to Cairo; there he was physician at the hospital; he then became physician to the Emir Azeddin in Sarkar. He obtained different managerial positions at hospitals in both Cairo and near Damascus in Syria; he also studied and classified herbs with Ibn al-Baytar of Malaga, entered into correspondence with Abd al Latif and personally knew many physicians. He compiled a collection of medical observations which is lost. He has the distinction of being the first historian of Muslim medicine in his Lives of the Physicians: Uyun l’Anba fi Tabaqati’l Atiba ;(Sources of information on the classes of physicians), the first edition of which was published in 1245-6. Uyun is a series of bio-bibliographies of the most eminent physicians from the earliest times to his own. It was composed near Damascus in 1242, but revised at a later date. It is our main source for the history of Muslim medicine; it deals with about 400 Muslim physicians, but it also deals with others. It is divided into fifteen chapters:

1. Origins of medicine; 2. Early physicians; 3. Greek Physicians; 4. Hippocrates and his contemporaries; 5 Galen and his time; 6. Physicians of Alexandria; 7 Physicians of the Prophet’s time; 8 Syrian Physicians under the early Abbasids; 9. The translators and their patrons; 10 to 15: the last six chapters deal with the physicians respectively of Iraq; Persia; India; the Maghrib and Spain; Egypt; Syria.

Although the work focuses on medicine, it also incorporates the facts relating to such figures, who were not just physicians, but also mathematicians, physicists, astronomers, philosophers or men of encyclopaedic interests; thus, the Uyun is a source of Muslim history of science in general. The work was edited into Arabic by Imru-l-Qais Ibn al-Tabban in the late 19th century in Cairo, and the same text was republished by A. Muller with 162 additional pages, including a German preface, lists of corrections and variations and a complete index in 2 volumes soon after. There is a more recent edition of the work in Beirut dating from 1957. Yet, as Sarton perfectly laments, there is no version of this immense work in English.

Ibn Khallikan (d.1282) undertook work on his dictionary whilst acting as a man of the law in Damascus and then in Cairo. Ibn Khallikan originally comes from Irbil where he was born in 1211 and received his education from his father who was a teacher at the madrasa of Irbil, before he continued his studies in Aleppo, followed by Damascus and finally Egypt. From 1260 to 1270 and also after 1277, he was chief Qadi of Syria with residence in Damascus, where he also taught in various colleges, chiefly at the Aminiya madrasa until his death in 1282 (he had also taught during the Baybars rule in Egypt between 1270-1277 at the Fakhriya madrasa in Cairo).

His major work is entitled Wafayat al-Ayan, which is a major biographic work, that includes 865 entries of important personalities, ranked in alphabetical order. Ibn Khallikan went back to the 3rd century AH/9th century, and covered the whole period up to his time. In every entry he indicated the origin of the person – there were 865 in total – the date of birth if known and date of death. He gave good accounts on the character of his subject, citing both work and achievements and he took considerable pains to give accurate information, e.g. to trace genealogies, to establish the right spelling of names, to indicate the main traits of each personality and illustrate them by anecdotes, to fix dates of birth and date. He, in fact, omitted many biographies simply because he was unable to ascertain the exact date of death. Ibn Khallikan’s dictionary was continued twice, first by Al-Muwafaq Fadlalah who wrote the Tali Kitab wafayat al-Ayan, which contains the biographies of Egyptians and Syrians between 1261 and 1325, and second by Muhammad Ibn Shakir al-Kutubi (d. 1363) who wrote fawat al-Wafayat (omissions from the deaths).

Ibn al-Nafis (b. near Damascus 13th century; d. Cairo Dec 1288.) studied medicine at the Great Nuri hospital in Damascus that was founded by Nur Eddin Zangi. Amongst Ibn al-Nafis’ great works is Kitab al-Shamil fi sinaat al-Tibiyya (Comprehensive book on the art of medicine), which he wrote in his thirties, and which consisted in 300 volumes of notes, eighty of which only were published. This voluminous work was thought to have been lost until in 1952 when one large but fragmentary volume was discovered among the Islamic manuscripts at Cambridge University.

