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Tall tales on Islamic astronomy

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Saliba has been studying Arabic scientific texts for many years, mainly those written by astronomers, and this volume offers his account of astronomical studies in Islamic civilization to the end of the sixteenth century. He argues that Islamic civilization, with no mention of Muslims, Christians, or Jews, hosted a "brilliant scientific production" in astronomy, medicine, and optics into the sixteenth century.

This is, however, a highly problematic and exaggerated story.


In this illustration from a 16th-century Ottoman manuscript, an astronomer calculates the position of a star with an armillary sphere and a quadrant.

Saliba begins by casting a skeptical eye on "the classical narrative," which describes the process by which Greek astronomy—that is, Ptolemaic astronomy—was translated into Arabic and, thereby, became a preoccupation of Arabic-speaking scholars. The classical view holds that the Arabic translation movement was launched by the Abbasids under Caliph al-Mansur (r. 754-75) and that the majority of the translators were Christians and Jews in Baghdad, especially in the ninth century. This was also the time when the polymath Al-Kindi (d. ca 873), known as the first Arab philosopher, and his circle of translators established a whole new lexicon of specialized philosophical and scientific terms in Arabic.

Saliba challenges this view by suggesting that high-level translations of some works in astronomy were completed prior to Abbasid rule, raising the possibility in his mind that such specialized competence by Arabic speakers must have predated the Abbasids. Saliba further insists on Arab priority as opposed to the Persian influences that clearly predate the Arab ascendancy of the seventh century.

Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance will disappoint a reader seeking a subtle, probing discussion of Islamic thought and Greek philosophy, or an understanding of how these two worlds came together. One significant defect is the author's reluctance to discuss the religious affiliations of his protagonists. Astonishingly, he makes no mention of "Muslims" in the book, nor of Christians or Jews. All the participants engaged with science and natural philosophy are anachronistically called "scientists" (a term not invented until the nineteenth century). That there is no Arabic word for "scientist," nor indeed for science itself other than ‘ilm (knowledge), raises the fundamental question of how one can speak of "scientists" everywhere when the basic terms are absent in Arabic.

Saliba's scholars may have been proto-scientists or "philosophers" (the Arabs coined the loan word faylasuf, philosopher), pursuing "natural philosophy," but this was recognized as something clearly borrowed from ancient foreigners. The dominant intellectual leaders in Islamic civilization were not the faylasufs, but the ulema (religious scholars), who formed the core of the madrasas (Islamic schools)—but this word, too, is never mentioned. The author does acknowledge that many of the famous astronomers, sometimes associated with mosques as muwaqqits (timekeepers), were religiously trained scholars, members of the ulema.

Saliba's refusal to deal with any of these questions results in a reduction of Islamic civilization to a colorless simulacrum of Europe or China. The discussion of "Astronomy and Religion" never gets beyond this nice heading, and "religion" becomes an empty placeholder leading the reader to think that the religious aspect to the field is irrelevant. Such a homogenizing falsifies history and social life; any serious effort to understand what happened to scientific activity in the Middle East over the centuries must acknowledge that Muslims had a different orientation to worship, timekeeping, and education than their Christian and Jewish contemporaries.

Furthermore, it is essential to acknowledge that until the end of the tenth century, Muslims were a minority throughout the Middle East. That means that their particular concerns were not the salient ones in Middle Eastern communities. In addition, the distinctive form of Islamic higher education, the madrasa, did not come into existence until the end of the eleventh century. Taken together these basic historical facts suggest that the "golden age" of Islamic civilization took place during a time when Muslims were a minority and Islamic institutions such as madrasas had not yet had a significant impact on educational training.

Saliba reduces the distinctive Islamic modes of education that were designed to preserve the Islamic faith, teach Arabic grammar and genealogy, and so on, to "educational institutions," leaving the reader to imagine that whatever educational process was going on in "Islamic civilization" was the same as in Europe. Very clearly this was not so. Similarly misleading, the author finds "scientists," "fellow scientists," and "tens of scientists," churning out an outstanding if not revolutionary scientific production. Such excess of praise leads to the false conclusion that scientific activity was fully institutionalized in the Muslim world and that it suddenly collapsed at the end of the sixteenth century when in fact scientific inquiry was excluded from the madrasas and gradually declined after the thirteenth century.

