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10 - 16 January 2002
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Greeker than the GreeksUne Histoire de la science arabe, entretiens avec Jean Rosmorduc (A History of Arab Science -- Conversations with Jean Rosmorduc), Ahmed Djebbar, Paris : Seuil, 2001. pp384
Ahmed Djebbar and Jean Rosmorduc's new History of Arab Science, which has been written with the general reader in mind, differs from more conventionally ordered treatments in that it presents its subject matter neither chronologically nor thematically. Instead, although the book is divided into chapters dealing in turn with the mathematics, physics, chemistry and astronomy of the Arab civilisation that stretched from Baghdad in the east to Spain in the west following the conquests of the seventh and eighth Centuries AD, this material is introduced in the form of "conversations" between a sympathetic scientist and historian and his interested, apparently non-specialist interlocutor.
The result is that points made in one context can be reiterated and reinforced in another. How the Arabs organised the translation into Arabic of the Ancient Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Indian and Persian scientific texts that they inherited and how they disseminated this knowledge and organised its teaching and research across the vast space that their civilisation covered are among the issues raised in this way. Conversation, as Plato showed, in written form can be an effective vehicle for philosophical exploration and persuasion, implicating the reader in discussion that he or she did not have the privilege to hear at first hand. It turns out that the method can be equally effective in dealing with history and science, features of conversation such as the habit of turning back, of changing direction, and of allowing speculative digressions making the (to this reader) mostly unfamiliar material presented in this book far more palatable.
Having read through the 384 pages of conversation and associated maps, diagrams and miniature explanations that the book contains, however, even with the author's sympathetic voices still in his head the non-scientific reader might be hard pressed to summarise the Arabs' contribution to the history of mathematics, for example. But even if some of the details are strictly for the specialist, the book's general argument is clear, resting on three allied propositions.
These are that the science taught and practised by the Arabs from the ninth to the 15th Century AD deserves to be looked at in detail because it was an important element of the Arab and Muslim civilisation that flourished during this period, that this science contains much that is ingenious or groundbreaking, forcing a re-assessment of any more general history of science, which has often been written from an eurocentric point of view, and that an accurate reconstruction of the scientific culture of Arab civilisation could help to put right "an historical injustice" that is still with us.
"It is often said that the Arabs transmitted Greek science to the West," Djebbar and Rosmorduc note, an idea that tends to limit any active Arab contribution and makes it sound as if their role was simply to prepare the ground for the later 17th Century European scientific revolution. But "one never reads that the Byzantines, who were the natural beneficiaries of the Greeks, transmitted their sciences to the Europeans, or to the Arabs either for that matter," so why use this language about the Arabs?
Discussing the first point, of science as a component part of Arab civilisation, the authors point out that the Arabs, inheriting the science and technology of the lands they conquered, brought a fully critical and rational attitude to it that was a part of their general culture. Djebbar and Rosmorduc make a series of useful distinctions here, looking at the connections between what might be termed "popular science" -- that practised by the population at large in the course of everyday activities such as calculation and building -- and the academic science practised in the Arab world's teaching and research institutions.
While a certain amount of scientific knowledge is necessary for basic arithmetical and architectural procedures, such as weighing, measuring and the calculation of volume and mass, they write, technical manipulation of this sort does not necessarily lead to critical reflection or to scientific advance. In the same way, the ability to use a language for communicative purposes does not necessarily lead to the development of a theory about it. However, evidence of theory-building, a feature of the development of scientific discourse, is what Djebbar and Rosmorduc are interested in, since from here comes the experimental method necessary for scientific advance to take place and for the establishment and testing of genuinely scientific knowledge.
Once developed from reflection on inherited practice or from observation, a theory can be tested through experiment and thus either jettisoned or improved. Djebbar and Rosmorduc write that the Arabs at this time not only took over the scientific knowledge and practice of the civilisations they had conquered, but that they also refined and improved on it through theory-building, experiment and research.
"Persian, Babylonian and Ancient Egyptian science have unfortunately left few written traces behind them," the authors write. "But those writings that have come down to us show that these were sciences fundamentally empirical in character... designed to solve certain practical problems in architecture, or to allow commercial transactions, etc. However, Ancient Greek society had an entirely different dimension. This involved the existence not only of knowledge... but also of a conception of scientific knowledge that contained a theoretical element ... crucial to the construction of rationality almost in the modern sense of the word."