The data regarding the life and activities of Ibn-al-Nafis are taken from two sources – one from the thesis of Chehade, the other from an article by Haddad and Khairallah, in which they give translations from the treatise of Ibn-al-Nafis on the pulmonary circulation. Ibn-al-Nafis followed his medical studies under the tutelage of the great master in Damascus, al-Dahwar, as well as other able physicians in that city. It is not certain when he migrated to Egypt and settled in Cairo. But it was there that he worked in the al-Nasiri Hospital founded by Salah Eddin, and became the physician-in-chief and later the dean of that institution. The medical historian Ibn-Abi-Usaybi’ah, was undoubtedly a contemporary of Ibn-al-Nafis, for they both had studied together under al-Dahwar in Damascus, and were colleagues in the Nasiri Hospital; while Ibn-al-Nafis was dean, Usaybi’ah was in charge of the ophthalmologic service in that hospital.

Chehade discusses Ibn-al-Nafis’ knowledge of the medicine of his day, saying that his knowledge and understanding of the works of Galen and Ibn Sina was vast, but Ibn-al-Nafis, contrary to most of his peers and predecessors, was an accurate observer who carefully recorded the facts that he had observed himself. His love of the truth and his logical mind made him refuse to follow blindly traditional doctrines, which led him to oppose the dogmatic teachings of Galen and Ibn Sina when he considered them false, and did not hesitate to criticize them in definite terms, as had never been done before. In his Commentary on the Anatomy of Ibn Sina’s Qanun, in which he discussed the pulmonary circulation, Chehade states that Ibn-al-Nafis’ treatise is to be found in a number of manuscripts- in Berlin, Paris, Bologna, Beirut, Damascus, the Escurial, Istanbul, and Oxford.

Ibn al-Nafis is the first to have written an accurate account on the pulmonary blood circulation. He antedated the Spaniard, Servetus, and other European anatomists who had been credited with this discovery by three centuries. Meyerhof believes it was a happy hypothesis that Ibn Nafis made his discovery, but there are reasons to disagree with that idea because of the definite statements that he makes on the actual anatomy of the heart and the interventricular septum. Chehade believes that Ibn-al-Nafis discovered this circulation after careful observations from dissections in comparative anatomy, which Ibn-al-Nafis considered essential to the understanding of human anatomy. In Folio IV and Chapter V of his treatise is a discussion on anatomical technique and the instruments to be used in dissecting, where he advised suffocating the animal by submersion to obtain engorgement of the veins; statements, which certainly indicate his interest in dissecting animals, if not in human cadavers.

The Greeks, Erisistratus of the Alexandrian School believed that the arteries and the left side of the heart were empty and served to convey the spirit of life to the body, whilst Galen, in the second century, showed that by pricking any artery of a living mammal blood would gush forth. He taught that most of the blood from the right side of the heart passed through invisible pores in the septum to the left side of the heart, where it mixed with air to create spirit and was distributed to the body. He also indicated that a small portion of the blood from the right side passed through the vena arteriosa and then by way of the arteria venosa reached the left side. Therefore Galen seems to have had a vague idea of the pulmonary circulation comprised by his doctrine of the invisible pores in the inter-ventricular septum.

In 1553 the Spaniard Michael Servetus described the pulmonary circulation and denied the permeability of the septum, but upheld the Galenic theory that the blood in the arteria venosa was mixed with the inspired air and cleaned the ‘soot’ by expiration.

Haddad and Khairallah summarize Ibn al-Nafis’ discovery as follows:

1. He advises the study of comparative anatomy as an aid to the understanding of human anatomy.

2. On several occasions he hints that he performed dissections, which was very rare among Moslem physicians, and this despite the fact that he denies this in his introduction.

3. He is not a blind follower of authority. He has his own convictions, and after careful observation and recording he states these regardless of accepted authority.

4. He classifies man as an air-breathing animal.

5. He uses logic where observation does not suffice.

6. He declares that blood is aerated in the lung and gives a description of the alveoli.

7. He states that the heart is nourished by its own vessels.

8. He gives a definite description of the pulmonary circulation and repeats this more than five times in his text.

Haddad and Khairallah, studying Haddad’s manuscript of Ibn-al-Nafis in Beirut, made literal translations of the passages in which he describes it as follows:

`In describing the functions of these organs, heart and lungs, we have depended upon true observations (he does not say how he made them) and honest study, regardless of whether or not these fit the theories of those who have preceded us. …We see fit before starting the discussion of anatomy to write a preface that will help us to understand this science …

In describing the pulmonary vessels and their structure, Ibn-al-Nafis disagrees with Galen and his predecessors, as the cause of the difference in structure between these vessels and those in other parts of the body.

