The Role and Originality of Late Arabic Scientific Commentaries

London, UK
Lectures Manuscript Centre
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Up to now, academic studies regarding the scientific thought produced in the Islamic civilisation have focused on the first six centuries (until the 12th century).

Furthermore, there is a general impression that the golden age of the Islamic civilisation, in terms of philosophical and scientific production, came to an end sometime around the beginning of the thirteenth century of the Common Era, and, that the period that followed, is supposed to have sunk that civilisation into a continuous decline, from which it has yet to recover. Features of that decline are usually exemplified by the production of commentaries instead of original works.
Hence, the intellectual heritage accumulated between the 12th and 19th centuries, the period considered to be “the Late Classical Period” of Islamic civilisation, has not received the scholarly attention it deserves.

Professor George Saliba delivering his lecture

In addition to shedding light on this important period of the Islamic civilisation, the Centre for the Study of Islamic Manuscripts at Al-Furqān organised a public lecture under the title “The Role and Originality of Late Arabic Scientific Commentaries”. The lecture took place on the 4th of April 2014 at Al-Furqān’s headquarters in London.

Mr Sharaf Yamani gave a short brief on Al-Furqan's works & efforts

The evening started with a reception and welcoming words by the Managing Director of the Foundation, Mr Sali Shahsivari, followed by Mr Sharaf Yamani, member of the Board of Directors, who gave a short brief on Al-Furqān’s work and efforts in uncovering and studying the Islamic written heritage.

Professor Saliba, in the background Mr Shahsivari

The keynote speaker at this public event was Professor George Saliba, professor of Arabic and Islamic Science at Columbia University in the city of New York. 

In his lecture on “The Role and Originality of Late Arabic Scientific Commentaries”, Professor Saliba gave an insightful view on the scientific importance of the commentaries – with a special focus on the field of astronomy - produced between the thirteenth and the sixteenth century. 

He demonstrated that particular commentaries did not only produce new scientific thinking, but also produced a level of astronomical mathematical sophistication that could outmatch any of the earlier works that were produced within the Islamic civilisation, and could, in some instances, even outmatch the contemporary scientific works that were produced in Europe at the time.

According to Professor Saliba, the main reasons why late commentaries have not received the scholarly attention they deserve and are still wrongly considered to be mere copies of previous works are:

1. Late commentaries are very difficult to read: the text on the page is often very dense and small.

2. They often lack illustrations: it was very difficult to find a scribe (nāsikh) that was also an illustrator (naqqash). Today there are very few examples of manuscripts where illustrator and the copyist are the same person.

3. There is still an imposed traditional misconception that considers that, after the classical or golden age of Islam, there is nothing worth studying in terms of cultural products.

Part of the audience

The lecture was followed by several questions from the specialised and distinguished audience regarding various aspects covered by Professor Saliba.
George Saliba is a Professor of Arabic and Islamic Science at Columbia University in the city of New York. He studies the development of scientific ideas from late antiquity till early modern times, with a special focus on the transmission of astronomical and mathematical ideas from the Islamic world to Renaissance Europe. Among his awards is the History of Astronomy Prize from the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science in 1996, and the History of Science Prize from the Third World Academy of Science in 1993. He has occupied the position of Distinguished Senior Scholar Program (2009-10). His latest works include Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance (MIT Press, 2007, 2011); A History of Arabic Astronomy: Planetary Theories During the Golden Age of Islam (1994); and more than 120 articles in scholarly journals including, “Greek Astronomy and the Medieval Arabic Tradition”, American Scientist, 2002; and more than 200 presentations at academic venues on five continents.

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