1001 Cures – Introduction

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Islamic civilisation developed a system of healthcare that, at its apogée, was envied by both friend and foe. Therefore, medicine evolved into a highly complex and variegated discipline from the 7th to the 21st century in the various lands of Islam......

Prof Peter E. Pormann, signing 1001 Cures books at the end of the event, Royal Society, London (Source)

Since physical well-being is of paramount importance in our lives, the pursuit of health is fundamental to human experience. Many civilisations have contributed to the development of medicine as a discipline, including those of Ancient Egypt and the Fertile Crescent, on which classical Greek culture drew when developing its own systems of medicine, science, and philosophy.

Islamic civilisation developed a system of healthcare that, at its apogée, was envied by both friend and foe. Therefore, medicine evolved into a highly complex and variegated discipline from the 7th to the 21st century in the various lands of Islam. Medicine transcended the confines of country and creed, as physicians from diverse religious, linguistic, and ethnic backgrounds shared in its scientific discourse. Islamic medicine also had a profound impact on surrounding cultures, notably European university medicine as it developed from the 12th century onwards. It survives today, in modified form, in many Muslim countries, and among Muslim communities across the world.

The present volume, 1001 Cures, aims to capture the dynamism and interest that existed in the medical tradition as it unfolded in the Middle East during the medieval period. In this introduction, I discuss some aspects of this multifaceted process by highlighting the various topics covered in the chapters of this book. At the end, I shall also talk briefly about the close link between medical traditions in Muslim civilisation and in Europe, which can only be understood in the context of their interconnectedness.

Islam emerged in the Arabian Peninsula. Among its desert-dwelling population, various medical techniques appear to have been known. Issues such as coughing (suʿāl), ophthalmia (ramad), and various injuries (often caused by tribal warfare) all figured in poems of the pre-Islamic and early Islamic periods, and the cures were often simple: camel urine and honey, for instance, had some prominence. In the two centuries before the emergence of Islam, the Arabs also came into contact with the two great empires of the time, the Sassanian and the Byzantine, as well as the Syriac-speaking Christians who often had to flee from religious persecution at the hands of their coreligionists who declared them to be heretics. Each of these communities possessed a quite sophisticated medicine, with that of the Greeks clearly standing out among the others.

Syriac-speaking Christians and the medical schools of Alexandria played a crucial role in one of the greatest enterprises in knowledge transfer: the Graeco-Arabic translation movement, the topic of the first chapter. Over the course of the 9th century, most available Greek medical texts were translated into Arabic, often via Syriac intermediary translations. The history of the translation movement from Greek into Arabic can be illustrated nicely by the example of Galen’s On Simple Drugs, which was twice rendered into Arabic. A certain al-Biṭrīq (fl. c. 754–75), about whom little is known, rendered the Greek in a rather paraphrastic way with many of the more technical terms left in transliteration. Fifty years later, Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq (d. c. 873) and his circle had developed a highly refined translational style and further enhanced the medical terminology. When they translated On Simple Drugs into Arabic, they were able to express even extremely complicated medical ideas in sophisticated Arabic. In other words, the technical medical language, which had largely been shaped through the translation, had come of age. Translation continued to play a prom-inent role in the development of medicine, as medical knowledge permeated various cultures via Syriac, Hebrew, Latin, and Arabic well into the early modern period.

The theory known as ‘humoral pathology’ dominated medical discourse in the Islamic and the European worlds until the advent of germ theory in the second half of the 19th century, and Pauline Koetschet discusses this fundamental concept in the second chapter. According to humoral pathology, good health is dependent on a balance (iʿtidāl) of the four humours, blood (dam), phlegm (balgham), yellow bile (mirra ṣafrāʾ), and black bile (mirra sawdāʾ). Each of these four humours was thought to have two of the four primary qualities, hot or cold, and dry or moist. For instance, black bile was considered to be cold and dry, whereas blood was hot and moist. The belief was that when an imbalance in the four humours occurs, disease ensues. Therapy then aimed to restore the balance by removing excessive humours — for instance blood through venesection (faṣd) and cupping (ḥijāma) — and regenerate deficient humours — for example through consumption of a diet that produces blood or phlegm, and so on.

Following in the footsteps of their Greek forebears, physicians in the medieval Islamic world took an acute interest in anatomy (tashrīḥ), to which Nahyan Fancy devotes the next chapter. Like the Greek term anatomḗ, the Arabic tashrīḥ was ambiguous, denoting both the study of human physiology (what we nowadays call ‘anatomy’ in English), and dissection, the ‘cutting open’ of human and animal bodies, either dead (dissection) or alive (vivisection). Anatomy in the modern sense was a greatly esteemed pursuit. Not only did physicians repeatedly state that students must study it, but theologians such as al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) also prized it highly, since it made man understand God’s providence (ʿināyat Allāh). In other words, the wonderful structure of the human body shows God’s intelligent design. Although dissection was not regularly performed, there was no taboo against its practice on human bodies. We even have a number of famous cases where Muslim physicians challenge Galenic anatomy. In his commentary on the Canon by Ibn Sīnā (known as Avicenna in the Latin West, d. 1037), for instance, the physician and philosopher Ibn al-Nafīs (d. 1288) discovered the pulmonary transit: the fact that blood does not pass from the right ventricle of the heart to the left via an opening (manfadh) in the septum, but rather passes through the lungs.

Figure 1. A medieval cupping (ḥijāma) glass

Already in late antiquity, physicians divided medical practice into prophylactics and therapeutics. In the chapter on preventive medicine, Maḥmūd al-Miṣrī argues that Arab physicians paid greater attention to prevention than their Greek forebears. Diet or regimen (tadbīr) played a crucial role. Food obviously has a direct effect on one’s well-being, and foodstuffs were integrated into the system of humoral pathology and primary qualities. Some were seen to generate good humours such as blood, whereas others gave rise to diseases. Exercise was also recognised as preserving health. In this way, physicians manipulated the ‘six non-naturals’ to prevent a patient from becoming ill. The ‘six non-naturals’, as they were known — namely 1) the surrounding air 2) food and drink 3) sleeping and waking 4) exercise and rest 5) retention and evacuation, and 6) the mental state — also affected the health of a person. Too much exercise (under 3), for example, could cause excessive heat in the body, which had other physiological consequences; lack of sleep (under 4) could lead to health problems; and so on. Retention and evacuation referred to the bowel movement and urination of the patient, but could also take other forms such as sexual intercourse, during which semen is evacuated (in both men and women). Sexual hygiene evolved into a separate subject with monographs by authors such as al-Kindī (d. c. 870), Abū Bakr al-Rāzī (d. c. 925) and Avicenna.

The mental state is the last of the six ‘non-naturals’, and Pauline Koetschet explores the mind-body relationship in Chapter 5. The link between mental and physical states was a strong one. On the one hand, sadness, sorrow, grief, fright, and fear could cause bodily reactions leading to disease. On the other hand, mental states were seen as the result of a person’s mixture or temperament (mizāj, Greek krâsis). Galen had written a treatise with the programmatic title ‘That the Faculties of the Soul Follow the Mixtures of the Body’, which was translated into Arabic. For instance, melancholy (malinkhūliyā) was thought ot be, as its name suggests, a disease caused by black bile (al-mirra al-sawdāʾ, Greek mélaina cholḗ). Yet, it could be acquired in a variety of ways: the wrong food was thought to lead to melancholy, but also the wrong lifestyle, and even mental activities, such as excessive thinking. Melancholy was only one of many mental disorders for which physicians in the Islamic world developed sophisticated categories and therapies; moreover, music played a particular role in the care of those suffering from mental diseases.

The regulation of the ‘six non-naturals’ was important in preventing disease and curing it. Medication, however, occupied an even more prominent place. In her contribution, Leigh Chipman discusses the subject of pharmacology. Here one has to distinguish between simple drugs (adwiya mufrada) and compound drugs (adwiya murakkaba). Simple drugs are single substances such as mint, honey, arsenic, or opium, which possess certain qualities, both primary (dry, moist; hot, cold) and others (e.g. styptic, purging). Following Galen, these qualities were often rated in degrees from one (lowest) to four (and occasionally higher). Compound drugs consist of more than one ingredient, and could, at times, be very complicated. For instance, some recipes for theriac (tiryāq, from Greek theriakḗ) — a drug originally made to counter the effect of snake bites, and later used as a sort of panacea — contained dozens and dozens of different, and at times difficult to procure, ingredients. From a modern point of view, some ingredients seem highly effective (e.g. opium), whereas the usefulness of others is disputed.

Another means of therapy is surgery (jirāḥa), discussed in the chapter by the late Professor Rabie E. Abdel-Halim. Surgery ranged from milder and simpler interventions such as bone-setting (jabr) to quite complex operations. For instance, excessive blood could be removed both through venesection (or phlebotomy, faṣd) and cupping (ḥijāma). In the former technique, one of the patient’s veins was incised, and the blood would then run out. At times, blood was let in this way until the patient fainted. Two types of cupping existed: dry cupping and wet cupping. In both cases, cupping glasses were applied to suck disease matter and superfluities out of the body. In the latter case, small incisions on the skin were also made, and some blood would come out of them. Physicians and surgeons also frequently resorted to cauterisation (kayy): a heated iron (or cautery, mikwāh) would be placed on the skin to burn it; this would staunch bleeding and disinfect to some extent. Sometimes, extremely hazardous surgical procedures are explained in great detail, but it is doubtful that they were ever performed.

Next, Aileen Das tackles the topic of gynaecology and female practitioners by considering if there were any female physicians and how conditions specifically affecting women were treated. Much of the standard medical care, the ‘bodywork’, was probably carried out by women. Whether as mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, wise women, or nurses, women played a significant role in the medical marketplace. Yet, because the medical historiography was largely a male domain, and as the society as a whole was highly patriarchal, women’s voices only reach us faintly across the centuries. Still, we have indirect evidence that women practiced medicine in various guises. Women were not only practitioners, but also patients. Even if women might, at times, feel shame to be treated by male physicians, it appears that, in extreme cases, male doctors would even examine female genitalia. Such practices are justified by the Islamic legal principle of ‘necessity (ḍarūra)’: the woman’s welfare outweighs other considerations.

Gynaecological conditions include not just menstruation, but also pregnancy and breastfeeding, which feature in manuals on paediatrics. This topic is addressed by Maḥmūd al-Miṣrī in a chapter that first reviews the paediatric literature in Arabic. This literature is particularly rich and a testament to the care and attention paid to children by physicians in the medieval Islamic world. The chapter then discusses advice about rearing children and some specific conditions affecting them.

Some parts of the body require special attention, such as the eyes. Therefore, ophthalmology developed into a specialist area, which Aileen Das discusses in Chapter 10. It generated its own genre of monographs by authors such as Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq, who wrote the famous Ten Treatises on the Eye (Al-ʿAshr maqālāt fī al-ʿayn), ʿAlī ibn ʿĪsā al-Kaḥḥāl (10th century), ʿAmmār ibn ʿAlī al-Mawṣilī (fl. c. 1000), and Khalīfa ibn Abī al-Maḥāsin al-Ḥalabī (fl. c. 1250s–70s). Although physicians drew heavily on the Greek legacy in this area, they also made new discoveries and distinguished previously unknown ailments, as the example of sabal (pannus) shows. This disease, in which blood vessels from the limbus invade the cornea, does not appear in the classical Greek medical works. Yuḥannā ibn Miskawayh and his pupil Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq, however, included it in their ophthalmological works, and advise on its treatment.

Figure 2. Bone-setting illustrated in a Latin translation of Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine

A hotly debated topic was contagion and whether or not one should leave a locality infested by plague or other epidemic diseases. Justin K. Stearns investigates both the medical and the theological discourses surrounding this topic. The Prophet Muḥammad reportedly had denied the existence of contagion. Yet there is another tradition, linked to the plague of Emmaus (ʿAmwās, located some twenty miles north-west of Jerusalem) that occurred in the year 638. Here, the faithful were enjoined not to enter a region affected by the plague if they were outside it, nor to leave it if they were there. Medical sources, however, recognised contagion in certain cases, although here, too, the theory of miasmas, inherited from Hippocratic works, remained one of the aetiological explanations.

The exchange of medical ideas across the Mediterranean through translation continued into the modern period. Two examples illustrate this. Dāwūd al-Anṭākī (d. 1599), a physician from Syria, wrote the Memorandum Book for Those Who Have Understanding and Collection of Wondrous Marvels (Tadhkirat ulī l-albāb wa-l-jāmiʿ li-l-ʿajab al-ʿujāb). In it, he drew not only on the earlier Graeco-Arabic tradition exemplified by Avicenna’s Canon, but also incorporated descriptions of new diseases such as syphilis together with some European recipes. Likewise, the court physician Ṣāliḥ ibn Naṣr ibn Sallūm (d. 1669) commissioned the translation of a treatise entitled The New Chemical Medicine of Paracelsus (Kitāb aṭ-Ṭibb al-jadīd al-kīmiyāʾī taʾlīf Barākalsūs), in which a Christian colleague, called Nicolas, translated the work of two German followers of Paracelsus’ chemical medicine. Natalia Bachour discusses this ‘new chemical medicine’ in her chapter and shows that the exchange of ideas between East and West continued in the Ottoman Empire. Even the many encounters with colonial medicine throughout the 19th century are not always ones of Western superiority.

Not only new treatment, but also new ideas about how medicine should be regulated were developed by physicians in the medieval Islamic world. They wrote on medical deontology (or medical ethics), discussed in Chapter 13 by Hinrich Biesterfeldt. Elite physicians endeavoured to distinguish themselves from other practitioners in the medical marketplace, with varying degrees of success. On the one hand, they argued for a canon of medical knowledge that all physicians should master in order to have access to the profession. For instance, in a manual on market inspection (ḥisba) from the 13th century, its author, the physician al-Shayzarī, demanded that physicians be tested according to the instructions given in Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq’s On the Examination of the Physician (Fī Miḥnat al-ṭabīb). Other manuals on medical ethics such as those by al-Ruhāwī (fl. c. 850s) and Ṣāʿid ibn al-Ḥasan (d. 1072), or on how to examine physicians such as that by al-Sulamī, also refer to a canon of testable knowledge, largely based on Greek texts in Arabic translation. The famous physician and philosopher ʿAbd al-Laṭīf al-Baghdādī (d.1231) even urged his readers to return to the example of Hippocrates and Galen.  In this way, the medical canon of textbooks serves as a touchstone. Yet, it is clear, too, from the same manuals on medical ethics and testing physicians that the medical elite rarely succeeded in excluding their competition. Moreover, there are injunctions to treat patients for free and not derive financial gain from exercising the medical profession.

A prominent topic in recent scholarship is the Islamic hospital, discussed by Ahmed Ragab. What are the antecedents of the Islamic hospital and in what way was it original? Certainly Byzantine institutions and notions of Christian charity, as well as late antique Greek medicine played an important role. I have argued elsewhere, however, that five factors came together in Islamic hospitals which render them unique, and which, together, mark a significant departure from previous institutions (Pormann 2008a; 2010c). They are, briefly: 1) legal and financial security through the status of pious foundation (waqf) in Islamic law; 2) the ‘secular’ character of the medical therapy; 3) the presence of elite practitioners; 4) medical research; and 5) medical teaching. The combination of these factors certainly constitutes innovation. Moreover, only the institutional setting made it possible for physicians like Abū Bakr Muḥammad al-Rāzī to carry out large-scale research or to encounter rare diseases. Ragab touches on these aspects and presents fresh evidence from his recent research.

The two chapters which follow focus on two great medical men, perhaps the two most significant physicians in the Arabo-Islamic medical tradition. Interestingly, both hailed from Persian backgrounds, yet both wrote nearly exclusively in Arabic. The first, Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn Zakarīyāʾ al-Rāzī — discussed here by Pauline Koetschet — is arguably the greatest clinician of the medieval period. For instance, he wrote a major and highly influential treatise on Smallpox and Measles (Fī al-Judarī wa-l-ḥaṣba), in which he distinguishes between the two conditions and offers tools for differential diagnosis, a topic on which he also wrote a separate work with the title What Differentiates [between Diseases] (Kitāb mā l-Fāriq). On Smallpox and Measles continued to be highly influential not only in the East, but also in Europe, with Latin, English, and French translations appearing in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Ibn Sīnā, discussed in Chapter 16, is arguably the most influential physician after Galen of Pergamum. His Canon of Medicine represents a true watershed in the writing of medical encyclopaedias, and much medical instruction, whether in the East or the West is subsequently based on the Canon and the many commentaries, super commentaries and abridgments have been written on it. Avicenna also penned a number of shorter texts, in both prose and poetry, and his Urjūza (or ‘poem on medicine’) is particularly famous. There is recent debate as to whether Avicenna was actually a practicing physician and original medical thinker, but I argue here that he was.

The last three chapters explore the relationship between medicine and other disciplines such as literature, philosophy and religious scholarship. Arabic literature (or ‘belles-lettres’(adab)) contains a number of medical anecdotes. The 10th-century author and judge al-Tanūkhī, for instance, reported some extraordinary cases, such as that of Siamese twins, joined at the hip, who had to do everything together; or that of the girl at death’s door because of a tick in her vagina (its removal caused her great shame). Emily Selove tackles the relationship between literature and medicine by looking at rhetorical devices in medical discourse, and by exploring how physicians wrote literature. The famous Physician’s Dinner-Party (Daʿwat al-aṭibbāʾ) by Ibn Buṭlān (d. 1066), a doctor from Baghdad who died in 1066, is a work of adab, in which the author makes fun at the expense of his colleagues. Moreover, Selove investigates how medical discourse also pervaded literature, both prose and poetry.

In his chapter on medicine and philosophy, Peter Adamson first investigates how both disciplines arrived in the Arabic tradition through acts of translation, and how the translators of medical texts were often the same as those who also rendered philosophical works.

He then reflects on the fact that physicians were often also philosophers, with famous examples including al-Rāzī and Avicenna. But some works such as the Paradise of Wisdom by al-Ṭabarī (839–923) or the Benefits of Bodies and Souls by al-Balkhī (10th century) actually constitute works on both medicine and philosophy, mixing the two disciplines. Moreover, many medical ideas also entered philosophical discourse, not least in terms of the interrelationship between mind and body.

In the final chapter, Nahyan Fancy discusses the relationship between medicine and religion, and rejects the notion that religion hampered medical progress in the Islamic world. Rather, there is a large body of religious scholarship which actively encourages the pursuit of medicine. After all, the Prophet reportedly said that ‘God did not send down any disease without also sending down a cure for it (mā anzala llāhu dāʾan illā wa-anzala lahū dawāʾan)’. Fancy also discusses the genre of prophetic medicine (al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī), also known as ‘Medicine of the Prophet (Ṭibb al-Nabī)’. This genre of medical (or rather, legal-medical) literature developed from the 10th century onwards. Legal scholars drew on collections of utterances of the Prophet (ḥadīth) and reports about the behaviour of the Prophet (sunna) to establish a religiously sound medical tradition. This genre gained greater prominence from the 13th century onwards.

Religion also played a role in other ways. When faced with illness, many Muslims, Christians, and Jews reacted by praying to God and seeking His succour. But they went further: at times, they would, for instance, write certain sūras on a piece of paper which they would carry as a pendant, or drink water from bowls inscribed with Qurʾānic verses. Here the line between licit religious practice and illicit use of magic (siḥr) is not always clear.

The chapters of this book thus provide a rich and detailed study of medicine as it developed in the medieval Islamic world. Yet this tradition also had a tremendous impact on Europe during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: in Italy, Spain, and Antioch, many Arabic medical texts were translated into Latin. The two figures who excelled in these endeavours were Constantine the African (d. before 1099), and Gerard of Cremona (d. 1187). They translated not only the great encyclopaedias by Abū Bakr al-Rāzī (known  in Latin as the Book for al-Manṣūr (Liber ad Almansorem)), al-Majūsī (fl. c. 983) (Royal Book (Liber regius)) and Avicenna (Canon Medicinae), but also many monographs such as that by Isḥāq ibn ʿImrān (d. c. 904) On Melancholy (De Melancholia) or that by the Ibn al-Jazzār (d. 980) On Sexual Intercourse (De coitu). The Introduction to Medicine (al-Mudkhal fī l-Ṭibb) by Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq became known in Latin as Isagoge Ioannitii, and was core curriculum in most of the nascent European universities from the 13th century onwards. Likewise, during the European Renaissance, Avicenna’s Canon was printed and reprinted dozens of times; it was also (together with the Qurʾān) the first book to be printed in Europe in Arabic for the Arabic market (Siraisi 1987).  Even the great Renaissance anatomist Andreas Vesalius (d. 1564) wrote a Paraphrase of al-Rāzī’s ‘Book for al-Manṣūr’. There can, therefore, be no doubt that Arabic medicine in Latin translation had a profound and lasting impact on the history of medicine in the West. Some physicians during the Renaissance, however, resented the prominent position of Arabic medicine, and fought vigorously to erase the Arab and Muslim contribution to medicine (Pormann 2010e). At times, they succeeded in sidelining and removing Arabic and Islamic heritage from the history books, although this trend is now declining.

