The fact that so much Greek knowledge was transferred to Western Europe via the multi‑faceted culture of the
13.2 A Special Position of the Christians
Khwarazm, an oasis on the Amu Darya River delta and the site of an ancient culture, was ravaged by various catastrophes over the course of its history. One of these was the Arab conquest in the year 712. The universal scholar al‑Bīrūnī (973–1048), a native of this land, described this event in his Chronology with the following words:
After Quṭayba ibn Muslim al-Bāhilī1 had killed their learned men and priests and had burned their books and writings, they became illiterate and had to rely on
memory for the knowledge they required. al-Bīrūnī and Eduard 1923, 48, 12–14
C. E. Bosworth believes this succinct declaration to be exaggerated Bosworth 1978a, 1062. But even a scholar as interested as al‑Bīrūnī in the history of his homeland could not relate more than fragmentary and imprecise accounts about the time before the Islamic conquest, as can be shown today by numismatic research Vaynberg 1977, 80–84. This testifies to the fact that the region suffered from a cultural vacuum that became filled over the course of time with
The victorious Muslims had treated the Christians in Egypt, Syria, North Africa and Spain more indulgently. According to the Koran, these populations were not heathens doomed for the sword, but People of the Book, i.e. of a divine revelation prior to the Koran. As such, their educational institutions also remained intact:
Al‑Bīrūnī reports a conflict that had erupted in Baghdad one hundred years previously between the Nestorian Christian philosopher Abū Bishr Mattā ibn Yūnus and the Muʿtazili theologian al-Jubbāʾī. The latter, in this respect still beholden to the
13.3 A New Kind of Uniformity
As in the ages of Hellenism and the
When the young Ibn Sīnā (980 or earlier–1037) received permission to visit the court library of the Emir in Bukhara, he immediately requested access to the catalog of books by the “Ancients” Gohlmann 1974, 36f.. The “Ancients” were none other than the ancient Greeks, above all Aristotle along with his disciples and commentators, and the physician Galen of Pergamon (129–216 CE), who was also revered as a philosopher in his own right. As apparent from the frequent mention of their names, these were the dominant figures in the scientific and philosophical discourse. This circumstance may not be interpreted to mean that this discourse was already dominated by “European” influences, as is still the case today. The Greeks who lived around the Mediterranean were not Europeans in the contemporary sense Strohmaier 1998, and more than a few authors who wrote in Greek were not ethnic Greeks themselves. The perpetuation of Greek philosophy in the Islamic space, emanating primarily from the
13.4 Autochthonous Greek Learning versus Indian Science
As a martyr of philosophy, Socrates was an iconic figure for many intellectuals; the notorious Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn Zakarīyāʾ al-Rāzī (around 854–925 or 935 CE), known in the Occident as Rhazes, a heretic who deemed all prophets of the revealed religions to be frauds, had even chosen him as his imam Strohmaier 1997 and the name Suqrāṭ appears along with two apocryphal sayings on a mausoleum in the Street of Tombs of Shāh-i Zindā in Samarkand Strohmaier 1993. The military campaigns of Maḥmūd of Ghazna presented al‑Bīrūnī with the opportunity to study the religion, customs and also the sciences of the Hindus. He came to the conclusion that these were generally inferior to those of the Greeks. The compromises which Indian astronomers entered into with their folk religion made him aware of their lack of a Socrates who was ready to die for the sake of truth.5
Fig. 13.1: Preface to the Zij (astronomical book) of Ulugh Beyg produced in Samarkand ca.1440. From the Art and History Collection at Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Washington DC.
In Baghdad there was initially a sort of competition with Indian science, sponsored by the courtiers of Persian ethnicity. Of particular prominence are the activities of the mathematician and astronomer Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (around 800–847 CE), who, as the name states, came from Khwarazm, but worked during this early period at the
It may seem surprising that
13.5 The Role of the Courts
Well into the Modern Age there was no foundation of institutions in Islam comparable to the
The spontaneous assemblies at the court of scholars with various areas of interest can be designated as academies in the contemporary sense. The biography of Ibn Sīnā contains a vivid depiction of the circumstances in Isfahan under the auspices of Alāʾ al-Dawla, who was decried as a libertine by the orthodox.7 Particularly favorable conditions existed under the reign of the Maʾmūnids in Khwarazm, who ruled as the Khwarazm Shahs from 995 until 1017 Bosworth 1978b, 1066. The manifold relationships between the individual scholars can be inferred from the manuscripts, which bear mutual dedications. It would be a rewarding task to compile lists of who dedicated what to whom. Even though not all texts have survived, in many cases we have the bibliographic notations documenting these interrelationships. At the same time, these dedicated manuscripts are an indication of the oral exchange that can be presumed, but which is reported only in exceptional cases. Worthy of particular mention is the role of the vizier and patron Abū l-Ḥusayn Aḥmad al-Suhaylī, to whom an especially great number of manuscripts were dedicated by grateful scholars. Ibn Sīnā committed to him a treatise on the subject of why the Earth stands still at the center of the cosmos Gohlmann 1974, 149, n° 44. It may be presumed that this very issue had been challenged in preceding debates. However, these concerned only the possibility of rotation at a stationary position, not an anticipation of the
A choice example of such a disputatious exchange is the correspondence between al‑Bīrūnī and Ibn Sīnā about questions of Aristotelian natural philosophy, which they conducted until Ibn Sīnā came to Khwarazm on his flight from Bukhara. It is remarkable in terms of their
As intellectual centers, the courts in the East as in the Spanish West presented successful competition to the caliphate capital of Baghdad, and thus it was not unusual for experts to leave the capital to seek accommodation elsewhere, as for example, the Christian scientist and translator from Syriac into Arabic Abū l-Khayr al-Ḥasan ibn Suwār ibn Bābā ibn al-Khammār, who accepted the call of the Khwarazm Shah Abū l-ʿAbbās Ma’mūn II Kraemer 1986, 123–130. From Gorgan on the Caspian Sea came the physician Abū Sahl ʿĪsā ibn Yaḥyā al-Masīḥī, also a Christian, as the name reveals. He wrote a
The role of the courts, even in the late nineteenth century, can be inferred from the example of Bukhara, where the scholar—and intimate of the Emir—Aḥmad Makhdūm Dōnīsh (1827–1897) was able to predict a lunar eclipse, while the clerical teachers at the
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An Arab military leader by order of al-Ḥajjāj ibn Yūsuf, governor of the Umayyads in Iraq, see Bosworth 1982, 541–542.