Section 4
Whose Science is Arabic Science in Renaissance Europe?
© George Saliba
Columbia University
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Travelers In Search Of Science
At this point, a word should be said about the people who can be documented as being responsible for this "transmission" in order to complicate the picture further, and to make the point much more clearly. For that purpose, I will now turn to two scientists from the sixteenth century whose lives can be placed within the context of this transmission of science under discussion.
The men in question are Guillaume Postel, a French man who was born around 1510 and died 1581,21 and Ignatius Ni‘matallah (or Nehemias as he was known to his Latin contemporaries) who was a Patriarch of the Syrian Jacobite church of Antioch. We do not know when the latter was born, but we know that he became Patriarch of the Jacobite Antiochian church in 1557 and died towards the end of the century (c. 1590) after living a fruitful and adventurous life as we shall see.22
(25) In the case of the Frenchman Postel23 (slide 25), we have very little information about his early life. But he must have been very well educated, and at some point he apparently started learning oriental languages, namely Hebrew and Arabic. He must have attained some fame on account of his dabbling in such oriental languages, for he was called upon by King François I (1515-47) to accompany the French ambassador Jean De La Forêt to the Turkish court in Constantinople at the occasion of negotiating with the Turkish court the French Ottoman alliance/treaty of 1536. Postel was apparently charged with the specific mission of collecting oriental manuscripts for the king’s library and it was probably thought that he could also act as an interpreter on account of his knowledge of oriental languages.


The fact that he did indeed go on this trip and that he collected oriental manuscripts, and scientific ones for that matter, is indisputable, for it is clearly attested in at least one note (slide 26) on one Arabic astronomical manuscript. The note clearly states that he was in Constantinople in the year 1536, the year when the treaty was actually concluded, and when he presumably bought this manuscript. He obviously brought it back with him to France, when he returned that year or the year after. The manuscript now rests together with thousands others in the collection of oriental manuscripts at the Bibliothèque National in Paris (slides 27&28).
(29&30) We also know that Postel made another trip to the east sometime between the years 1548 and 1551, and have collected other manuscripts as well but, so far, we have no clear attestation of the dates and places as we do with the Paris manuscript. It should be recalled and stressed, however, that the subject matter of the Parisian manuscript is theoretical astronomy, and it can be clearly demonstrated that Postel had studied this manuscript very closely as can be easily noted from his annotations on the margins (slides 29&30) of many of its 156 folios. The annotations of this Parisian manuscript form the subject of a forthcoming study by the present author in order to determine their extent, as well as their nature.
Another Arabic manuscript, that was equally annotated by Postel, is now kept at the Vatican Library, (slides 31&32) together with thousands others as well, in what is by far one of the most prestigious European collections of oriental manuscripts.24 In addition, the Vatican manuscript also happens to be an astronomical manuscript, and that was probably why it was also annotated by Postel (slide 33). As it turned out, the manuscript is just another copy of the work of the same astronomer Nasir al-Din al-Tusi whose theorem, the Tusi Couple, was alluded to before (slide 34), and is indeed contained in this manuscript as well.
(34) Taken together, the evidence illustrated by these two manuscripts demonstrates very clearly the availability of very sophisticated Arabic astronomical texts to the contemporaries of Copernicus in a language that they could read and understand. Thus the evidence also speaks very clearly to the fact that those contemporaries did not apparently need those texts to be translated into Latin in order to make use of them with their own students and colleagues as the extensive annotations clearly demonstrate. Other manuscripts still kept at the Bodleian (Oxford), the Laurentiana (Florence) and many other European libraries have other forms of annotations and interlinear translations of manuscripts similar to those. But the space and time do not permit any detailed treatment of them here.  Let it only be said that the example of Postel is by no means unique.
Returning to Postel, we also know that his erudition must have greatly impressed the royal court in France. On account of that, he was appointed, after his second trip to the east, as a professor of mathematics and oriental languages in what was called then l’Institut Royal, and later became the Collège de France. On another philosophical manuscript that he also owned, and probably also purchased during his trips to the east, now kept at the University of Leiden Library, he signs his name as "Royal Professor of mathematics."25 Because of his own personality traits though, he apparently did not remain in such high esteem at the court, and stayed in the post of a royal professor of mathematics for a few years only. After that he seems to have resigned his job in order to resume his travels that can be documented within the European area, especially into Italy and Vienna, and of course back to France.
Looking back at the annotations of the two manuscripts he owned, would it be far fetched to postulate that he could have very well used them in teaching his students since a good number of the annotations, especially at the beginning of the Paris manuscript, involve many definitions of basic technical astronomical terms as if he was himself learning astronomy or intending to teach the same? Would it also be far fetched to assume that he used them in his own cosmological writings which we know he produced? And finally, what would one call the kind of science produced by Postel?  Needless to say that the answers to such questions definitely have very significant implications to what one could call "Arabic/Islamic" science or "French/Latin/western" or "Renaissance" science.
The rest of Postel’s life does not concern us directly at this point, but it should be probably said that during his various travels he almost always passed through northern Italy, and through Venice in particular, and that he did so both before and after his two documented trips to the east. After his second trip he even stopped in Venice and became a follower of the famous Venetian mystic by the name of Joanna, who had claimed that she was the incarnation of the spirit of Christ. His association with Joanna, and maybe his interest in cabalistic and other mystical material, attracted the attention of the Venetian church officials who put him in jail for a while before dispatching him to the Papal custody in Rome. From then on the sources vary, for some claim that he died in the Roman jail, while others assert that he went back to die in France in the vicinity of Paris.
The question I like to highlight at this point is: Why was this younger contemporary of Copernicus still seeking astronomy from the east, and why was he obviously studying it so diligently at this late date as the annotations clearly demonstrate? All of this was apparently taking place when we are so often told that the main thrust of the Renaissance was directed at the recovery of the classical Greek heritage. It should also be emphasized that, in contrast, the two Arabic manuscripts that were so heavily annotated, together with the Arabic astronomical texts that contained the two mathematical theorems under discussion, and were obviously sought after by Postel and by people like him, all formed part of a long Islamic tradition whose express purpose was to object to the same classical Greek heritage.