Islamic medicine is also a continuous tradition. In many Muslim countries, the texts of Avicenna are eagerly read, and in the souks one can buy the ingredients necessary to create the various drugs. On the Indian sub-continent, this medical tradition has developed into what is nowadays called Yūnānī Ṭibb (lit. ‘Greek Medicine’). Next to Ayurveda, it constitutes the major classical medical tradition, and together with Muslim migrant communities, has now reached most corners of the world. Likewise, the medicine of the Prophet enjoys great popularity, and many of the works mentioned remain in print in numerous editions. Finally, there is also a large market for what one could call ‘fusion medicine’, syncretic collections of Greek humoral pathology and modern (Western) medicine that are commercially highly successful. Therefore, in many ways, the medical tradition that developed in the medieval Islamic world continues to thrive and grow in many different ways.

This work is one of history: it aims to trace the complex development of medicine within the medieval Islamic world. ‘Islamic’ here refers to societies dominated by the religion of Islam, where it was also embraced by the ruler. Many medieval Islamic societies, however, were open to others, and mostly more tolerant than their Christian counterparts (see e.g. Cohen 1994). Medicine in particular provides an excellent example of this pluralism in medieval Muslim culture: the physicians and medical practitioners hailed from a wide variety of backgrounds – Muslim and non-Muslim, Arab and non-Arab – and developed a discourse that went beyond country and creed. This book, therefore, tells the story of this intercultural exchange and interaction: how medicine emerged against the backdrop of Greek humoral pathology, and how it grew to be envied by both friend and foe. Yet, it should be stated at the outset that this is not primarily a work about Islamic medicine in the sense of how Islam as a religion viewed matters of health and disease. Prophetic medicine, for instance, will only be touched upon briefly, insofar as it constituted a historic development. Nor do we aim to elucidate and explain what the Qurʾān , Ḥadīth, and Sunna said about treating patients or how medicine should be practised according to them. To be sure, in a society in which Islam was the dominant religion, we will, on occasion, mention different religious attitudes and debates, for instance that about contagion in Justin Stearns’ chapter. Yet, fundamentally, our approach is historic, not religious.

Further Reading

For a study of the sources, the works by Ullmann (1970) and Sezgin (1970) remain fundamental. Good introductions include Ullmann (1978a), Pormann/ Savage-Smith (2007), Shefer-Mossensohn (2009), and Pormann (2011, 2013a), all with further literature. For a thorough assessment of medieval Arabo-Latin translations, see Burnett (2009).

Manuscript Review: Farthest Perception in the Comprehension of Heavens, by Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi

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With all the weight of his knowledge, Qutub al-Din preferred to be a man of lively temperament who would engage in jests, play chess and also music on the rehab. He was a highly knowledgeable scholar and wrote important works on different subjects such as Quranic Exegesis, Theology, Medicine, Philosophy, Grammer, Metaphysics, Astronomy and Rhetorics......

A manuscript copy of Shirazi’s al-Tuhfa al-Shahiya, 15th century (Source)


Editor’s Note: The following is an extract from N.A Baloch’s ‘The Great Books of Islamic Civilisation’. This is a short summary of Qutb al-Din al-Shirazis ‘Farthest Perception in the Comprehension of Heavens.’


An old manuscript of Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi’s treatise (13th century) (Source)

The author Qutb al-Din Mahmud b. Diya’ al- Din Masud b. al-Muslih belonged originally to a family of Gazar—un that had settled in Shiraz where he was born in 634 A.H. (1236). His father was a prominent physician and a devoted disciple of Shihab al-Din Maqtul al-Suhrawardi (539 – 632 A.H.). Young Mahmud received education and studied medicine under his father, and also became his Sufi disciple.

At fourteen years of age, when his father died, Qutb al-Din was assigned his father’s position as a physician in the Muzaffari Hospital of Shiraz. He served there for ten years where after he took to higher studies, visited Maragha where he attached himself to Nasir al- Din al-Tusi andstudied the works of Ibn Sina under him and also acquired greater understanding of astronomy. He then went to Nishapur and from there to Isfahan where he would appear to have been favoured by the governor Baha’ al-Din Muhammad al-Juwayni (to whom he later dedicated his work Nihayat al-`Idrak). From there he went to Baghdad where he met the great Sufi Muhammad b. al-Sukran (d. 667 A.H.). He journeyed onwards to visited Qoniya and met Maulana Jalal al-Din Rumi (d. 672 A.H.). Here he stayed for some-time, lectured and also served as a Qadi under Prince Ahmad Nikodar, the ruler of al-Rum (680-683 A.H.), who sent him as an am-bassador to Egypt in (81 A.H.).Eventually, he returned to Tabriz where he devoted the last 6 years of his life to study and writing.He died in 710 A.H. (1131 A.D.).

With all the weight of his knowledge, Qutab al-Din preferred to be a man of lively temperament who would engage in jests, play chess and also music on the rebab. He was a highly knowledgeable scholar and wrote important works on different subjects such as Quranic Exegesis, Theology, Medicine, Philosophy, Grammer, Metaphysics, Astronomy and Rhetorics. In Tafsir, he composed a voluminous com-mentary “Fath al-Mannan fi Tafsir al-Quran” in forty volumes; in Tibb he wrote ‘The Comprehensive’ (Kulliyat) entitling it as al-Tuhfat al-Sa`diyah, and a ‘Commentary on the Principles of Canon of Ibn Sina’ (Sharh Kulliyat al-Qanun); and in philosophy he authored Durrat al-Taj (The Pearl of Crown). He was the foremost exponent of al-Suhrawardi’s ‘Theosophy of the Orient’ (Hikmat al-Ishraq) and wrote commentary on it entitled Sharh Hikmat al-Ishraq.

Qutb al-Din authored two works on astronomy, first Nihayat al-Idrak fi Dirayat at al-Aflak and the other al-Tuhfat al-Shahiyya fi al-Hay’at. He dedicated his ‘Nihayat’ to the governor of Isfahan al-Din Muhammad al-Juwayini (d. 678 A.H.), which would indicate that he wrote this book before the year 678 A.H. (1279). Qutb al-Din was much influenced by Tusi’s Afkar al-Tadkhira al-Nasiriya which work he follows in his astronomical expositions.

He, however, expresses his own ideas which are not to be found in Tusi’s works. He also brings under discussion the viewpoints of other earlier scientists including Ibn al-Haytham. Thus, his work is more eleborate and comprehensive than that of Tusi. He wrote a separate commentary on Tusi’s TADHKIRA entitled Sharh al-Tadhkirh al-Nasiriyah. After writing Nihayat al-Idrak, he saw the need for a further elaboration of the subject and wrote, by way of Commentary on it, Fi Harakat al-Daharja wa al-Nisba bayn al-Mustavi wa al-Munhani (On the motion of the rolling and the relation between the straight and the curved).

Manuscript Review: The Book of Musical Modes, by Al-Urmawi

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[Al-Urmawi] was the greatest of music theorists. He was the pioneer of a school which propagated the "Systematist Theory"...



Editor’s Note: The following is an extract from N.A Baloch’s ‘The Great Books of Islamic Civilisation’. This is a short summary of Al-Urmawi’s ‘Book of Musical Modes.’


Figure 1. An Azerbaijani carpet depicting Al-Urmawi (Source)

Safi al-Din Abu al-Mafakhir `Abd al-Mu`min b. Yusuf b. Fakhir al-Urmawi al-Baghdadi was born in Baghdad in the early years of the 6th/13th century. The family originally belonged to Urmia, a town in Adharbaijan. Safi al-Din received good education, and especially excelled in music, calligraphy and correspondence (insha’). Eventually he attained high positions as official scribe, librarian, and court minstrel and boon companion of Caliph Al-Musta`sim (1243-58 A.D.). He received a pension of 5,000 golden pieces a year. Safi al-Din was in Baghdad when it was sacked by Hulagu in 656/1258. When the city was given over to the Mongol holders for slaughter and pillage, his music reputation helped Safi al-Din and he gained access to Hulagu and ‘so charmed the conqueror by his performances on the Cid that Hulagu ordered that Safi al-Din, his family and property should be spared in general devastation’. Hulagu took him into service and his pension was doubled to 10,000 pieces of gold, which was paid out of the revenues of Baghdad. He then became tutor to the sons of the wazir Shams al-Din Muhammad b. Muhammad al-Juwayni, who with his brother ‘Ata Malik, the author of the Tail kh-i Jahan Gusha’ , appointed the famous musician to head the Correspondence Bureau (Diwan-i Insha) in Baghdad.

Safi al-Din’s two pupils, Baha’ al-Din Muhammad and Sharaf al-Din Harun, the sons of the wazir were extremely kind to him. Baha al-Din on being appointed as governor took Safi al-Din with himself to Isfahan in 1265 A.D. On the death of Baha’ al-Din (1279) and the fall of the family of Al-Juwayni (1284), the great musician fell on evil days, was imprisoned for a debt of 300 pieces of gold and died in a debtor’s prison in 693 A.H. (1284).

For his great skill in music, he was excelled by none since the days of Ishaq al-Mausili, the boon companion of Harun al- Rashid. He was the inventor of two stringed instruments, the mughni (an arch-lute) and the nuzha (a new type of psaltery).

Figure 2. A manuscript copy of Risalah al-Sharafiyah fi al-Nisab al-Ta’lifiyyah, one of al-Urmawi’s 2 famous works, 16th century, Adilnor Collection (Source)

After Farabi, Safi al-Din was the greatest of music theorists. He was the pioneer of a school which propagated the “Systematist Theory”. Sag al-Din authored two important works on the theory of music – Kitab al-Adwar (Book of Musical Modes) and al-Risalat al-Sharafiyya (The Sharafiya Treatise). Both were used as text books, and remained authority among music theorists for centuries.

Kitab al Adwar, better known to the theorists, was probably written in 1252 A.D. It is divided into fifteen sections (fusul) dealing with.

1. the notes (anghln),

2. the frets (dasain),

Figure 3. Iranian stamp depicting Al-Urmawi (Source)

3. the lute (`ud),

4. the intervals (ab’al),

5. the composition (tan.),

6. the modes (adw.ir),

7. the two stringted pandores,

8. the lute of five strings,

9. the popular modes (adwar),

10. the related notes ,

11. the scales (tabaqit),

12. the accordatur (istihab),

13. the rhythm,

14. the influence (ta’thir) of notes (tanabir),

15. the performance.

Figure 4. Al-Urmawi’s Risalah al Sharafiyyah fi Nisab al-ta’lifiyyah; Treatise on Music (Source)

The other book al-Risalat al-Sharafiya fa al-Nisab al-TaTifiya (The Sharafiya Treatise on Musical Conformities in Compostion) was written by about 666/1267 and dedicated to the Wazir’s son Sharaf al-Din Harun (d. 678/1279). The book is divided into five Discourses (maqalat) with the usual sections (fusul). These deal with the bases of sound (saut), intervals (ab`ad), as well as the six ‘finger scales’ (mawajib). According to Farmer, it is a more finished work than ‘The Adwar’.

Figure 5. Ludwig Deutsch – The Mandolin Player (Source)

Regarding Safi al-Din’s stature as a music theorist, Farmer has observed that in the East, Safi al-Din was ‘looked upon as fountain head in the subject, whilst the European West has penned fulsome praise of his abilities. Kiesewetter called him ‘the Zarlino of the Orient’, Sir Hubert Parry considered the Systematist Scale to be ‘the most perfect ever devised’, for, as Riemann says, it gives consonances purer than our scale can afford us. Even Helmholtz considered that the theory of Safi al-Din was ‘noteworthy in the history of the development of music’.

Manuscript Review: ‘The Indica’ or ‘Al-bayruni’s India,’ by Al-Bayruni​

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Bayruni conducted advanced research and wrote original standard works in different areas of knowledge - such as mathematics, astronomy, astrology, physics, pharmacology, cosmology, mineralogy, geography, history, chronology and cultural anthropology......

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Editor’s Note: The following is an extract from N.A Baloch’s ‘The Great Books of Islamic Civilisation’. This is a short summary of Al-Bayruni​’s  ‘The Indica’ or ‘Al-bayruni’s India.’


Abu al-Rayhan Muhammad b. Ahmad al-Bayruni was born in the outer part (bayrun) of Kath, the capital of Khwarazm (`Madinah Khwarazm’) on Thursday, the 3rd of Dhu al-Hijjah, 362 A.H. (973 A.D.) and died in Ghazni in 443 A.H.[1] Known by the honorific title of `al-Ustadh‘ (`The Master’) he was an intellectual giant of his times. He remained in pursuit of knowledge for all his life, and even while on the death bed he inquired from a friend who had come to see him, about the number of rotations which a particular planet made.

Figure 2. USSR stamp, Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī, 6 copecks, 1973 (Source)

Bayruni conducted advanced research and wrote original standard works in different areas of knowledge – such as mathematics, astronomy, astrology, physics, pharmacology, cosmology, mineralogy, geography, history, chronology and cultural anthropology. The number of books he wrote on these subjects would count up to 180. He excelled in his knowledge of classical languages as well as vernaculars of Central Asia, wrote both in Arabic and Persian, translated from Sanskrit and also composed verse in it.

Bayruni studied in Kath and was already an accomplished scholar, scientist and author when under the changed political events in his native country, grave otherwise but fortuitous for him, he got the long awaited opportunity to conduct his researches on ‘Indian’ subjects under the liberal patronage of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni. In 407 A.H.

(1016-17), when Bayruni was serving as a trusted courtier and advisor to Prince Abu al- ‘Abbas al-Mamun of Khwarazm, the army rebelled and assassinated the Prince who was a brother-in-law of Sultan Mahmud. Thereupon, the Sultan occupied Khwarazm, punished the rebels, and patronized the learned men of the Mamunid Court including Bayruni. For long, Bayruni had been in search of original source books on Hindu astronomy and he now saw it clearly that for his Indian studies Ghazni was his future destination. The Sultan’s favour and patronage offered a welcome opportunity to him to accompany the Sultan to Ghazni. There he conducted his research without any interference and to his entire satisfaction.

Figure 3. Google honors Al-Biruni’s Birthday with this Doodle (Source)

From Ghazni, Bayruni continued on his field studies, undertook journeys into the interior of the Subcontinent and traveled as far as Multan and possibly more southwards to Sind. Sometime during the years 411-414 A.H. (1020 – 1924 A.D.) he visited and stayed at Fort Nandana (Jhelum district) and conducted his memorable experiment whereby he determined more precisely the length of one degree of the arc of the meridian circle, and calculated the radius and the circumference of the Earth — his figures coming very close to the modern ones. He made oral inquiries, studied the source materials, obtained Sanskrit texts and collected all information he possibly could during a period of about 12 years (408-420/1017-1029), and wrote as many as 28 works on the Indian subjects. His extensive studies and expositions had developed a full- fledged discipline of `Indology’.

Figure 4. An illustration from al-Biruni’s astronomical works, explains the different phases of the moon (Source)

The most celebrated of his works on this subject is the INDICA or ALBERUNI’S INDIA. These are brief and convenient titles improvised by modern scholars, the latter one by Edward Sachau. Bayruni himself gave his book a much more expressive and versified title. It would seem that in a delightful moment of having seen the book completed, he couched its title in verse as if symbolizing the local Sanskrit tradition in which the texts were usually composed in verse:

Kitaab mali al-Hind min maqulah maqbulatun fi al-aql ano mardhulah.

Translated literally it would mean:

“The Book is Based on the Indians’ own Tradition Acceptable to Reason, or Prone to Rejection”.

Bayruni had collected the needed information both from oral and written sources and he authored this book at Ghazni during the course of 5 months (30 April – 30 September) in the year 1030 A.D.

Figure 5. The Bakhshali manuscript (discovered in Peshawar, Pakistan) contains the oldest recorded example of the symbol that we use for zero today, 3rd-4th Century C.E (Source)

The INDICA is comprehensive in exposition of the cultural achievements of the Indians, predominantly though not exclusively of the Hindus. Historically, it happens to be the first book on record, demonstrating ‘complete, objective and scientific description of a culture’. Thus, Bayruni became ‘Father of the Science of Cultural/Social Anthropology’. Edward C. Sachau, the producer of “Alberunis India” (an English version of Bayruni’s original text) observed in 1888 as follows. “In general, it is the method of our author not to speak himself, but to let the Hindus speak, giving extensive quotations from their classical authors. He presents a picture of Indian civilization as painted by the Hindus themselves” (Preface p. xxiv). “As far as the present state of research allows one to judge, the work of Alberuni has not been continued” (Preface, p. xiii). Indeed, in its scheme and exposition of the Indian culture in all its essential dimensions, the INDICA stands unsurpassed to this day.


[1] In absence of a clear contemporary evidence, the year 443 A.H. can be validly inferred from the more relevant references on record (Cf. Ghurrat al-Zijat or Karan Tilaka, Arabic text, ed. N.A Baloch, Sind University, Pakistan, Oct., 1973, Preface).

Embedding Scientific Ideas as a Mode of Science Transmission

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I used the discipline of astronomy as a template to record the transmitted ideas and hoped that other people, who work on other disciplines, would do the same, all in an effort to paint a fuller picture of the situation that prevailed around the Mediterranean during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries... - George Saliba...


Note of Editor: This article was originally published as “Embedding Scientific Ideas as a Mode of Science Transmission” (© University of Barcelona). [1] We thank the publisher and the author for permitting the republication of the article at our web portal.



At a different occasion I had attempted to survey the results that have already been reached regarding the transmission of scientific ideas from the world of Islam to the scientists of the European Renaissance.’ In that survey, I included some of those details which have been well known in the literature since the late fifties of the last century, while I added others that were either less known, or have been more recently explored and documented. I used the discipline of astronomy as a template to record the transmitted ideas and hoped that other people, who work on other disciplines, would do the same, all in an effort to paint a fuller picture of the situation that prevailed around the Mediterranean during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Problems of Detecting Contacts

In the field of astronomy, which happens to be the most fecund of all the scientific fields, tracing the transmission of astronomical ideas from the Islamic world to Europe proves to be rather challenging for two main reasons: When texts were plainly and admittedly translated from Arabic into Latin, and that happened mainly during the Middle Ages, sometime between the tenth and the fourteenth centuries, the problem that was hardest to answer was: why some texts were translated while others were not? Why were the works of Muhammad b. Musa al-Khwarizmi (d. c. 850) translated, his Indian arithmetic, his algebra, as well as his astronomical tables, while the astronomical tables and other mathematical works of his contemporary, and in many ways just as brilliant, Habash al-Hasib (d. c. 870) were not?

In the case of the Renaissance the situation becomes much more complex. For by that time, that is, after the fifteenth and during the sixteenth centuries, we rarely find Arabic books that were explicitly translated into Latin, as was the case in medieval times. Of course we are not talking about the conscious efforts by people like Andreas Alpagos who undertook the challenge to re-translate the works of Avicenna in particular, for those were simply revisions of translations already completed before. Nor are we talking about the very few attempts that were made during the seventeenth century to translate one book here or one treatise there as was the case during the earliest stages of what later became the tradition of Orientalism. Those attempts are a category by themselves for they were mainly executed with an archaeological purpose in mind and were mostly motivated by the curiosity that became notorious during the later colonial period, and prepared the ground for the fictitious Orient that was finally created in the European mind, an Orient that became the hallmark of Orientalism.[2] The complex issues that began to appear in the Renaissance, and were rarely recognized before, had to do with a completely different kind of transmission of scientific ideas. The phenomenon I wish to single out, and which I would call embedding rather than transmission, is that of a transmission process through which Renaissance scientists, and sometimes also humanists, read texts in the original Arabic, grasped the ideas contained in those texts, and then incorporated those ideas in their own works. Of course, their resulting works were produced in Latin.

During this process, detecting lines of transmission, especially in the case of humanistic texts, becomes much more difficult, and at times even contentious. Issues of whether Dante read the Mi`raj stories of prophet Muhammad before he wrote his Divine Comedy or not, give only one sample of such difficulties. And if true, such a process of embedding could be barely detected in the works of Dante, notwithstanding the disputes that surround it and still stir up much debate. This very process of embedding may in fact be a forerunner of what seems to have happened at a much larger scale during the Renaissance.

