The Greek Influence on Early Islamic Mathematical Astronomy

By Pingree, David | Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, May 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

The Greek Influence on Early Islamic Mathematical Astronomy


Pingree, David, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society


THE PROBLEM OF THE INFLUENCE of Greek mathematical astronomy upon the Arabs (and in the following I have generally excluded from consideration the related problems of astronomical instruments and star-catalogues) is immensely complicated by the fact that the Hellenistic astronomical tradition had, together with Mesopotamian linear astronomy of the Achaemenld and Seleucld periods and its Greek adaptations, already Influenced Use other cultural traditions that contributed to the development of the science of astronomy within the area In which the Arabic language became the dominant means of scientific communication in and after the seventh century a.d. An Investigation of this probelm, then, must begin with a review of those centers of astronomical studies in the seventh and eighth centuries which can be demonstrated to have influenced astronomers who wrote in Arabic. This limitation by means of the criterion of demonstrable influence will effectively exclude Armenia, where Ananias of Shirak worked in the seventh century,1 and China, where older astronomical techniques,* some apparently derived ultimately from Mesopotamian sources,* were partially replaced by Indian adaptations of Greek and Greco-Babylonian techniques rendered into Chinese at the T'ang court in the early eighth century.4 But it leaves Byzantium, Syria, Sasanian Iran, and India.

While astronomy had been studied at Athens by Proclus* and observations had been made by members of the Neoplatonic Academy In the fifth and early sixth centuries,* and while Ammonius, Eutoclus, Philoponus, and Simplicius had written about astronomical problems at Alexandria in the early sixth century,7 a hundred years later the tradition was transferred to Constantinople, where Stephanus of Alexandria-perhaps in imitation of the Sasanian Zlk-i Shahriyârân-prepared in 617/618 a set of instructions with examples illustrating the use of the Handy Tables of Theon for the Emperor Ileraclius.8 Such studies, however, were soon abandoned, not to be revived in Byzantium till the ninth century, when their restoration seems to have been due to the stimulus of the desire to emulate the achievements of the Arabs. Except for the texts of the Little Astronomy* and some passages reflecting Greco-Babylonian astronomy in pseudo-Heliodorus10 and Rhe- torlus of Egypt," Byzantine astronomy !n this period was solidly Ptolemaic.

The history of astronomical writings In Syriac before the rise of Islam Is difficult to trace. The works of Bar Dal?an," hls pupil Philip," and of George, the Bishop of the Arabs," indicate that sufficient knowledge of the subject must have existed to permit the casting of horoscopes; for this all that Is really needed, of course, are tables, and It Is certain that a Syriac version of the Handy Tables existed.14 There may also have been a Syriac translation of Ptolemy's Syntaxis since some of the Arabic versions arc said to have been made from that language.1* In fact, It has been claimed that Sergius of Rtsh'alnA, the early sixth century translator, was responsible for the Syriac version,1' and In any case he did write on astrology and on the motion of the Sun."

At Qenneshre, moreover, in the middle of the seventh century lived the monk Severus Sebokht of Nisibis, who was familiar not only with the Handy Tables, and the Greek tradition of astrolabes, but also with Indian numerals.18 This early Indian influence on Syrian science reminds us of the similarities between Harrônian and Indian worship of the planets and of the knowledge of the Sanskrit names of the planets at Harrân evident from the Ghdyat al-haklm falsely ascribed to al-MaJrttJ.*0 Also in the late eighth century there came from Edessa the chief astrologer of the Caliph al-Mahdl, Theophilus, a man learned In Greek, in Syriac, and in Arabic." His writings do not reveal what astronomical texts he used, but they do indicate the existence of some sort of astronomy in Syria. They also indicate again an acquaintance with Indian material. …

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