Brian A. Catlos

title.none: Hogendijk, and Sabra, eds., The Enterprise of Science in Islam (Brian A. Catlos)

identifier.other: baj9928.0403.006 04.03.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Brian A. Catlos, University of California Santa Cruz,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Hogendijk, Jan P., and Abdelhamid I. Sabra, eds. The Enterprise of Science in Islam: New Perspectives. Series: Dibner Institute Studies in the History of Science and Technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003. Pp. xxii, 386. $45.00 0-262-19482-1. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.03.06

Hogendijk, Jan P., and Abdelhamid I. Sabra, eds. The Enterprise of Science in Islam: New Perspectives. Series: Dibner Institute Studies in the History of Science and Technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003. Pp. xxii, 386. $45.00 0-262-19482-1. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Brian A. Catlos
University of California Santa Cruz

The role of Islamic science in the development of Western intellectual traditions has long been acknowledged; in fact, it has been emphasized to the point that through Orientalizing lenses it all too easily appears that medieval Islamic science came into being merely to preserve the lights of Greek philosophy, and Persian and Hindu mathematics, and to pass them on to the West before lapsing into irrelevance. This is hardly a fair or accurate assessment of the value of Islamic science. Thus, the editors of this collection of twelve essays remind us that the knowledge that was transmitted to medieval Europe represents only the tip of the iceberg of Muslim scientific pursuit, and that "scientific endeavors in the Islamic world ... remain as an important subject to be investigated in its own right..." (vii). This is a field, however, which is still in the early stages of development--hardly surprisingly, perhaps, given the linguistic and technical skills which it demands.

In November 1996 the Dibner Institute of MIT in Boston hosted a conference on "New Perspectives in Islamic Science," and the present volume represents the proceedings of that gathering. These essays each in their own way push the historiographical envelope; they are studies, which are for the most part highly technical in a scientific and philological sense and very precise perspectivally and thematically. This not only presents challenges for the general reader, who will be disappointed if he or she is expecting either over-arching conclusions regarding the character and role of science in Medieval Islam or a book which might serve as an introduction to the field, but also for the reviewer, who is confronted with the daunting task of summarizing and evaluating this challenging collection. Mercifully this task is alleviated by the editors, who provide comprehensive abstracts of each contribution in their introduction (pp. ix-xix). The articles themselves are heavily weighted towards mathematics, although optics and astronomy also figure prominently. The book's overall coherence is provided by the thread of cultural and scientific transmission which runs through the volume, both in reference to transmission to the West, or to and within the Islamic world.

The first section, "Cross-Cultural Transmission," contains articles by Paul Kunitzesch and Charles Burnett. In "The Transmission of Hindu-Arabic Numerals Reconsidered," Kunitzesch reflects on the diversity of early digital numeric forms in the Latin West and calls attention to the need to further investigate the adoption of Arabic numerals by Latins in the pre-1300 period. He also rejects the contention that the Western abacus was modeled on the "dust board" used in the Islamic world for calculations. For his part, Burnett pursues one of his favorite lines of inquiry, revealing that, contrary to established historiographical canon, Toledo was not the exclusive nexus of scientific and philosophical transmission from the Islamic world to the Latin West. Through a painstaking forensic examination of the textual characteristics and numerical forms present in a handful of philosophical and astronomical treatises, he convincingly establishes Antioch and Pisa as centers for translation and diffusion.

