Science and Engineering in the Islamic Heritage

London, UK
Manuscript Centre Symposia
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The Centre for the Study of Islamic Manuscripts at Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation, in co-operation with Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation (UK), organised a Symposium titled “Science and Engineering in the Islamic Heritage”, on Saturday, 18th March 2017, at Al-Furqān’s headquarters in London.

The Symposium shed light on some of the contributions of Muslim scholars in different scientific fields, with a special focus on astronomy, mathematics, physics, optics, engineering, and scientific instruments, highlighting the major legacy and texts left by some of the pioneering scholars in this field. Furthermore, the Symposium explored ways of how to bring such contributions into the public domain to enhance inter-cultural respect.

The symposium was structured in 5 sessions with a total of 14 speakers. It was attended by more than 50 scholars and academics, specialised in scientific fields of study and the Islamic Heritage. Each session was followed by an open discussion on the topic and relevant questions by the participants.

Mr Sharaf Yamani, member of the Board of Directors at Al-Furqān welcoming the attendees of the Symposium

The Symposium started with the welcoming words by Mr Sharaf Yamani, member of the Board of Directors at Al-Furqān, who highlighted the work of the Foundation in studying the Islamic written heritage in general, as well as its work and efforts in the fields of applied sciences and engineering in the Islamic Heritage; highlighting the fact that Al-Furqān looks at this heritage as being a shared human heritage.

Session I

The first session, titled “Introduction on the Historiography of Science”, was chaired by Mr Peter Fell.

The first speaker was Prof. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Turkish academic, diplomat, and member of the Board of Directors at Al-Furqān. He is also editor and co-author of the 18 volumes “History of Ottoman Scientific Literature.” His lecture was titled "An Overview of Ottoman Scientific Literature". Prof. Ihsanoglu introduced the importance of the 18 volumes of “History of Ottoman Scientific Literature” that were prepared and published in the last three decades, which reveal enormous amount of information about scientific activities in the six centuries of the Ottoman era. In his lecture, Prof. Ihsanoglu presented the statistical findings of surveying 4897 authors, 4681 works and a large number of manuscripts. The information gathered was presented analytically in tables. The lecture highlighted the different aspects of authorship in various scientific disciplines (astronomy, mathematics, geography, medicine, etc.) and the interaction between scholars from different parts of the Ottoman Empire within its European, Anatolian and Arabic provinces. The paper also shed light on the first contacts with modern science emerging in the West Europe.

Prof. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu’s lecture was titled "An Overview of Ottoman Scientific Literature"
Prof. William R. Shea’s lecture was titled "Enlarging our Historiography"

The second speaker was Prof. William R. Shea, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at McGill University in Montreal. His paper was titled, "Enlarging our Historiography". Prof. Shea highlighted the importance of studying history through a world history approach. In particular, he pointed out that, if we fail to understand the Islamic heritage, we will fail to understand Europe and the rest of the world. In fact, the most vigorous scientific activity of the early Middle Ages lay in the lands of the Prophet, whether in medicine, mathematics or astronomy. The Arab contribution to mechanics and engineering is of towering importance, and the historiography of science has now been greatly enhanced by the critical edition and English translation of the corpus of Al-Isfizārī. Prof. Shea concluded his speech by mentioning the decline of history as a subject and the need to move towards exhibitions and display of artefacts for engaging the public in the intercultural exchange of knowledge.

Prof. Charles Burnett's lecture was titled "Truth" in Islamic Culture in the Middle Ages"

The third speaker of the first session was Prof. Charles Burnett, Professor of the History of Arabic/Islamic Influences in Europe at the Warburg Institute, University of London. His lecture was titled, "Arabica Veritas: Europeans' Search for "Truth" in Islamic Culture in the Middle Ages". In this contribution, Prof. Burnett explained the meaning of the concept of “Arabic truth” among Medieval Western Europeans, and explored the apparent contradiction between Christians' outright condemnation of Islam and their wholesale embracing of the products of Islamic culture. In fact, Arabic scholars, in particular of scientific texts, were seen not only as truthful to the text they were copying from the Greeks or other sources, but also as promoters of reasoning and rational thinking in analysing and answering those issues that the Greeks could not answer before, thus being seen by the European scholars as valuable and reliable sources.

Session II

The second session titled, “Astronomy and Mathematics in the Islamic Heritage” was chaired by Prof. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu.