Those who work with scientific texts are slightly more fortunate than their fellow humanists simply because it is slightly easier to prove the process of embedding in scientific texts than it is in humanistic ones. It is the very nature of those scientific texts that allowed someone like Neugebauer, Kennedy and generations of the latter’s students after him to pronounce immediately that what they saw in the lunar model of Copernicus (d. 1543) was in fact a case of embedding the lunar model of Ibn al-Shatir (d. 1375). And yet, we can still hear people arguing for the case of independent discovery, and that one should not yet talk of embedding or transmission of the ideas of Ibn al-Shatir by or to Copernicus without demonstrating the exact route by which Ibn al-Shatir’s ideas reached Copernicus. Independent discovery is in fact a plausible argument, and we have many examples of such occurrences in the history of science. But the case of Ibn al-Shatir’s lunar model, the story of coincidence is slightly more complex. To start with, it is a geocentric model unlike the other Copernican models, not only because it fits better with an Aristotelian cosmology, but because the moon is in fact an earthly satellite. Second, Ibn al-Shatir’s model was designed to solve in one stroke two major problems in the Ptolemaic lunar model: (a) it solved the equant-like behaviour of the Ptolemaic model, and (b) it resolved the distortion that the Ptolemaic model introduced to the apparent size of the lunar disk at quadrature. Third, Ibn al-Shatir’s model was also designed to dispense with the concept of prosneusis that had bedeviled the Ptolemaic model and had caused much controversy in Islamic astronomy. When all those factors are taken into consideration it becomes clear that all those purposes that motivated Ibn al-Shatir’s model, and the multiple layers of technical intricacies it resolved, make it highly unlikely that two people would coincidentally come upon it unless they were both seeking to resolve all those problems of the Ptolemaic model and from within the same Aristotelian cosmology. To think that the same complexities and the same motivations could be attributed to Copernicus in order to explain his adoption of Ibn al-Shatir’s lunar model complicates the story of independent discovery, not to say that it makes it incredible. Let us at least say that one’s imagination has to be stretched a little in order to believe that such coincidences could occur.

The fact that we still do not know the exact route by which Copernicus knew of Ibn al-Shatir’s lunar model, before he decided to adopt it, and yet we can make such claims of indebtedness on the part of Copernicus, is only a feature of the nature of scientific texts that allow such conjectures.

As we just said, the scientific intricacies of Ibn al-Shatir’s model and its complexity and multiple purposes, as well as its demonstrable equality with that of Copernicus, angle for angle, sphere for sphere, and the historical fact that Ibn al-Shatir died exactly a hundred and sixty-eight years before Copernicus, make the story of independent discovery much less likely. And yet it is not impossible to imagine.

Had the story stopped with the lunar model, this particular case of embedding would have remained a tantalizing conjecture, and we would have all continued to wait for the day when we could indeed account for what is sometimes called “the smoking gun” that would demonstrate the route through which Copernicus came to know of Ibn al-Shatir’s work.

The plot thickened, however, when it was found out that Copernicus also used a mathematical theorem, now commonly known as the Tusi Couple, which was discovered by another astronomer, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (d. 1274), who lived even another hundred years earlier than Ibn al-Shatir. As it turned out, Copernicus did not only use this theorem, but offered to prove it. It was in the proof that he reproduced the same geometric points that were used by Tusi before. One could still stretch his imagination and say that it was a series of coincidences. But then there was a “smoking gun” in this case. There was one geometric point that indicated the center of the smaller sphere in the Iasi Couple where Dig had designated it with the Arabic letter “zain”. All other points were the same, that is the Arabic letters used by Tusi were duplicated, point for point, with their Latin phonetic equivalents by Copernicus. For this particular point, Copernicus used the Latin letter “F”, instead of the expected “Z”. This single variation could only mean that he, or someone helping him, obviously misread the Arabic “zain” for an Arabic “fa”‘. In fact the two letters are very similar in the Arabic script, and, depending on the manuscript that he or his assistant were working from, it would be very easy to mistake a “fa”‘ for a “zain”. Thus the likelihood that Copernicus would have his own random selection of alphabetic designators to mark the same points that were marked by Tusi with the same phonetic equivalences is very slim indeed, and in light of that one has to begin to loose faith in the theory of independent discovery.

But when it was further found that Copernicus also used the same model for the upper planets that was used by Tusi’s colleague and friend Mu’ayyad al-Din al-Urdi (d. 1266), of course after making the easy mathematical shift from geocentrism to heliocentrism, and this time neglecting to prove the lemma that was devised by ‘Urdi and proven by him for the purpose, the problem of independent discovery became even harder to maintain. This lapse in Copernicus’s construction of ‘his own’ mathematical model for the upper planets prompted Kepler to write to his teacher Maestlin and inquire about this particular proof of this rather simple theorem, now dubbed as the ‘INT lemma, and Maestlin duly complied with his request.[3] One can see how complex scientific texts could allow us to reach such conclusions regarding the embedding of scientific ideas even if we had no clue regarding the route through which Copernicus must have known about these earlier results.

The coup de grace came when Copernicus reached the construction of his model for the planet Mercury. There too, Ibn al-Shatir had constructed a model of his own that avoided the equant problem of Ptolemy’s model, but preserved the essential features of the Ptolemaic observational results, namely, that the planet Mercury should have one apogee in the constellation of Libra and two perigees at ± 120° on either side of it. The very problem of two perigees came about from the Ptolemaic observational problem where it was thought that Mercury had its maximum elongations from the sun at those two points, i.e. it appeared to the observer, on the earth, to have the largest epicycle at those points. In order to achieve all these cosmological purposes and remain faithful to the Ptolemaic observational results, Ibn al-Shatir had to use the Tug Couple within the construction of the model in order to allow Mercury’s epicycle to expand and contract, so that it would look small at apogee, and large enough at the two perigees. This was relatively simple for Ibn al-Shatir since the Tusi Couple was specifically designed to take care of such cases of expansion and contraction while remaining within the conceptual domain of Aristotelian cosmology. Put simply, the Tusi Couple was developed specifically to obtain linear motion, the expansion and contraction in this case, as a result of the Aristotelian required uniform circular motion.

Now, in his own construction of the Mercury model, Copernicus adopts the same technique as Ibn al-Shatir, that is, he used the same Tusi Couple for the same expansion and contraction purposes that were used by Ibn al-Shatir. And he also accounted for the equant in exactly the same way it was accounted for by Ibn al-Shatir. But here again there was another “smoking gun”. In adopting Ibn al-Shatir’s very complicated model Copernicus got confused between the absolute size of Mercury’s epicycle and the size it would appear to an observer on earth, and made the absurd statement that the model would yield a maximum elongation at a distance of 90° from the apogee. He apparently forgot that size depended on two variables: the absolute size of the object, and the distance of the object from the observer. For although Mercury’s epicycle does in fact reach its maximum expansion at 90° away from the apogee, for an observer at the earth it would still not look as big as the contracted epicycle which would be brought closer by the motion of the model to the observer at 120° on either side of the apogee. When Swerdlow noted this discrepancy in Copernicus’s construction of the Mercury model, as he translated Copernicus’s earliest astronomical treatise, the Commentariolus, he had this to say about it:

There is something very curious about Copernicus’s description. […] Copernicus apparently does not realize that the model was designed, not to give Mercury a larger orbit (read epicycle) when the Earth (read center of the epicycle) is 90° from the apsidal line, but to produce the greatest elongations when the Earth (read center of the epicycle) is ± 120° from the aphelion (apogee).”[4]

He then went on to say:

This misunderstanding must mean that Copernicus did not know the relation of the model to Mercury’s apparent motion. Thus it could hardly be his own invention for, if it were, he would certainly have described its fundamental purpose rather than write the absurd statement that Mercury “appears” to move in a larger orbit when the Earth is 90° from the apsidal line. The only alternative, therefore, is that he copied it without fully understanding what it was really about. Since it is Ibn ash-Shatir’s model, this is further evidence, and perhaps the best evidence, that Copernicus was in fact copying without full understanding from some other source, and this source would be an as yet unknown transmission to the west of Ibn ash-Shatir’s planetary theory.” [italics mine][5]

The series of “coincidences” mentioned before, as well as the misreading and “misunderstanding” just mentioned, makes it clear that Copernicus was not working independently of the Arabic texts that had been written in the previous two centuries or so. The fact that we can assert such claims demonstrates the power of scientific texts which allow us to determine indebtedness, incorporation, embedding, direct and indirect transmission, etc., without necessarily knowing the manner in which those contacts took place. Similar cases in humanistic texts would be much harder to establish.

Other instances of such embeddings are a little easier to establish in the opposite direction, that is, when we know the Arabic texts that were read by Renaissance scientists, but we still do not know exactly how they were used by those scientists in their Latin habitat. I have had occasion to study Arabic manuscripts that were read by one of Copernicus’s younger contemporaries, Gillaume Postel (1510-1581). One of those manuscripts is preserved at the Vatican Library, while the other at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France. Both manuscripts have Postel’s handwritten annotations on their margins. I used those manuscripts for an article, which I published on the internet, in order to raise the question: whose science was Arabic science in Renaissance Europe?[6] In that article I demonstrated how someone like Postel would read Arabic astronomical manuscripts one day, annotate them, and in some instances even correct them, and the next day he would deliver his lectures at the Institut Royal, now College de France, obviously in Latin. Just think of the complexity of ideas being originally in Arabic, themselves written to challenge Greek astronomy, and after being digested by Postel were embedded in his lectures which were obviously delivered in Latin.

I used that example to question the applicability of such concepts as Arabic science, Latin science, Greek science and the like when we know, as in the example of Postel, how ideas were actually constructed through many layerings of those languages, religions, and cultures to which those sciences are usually ascribed. In it I called for a new historiography of science that accounts for such instances of embeddings as Postel’s and Copernicus’s.

One More Incorporation: The Case of Ighnatius Ni`matallah (d. c. 1590) and the Gregorian Reform of the Calendar

Now that we have shed a badly needed light on the poorly studied phenomenon of embedding as a mode of transmission that was apparently quite common during the Renaissance, a phenomenon that did not involve specific texts being translated as was done during the Middle Ages, we can then approach the Renaissance with a much more open mind. Once we do that, we are likely to find many more contacts than the ones we have already mentioned. In what follows, I will focus on one particular instance where transmission was not specifically sought out by Renaissance orientalists, as was done by Postel and others, but by a fortuitous offer by an occidentalist, if you wish, who simply managed to have his ideas incorporated by Renaissance scientists, also without producing fully translated texts from the original Arabic.

The occidentalist in question was a colorful character by the name of Ighnatius (Ignatius) Ni’matallah (Ni`meh), known variously as Ni`meh in the Eastern sources or Nehemias in the Latin ones. He was a patriarch of the Syriac Jacobite church and was raised to the see of the Antiochian patriarchate in the year 1557.[7]  While still in Diyar Bakr (modern Diyarbakir in South East Turkey), this patriarch seems to have earned the confidence of the local Ottoman governor of the district. The Ottoman rule itself was at that time still on the ascension. It had been barely one hundred years since the successful conquest of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. And with its fall the Ottoman conquest ushered in the defeat of the last vestiges of Byzantine presence in Asia Minor. One could safely say that at the time Christian Ottoman relations were not at their best. In addition, and even without the ascension of the Ottomans, the Christians in that area were living in a political turmoil that had been worsening visa vis their Muslim neighbors since the incursions of the crusaders between the 11th and 13th centuries, and reached an abyss amongst the Christians themselves when the fourth crusade 1204-1205 was redirected and finally launched against the capital city of Byzantium.

Thus by the middle of the sixteenth century, religious sensitivities and interfaith suspicions and intrigues had been ripening for centuries. It was not surprising, therefore, that the local Muslims were suspicious of a Christian patriarch like Ni’matallah gaining favor at the local governor’s court, ostensibly as the governor’s private physician on account of his expertise in Islamic medicine. Ni’matallah’s expertise was not totally off the mark. Other independent facts corroborate this expertise, and in a future study, devoted to this man, I will demonstrate that the first printing of Avicenna’s Arabic text of the Canon by the Medici’s Oriental Press, in 1593 in Florence, used one of the manuscripts which were brought along to Italy by this same Patriarch. His relatively advanced medical scholarship, however, could not protect him from jealousies and intrigues at the Diyar Bakr court. Thus in a gesture of reconciliation, and probably intending to protect his private physician, the local governor took off his own turban one evening and placed it on the head of the patriarch, while declaring that his own physician had by this gesture just converted to Islam. Conversion has a tremendous power, and many a sinful person was saved by the very act.

Historical reports tell us that the governor’s gesture went well with his Muslim audience. But they also tell us that the very act of a patriarch converting to a different religion, whether Islam or otherwise, infuriated his own Christian parishioners, who now clamored for his head. Sensing a danger for his life, the hapless patriarch managed to appoint his nephew to his patriarchal see (apparently still had some clout among his Christian followers for such an act of nepotism), and to escape with his life in the year 1576 AD. In addition, he apparently managed to haul along a relatively large collection of Arabic manuscripts. Concrete evidence of his escape still survives in a note appended to a manuscript, which is now kept, together with the rest of the patriarch’s manuscripts, at the Laurentiana Library in Florence, Italy. The note says that he, “the lost soul, by the name of Patriarch Ni`meh, finished resolving the problems in this manuscript while he was being tossed by the sea waves on his way to Venice, in the year 1888 of the Greeks (= 1577 AD).”[8]

Further background should at least partially explain the reasons why the Patriarch ventured on this dangerous trip in the first place, and should give us a clue as to what he expected to achieve with it. The decision taken by the Eastern Orthodox churches to split off from the Church of Rome in 1054 AD was unwelcome by the Vatican, and thus no effort was spared to re-integrate those churches back under the papal flag. The Syriac Antiochian church was one of those Eastern churches whose re-unification with the Church of Rome was at least promised by the Patriarch. That promise itself may have facilitated his reception at the papal see, when he finally arrived at Rome.

Thus far his motivation for taking the trip may be understandable. But what remains to be problematic is the reason why he decided to bring along a large number of Arabic manuscripts, mostly scientific ones, and what was he planning to do with those books. As we shall soon see, this problem remains unresolved unless we change our vision of the intellectual life during the Renaissance, and begin to appreciate the extent to which Islamic culture, and Islamic science in particular, had been sought after during that time. So what was the Patriarch hoping to do with those books?

In hindsight, we now know that there was a good market for them in northern Italy, along the corridor that stretched from Venice in the North East down to Florence and eventually to Rome. The sources report that sometime during the Patriarch’s trip from Venice to Rome, in the company of the converted Turk Paolo Orsini as his interpreter, the Patriarch made the acquaintance of the cardinal, and future Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinand de Medici, who was apparently considering the establishment of a press, later known as the Medici Oriental Press.[9] The Patriarch’s books were definitely useful for the enterprise. We are told that Ferdinand struck a deal with the Patriarch in which the Patriarch would receive a monthly stipend of 25 scudes, and a life-long free access to his books, if he consented to deliver those books to a governing board of the press that was then headed by Raimondi, and who later became the owner of the same press.

All of these facts could not simply be happy circumstances. What is the likelihood of the convergence of such characters as a patriarch, traveling to Venice with a considerable load of Arabic books; a business/cleric/and future Duke from the banking family of the Medicis, interested in setting up an oriental press towards the end of the sixteenth century; and a Pope, interested in re-uniting the Eastern churches under the papal flag? The only explanation that could connect all those facts together is to assume that there was a lively intellectual and business environment in sixteenth century Italy that valued the sciences of, and possible business with, the Islamic world. A word of this interest must have already reached the Islamic lands so that the Patriarch could smell a commercial prospect for his books. The re-unification of the churches must have only been an excuse to facilitate the trip, for we know that nothing of the sort happened, and that a very small group of Eastern Christians had a long and checkered history with the Papacy who, at various stages of their history, all the way from the great schism of the eleventh century till the nineteenth century, split off and re-united themselves with the papal authority several times over.

At the Patriarch’s arrival in Rome the reigning Pope, Gregory XIII (1572-1585), had other reasons to rejoice at meeting him. Not only did the Pope want to test the grounds for a campaign against the Turks,[10] but he also wanted to revive the Catholic church from the debilitating attacks it had received at the hands of the protestants. A patriarch from the Turkish lands of Islam, ostensibly wishing to re-unite his flock with the Pope’s, would be very useful to the Pope, and a learned one to boot, who could be employed in the papal committee that was to achieve the single most famous act of this pope, namely, the Gregorian Reform of the Julian calendar, which eventually reestablished the Catholic church’s authority, at least symbolically, in protestant lands.[11] Eastern orthodox churches, in countries where the Gregorian calendar is accepted by political authorities for civic purposes, still refuse to follow the ecclesiastical injunctions of this calendar, differing with it most notably over the Easter cycle. One should not underestimate the symbolism of this rejection as a means to safeguard the independence of the Eastern churches from that of Rome.

For the moment, I wish to leave aside the incorporation of the Patriarch’s ideas into the production of the books at the Medici Oriental Press, for I would like to treat that issue at much greater length at a different occasion. But for now, let it be said that the first batch of printed Arabic books that this press issued from Florence, which were supposed to benefit the missionaries who were to proselytize in Arabic-speaking Islamic lands, included some four important scientific books, including Avicenna’s Canon and a hybrid text of the revised Elements of Euclid. The manuscript copies for both of these books came from the Patriarch’s library.[12] I note in passing that I find it hard to believe that anyone would deliberately use Euclid’s Elements in order to proselytize among Muslims who had been using this book for almost a full millennium at the time. My contention is that the press had a European market in mind, and used the missionary work to avoid being censored by the Inquisition for producing Arabic books in the very heart of Christendom.

Now that I lay the matter of the Patriarch’s role in the Medici Oriental Press aside, I wish to devote the rest of this paper to the Patriarch’s role in the Gregorian calendar reform itself. Not much is known about the details of the deliberations that led to the reform of the Julian calendar in 1582, under Gregory XIII. We do not know who proposed what, at what time, and for what reasons. We also do not know the particular expertise the Patriarch brought to the committee, other than his being well versed in the secular sciences of the Islamic world. But few tidbits have already come to light, and through them we can still trace the general theme of the embedding of the Islamic legacy into the intellectual environment of Renaissance Europe.

We are particularly fortunate that the Vatican had the wisdom to convene a conference at the 400th anniversary of the Gregorian reform, and that the proceedings of the conference are now in print for all to consult.[13] And although none of the conferees devoted a paper to the role of the patriarch in the making of the Gregorian reform, several of them have hinted to that role. I will only single out those who have made remarks that help us understand the phenomenon of embedding of scientific ideas or remarks that warrant further research. I only have the chance to highlight those remarks here and not to go into them in any great detail.

In the article, “Christoph Clavius and the Scientific Scene in Rome,” Ugo Baldini had occasion to refer to the report, Ratio Corrigendi[14] that was submitted by the calendar committee, on the 14th of September in the year 1580, to Pope Gregory XIII, regarding their proposed reform of the calendar. The important part of the report is that it included the names of the members of that committee.

Among the nine signatures we find the names of three prominent prelates. The first is Cadinal Guglielmo Sirleto who was the prefect of the congregation and co-ordinator of its works. Next comes Bishop Vincenzo Lauri of Mondovi who was perhaps the co-ordinator of the group before Sirleto. In the third place we find the name of the Patriarch Ignatius of Antioch. It is certain that the three of them were well acquainted with astronomy and we have direct evidence of this in the case of the Patriarch.” [15]

Notice that the name of the famous Christoph Clavius is not among the top three signatures of the report. By the direct evidence of the Patriarch’s knowledge of astronomy, Baldini means the existence of a correspondence between the Patriarch and Clavius in which, according to the Laurentiana manuscript OR. 301 where the original Arabic of this correspondence is kept, he says that

Patriarch Ignatius maintained that the idea of a variable tropical year was due to observational and instrumental errors, also adding that a whole series of near-eastern observations (708 A.D. to 1472) showed the length of the year to be constant. He alludes to these observations by listing, sometimes the authors, sometimes the places where they had been made.” [16]

Baldini goes on to say that “this series of observations does not seem to have been sufficiently researched in studies on Islamic astronomy.”[17]

What Baldini’s testimony really means is that the Patriarch was considered among the top three knowledgeable persons on the committee, that the committee was composed of a chosen few (nine members), and that the Patriarch contribution to this committee was that he was well grounded in Islamic astronomy and that he brought along with him from Diyar Bala very important information the committee needed to know. One can imagine what kind of information that could be when we know that any ecclesiastical calendar had to consider, at a minimum, the best values if could have for the lengths of the solar year and the lunar month, and the manner in which those values were determined. So the Patriarch’s list of observations which led to a fixed solar year was crucial for the calendar’s deliberation.

Furthermore, the concept of the solar year itself involves decisions whether this year was a sidereal or a tropical year, and the relationship between the two was governed by a third concept, namely, that of precession. What was well known by then was that the Ptolemaic value for precession was considerably off the mark, and that this very value was indeed corrected by the observations that were performed during Islamic times in more than one Islamic capital. So what did the calendar committee do with such parameters? Baldini goes on to say that the committee “almost completely abandoned … the Ptolemaic linear theory, according to which there was a constant rate of precession of 1° per century. It had proved unable to account for the observations made by Muslim astronomers in 9th century Baghdad…”[18] Of course, the variation in the value of precession had necessitated debates over a third concept, namely that of trepidation. And the models proposed for this trepidation had a long history that stretched all the way from ninth century Baghdad till the time of Copernicus and the time of the committee itself.

Here again the Patriarch had a crucial intervention brought to the committee’s attention, and later on to the Pope himself as we are told by Baldini when the subject of those trepidation models was discussed. In Baldini’s words:

Each one of these models led to a different theory of the tropical year. The linear precession of Ptolemy gave a constant value of the length of the year which was known to be wrong. This had become clear already to Muslim astronomers working from the 9th century onwards in Baghdad and elsewhere, as the Patriarch Ignatius explained to the Pope in a letter (1579) and in a later report on the Compendium (12 March 1580) in which he maintained that the year had a constant, although non-Ptolemaic value.”[19]

The Patriarch was therefore already involved in the minute technical details of the committee’s deliberations, and his position was apparently clearly expressed in letters as the one whose copy is still preserved at the Laurentiana, according to Baldini. More importantly, he was apparently instrumental in convincing the committee to abandon the obsolete values of Ptolemy and adopt instead the latest, up to date values that were determined in Islamic times. This in itself is the best illustration I can think of to elucidate the concept of embedding ideas as a means of science transmission.

