Scientific symposium on the book “Ottoman Scientific Heritage”

Cairo, Egypt
Manuscript Centre Symposia
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In prior months, the Centre for Study of Islamic Manuscripts at Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation had published “Ottoman Scientific Heritage” by Professor Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, member of Al-Furqān Foundation’s Board of Directors, and its translation from Turkish into Arabic by Dr Majda Makhlouf, Professor at Ain Shams University. The book presents the epitome of achievements in science and civilisation, secured under the auspices of the Ottoman State throughout the six centuries of its existence, contributing towards the cumulative effort of human heritage.

H.E. Professor Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, Member of the Board of Directors at Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation

Given the huge importance of this major reference work, Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation—through the Centre for Study of Islamic Manuscripts—decided to organise a scientific symposium and book launch, in cooperation with the Center for Islamic Civilisation Studies at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. This was held on Wednesday, 14 December 2022 from 12:00 PM till 4:30 PM at the Delegates Hall of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina Conference Centre.

Participating in the symposium—alongside the author and translator—were a select group of scholars headed by Professor Ahmad Zayed, Director of Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Dr Ayman Fouad Sayed, President of the Egyptian Society for Historical Studies, Dr Mohamed Afifi, Professor at the Faculty of Arts, Cairo University, Professor Sayed Mohamed Mahmoud, Professor at the Faculty of Arts, Alexandria University, Professor Mohamed Sabri al-Dali, Professor of Contemporary History, Helwan University, and Mr Sali Shahsivari, Managing Director of Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation.

Prior to the symposium, a function was held celebrating the exchange of publications between Bibliotheca Alexandrina and Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation.

Dr Mohamed Elgamal, Director of the Islamic Civilisation Studies programme at Bibliotheca Alexandrina, delivered an introductory speech welcoming lecturers, guests, and participants, giving an overview of the Islamic Civilisation Studies program at Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and presenting the event programme. Subsequently, Dr Ahmad Zayed, Director of Bibliotheca Alexandrina, gave the symposium inaugural speech, welcoming the lecturers and audience. He then delivered a brief presentation on the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and its activities. In his words, it represented a centre of excellence in knowledge synthesis and dissemination, and a venue for the interaction between peoples and civilisations; furthermore, it was Egypt’s window onto the world, and Centre for learning, tolerance, dialogue, and mutual understanding, serving to highlight the bright aspects of the intellectual renaissance of Arab civilisation. In addition, Bibliotheca Alexandrina had a deep interest in heritage and its preservation. Dr Ahmad Zayed expressed his delight in organising this symposium to celebrate the book, which is an important historical reference work and key source on the history of science during the time of the Ottoman State. Moreover celebrating its author, Professor Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, and the book’s translator, Dr Majda Makhlouf. He concluded his speech by praising the symposium and the continuing cooperation between Al-Furqān Foundation and Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

Dr Mohamed Elgamal, Director of the Islamic Civilisation Studies programme at Bibliotheca Alexandrina

Professor Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu began by congratulating the director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Dr Ahmad Zayed, on his recent appointment to lead Bibliotheca Alexandrina. He added that Bibliotheca Alexandrina was a pioneering institution in the domain of cultural interaction. He also thanked Dr Ahmad Zayed on the kind reception and warm welcome, in opening Bibliotheca Alexandrina to the symposium and book launch. He also thanked Bibliotheca Alexandrina staff, wishing them continuing success. Furthermore, he thanked Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation for organising the symposium, and welcomed the lecturers in this event, and their striving to participate in it, as well as Dr Majda Makhlouf, who had translated the book. He praised all those who had contributed to organising, and the success of, this symposium and book launch. He ended with a supplication to Allah to have Mercy on the soul of H.E. the late Shaykh Ahmad Zaki Yamani.

The first session chaired by Dr Mohamed Elgamal began with a presentation by Professor Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, in which he revealed the reason for his interest in the history of sciences. He then gave a brief overview of the book, which is the distillation and abridgement of eighteen volumes of literature on history of science under the Ottomans from the 14th to the early 20th century. This work had started more than three decades ago, with mammoth effort expended since. He added that the book comprised two parts; the first contained an analysis and extensive study on Ottoman scientific heritage: history, concept and origin, and spread, in addition to the translation movement, and the teaching of rational sciences. He also touched upon the period of modernisation, and the beginning of the appearance of new scientific institutions, culminating in the contact with Europe especially, and the West in general. As for the second part, comprising two volumes, this presents in detail the complete scientific compilations of 370 eminent scientists from among 5000 authors, selected from across the Ottoman geography. It also presented 92 important works from among 7,145 works by unknown authors.

