Breaking the classic narrative of Islamic astronomy
It is undeniable that the history of the Islamic scientific tradition holds a great place in the genealogy of modern science as we know it today.
However, the dominating narrative places the bulk of this tradition in a period of a few centuries and limits the influence of Islamic sciences to either a few inventions or translations of major Greek works and most importantly, denies the Islamic scientific tradition a unique body of knowledge.
We can start by looking at the classical historical narrative dominating the history of astronomy, which portrays the Islamic scientific tradition as a mediator; translating and transferring the major Greek scientific texts and building upon them during what is known as the Golden Age from the 9th to the 13th Century under the rule of the Abbasid caliph Al Ma’mun.
"The pervading narrative limits the role of Islamic astronomers to mere developers of ancient astronomy, developments which under the classical view, could have been easily done by the Greeks themselves"
The classical narrative emphasises how the Islamic scientific period flourished due to the contact with the knowledge of ancient civilizations from ancient Greece to the overlapping Sasanian and Indian civilizations to the east and southeast.
The pervading narrative limits the role of Islamic astronomers to mere developers of ancient astronomy, developments which under the classical view, could have been easily done by the Greeks themselves.
Additionally, the classical narrative imagines that this period of intellectual production had a short life span due to the limiting forces of orthodoxies nestled within the Islamic society of that period, culminating in the work of Abu Hamid Al Ghazali titled Tahāfut al-Falāsifa (Incoherence of Philosophers), which was heavily used to back anti-scientific attacks.
The narrative ends the role of Islamic astronomy at the point of the awakening of the Latin West and the discovery of the Arabic translations of these major Greek works such as the Almagest of Ptolemy (d. ca. 150 A.D.) and the Elements of Euclid (d. ca. 265 B.C.).
At this point the European Renaissance is considered to have taken on this scientific material as the origin of all science and philosophy and appropriated it to be its’ point of direct contact with the Greco-Roman tradition, limiting the influence of Islamic tradition to pre-modernity.
It is important to criticize this narrative in order to understand the actual history of Islamic science and its’ development and influence beyond that narrow perspective.
In his book Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance, Lebanese historian George Saliba puts forward several criticisms of the classical narrative regarding the history of Islamic astronomy, he first notes that the assumption that the Islamic civilization was isolated from urban life and science is inaccurate, and that pre-Islamic Arabian civilization had already developed astronomical sciences as well as medical sciences which were carried over to Islamic times.
Saliba proceeds to question several theories posited by the classical narrative, one theory is called “contact theory” which claims that the birth of Islamic sciences was signalled by the contact with ancient civilizations of Byzantium and Sasanian Iran through geographic expansion, which gave the Islamic scientists access to the ancient Greek texts.
This theory is refuted by Saliba’s claim that the translated texts contained material from the classical period of Greek civilization produced before the third or fourth century A.D. and that no activities in the Byzantine or Sasanian civilizations might have put those writings in circulation and thus made them promptly accessible to the interpreters who worked within the extensive translation development of early Abbasid times.
Another explanation by Saliba on the weakness of that theory is that the Islamic culture should have been at a high level of development scientifically to be able to receive and translate these texts to Arabic, which means that the Islamic sciences were at a high level of development when translations were taking place and didn’t need external sources to prosper.
"While the classical narrative proposes that the era of scientific translation of major works started under the rule of the Abbasid dynasty, Saliba’s alternative narrative states that the translation of ancient works started way back under the rule of the Umayyad dynasty, a hundred years before the Abbasid dynasty"
Two other theories of transmission of the Greek legacy discussed by Saliba are “pocket theory” which assumes that ancient scientific and philosophical texts survived in a few cities in the Byzantine Empire, or the Sasanian Empire and the other theory posits that the transmission occurred through Syriac translations of the Greek texts.
Both theories are contested by Saliba, the first for the lack of evidence on the existence of a flourishing intellectual and scientific tradition pertaining to these civilizations at that time preceding the translations by the Abbasids, the latter is contested for the elementary nature of the Syriac texts produced that wouldn’t have allowed for such sophisticated translations by the Abbasids nor for proper transmission of knowledge.
While the classical narrative proposes that the era of scientific translation of major works started under the rule of the Abbasid dynasty, Saliba’s alternative narrative states that the translation of ancient works started way back under the rule of the Umayyad dynasty, a hundred years before the Abbasid dynasty, which has furnished the intellectual production with the technical language needed to produce highly sophisticated Arabic translations.
Saliba proclaims that the impetus for acquiring ancient classical texts occurred because of socio-political demands instead of a transfer from a higher civilization to a lower one, with the Arabization of the diwan under the previous caliphate, the need for mastering classical sciences and translating them into Arabic became important.
The other key difference the alternative model implies is that the classical Greek texts were not imposed and received passively by Islamic astronomers but were rather seen as imported knowledge that needs to be compared to their existing approaches, scrutinized and transformed to adapt to their unique astronomical methodologies.
Regarding the claim of the Islamic sciences’ decline after the Islamic Golden Age, Saliba adds that Islamic scientific progress continued up to the 16th century and became more sophisticated post-Ghazali’s anti-scientific stances. The “decline” of the Islamic world and the “third world” in general was more a result of external forces such as colonialism and the formation of capital-driven production.
Dana Dawud is a multidisciplinary artist and independent researcher, her work deals with contemporary art, philosophy and internet culture at large.