Other participants in the commemorative conference also noted the interjections of Patriarch Ignatius Na’matallah in the committee’s deliberations and appreciated the full scope of his role in the calendar reform.

In his own article on the Papal Bull of 1582 that aimed to promulgate the reformed calendar, August Ziggelaar had occasion to address the persons who gave this Bull the authority it had and the calendar the shape it finally took. Of course, the lion’s share in promulgating the Bull had much to do with the very dynamic personality of Pope Gregory XIII himself, and with his power of persuasion. But the Calendar’s authority rested with the nine men who went through the minute technical deliberations. But more importantly, Ziggelaar reveals that not all the members were in one voice supporting the results that were reached and circulated by the Pope in his letter to all catholic princes.[20] Notable among the dissenting voice was that of Patriarch Ni’matallah and for very technical reasons. They are the same reasons contained in the Laurentiana manuscript, which has been repeatedly mentioned so far.

Because of the importance of that dissent, Ziggelaar devoted a whole section to describing it in his article, under the title “The Criticism by Patriarch Ingatius.”[21] In it he lists the substantial points that were raised by the Patriarch. For apparently the Patriarch, like Clavius, had studied the very details of the new calendar and on his own had come to the following conclusions:

(1) The anticipation of the equinoxes cannot be as much as one day in 134 years because at the time of the Council of Nicea it was on 21 or 20 March and it had not yet gone back to 10 March; (2) from many observations in the East one concludes that the sun anticipates one day in 132 years; (3) the idea of leaving out ten leap days during 40 years should be rejected; (4) adjustments at the turn of the centuries is too irregular; (5) the moon gains one day, not in 304, but in 276 years; (6) the 14th of the lunation, according to the calculation of the Compendium by mean motions, differs sometimes two to four days from the true motion so that we could sometimes celebrate Easter with and sometimes before the Jews; (7) for the same reason Easter may sometimes be celebrated a month late. Finally, the Patriarch promised to present within a very few days the result of the research in his books, according to the commission of his Holiness.”[22]

Ziggelaar tells us that the Patriarch kept his word, and his critique of the calendar is apparently still preserved, in Karshuni, in the Laurentiana manuscript, which has been referred to several times already. The present author had not yet seen this manuscript and thus has to depend on the reports about it summarized in Zigglaar’s and other articles in the proceedings of the Gregorian Reform conference. Apparently the critique of the Patriarch did not stop with the seven points listed above. He went on to discuss other defects in the proposed reform that was being circulated by the Pope. For example, he contended that

it is not the conjunction of the sun and moon which marks the beginning of the month but the day when the moon becomes visible minus 24 hours and this according to the horizon of Jerusalem and as calculated by mean motions. Thus the 14th day will be full moon but the Compendium makes full moon fall on the 16th day. The Compendium believes that the mean motion of the sun is irregular and hence the length of the year variable. But this has to be attributed to the instruments of observation. A long series of observations in the East, from 708 to 1472, establish that the length of the year is 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, 53 5/12 seconds.”[23]

All this reveals the amount of scrutiny the Patriarch was able to bring to the effort of the reform. And more was to come.

On f. 22r Ignatius reveals the “greatest error” of the Compendium: “that it has not understood the first day of the month of the Jews.” It counts the 14th day from noon, whereas the day of the Jews begins at sunset. Also, if conjunction takes place shortly before sunset, the next day will invariably be the first day of the month. It thus results that the month always begins more than one day too early in the Compendium. If we also take the anomaly of the moon’s motion and the longitude difference between Rome and Jerusalem into account, the real full moon may occur up to five days later than calculated. Summarizing, Ignatius repeats that the Compendium makes the lunation begin one day too early and from noon, as astronomers do, but not as the Jews do. Ignatius joins a few tables to find Sunday letters according to several assumptions and he also adds thirty tables to find the new moons according to the opinion of the Holy Fathers and that of the Compendium.” [24]

Apparently the Patriarch’s reservations were taken very seriously, especially by the senior mathematician on the committee Clavius himself. For according to Ziggelaar

In his Explicatio Clavius asserts that the reform agrees completely with those rules of the Christians in the East which Patriarch Ignatius showed the commission in Rome, in particular that Easter may be celebrated immediately after the 14th day of the lunation. Ignatius is among the members who signed the report of the commission dated 14 September, 1580.” [25]

The final adoption of the reform was not a straightforward matter, and could not be assumed as finalized as soon as the Compendium was issued. It was in fact a long process, and some may even remember that as early as 1514 Copernicus himself was supposed to have participated in a proposed solution for the calendar reform.[26] The criticisms and the discussions that followed the first announcements of the Gregorian reform necessitated, several times, a return to the drawing table. At one point, the Paris faculty of theology’s response to the Compendium in 1577, judged that “astronomers are contemptible, dangerous and ignorant people.”[27] But particularly the Patriarch’s criticisms seem to have found a listening ear, for in the final formulation of the calendar reform, the commission

agreed on a few guide-lines, called “hypotheses”: if full moon occurs after six p.m., it is assigned to the next day. At new moon however, there is no need of so much precision. This seems to be the result of all the criticism by Ignatius.”[28]

And yet in the final reform formulation, as promulgated in 1582, the problem of the new moon falling after 6 pm being relegated to the next day was not formally accepted, but was found to be most correct if followed in practice. Ziggelaar concludes that “perhaps the criticism of Ignatius was accepted in practice, though never overtly.”[29]

Having a scientifically valid calendar, and accepting to keep within it the influence of the church tradition, like keeping Easter tagged to Passover, and the Vernal Equinox on March 21, as it was during the Nicean Council when Easter rules were established, instead of 25, which was being proposed at the time of the Gregorian reform, is one thing, and having it accepted universally by all churches East and West is another matter. Of all the committee members, Clavius was the most conscious of the political hoops the calendar had to go through after it was finally pronounced in the bull Inter gravissimas in 1582. He already anticipated that, especially in the Eastern churches, who incidentally never signed onto this reform at least as far as the date of Easter was concerned. In that respect, he must have known that the presence of the Patriarch on the committee would become a political asset. In fact, as early as 1581, he began to deploy that political asset as could be easily detected in his use of the name of the Patriarch in order to smooth the passage of the calendar in the Eastern churches. He must have been even worried about the Eastern Christians who were still affiliated with the Papal see, like the Maronites of Lebanon and the Melkites of Lebanon, Syria and Palestine, a sizeable number of whom did not participate in the boycott of the Roman church in 1054, just as much as he was worried about the Orthodox Christian churches who never fully adopted this reform as we just saw.

We have already said before that this particular pope, Gregory XIII, had his own ambitions visa vis the East, both in its Turkish face, against which he was trying to mount another crusade, and its Christian face as he was trying to re-unify the Eastern churches that had split off some five centuries before. After all, he welcomed Patriarch Ni’matallah in Rome, and assigned him a stipend from the papal treasury for the sole hope that the Patriarch would bring his Syrian church back under the papal flag as he promised he would do. It was also this Pope who had already sent several Jesuit emissaries during the 1570’s to Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Egypt probably to attempt to proselytize among the Muslims, but most importantly to give aid to the few Eastern Christians who still swore allegiance to the Pope.

One of those emissaries who came to Lebanon several times in 1578 and throughout the 1580’s was a Jesuit by the name of Giambattista Eliano, who did indeed investigate the conditions of the Eastern Christians who were still in union with the Pope, and particularly the Maronites of Lebanon who had their own liturgy, different from that of Rome, and who never saw eye to eye with the Orthodox Christians who persecuted them as heretics when Orthodoxy was declared the religion of the Byzantine Empire during and after the schism of 1054. It was this fellow Jesuit, Eliano, who was the correspondent of Clavius, and to whom Clavius wrote in regard to the calendar:

About the calendar, which is already finished, you should not be anxious, because the Pope plans to let two very able men come from there, and the patriarch has also subscribed to our calendar and admitted that it is very good. I hope that it will soon be published, because the Pope is quite eager.”[30]

Clavius continued to defend the Calendar Reform well after it was announced in the bull of 1582. He did so, for example, in his voluminous Explicatio,[31] which was published in 1603. And in his correspondence with cardinal Vincenzo di Lauro, who was himself involved in the calendar reform and at one point appointed by the Pope to participate in and later head the committee that considered the proposal of Luigi Giglio for the reform,

Clavius also told [Lauro] how Patriarch Ignatius of Antioch appeared at the meeting of the commission with books from the East and it was verified that the measures planned by the commission were in full agreement with these texts.”[32]

This is as close as I have been able to get to the inner working of that committee, and to the role played by Na`matallah in the Gregorian reform. I will return to this point below when I assess this role and connect it with the general theme of this paper, namely the various modes of transmission of science from East to West. For now, it should have become clear how crucial that role was, and how intimate the relationship between the Patriarch and Clavius had become during the time when they both worked on the reform committee.

Before I conclude this paper I wish to use this information that we have already gathered about the Patriarch and Clavius in order to answer a question that was raised by my dear friend and colleague Eberhard Knobloch in his admirable work on Clavius and his knowledge of Arabic sources. I am referring here to Knobloch’s article with the same title that was published as part of the proceedings of a conference that took place in 2001.[33] In this splendid article, Knobloch reviews in the most masterly fashion the intricate relationship Clavius had with a dozen authors of Arabic mathematical texts, and examines very carefully Clavius’s interaction with those authors, texts, and the ideas contained in those texts. While discussing the relationship between Clavius’s work on Euclid’s Elements, and Tusi’s work on the same, Knobloch quotes Clavius’s preface of his 1589 edition of Euclid’s Elements as saying:

We learned long ago that the Arabs demonstrated the same principle. Though I diligently looked for the demonstration a long time, I could not see it, because it is not yet translated from the Arab [sic] into Latin. Hence I am obliged to imagine it by myself.” [34]

Knobloch goes on to say:

In the edition of his works Clavius replaced this section by the remark: “I never got the permission to read it though I continuously asked for it the owner of the Arabic Euclid.” We do not know anything about this person who must have been able to read Arabic and who did not give the book to Clavius.” [35]

After admitting that he did not know of the person who could read Arabic and who was an acquaintance of Clavius, Knobloch continues to identify the Euclidian text that Clavius was talking about. In that instance he says:

The Arabic Euclid must have been Pseudo-at-Iasi which appeared in Rome in 1594. But Clavius’s remark in his edition of 1589 proves that he knew this fact by hearsay already many years before the printed publication of the Arabic text appeared.” [36]

Knowing what we now know of the life and works of Patriarch Ni’matallah, you can say that this whole article was written just to answer my friend Knobloch’s puzzles. I think we now know who was the person intended by Clavius who could read Arabic but did not give Clavius the permission to see the book. I think that he was none other than the Patriarch. And the Eucledian text that Clavius had heard about was none other than the text that Ni’matallah brought along, which is now still preserved at the Laurentiana, and which was itself used as the base for the 1594 edition that was published by the Medici Oriental Press. We only need to remember that the Patriarch arrived in Rome in 1577, and was immediately appointed by the Pope to work on the committee for the Gregorian Reform. The Medici Oriental Press did not begin to publish the Arabic works that the Patriarch brought along until the early 1590’s, some ten years or so after the work on the Gregorian Reform was finished and promulgated with the Bull Inter gravissimas. Between the time when Clavius came to know of the Patriarch, in the late 1570’s, and the time the Press began to function, the Patriarch had, in all likelihood, not yet reached the deal with the Medici’s to join the board of the press under the leadership of Raimondi, and had not yet secured his livelihood of the 25 monthly scudes and life-time access to his books that he was promised if accepted to give his books to be used by the press. During that period of anxiety, and knowing how valuable those books were, otherwise he wouldn’t have taken them along in his perilous journey, the Patriarch was probably a little stingy with strangers wishing to consult them. That could explain his refusal to give Clavius the permission he needed.


In light of this multilayered evidence, I hope we can now safely say that Renaissance Europe was in fact in need of the sciences that were already relatively well developed in the Islamic world. The Patriarch knew that, and thus brought his scientific books along, and Clavius and the Pope knew that as well, and thus immediately made use of this learned man who offered his services at the right time. Clavius had already heard of the various Arabic sources that he used, and were elegantly gathered by Knobloch, through their Arabic translations. He was apparently eager to learn more, as was also concluded by Knobloch when he collected all the Arabic material that Clavius had heard about, and wished to pursue. In some instances he had to come up with solutions of his own which were already found in the Arabic sources, as Knobloch says. But in all instances, Clavius was a living example of a very competent scientist, a younger contemporary with Copernicus, like his French colleague Guillaume Postel, of the kind of fertile cross breeding that was taking place between the worlds of Islam and Renaissance Europe.

But most important for us is the manner in which Arabic scientific ideas were embedded into the Latin scientific tradition of the time. Ideas seem to have seeped in, as if by osmosis, without much fanfare and without the traditional modality of transmission of science where we can easily detect the routes between original Arabic books and their Latin translations. Aren’t we slightly better prepared now to understand how Copernicus could have known about the earlier Islamic astronomical works? And aren’t we better equipped to understand the intellectual climate of the Renaissance and the desperate need Renaissance scientists must have had for scientific texts from the Islamic world.


[1] The first version of this paper was delivered at a conference A Shared Legacy: Islamic Science East and West, which was hosted by the University of Barcelona in April 2007, for whose support and facilities to attend this conference is here gratefully acknowledged. See my most recent book Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance, MIT Press, 2007.

[2] See Edward Said, Orientalism, Pantheon, 1978.

[3] See Anthony Grafton, “Michael Maestlin’s Account of Copernican Planetary Theory.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 117, no. 6 (1973): 523-550.

[4]  Nowel Swerdlow, “The Derivation and First Draft of Copernicus’s Planetary Theory: A Translation of the Commentariolus with Commentary.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 117, no. 6 (1973): 423-512, esp. p. 504

[5] Ibid.

[6] George Saliba, “Whose Science is Arabic Science in Renaissance Europe?,” http://www.columbia.eduf-gas 1 /proj ectivisions/case 1 /sci.1.html

[7] The information on this Patriarch derives from several sources, most important among them is a note written by Yubanna ‘Azzo, the secretary of the Antiochian Syriac Patriarchate. This biographical note was used as an introduction to `Azzo’s Arabic translation of the Syriac autobiographical letter that was sent by patriarch Ighnatius Ni`meh (short for Ni’matallah) to his parishioners in Diyar Bakr (probably from Rome towards the end of the sixteenth century). See Yiiharma `Azzo, “Ristilat al-batriyark Ighnatius Ni`meh,” al-Mashriq, vol 31 (1933) pp. 613-623, 730-737, 831-838. A less reliable biographical note was added by Louis Cheikho, in a previous issue of the same journal to his article “al-Tdifa al-mitruniya wa-l-ruhbaniya al-yastriya ft 1-qarnayn ‘ashar wa-l-scibi` ‘ashar“, al-Masriq, vol. 19 (1921), p. 139.

[8] Much of the information regarding the life of the Patriarch in Italy comes from the excellent work of John Robert Jones, Learning Arabic in Renaissance Europe (1505-1624), Ph.D. dissertation, London University, 1988. This particular note is appended to the Laurentiana manuscript OR 177, fol. 79r. Several other Arabic manuscripts in the Laurentiana collection are clearly marked as having been owned by this Patriarch Ignatius.

[9] The information regarding the relationship between the Patriarch and Ferdinand de Medici and the matter of the press comes from, among others, John Robert Jones, Learning Arabic, op. cit, John Robert Jones, The Arabic and Persian Studies of Giovan Battista Raimondi (c. 1536-1614), M. Phil dissertation, Warburg, London, 1981, and [John] Robert Jones, “The Medici Oriental Press (Rome 1584-1614) and the Impact of its Arabic Publications on Northern Europe,” in The Arabick’ Interest of the Natural Philosophers in Seventeenth-Century England, ed. G. A. Russell, Brill, Leiden, 1994, pp. 88-108. More information on this press and the role played by Ignatius Ni`meh, can be found in G. J. Toomer, Eastern Wisedome and Learning, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996.

[10] For Gregory’s interest in a Turkish campaign, see the Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. Gregory XIII.

[11] See, for example Jones, Learning Arabic, p. 42, where he says: Ignatius “Ni`matallah brought more than political influence to Europe. He was educated in the lingua franca of the Middle East, Arabic, and he was familiar with the medicine, mathematics and astronomy of the region. Joseph Scaliger referred appreciatively several times in his great Chronology, De Emendatione Temporum to a learned correspondence he had entered into with Ni`matallah; and the Pope appointed him to the commission for calendrical reform.”

[12] Jones, ”The Medici Oriental Press” op.cit.

[13] Gregorian Reform of the Calendar: Proceedings of the Vatican’s Conference to Commemorate its 400th Anniversary (1582-1982), edited by G. V. Coyne, S. J., M. A. Hoskins, and 0. Pedersen, Vatican, 1983.

[14] Ratio corrigendi fastos confirmata, et nomne omnium, qui ad Calendarii Correctionem delecti sunt oblate SS.mo D.N. Gregorio XIII. According to Baldini this report exists only in two Latin manuscripts: one at the Vatican Library Cod. Vat. Lat. 3685, 1-10, and the other at the Biblioteca Casanatense, Rome, 649, 164-167. See Baldini’s remarks about these manuscripts in Ibid, p. 155, n.1.

[15] Ibid, p. 137.

[16] Ibid., p. 162, n. 55.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid, p. 148.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid. p. 201.

[21] Ibid. p. 215.

[22] Ibid. p. 216.

[23] Ibid. p. 216-7.

[24] Ibid. p. 217.

[25] Ibid. p. 217-8.

[26] Noel Swerdlow and Otto Neugebauer, Mathematical Astronomy In Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus, Springer, NY, 1984, p. 8.

[27] Gregorian Reform of the Calendar, op. cit. p. 234, note 25.

[28] Ibid. p. 218.

[29] Ibid. p. 221.

[30] Letter quoted in part by Ziggelaar in ibid. p. 231.

[31] Chrisotopher Clavius, Romani calendarii a Gregorio XIII restituti explication, Roma, 1603.

[32] Quoted by Ziggelaar, in Gregorian Reform, op. cit. p. 232.

[33] Knobloch Eberhard, “Christoph Clavius (1538-1612) and his knowledge of Arabic sources”. In: Gesuiti e university in Europa (secoli XVI — XVIII) Atti del Convegno di studi Parma, 13-15 dicembre 2001, a cura di Gian Paolo Brizzi e Roberto Greci. Bologna 2002, pp. 403-420.

[34] Ibid. p. 419.

[35] Ibid. p. 420.

[36] Ibid.

Constantine the African and the Qayrawani doctors: Contribution of the ‘Phoenicians’ of North Africa to Latin Medicine in the Middle Ages and Renaissance

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When a sixteenth-century medical writer referred to Phoenicians, alongside Arabs, as exceptionally important medical sources, he was probably referring to the Muslim and Jewish doctors of Qayrawan, who were writing in Arabic in the tenth century, and Constantine the African, who was translating their writings into Latin in the late eleventh century. The resultant corpus of medical works, transmitted initially from the Benedictine monastery of Montecassino, formed the core of medical education in the West, and continued to be influential into the Renaissance. See also articles on ‘Salerno and Constantine the African’, ‘Kairouan’ and ‘The Aghlabids of Tunisia’ in Muslim Heritage....

Article Banner:  An early illustrated work dealing with the school of Salerno. The cover shows Constantine the African lecturing to the school. From Anastasiuset al., Regimen sanitatis Salernitanum (Source)

On the title page of a medical work published in Lyons in 1517 we read:

‘The New Practice (of medicine) of the Lyonais compiler, Lord Symphorien Champier, concerning all the kinds of diseases, <compiled> from the traditions of the Greeks, the Latins, the Arabs, the Phoenicians, and recent authors, <in> five golden books.’[1]

In the preface Symphorien Champier refers to the ‘Arabs and Phoenicians, as the most serious and brilliant interpreters <of medicine>’  (fol. 3v: ‘Arabes vero et Penos velut gravissimos splendidissimosque interpretes’), and on a typical page, from book four, we read the heading ‘From the tradition of the Phoenicians and the Arabs’ (fol. 86r: ‘Ex traditione Penorum et Arabum’; Figure 1). The Arabs and Phoenicians are also mentioned in other works of Symphorien Champier, such as in his preface to De curatione pleuritidis per venae sectionem autore Andrea Turino (‘On the cure of pleuresis through bloodletting, by Andrea Turino’), published in Basel in 1537, where we have the phrase ‘Andrea has the support of all the Arabs and Phoenicians’ (sig. a2 verso: ‘Habet et Andreas secum Arabes et Pœnos omnes’).

Figure 1. Symphorien Champier, Practica nova, Lyons, 1522, f. 86 recto.

