Unless you’re a specialist in medieval Islamic astronomy, chances are that you have heard of it only in passing. Accounts in popular books tend to squeeze it into a short interlude on the 1500 years between Greece and the Renaissance, and what they say is often based on scholarly views of decades or even a century ago. Although tremendous advances in our understanding of Islamic science have been made, the grand narrative is yet to be rewritten.
Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance is not well titled. It deals almost entirely with astronomy, as an example of a hoped-for later reconstruction of all of Islamic science. More importantly, while Saliba does deal with the impact of Islamic astronomy on Europe, his goals are much broader. This book is a first attempt to overturn traditional narratives of Islamic science in favor of a new one informed by both recent discoveries and a better integration with cultural context. It is largely successful, and deserves wide attention .
Saliba begins with a reconstruction of the remarkable and, until now, poorly explained origins of Islamic astronomy. We know there existed a flourishing scientific culture during Abbasid times (starting AD 750), inspired by Sasanian/Indian civilizations and then by translations of Greek texts. But how could this new scholarly community have gotten to the point of being able to approach its antecedents? Saliba argues that the traditionally proposed teachers, from Byzantium and Syria, wouldn’t have been up to the job. Rather, he claims that the appropriation of the foreign sciences must have started much earlier, already during the Umayyad caliphate (AD 660–750).
But how did it happen? According to Saliba, interest in the sciences may have begun during the conversion of administration to Arabic by caliph cAbd al-Malik in the late 7th century. Disempowered speakers of Persian and Greek would have turned to scientific texts as a way of giving them a competitive advantage, thereby preserving their jobs. This somewhat speculative theory is nevertheless plausible, because it explains why Islamic science was so quickly able to critique its foreign inheritance: if knowledge is power, a kind of free market of scientific ideas results — much as science works today.
In this competitive environment nothing was safe, not even the Greek classics. In astronomy it was Claudius Ptolemy’s Almagest that bore the brunt of the attacks. “Doubts” (shukūk) were raised very early, primarily about failures of Ptolemy’s models of planetary motions to square with Aristotelian physics and cosmology . Most famous among them was Ptolemy’s introduction of an equant point, a center of uniform motion that is not at the center of its circle .
This led to the establishment of a new astronomical tradition: the invention of planetary models that produced the same motions, but were more compatible with Aristotle. Some of the biggest names here are al- cUṛdī (d. 1266), Nạsir al-Dīn al-̣Tūsī (d. 1274), al-Shīrāzī (d. 1311), and Ibn al-Shạ̄tir (d. 1375). But wait: the conventional story is that the golden age of Islamic science ended with the 12th century religious revival led by al-Ghazālī, or with Hulagu Khan’s sack of Baghdad and destruction of manuscripts in 1258. How could Islam’s most creative astronomy happen well after that?
Here Saliba makes ones of his most cogent critiques of our approach to Islamic science. In the West we tend to think of science and religion as fundamentally opposed, and we transfer this reading to other cultures. But in fact, Islamic astronomy often allied itself with religion, partly to distance itself from astrology, and partly due to its efficacy in supporting religious rituals (like praying at certain times of day in the direction of Mecca). Many of the greatest astronomers of this period were also some of Islam’s leading religious scholars. So, the conflict motif distorts what we see when we apply it to Islamic science.
The book continues with a study of the various possible routes of transmission of Islamic astronomy to the West, particularly with respect to Copernicus. There is now consensus that Copernicus got his planetary models, somehow, from Ibn al-Shā‹ir, although how he got them is not yet known. But what makes Copernicus an icon is his heliocentrism, not the specific models he used; thus it seems to me that the emphasis on the “Copernicus connection” is overdone. Ibn al-Shā‹ir should be remembered and valued more particularly for his contributions to his own culture.
So if Islamic science did not decline in the 13th century, then when did it decline? Saliba places this in the period AD 1500–1700, after Europe discovered the New World. The redrawn lines of power and commerce gradually marginalized Islam and other non-Western cultures, bringing us into the modern era.
Although Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance could have used an editor to clean up repetitious passages and a number of grammatical and stylistic problems, it is a confident and persuasive argument for a new account of Arabic astronomy. Accessible to scholars and interested observers alike, this book will inevitably be examined and debated in future decades — perhaps, as the Islamic scientists wrestled with Ptolemy. And for both Ptolemy and Saliba, there can be no greater honor.
Glen van Brummelen is a founding faculty member at Quest University Canada.