«Academia Europaea 19th Annual Conference in cooperation with: Sociedad Estatal de Conmemoraciones Culturales, Ministerio de Cultura (Spain) “The ...»
Academia Europaea 19th Annual Conference
in cooperation with:
Sociedad Estatal de Conmemoraciones Culturales,
Ministerio de Cultura (Spain)
“The Dialogue of Three Cultures and our European Heritage”
(Toledo Crucible of the Culture and the Dawn of the Renaissance)
2 - 5 September 2007, Toledo, Spain
Chair, Organizing Committee: Prof. Manuel G. Velarde
The Persian-Toledan Astronomical Connection and the European Renaissance
Paris Observatory Summary This paper aims at presenting a brief overview of astronomical exchanges between the Eastern and Western parts of the Islamic world from the 8th to 14th century. These cultural interactions were in fact vaster involving Persian, Indian, Greek, and Chinese traditions. I will particularly focus on some interesting relations between the Persian astronomical heritage and the Andalusian (Spanish) achievements in that period. After a brief introduction dealing mainly with a couple of terminological remarks, I will present a glimpse of the historical context in which Muslim science developed. In Section 3, the origins of Muslim astronomy will be briefly examined. Section 4 will be concerned with Khwârizmi, the Persian astronomer/mathematician who wrote the first major astronomical work in the Muslim world.
His influence on later Andalusian astronomy will be looked into in Section 5. Andalusian astronomy flourished in the 11th century, as will be studied in Section 6. Among its major achievements were the Toledan Tables and the Alfonsine Tables, which will be presented in Section 7. The Tables had a major position in European astronomy until the advent of Copernicus in the 16th century. Since Ptolemy’s models were not satisfactory, Muslim astronomers tried to improve them, as we will see in Section 8. This Section also shows how Andalusian astronomers took part in this effort, which was necessary in the path to the Scientific Revolution. Finally, Section 9 presents the Spanish influence on the eve of the Renaissance.
1. Introduction Before dealing with the main topics of this paper, it seems necessary to comment first on three widely used terms in this field: Arab/Arabic astronomy, Islamic astronomy, and zij.
Arab/Arabic is not meant as an ethnic but rather a linguistic term. In fact a large number of Non-Arab scholars, mainly Persians, Turks, and Spanish people, wrote their works in Arabic. Even so, many astronomical works were also produced in other languages of this civilization, especially Persian and in the later centuries Turkish. For example, the main zijs were originally written in Persian, a notable example being the Ulugh Beg’s (c. A.D. 1394zij, a landmark in precise observations before the Renaissance. We also note a disparity with respect to Western scholars who wrote in Latin. As far as these scholars are concerned, the Latin adjective is not specified (e.g., the expressions like “the Latin astronomer Copernicus”, “the Latin physicist Newton”, or “the Latin philosopher Leibnitz” are not used).
As for the term Islamic, it should be taken in the sense of the civilization rather than the religion, because much of the astronomy was secular. Moreover, many non-Muslims within the Islamic civilization contributed to this science and must be acknowledged. Once again, we find the above-mentioned disparity, since the term Christian, which refers also to a civilization, is not used either (e.g. Galileo and Newton are not usually referred to as “Christian scientists”).
Zij is the generic name applied to books in Arabic and Persian that tabulate parameters used for astronomical calculations of positions of the Sun, the Moon, and the five planets of antiquity. The word is derived from Middle Persian zig, variant zih, meaning “cord, string” (Modern Persian zeh “cord, string”), from Avestan jiiā- “bow-string”, cognate with Sanskrit jiyā- “bow-string”, Proto-Indo-European base *gwhi- “thread, tendon” (from which derive also Greek bios “bow”, Latin filum “thread”, Russian žica “thread”). The term zig originally referred to the threads in weaving, but because of the similarity between the rows and columns of astronomical tables and the parallel threads, it came to be used for an astronomical table, and subsequently a set of tables.
2. A glimpse of the historical background Cultural developments in the course of history are not detached from underlying social/political events. In order to better understand the advent of Islamic science, it would be interesting to have a fast glimpse of the historical background.
The first Islamic state, established by the Umayyad dynasty (661-750), lasted for 89 years. There were social turmoil in various parts of the vast conquered territories and in particular Iranian resistance movements opposed the Arab domination, especially since the Umayyads considered non-Arabs as mawali, people of lowly status.
