This review essay introduces the work of the Egyptian scientific historian and philosopher Roshdi Rashed, a pioneer in the field of the history of Arab sciences. The article is based on the five volumes he originally wrote in French and later translated into Arabic, which were published by the Centre for Arab Unity Studies and which are now widely acclaimed as a unique effort to unveil the achievements of Arab scientists. The essay reviews this major work, which seems, like Plato’s Republic to have “No Entry for Those Who Have No Knowledge of Mathematics” written on its gate. If you force your way in, even with elementary knowledge of computation, a philosophy will unfold before your eyes, described by the Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei as “written in that great book which ever lies before our eyes—I mean the universe—but we cannot understand it if we do not first learn the language and grasp the symbols, in which it is written. This book is written in the mathematical language, and the symbols are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without whose help it is impossible to comprehend a single word of it; without which one wanders in vain through a dark labyrinth.” The essay is a journey through this labyrinth where the history of world mathematics got lost and was chronicled by Rashed in five volumes translated from the French into Arabic. It took him fifteen years to complete.
ROSHDI RASHED AND THE HISTORY OF ARAB SCIENCE
The first volume is Founders and Explainers: Musa’s Sons, Ibn Qurra, Ibn Sinan, al Khazin, al Quhi, Ibn al Samh and Ibn Hood. A single scholar features in all the remaining four volumes, namely the eleventh-century scientist al Hasan Ibn al Haytham. Only ten centuries later did Western scientific historians recognize that, by dint of his scientific experiments, al Haytham was not only the first scientist in the world but, due to his scholarship in mathematics, physics, astronomy, and nature, was the first scientist with encyclopedic knowledge as well. Until those volumes were published they did not know that mathematics and astronomy account for 25 percent of al Haytham’s work and are twice as voluminous as the book he was famous for on optics. Western scientific historians were equally unaware that until the late seventeenth century and early eighteenth century, world mathematics had not gone beyond what al Haytham had already accomplished.
Rashed begins his wide-ranging work with three sciencist brothers from a well-off family in Baghdad. They were known as Musa’s sons: Mohammed, Ahmad, and Hasan, sired by Musa Shakir. Mohammed was specialized in astronomy and mathematics, Ahmad was highly erudite in the science of mechanics, and Hasan displayed engineering genius. Ahmad would read only the first six books of Euclid’s Elements, the main authority at the time, because he had arrived at the conclusions of the remaining seven by himself. Caliph al Mamun “personally reproached him for not completely reading such a fundamental work even if he didn’t need to do” (Rashed 2011a, 23–24).
Baghdad was in the ninth century “the hub of a vast empire at the apex of it glory” (Rashed personal communication). The trio were a unique type matching those today called leaders of the scientific community. “They submitted a personal request to the Caliph al Mamun to ascertain the length of the earth’s circumference” (Rashed personal communication). They were advisers to caliphs in charge of massive civil engineering works. They were among the top twenty rich people obliged to contribute necessary funds to build new cities, finance research into Greek manuscripts, and generously reward the translators of these manuscripts into Arabic. Only God knows how they could find the time for research work bibliographically listed by such authorities as Ibn al Nadim and al Qufti, in applied mathematics, hydraulic and mechanical engineering, astronomy, music, and meteorology.
Exciting as this information may be, the history discussed by Rashed is not the customary praise heaped on Arab science, its feats and its luminaries, but rather the history of science, which is a science in its own right. Rashed did not only explore Ibn al-Haytham’s seminal research work but also with, and within, him investigated part of the future mathematics that remains essential for understanding and analyzing this work. Through his wide-ranging works originally published in French, Rashed wanted to show that a deeper knowledge of Arab science would contribute to scientific historians’ better understanding of their own sciences in epistemological and historical terms, and to their recognizing two characteristics borrowed by classical science from Arab heritage: a new mathematical rationality and empiricism as a mode of proof. It is “a wonder,” according to Roshdi Rashed, that three centuries of the world history of the sciences should be obscured by what Western historians call the “European Renaissance” or “the scientific revolution.”
