Artisans and Mathematicians in Medieval Islam

By Saliba, George | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, October-December 1999 | Go to article overview

Artisans and Mathematicians in Medieval Islam


Saliba, George, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


AN UNWIELDY BOOK LIKE THIS is often not intended to be read. To start with, its dimensions make it cumbersome: it is 26.75 inches long when opened flat, 11 inches high, and weighs close to ten pounds. You can not carry it easily in your hands for long, nor could you place it on your lap for more than a few minutes, and the script is far too small to read from a distance when opened on a stand or a table. But with its 61 color- and 277 black-and-white illustrations, it is certainly a beautiful book to exhibit. Its object is the reproduction of a scroll now kept at the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul (MS H. 1956) containing what look like architectural designs. Necipoglu begins with an examination of the history of architectural drawings in Islamic culture by attempting to trace the history of scrolls, and then determining the date and provenance of the specific Topkapi scroll, and concludes that the scroll itself is a "mirror of late Timurid-Turkmen architectural practice." In part two, she takes to task the orientalist tradition regarding the Arabesque and the modern literature on that subject. Part three discusses the "Geometric Mode," as exhibited in geometric patterning, in terms of geography, chronology, and "semantics." Part four deals with geometry and the contribution of the mathematical sciences, and strives to discuss seriously the manuals of practical geometry that were written, or known to have been written, during the long period of Islamic scientific production. Part five recaptures the theme of geometry and aesthetic theory. That is followed by a full-color reproduction of the entire scroll, almost always accommodating one pattern to a page for all of its one hundred and fourteen patterns.

In the form of an appendix, there is a short essay by Mohammad al-Asad that deals with the geometric analysis of the phenomenon of muqarnas, the stalactite-like decorative architectural elements that are often characterized as the distinctive creation of Islamic architecture. In this essay al-Asad tries to teach the reader how to transform, with the help of computer-assisted design software, one of the plane designs of a muqarnas, as represented in the scroll, into a three-dimensional architectural unit. But he quickly admits that, with the many "adjustments," "symmetry (which) is partially broken" and lack of "exacting standards of precision" inherent in medieval manuals, his rendering is only one possible interpretation of the design and many other renderings could be conjured up, as well. Towards the end of the essay he confesses: "Although the conversion of these plans into three-dimensional objects may seem to the modern eye to be a highly interpretative process, it was standardized for medieval artisans." Only we do not know how, for "the procedure was a carefully guarded secret known only to members of the guild, who often belonged to the Sufi orders, or tariqas...." In other words, despite not documenting the existence of such guilds and their secrets, the author confesses that we do not know how these plans, if they did indeed exist in the first place, were materialized architecturally by working artisans on a given site.

But even with the help of a relatively elaborate description of how those artisans could have calculated areas of various types of muqarnas, as preserved in the work of the fifteenth-century mathematician and astronomer Kashi (d. 1429), one can still not tell for sure the exact measurements involved. Al-Asad is correct in concluding (p. 354), with Kashi that, in the final analysis, such measurements depend on "the aesthetic judgment of the builder, the profile of the arch or vault surrounding the muqarnas ...," and other such extraneous factors.

Exploring the relationship between the predominant geometric features of Islamic art and the theoretical works on mathematics that were produced during the heyday of Islamic civilization can shed light on the relationship between the artisan and the scientist in that culture--and that is surely desirable. …

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