The first speaker of this session was Prof. George Saliba, Professor of Arabic and Islamic Science at Columbia University. His lecture was titled "The Pervasive Use of Arabic/Islamic Sources in Renaissance Europe and Thereafter" and focused on the works of European scientists who used Islamic/Arabic scientific sources to support and expand their own science. The lecture explored the works of European scientists from the Renaissance up to the seventeenth-century and beyond who used Arabic scientific sources in a variety of fields and annotated them with their own hands, all in the process of producing their own European pre-modern science, including Andreas Vesalius, Lazarus Hebraeus de Frigeis, Giambattista della Porta, John Greaves, in addition to several Dutch globe makers and other technicians, mostly interested in the practical scientific tools developed in the Islamic world.

Prof. George Saliba's lecture was titled: "The Pervasive Use of Arabic/Islamic Sources in Renaissance Europe and Thereafter"

The second speaker of this session was Prof. David King, Professor of the History of Science at the J. W. Goethe University in Frankfurt. His lecture was titled, “Science in the Service of Islam”. Prof. King explained how the applications of science in the service of Islam had no parallel in the history of world civilisation, and they gave rise to many new inventions. In the mathematical tradition, for example, the regulation of the prayer-times took place within the broader context of astronomical timekeeping by the sun and stars, using extensive astronomical tables and complicated instruments, and the determination of the Qibla within the framework of mathematical geography, longitudes and latitudes, and applied mathematics. Prof. King also addressed the most recent misinterpretations (by Gibson, Meus and Holland) about early Muslim practices, and urged that the best means to confront them was to be informed about what the Muslims actually did do, through the study of written sources and artefacts that survived, from the Islamic world and beyond.

Prof. David King's lecture was titled: “Science in the Service of Islam”

Session III

The third session titled, “Optics and Vision in Islamic Heritage” was chaired by Dr Anne-Maria Brennan.

The first lecture of this session, titled "From Ibn al-Haytham to Ahmed Zewail: A Millennium of Contributions to Imaging Devices" was delivered by Prof. Mohamed El-Gomati, Professor of Electronics at the University of York, UK. In this lecture, Prof. El-Gomati focused on the development of optical imaging devices up to the present day. The chronology of developments as well as the key figures behind such inventions clearly shows how interdependent advancements in science and technology are, as well as to highlight the continued use of some old inventions in many of the advancements being made in today's world, in particular from the Islamic heritage (with focus on the works by Ibn al-Haytham).

Professor Mohammed El-Gomati

The second lecture of this session was delivered by Prof. Siegfried Zielinski, Professor of Media Theory at the University of Arts (UdK) Berlin. The lecture was titled “Ibn al-Haytham's Concept of Vision - A Media Archaeological Approach”. Prof. Zielinski pointed out how Islamic scholars provided a “post-modern” approach to the sciences ante litteram, in contrast to major European philosophers of the time (such as Hegel or Kant). In particular, he brought as an example Ibn al-Haytham’s Book of Optics, one of the most important contributions for the history of visual perception and the construction of images interpretation. This work, for Prof. Zielinski, is also an important contribution from a media archaeological point of view, because of Ibn al-Haytham’s understating of “inter-objectivity”: an object that reflects light is not passive, it becomes a potentiality. This concept is very much representative of contemporary technic media theories, which analyse the dialogues and interconnections between objects. Prof. Zielinski focused in particular on three aspects of Ibn al-Haytham’s work that make him a modern scholar: the highly experimental/empirical approach of Ibn al-Haytham's concept of vision; its neurological implications; its modernity as a concept of generating and reflecting images.

The third contribution to this session was the lecture titled, “Ibn al-Haytham and His Influence on Post-Medieval Western Culture”, delivered by Prof. Charles M. Falco, who has joint appointments in Optical Sciences and Physics at the University of Arizona, where he holds the UA Chair of Condensed Matter Physics. Prof. Falco presented a research project done in collaboration with David Graves and David Hockney. He focused on Kitāb al-Manāẓir (Book of Optics) by Ibn al-Haytham and its intellectual contributions that subsequently were incorporated throughout the core of post-Medieval Western culture. Prof. Falco explained how Ibn al-Haytham’s seminal work on the human vision system initiated what remains an unbroken chain of development that connects 21st century optical scientists with the 11th century Ibn al-Haytham. However, the impact that Ibn al-Haytham had on areas as wide-ranging as the theology, literature, art and science of Europe is still significantly understated.


