Islamic Science - Rebuilding the past

Category: Faith & Spirituality, Featured, Nature & Science Topics: Islam, Islam And Science Views: 15401

Few passers-by in this leafy German suburb realize that the wonders of medieval Islam are just a few steps away. But those who enter Frankfurt's Institute for the History of Arabic-Islamic Science find themselves among the wonders of the historic Middle East. Fuat Sezgin, professor emeritus of the history of science at the University of Frankfurt, guides his guests through a labyrinth of tiled and mirrored rooms to the white-walled chambers of an exquisite yet little-known museum.

And there it is: an Aladdin's cave of science treasures. Each one has been recreated, thanks to Sezgin's labours, from descriptions in ancient texts of the Arab world. Some 800 newly built instruments - from ornate astrolabes to complex water clocks - are on display within the museum's 13 rooms.

Sezgin's long academic life has been quietly dedicated to retrieving Arabic science history. Now, with his eightieth birthday just behind him, he is keen to exhibit his life's work to the public. He says he wants to both remind the West of its debt to the ancient Islamic world, and raise Arabs' pride in their past achievements.

Western science historians know very well that the Arab world was the guardian of the ancient Greeks' scientific knowledge during the Middle Ages, before the European Renaissance rediscovered and extended it. But they also acknowledge that there has been too little study of how the Arabs developed and used that knowledge, and how it fed Europe's cultural revival. "It has been a bit of a blind spot," says Peter Damerow of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, "mostly because it demands such language skills."

In his youth, Sezgin trained under the sternest of taskmasters in his home town of Istanbul - the orientalist Hellmut Ritter, who insisted that his students learn a new language every year. Thanks to such discipline, Sezgin is one of a small number of experts who has few linguistic problems with manuscripts written in Babylonian, Greek, Latin or Persian - in addition to Arabic.

Text messages

By the sixth century AD the scientific traditions of Ancient Greece had largely petered out, but the Greeks left behind important scientific and philosophical texts. For two centuries between 750 and 950, the caliphs of the Abbasid dynasty, centred in Baghdad, supported a mammoth translation effort. Greek works translated into Arabic include Euclid's geometry, Ptolemy's astronomy, the medical works of Galen and Hippocrates and the pharmacopoeia of Dioscorides.

The caliphs understood the importance of scholarship to their expanding empire. As the reach of the Islamic world spread, stretching from northern India to Spain, they absorbed as much knowledge as they could from each conquest. In Persia and India, unlike Greece, the scientific traditions were still very much alive. And so it was to Persian and Indian scholars that the translators turned when they needed to make scientific, as well as linguistic, sense of the old Greek manuscripts.

Such expertise was vital because the caliphs wanted their acquired knowledge to deliver practical as well as intellectual benefits to their empire: from monumental architecture and city planning to medical care and transport. Luckily for Sezgin, this means that many texts written by Arab scholars include detailed engineering information on how to build mechanical devices, scientific instruments or architectural components.

In the fifteenth century, the Islamic world shrank under military pressure from western Europe - the last Muslim forces were forced out of Spain in 1492, the year Christopher Columbus reached America. By this time, the European Renaissance was under way and Islamic knowledge was sucked up by powers on the rise, such as Spain and France. Many Arabic works had by then been translated into Latin, but the sources themselves were neglected. Although European libraries and museums collected Arabic scripts, they sat in obscurity as they were largely indecipherable. Over time these trophies of ancient Islam were taken even farther afield to Russia and the United States.

Paper trail

The European Renaissance's debt to Islamic science has never been entirely forgotten, but there has been little systematic analysis. Sezgin is one of the few contemporary champions of the field. He spent more than three decades travelling the world seeking out 'lost' manuscripts, copying them and interpreting them. He tracked down some in countries formerly under Islamic rule, particularly India - which Sezgin estimates to have 50,000 such manuscripts.

His odyssey led to a 12-volume academic work, Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums (History of Arabic Literature). Then, about 30 years ago, he decided to begin reconstructing the instruments he had read about. "Sadly, few had survived the centuries," says Sezgin.