The Umayyads were overthrown by the leader of a revolutionary movement Abu Moslem Khorâsâni (Persian name Behzâdân), who enthroned Abu al-Abbâs as-Saffâh, a member of the prophet’s lineage. This was the beginning of the Abbasid dynasty (750-1258), which lasted over five centuries, although Saffâh himself reigned for only four years.
The only Umayyad survivor, Abd ar-Rahmân I, escaped to Andalusia where he established himself as an independent Emir (756-788). More than a century later one of his successors, Abd ar-Rahmân III (912-961), assumed the title of Caliph, establishing Cordoba as a rival to the Abbasid capital.
The Abbasid era was substantially influenced by the Persian culture and tradition of government. A new position, that of vizier (Arabic from Middle Persian vicīr “decree, decision”, from vicīrītan “to decide, to judge, to distinguish”; vicīrtār “judge, arbitrator, decider”), was created and many Abbasid caliphs were eventually relegated to a more ceremonial role than under the Umayyads. Several prominent viziers, serving Hârun arRashid (786-809) and his son al-Ma’mun (813-833), were members of the Persian Barmakid family of Buddhist faith. Moreover, al-Ma’mun’s mother was Iranian, and he himself had grown up in Khorâsân, the Eastern province of Iran.
During the second caliph al-Mansur (754-775) the capital was moved from Damascus to Baghdad, not far from Ctesiphon, the ancient capital of Iranian Sassanids. The designers hired by al-Mansur to lay the city’s plan were two Persians: Naubakht, a former Zoroastrian, and Mâshâ’allah, a Jew from Khorâsân. The two men also determined an astrologically auspicious date for the foundation of the city: 30 July 762.
It is also notable that the city name Baghdad is Persian, meaning “god-given” or “God’s gift”, from bagh “god, lord” + dâd “given”. The first component derives from Old Persian baga-, Avestan baγa- “lord, divider” (from bag- “to allot, share”), cognate with Sanskrit bhága- “part, portion”, Proto-Indo-European base *bhag- “to divide”; cf.
Slavic/Russian bog “god”, Greek phagein “to eat” (originally “to have a share of food”). The second component dâd, from dâdan “to give”, Old Persian/Avestan dā- “to give, grant”, Proto-Indo-European base *do- “to give”; cf. Sanskrit dadáti “he gives”, Greek didonai “to give”, Latin datum “given”, Russian dat’ “to give”.
The reign of Hârun ar-Rashid and his successors fostered an age of intellectual activities. A cultural center, the House of Wisdom (Bait al-Hikmah), was set up, which was reminiscent of the Persian Sassanid academy of Gundishapur. An intense translation activity was undertaken and all sorts of books were translated from Middle Persian, Sanskrit, Syriac, and Greek into Arabic. In just a few decades the major scientific works of antiquity, including those of Galen, Aristotle, Euclid, Ptolemy, Archemides, and Apollonius, were translated into Arabic. The main translators were Hunayn ibn Ishâq (c. 809-873), a Nestorian Christian with an excellent command of Greek, and Thâbit ibn Qurra (c. 836-901), a Helenized pagan from Harran, a town in northern Mesopotamia (today Turkey), that was the center of a cult of “star worshippers”.
The paper needed for books was abundant, since Muslims had learned the techniques of paper making from the Chinese. In fact the Chinese prisoners of war captured in the battle of Talas (731) were ordered to produce paper in Samarkand and by the year 794 a paper mill was installed in Baghdad.
3. Origins of Muslim astronomy
At the advent of Islam Arabs did not have an elaborated/documented astronomy. The first astronomical documents translated into Arabic were of Indian and Persian origins. These translations set the basis for the first Muslim astronomical works. Greek astronomy, represented by Ptolemy, was introduced later, but it gained a fully dominant position owing to
its predictive capacity. Here are the main founding sources:
The Persian work was Zij-e shâh or Zij-e shahryâr, originally composed for the Sassanid emperor Khosrow I (Anushirwân) about the year 550. It was translated into Arabic by Abu al-Hasan al-Tamimi and commented on by Abu Ma’shar (Albumasar) of Balkh. It became the basis for example for the work of the previously mentioned astronomers Naubakht and Masha’allah. Zij-e shâh contained some elements of Indian and Greek traditions. It also had its specific Persian particularities, mainly the basic year for the tables, which was the coronation date of the last Sassanid emperor Yazdegerd III (16 June 632), and the Solar year based on Nowruz, or spring equinox. The Yazdegerd III’s era was in use in Muslim astronomy during several centuries, before being replaced with the Hijra. As an interesting particularity of the Zij-e Shâh, the day started from midnight.