As noted, the first of Saliba's difficulties is accounting for the way in which Greek astronomy was incorporated into the emerging Islamic civilization in the eighth and ninthcenturies. He posits that some early twentieth-century scholars have distorted the story, giving too much credit to the Greeks and the ambient culture of the Middle East and too little credit to the vague group of Arabs who, according to the author, preternaturally understood what was being translated. The Hellenic tradition had waned, leaving no outstanding scholars, and so the author asks how it was possible for these new arrivals to understand the foreign ideas. Just who these Arab scholars were, religiously and ethnically, is never clarified, except that the author rejects any account that gives a strong role to the "Persians," described as a "racial" group. Still it is not difficult to find Iranian scholars who claim that most of the scientific advances claimed by "Arabs" were accomplished by Persians.

Given the novelty of the foreign materials, Saliba finds it remarkable that the eighth-century Arabs were able not only to understand the complicated text of Ptolemy's Almagest but also to criticize and improve upon it. This could only happen if they had an unknown tradition of learning, independent of the Greeks and superior to that of the former Byzantine scholars. The upshot is what he calls the new science of ‘ilm al-hay'a (that is, astronomy as the science of the "configuration of the heavens") that he claims had no Greek equivalent. Historians of Arabic science will spill much ink over that claim because the general view is that there would be very little Arab astronomy without Euclid and Ptolemy.

The second difficulty the author confronts is the notion that Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111), probably the greatest Muslim religious philosopher, put an end to scientific activity in the Muslim world by his attack on the philosophers. This simplistic formula is also a nineteenth-century view first put forward by Edward Sachau. Here again the reader is given no background on the debate, no clue about what Ghazali argued, how Muslims reacted to the arguments, nor the century-long debate that culminated in a rebuttal by Averroes (Ibn Rushd) in the twelfth century. At issue was Ghazali's denial of natural causality and his marshaling of Greek philosophy to the aid of "Islamic occasionalism," the view that all events, human and natural, are controlled by God instead of through the blind workings of natural processes.

Whatever impact that doctrine had on Muslims, Saliba's exaggerated imputation to Ghazali claims too much. At the same time, he fails to draw an obvious insight that applies to astronomy. The author notes that one objection to Greek astronomy in the Muslim world was its association with astrology, as astrologers claim to predict the future. Such a claim is profoundly at odds with the Islamic view that only God knows the future, encouraging the extreme reluctance of Arab astronomers to work out ephemerides, tables listing the positions of the sun, moon, and planets on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Saliba acknowledges the surprising absence of ephemerides but declines to comment on the deeper issues.

In optics, Saliba mentions the explanation of the rainbow by the early fourteenth-century scholar, Kamal al-Din al-Farisi, but the same explanation had been simultaneously invented in Europe by Theodoric of Freiburg in about 1310 while eye glasses had been invented in 1286 in Florence. In medicine, Saliba mentions the surmise of the thirteenth-century physician and religious scholar Ibn an-Nafis that there is a lesser circulation of the blood from the heart to the lungs. The standard Galenic view was that the pulmonary vein from the lungs to the heart carries air and spirit (pneuma) that cools it. That lesser circulation stands in contrast to William Harvey's discovery in the early seventeenth century that blood circulates throughout the body from the heart through the arteries, returning via the veins. Ibn an-Nafis's conjecture was surely a brilliant guess, but the ban on human postmortems remained in the Islamic world (and among orthodox Jews) into the twentieth century blocking further discovery while, in Europe, autopsies were routinely practiced from the thirteenth century onward. Saliba ignores these topics in order to spin his Arabic-centric narrative.

In the last chapter, the author discusses the decline of Arabic science—perhaps, he speculates, after the sixteenth century, but he offers little guidance. The lack of any significant innovations by Muslims in the science of motion after Ibn Bajja in the twelfth century, in optics after the early fourteenth century, or in astronomy after Shatir suggests that scientific inquiry in the Muslim world has long been moribund. When the telescope arrived in the Middle East shortly after its invention in 1608, and with the publication of Galileo's Starry Messenger in 1610, Europeans were on fire with curiosity. But in the Muslim world, the device failed to excite astronomical interest and was not used for astronomical research until centuries later. The scientific curiosity Saliba trumpets in his book had inexplicably vanished. The author wishes exceedingly desperately to show a "seminal impact" of Arabic science on Renaissance Europe, but science in Europe had already moved far beyond the last innovations of Islamic civilization.

Toby E. Huff is a research associate in the department of astronomy, Harvard University, and chancellor professor emeritus in policy studies at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.