"The heritage that Arab-Muslim civilisation received from Greek antiquity thus not only carried with it a body of important scientific knowledge, but also a discourse on science in the work of the Greek philosophers. ... This, when taken up by Arab researchers, to a large extent dictated their own procedures. The most 'Greek' peoples after the Greeks themselves in their intellectual attitudes were those of the Muslim Empire."
Miniature from the book of knowledge of mechanical processes, Al-Jazari, 13th century
Such intellectual attitudes among the Arabs, Djebbar and Rosmorduc argue, led to important scientific advances in, for example, astronomy, mathematics and physics.
In astronomy, as in other fields, the Arabs worked within the framework drawn up by the Ancient Greeks, in this case by the astronomer Ptolemy, as modified over successive centuries. Though wrong in outline, since it assumed that the Earth was stationary and that the Sun and planets revolved around it, this framework nevertheless allowed detailed calculations to be made. The Polish astronomer Copernicus is usually credited with correcting the Greek model in the 16th Century, but Djebbar and Rosmorduc point out that the 11th Century Arab scientist Al- Bayruni in his Procedures Necessary for Building an Astrolabe (Kitab fi Isti'ab Al-Wujuh Al- Mumkina fi San'at Al-Asturlab) had written that the two theories, that of the Earth's rotation and that of its fixity, were of equal value since experiment had not shown the one to disprove the other.
They also point out that the 11th Century Arab astronomer Ibn Al-Haytham, impatient with the many adjustments that had to be made to Ptolemy's model to make it agree with observations that contradicted it, had suggested in his work Doubts about Ptolemy (Al-Shukuk 'Ala Batlaymus) that Ptolemaic theory be jettisoned. It was, he felt, unable to survive the empirical objections ranged against it, and such a step was indeed taken some six centuries later by Galileo.
In mathematics, too, the Arabs were responsible for significant developments, most notably in that branch of mathematics which bears an Arabic name, algebra. Djebbar and Rosmorduc write that "algebra, as a discipline with a name, objects, procedures, proofs and fields of application, was born with the publication of Mohamed Ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi's small Treatise on Calculation by Restoration and Comparison dedicated to the Abbasid Caliph Al-Ma'mun," which set out the method of "restoration" (al-jabr), or the elimination of negative terms in a mathematical equation, and of "comparison" (al-muqabala), the simplification of its expression. Al-Khwarizmi wrote that he had written, "in the field of calculation by al-jabr, a treatise containing the finest and most noble calculation procedures that men have need of."
Djebbar and Rosmorduc go on to comment that the 10th and 11th Century Arab mathematicians Abu Kamil and Al-Karaji, among others, worked in the field of mathematics containing the "celebrated last theorem" of the 17th Century French mathematician Pierre Fermat. Fermat had apparently scribbled this in the margin of a book, together with notes indicating that he had an elegant proof for it, though in fact his conjecture was only confirmed in the mid 1990s by an English mathematician working in the United States.
The pattern that emerges, Djebbar and Rosmorduc say, is that the Arabs were far from being the passive vectors of an inherited science that lazy, or biased, formulations would make of them. On the contrary, not only was science an important component part of Arab civilisation, closely linked to Arab intellectual attitudes, it also saw important advances during the period when this civilisation flourished.
In the long chapter on physics that their book contains the authors are thus able to show that the Arabs, though taking over a conception of the world laid down by Aristotle and later definitively laid to rest, were far from ready passively to accept this conception on authority. Instead, they advanced the "mathematisation" of physics -- the restatement of physical laws in mathematical language -- and they committed themselves to the experimental method, checking observation against theory and theory back against controlled observation.
Such a method, the authors write, is explicitly described in the writings of Ibn Al-Haytham and Al-Farisi, and they quote with approval from Ibn Al-Haytham's (10th -- 11th Centuries) Treatise on Optics (Kitab Al-Manazir), which, though written against a scientific background that did not contain the wave theory of light, saw phenomena such as refraction in geometrical terms. Ibn Al-Haytham insists on the importance of "investigating by induction existing phenomena and in this way distinguishing the properties of individual things. ... From here, we may turn to research and comparison, in a gradual and orderly way, criticizing premises and being careful about results."