Symphorien Champier (1471-1539) was a prolific humanist and doctor, who spent his career in Lyons, and wavered between attacking the science of the Arabs and embracing it.[2] Using the Classical adjective ‘Peni/Poeni’ he is referring to the Phoenicians, who wielded power over the Western Mediterranean from their base in Carthage from the ninth to the third century BCE. But it is not these ancient Phoenicians that Symphorien has in mind. The quotations attributed to them turn out to be from the works of Isaac Isra’ili and his translator Constantine the African. Since they both from the area formerly under control of the Phoenicians—Ifriqiya, roughly equivalent in area to modern Tunisia—he can honour them with the Classical title of ‘Phoenician’.

We know about the life of Constantine only from Western sources (mainly Peter the Deacon and a certain ‘Matthew F.’).[3] These, naturally, are much vaguer about his life before he suddenly appeared at Salerno, the leading medical school in the West. He is said to have been born in ‘Carthago’ (‘Carthage’). He then travelled throughout the known world (Babylonia, India, Ethiopia and Egypt) in pursuit of knowledge. But on his return home he was persecuted by the ‘Afri’ (‘Africans’), and ‘secretly fled to Salerno’, where he found the state of medical learning so poor in comparison with what he knew in his native land, that he immediately returned home and collected a number of Arabic manuscripts on medicine, intent on bringing them to Salerno to improve the standards there. Unfortunately, he suffered shipwreck on Cape Palinuro, and staggered into Salerno with only half his manuscripts. This account probably deliberately recalls Aeneas’s own journey from Carthage to Italy (after the episode with Dido), and the drowning of his oarsman Palinurus, after which the cape took its name.[4]

The story from here on is somewhat clearer, since we are now on the same soil as the biographers, and backed up by contemporary documents. He was in Salerno by 1077, but in 1078 he entered the Benedictine Abbey of Montecassino (the mother house of the Benedictine Order), as a monk. His entry coincided with the splendid revival of the abbey under Abbot Desiderius (1058–1086), who later became Pope Victor III (1086-7). Desiderius’s Montecassino was a centre for Greek learning as well as Arabic. The Abbey had its own infirmary where certain monks performed the role of doctors and nurses. But even more so, it had its own scriptorium, where texts were copied and illustrated. This was the gateway through which Arabic medicine first entered Europe. Constantine died there in the very last years of the eleventh century. He was always known as the African (sometimes with the addition ‘monk of Montecassino’).

But how much faith can we put in the story that he originated from Carthage? In the mid-eleventh century Carthage was a ruin. After the Romans sacked the Phoenician city, it re-emerged as a Roman city, the capital of Africa Proconsularis, which coincided with the borders of modern Tunisia, with an extension along the coast eastwards. As such it survived into the Christian era. It was the capital of the exarchate of Africa, an administrative division of the Byzantine Empire encompassing its possessions in the Western Mediterranean, and ruled by an exarch (viceroy). The exarchate was created by Emperor Maurice in the late 580s and survived until the Muslim conquest of the Maghreb in the late seventh century. Carthage was destroyed in 698, but it was still possible to speak of a ‘bishop of Carthage’. Pope Leo IX (1049-54) urged African bishops in 1053 to support the archbishop of Carthage, who ‘presided over the entire African church, and was second only to the Pope’.[5] The name ‘Carthage’ harked back to the Classical city, but, in fact, by this time, what had been left of ancient Carthage was subsumed into the area of the newly emerging Arabic city of Tunis, which started to rise to prominence as the chief city of the Arabic region of Ifriqiya in 1059. This is the very time that Constantine might have been in this region, and thus, with some justification (and maintaining the ‘Classicizing’ language of Latin humanists), he could be called a ‘Poenus’.

In all likelihood Constantine belonged to a Christian community in Africia/Ifrikiya–even a community that still had some knowledge of Latin.[6] It is unclear for how long Romance continued to be spoken, but its influence on North African Arabic (particularly in the language of northwestern Morocco) indicates it must have had a significant presence in the early years after the Arab conquest. In the twelfth century the geographer al-Idrisi, describing Gafsa in southern Tunisia, writes that ‘its inhabitants are Berberised, and most of them speak the African Latin tongue (al-laṭīnī al-ifrīqī)’.[7] Calques like dura mater, pia mater for the two meninges covering the brain—al-umm al-jāfiya and al-umm al-raqīqa—might suggest the native knowledge of Latin or ‘African Romance’.

But Constantine was not Champier’s only Poenus. He also mentions ‘Isaac’. In this he is referring to the chief Arabic author whose works Constantine translated. In fact, Constantine relied on the works of three authors, who were related as a succession of master and pupil: Isḥaq ibn ‘Imran (d. ca. 903-9), his pupil Isḥaq al-Isra’ili (who died in the mid-tenth century, Champier’s ‘Isaac’) and Isḥaq’s pupil Abu Ja‘far ibn al-Jazzar (who died in 980). These doctors all lived and worked in al-Qayrawan, 184 kilometers south of Tunis and the most important city in Ifriqiya before the rise of Tunis. In 800 the Aghlabids made al-Qayrawan their capital and there followed a period of prosperity and cultural flowering. The Shi’ite Fatimids arose in Ifriqiya and, replacing the Aghlabids in 909, spread over the whole of the North African coast, making Cairo their capital. But the Zirids were their vassals in al-Qayrawan, and brought about another period of splendor for al-Qayrawan. However, when they declared their independence, the Fatimids in Cairo encouraged the Banu Hilal to invade Ifriqiya from the West and, in 1057, they utterly destroyed al-Qayrawan. In 1059 the population of Tunis swore allegiance to the Hammadid prince al-Nasir ibn Alnas, who was based in Bejaia (in modern-day Algeria), and this was the beginning of the rise of Tunis in power and population. This political upheaval could be what Peter the Deacon referred to as the reaction against Constantine that forced him to leave Africa. Whatever the case, it would not be a stretch to call the Arabic doctors and medical writers of al-Qayrawan also ‘Poeni’, and Constantine could just as easily have been a Poenus of al-Qayrawan as of Tunis (or of both).

Isaac, of course, was a Jew. Jews formed an important part of the population of al-Qayrawan which was a center of Talmudic and Halakhic scholarship until forced conversion in 1270. Another pupil of his was Dunash Ibn Tamim, another Jew—who was well known for his astronomical and cosmological learning, including, as it now seems, a cosmology attributed to Masha’allah in two Latin translations, called De orbe (‘On the World’).[8]

So what were these ‘Phoenician’ sources that Champier could have had access to? What were the works that Constantine translated?

A story goes that, as a kind of letter of introduction and witness to his competence, he presented the short Introduction to Medicine of Hunayn ibn Isḥaq to Alfano, archbishop of Salerno (1058-1085), when he arrived in Salerno.[9] This story may be apocryphal. The earliest version of the Isagoge is heavily Grecized, and could already have belonged to a South Italian trend of translating works on physics and astronomy from Greek and, when the Greek was not available, from Arabic, but giving the appearance that they were all translated from Greek. [10] Alfano himself (archbishop 1058-1085) translated Nemesius’s On the Nature of Man from Greek into Latin, whilst an unknown translator rendered parts of the same work from Arabic. In this case Constantine might have been responsible for making the text of the Isagoge less Greek. In any case it is an apt text from which to begin any account of the medical corpus translated from Arabic at the time .

The Isagoge gives, in very straightforward terms, the basic elements of Greco-Arabic humoral medicine. This is already clear from its opening:[11]

Medicine is divided into two parts, i.e. in theory and practice, of which theory is divided into three: into the observation of natural things, of non-natural things and those which are contrary to nature, from which the knowledge of health, illnesses and the neutral state arises… Natural things are seven in number, namely elements, mixtures, composite bodies, limbs, forces, actions, spirits. Others have added to these four others factors, namely ages, colours, appearances and the difference between male and female.[12]

This Isagoge was to form the first text of the corpus of Latin medical texts known as the Ars medicinae or Articella, which has survived in over 200 manuscripts, and incorporated texts translated from Greek as well as from Arabic: Hippocrates, Prognostics and Aphorisms (both from Arabic), Philaretus, On Pulses, and Theophilus, On Urines (both Byzantine Greek texts), and finishing with Galen’s Tegni or Ars parva (a general guide to medicine). But parallel to these texts, and exceeding them in quantity were translations that no modern scholar disputes belong to Constantine.

Constantine contributed several texts of the Qayrawani doctors, and a magnum opus which summates his life work and was probably left incomplete on his death.

The oldest of the Qayrawani corpus is a text by by Isḥaq ibn ‘Imran, On Melancholy, which deals with psychological diseases and their cure.[13] More substantial are the works of the Qayrawani doctor, Isḥaq Isra’ili.

An appropriate introduction is provided by Constantine’s preface to his translation of his work on urines:

Among Latin books I was able to find no author who published reliable and authoritative learning concerning urines. Hence I turned to the Arabic language, in which I found a wonderful book with information on this subject. This book I, Constantine the African, a monk of Montecassino, decided to translate into the Latin language, so that I might obtain a reward for my soul from my efforts and might widen the path for those beginning to learn about urines. This book has been collected and excerpted from ancient authors. From it one can easily approach the knowledge of urine, and also its divisions and indications. It was composed in Arabic by Isaac, the adoptive son of Solomon, and he divided it into ten parts.[14]

Urines were an important diagnostic aid. In the frontispiece of one manuscript of this text Constantine is depicted as a monk, receiving urine bottles from his patients (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. The Preface to Isaac Isra’ili’s On Urines, from Oxford, Bodl., Rawl. C. 328, f. 3r (image in public domain)

The rubric reads:

Here is Constantine, the monk of Montecassino, who is like the fount of this knowledge. He was well known for his judgements concerning all illnesses. In this book and in many other books he shows the true cure. Women come to him with <their> urine so that he can tell them what illness they are suffering from.[15]

The other texts of Isḥaq translated by Constantine were his books on fevers, and two books on healthy living: the Diaetae universales (‘General rules on health living’) and Diaetae particulares (‘Particular rules on health living’). These deal respectively with general effects on diets of age, gender, location and time of year, and specific foodstuffs.

The list of texts translated by Isḥaq’s pupil Ibn al-Jazzar includes works on healthy sexual intercourse (fi ’l-jimā, de coitu), on the stomach, on forgetfulness (fi ’l-nisyān, de oblivione)—this being written in response to a letter to Ibn al-Jazzar from somebody who had been suffering from ‘too much forgetfulness and inability to retain things as a result of too much reading’.[16]

The most important work of Ibn al-Jazzar that he translated, however, is the Zād al-musāfir, or ‘Guide to the Traveller’ (in Latin: Viaticum), whose full title is ‘Guide to the Traveller and Nourishment to the One who Stays at Home’ (… wa-qūt al-ḥāḍir). As the title is meant to imply, this is a self-help manual, for the patient who has no access to a doctor—or even to a pharmacist, for it provides ingredients for medicines which can easily be found in the locality of the patient. A famous example of its contents appears among the remedies for what we would call psychological diseases: in this case, lovesickness, which appeared also as a separate text (Liber de heros morbo—‘The Book on the Heroic Disease’).[17]

In case of sickness caused by excessive love, to prevent men from being submerged in excessive brooding, tempered and fragrant wine should be offered, and hearing various kinds of music, speaking with dear friends…

Rufus says: ‘’Sadness is taken away not only be wine drunk in moderation but also by other things like it, such as a temperate bath. Hence it is that when certain people enter a bath, they are inspired to sing. Therefore certain philosophers say that the sound is like the spirit, the wine is like the body of which the one is aided by the other.’[18]

The major work of Constantine the African, however, was his adaptation of the Kitāb or Kunnāsh al-malakī (‘The Royal Collection’), or Kāmil as-sinā’a aṭ-ṭibbiya (‘The Complete Book of the Medical Art’) of ‘Ali ibn al-‘Abbas al-Majusi al-Arrajani. Kunnāsh is originally a Syriac word indicating a collection of treatises, or a work of encyclopedic character, while Kāmil ainā ‘at also indicates the comprehensiveness of the book. ‘Ali ibn al-‘Abbas lived during most of the tenth century (chronologically between the Arabic doctors Abu Bakr al-Razi and Ibn Sina). His nisbas indicate that he was a Zoroastrian from a Persian town situated between Shiraz and Ahwaz, and his work (his only work) was dedicated to the Buyid emir ‘Adud ad-Dawla who ruled in Shiraz and Baghdad from 949-83.[19] But the work must have spread westwards soon after its composition. It was certainly known in al-Andalus in 1068 when Ṣa’id al-Andalusi mentions the author and his book ‘as the best encyclopedia (kunnash) of medicine that he knows’.[20] So it is not surprising that Constantine should have got to know it in Ifriqiya. The Arabic text consists of ten books of theory and ten books of practice.

Constantine evidently regarded his version of this book as his most important work. He dedicated it to Abbot Desiderius in a florid style:

To the lord abbot of Montecassino, Desiderius, the most reverend father of fathers—nay rather the shining jewel of the whole ecclesiastical order, Constantine the African, although unworthy, nevertheless his monk,… <dedicates this work>.[21]

He gives it a name which picks up the ‘completeness’ in the Arabic title: ‘Pantegni’—a title concocted from two Greek words, meaning ‘all’ and ‘the art’, mirroring the Arabic title Kāmil aṣ-ṣinā ‘a, and the book promises to include the ten books of theory and the ten books of practice which the Arabic has. In fact, this is not exactly what we have. Perhaps because of the shipwreck on Cape Palinurus, most of the early manuscripts have only the ten books of theory and two and a half books of the practice, while later manuscripts have completed the practice, following the order of subject matter of ‘Ali ibn al-‘Abbas’ text, but replacing the contents with those of a variety of other texts, some being translations by Constantine and his circle, others pre-Salernitan Latin medical texts. Thus, some short texts of Ibn al-Jazzar are included:  On Leprosy, and On Degrees (of qualities in medicines). The Viaticum above all is used to fill up the Practica. Since some chapters come from the Liber aureus of Constantine’s pupil, Johannes Afflacius (a Muslim convert, also a monk at Montecassino), it may be that he (or other students) was responsible for adding some of the material. But the compilatory nature of the work is also implied by Constantine’s own words at the beginning of the Pantegni (Theorica): that he is the author in the sense of being the ‘coadunator’ of the whole work—somebody who puts together the whole thing from many books.[22]

‘Ali ibn al-‘Abbas’s own name does not appear in any of the manuscripts. Sometimes the work is attributed to the better-known ‘Rhazes’ (i.e. Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyya ar-Razi).[23] But usually only Constantine’s name is given, and for this he was much criticized by later scholars, and especially by Stephen of Antioch who, in 1127, made a much more literal translation of the whole 20 books of the Kitāb al-malakī.[24] But, nevertheless, the Pantegni was very popular, surviving in over 100 manuscripts.

One reason for this popularity was 1) that it was the first fully comprehensive medical textbook, covering anatomy, surgery, regimen, diseases from head to toe, and fevers which afflicted the whole body, and finally giving a comprehensive list of materia medica and their properties (the pharmacy). Avicenna’s Canon was to fulfil the same roll and eventually to displace the Pantegni in the education of the doctor, but it wasn’t translated until a century later, by Gerard of Cremona. 2) That it was written in an accessible language. Constantine does not stick close to the Arabic, but paraphrases, abbreviates, avoids the excessive Greek terminology of earlier medical texts, and invents calques on the Arabic that are easy to understand (the already mentioned dura mater and pia mater), or retains the Arabic word, e.g. ṣifāq—‘peritoneum’, or part of the uterus–as siphac.[25] 3) The marketing strategy of the Benedictine monasteries, of which Montecassino was the hub. 4) The universalising of the relevance of medicine.

Constantine introduces ‘Ali ibn al-‘Abbas’s text with these words:

Since the whole of science has three principal parts—for all secular or divine letters are subject to logic, ethics or physics—many people have wondered to which of these parts ‘literal’ medicine should be subject. It is not put under logic alone, since neither invention nor judgement are predominant in it. It is not subject to physics alone, since it does not depend only on necessary arguments, whether they can be proved or not. It seems absurd to subject it to ethics alone, since it is not its intention to dispute about morals alone. But, since the doctor ought to be a dealer in natural and moral things, it is clear that, because it falls into all (categories), it must be subject to all different ways of thinking. Hence I, Constantine, weighing up the very great usefulness of this art, and running through the volumes of the Latins, when I saw them, in spite of their number, not to be sufficient for introducing <medicine>, I turned to our old or modern writers.[26]

The first chapter (where Constantine returns to ‘Ali ibn al-‘Abbas’s text) is a version of the Hippocratic Oath in which the one who wants to be a doctor should promise to honour his parents and his teacher, not to practice medicine for the sake of money, not to make poisons, not to learn how to abort unborn children, not to make amorous advances to the patient’s wife, maidservant or daughter, be ready to hear confessions from the patient which he would not dare to confess to his parents, and to read assiduously (and memorise the contents, in case you lose a book).

What is striking is that, when it came to printing the text, the work was no longer attributed to ‘Ali ibn al-‘Abbas, or even to Constantine, but to the Qayrawani doctor, himself, Isaac, and is printed alongside the other texts that are genuinely by Isaac, and Isaac is even given as the author of Ibn al-Jazzar’s Viaticum. The editor, Andrea Turino of Pescia, refused to publish these translations under the name of Constantine, because, he says, ‘everybody knows full well that Constantine stole these works’ (‘apud omnes liquido compertum sit id Constantini furtum esse’). Even when the original author cannot be recognized, we must suspect, Turino says, Constantine of theft, as is clear in the case of the Viaticum (‘ … Addidimus multa Constantini opuscula verentes et illa furta esse, ut de Viatico manifeste patet’); all the writings under his name fall under suspicion. As the title of the Pantegni Turino gives: ‘The book, Pantegni, of Isaac Isra’ili the adopted son of Solomon, king of Arabia: which Constantine the African, the monk of Montecassino, claimed was his own work’. [27]

Figure 3. Frontispiece to Omnia opera Ysaac, Lyons, 1515, showing Halyabbas (‘Alī ibn al-‘Abbās al-Maǧūsī), Ysaac (Isḥaq al-Isra’ili) and Constantinus monachus (Constantine the African)

This edition was printed by Barthélemi Trot in Lyons in 1515 (see Figure 3). It is endorsed by none other than Symphorien Champier, the citizen of Lyons, who, as the ‘illustrissimus philosophus’, addresses Andrea Turino with fulsome praise, for sweating over the emendation of the works of Isaac. When we return to the Practica nova (‘The New Practice’), published two years later, we find that Champier repeats his arguments for the authorship of Isaac.[28] And we can make sense of the quotation of the passage of the Viaticum as being by ‘Constantinus sive Isaac’ (‘Constantine or Isaac’). Champier gives the reference in the margin: ‘Isaac or Constantine in Isaac, the fourth <book> of the Viaticum chapter 14’ (‘Isaac sive Constantinus in Isaac .iiii. Viatici caput .xiiii.’; see Figure 1).

While there is some appropriateness in calling both Constantine and Isaac ‘Poeni’ there remains the question as to what led Symphorien Champier to adopt this name. Did he mean to suggest something distinctive about the contribution of the ‘Poeni’, as opposed to the ‘Arabes’—a different geographical origin, or a different kind of medicine? This seems unlikely, since he always groups the ‘Poeni’ and ‘Arabes’ together. But it might also be possible to see the reference to ‘Poeni’ in the light of a Classicizing tendency both in the eleventh-twelfth century and in the Renaissance. To openly declare in the late eleventh that one’s work was taken from the Saracens would not, perhaps, have been the best way to advertise its value, at a time when Christians were in open conflict with Muslims in Spain and Sicily and the First Crusade was just about to begin. in the late eleventh. But to imply that Constantine the African’s itinerary was similar to that of Aeneas restored some respectability to what he achieved. Just as Aeneas brought the benefits of Phoenician royal culture from Carthage to Rome and founded Roman civilisation, so Constantine brought medicine (including a ‘royal’ book) from Carthage to Salerno and founded Western medicine.