The second scientist (or should one say refugee), the Patriarch (slide 35) who was mentioned before, had an equally eventful life. We do not know when he was born, but we know that he was born in the vicinity of the city of Diyar Bakr, now in south east Turkey, and that he was ordained to the Patriarchate in 1557.26 We also know from the historical sources that at some point during his partriarchate he became embroiled with the local Muslim clerics probably on account of his relationship to the local governor for whom he served as private physician. Some accounts point to local court intrigues taking place at this time, while others point to disputes he had with people of his own church centering around the desirability of affiliating the church back with the Papal see or not. During that embroilment the local Muslim clerics threatened his life for they accused him of atheism. In order to assuage them he apparently converted to Islam, or more like it, made to convert by the local governor, a deed that forgives one’s previous sins, according to custom, once the conversion takes place. But that act now enraged his Christian followers, who demanded that he resigns from the patriarchate, which he did in 1576, and appointed his nephew to the see. In 1577, this man escaped from the whole area, probably via Rhodes or Cyprus. One note (slide 36) at the end of an elementary mathematical work now kept in manuscript form at the Laurentiana Library, states that he had just finished reading that elementary mathematical work as he was being tossed by the waves of the Adriatic sea on his way to Venice. The actual text of the note reads: "With the aid of the inspiration from the Mighty Lord we were able to solve these problems on Sunday, after twenty days of October of the Greek year 1888 [=1577AD] have passed, when I the lost soul, by the name of Patriarch Ni‘meh, was on the ship tossed by the waves of the sea on my way to Venice."
From Venice, and in the company of Paolo Orsini, a converted Turk, as his interpreter, the two went down to Rome, where the Patriarch declared his conversion back to Christianity, and was embraced by the Catholic church for he promised that he would bring his Syrian Jacobite church back under the fold of the Papal see.
The prodigal son was then well received, and ended up being given a stipend by Pope Gregory XIII 27 and obviously made acquaintance with the future duke of Tuscany, the cardinal Ferdinand de Medici. As Ferdinand was interested in setting up the Medici Oriental Press,28 he appointed him to the board of that press, on a condition that he donated his library, which he must have brought along with him from Diyar Bakr.29 That library, most of which is still preserved at the Laurentiana, apparently formed the nucleus for the library of the Medici Oriental Press itself.30
As for the role of this press, it should be remembered that it produced some of the earliest books ever printed in Arabic. The purpose of that enterprise is commonly taken to have been directly relevant to the need of having Arabic religious books in order to curry favor with the eastern Christians still living in the Islamic lands or to use such books for missionary activities in the same lands. In other words, those Arabic books were supposed to assist in the activity of religious conversions from Islam to Christianity, and their market was naturally in the east. But as we shall soon see there is enough evidence to suggest otherwise, namely, that the press was aiming mainly at the European market and at the scientific community in particular as potential customers.
(37) In the deal with the Medici Press, just mentioned, we saw that the patriarch was allowed the continuous use of his library, and was appointed to the editorial board of the Press. From that position he must have had a great say in what was published and what was not. By reviewing the records of that press one is astonished to learn that out of the first six books that were produced, four of them had to do with linguistic or demonstrative science rather than religious material.31 Even more astonishing is the fact that the press made original print runs of 1500 copies of the Bible in Arabic, and 3000 copies of Euclid’s Elements, not of the original Arabic translations of the Greek Elements (which existed in at least two versions) but of a hybrid version of the much later recension of the Elements that was produced by the same Nasir al-Din al-Tusi who was also responsible for the production of one of the two mathematical theorems under discussion (slide 37). One can legitimately ask why that specific recension was chosen and the relationship of that to the will to recapture the texts of classical Greek antiquity. From the records of the unsold copies from the same Medici Press, one can surmise that the Arabic Bible sold some 934 copies, while Tusi’s recension of Euclid’s Elements sold a little better with 1033 copies. Based on sheer numbers alone could one draw the ironic conclusion that Euclid’s Elements, even in their reformulated recension, were deemed to be better tools for conversion to Christianity than the Bible?