On finishing this sometimes demanding book, readers will have to make up their own minds as to whether, as Djebbar and Rosmorduc argue, "an historical injustice" has been done to the Arabs, minimising the importance of their historical scientific culture. However, at the very least, Ahmed Djebbar, a professor of mathematics at the University of Paris and a specialist in the history of science, and Jean Rosmorduc, professor of the history of science at the University of Bretagne (France), have written an accessible and fascinating book on this subject.
Their publishers (Seuil) have also made it available in paperback at a very low price. If French publishers are able to do this, why is it that English-language British and American books are now priced so high, making them inaccessible to the student audience that has most need of them?
Reviewed by David Tresilian
Arab Science: two views"We take away two contradictory conclusions at the end of more than two years of work.
"The first is that we have laid out the essential contributions of Arab-Muslim civilisation to the general history of science. We think that once the reader has closed this book, he will have expanded his knowledge of this civilisation, unless, obviously, he was already a specialist in it. Our primary intention has been to address ourselves to a francophone readership, and above all to a French readership. Given how history is taught, this book is intended to challenge certain received ideas and to render justice to a period in the development of humanity that attitudes left over from the colonial period have tended to hide, or to diminish. We hope, therefore, to have contributed, even in a quite basic way, to a re- estimation of contributions made by scientists of the Islamic countries.... We also think that our study will be useful to a readership of Muslim origin living and working in Europe. We hope that it will help such readers find out about the works of their ancestors and produce in them a legitimate sense of pride in those achievements.
"Our second conclusion is one of relative dissatisfaction. Beyond our own initial knowledge, we have tried to ask ourselves a great many questions in writing this book. We have answered most of these, either wholly or in part. That said, we have had to work on subjects that we either knew little about before starting, or that we had insufficient knowledge of. This is not unusual, and therefore we finish this small book having clearer ideas on certain aspects of the contributions of Arab-Muslim civilisation, and having significantly extended our own knowledge of them. But some questions remain, for which we have no answers, or for which we give only guesses. This has led us to write at various places in our book that the answer we give to a particular question is only a first answer. As research goes forward, and as new information comes to light, we will be able to illuminate certain issues further.
"As we have said, we undertook this study in the belief that the mediaeval Arab-Muslim civilisation was a very important period, and one that lasted a very long time (around eight centuries), in the more general history of human societies. In the same way, of course, it is very important for its scientific and technical component, which is the object of the present book. We are, whether we like it or not, both historians studying a process that began around 13 centuries ago, and which needs to be understood in the framework of the development of science since the appearance of writing in around 3, 200 years BC. ... Both of us are researchers working at the end of the 20th Century, the one a mathematician, the other a physicist, and both of us are historians of science. One of us works on the development of mathematics from the 15th to the end of the 20th Centuries, the other works on physics from Galileo to Einstein, and to more recently. Both of us also know a little about the recent history of biology, about the theory of evolution, about plate tectonics, about the development of astrophysics since 1859, etc. In the historical field, we both know how Arab-Muslim civilisation has developed since the Abbasid "Golden Age", and we know about the European Renaissance and the emergence of classical science from the 16th Century on.
"However, at the same time our methodological approach to writing history, even if it takes certain hints from the great ancestral figure of Ibn Khaldun, relies upon more recent approaches, such as those of the Annales School, and of Maurice Lombard, Claude Cahen, Fernand Braudel and Maxime Rodinson, among others. For example, could one really pretend, in writing about the innovations made by Ibn Mun'im in mathematics, that one did not know about developments that took place later from the time of Mersenne on? Would we have been credible if we had given the impression, in writing on Al-Biruni's cosmology, or on Ibn Al-Haytham, that we did not know about the later Copernican revolution?
"Perhaps, then, despite everything we have said, we have carried out our study using a "finalist optic"? But, we don't think this is so. Certainly, we have analysed the period of "Arab Science" from two points of view, admitting that it constitutes a step in the general development of civilisation from the Neolithic period on. The first point of view was that Arab science was worth studying for itself alone, in other words for its own interest. After all, whatever happened later, both Al-Khwarizmi's algebra and Ibn Al-Haytham's work on optics have their own intrinsic interest. The second point of view was that of the development of the history of science in general. A "Finalist conception" would say that the science we have described in our book is interesting in that it is the precursor to later classical European science. This isn't our point of view, even if it has also been."
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