Science in Arab-Islamic Culture
Fuat Sezgin is the founder of one of the most significant research centers worldwide for sources and knowledge on the intellectual heritage of Arab-Islamic Culture – the Institute for the History of Arab-Islamic Sciences in Frankfurt, Germany. Gerhard Endress portraits the Turkish orientalist
The culture of classical Islam is a culture of the Arab language: the language of Islamic revelations, the Koran. Adepts and practicing laymen have translated and passed down the scientific heritage of the ancient world in the Arab language since the seventh century.
On this ground, brilliant mathematicians and astronomers, experienced geographers and physicians, and visionary philosophers developed the world view of an international knowledge-based society for Islamic societies in the Middle East, Spanish West, and Iranian East.
The Institute for the History of Arab-Islamic Sciences
One of the most significant research centers worldwide for sources and knowledge on this intellectual heritage is in Frankfurt am Main: the Institut für Geschichte der arabisch-islamischen Wissenschaften (Institute for the History of Arab-Islamic Sciences).
The founder and director of the institute is Fuat Sezgin, professor emeritus of history of science at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, author and editor of a scientific œuvre that could easily fill a library and a pioneer in research on Islamic scientific culture in the Arab language.
His amazing energy, encyclopedic knowledge, and never dwindling imagination have helped him to push open new doors in his field for decades now. A recent octogenarian, he is still a young man in mind and spirit with a combative power of persuasion for his passion and ideas.
Fuat Sezgin sees himself in the succession of German orientalists. One of his greatest projects was a ten-volume bibliography of German-language Arabic and Islamic studies. The Turkish student studied under Hellmut Ritter in Istanbul. Still today he calls Ritter his most influential teacher: the German researcher, whose decade-long work pointed the way for philological access to Arabic, Persian, and Turkish sources.
Sezgin continued Ritter's work on sources, especially on the vast treasures of Arabic scrolls in the libraries of Istanbul. Here thirty-year-old Sezgin conceived the plan to revise the first chronicle of this heritage, Carl Brockelmann's Geschichte der arabischen Literatur (History of Arab Literature) (pub. 1898-1949), in the light of thousands of new discoveries.
In the end he wrote the work from scratch for many fields in the classical period, especially for the sciences in his Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums (History of Arab Literature). In the process, Sezgin investigated and collected hundreds of collections of Arabic scrolls from libraries around the world.
The written scholarly tradition in Islam
At the same time he developed a new understanding of the age, continuity, and authenticity of the written scholarly tradition in Islam. He felt a revision of the ideas about the character of Islamic tradition was necessary in order to fairly judge the authenticity of the pre-Islamic and early Islamic traditions.
Sezgin's Turkish dissertation on the sources of Buchari – the compiler of a respected collection of legal writings from the Prophet Mohammed – demonstrated that this ninth-century author made use of written sources that reach back to early Islam, that is, to the seventh century. He followed this same conviction in his works on the beginning of Arab science among early writers who used Greek sources.
The beginnings of Arab chemistry and alchemy, of Arab science – the second-most important topic in Sezgin's research – is based on the authentic transmission of Greek sources that were available to the polyglot academicians in the cities of Syria and Iraq by the seventh century and that were translated in the wake of the Arabicization that began in the eighth century.
Many of these works, for which the corresponding Greek texts have not been found as yet, were not Arab "forgeries." In particular, Gabir, the authority behind a large body of writings on alchemy, is not the name of a pseudo-author, but is the historical, oldest recipient of "science from the ancient world." Thus, the beginnings of nearly every scientific discipline in the Arab language has been pushed forward a full century. This has put the original achievements and insights of Arab scholars into a new perspective.
The history of Arab sciences
In 1962, Fuat Sezgin left Turkey and came to Germany, first as a visiting lecturer at the university in Frankfurt. The history of Arab sciences now began to dominate his work and became the subject of his post-doctoral thesis in 1965. The same year saw the publication of the first volume of his Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums on historical and religious literature.
Additional volumes of this large standard work (there is no Arabist in the world who does not have this work within his reach for frequent perusal) appeared in quick succession: the volume on medical sciences in 1970, chemistry and alchemy in 1971, mathematics in 1974, followed by other mathematical sciences (astronomy, astrology) until 1979 (later also poetry, grammar, and lexicography).
In 1978 Sezgin was the first to receive the King Faisal Prize for Islamic Sciences from Saudi Arabia for his achievements. This prize became the foundation of an endowment for which Sezgin has never ceased his fundraising efforts in other Arab countries. This endowment led to the founding of the Institute for the History of Arab-Islamic Sciences that opened in Frankfurt in 1982. From then on, a stream of publications from the institute has accompanied his own research, beautiful facsimile prints of rare scripts, reprints, and essay collections from earlier research.
But the scholar not only collects and preserves, he has made his own advances. The institute today houses a unique collection of scientific instruments and models from medieval Islamic astronomy and geography, horology and navigation, optics, mechanical science, chemistry and medicine.
Reconstructing objects according to medieval texts
It is less the original objects acquired (especially the musical instruments) and the replications of old originals that constitute the value of the collection. It is foremost the objects reconstructed by Sezgin according to medieval texts.
Nowhere else are the advances of Arab mathematicians in projective geometry and spherical trigonometry in the ninth and tenth centuries so conspicuous as in their applications in astronomy and astrology, chronology and navigation, and nowhere so manifest as in their instruments for observing, measuring, and calculating.
Also manifest here is the unbroken continuity of science over centuries and across continents: instruments from Baghdad, Andalusia, and western Europe compellingly testify of the advances made and the global relations that existed between the ninth and sixteenth centuries.
Sezgin's most impressive work is in the field to which he has devoted his entire passion as a researcher for over a decade: mathematical geography and its application in cartography. The last three volumes of his Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums are devoted to this field.
Systematic observations and measurements in connection with new geometric and trigonometric processes that made it possible to precisely determine coordinates, size relations, and positions led to significant revisions in the map of the Earth, and made it possible by the year 1000 for the great Biruni to precisely map the Islamic east.
Sezgin further discovered that Islamic maps alone can explain the advances made in European cartography in the early modern age.
Two thoughts hover over Fuat Sezgin's work: first, the genius of Arab scientific culture consummated Greek culture and contributed to Europe's awakening, the Renaissance. Second, there is a common tradition of scientific reasoning – that is, Europe and Islam speak a common language. These thoughts today, in view of the bitter debate about Islam and Turkey's path toward Europe, are extremely topical.
Gerhard Endress is professor of Arabic studies and Islamic science at the Ruhr University in Bochum.
This article first appeared in the German daily Frankfurter Rundschau, 26 October 2004.
Translation from German: Nancy Joyce