Professor Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu mentioned examples from the book relating to scholars, such as Taqī al-Dīn al-Rāṣid, and Ghāzī Zādah al-Rūmī, and others. He provided examples and analysis of the tables used in the book. Moreover, he spoke about scholars’ use of three languages in their works, namely Arabic, Ottoman, and Persian, as well as the establishment, and important role, of educational and scientific institutions under the Ottomans. He pointed to the Ottoman experience in knowledge and modern technology transfer, compared to China, Japan, and Russia.

In turn, Dr Majda Makhlouf, Professor at Ain Shams University, expressed her pleasure with this symposium convened to celebrate the publication of the book, Ottoman Scientific Heritage, held at Bibliotheca Alexandrina in coordination with Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation; both of which are scientific bodies of eminent standing in science and culture, not only in the Muslim world, but worldwide, both East and West. She expressed her hope that this symposium would be the beginning of a permanent and constructive cooperation between them, laying the foundation for cooperation and providing a successful example of interaction between scientific institutions engaged in science and knowledge synthesis. She also thanked Dr Ahmad Zayed, Director of Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Sali Shahsivari, Managing Director of Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation, Professor Mohamed Elgamal, and Professor Marwa al-Wakil, and welcomed, Professor Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, the author.

Dr Majda stated that interest in the study of scientific heritage in the Islamic periods, including the Ottoman period, is a very important matter, especially as there is a huge void. It was as if no one had noticed the existence of a valuable scientific heritage worthy of attention, extending over six centuries—the age of the Ottoman State. Moreover, those few works that had been concluded previously on this topic have presented—over many years—preconceived judgements and thoughts, as well as ideological generalisations regarding Ottoman science. This had severely curtailed interest in Ottoman scientific life, portraying Ottoman science as an area of no value or significance.

She added that the book at hand, Ottoman Scientific Heritage, presents a different perspective of scientific activity in the Ottoman state. Indeed, it is one of those books that open new horizons for knowledge, and motivates revisiting many scientific issues. She said that the term “Ottoman” refers not only to the Ottoman state—founded by Prince Osman in the late 13th century CE, but expresses a concept of civilisation; it signifies the mutual interaction between Arab, Turkish, and Persian cultures and peoples, within the geographical and time bounds of the Ottoman State. This may be defined as the language, culture, and civilisation constructed by the collective of all peoples ruled by this dynasty; in a historical period, which is also one of the phases of Islamic scientific heritage. She added that this book, in its three volumes, provides a scientific response that motivates a re-examination of the claim that the Islamic civilisation’s achievements, especially in the area of sciences had ceased after the Abbasid period, which they called the golden era of Islamic civilisation.

Dr Majda Makhlouf, Professor at Ain Shams University

After providing extensive detail in introducing the book and its content, she closed by saying that this book is a reference in its subject area, as a survey of Islamic heritage and its authors, and represents a paradigm shift in authorship. For example, in its methodology, it differs from books that surveyed the names of books and arts, or those that surveyed the names of authors in any of the arts or sciences, or indeed bibliographic works; rather, it is all of that. In terms of the time period, it is complementary to those previous works relating to science and scientific heritage in the Islamic world, especially during the Ottoman period.

Mr Sali Shahsivari, Managing Director of Islamic Heritage Foundation, began by thanking Bibliotheca Alexandrina, starting with its new director, Professor Ahmad Zayed, Professor Mohamed Elgamal, and all staff. He also welcomed the book’s author Professor Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, and the scholars participating in the symposium.

Mr Sali Shahsivari addressed the importance of the project, representing a distillation of a colossal work of 18 volumes dedicated to the history of scientific literature under the Ottomans. These 18 volumes contained 13,009 works in the diverse branches of knowledge, authored or translated by 4,897 scientists, who had lived in the Ottoman times, to which are added 7,145 anonymous works. Regarding manuscript copies of these works, these numbered 22,229 manuscripts, located in the different libraries and collections worldwide. Professor Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu selected 370 eminent scientists, who had authored seminal scientific works and presented contributions to knowledge from among 5000 authors. These were chosen from across the Ottoman geography. It also presented 92 important works selected from 7,145 anonymous works.