Dr Saira Malik

The last speaker of the third session was Dr Saira Malik, lecturer of Religious Studies at Cardiff University (UK), with a lecture titled “Kamāl al-Dīn al-Fārisī on (the) Optics: In the Footsteps of al-Ḥasan Ibn al-Haytham?”. In her lecture, Dr Malik explained how, although Kamāl al-Dīn’s work uses Ibn al-Haytham’s writings in the ‘Optics’ as a starting point, Kamāl al-Dīn departs significantly from Ibn al-Haytham’s composition – in terms of structure, content and concept. Kamāl al-Dīn al-Fārisī (d. ~1320CE, Tabriz) is the only known commentator in Arabic of Ibn al-Haytham’s principal work, ‘Optics’ – an important work in the history of science – particularly in the history of the physical sciences.

Session IV

The fourth session titled, “Engineering and Instruments in Islamic Heritage” was chaired by Mr Sharaf Yamani.

The first speaker was Prof. Salim Al-Hassani, Emeritus Professor at the University of Manchester, and President of FSTC, with a lecture titled “An Introduction on Automatic Machines in Muslim Civilisation”. This contribution reviewed the rise and development of automatic machines within Muslim civilisation. It looked at how inventors from the Muslim civilisation progressively transformed achievements of previous cultures (e.g. ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Persia, China and India), and how they developed new sophisticated time measuring devices, irrigation machines and entertainment devices. Prof. Al-Hassani showed some examples of automatic machines, using 3D animations created from descriptions in primary sources, using modern engineering graphics. These included: CaliphḤarūn al-Rashīd's clock that he gifted to Charlemagne, Ibn al-Haytham's novel water clock, and some machines of Al-Murādī in Al-Andalus, Al-Jazārī and Taqī al-Dīn in Turkey, and the clocks of Riḍwān al-Sāʿātī in Damascus, BūʿInāniya and Al-Qarawiyyin clocks in Fez. Prof. Al-Hassani concluded by stating that unfortunately, there is a gap in the educational curricula of about 1000 years, overlooking the contributions of non-European cultures such as Chinese, Indian, Persian and Muslim.

Prof. Andrea Bernardoni’s lecture was titled “Traces and Connection with Muslim Scientific Heritage in Leonardo Da Vinci Manuscripts”

The second speaker was Prof. Andrea Bernardoni researcher and curator at the Institute of the History of Science in Florence (Italy). His lecture was titled, “Traces and Connection with Muslim Scientific Heritage in Leonardo Da Vinci Manuscripts”. Prof. Bernardoni discussed direct and indirect examples of influence of Arabic and Islamic scientific contributions to the work of Leonardo da Vinci in the fields of engineering, arts and sciences. In the case of engineering machines, the influences from the Islamic context came mostly through the commercial routes and the travellers between the Middle East and Europe. At the beginning of the 16th century, Leonardo even considered the possibility of moving to the court of Sultan Bāyezīd II, with the project to build a bridge over the Bosphorus. As for scientific knowledge and the arts, manuscripts and translations of Arabic sources were the main influence in Da Vinci’s work, such as Al-Kindī and Ibn al-Haytham for optics and meteorology, and Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā) for anatomy and medicine.

Prof. Julio Samso’s lecture was titled “Dūnash ibn Tamīm and the Armillary Sphere”

The third speaker of this session was Prof. Julio Samso, Emeritus Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies of the University of Barcelona, who delivered a lecture titled “Dūnash ibn Tamīm and the Armillary Sphere”. In his lecture, Prof. Samso analysed the contents of the treatise and showed that Dūnash’s knowledge of spherical astronomy was rather limited. Abū Sahl Dūnash was a Tunisian scholar, born in Qayrawan, and was a disciple of the well-known physician and philosopher Isḥāq ibn Sulaymān al-Isrāʾīlī (4th/10th century), who worked as a physician of the Fatimid caliphs. The treatise on the armillary sphere was written to accompany a real instrument built for Muḥammad b. al-Ḥusayn. It has been preserved in only one manuscript (Istanbul, Ayasofya 4861), copied in 613/1217. It describes an analogical computer, like the astrolabe, not an observational instrument. The treatise is divided into two parts: 1) Introduction and 2) a collection of 43 applications of the armillary instrument. He adds to this list lengthy digressions concerning topics which are not related to the use of the armillary sphere, or in which the use of the instrument is only a visual help, to understand the theory involved. In some cases, these digressions are cosmological.