Bibliography and References to Burnett

Printed books

  • Bloch, H., Montecassino in the Middle Ages, 3 vols, Rome, 1986. An incredibly rich description of the Benedictine Abbey of Montecassino where the first corpus of Arabic medical texts was translated into Latin in the late eleventh century, and from where these translations were diffused throughout Western Europe.
  • Burnett, C., ‘Encounters with Encounters with Razi the Philosopher: Constantine the African, Petrus Alfonsi et Ramon Martí’, in Pensamiento hispano medieval: Homenaje a Horacio Santiago-Otero, ed. J.-M. Soto Rábanos, Madrid, 1998, pp. 973-92. Evidence of the influence and the reputation of Abu Bakr ar-Razi, as doctor and philosopher, in the Latin West.
  • Burnett, C., ‘European Knowledge of Arabic Texts Referring to Music: Some New Material’, Early Music Theory, 12, 1993, pp. 1-17. This includes a discussion of music therapy taken from Arabic medical writings.
  • Burnett, C., ‘Physics before the Physics: Early Translations from Arabic of Texts concerning Nature in MSS British Library, Additional 22719 and Cotton Galba E IV’, Medioevo, 27, 2002, pp. 53–109. Evidence that Constantine the African arrived in Southern Italy at a time when there was already a great interest in learning from the Arabs.
  • Burnett, C.,‘The Legend of Constantine the African’, in The Medieval Legends of Philosophers and Scholars, Micrologus 21, 2013, pp. 277-94. On the reputation of Constantine the African throughout the centuries.
  • Burnett, C. and D. Jacquart (eds), Constantine the African and ‘Ali ibn al-‘Abbas al-Maǧusi: the Pantegni and Related Texts, Leiden, 1994. A collection of articles on the various aspects of the transmission and impact of the earliest corpus of Arabic medical texts in Europe, of which the major one was the Royal Collection (Kunnāsh al-malakī) of ‘Ali ibn al-‘Abbas al-Maǧusi.
  • Champier, Symphorien, Practica nova Aggregatoris Lugdunensis domini Simphoriani Champerii de omnibus morborum generibus ex traditionibus Grecorum, Latinorum, Arabum, Penorum ac recentium auctorum Aurei Libri quinque, Lyons, 1522. An example of a Renaissance medical book which is replete with quotations from Arabic doctors.
  • Grant, E., A Source Book for Medieval Science, Cambidge, MA, 1974. A valuable resource for English translations of key texts in medieval science, including several from (ultimately) Arabic sources.
  • Hasse, D.N., Success and Suppression: Arabic Sciences and Philosophy in the Renaissance, Cambridge MA, 2016, pp. 42-45. This is the most up-to-date and fullest account of the impact of Arabic learning in the Renaissance and Early Modern period, both the positive aspects that contributed to developments of science, technology and thought in the West, and the negative reactions to Arabic influences.
  • Jacquart, D. and F. Micheau, La Médecine Arabe et l’Occident Médiéval, Paris, 1990. An authoritative account of the transmission of Arabic medicine to Western Europe in the Middle Ages, including a section on Qayrawan (pp. 107-18).
  • Lewicki, T., ‘Une langue romane oubliée de l’Afrique du Nord. Observations d’un arabisant’, Rocznik Orientalistyczny, 17 (1958), pp. 415–480. The fullest account of the evidence of Latin/Romance speaking in North Africa in the post-Classical period, especially in place names—evidence for Constantine of Africa’s possible Romance background.
  • Newton, F., ‘Arabic Medicine in Italy: Constantine the African,’ in Mediterranean Passages, from Dido to Derrida, eds Miriam Cooke, Erdağ Göknar, and Grant Parker, Chapel Hill NC, 2008, pp. 115-121. Just one of several works on Constantine the African and Montecassino by a leading expert in the field.

Blogs – https://constantinusafricanus.com


[1] Lyons, 1522, title page: ‘Practica nova Aggregatoris Lugdunensis domini Simphoriani Champerii de omnibus morborum generibus ex traditionibus Grecorum, Latinorum, Arabum, Penorum ac recentium auctorum Aurei Libri quinque’.

[2] D. N. Hasse, Success and Suppression: Arabic Sciences and Philosophy in the Renaissance, Cambridge MA, 2016, pp. 42-45.

[3] Peter the Deacon, De viris illustribus. The entry on Constantine the African is edited in H. Bloch, Montecassino in the Middle Ages, 3 vols, Rome, 1986, I, pp. 126-9. See also F. Newton, ‘Constantine the African and Monte Cassino: New Elements and the Text of the Isagoge’, in Constantine the African and ‘Ali ibn al-‘Abbas al-Maǧusi: the Pantegni and Related Texts, ed. C. Burnett and D. Jacquart, Leiden, 1994, pp. 16-47, id., ‘Arabic Medicine in Italy: Constantine the African,’ in Mediterranean Passages, from Dido to Derrida, eds Miriam Cooke, Erdağ Göknar, and Grant Parker, Chapel Hill NC, 2008, pp. 115-121, translation of the two sources and the useful blog https://constantinusafricanus.com.

[4] Virgil, Aeneid, 5.857-8. Virgil’s story was based on the real history of Queen Elissa, who founded Carthage in 814 B.C.

[5] Patrologia Latina 143, cols 729-31, see col. 729: ‘dignitatem Carthaginensis Ecclesiae … quia sine dubio post Romanum pontificem primus archiepiscopus et totius Africae maximus metropolitanus est Carthaginensis episcopus’. See Jonathan Conant, Staying Roman: Conquest and Identity in Africa and the Mediterranean, 439-700, Cambridge, 2012, p. 368 and T. Lewicki, ‘Une langue romane oubliée de l’Afrique du Nord. Observations d’un arabisant’, Rocznik Orientalistyczny, 17 (1958), pp. 415–480.

[6] The Arabic equivalent of Constantine—Qusṭa—was a common name for a Christian Arabic speaker.

[7] Lewicki, ‘Une langue romane oubliée’, p. 430.

[8] See D. Jacquart and F. Micheau, La Médecine Arabe et l’Occident Médiéval, Paris, 1990, pp.112-18, and Taro Mimura, ‘The Arabic original of (ps.) Māshā’allāh’s Liber de orbe: its date and authorship,’ The British Journal for the History of Science 48, 2015, pp. 321-52.

[9] C. Burnett, ‘Encounters with Encounters with Razi the Philosopher: Constantine the African, Petrus Alfonsi et Ramon Martí’, in Pensamiento hispano medieval: Homenaje a Horacio Santiago-Otero, ed. J.-M. Soto Rábanos, Madrid, 1998, pp. 973-92 (pp. 974-8).

[10] C. Burnett, ‘Physics before the Physics: Early Translations from Arabic of Texts concerning Nature in MSS British Library, Additional 22719 and Cotton Galba E IV’, Medioevo, 27, 2002, pp. 53–109.

[11] A translation of the whole text is included in E. Grant, A Source Book for Medieval Science, Cambridge, MA, 1974, pp. 705-15.

[12] Isagoge Iohannitii, ed. G. Maurach, Sudhoffs Archiv, 62, 1978, pp. 148-74 (with variants from passages transcribed in Newton, ‘Constantine the African’): ‘Medicina dividitur in duas partes, scil. in theoricam et practicam (speculativa et operativa), quarum theorica dividitur in tria, in contemplationem naturalium rerum et non naturalium et earum quae sunt contra naturam, ex quibus sanitatis, egritudinum et neutralitatis scientia procedit… Res vero naturales septem sunt, scilicet elementa, commixtiones, compositiones vel complexiones, membra, virtutes, actiones, spiritus, et alii addiderunt his alias .iiii. scilicet etates, colores, figuras, distantiam inter masculum et feminam’.

[13] Isḥaq ibn ‘Imran, Maqāla fī l-mālīhūliyā (Abhandlung über die Melancholie) und Constantini Africani libri duo De melancholia, ed. K. Garbers, Hamburg, 1977.

[14] Omnia opera Ysaac, f. 156r and edited in Bloch, Montecassino, I, p. 103.

[15] MS Oxford, Bodl., Rawl. C. 328, f. 3r:‘Hic est Constantinus monacus Montis Casinensis qui velud fons est illius scientie, qui in iudiciis urinarum notus extitit et in omnibus egritudinibus in libro isto et in multis aliis libris veram curam exibuit, ad quem mulieres cum urina veniunt ut notificet eis quis morbus sit in causa’.

[16] ‘De nimia oblivione et inminuta retentione cum nimia assiduitate legendi’: see G. Bos, ‘Ibn al-Ğazzār’s Risāla fi ’n-nisyān and Constantine’s Liber de oblivione’, in Constantine the African, pp. 203-32 (p. 226).

[17] M. Wack, ‘‘Alī ibn al-‘Abbās al-Maǧūsī and Constantine on Love, and the Evolution of the Practica Pantegni,’ in Constantine the African, pp. 161-202. ‘Heroic’ plays on the double meaning of ‘heroicus’: ‘belong to passionate love’ (erōs) and ‘heroic’.

[18] Viaticum, 1.20, quoted and discussed in C. Burnett, ‘European Knowledge of Arabic Texts Referring to Music: Some New Material’, Early Music Theory, 12, 1993, pp. 1-17 (see pp. 3-4).

[19] See F. Micheau, ‘‘Alī ibn al-‘Abbās al-Maǧūsī et son milieu’, in Constantine the African, pp. 1-15.

[20] Ṣa‘id al-Andalusi, Kitāb ṭabaqat al-umam ou Les catégories des nations, ed. L. Cheikho, Beirut, 1912, p. 62.

[21] Preface to Pantegni in MS Cambridge, Trinity College, R.14.34: ‘Domino suo montis cassinensis abbati .D. reverentissimo patrum patri, immo totius ordinis æcclesiastici gemmæ prænitenti CONSTANTINUS Affricanus, licet indignus suus tamen monachus …’ (the capital letters are in the manuscript).

[22] Omnia opera Ysaac, f. 4r: ‘Est ergo Constantinus Affricanus auctor, quia ex multorum libris coadunator’.

[23] E.g. MS Hildesheim, Dombibl. 748, f. 1r: ‘Incipit liber Pantegni a Constantino Affricano translatus. Nomen auctoris fuit Rasis’.

[24] C. Burnett, ‘The Legend of Constantine the African’, in The Medieval Legends of Philosophers and Scholars, Micrologus 21, 2013, pp. 277-94.

[24] For more examples, see G. Strohmaier, ‘Constantine’s Pseudo-Classical Terminology and its Survival’, in Constantine the African, pp. 90-98.

[26] For the Latin original see D. Jacquart in ‘Le sens donné par Constantin l’Africain à son oeuvre: les chapitres introductifs en arabe et en latin’, in Constantine the African, pp. 71-89 (see p. 84).

[27] ‘Liber Pantegni Ysaac israelite filii adoptivi Salomonis regis Arabie: quem Constantinus Aphricanus monachus montis cassinensis sibi vendicavit’. See Burnett, ‘The Legend of Constantine the African’, pp. 278-30.

[28] Practica nova, f. 4r, summarised in the margin as ‘Constantinus monachus falso sibi ascripsit Pantegni et Viaticum Ysaac’ (‘Constantine the monk falsely attributed to himself the Pantegni and Viaticum of Ysaac’).

Malika V: Nur Jahan

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From Bangladesh to Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan to Nigeria, Senegal to Turkey, it is not particularly rare in our own times for women in Muslim-majority countries to be appointed and elected to high offices—including heads of state. Nor has it ever been. Stretching back more than 14 centuries to the advent of Islam, women have held positions among many ruling elites, from malikas, or queens, to powerful advisors. Some ascended to rule in their own right; others rose as regents for incapacitated husbands or male successors yet too young for a throne. Some proved insightful administrators, courageous military commanders or both; others differed little from equally flawed male potentates who sowed the seeds of their own downfalls. This six-part series presents some of the most notable historical female leaders of Muslim dynasties, empires and caliphates. Our fifth story takes place during the early 17th century in the Mughal Empire’s royal cities of Agra and Lahore. ...

bannerMalika V: Nur Jahan, depiction by Leonor Solans (Source)


[Note of the Editing Manager] This article was originally published in AramcoWorld.com. We are grateful to Tom Verde for permitting republishing on the Muslim Heritage website. Some images added as indicated in their captions. Although as a policy, we do not publish articles delving in political or religious topics, this series on Women includes extensive content relating to the contribution of women to science, engineering, and management; a subject of importance and much interest.


It’s hard to be all things to all people, but Nur Jahan came very close.

A devoted wife and mother, she was also a politician, a businesswoman, a fashion designer and trendsetter, a developer and garden planner, a philanthropist devoted to women, a battlefield commander and even a tiger-hunting sharpshooter.

The empire she ruled with her husband, Jahangir, stretched at its height across much of India and southern Afghanistan. It had been founded in the first half of the 16th century by Turco-Mongols (hence “Mughal”) who claimed descent from Genghis Khan and Amir Timur through its founder, Babur. From then until the mid-19th century, the Mughal state was renowned for its organization, learning, tolerance, culture and prosperity.

The region which Nur Jahan ruled along with her husband Jahangir (Source)

The future Nur Jahan—the name is her later, royal title—was born Mihrunissa (Sun Among Women) in 1577 in Kandahar in what is now Afghanistan, the fourth child to her mother, Asmat Begam, and her father, Mirza Ghiyas-ud-din Muhammad. Aristocrats of Persian descent, they found favor in the court of Mughal Emperor Akbar. Taking the Turkic title beg (pr. bay), Mirza Ghiyas received also the honorific Itimad-ud-Daula (Pillar of the State) while young Mihrunissa received a royal education where she excelled in art, music, literature and dance.

At 17, according to Heinrich Blochmann, an 18th-century translator of Akbar’s official chronicle Akbar Nama, she was wed to another transplanted courtier who had previously served in Persia, Ali Quli Beg Istajlu, upon whom Akbar’s son Shah Salim conferred the title Sher Afkan (Lion Slayer) because of his courage in battle. The union produced Mihrunissa’s only child, her daughter, Ladli Begam. When Salim ascended to the throne in 1605, he adopted the imperial name Nur-ud-din Muhammad Jahangir Badshah Ghazi, or, more concisely, Jahangir (World Conqueror). Two years later, Mihrunissa’s husband was killed in an altercation with the governor of Bengal and his officers.

Left. Portrait of the Mughal Empress Nur Jahan. Right. Jahangir and Prince Khurram with Nur Jahan, c. 1624. (Source)

Royal diarist Mu’tamid Khan, in his Iqbal Nama, recalled that some four years after the Lion Slayer’s death, during the spring new year celebrations of 1611, Mihrunissa “caught the King’s far-seeing eye, and so captivated him that he included her amongst the intimates of his select harem.” They were married less than two months later, on May 25. She was just shy of 35; he was 41. Among the last of many wives, Mihrunissa became Jahangir’s favorite and chief consort.

Noorjahan & Jahangir by D.C. Joglekar (Source)

“Day by day her influence and dignity increased,” Khan observed. Distinguished from other ladies of the court, she enjoyed lofty titles including Nur Mahal (Light of the Palace), Nur Jahan Begam (Lady Light of the World) and Padshah Begam (Imperial Lady), until Nur Jahan (Light of the World) became her ultimate title.

Part of her growing power came from the custom of appointing family members to high court positions: Her father became chief minister; her mother became chief matron of the harem; her brother Asaf Khan became head of the royal household and his daughter Arjumand (Nur Jahan’s niece) married Jahangir’s son Shah Khurram. Her influence was such that Dutch merchant Francisco Pelsaert took note of where real power rested. “[Jahangir] is King in name only, while [Nur Jahan] and her brother Asaf Khan hold the kingdom firmly in their hands,” Pelsaert remarked. “If anyone with a request to make at Court obtains an audience or is allowed to speak, the King hears him indeed, but will give no definite answer of Yes or No, referring him promptly to Asaf Khan, who in the same way will dispose of no important matter without communicating with his sister, the Queen.”

Another of Jahangir’s diarists, Muhammad Hadi, surmised that nothing “was wanting to make her an absolute monarch,” but the symbolic “reading of thekhutba [Friday sermon] in her name.” Not only did she conduct administrative business with the public, but nobles came to “receive her commands. Coins were struck in her name, and the royal seal … bore her signature.”

A character sketch by Venetian Niccolao Manucci, in his history of the Mughal court, qualified Nur Jahan as “a woman of great judgment, and of verity, worthy to be a queen.”

In part, her power was compensatory. The emperor was a self-confessed alcoholic and opium addict. Hadi reported that Jahangir “used to say that Nur Jahan Begam has been selected and is wise enough to conduct the matters of State” while all he desired was “a bottle of wine and piece of meat to keep himself merry.”

Quartz and chromium muscovite wine cup of Emperor Jahangir (Source)

As Jahangir’s health declined, he continued to praise Nur Jahan’s “skill and experience” as “greater than those of the physicians,” and he poignantly credited her “affection and sympathy” for diminishing “the number of my cups [and keeping] me from things that did not suit me.”

It is in this context that historians most remember Nur Jahan. She juggled the care of her chronically ill husband with the demands of the empire, and she did so famously. “It is impossible to describe the beauty and wisdom of the Queen. In any matter that was presented to her, if a difficulty arose, she immediately solved it,” wrote Khan.

Nur Jahan holding a portrait of her husband (Source)

The range of her accomplishments bears out their praise. In commerce, she turned land grants (jagirs) given to her by Jahangir into profit centers. She collected shrewdly calculated duties on imports, Pelsaert noted, “of innumerable kinds of grain, butter, and other provisions.” She owned her own ships that sailed to and from Arabia, Persia and Africa, trading spices, ginger and dyes for perfumes, ceramics, ivory, amber and pearls. She managed rivalries by playing the English off the Dutch and the Portuguese off them both, granting trade concessions (primarily for indigo and embroidered cloth) for sizeable fees.

She used wealth and influence to support painters, poets and musicians. Especially keen was her interest in designs for building that impacted Mughal architecture: Her fondness for the domestic art of embroidery, for example, is reflected in ornamental reliefs in the tomb of her father in Agra.

Her refined tastes were also evident in the “very expensive buildings” she erected “in all directions—sarais, or halting-places for travelers and merchants, and pleasure-gardens and palaces such as no one has ever made before,” Pelsaert wrote. She designed, among others, the famed Achabal Gardens in Kashmir state, with its lavish array of fruit trees, fountains and a man-made waterfall illuminated at night from behind by “innumerable lamps,” wrote the gobsmacked French physician Francois Bernier, who traveled almost a century later.

Yet Nur Jahan could also be as thrifty as a village housewife. On one occasion recounted by 18th-century Delhi historian Khafi Khan, Jahangir, upon questioning the expense of finely embroidered caparisons for the royal elephants, was pleased to learn that Nur Jahan spent “practically nothing on them,” having them instead made by palace tailors from used mail bags.

When it came to her own couture, she pioneered what would be regarded today as a line of designer clothing. She set fashion trends at court with her designs of silver-threaded brocades (badla) and lace (kinari), light-weight, floral-patterned cotton and muslin textiles (panch-toliya and dudami) for veils and gowns, and her own signature scent made from rose oil, Atri Jahangiri. For cost-conscious brides (and grooms), she is also credited with creating the (now traditional) nurmahali, an inexpensive set of wedding clothes. More than a gesture, her concern for the poor—especially poverty-stricken young women—was genuine. “She was an asylum for all sufferers,” Hadi recorded. “She must have apportioned about 500 girls in her lifetime, and thousands were grateful for her generosity.”

A vintage movie poster for ‘Mughal-e-Azam’, 1960 biopic of Jahangir’s love life (Source

Yet when the need arose, she swapped flowery gowns for battle gear. Ambushed by rebel forces on her way to Kabul with Jahangir in 1626, Nur Jahan directed the imperial army’s defense from atop a war elephant. When a female servant beside her was shot with an arrow in her arm, the queen “herself pulled it out, staining her garments with blood,” Hadi reported.

Nur Jahan was praised also by her husband for her skill with a hunting gun from the teetering perch of an elephant litter. In his memoirs, he recorded how she shot four tigers with six bullets, acknowledging that “an elephant is not at ease when it smells a tiger and is continually in movement, and to hit with a gun from a litter (imari) is a very difficult matter.”

An unnamed poet present during the hunt was moved to compose the following verse:

Though Nur Jahan be in the form of a woman, In the ranks of men, she’s a tiger-slayer.”

That rebellion of 1626 stemmed from earlier unrest stirred up by Shah Khurram, who envied Nur Jahan’s influence over his father. When Jahangir died in 1627, a war of succession followed. Nur Jahan attempted to enthrone Shahryar, the youngest of Jahangir’s sons, who had married Nur Jahan’s daughter, Ladli Begam. But Shahryar was slain, and Shah Khurram ascended the throne as Shah Jahan. The “Light of the World” did not interfere further, and she lived for 19 more years in quiet retirement in Lahore with her widowed daughter.

Putting aside finery, she is said to have worn simple white clothing and abstained from parties and social functions. Her life drew to a close on December 17, 1645, at the age of 68. She is buried in Lahore, in a mausoleum of her own design, upon which this epitaph to her grace and modesty is etched:

On the grave of this poor stranger, let there be neither lamp nor rose. Let neither butterfly’s wing burn nor nightingale sing.

Nur Jahan’s tomb, Lahore Pakistan (Source)


This six-part series presents some of the most notable historical female leaders of Muslim dynasties, empires and caliphates:


Science in Adab Literature

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A long standing topic of discussion among orientalists has been the question whether science in medieval Islamic society was a marginal activity, restricted to small elite circles and not rooted in society, or whether it was well assimilated and widely accepted in society. The former position, called the 'marginality thesis' was adopted by, for instance, von Grünebaum. This thesis was attacked by, for instance, Sabra. His position became known as the 'appropriation thesis'. Also Gutas opposed the marginality thesis....