Mr Sali Shahsivari, Managing Director of Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation

He added that the importance of the book’s topic lies in that it is a product of Islamic intellectual effort in all branches of the natural sciences. Moreover, its methodological importance lies in that it is a survey of the scientific movement in the Ottoman period. It provides a deep, extensive and comprehensive analysis through lists, and explanatory tables, statistics, and figures that facilitate locating  information.

Mr Sali Shahsivari stated that the book not only provides rich content, but opens new horizons for researchers, and motivates research activity in the form of deeper studies, exploring new topics.

He reminded the audience that this work fell within the remit of Al-Furqān Foundation, particularly in the different areas of work adopted by Al-Furqān Foundation’s Centre for Study of Islamic Manuscripts, in particular the area of surveying and cataloguing. He added that the book contained extended analytical indexing, in addition to being a bibliographic work (presenting biographies and authored works). In addition, it was a key, extensive and robust reference work on the history of science, focused on the area of the fine sciences. Dr Majda Makhlouf undertook its translation from Turkish to Arabic, while the Foundation was currently working on a translation into English.

Mr Sali Shahsivari concluded by thanking Bibliotheca Alexandrina, led by Dr Mohamed Zayed, and all its managers and staff, as well as thanking the scholars, contributors, and audience.

The floor was opened for the audience to pose questions regarding the presentations in the first session.

Among the speakers in the second session—chaired by Professor Ahmad al-Sharbini, were Dr Ayman Fouad Sayed, who praised Professor Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu and Dr Majda Makhlouf. He added that the book is very important, representing a paradigm shift, as it lies within the domain of bibliography and covers an important period, tracing the knowledge production movement. The lecturer enumerated a group of works from the same subject domain, such as the Fihrist by al-Nadīm, Ṭabaqāt al-aṭibā’ by Ibn Jaljal, Ṭārīkh al-aṭibā’ by Isḥāq b. Ḥunayn, Ṭārīkh al-ḥukamā’ by al-Qafṭī,’Uyūn al-anbā’ fī ṭabaqāt al-aṭibā’ by Ibn Abī Uṣaybi‘ah, Kashf al-Ẓunūn by Ḥājī Khalīfah, and in the modern era, Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur (GAL) by Carl Brockelmann, and Geschichte des Arabischen Schrifttums (GAS) by Fuat Sezgin.

Professor Mohamed Afifi highly praised the significant cooperation between both organisations, representing two eminent cultural beacons. He thanked Professor Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu on this splendid civilisational work, adding that bringing this book to light is a fresh conquest, and considerable achievement. Indeed, it espouses a novel methodology, treating the topic with great intelligence, matching the nature of our times. This book also asserts, without the least doubt, that the Islamic world was no different in its development to Western Europe, while implicitly criticising the segregation of heritage on ethnic lines. Indeed, scholars used to author in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, as they transcended ethnic differences. It also provided an important indication of the contribution of the Eastern Balkans to heritage, and its openness to Europe; for example, music was taught as a science, linked to mathematics and acoustics. Regarding the statistical aspect, this is an important addition and brilliant point in this remarkable scientific tome.

Dr Afifi also praised the fact that biographies of scholars in the book were  given prominence, concluding his talk by saying that the book gave due attention to comparative history relating to scholarship under the Ottomans, and in China, Japan, and Russia.

On his part, Professor Sayed Mohamed Mahmoud praised the publication of the book, Ottoman Scientific Heritage, which analysed the historical development of Islamic civilisation through the authorship by scholars of Baghdad, the Karakhanids, the Buwayhids, and Seljuks, which was transported to Anatolia. The lecturer mentioned that books used to be written in Persian then Arabic and Ottoman. The Ottomans continued to translate from Arabic into Ottoman. Dr Sayed presented the phases of development of the sciences under the Ottomans throughout the periods of their rule up to the modernisation era.

In turn, Professor Mohamed Sabri al-Dali spoke briefly; praising the publication by the Foundation of this important book, which surveys the path of Ottoman science. He emphasised that the Muslim Nation’s scientific heritage is far more extensive and deeper than that alleged by its detractors. Dr al-Dali invited the Muslim Nation to read its scientific heritage.

Subsequently, the opportunity to comment and engage in extended and wide-ranging discussion was given, where important questions were asked on the topics raised in this symposium.

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