Prof. Glen Cooper

The last speaker of the fourth session was Prof. Glen Cooper, visiting assistant professor in the History Department at Claremont McKenna College. His lecture was titled “Astrolabes and Zijes as Tools of Education and the Transmission of Scientific Knowledge from Islamic Civilisation”. Prof. Cooper provided an introduction to Islamic astrolabes and astronomical tables (zijes), explaining that they were improvements on Greek antecedents, and were employed both to educate non-specialists about basic astronomical concepts, and to enable faster calculations of planetary positions and other astrological parameters. Both astrolabes and tables encode a complex trigonometry, so the user needs merely to turn a dial, aligning certain marks and reading off the result from the astrolabe, or simply to perform basic arithmetic on the tables to derive planetary positions. In addition, the astrolabe was an important vehicle for the transmission of mathematics and astronomy to Europe. In conclusion, Prof. Cooper explained how astrolabes and zijes are useful in modern history of science courses, to help students grasp the technical sophistication of Muslim civilisation. He discussed three example assignments and workshops 1) Students use tables to calculate selected features of their birth charts (positions of Sun, Mars and Ascendant). 2) Students construct an astrolabe from scratch, using compass, pencil, card stock paper, and an acetate sheet. And 3) Students learn how to use the astrolabe for time-keeping and selected astrological calculations.

Session V

The last session was titled, “Science Heritage in Action” and was chaired by Prof. William Shea.

The main speaker was Prof. Karen Pinto, who has worked extensively with medieval Islamic maps in manuscript libraries around the world. Her speech was titled, “Teaching Islamic Technology to American Undergraduates: The Importance of 1001 Inventions as a Means to Dispel Islamophobia”. In her lecture, Prof. Pinto explained how in a time of great stress between the Western and Muslim worlds, it is important to provide students with an understanding of global culture and the contributions that the Muslims make to it. Classes on Islamic Civilisation and Technology enable us to break down negative western monolithic impressions of Islam and Islamic history, by familiarising students with the richness and diversity of Islamic history and culture, and the advances of science and technology in the medieval period.

Prof. Karen Pinto

Closing Session
Discussion and Recommendations

During the closing session, the speakers and the audience engaged in an open discussion that ended with the recommendations and final words by the Managing Director of Al-Furqān, Mr Sali Shahsivari, who reminded the audience of the work of the Foundation in unearthing the hidden treasures of Islamic written heritage by surveying, cataloguing and editing manuscripts, and in promoting research and study in different fields of this heritage, with a special focus on the field of science and technology. Also, he made a call for projects on critical edition of scientific texts. He also highlighted Al-Furqān’s work in building an online database, as a gateway to the Islamic written heritage, which is an open access for all. Furthermore, he pointed out that this event aimed to discuss ways of bringing this heritage closer to the public domain, through different ways and initiatives, as well as through co-operation with other organisations in the same field (such as FSTC and its 1001 Inventions initiative) in order to raise awareness on the richness of Islamic heritage, its role and importance, and in addition to enhance inter-cultural appreciation and respect.

The Opening Dinner

The Symposium was opened on Friday, 17th March, with a reception and dinner held at the Cholmondeley Room & Terrace at the House of Lords in London, hosted by the Rt. Hon. the Lord Knight of Weymouth, and the Rt. Hon. Baroness Hooper.

During this event, organised jointly by Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation and the Foundation for Science, Technology, and Civilization, the book on ‘The Corpus of al-Isfīzārī in the Sciences of Weights and Mechanical Devices’ (both Arabic and English versions) was inaugurated.

Dr Bettany Hughes, a renowned Historian, author, and TV presenter was the Master of Ceremonies, and she presented the endeavours of both organisations in the field of Islamic Heritage.

Prof. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, member of the Board of Directors at Al-Furqan, and Prof. Salim Al-Hassani, President of FSTC, also welcomed the guests, gave a brief account of the inception of the mutual co-operation as well as the synergy between both organisations for all initiatives towards promoting the Islamic heritage and civilisation.

Followed by the speeches, Prof. Julio Samso, Emeritus Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Barcelona, and Dr Ahmed Al-Dubayan, Director of the Islamic Cultural Centre in London, introduced the English, and Arabic publication, respectively, and shared their review of the scholarly work at hand.

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