Section 3
Whose Science is Arabic Science in Renaissance Europe?

© 1999
George Saliba
Columbia University
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The Role of Arabic Scientific Manuscripts in European Libraries




In what follows, still other possible routes which have not yet been explored at all, and thus have not been discussed in the literature, will be brought to bear on the question of transmission routes in particular. The reason why no one had ever thought of these routes before, in my opinion, has to do with our widely held contentions about the nature of intellectual life during the European Renaissance and the assumption of the almost complete autonomous growth of modern science from that period on (with the sole exception of a possible relationship of Renaissance science to the Classical Greek heritage).  In specific, it will be demonstrated that the various collections of Arabic manuscripts still preserved in European libraries contain enough evidence to cast doubt on this autonomous nature of Renaissance science -- at least as far as astronomy is concerned -- and to shed light on a new chapter regarding the mobility of scientific ideas between the Islamic world and Renaissance Europe.




This evidence will demonstrate that there was no need for texts to be fully "translated" from Arabic into Latin, in the same fashion that was done in the earlier Middle Ages, in order for Copernicus and his contemporaries to make use of the contents of those Arabic manuscripts. It will specifically show that there were competent astronomers and scientists who were contemporaries of Copernicus, slightly earlier than him, or immediately following him, who could read the original Arabic sources and make their contents known to their students and colleagues, in the same environment where Copernicus was attempting to reformulate the mathematical foundations of Greek astronomy. The situation was apparently not too different from the situation the Greek Byzantine scientist found himself in towards the beginning of the fourteenth century where he could report back into Greek what he found in Arabic and Persian scientific texts and thus blur the borders between "Greek" science and "Arabic/Islamic" science. Or shouldn’t late Greek Byzantine science be called "Greek" science?




Looked at from the perspective of blurred borders, and from the perspective of the other border "separating" the Islamic world from Renaissance Europe, one has to ask if there is an appropriate term to characterize the resulting science that is produced under such conditions, where manuscripts carrying theorems first articulated in Arabic texts were "translated" into Byzantine Greek and finally organically employed in Latin, whether such a science was the science of the Islamic world, the Greek Byzantine world, or the world of Renaissance Europe? One need not exaggerate in order to highlight the predicament imposed by such terminology.




Had the problem been limited to the appearance of two mathematical theorems first in Arabic texts and then in the works of Copernicus one could have dismissed them still, against better judgement, and thought of them as a localized and limited "transmission", in a complex sense of the word, taking place by sheer happenstance or by sheer circuitous routes via Byzantine Greek as history sometimes offers such examples. With that approach one may even successfully avoid thinking of the larger implications that such evidence presents for the intellectual climate in Europe during the latter part of the fifteenth-century and throughout the sixteenth and even after. But when coupled with the much more abundant similarities between the astronomical works of Copernicus and the works of the earlier Damascene astronomer by the name of Ibn al-Shatir (d. 1375),16 so competently documented by Swerdlow in his edition and translation of Copernicus’s Commentariolus,17 or when coupled with the similar phenomena in medicine18 and mathematics, to give only two examples from other disciplines, then the evidence begins to beg for a much more detailed explanation, and our traditional methods of referring to sheer coincidences and independent discoveries or even cultural sciences begin to fail.






To elaborate, consider in this context the complete identity of the Copernican model for the moon with that of Ibn al-Shatir, (slides 15&16), or the remarkable similarities in their models for the motion of Mercury, (slides 17&18), both heavily documented in the literature by Neugebauer and Swerdlow. Or consider again, in fields other than astronomy, the appearance of the description of the pulmonary movement of the blood first in an Arabic text of the Damascene physician Ibn al-Nafis (d. 1288) (slides 19&20), who lived around the same period as the astronomers who produced the two mathematical theorems mentioned above and whose medical text was written before 1241, and the later appearance of the same description of the pulmonary circulation of the blood in the works of Michael Servetus (1511- 1553) and Realdo Colombo (1510-1559), both sixteenth-century contemporaries of Copernicus. In the same context, recall too that Harvey, to whom the discovery of the circulation of the blood is attributed, graduated from the university of Padua in northern Italy whose medical faculty had included among its members, about a century earlier, the distinguished Venetian physician by the name of Andreas Alpagos (d. 1520).  This Andrea had spent close to 30 years in Damascus as the physician of the Venetian consulate towards the latter part of the fifteenth and early part of the sixteenth centuries. While in Damascus he learnt Arabic enough to re-translate the philosophical and medical works of Avicenna as well as the same medical work of Ibn al-Nafis where the pulmonary motion of the blood is mentioned.  The copy of Andreas’s translation which still exists at Bologna University, however, does not seem to include the section on the pulmonary circulation of the blood. 




In mathematics, consider the concept of the decimal fractions, attributed to Stevin (around 1600), and the existence of such fractions in Arabic mathematical works from as early as the tenth century (slides 21&22). In the same field also consider the debate in the sixteenth century in various European localities about the then relatively new field of Algebra and its possible Arabic origins as illustrated most recently by Giovanna Cifoletti.19




Or in the field of scientific instruments, consider again the curious copy of an Arabic astrolabe (slides 23&24) originally made in ninth-century Baghdad and then copied on a draft paper during the first quarter of the sixteenth century by Antonio de Sangallo the Younger (d. c. 1525), who was also one of the architects of Saint Peter’s cathedral in Rome.20




When all that evidence is brought to the table one should at least be impressed by the ubiquitous nature of these instances that create problems for those who continue to think of science in cultural terms or would prefer to class all those problems as transmission problems. The implications of those problems for the analytical categories assumed in the cultural sciences are undeniably radical, to say the least.








16. Ibid, p. 193.

17. Swerdlow, Commentariolus, p. 454ff.

18. For medicine see the work of Ibn al-Nafis and its possible transmission to Europe during the same period. A.Z. Iskandar, "Ibn al-Nafis", Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Scribner’s Sons, NY, 1974, vol. 9, pp. 602-606.

19. For the extensive debates during the sixteenth century about the Arabic origin of Algebra and possible relationships between Arabic and Latin Algebra see the most recent work of Giovanna Cifoletti, "The Creation for the History of Algebra in the Sixteenth Century," in Mathematical Europe, éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’home, Paris, 1996, pp. 122-142.

20. For a full publication discussing this astrolabe copy, see G. Saliba, "A Sixteenth-Century Drawing of an Astrolabe Made by Khafif Ghulam ‘Ali b. ‘Isa (c.850 A.D.)," Nuncius, Annali di Storia della Scienza, 1991, 6:109-119.

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