And we say, and God is all knowing, whereas one of the functions of the heart is the creation of the spirit for very thin blood, strongly miscible with air, so it is necessary to make in the heart very thin blood to make possible the creation of the spirit from the mixture. The place where the spirit is created is in the left cavity, of the two cavities, of the heart. Therefore it is necessary in the heart of man and his like, of those that have lungs, to have another cavity where the blood is thinned, to become fit for the mixture with air. For if the air is mixed with blood while it is still thick it would not make a homogeneous mixture. This cavity where the blood is thinned is the right cavity of the heart. If the blood is thinned in this cavity it must of necessity pass to the left cavity where the spirit is created. But between these two cavities there is no passage as that part of the heart is closed and has no apparent openings, as some believed, and no non-apparent openings fit for the passage of this blood, as Galen believed.

The pores of the heart are obliterated, and its body is thick, there is no doubt that the blood when thinned passes in the vena arteriosa to the lung to permeate its substance and mingle with the air, its thin part purified, and then passes in the arteria venosa to reach the left cavity of the heart. Having mixed with the air the blood becomes fit for the creation of the spirit.

What is left of this mixture, less attenuated, the lung uses for its nourishment. This is why the arteriosa is made of thick walls and of two coats, so that what passes through its branches be very thin, and the arteria venosa thin and of one coat. …Of necessity the cavity which contains this thin blood should be near the liver where the blood is made, and so must be near the right side of the body. Ibn Sina’s statement that the heart has three cavities, or ventricles is not correct, as the heart has only two ventricles. Also dissection gives the lie to what they said, as the septum between the two cavities is much thicker than elsewhere, just some blood or spirit pass through and get lost…. Again Ibn Sina’s statement that the blood that is on the right side of the heart is to nourish the heart is not true at all, for this nourishment of the heart is from the blood that goes through the vessels that permeate the heart.’

It is evident, notwithstanding his denial, in the first part of his preamble that Ibn-al-Nafis must have done dissections to have obtained the anatomical facts that he describes.

Taqi Al-Din Ahmad Ibn Taymiyya (1263-1328) belongs to a family which has provided well known scholars such as his uncle Fakhr Eddin (d. 1225) and his paternal grandfather, Majid Eddin, (d. 1255). It was in Damascus where his father was the director of the Sukkariyya madrasa that he was educated and learnt Muslim sciences. He succeeded his father in his office and gave his first lesson there in 1284 and in 1285 he began to teach Quranic exegis at the Umayyad Mosque. During the Mongol invasion of 1300 by Il-khan Ghazan, Ibn Taymiyya was in Damascus preaching resistance. The same year another Mongol threat arose, and he was instructed to exhort people to the jihad and went to Cairo to ask the Mamluk sultan Muhammad B. Qalawun to intervene in Syria. He was present at the subsequent victory by the Mamluks on the Mongols in 1303.

Ibn Taymiyya is not an advocate of military aggression into the ‘House of War’ (Dar al-harb) but he argues that Muslims should strive to put their own house in order first. Thus he favours the moral rearmament of the Muslims within their own lands and strong resistance to any external intervention.

For him, jihad, both spiritual and physical, is a force within Islam which can create a society dedicated to God’s service. With Ibn Taymiyya, jihad is replaced by an internal movement within the Dar al-Islam {‘House of Islam’) itself, both spiritual and physical, hence Ibn Taymiyya lays great emphasis on the greater jihad, the spiritual dimensions of which he outlines in his fatwas on jihad. At the same time, whilst stressing the prototypical religious importance of the Prophet’s career for those who wish to wage jihad, Ibn Taymiyya is sufficiently a man of his own age to draw parallels between Muhammad’s time and contemporary events he encountered. Ibn Taymiyya saw that the Muslim world was assailed by external enemies of all kinds, and the only solution is to fight jihad so that ‘the whole of religion may belong to God’.