Arabic linguistic treatises, and such late recensions of Arabic scientific texts were obviously abundantly available in manuscript form all over the Islamic world. Any cursory visit to any reasonable collection in the current Muslim lands would attest to that, despite the neglect that such collections faced during centuries of colonial times. In addition, such linguistic and scientific texts make very poor Christian propaganda material for missionary purposes. The press could not possibly hope to make a profit under such conditions. The more likely market, and there is much evidence to support that, was indeed the European market itself where it was then thought that there was much science to be learned from the lands of Islam, and the key to it was a good grounding in Arabic the lingua franca of that science. The actual purpose of the Medici press in producing such books, and the veracity of the claim that they were producing Christian propaganda material needs to be investigated in some detail and in a different context.
Suffice it to say here that the patriarch was apparently very learned, and his participation in the two most important committees of his time apparently bore fruits. In his capacity as overseer of the publication of Avicenna’s medical Canon, he used his own copy that he brought along with him from Diyar Bakr for the project.  On that count, he at least must be partially credited for the success of the project since the Canon seems to have also sold slightly better than the Arabic Bible. And judging by the number of prints the Canon went through in both its Latin translation as well as its Arabic original, and by the attempt made by Zacharias Rosenbach (c. 1614) to introduce an Arabic language course for medical students at Herborn academy, presumably to read the Canon in the original, the evidence testifies very clearly to the well-deserved popularity of this book.32 The fact that there were so many Arabic copies of it sold (some 940 according to the records of the Medici Press) must mean that there were several European physicians who could read Arabic to benefit from it. There was little hope that it could be sold in the east, where it originated, and still existed in several manuscripts. Moreover, in the east it had already been superceded by more sophisticated commentaries, only one of which was that of Ibn al-Nafis which went much beyond the Canon as was hinted before. The question of its European market can also be partially answered by referring to its status for the educated European of the time, a status that is best summed up by Postel’s own words when he said: "Avicenna says more on one or two pages than does Galen in five or six large volumes."33 So much for the Renaissance appreciation of the classical authors.
The second committee on which the Patriarch seems to have served equally successfully was none other than the famous committee that was set up by Pope Gregory XIII which finally produced the calendar reform and the on-going Gregorian reckoning in 1582.34
But he was also involved in several other projects of the press, as he was also involved in correspondence and collaboration with other "orientalists" both in Italy and well north of the Alps. In sum, this Patriarch and others like him, such as Leo Africanus, Orsini just mentioned, and many others were all involved in the production of what came to be known as Renaissance science. Where does the work of such men end and the autonomous work of Renaissance science begin?
21. There are several biographies of Postel. One such accessible and good biographical study of him was completed by Georges Weill, as a thesis at the Faculté des Lettres of the École Normale in 1892, and was translated from Latin and updated by François Secret, under the title Vie et caractère de Guillaume Postel, Archè, Milano, 1987. More recent biography was completed by Marion Kuntz, Guillaume Postel: Prophet of the Restitution of All Things, His Life and Thought, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Hague, 1981.