The most challenging task that faces a historian of Arab science is how to explain its prolonged decline since Ibn al Haytham, who lived to see the first beginnings of calculus and its rise in the early eighteenth century. Finding a cause is still intractable, according to Rashed. He says, “We know something of classical Islam’s scientific traditions but we still don’t know all of them, nor do we know them in their totality. That is why it is difficult to approach a question about the decline of something before we know exactly what this thing was” (Rashed 2003, 153). Rashed offers to employ what he calls his “intuition” in this daunting undertaking. The first thing to keep in mind is that “this decline had not been an event, then and there, but a prolonged process over many centuries. Moreover, it takes place at the same pace and follows the same trajectory everywhere” (Rashed 2003, 153).
As Rashed attempts briefly to explain when, why, and how it happened he first points to the “military intervention” associated with the Reconquista. “It not only compromised scientific activity but scientific tradition as well, culminating in the elimination of Arab arts and handicrafts. To the East there was the Mongol invasion. Having failed to wipe out all science and civilization it was nevertheless a fatal blow. Science and inquiry was not particularly important in the feudal system of the Ottoman Empire that followed. Finally, geographical explorations and the end of Muslim control of international trade had combined to accelerate the decline of trade activity. This would soon be demonstrated by the Ottomans’ indifference to the sciences” (Rashed 2003, 154).
Looking at science today, we will find that mathematics, optics, astronomy, and pharmacology have attained a kind of logical “completion” without the expected revolutionary transformations. Rashed cites examples to demonstrate this in his studies showing that the geometry of Omar al Khayyam (1048–1131) and Sharaf al Din al Tusi (d. 1180) was on a par with Descartes’s and Fermat’s mathematics and couldn’t have gone further without creating a new effective encoding method. Later mathematicians had worked in this direction but as the pace and intensity of research work slowed they were unsuccessful in their endeavor. Eventually, Descartes was credited for the breakthrough. Rashed cites another example from the theory of numbers. In 1630 al Yazdi had made the same discoveries as Descartes and Fermat but going further required a new method, which was accomplished by Fermat’s infinite scale. Other examples can be readily cited. “The year 1630 saw the twilight of mathematics in the Islamic world East while it saw its rise in the Christian West” (Rashed 2003, 155).
In the midst of economic decline and as a certain type of research work peaked out, a combination of these developments, within and outside science, contributed to the end of scientific innovation in the Islamic civilization. “In other words, at a time when there was a pressing need to intensify research work, which had reached an advanced stage, and to nourish it with other methods and languages—at that particular moment the economic and social decline of Arab societies had caused them to turn their back to the sciences” (Rashed 2010, 82). But science did not turn its back to them. The Arab city; the Arab scientific community; competing Arab scientific institutes; scientists’ mutual relations, travels, correspondence, and relationship with the state; town planning; and massive government projects are all issues covered by Rashed in his various books. He wanted a sociology of science that would explain the rise and fall of this historical phenomenon. One of Rashed’s important works was to edit the manuscript bequeathed by a Baghdadi scholar who has never ceased to shape the future since the nineteenth century, applying the principles of Islam, mathematics, engineering, and linguistics: al Khwarizmi. For the first time in the history of science Rashed edited al Khwarizmi’s The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing, from which the word “algebra” was derived. Al Khwarizmi himself, rendered as algoritmi in Latin and hence “algorithm,” has thus become a discipline in his own right. Algorithms are essential today in computer programming. “History is fair sometimes,” according to the Lebanese mathematician Nikola Faris, who has translated Rashed’s book from French into Arabic (Rashed 2010, 82). Since the twelfth century the West has been using al Khwarizmi’s name to signify computational operations in the decimal number system. No one was aware of the name’s owner until a French orientalist established in the mid-nineteenth century that he is Mohammed Ibn Musa al Khwarizmi, author of The Compendious Book, which had been thrice translated into Latin. “It can be said that mankind had to wait ten centuries after al Khwarizmi to see the birth of deductive methods in algebra,” making it possible to work out the unknown from known values (Rashed 2010, 82).
