Breaking down the classic account of Islamic astronomy

Most scholars have accepted a generally static view of the importance of Islamic astronomy in the field. This “classical” account, based on the “contact” and “pocket” theories, does not take into account the generational advances made by earlier Islamic thinkers.

It is undeniable that the history of the Islamic scientific tradition holds a large place in the genealogy of modern science as we know it today.

However, the dominant narrative situates the essence of this tradition in a period of a few centuries and limits the influence of Islamic sciences to a few inventions or translations of major Greek works and, above all, denies the Islamic scientific tradition a unique set of knowledge. .

We can start by looking at the classical historical narrative dominating the history of astronomy, which portrays the Islamic scientific tradition as a mediator; translating and transferring the main Greek scientific texts and building on them during what is known as the Golden Age from the 9th to the 13th century during the reign of the Abbasid Caliph Al Ma’mun.

“The pervasive narrative limits the role of Islamic astronomers to mere developers of ancient astronomy, developments which, according to the classical view, could have been easily achieved by the Greeks themselves”

The classic narrative emphasizes how the Islamic scientific period flourished due to contact with the knowledge of ancient civilizations from ancient Greece to the overlapping Sasanian and Indian civilizations in the east and southeast .

The pervasive narrative limits the role of Islamic astronomers to mere developers of ancient astronomy, developments which, according to the classical view, could have been easily achieved by the Greeks themselves.

Moreover, the classic account imagines that this period of intellectual output was short-lived due to the limiting forces of orthodoxies nested within Islamic society of this period, culminating in Abu Hamid Al Ghazali’s work titled Tahāfut al-Falāsifa (Incoherence of Philosophers), which has been widely used to support anti-science attacks.

The account ends the role of Islamic astronomy at the time of the awakening of the Latin West and the discovery of Arabic translations of such major Greek works as the Almagest by Ptolemy (d. c. 150 AD) and the Elements of Euclid (died c. 265 BC).

At this point, the European Renaissance is seen to have taken this scientific material as the origin of all science and philosophy and appropriated it to be its “point of direct contact with the Greco-Roman tradition, limiting the influence of Islamic tradition to pre-modernity.

It is important to critique this account in order to understand the real history of Islamic science, its development and its influence beyond this narrow perspective.

In his book Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance, Lebanese historian George Saliba advances several criticisms of the classic narrative regarding the history of Islamic astronomy. He first notes that the assumption that the Islamic civilization was isolated from urban life and science is inaccurate, and that the pre-Islamic Arab civilization had already developed astronomy. sciences as well as medical sciences which were carried over to the Islamic era.

Saliba proceeds to question several theories posed by the classical account, one theory is called “contact theory” which claims that the birth of Islamic sciences was signaled by contact with the ancient civilizations of Byzantium and Iran Sasanian through geographical expansion, which gave Islamic scientists access to ancient Greek texts.

This theory is refuted by Saliba’s assertion that the translated texts contained material from the classical period of Greek civilization produced before the third or fourth century AD and that no activity in the Byzantine or Sasanian civilizations would have been able to put these writings into circulation and do so quickly. accessible to interpreters who have worked within the framework of the vast development of the translation of early Abbasid times.

Another explanation of Saliba on the weakness of this theory is that the Islamic culture should have been at a high level of scientific development to be able to receive and translate these texts into Arabic, which means that the Islamic sciences were at a high level of development. . when translations were happening and didn’t need external sources to thrive.

“While the classical account proposes that the era of scholarly translation of major works began during the reign of the Abbasid dynasty, the alternative account by Saliba states that the translation of ancient works began during the reign of the dynasty Umayyad, one hundred years before the Abbasid dynasty”

Two other theories of the transmission of Greek heritage discussed by Saliba are the “pocket theory” which assumes that ancient scientific and philosophical texts survived in a few cities of the Byzantine Empire, or the Sasanian Empire and the another theory posits that transmission occurred through Syriac. translations of Greek texts.

Both theories are challenged by Saliba, the first for the lack of evidence for the existence of a thriving intellectual and scientific tradition relating to these civilizations at that time preceding the translations by the Abbasids, the second is challenged for the elementary character Syriac texts produced which would not have allowed such sophisticated translations by the Abbasids nor a good transmission of knowledge.

While the classical account proposes that the era of scholarly translation of major works began during the reign of the Abbasid dynasty, the alternative Saliba account states that the translation of ancient works began during the reign of the Umayyad dynasty , a hundred years before the Abbasid dynasty. dynasty, which provided intellectual production with the technical language needed to produce highly sophisticated Arabic translations.

Saliba proclaims that the impetus to acquire ancient classical texts occurred due to socio-political demands instead of a transfer from a higher civilization to a lower one, with the Arabization of the diwan under the previous caliphate, the need to master the classical sciences and translate them into Arabic became important.

The other key difference that the alternative model implies is that the classical Greek texts were not imposed and passively received by Islamic astronomers, but rather were seen as imported knowledge that should be compared to their existing approaches, examined and transformed to fit their unique astronomical methodologies. .

Regarding the assertion of the decline of Islamic sciences after the Islamic Golden Age, Saliba adds that Islamic scientific advancements continued until the 16th century and became more sophisticated post-Ghazali anti-scientific positions. The ‘decline’ of the Islamic world and the ‘Third World’ in general was more the result of external forces such as colonialism and the formation of capital-driven production.

Dana Dawud is a multi-disciplinary artist and independent researcher, her work deals with contemporary art, philosophy and internet culture at large.

Follow her on Twitter: @InInRev0

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