22. The information on this Patriarch derives from several sources, most important among them is a note written by Yuhanna ‘Azzô, the secretary of the Antiochian Syriac Patriarchate. This biographical note was used as an introduction to ‘Azzô’s Arabic translation of the Syriac autobiographical letter that was sent by patriarch Ignatius Ni‘meh to his parishioners in Diyar Bakr (probably from Rome towards the end of the sixteenth century). See Yuhanna ‘Azzô, "Risalat 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-ta’ifa al-maruniya wal-ruhbaniya al-yasu‘iya fi al-qarnain al-sadis ‘ashar wa-l-sabi‘ ‘ashar," al-Mashriq, vol. 19 (1921), p. 139.

23. All the following information is derived from the biographies listed in note 21 above.

24. For the details on this manuscript, see Giorgio Levi della Vida, Ricerche sulla formazione del più antico fondo deu manoscritti orientali della biblioteca Vaticana, Studi e Testi, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Citta del Vaticano, 1939, pp. 307, et passim (This reference was brought to my attention by my colleague Giorgio Vercellin of Venice. His help is gratefully acknowledged).

25. This manuscript was brought to my attention by my friend Dr. Maroun Aouad of the CNRS, Paris. His help is greatly appreciated.

26. All of the following information comes from the biography of ‘Azzô cited in note 22.

27. This information is derived from Jones, John Robert, Learning Arabic in Renaissance Europe (1505-1624), Ph.D. dissertation, London University, 1988, p. 42.

28. The latest work I am aware of on this press containing also references to earlier works is in 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 Wisdome and Learning, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996.

29. See Jones, Learning Arabic, p. 43, where he says, that Ignatius Ni‘matallah, participated in the Medici Press. He gave his collection of manuscripts to the Press and in return he received 25 scude per month and access to his books for the rest of his life. He sat on the editorial board of the press, especially that which oversaw the publication of Avicenna’s Canon. He was the most learned collaborator of Raimondi, the actual director and later owner of the press.

30. Jones, Learning Arabic, p. 43.

31. Jones, "The Medici Oriental Press", p. 100, and 108, n.71.

32. See Ursula Weisser, "Avicenna: Influence on medical studies in the West," in Encyclopedia Iranica, vol. III, pp. 107-110, esp. 109, col. 2.

33. H. Dannenfeldt, "The Renaissance Humanists and the Knowledge of Arabic," Studies in the Renaissance, vol 2 (1955) 96-117, esp. p. 111.

34. 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 EmendationeTemporum to a learned correspondence he had entered into with Ni‘matallah; and the Pope appointed him to the commission for calendrical reform."

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