The spectre of the Franks in Muslim territory exacerbated his deep-rooted hatred of infidels and heretics and his strong desire to purify Islam and Islamic territory from all extraneous intrusion and corruption. And while the Franks were plainly a spent force by the later thirteenth century, the Mongols were the exact opposite – the most fearsome enemy that the world of Islam had ever encountered, an alien force that had taken over most of the eastern Islamic world and seemed poised to extend its conquests to the West. No wonder that Ibn Taymiyya saw it as his responsibility to galvanise the forces of the Islamic faith against such perils.

Ibn Taymiyya considered religion and the state to be indissolubly linked. Without the coercive power of the state, religion is in danger. Without the discipline of the revealed law, the state becomes a tyrannical organisation. The essential function of the state is to see that justice prevails, to ordain good, and to forbid evil, to bring about, in reality, the reign of unity, and to prepare for the coming of a society devoted to the service of God.

Ibn Taymiyya favours the idea of property, but states that the rich should be friends and partners of the poor and he substitutes the idea of competition with that of cooperation and mutual help. He reminds people that the revealed law condemns those who make riches for their goal to resemble Karun, just as it condemns those whose aim is political power and who wish to be like Pharoah.

Ibn Taymiyya is no stranger to prison, having served many terms under diverse rulers; in 1306 he was imprisoned for over a year, and this was followed by terms in 1308, 1309, 1320, 1321 and in 1326 when he issued a letter that attacked visits to tombs and the cults of saints which led to a two year imprisonment. Ibn Taymiyya kept writing from prison until his enemies protested to the sultan, who ordered that ink, pens and paper be taken away from him. This was a terrible blow to him, and despite prayer and the recitation of the Qur’an, he fell ill and died after twenty days. His funeral in Damascus was attended by 200,000 men and 15,000 women.

Syria has long been a land of great engineers. The entry on Hama highlights this fact. Damascus has also produced great figures in the field, such as Ibn al-Shatir as to be seen further on. It also attracted great engineers, who came, lived, worked, and died in the city. Muhamad B. Ali Rustum Al-Khurasani, who between 1146 and 1169, constructed the clock placed at the Bab Jairun (often called the bab as’aa, (door of the clock) of the Mosque of the Umayyads in Damascus, which had been burnt down in 1166-7. This clock was seen and described by travellers such as Ibn Jubayr, in 1184, and also subsequent travellers such as al-Qazwini and Ibn Battuta.

When for various reasons, the clock became unworkable, his son Fakhr Eddin, author of a book on astronomical clocks, repaired and improved it. This son is commonly known as Ibn Al-Saati, born in Damascus where he also flourished, and where he eventually died in 1223. Ridwan repaired and improved the clock, and in the year 1203, he wrote a book to explain its construction and use. Next to al-Jazari, who was his contemporary, this is the most important source of early Islamic clocks, although the earliest Muslim reference to clocks, oddly, comes from the unlikely source of Al-Jahiz (middle 9th century, see entry on Basra) in his book: Kitab al-Bayawan. Ridwan wrote also a commentary on Ibn Sina’s Qanun and a supplement to the latter’s treatise on gripes.

Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Mizzi was born in 1291, and studied in Cairo under Ibn al-Akfani. He lived in Damascus and worked there until he died in 1349 as a muwaqqit (time keeper) of the rabwa, and then of the Umayyad Mosque. He is the author of several works on astrolabes and quadrants. His quadrants sold for two dinars and more, his astrolabes for 10 dinars and more. In 1326/7 he constructed a quadrant which is now found in the museum of Islamic art of Cairo (No 3092). In 1326-7, he made a quadrant now found in the British museum ( In 1333/4, while in Damascus he made a quadrant for Nasur Eddin, which was formerly found in the Collection of Clot Bey, but is now in the Public Library of Leningrad (St Petersburg). In the same year he also made another quadrant, once in the octavius Morgan collection, now in the British Museum (88.12-1. 276). Sarton notes, that judging from the number of manuscripts scattered in many libraries (every large Arab library has at least one of them) his treatises on the construction of instruments enjoyed much popularity. These treatises are listed by Sarton as follows:

1.Al-Risala al-Istarlabiya (on the astrolabe).