His first reconstruction was a model of a horse-drawn ratcheted wheel to raise water from wells, built by the workshop at the University of Frankfurt, where Sezgin was appointed professor in 1966. It had been described in a book dating to about AD 1200 by Ibn al-Razzz al-Jazar. As his enthusiasm deepened, Sezgin found himself casting far afield for craftsmen who could help reconstruct more complex instruments. The drawings of figures and pictures on a 1044 celestial globe were done in Bremen, but the fine engraving, with the accompanying script, was done in Cairo.

Some of the items in his collection are fairly simple - the diverse surgical scalpels and cauterizing instruments, for example. But others, including astronomical instruments, are extraordinarily complex. Some of the most dramatic are enormous, intricate clocks that use water to measure time. Sezgin is particularly proud of an elaborate water clock described by al-Jazar in about 1200 (see 'Jumbo timepiece').

Sezgin is most animated when talking about ancient Arabic geographical and nautical scholars. But there are no true disciplinary borders to his pride. He beams just as broadly on recalling his discovery of manuscripts describing astronomical instruments used in tenth-century Islamic observatories - some six centuries before they were used in Europe.

And he gaily reassures visitors recoiling from his gruesome surgical instruments that "the old Arab world had general anaesthetics - morphine-based". He describes his collections of sophisticated Islamic weaponry, and the equally sophisticated distilleries for rose water, with ebullient pleasure. The museum also includes a major collection of original Islamic musical instruments, assembled by Sezgin's colleague Eckhard Neubauer.

"It was not much harder to reconstruct without pictures, but it always required a lot of reading of the text to be sure we had understood exactly."

Descriptions of the al-Jazar water clock were accompanied by detailed drawings. But other equipment was harder to reconstruct. For example, the advanced compass that a Portuguese sailor came across while sailing the Indian Ocean was reconstructed from a description by a sixteenth-century historian. "It was not necessarily much harder to reconstruct without pictures, but it always required a lot of reading of the text to be sure we had understood exactly," says Sezgin.

Whatever the challenge, Sezgin rose to it, sparing no time, trouble or money. He has always used materials that would have been used at the time - heavy woods, brass, even gold when called for. When he retired, Sezgin created a foundation to raise money for the museum. But he has thrown his own money in too, saying that he lives as modestly as he can: "I don't have many personal needs." His total investment in the collection is well above 2 million (US$2.7 million), he estimates, not including travel costs. How much might it be worth on the open market? "Maybe 50 million," says Sezgin, with a delighted laugh at the absurd thought that he could let it go at any price.

Hidden treasures

Despite its dimensions and diversity, the collection remains, even among scholars, almost unknown. Sezgin has chosen to be a loner in his venture. But this year, for the first time, he allowed a few small exhibitions to take place. Some of the instruments were shown at the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul and at the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt. And there is now a virtual museum in German on the Internet.

Scholars who haven't seen the museum are intrigued. "Having physical instruments can be helpful in getting people to understand what they cannot read because of the language issue," says John Heilbron, a science historian at Worcester College, Oxford, UK. And even for those who can read the texts, says Damerow, "it's hard to know just how easy an instrument might have been to use, and how precise it may be in its measurements - it really helps to have it in your hand".

These scholars, and the wider public, may not have to wait much longer to see Sezgin's treasures up close. The first major exhibition of the collection is planned for spring 2006 at the Arab World Institute in Paris. Sezgin is finally opening his museum doors to the future, as well as to the past.

Alison Abbott is Nature's senior European correspondent.

  Category: Faith & Spirituality, Featured, Nature & Science
  Topics: Islam, Islam And Science
Views: 15401

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Older Comments:
this is a nice work of a sincere scholar

This article is small candle in time of darkness to highlight The Empire of Faith ( ISLAM ). I wish I can visit this museum one of this days. beside the honest way the Islamic civilization handled the Greek's science, there are many new science who started with Islam. I give some of them here like: Algebra related to Aljaaber . Algorithm related to Alkhawarismy. the Sociology become science after the Explorer and scholar IBN Batoota had to put in experience the diversity of human's societies. the psychology become science after IBN Sina gonna put it on test in curing people who had desorders due to emotional problems.

we know the west since the 15 century, rewrote the history and linked everything to the Greeks. we do not deny many sciences that Moslems copied from the Greeks and others like Arabian night copied some of the mysteries of old Egyptian science.

as the author mentioned, our treasories is in their museums include the letters that the Prophet Salla Allah Alaihe Wa Sallam sent to the kings of syrian_rome(bizantine) and persia. they are in one of london's museum. include also the Roseta that Arabian night used to uncode the old languages. Arabian night could of steal that roseta if he wanted :) but he left it where it is untill they came the thief explorers and took it to British.

