The Legacy of Near Eastern Science
The Legacy of Near Eastern Science
Legacy . The Muslim conquest of the Near East, North Africa, Iberia, and parts of South Asia in the late seventh and early eighth centuries established a new political and spiritual universe within a single century after the death of the prophet Muhammad. Early Muslims from Arabia and converts to Islam living in the newly conquered territories existed in close proximity to longstanding Christian, Jewish, and Zoroastrian communities. These groups maintained the traditions, culture, and scientific knowledge cultivated in the Near East over the preceding centuries under the aegis of Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, and Persian rule. Early Muslim scholars and scientists—and their counterparts within the other religious communities—were heirs to the wisdom of the ancients. Natural curiosity, a lack of restrictive parochialism, and religious inducements toward the acquisition of knowledge—such as the famous hadith “Seek knowledge even unto China”—propelled Muslim scholars who were interested in the sciences.
Disciplines of Knowledge . Having emerged as a distinct religious group within the rich matrix of Near Eastern civilization, the Muslims diversified their interests, some elaborating
religious doctrine, others fleshing out a legal framework for adjudicating personal and communal matters, and still others investigating the natural world and its phenomena. Of course, individual scholars often expressed interest in and excelled in several of these fields simultaneously. In almost all cases, the starting point for each endeavor was an assessment of existing knowledge and a desire to contribute to its advancement. The Muslims, especially after the establishment of the Abbasid khilafah in 750, accelerated their efforts, with royal support, to bring to light Greek, Persian, and Indian scholarship through translations of texts into Arabic. The Persian influence is mainly identified with pre-Islamic activity at Jundi-Shapur, a great center of learning and research. Several works were translated into Arabic, such as A‘in-nama (Book of Customs), which combined astronomical information with geographical information and were related to the limits and divisions of the Sasanian empire of Persia. The Persian influence on Arab thought is mainly evidenced in maritime literature and cartography. The Indian influence came through translations of the Sanskrit astronomical treatise Surya-siddhanta during al-Mansur’s reign (754–775). Other Indian works that were translated include the Aryabhatiya (with astronomical calculations) and the Khan-dakhadyaka (on lunar and solar eclipses and planetary alignments), both of which belong to the Gupta period (fourth-seventh centuries). Indian astronomy had a greater impact than Indian geography on Arab thought. Most important, many Greek/Syriac works in various fields were translated into Arabic and other languages used within Muslim civilization, serving as the baseline for subsequent scholarship. Works by Greek thinkers such as Aristotle in philosophy, Diascorides in botany, Galen in medicine, and Ptolemy in astronomy and geography became available to early Muslim thinkers and scientists. Early Muslim geographical writing was particularly indebted to the second century Alexandrian Ptolemy, whose Geography was translated several times in the Abbasid period alone. Ptolemy’s Almagest and Apparitions of Fixed Stars were also influential. The well-known Arab scholar al-Kindi (died 873) is credited with translating such works; his geography was titled Rasm al-Rub al-Ma‘mur (Description of the Habitable Quarter). Ptolemy developed Hipparchus’s idea that a map should be based on points of which the latitude and longitude are known. His geography includes sections on the latitudes and longitudes of roughly eight thousand places, the distance measured in terms of walking/marching time.
For Muslims, living a righteous and productive life in this world is a means to achieving reward and happiness in the afterlife. A variety of impulses spurred Muslims to study geography and make sense of the world, including:
Qur’anic Injunctions: Verses such as “And He [God] has set up on the earth mountains standing firm lest it should shake with you; and rivers and roads; that you may guide yourselves, and marks and signposts; and by the stars men guide themselves” (16:14–16) encouraged Muslims to expand their horizons.
Daily Worship: Muslims pray at five different times during the course of the day and night. Determining times for prayer in different parts of the empire required accurate astronomical observations and measurements of distances between locations.
The Hajj (Pilgrimage): Each year during Dhu al-Hijja (month of the pilgramage) in the Islamic lunar calendar, Muslims from all over the world perform a pilgrimage to Makkah. In medieval times, the journey took months or years, and routes to Makkah from distant places had to be determined, provisioned, and protected.
The Search for Knowledge: Muslim scholars and scientists had a natural inquisitiveness and empirical minds. They emphasized direct observation and believed that knowledge was a treasure that could be found anywhere.
Commerce: Engaging in a productive livelihood and interaction with fellow human beings was an important part of an Islamic lifestyle. Merchants traveled far, seeking new opportunities, and consulted each other for useful geographical and maritime information.
The Ummah (community of the Prophet): Regardless of their own origins, Muslims view themselves as part of a global community of believers. A desire to meet fellow Muslims in other parts of the world has existed from the earliest times, in order to strengthen their sense of brotherhood.
Nafis Ahmad, Muslim Contribution to Geography (Lahore: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1972).
S. Maqbul Ahmad, “Djughrafiya,” in Encyclopedia of Islam, new edition, CD-ROM (Leiden: Brill, 1999).