The next two contributions focus on "Transformations of Greek Optics," and include Elaneh Kheirandish's "The Many Aspects of 'Appearances': Arabic Optics to 950 AD," and Abdelhamid Sabra's "Ibn Haytham's Revolutionary Project in Optics: The Achievement and the Obstacle." In her chapter, Kheirandish presents a detailed analysis of the treatment of optics in al-Farabi's tenth-century Catalogue of the Science, a work which bridged Classical and Modern science, given that it was derived from prior Greek sources and also served an important role in the later transmission of optical theory to the Latin world. Through the example of al-Farabi's works, she reminds us that theoretical scientific texts are also potentially important historical documents for cultural history, capable as they are of casting light on otherwise obscure or indiscernible intellectual processes. Sabra also looks to the Greek antecedents of Islamic optical theory, in this case Ibn Haytham's monumental Optics. This work, which he shows to be heavily dependent on Hellenistic theoretical models, notably Ptolemaic, Aristotelian, and Galenic precedents, can nevertheless be considered "revolutionary" thanks to Ibn Haytham's determination to reconcile this theoretical framework with empirical observation. This led him to attribute a role in vision to psychological factors. Two sections follow which are devoted to mathematics: "Mathematics: Philosophy and Practice," and "Numbers, Geometry and Architecture," comprising four chapters in total. In "Mathematics and Philosophy in Medieval Islam," Gerhard Endress turns away from the particular to examine longue duree trends. After reiterating the incompatibility of Platonic and Ptolemaic and cosmological models with their Aristotelian counterparts, he shows this dichotomy to be reflected in the partisan approaches of early Islamic scientists. Although some, such as Ibn Haytham and Ibn Rushd, struggled to reconcile what seemed to them to be individually if qualifiedly valuable perspectives, this was not achieved with any success until philosophers of the thirteenth-century and later, such as Moses Maimonides, resolved to stake out separate spheres for empirical science, based on observation, and philosophy, which was subject to qualification by Revelation. Next, J. Lennet Berggren surveys the work of the tenth-century geometer al-Kuhi, whom he believes to have been the last intellectual descendent of the classic Greek theorists. Al-Kuhi was distinct among his peers for the practical geometric applications which he developed, including methods for calculating volume and center of gravity of objects. Jacques Sesiano's "Quadratus Mirabilis" turns to what Latins referred to as "magic squares"-- numerical/geometric constructions in which integers are arranged such that the sums of each array in the pattern are equal. Possibly Persian in origin, and with the little practical application, such squares served as intellectual and recreational exercises and were popular among mathematicians of the Islamic world. Finally, Yvonne Dold-Samplonius reprises Berggren's themes of practical geometry and the work of al-Kuhi in "Calculating Surface Areas and Volumes in Islamic Architecture." She finds, curiously, that the geometrical challenges inherent in constructing the baroquely complex domes, arches and decorative elements so typical of much Islamic architecture was not addressed by theoretical mathematicians until the Late Middle Ages. She cites al-Kuhi as a pioneer, but finds that not until al-Kashi's (d. 1429) Key to Arithmetic did a "serious" work of theoretical geometry confront the practical challenges faced by artisans.

The next section features two essays on "Seventeenth-Century Transmission of Astronomy," both relating to a seminal work, the Zij, which originated in fifteenth-century Samarkand. David Pingree's "The Saravasiddhantarja of Nityananda" shows how two centuries after its composition the Zij was taken up by a Hindu astronomer in the Mughal court and reworked so as to be culturally intelligible to the scientists of the subcontinent. This was accomplished with only mixed success, given that the translator failed to provide adequate cultural context for the mathematical principles which he was endeavoring to introduce. On the other hand, Julio Samso examines the adaptation of the Zij in the far Islamic West, where it was read by Maghribi astronomers of the 1800s. Samso demonstrates that the Tunisian scholar Sanjaq Sar adopted the lunar tables of the Transoxianian work as the basis for his own work, entitled the Zij al-Sharif.

The Enterprise of Science concludes with two contributions regarding "Science and Medicine in the Maghrib and al-Andalus." Ahmed Djebbar's piece, "A Panorama of Research on the History of Mathematics in al-Andalus and the Maghrib between the Ninth and Sixteenth Centuries," provides a historiographical survey of nearly two centuries of research--a welcome addition to a collection which otherwise assumes the reader's familiarity with the field. Djebbar's contribution is particularly useful because it is not limited in scope to Western scholars, but includes also the work of modern Maghribi researchers. There are many sources, he reveals, which have yet to be studied and many questions remaining to be answered in regards both to the study of science in Western Islam and its transmission to the Latin world. Finally, in his "Another Andalusian Revolt? Ibn Rushd's Critique of al-Kindi's Pharmacological Computus," Tzvi Langermann wonders whether Averroes' vehement rejection of al-Kindi's pharmacological revisionism, which abandoned Galenic principles, was rooted in a wider political-cultural context, in which the Almohads dogmatically opposed the intellectual trends of the Islamic East, and Western Muslim intellectuals favored a more empirical/practical approach than that of their traditionalist Oriental colleagues. Although he hesitates to venture a verdict, his detailed analysis of Ibn Rushd's Kitab al-Kulliyyat provides arguments in support of this hypothesis.

As a whole The Enterprise of Science in Islam embodies all of the strengths of the best conference proceedings, with some of the weaknesses inevitably inherent in the genre. Here, in one volume the reader finds a methodologically and thematically diverse collection of essays embodying the very latest research by some of the most innovative scholars on the vanguard of this fresh and challenging field. This very quality, however, means that this book will be of limited appeal to students and even non-specialist scholars who do not have a strong background in the history science and mathematics and Islamic intellectual traditions. A general historical and historiographical introduction situating the various personalities, trends, and theories in a wider context would have made the collection more accessible. On the other hand, the book does contain a useful 14-page index, which allows one to cross-reference figures, works, and themes which appear in the various contributions. As it stands, this is undoubtedly an important anthology, one which opens up as many questions as it answers and which, as the editors contend, supports "the view that the Islamic scientific tradition was even richer, more profound, and with more complex relations to other cultures than had been thought hitherto..." (ix). As such it deserves a place in every research library and university collection.