Figure 1. Article Image Banner


A long-standing topic of discussion among orientalists has been the question whether science in medieval Islamic society was a marginal activity, restricted to small elite circles and not rooted in society, or whether it was well assimilated and widely accepted in society. The former position, called the ‘marginality thesis’ was adopted by, for instance, von Grünebaum.[1] This thesis was attacked by, for instance, Sabra.[2] His position became known as the ‘appropriation thesis’. Also Gutas opposed the marginality thesis.[3]

That scientific knowledge was recommendable not only insofar as it was useful for religion and Muslim society, but also as an intellectual pleasure and as a recognition of the beautiful order and arrangement of God’s creation, was testified by the philosopher al-Amin (d. 992).[4] It is this attitude to science which one also finds in adab literature. Books belonging to this kind of literature contain material about a variety of subjects, considered from various points of view, such as religious, scientific, historical, literary, etc. They contain knowledge and at the same time entertainment for educated people. Here we consider two adab works: (an extract of) Fasl al-Khitab by al-Tifashi (d. 1253) and Mabahij al-fikar wa-manahij al-‘ibar by al-Watwat (d. 1318).

The book of al-Tifashi as we have it discusses astronomical and meteorological subjects. The passages on astronomy give the usual Aristotelian cosmological picture of the world in a simplified version for non-specialists. The passages on meteorological subjects explain these phenomena in agreement with Aristotle’s theory of the double exhalation, and it appears that they are based to a large extent on Ibn Sina’s interpretation of this theory.

The book of al-Watwat consists of four sections, which deal with the heaven, the earth, animals and plants respectively. One chapter of the first section deals with meteorological phenomena and presents a survey of the explanations current in his time, such as could be found in the works of al-Kindi and Ibn Sina.

One will probably not find new and original scientific ideas in the adab literature, but one gets an impression of how besides knowledge of Qur’an, Wall, poetry and literary prose, scientific knowledge was a part of the education of a certain class of people, also of those whose special interest was not science. It also appears that the subjects of science were not restricted to those which were useful for religion and Muslim society. Science was an integrated activity in society, pursued for intellectual satisfaction and pleasure in knowledge, and most groups in that society held that there was nothing in it that would be incompatible with Islam as a religion.

Figure 2. “The Qur’an is the most important and authentic example of Arabic literature and definitely the most influential.” (Wiki) Safavid manuscript splendor at the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts (Inv. No. 379) (Source

Al-Tifashi and his work

Al-Tifashi[5] was born in 1183 in Qafsa, the present Gafsa (Tunesia). At that time the country was ruled by the dynasty of the Almohads. The Tifashi family was in favour with the Almohad caliphs. Their name is derived from Tifash, a village near Gafsa, but that was not their native place. After his elementary education, al-Tifrishi went to Tunis, and then at the age of fourteen, to Egypt and subsequently to Damascus for further education. He returned to Gafsa, where he married, got three children and became a judge (qadi). He was forced to give up this job when it was discovered that he stored wine in his house. Then he decided to leave Gafsa. He embarked to Alexandria with his children (his wife had already died). His ship was wrecked in a storm and his children drowned; he himself was saved by Bedouins, who brought him to Alexandria. Then he lived at the court in Cairo, under the protection of the Ayyubid sultan of Egypt, al-Kamil Muhammad al-Malik. Al-Kamil liked the company of scholars and literary men; he received them in his palace, let them sleep in his bedroom, and subsidized their living. From Cairo al-Tifashi travelled to various places throughout the Middle East. Among others, he visited the court of Muhyiddin al-Sahib, a representative of the Zanjid sultan Mu’izz al-Din Sanjarshah in Jazirah (northern Iraq). It is probably there that he wrote the work Fasl al-Khitab, making use of the books in the library of this Muhyiddin.

After this period of travelling, he settled down in Cairo, a centre of culture and commerce where people from all parts of the world gathered. There he learned many things, for instance about gems, resulting in his well-known book about gems and minerals Azhar al-afkar fi jawahir al-ahjar (Flowers of Thought about the Precious Stones). He died in Cairo in 1253.

Al-Tifashi was an attractive, clever and elegant person, and also social and kind-hearted. He was inquisitive and interested in new experiences, an eager observer of nature and society. He loved wine and wrote about it. He read many books, but what he wrote was also based on stories told to him by others and on his own observations and experiences, of which he was quick to make notes; what was told to him he checked by observation and experiment. Nevertheless he followed current ideas which included many superstitions; for instance, he devoted a large part of his Fasl al-Khitab to astrology.

Arabic sources mention eighteen books written by al-Tifashi, a few of them still extant. His most well-known books are the one on gems and minerals mentioned above, and Nuzhat al-albab , ring yujad fi kitab (Entertainment of the hearts about what one cannot find in any book),[6] a collection of anecdotes and poems about sexual matters, such as pimps, prostitutes, and the conditions for adultery.

Figure 2. “This book was translated into French in 1971 as Les Micas des wears, and in 1988 parts of it were translated into English as The Delight of Hearts: Or What You Will Not Find in Any Book by Winston Leyland”

Al-Tiashi also wrote the extensive work Fasl al-Khitab fi madarik al-hawass al-khams li-uli l-albab (Decisive Discourse on the Perceptions of the Five Senses for Intelligent People). This work is not extant as a whole, but we have an extract from it, made by Ibn Manzur. This Ibn Mansur is well known as the author of the Arabic dictionary Lisan al-‘arab. His fuller name is Muhammad ibn Mukarrram Jamal al-Din, known as Ibn Mare. His grandfather moved from Tunis to Cairo where his father Mukarram was born, two years after the birth of al-Tifashi. Mukarram was favoured by the sultan al-Kamil, who called him malik al-huffaz (king of those who have memorized the Qur’an), because after hearing eleven verses one time, he could memorize them all. He was often visited by al-Tashi. Mukarram’s son Mubammad was born in 1232. He acquired an extensive knowledge of language, grammar, history and literature. He wrote summaries or extracts of many works, such as Kitab al-Aghani, and al-Yatima of Tha’allibi.

When Ibn Manzur was still a child he heard al-Tifashi talk to his father about a huge book which had taken almost his whole life to write, with the title Fasl al-Khitab fi madarik al-hawass al-khams li-uli l-albab. This title struck him as an insolence, for fasil al-khitab was something given by God to the prophet David. When al-Tifashi died, Ibn Maria was twenty-two years old, and he forgot about the whole matter, until he remembered the book when he was sixty. Then he got hold of the book at one of al-Tifashi’s friends, and started to make an extract from it. He gave it the title Surur al-nafs bi-madarik al-hawasss al-khams (Enjoyments of the Soul by the Perceptions of the Five Senses).[7] According to al-Safadi the extract consisted of ten sections. What is extant is two sections, entitled: Nuthhar al-azhar fi l-layl wa-l-nahar (Fragments of Flowers about the Day and the Night) and Tall al-ashar ‘ala l-jullanar fi l-hawa wa-l-nar (Morning Dew on the Pomegranate Blossom about the Air and the Fire).

Ibn Manzar’s editing of al-Tifashi’s text consisted of the following: he omitted what he considered to be a repetition; he also omitted verses that he considered scabrous or jocular; he reordered the texts, and divided each section into ten chapters; one time he added a poem and two times he changed verses of a poem. He did not change anything in the ‘lies of the astrologers’.

Figure 3. “Ziryab (789-857) a singer, oud player, composer, poet, and teacher who lived and worked in Iraq, Northern Africa, and Andalusia of the medieval Islamic period” (Source)

The book Surur al-nafs as we have it discusses the following subjects: night, day, sun, moon, stars, seasons, thunder, lightning, rain, winds and fire. These subjects are discussed from various points of view: natural philosophy (science), pseudo-science (e.g. astrology, oneiromancy, i.e. dream interpretation), religion, language, literature, etc. Poems and pieces of prose are quoted in which these subjects are mentioned. The sources from which the quotations come are often mentioned, but not always. Some of them are: Aristotle, Pseudo-Aristotle (Theology), al-Jahiz (K. al-Hayawan), Ibn Qutayba (K. al-Anwa’), Marzuqi (Azmina wa-amkina), Ibn Sina (al-Qanun), Abu Ma’shar, Kushyar, al-Biruni (K. al-Tafhim), Ibn Dawud (K. al-Zahr), Tha’alibi (al-Yatima), and the diwans of various poets, such as Ibn Mu`tazz.

Al-Tifashi’s book, of which Surur al-nafs is an extract, belongs to the kind of adab literature which intends to explain knowledge for a general educated audience and at the same time shows the pleasure one may derive from knowledge for its own sake. It exhibits the various ways and forms in which poets, natural philosophers, geographers, encyclopedists, etc. talked about natural phenomena. Later similar works would be composed by al-Nuwayri (Nihayat al-‘arab fi funun al-adab), (Masalik al-absar fi mamalik al-amsar), al-Watwat (Mabahij al-fikar wa manahij al-‘ibar).

We present a survey of the passages of Sulfer al-nafs that deal with astronomical and meteorological subjects, discussed from the point of view of science or natural philosophy. The passage on astronomy gives the usual Aristotelian cosmological picture of the world; it is a simplified picture for non-specialists; it does not go into details of planetary motions and it does not mention anything of the Ptolemaic model for these motions. The transformation of one element into another is not described as a change of one the four qualities (hot, cold, dry, wet), as was done by Aristotle, but simply as a change in density: when fire becomes denser, it becomes air, etc. The cosmology of the heaven is Ibn Sird’s cosmology of nine revolving celestial spheres, each with its intellect, soul and body. The passages on meteorological subjects (lightning and thunder, rainbow and halo, rain, snow, etc.) explain these phenomena in agreement with Aristotle’s theory of the double exhalation. According to this theory, the heat of the sun dissolves two exhalations from the earth: a dry warm kind of smoke (dukhan), dissolved from the earthy parts, and a wet, warm vapour (bukhar), dissolved from the watery parts (sea, lakes and rivers). All phenomena in the atmosphere are explained as being effects of these two vapours. This theory was adopted by most Islamic scholars. Some of them, such as Ibn Sina added further descriptions and explanations that are not found in Aristotle. It appears that the passages from Surur al-nafs are based to a large extent on Ibn Sina’s explanations of meteorological phenomena. For example, the phenomenon of the halo is explained as follows:

If the cloud is between the observer and the luminous object, while the latter is around its highest position, then you will see a halo; this is a circle, in the middle of which one sees the moon, surrounded by a white ring which is secluded by the darkness of a moist cloud. Sometimes a cloud is situated below another cloud; then another halo arises from it, which is larger than the one caused by the cloud above it and is similar to it as seen from the observer.”[8]

The rainbow is explained as follows:

If the observer is between the cloud and the luminous object, while the latter is in a low position, near the horizon, then he sees half a circle with various colours; it is necessarily half a circle, since the luminous object is at the horizon. This is called a rainbow. The extension (width) of the rainbow varies in accordance with the height of the luminary above the horizon. Since the luminary should be near the horizon one seldom sees the rainbow at midday in summer, in contrast to the winter. One can imagine this occurring only when there is behind the smooth cloud something dark, another cloud or something else, so that it will be possible for the smooth cloud to transmit what is impressed on it to the observer via a transparent medium, the cloud acting as a mirror.”[9]

In the section about the philosophers’ opinion about air a passage is quoted from Book I of Ibn Sina’s al-Qanun,[10] where he states that the air we breathe is the atmospheric air, which is not the same as the element air. The atmospheric air is a mixture or elemental air, water in the form of vapour, particles of dust and smoke, and fire.[11] The (atmospheric) air may undergo a change and become obnoxious for human health. Such a change may be substantial or it may be a change of qualities. In the former case the air becomes spoiled, just as stagnant water may become spoiled and putrid. In the latter case the extent in which the air has the qualities dry, moist, hot and cold changes. Then Ibn Sina mentions the various influences of putrid air and of hot, cold, moist and dry air on the condition of the human body.

Figure 4 Inside image of the Canon of Medicine book (Source)

Al-Watwat’s Mabahij al-fikar wa-manahil al-ibar

The author of this work is Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn Yahya ibn ‘Ali al-Ansari, known as Watwat; his laqab is Jamal al-Din al-Kutubi. He was born in Egypt in 1235, where he seems to have spent his whole life. He made his living as a copyist of manuscripts, which gave him the opportunity to collect books and to develop a broad knowledge in many fields. He died in 1318.

The title of his book Mabahij al-fikar wa-manahij al-‘ibar (The Pleasures of Thoughts and the Ways of the Lessons) is also given as Manahij al-fikar wa-mabahij al-‘ibar in the manuscripts, as well as in the texts that mention the book. The subject matter is considered from two points of view, that of adab —this includes the poems and adab fragments which the author has found concerning the subjects under discussion— and that of science —this includes the scientific matters mentioned by the author about his topics.

There is an abstract of the Mabahij under the title Nuzhat al-‘uyun fi arba’at funun (Pleasures for the eyes in four disciplines). This abstract mainly omits the adab part and only contains the scientific part. It only exists in manuscript form. An article about it has been published by Kama al-Ghazz1.[12]

A facsimile edition of the Mabahij has been published by Fuat Sezgin in 1990.[13] The book consists of four sections, entitled The Heaven and its Adornments, The Earth and What is Connected With it, The Animals and Their Natures, and The Plants and Their Cultivation. An edition of the third section, about animals, was published in 2000 ‘Abd al-Razzaq Ahmad al-Harbi.[14] For this section al-Watwat used the following sources: for the scientific aspect he used K. al-Hayawan of Al-Jahiz, K. al-Hayawan of Aristotle, K. al-Hayawan of Abmad ibn Abi al-Ash`ath and the works of `Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi; for the aspect of adab and language he used many sources, such as the diwans of poets, and general works of adab. He especially mentions ‘Uyub al-akhbar of Ibn Qutayba, al-‘Umda of Ibn Rashiq, al-Gharib al-musnaf of Abu ‘Ubayd, al-Mujmal of Ibn Faris, al-Awa’il of Abu Hilal al-`Askari, Kitab al-masayid wa–Imutarid of Kashajim. He also took information from some books on history, such as Kitab murujal-dhahab of al-Mas’udi and al-Kamil of Ibn al-Athir, and from works on philosophy and tafsir.

Figure 5. “The first encyclopedia to appear during this era was Mabahij al-Fikar wa Manahij al-’Ibar, published by Jamal al-Din Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn Yahya al-Kutubi, a well-known writer who went by the name of al-Watwat (d. 718/1318)” (Source)

Chapter 5 of the first section deals with the meteorological phenomena. After an exposition of the four elements and the way they are ordered in spherical layers around the center of the universe, first special attention is paid to the elements fire and air. About fire it is stated that it has a resemblance to human beings, a resemblance that does not exist between the other elements and human beings. This resemblance consists in the fact that human beings come into being and live in the same environment where also fire comes into being and lives, and they perish and die where also fire perishes and dies. This became known to the people who work in shafts and mines. Whenever they are about to enter a shaft in the earth or a cave, they carry in front of them a burning wick at the tip of a lance, and if the fire remains burning, they enter, and if the fire is extinguished, they do not enter.

Air is discussed as being the material of wind. Since Aristotle has stated that wind is not moving air, but moving dry exhalation, the problems that arise if one adopts this explanation give rise to many rather confining explanations by Greek and Arabic commentators. Al-Watwat says that, according to Aristotle, wind is flowing air and air is wind that is stagnant. The air is set in motion by the rising of much vapour, which pushes it into various directions. Another explanation is that wind is a motion caused by the dry and wet exhalations. After having risen they return independently with a motion that is hitting the air and stirring it up; this return is either due to the heaviness that comes to them when they get to the cold layer of the atmosphere, or due to the fact that they are obstructed from penetrating into the higher air because of the speed with which this layer of air is moving. This explanation is clearly taken from Ibn Sina.[15]

Sometimes wind occurs due to the expansion of the parts of the air that are made less dense by the heat that occurs to them, so that they flow and move. This alternative explanation is also mentioned by Ibn Sina.[16] It is also the explanation of wind by al-Kindi.[17]

Snow is caused by moist vapour. When the higher air between the heaven and the clouds becomes very cold, it freezes the rain that descends from the clouds and changes it into snow. It can also happen that the atmosphere becomes very cold by a wind that cools it down so that the air, which is mixed with watery vapour, freezes before it condenses into clouds. Then it falls down, while the sky is bright, as oblong snow, since its parts coalesce with each other due to the cold wind —this is called zamharir. This special type of snow was discussed by al-Kindi.[18]

Other meteorological phenomena discussed are thunder and lightning, shooting stars, thunderbolts and the rainbow. Al-Watwat mentions the phenomenon that the rainbow is half a circle when the sun is at the horizon and becomes less than half a circle when the sun is rising until it completely disappears when the sun is at a certain height. He also says that according to some people observing the rainbow is like observing something in a mirror. Therefore the rainbow is only seen behind a smooth cloud, which acts as the dark backside of a glass mirror. This is clearly based on Ibn Sina, like the similar passage in al-Tifashi’s work (see above note 9).

From the few examples discussed here we conclude that scientific knowledge was considered to be a part of the education of ‘civilized’ people, not only of those whose special interest was philosophy and science. Also, the subjects of science discussed were not restricted to those which were useful for religion and Muslim society. Science was also pursued for intellectual satisfaction and pleasure in knowledge, as is made clear by some of the titles of the works discussed here. The examples also show the influence of Ibn Sina: his explanations are quoted without his name being mentioned; apparently his ideas were more of less common knowledge. A further study of the scientific aspects of adab literature seems recommendable.

“Al Maqamat: Beautifully Illustrated Arabic Literary Tradition” (Source)


[1] Von GrUnebaum, G.E., “Muslim World View and Muslim Science” in: Islam. Essays in the Nature and Growth of a Cultural Tradition, London 1955, 2″d ed. 1961, repr. Westport, Conn. 1981, 111-126.

[2] Sabra, A.I., “The Appropriation and Subsequent Naturalization of Greek Science in Medieval Islam: a Preliminary Statement” in: History of Science 25 (1987), 223-243.

[3] Gutas, D.. Greek Thought. Arabic Culture, London 1998.

[4] The relevant passage from al-Amid is quoted in F. Rosenthal. Das Fortleben der Amike im Islam, Zurich 1965, translated as The Classical Heritage in Islam. London and New York 1975. pp. 63-70

[5] This sketch of al-Tlfashi’s life and works is taken from the introduction to Surur al-nafs bi-madarik al-hawass al-khams by the editor Ihsan ‘Abbas. See also Brockelmann, C., Geshichte der arabischen Literatur. Leiden 1937-1949. vol. I p. 652 and Suppl. I p. 904.

[6] This book was translated into French in 1971 as Les Micas des wears, and in 1988 parts of it were translated into English as The Delight of Hearts: Or What You Will Not Find in Any Book by Winston Leyland.

[7] Al-Tifashi, Surur al-nafs bi-madarik al-hawass al-khams. revised by Ibn Manzur. Edited by Ihsan ‘Abbas. Beirut 1980.

[8] The issue of multiple haloes is mentioned by Ibn Sing, see Kitab al-Shifa’, al-Tabi’yyat 5,  ed. A. Muntasir, S. Zayid, A. Isma’il, I. Madkur, Cairo 1964, pp. 48 ff.

[9] The cloud acting as a mirror is a feature typical for Ibn Sing, see Kitab al-Shifa’, , al-Tabi’yyat 5, pp. 50f.

[10] Ibn Sina, al-Qanun, Bulaq 1294, Book I, p. 90.

[11] Cf. Ibn Sina. Kitab al-Shifa’, al-Tabi’yyat 4, ed. M. Qasim, I. Madkur, Cairo 1969, p. 204.

[12] Kamil al-Ghazzi, “Kitab Nuzhat al-‘uyun fi arba’at funun”, in: Majallat al-majma’ al-ilmi al-arabi (Damascus), vol. 9 (1929), pp. 681-687.

[13] Jamal al-Din al-Watwal, Manahil al-fikar wa-mabahij al-‘ibar, ed. Fuat Sezgin, Publications of the Institute for the History of Arabic-Islamic Science, Series C. Vol. 49, 1-2, Frankfurt am Main, 1990.

[14] Muhammad b. Ibrahim al-WatwAt. Mabahij al-fikar wa-manahij al’ibar. ed. ‘Abd aI-Razzaq Abmad al-Harbi, Al-dar al-‘arabiyya li-l-mawsu‘at, 2000.

[15] lbn Sina, Kitab al-Shifa’, al-Tabi’yyat 5. p. 58

[16] lbn Sina, Kitab al-Shifa’, al-Tabi’yyat 5. p. 59

[17] al-Kindi, “On the reason why in some places it almost never rains” in Rasa’il II 70-75

[18] al-Kindi, “On the causes of snow, hail, lightning. thunderbolts, thunder and zamharir” in Rasa’il II 80-85.

Manuscript Review: The Clear Exposition of the Principles of Accountability, by Ibn al-Ukhuwwah

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[Ibn al-Ukhuwwah] provides a summary of the positive and negative injunctions contained in the standard codes of the Shari`ah together with regulations for the safe guarding of public morality, for ensuring the purity of faith and for the protecting the public against trickery, charlatanry, fraud and exhortation......

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Editor’s Note: The following is an extract from N.A Baloch’s ‘The Great Books of Islamic Civilisation’. This is a short summary of Ibn al-Ukhuwwah‘s ‘The Clear Exposition of the Principles of Accountability’.


