You are here

Thābit ibn Qurra: Science and Philosophy in Ninth-Century Baghdad

Roshdi Rashed, editor
Walter de Gruyter
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Fernando Q. Gouvêa
, on

One has to admire the energy of Roshdi Rashed. For many years now he has been engaged in tracing the history of mathematics between Ancient Greece and Early Modern Europe, translating many works from the Arabic, analyzing the mathematics, and arguing for the historical importance of the Islamic contribution. The thesis is well captured in a sentence from the Preface to this book:

… the history of science, considered from the point of view of research and teaching, will remain one-sided and incomplete until the sciences of classical Islam are incorporated within it.

When it comes to mathematics, Rashed is certainly correct: the mathematicians of the Islamic world played a fundamental part in the development of mathematics. Their role was deliberately hidden by early modern mathematicians who wished to trace their ideas back to Greek mathematics, but is now recognized by all historians. De Gruyter’s series Scientia Graeco-Arabica series, edited by Rashed, includes annotated translations of the crucial texts, making them accessible to scholars with no Greek or Arabic.

Thabit ibn Qurra (826–901) was an important figure in Baghdad during the second half of the ninth century, making contributions to astronomy, mathematics, and philosophy. He was engaged in both translation and research, and in fact probably thought of his translation activity as part of his research. In other words, Thabit’s translation work was not merely an attempt to preserve older knowledge. He had questions to investigate, and sought to translate those works that would help him do that.

This edited volume serves as a kind of proceedings volume for a conference marking the 1100th anniversary of Thabit’s death. Each section presents both translations of Thabit’s work and careful analyses of their contents. The texts collected, translated, and analyzed here include work in classical Euclidean geometry, number theory, algebra, trigonometry, and philosophy. Thabit’s astronomical work is not included because has been published separately, as has Thabit’s work in the Archimedean tradition, which Rashed refers to as “infinitesimal geometry.” So this book helps complete the picture of Thabit’s wide-ranging contributions.

With one exception (the Concise Exposition of Aristotle’s Metaphysics), all the translations are to French. Almost all the analyses are also in French. (But hey, for most of us it is easier to read French than Arabic.) The two introductory articles, about Thabit’s work and his biography, are in English.

In the introduction, Rashed argues that Thabit is not just an early contributor to the mathematical tradition in classical Islam, but rather is one of its founders. The crucial evidence for that claim can be found in this book. Since it includes translations of the primary texts, readers will be able to read and decide for themselves. Anyone who is interested in the Islamic tradition in mathematics will be grateful for the work collected here.

Fernando Q. Gouvêa is Carter Professor of Mathematics at Colby College. He has little Greek and less Arabic.