I'm not trying to put the west here as evil and make us the Angels. there is just some facts in the history that should be acknowledged. we know for sure that we are greatful for the Europeans for not destroying those Items. today's humanity become mature enough to look at this things honest and repair whatever damage happened. we can do better by adding our good to resolve the problems we face. moslems of before, never wrote Socrates or Plato were gays or pedofiles or never existed to advance Islam. they respected the others and they are not respected today but the new wave of the new crusaders. great article from truth seeker author.thanks

The monumetal work of Fuad Sezgin,single-handed,with his own money,effort & life time devotion is comparable to that of great personlities of the golden era of Islam.This outstanding work must be suppoted,sustained and made known globally.Professor Fuat deserves to be honoured at least by King Faisal award,besides the public & other institutions.This article must be widely published in several language newspapres & magazies,particulrly in Arabic,Urdu,Persian,Turkish,Malay & Indonesian.I urge gifted brothers to under take this noble task.

I am glad and not at all suprised to read this.We should appreciate this man and wake up to our role as Allah's vicegerent on earth.


Dilawar, please do not be ignorant! I've posted a couple of comments here, whereby I have mentioned that Islam needs a rejuvination in the arts and sciences. Two of the biggest issues/problems within Islam today is the lack of:
1. education,
2. tolerance.
I think the two are highly correlated, so that once Muslims become more knowledgable (outside of Islam), they will respect others and the things around them.
Muslims offered much in the past within the arts and sciences, we need to get back to that point! We need to stop blaming everyone else (i.e. the United States) for our failures and take issue with the governments within Islamic states, the justification of killing fellow Muslims via some sort of jihad within Iraq, the acceptance of certain social practices such as honour killings, the rape of women or stoning of women as judgements handed down by elders in tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, etc.
So much to little time to do it!

That was then and it is now. Now the "ulema" tell us to shun scientific knowledge. The only knowledge worth obtaining is memorizing of Quran and that too without any critical thought process.

I agree it is important to know history and to learn but to live in it is pointless. We contributed to life sciences - what have we contributed over the last 50yrs. Zero!!

We invented algebra - big deal. See the authors on books on mdoern algebra and it isn't any Mohammad's - mostly John's.

The same, I am sure, can be applied to any discipline.

Muslims always point to the past and say 'see what we did'. This serves as no use to us - what have you done now is what counts.


WOOOWWWW! Amazing...Hope his works make it to the States so I can take my friends and show off!

We have a wonderful history with achievements. But where do we stand now??? During the past 100 yr the world witnessed drastic changes. With science and technology world has gone beyond our imagination, but as a muslim i ask myself what is our contribution. It is sad to see that we have done nothing to it. We never ahd any scientist who had won a noble prize in science or any other field. Why? What happened?
How can we lead the world?

It's interesting how our Ummah once valued the importance of knowledge, science, and wisdom and most of the times our leaders cared for it too. Now everything is the opposite.

Ignorance, arrogance, and fanatism have clouded our Ummah and its leaders. Muslims divide, hurt, and kill each other and I really don't believe there will be and end to it unless knowledge and wisdom along with science is brought back to our people.

It's responsibly of us, the educated people, to expand our knowledge and wisdom and inform and educated rest of the ummah with it.

For that day I pray, Inshallah


Where is this Museum in Frankfurt? I live near Frankfurt and
want to visit it. I found no post address in the article.

I completely agree with the Article. The whole world owes much debt to Islam.

We should all make efforts to enjoin what is good & forbid what is wrong.

Thanks & regards,