The author Diya al-Din Muhammad b. Muhammad b. Ahmad al-Qurashi al-Shafi`i Al-Ash`ari, known as Ibn al-Ukhuwwah, was born by the middle of the 7th century A.H. (13th C.E.) and died in Rajab 729 A.H. (1329 C.E.).

Social regulations in Islam included supervision of public safety with the all awareness provided for in Holy Quran and Hadith. This supervision, and the accountability that went with it, was hisbah which in its essence was a Muslim’s obligation arising from the Quranic injunction al-amr bi al-ma`aruf wa al-nahyi un al-munkar, to promote good and prevent evil. Hisbah as ‘accountability’ was an essential corollary of Islamic Justice as applied to public services and public transactions. It called for supervision, inspection, and stock taking in order to ensure proper performance of public and professional services. From this obligation emerged the office of a Sahib al-Suq (Supervisor of the Market) for supervision and promotion of public morality and fair play in professional dealings and transactions in crafts, trades and markets. The Hisbah Department though a part of the Chief-Justice’s Secretariat was headed by a separate official with the special status of ‘Muhtasib’ (Administrator of Accountability). He was sought to be a God fearing religious man and was invested with all powers to allow the licit and forbid the illicit. He ranked higher than the Qadi and was appointed by the Caliph himself.

Figure 2. Ibn al-Ukhuwwah’s ‘hisbah’ works would have been used to regulate markets or souqs. Above is a depiction of a bazaar by Amadeo Preziosi, 1816 – 1882. (Source)

The first ‘Muhtasib’ (replacing ‘Sahib al-Suq’) was appointed in the 3rd century A.H. during the reign of the Abbasid Caliph Mamun. Instructions issued to him, the procedures adopted and the cases decided by the Muhtasib led to the development of Hisbah literature wherein the subject was discussed and elaborated in all its dimensions. By the end of the 5th century A.H., Imam Ghazali (d. 505 A.H. / 1111) devoted a section to it in ‘Ihya’ `Ulum al-Din’. As Hisbah became an essential feature of Islamic Polity, Mawardi (d. 589/1193) included a chapter on it in his al al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyah, thus bringing Hisbah within the orbit of Constitutional Law.

Figure 3. Silk merchants and customers by Amadeo Preziosi, 1816 – 1882. (Source)

The full-fledged works written on Hisbah were of two categories: the works of a judicial nature which defined the essence and scope of hisbah and the obligations arising out of it for the Muhtasib, and those of an administrative nature which dealt with technical details of the supervision for guiding and enlightening the Muhtasib. However, all the works on the subject underlined the great importance of the office of the Muhtasib and stressed his high qualifications so that he would be above any reproach whatsoever. More specifically, he was to be God-fearing and religious, noble, learned, modest, experienced, intelligent, unbiased, rich and honest above corruption.

In the Muslim West, al-Saqti of Malaga (Spain) wrote Kitab fi Abab al-Hisbah (The Book on Requirements for Hisbah) by about 500/1106. Later in the 6th century, Ibn `Abdun of Seville wrote Risala fi al-Qada wa al-Hisbah (The Treatise on Justice and Hisbah) while Ibn Bassam authored a more comprehensive work Nihayat al-Rutba fi Talab al-Hisbah (Standard Achievement in the Investigation of Hisbah) containing as many as 118 chapters. In the Muslim East, the first full-fledged work, with the same title as Ibn Bassam’s, containing 40 chapters, was authored for Sultan Salahuddin Ayubi by Abd al-Rahman b. Nasr b. Abdullah al-Shafi`i al-Shizari (d. 589/1193). Later in the 7th/13th century Ibn al-Ukhuwwah wrote Ma’alim al-Qurbah fi Ahkam al-Hisbah (The Clear Exposition of Principles of Accountability). In this work, extending to seventy chapters, Ibn al-Ukhuwwah has enlarged upon al-Shizari’s work incorporating considerably advanced material on the subject, including discussion on difficult cases, some of them hypothetical in nature for purpose of explanation. Written as a guide book for the Muhtasib, it provides a summary of the positive and negative injunctions contained in the standard codes of the Shari`ah together with regulations for the safe guarding of public morality, for ensuring the purity of faith and for the protecting the public against trickery, charlatanry, fraud and exhortation (E.I.).

Hydraulic Imagery in Medieval Arabic Texts

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The Arabic reports about irrigation, dams and water-powered machines form a cultural construction which could be called hydraulic imagery. The term imagery is related to the perception patterns concerning hydraulic constructions inasmuch these patterns are reproduced in documental genres in the specific geographical, historical and cultural context of the sources. Thus the references on water-power range from reports about milling output in terms of day-production of meal or flour up to impressive accounts about marvellous machines with the features of a perpetuum mobile. These references are embedded in various textual sources which belong to a quite heterogeneous spectre of literary genres including geographical and cosmographical works (like those of al-Dimashq), technological treatises (like the compendia of ingenious devices presented by Bana Musa and al-Jazari) as well as administration documents. Undoubtedly such reports are inspired by the historical reality of hydraulic constructions scattered from al-Andalus and the Maghreb in the Muslim West to Mesopotamia and Transoxania in the East. However, the specific reporting forms as well as several features attributed textually to the constructions under discussion reflect narrative conventions of the specific literary genre rather than realistic representation modes of technological artefacts. The present study develops a typology of such patterns and proposes interpretation models for their emerging on the basis of the specific socio-economic context and the features of the dominant literary traditions in which the narrative patterns concerning the hydraulic imagery are encountered. ...

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Hydraulic engineering in the medieval Arab world: the historical background 

The use of water-power for operating machines has a long tradition in the several regions which came under the dominion of Islam in the medieval times. This heritage includes scientific traditions in the Greco-Roman world, as well as the numerous aspects and technological features of water-powered machines all over the Mediterranean, as well as the Near East and the Middle East.

The expansion of the Muslim state in the Mediterranean, the Mesopota-mia and the Iranian territory during the 7th century AD enabled contacts and interactions of several scientific and engineering cultures under the Muslim rule. In the case of water-powered machines and hydraulic technology in general different geomorphological landscapes and climatic conditions acted as a polymorphic background for know-how transfer and further development. Novel techniques for crop irrigation were substantial for the transfer of species like cotton, sugar cane and oranges from East up to the Iberian Peninsula. On the other hand using water-power for milling cereals, oil seeds and sugar cane became increasingly important for the food supply of the rural and urban populations in the several Muslim states which resulted from the Arab expansion. Crucial importance obtained the several types of water-raising machines for both fresh-water supply and irrigation in the Arab-ruled regions which in many cases were characterised by shortage of surface water. Beside their role in every-day technological applications (mostly in rural context as well as in procedures of food processing) water-powered machines were engaged in many marvellous devices conceived and, to a certain extent, presumably realised in environments maintained and supported by princes, rulers and distinguished persons.

The importance of hydraulic science and engineering in the Muslim states and the Arab contribution to the transmission of previous know-how and to further development have been worked out and analysed by several authors. The purpose of the present study is to demonstrate characteristic patterns of presenting water-power plants in Arabic historical sources and to interpret these perception patterns in the specific political and cultural context.

(Left) A manuscript shows Al-Jazari’s reciprocating pump. This was the first time an illustration of a crank appeared in a manuscript* – (Right) 3D animated image of reciprocating pump (Source)


Historical references and archaeological evidence concerning water-powered machines in the Greek, Roman and Islamic world are given in the works on history of technology by Forbes (1957), Schioler (1973), Oleson (1984), Hill (1984/1996; 1986), Schnitter (1994), El Faiz (2005). In his monumental work on Science and Civilisation in China J. Needham (1965 & 1966) extended the comparative study by considering Chinese evidence.

If we focus our study upon Arabic primary sources, we encounter mentioning of such machines in travel reports as well as in works of cosmography (i.e. combination of geographical data with cosmological and philosophical doctrines) describing Islamic and non-Islamic countries. Further genres are treatises on agriculture, on the rural projects of the State, and finally special treatises concerned with the description of ingenious devices, a kind of marvellous machines conceived on the basis of mechanics and hydraulics.

In the following we shall present first some typical references in Arabic geographic texts of the 10th century AD. We shall then proceed by considering a treatise of the beginning of the 11th century on hydraulic projects of the Muslim state and several texts on agricultural engineering. We shall conclude by referring to several texts concerned with imagery and visions of hydraulic technology as well as with the typical Arabic tradition of hydraulic marvellous machines.

(Left)  Third page of the section devoted to the six-cylinder pump in the Chester Beatty MS (p. 38) of Al-Turuq al-Saniya. – (Right) 3D animated image of six-cylinder pump (Source)

Utilitarian perspectives 

Arab geographers often refer to agricultural production of the countries they describe. A special aspect in such descriptions is the dependency of agriculture on water management. Irrigation systems, darns, as well as water-mills belong to large-scale technology which becomes a positively connoted sign of the landscapes described.

Al-Muctaddasi (d. 1000 AD) describes several dams in Iran, among which a pre-Islamic dam which provided hydraulic power in Khuzistan, and a dam built in the 10th century AD on the river Ki1r, in the Iranian province Fars, by the Buyid emir eAcIrtd al-Dawla:

Adud al-Dawla closed the river between Shiraz and Istakhr by a great wall, strengthened with lead. And the water behind it rose and formed a lake. Upon it the two sides were ten water-wheels like those mentioned in Khuzistan, and below each wheel was a mill, and it is today one of the wonders of Fars.” (Al-Muqaddasi, Arabic text p. 344; Engl. translation quoted from Hill, 1984, p. 137)

The positive attitude of Arab and Persian writers towards water power and milling is expressed in the way they estimate water stream according its capacity in powering mills. Referring to Upper Mesopotamia, the granary of Baghdad, Ibn klawqal (10th century AD) underlines the use of Tigris stream for powering ship-mills:

The ship-mills on the Tigris at Mosul have no equal anywhere, be-cause they are in very fast current, moored to the bank by iron chains. Each [mill] has four stones and each pair of stones grinds in the day and night 50 donkey-loads. They are made of wood —sometimes of teak.” (Ibn klawqal, Arabic text p. 219; Engl. translation quoted from Hill, 1984, p. 137)

In 1184 AD Ibn Jubayr (1145-1217 AD) describes the ship mills across the river Khabur in Upper Mesopotamia with the exalting expression “fonning, as it were, a dam” (Ibn Jubayr, Arabic text p. 243; Engl. translation quoted from Hill, 1984, p. 137).

Even tidal mills are mentioned, e.g. by al-Muqaddasi:

The ebb-tide is also useful for operating the mills, because they are at the mouths of the rivers, and when the water comes out it turns them.” (Engl. translation quoted from Hill, 1984, p. 138)

What is characteristic in all above references is the narrative scheme of the Arab geographers according to which the utilitarian use of water-powered rural machines appears as an indicator for improving the prosperity of the regions described (Hill, 1991, p. 184). Only few technical details of functioning or construction are mentioned, which implies that the authors had poor knowledge of or no interest in such details. Their main goal was to present these human constructions as something exceptional, as “wonders” which contributed to the image and the prestige of the regions.

A different utilitarian perspective can be traced in treatises concerned with agriculture. Already in the Nabatean Agriculture, a treatise translated from the Syriac into Arabic in the 10th century AD (El Faiz, 2005, p. 30) we get a detailed description of water-raising machines, such as sciqiya, a perpendicular potgarland driven by an animal which rotates a horizontal beam fixed to the perpendicular axis with a gearing to the potgarland. The sources we will refer to come from al-Andalus. Most probably the *rya was introduced into the Iberian Peninsula by the Arabs. In the treatises of the AndalusT agronomists Ibn al-‘Awwam and Abu l-Khayr several water-raising machines used in agriculture are not only described in their outlook and functioning but also with respect to their construction specifications and the possibilities of improving thief efficiency —perhaps a rational option of prestige writing (El Faaz, 2005, pp. 219-220; Glick, 1992, p. 981).

These norias, which raise water from the Orontes River, are in Hama, Syria* (Source)

Patterns of prestige and political legitimacy 

Prestige issues are conventionally associated to persons of the political stage (or, more generally, of the public sphere). It is, therefore, understan-dable that important works related to water —whether providing drinking water, establishing adequate irrigation of fields or constructing water-powered machines— have been honourably attributed to distinguished Muslims. A well-known example is the project to provide the pilgrimage mute from Baghdad to Mecca with drinking water. The idea was inherent to the religious duties of the Muslim caliph. It is Zubayda (d. 831 AD), one of the wives of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (786-809 AD), who has associated her name with the project of a canal supposed to carry water from Baghdad all the way down to Mecca. The idea and some financial details of the project are mentioned in the biographical dictionary of Ibn Khallikan(1211-1282 AD) (lbn Khallikan, vol. I, p. 337). However, no precise information concerning any realised parts is provided, except of the plant for supplying Mecca with water from a spring some 25 miles away. In his journey description Ibn Jubayr (1145-1217 AD) gives some aspects of the water supply along the route from Baghdad to Mecca (El Faiz, 2005, pp. 111-114). However, this hydraulic infrastructure is commonly attributed to the caliph al-Ma’mfm (813-833 AD) (El Faiz, 2005, p. 113). The imprecise and often contradictory information about the ambitious water-supply projects concerning the Islamic Holy Place (Hitti, 1970, p. 302; El Faiz, 2005, p. 111-114) underlines the symbolic value of the subject and renders the several versions of the narrative a pattern of prestige and political legitimacy rather than a puzzle of historical evidence.

Similar narratives of political prestige and power concern prestigious regional rulers or public persons, e.g. the “superintendent of irrigation” of Mery in the 10th century, who was said to have more power than the prefect of the city since he commanded some 10000 workers to build and maintain irrigation canals and dams, and a series of 10 norias and attached mills (Ibn 1;lawqal, pp. 635-636; Hill, 1984/1996, p. 25). With reference to the same dam of the river Kur in Fars mentioned by al-Muqaddasi (al-Muqaddasi, p. 344), Ibn al-Balkhi underlines 150 years later (12th cent. AD) the labour organised and the money spent by ‘Adud al-Dawla for constructing the dam (Lambton, p. 867).

A report combining description and admiration of administrating irrigation services is included in the Kitab al-Hawi dating to the 2nd quarter of the 11th century AD (Cahen, 1949-1951, pp. 117-143). Among fiscal regulations we find detailed data concerning the output of the various water-driven plants: mills, water-raising machines, etc. Written at the end of the Buyid era it is a typical demonstration of political legitimacy through a discourse based on the hydraulic network.

(Left) Page from a 13th-century manuscript depict a water-raising machine designed by Al-Jazari. (Source)

Hydraulic imagery and marvellous machines: cosmographies, hiyal 

The Arabic reports about irrigation plants, dams and water-powered ma-chines formed a cultural construction which could be called hydraulic imagery. Quite often patterns of this imagery were associated with individual biographies. The Egyptian historian Ibn al-Qifti (1172-1248 AD) reports about the audacious project of the Basrian scientist Ibn al-Haytham (965-1039 AD) who considered to erect a dam on the river Nile near the first cataract in the south of Aswan. The aim of this vision was the effective regulation of the annual overflow of the Nile (Ibn al-Qifti, pp. 114-116). After having been officially invited by the Fatimid caliph al-Ijakim, Ibn al-Haytham surveyed the region, but apparently gave up his plan. It is reported that he then “simulated” madness in order to escape the wrath of the Fatimid caliph. It is not easy to exclude exaggerations and gigantomany with respect to the biographies of the Fatimid caliph or Ibn al-Haytham; this could be the contribution of the historiography to the formation of hydraulic imagery in the service of glorifying or colouring individuals. On the other hand the subject itself is the prototype of an incredible gigantesque project. The name of the Basrian scientist remained inherently associated with his hydraulic utopia and his “collateral madness” as embodied exaltation (El Faiz, 2005, pp. 129-137).

Exaltations in reports concerning agricultural technology, particularly hydraulic machines, as well as affinity to the Arabic literary form of the “wonders” (‘aja’ib) (Dubler, pp. 203-204; Institut du Monde arabe, 1978) are typical characteristics of textual sources on travelling and geography of the 12th to the 14th centuries AD. These aspects are especially prominent in treatises which present both geographical evidence and cosmological models explaining the data on a philosophical and theological basis. In modern terms such treatises are usually called cosmographies. This is not to say that information on prestigious and highly estimated hydraulic constructions that is provided in such treatises is generally exaggerated. Many references of technological devices constitute today valuable information on medieval technology, i.e. the mention that we find in al-Qazwini’s cosmography (1203-1283 AD) about the water-mill with horizontal wheel in Malaga. In the cosmography of al-Dimashqi (1256-1327 AD) such descriptions mostly refer to extraordinary ways of using natural resources (matter, wind or water).

In the description of the land of Azerbaijan al-Dimashqi presents the fortified town of Merend (Mehren, 1884, pp. 254-255, French translation; Mehren, 1866, p. 188, Arabic text). The information he gives about this place is concentrated on its remarkable water-mill: “In the place named Merend there is a mill which is put in rotation by a still water; and this belongs to the marvels of the world. It is built in the following way:

The mill house comprises two stone mills with two water wheels. Each water wheel is put in rotation by its own water [stream]. The upper [mill] stone rotates and grinds the grain. The two water wheels are fixed at the lateral parts of a vault in which the water remains stored with a depth of a man’s body and a breadth as well as a length of 6 cubits [e.g. ca. 4 m]. In the middle of this vault there is a pillar stretched like a bridge [horizontally] over the breadth of the vault and fixed on both side walls. This pillar bears two reinforced leaden water pipes which hold on each other tightly [unified] and hang over the pillar up to the surface of the water. Both water pipes are open. Inside there is a structure [device?] by means of which the water is sucked up towards a height of half a cubit [e.g. ca. 34 cm]. It is elevated in it [i.e. in the pipes] and kept on in stream until it flows down powerfully through the other pipe, which rises over the surface of the water in a certain distance. Thus the water flows out from this pipe and, as it falls on the water wheel, it revolves the wheel and moves the mill stone. After falling on the wheel scoops the flowing water reaches the same water [of the storing basin], then it is raised up in the other pipe turned to the other side and flows down from there. This pipe is of the same height and breadth [as the first one]. Thus each pipe sucks alternatively the water ejected by the other, so that the water mass neither decreases nor increases nor moves except at the openings of the two pipes where they suck up and pour out again the water.”

It is not the purpose of the present study to smooth or modernise the text in order to make it understandable as far as the functioning of the twin water-pipes is concerned. The details provided by the text are not enough to reconstruct the outline of the plant; they do not even elucidate the several possible functions. Even the illustration embedded in the manuscript and referring to the water-mill does not just illustrate the text (Canavas, 2005, pp. 291-297). Moreover, it underlines the apparent goal of the presentation of the water-mill of Merend by al-Dimashqi: the marvel described here is a perpetuum mobile. Work (i.e. turning the mill stones) is done without any visible input of external power!

The textual treatment of hydraulic machines as marvels finds its most remarkable expression in the compendia of ingenious machines (Arabic: hiyal) composed by Banu Musa in Abbasid Baghdad (9th century AD) and by al-Jazari in Diyarbakir (1206 AD). The Book of Ingenious Devices of the brothers Banu Musa contains descriptions and illustrations of 100 devices. Al-Jazari’s compedium yields descriptions and construction de-tails for 50 elaborate devices which combine mechanics, pneumatics and hydraulics (Hill 1984/1996, p. 199 ff.). Both treatises refer to design and construction for palace environments —”utilitarian” purposes similar to those of the rural machines described above are not mentioned in the biyal treatises.

The Self Changing Fountain of Banu Musa bin Shakir (Source)


In our study we analysed several Arabic textual sources concerning hydraulic machines. The various patterns traced are strongly related to the specific literary forms and the historical-cultural context of the texts. Whereas travellers and geographers of the 10th century AD underline utilitarian aspects and insert the hydraulic machines into the specific political and economic landscape, later historians and biographers introduce similar utility patterns as prestige criteria in assessing persons of the public sphere: dealing with hydraulic artefacts enables exalting and distinguishing (in case of failure: discrediting) individual persons. The hydraulic imagery finds a prominent position in the literary form of the “wonders” (`aja’ib), the Arabic mirabilia, and in the category of “tricky” devices in palaces and gardens.

The above patterns are expressed through specific narrative forms. As a consequence, these forms standardised the manners in which hydraulic know-how and technology are reported. Such reports were undoubtedly inspired by the practical reality; however, it would be an over-interpretation of poor reliability to assert that they depicted social and technological practice. Even if the textual sources in many cases allow the assumption of theoretical scientific insight in the period considered, this is not enough to conclude that “practical realisation of the theory” was just a question of logistics. Technology in the era considered here was not “applied science”. The social conditions of technology development might have been quite different from those of literary production, and the motives for using certain narrative forms are not to be found in the literal content of these narratives. In order to trace the paths of know-how transmission from the Nabateans up to the Muslim Arabs additional historical sources and archaeological evidence are still required.

The Albolafia noria, or waterwheel, is the last vestige of an array of mills and dams built on the Guadalquivir River in Cordoba between the 8th and 10th centuries as it appears in its present condition. (Source)


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