2.Kashf al-Raib fi-l-amal bil-jaib (the removal of doubt concerning the use of sines); this may refer to the sine quadrant or to the sine calculations implied.

3.Al-Raudat al-muzhirat fi-l amal bi rub al-muqantarat (the flowering gardens concerning the use of the quadrant with parallel circles.)

4.Al-Risala fi-l (amal bil) mujannaha on the `winged’ astrolabe, which may be a special kind introduced by the author.

5.Nazm al-lu’lu al-muhadhdhab fi-l’amal bil rub’ al-mujaiyab (string of golden pearls concerning the use of the sine quadrant), 20 chapters in verse (arjuza) with an introduction.

6.Risala fi-l amal bil rub al-musattar (one the use of precious and mysterious quadrant).

7.Mukhtassar fi’l amal bil rub’ al-daira (summary concerning the use of the quadrant of the circle).

Suter also adds two other instruments one on the folded quadrant (al-Muqantarat al-matwiya), and a table for the latitude of Damascus (Jadawil al-Hisas).

Ibn al-Shatir (b. Damascus 1305, d. Damascus 1375) was an orphan since childhood, brought up by his grand-father who turned him over to an uncle to rear, the latter teaching him the craft of inlay work with ivory, wood, and mother of pearl for which Damascus is still famous. His skill in making his own instruments and his ability in ivory mosaics, which earned him the appellative `the incrutator’, is especially mentioned by chroniclers. In 1314-5 he went to Alexandria in order to study, and for years serving as head muwaqqit at the Umayyad mosque in Damascus, with the duty to regulate astronomically defined prayer times. Ibn al-Shatir is a prolific author about scientific instruments, astronomy and mathematics, his most influential work being his Zij al-Jadid, composed after the non extant Taliq al-Arsad, presumably a report of his observations at Damascus, and the Nihayat al-Sul, the exposition of his planetary theory. In 1337 he made two astrolabes for Muhammad ad-Darbandi, one of them to be acquired centuries later by Jomard from the Bibliotheque Nationale of Paris. In 1365-6, while muwaqqit in Damascus, he made a sundial with a qibla indicator, which he called Sanduk al-Yawaqit by order of the viceroy of Syria. In the main inscription, his work is characterised as `composition’ (made it and created for the first time) obviously in order to indicate its unusual square form. Ibn al-Shatir continued to make astronomical instruments at an advanced age, for the large sundial for the Mosque of Damascus was constructed by him in 1371. All his devices are ingenious whereby geometric configurations are constructed mechanically and to scale in order to give numerical solutions to the standard problems of spherical astronomy.

The most important contribution of Ibn al-Shatir is his planetary theory. He is critical of his predecessors, notably Nasir Eddin al-Tusi. His models are exactly mathematically identical to those prepared by Copernicus over a century after him, which raised the issue of how Copernicus acquired such elements of information, and their impact on European astronomy. Indeed, the mathematical devices originated by the Muslim predecessors of Copernicus, expressible in modern terms as linkages of constant length vectors rotating at constant angular velocities, are precisely those used by Copernicus. In many instances even the numerical parameters of Ibn al-Shatir and Copernicus are the same, the sole but important difference between the two systems being that Ibn al-Shatir’s earth is fixed in space, whereas Copernicus gives an orbit around the sun. In the case of the lunar motion, Ibn al-Shatir corrects Ptolemy, whose imagined moon is made to approach far closer to the earth than does the actual moon. Again, Copernicus’s solution is identical with that of Ibn al-Shatir. After noting, as did other Muslim astronomers before him the shortcomings of the Greeks’ planetary theory, Ibn Shatir stated:

`I therefore asked Almighty God to give me inspiration and help me invent models that would achieve what was required, and God, may He be praised and exalted, all praise and gratitude to Him – did enable me to devise universal models for the planetary motions in longitude and latitude and all other observable features of their motions, models that were free – thank God – from the doubts surrounding previous models.’

With Ibn al-Shatir we come to the near dreary end of Muslim scholarship and brilliance in Damascus with hardly any figure of worth coming to the fore afterwards. This was due to the fact that, soon after this scholar (Ibn al-Shatir), Timur the Lame entered the city with his hordes and inflicted on it worse woes than the crusaders themselves did. This is part of the final issue discussed here.

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