As to the Indian sources, several works have been mentioned in early Muslim astronomy, the main one Siddhānta (Sanskrit meaning “established end, final aim, doctrine, concept”) attributed to Brahmagupta (598-670). This work was brought to Baghdad sometime around 770 by an Indian political delegation, which had an astronomer named Kanka. The book was translated into Arabic by al-Fazâri and Ya’qub ibn Târiq, who were assisted by the Indian astronomer. The Sanskrit term was later corrupted to Sindhind in Arabic.
The Greek source was Ptolemy’s Almagest, dating from about A.D. 150. The Ptolemy’s Mathematike Syntaxis “Mathematical Compilation”, in later antiquity known informally as Megale Syntaxis or Megiste Syntaxis “The Great Compilation”, was translated from Greek into Arabic in the 9th century during the translation campaign launched by alMa’mun. It was translated several times, during which the title word Megiste was transformed into al-majisti. The earliest translators were the above-mentioned Hunayn ibn Ishâq and Thâbit ibn Qurra. By this time the work was lost in Europe.
The Persian astronomer Ahmad Farghâni (Alfraganus) presented a thorough descriptive summary of Almagest in his textbook Jawâmi’, known as Elements, written between 833 and 857. It was translated into Latin in the 12th century and was widely studied in Europe until the time of Regiomontanus (1436-1476). Farghâni also composed a very important treatise on the astrolabe around 856. Although the astrolabe was a Greek invention, the earliest dated instrument that has been preserved comes from the Islamic period. The only extant ancient treatise on the astrolabe is due to Johannes Philoponos, written in the first part of the 6th century.
The first Muslim astronomer who based his work principally on Ptolemy was alBattâni (c. 853-929, born in Harran), who made his observations at al-Raqqa in Syria.
Ptolemy’s work re-entered Europe from its Arabic versions with the transformed name Almagest in the medieval Latin translations.
4. Khwârizmi’s zij
Zij of Sindhind, written about 820 by Khwârizmi, was the first major astronomical work in the Muslim world. It was mainly based on Indian/Persian astronomy. Interestingly, Khwârizmi’s zij had its greatest long-term influence in Muslim Spain and Western Europe through the incorporation of some of its material in the Toledan Tables.
Abu Ja’far Muhammad ibn Musâ Khwârizmi (c. 780- c. 850) was a key figure in the history of algebra, an astronomer and geographer. The epithet Khwârizmi indicates that he or his forebears came from the Persian region of Khwârizm, the present-day Khiva in Uzbakistan. The historian Tabari (c. 838-923) gives him the additional epithet Majusi (related to magus), meaning Zoroastrian. This would have been possible at that time for a man of Persian origin. However, the preface of his Algebra (if effectively written by himself) shows him a pious Muslim. Anyhow, Tabari’s designation could mean also that his ancestors, and perhaps himself in his youth, had been Zoroastrian.
Zij of Sindhind was in particular based on the Iranian solar year with the starting era that of Yazdegerd III, as previously indicated. The Sun, the Moon, and each of the five planets known in antiquity had a table of mean motion and a table of equations (variations with respect to mean values). In addition, there were tables for computing eclipses, solar declination and right ascension, and various trigonometric tables. The form of a set of tables closely resembled that made standard by Ptolemy. But most of the basic parameters in the Zij (the mean motions, the mean positions at epoch, positions of apogee and the node) were derived from Indian astronomy. The maximum equations were taken from Zij of Shâh. The fundamental meridian was that of Arin, lying 70° east of Baghdad. Arin was a corruption of Ujjayni (present-day Ujjain), a city situated in central India, which was the “Greenwich” of the ancient Indian astronomy.
The original Arabic version is lost. A Latin translation exists carried out by the English scholar Adelard of Bath (c. 1080-1152) in the early 12th century. This translation was made not from the original, but from a revision executed by a Spanish astronomer, al-Majriti (c. 950- c. 1007).
The Zij continued to be used in classrooms and commented on even after al-Battâni, the aforementioned Mesopotamian astronomer produced his great work (Zij al-Sâbi), based principally on the Almagest and his own observations. Battâni is considered as the first Muslim astronomer to carry out new, systematic observations since the time of Ptolemy.