Writing the History of Arabic Astronomy: Problems and Differing Perspectives

By Saliba, George | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, October-December 1996 | Go to article overview

Writing the History of Arabic Astronomy: Problems and Differing Perspectives


Saliba, George, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


This essay concerns the recent publication of tWO books dealing with one of the most important pre-modern Arabic astronomical texts, namely, the theoretical planetary work of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (d. 1274), called al-Tadhkira fi ilm al-hay a (Memoir on Astronomy). Both books were published in the same year, but are worlds apart. One is Nasir al-Din al-Tusi's Memoir on Astronomy (al-Tadhkira fi ilm al-hay a), by F. J. Ragep, and the other, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi: al-Tadhkira fi ilm al-hay a ma a dirasat li-ishamat al-Tusi al-falakiya, by Dr. Abbas Sulaiman. Both books provide an edition of the Arabic text of Tusi's Tadhkira, but only Ragep's has an English translation and a commentary, obviously addressed to the Western and international reader. Both books include indices and bibliographies, but, again, only Ragep's has an extensive critical apparatus: maps, glossary of Arabic terms with their English translations and contextual references. This, however, is where the similarities end.

A quick look at both books makes it obvious that Dr. Sulaiman's expertise in the field is vastly different from Ragep's, and illustrates very clearly the drawbacks of working (as Dr. Sulaiman did) without much in the way of institutional resources, libraries, collections of manuscripts, and the like. As a result, Dr. Sulaiman's edition ends up being an adequate attempt at informing the Arab reader of the contents of Tusi's work, while leaving that reader to his own interpretive devices regarding what Tusi was really trying to say. Hence, Dr. Sulaiman does not feel the need to supply a commentary and his few introductory technical remarks in chapter three reveal very clearly that he himself does not have full mastery of the text. Moreover, this reviewer is fully convinced that Dr. Sulaiman is not even aware of the historical importance of the text. He is out of touch with the most recent literature on the subject, though he seems to have a vague impression that Tusi's text has something to do with the work of Copernicus (d. 1543) - hence its importance and, I presume, the reason for which he undertook his edition.

In contrast, Ragep is not only aware of the most recent analysis of Arabic astronomical theory and its relationship to Copernican astronomy, he is also engaged in it at the participant level and has spent more than twenty years in preparing, annotating, and reading almost every word that has been said about this text, whether useful or not. The result is clearly demonstrated by the level of mature analysis throughout the book.

This brings me to the first of the problems that I would like to touch upon in this essay, namely that of dealing with a specific cultural and scientific heritage. Put differently, why do we study historical scientific texts and how should they be studied? The contrast in perspective between Drs. Sulaiman and Ragep illustrates this point clearly. Dr. Sulaiman approaches the text from a linguistic perspective, assuming that since the text is in Arabic, an Arab reader whose motivation to understand the text is fired by his feeling of belonging to the Arab heritage ought to be able to understand the text on his own - hence no need for further comments. It is enough to raise the flag, so to speak, to announce one's identity, and the text itself will do the rest. This posture assumes that any native reader of a language can understand the contents of a text even if the text is highly technical in nature. The fallacy of this assumption becomes clear when we think of a general reader of English who is handed a text on mathematical topology and is expected to understand it on his own, without any mathematical training.

Ragep, on the other hand, approaches the text with the assumption that its contents are totally alien to a Western reader and hence needs to be translated, annotated, and commented upon at almost every point - not only to convince himself that he has mastered the text, but also to make it accessible to any reader, who may or may not even be interested in the whole enterprise. …

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