How could a book written in the year 820 to cater to the population of an Islamic state found a science that today serves the practical needs of the world’s population regardless of religions? In the foreword to his book, al Khwarizmi says he wrote it to satisfy people’s needs in the settlement of inheritance and wills, in their measurements and commerce, in their land surveys, river dredging works, et cetera. In algebra, mathematics was combined with the rules of Islamic inheritance calculation. A mathematical branch was created independent of conventional geometry and arithmetic making possible “what was previously unimaginable, namely extending the application of mathematical sciences to each other: applying arithmetic to algebra, algebra to geometry, geometry to algebra and algebra to trigonometry” (Rashed 2010, 151).
Applying one discipline to another is an important characteristic of Arab science. Rashed considers this “the beginning of classical science” covering the European Renaissance up to the seventeenth century. “Hence, we are surprised that this book has so far not received the critical appraisal it deserves, nor has been translated to a European language commensurate with its importance,” according to Rashed, who undertook the first translation of The Compendious Book into French with an introduction and annotations almost twice the original’s size (Rashed 2010, 151). Rashed’s work explains why historians were reluctant to study al Khwarizmi, since even his name and date of birth had been an enigma. Those who ventured to do so had to be prepared to risk their lives, which is what Rashed did in his search for al Khwarizmi’s manuscripts, two of which, housed in the Afghan royal court’s library, required him “to go directly to Kabul immediately after the fall of the monarchy and before the Soviet invasion, to look at the manuscript kept in the special collection but I never got a photocopy despite all the promises” (Rashed 2010, 151).
Rashed’s travels around the world in search of “the tragic fate of Arab scientific manuscripts” tell a story not dissimilar from Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Just as the rose petals unfold, Rashed uncovers “how scholars were dazzled by the gravitas of this work while puzzling over its uniqueness and the contrast between the novelty of the mathematical project and simplicity of his techniques. One may not always realize that great theoretical projects are born of simplicity’s womb” (Rashed 2010, 57).
Rashed’s “name of the rose” is his search for al Khwarizmi’s real name, which is Mohammed Ibn Musa, and actual place of birth in the late eighth century. “His name’s geographical attribution indicates that he was originally from Khwarezm in Central Asia. But we don’t know when his parents or grandparents came to Baghdad, where he received his learning in a highly dynamic cultural and scientific environment” (59). As he progresses in his work Rashed gives al Khwarizmi the title al Baghdadi, concluding that “he was remarkably prolific during the reign of Caliph al Mamun” (59). Rashed, who has excellent command of both French and Arabic, does not conceal his profound admiration for al Khwarizmi’s language “using confident Arabic without any trace indicating otherwise in translation” (59). The foreword to his book is “a literary piece demonstrating the author’s high culture, mastery of the language and rich vocabulary” (59).
Scrutiny of the language is Rashed’s main, and perhaps sole, tool to know the sources and reading material “of this Baghdadi mathematician who does not help us at all and gives us no clue whatsoever as to what his reading interests might have been” (Rashed 2010, 81).
Rashed’s research into al Khwarizmi’s life is research into mathematics itself, from Euclid and Heron of Alexandria through Aryabhata and Brahmagupta of India to the Arab polymath al Khalil ibn Ahmad, known for many “firsts,” including the use of permutations and combinations to list all possible Arab words. Al Khwarizmi borrowed from the three major schools of thought in Sunni Islam: the Hanafi school, founded in Baghdad, the Maliki school, founded in Hijaz, and the Shafi’i school, founded in Iraq and Hijaz before being finally established in Cairo. “We are indebted to these three scholars for works on taxes, business transactions, wills, inheritance, etc” (Rashed 2010, 74).
Islamic law alone does not make science just as science alone does not make other sciences. Rashed reminds us that the rise of translation and research was closely linked to the rise of innovative and creative research in social sciences and humanities. This movement was fuelled by the rise of urban classes interested in these “sciences of the mind.” Linguistics, philology, and theology in the Abbasid period had accommodated and even embraced the new sciences. “These social groups offered scientists a ready-made language capable of conveying all knowledge. They also posed questions to be answered by new research. On the other hand, the new class of administrators needed mathematical skills and a relevant language to build up their personnel as well as general knowledge in various fields. The state, too, had its own requirements in astronomy, geography and forms of civil organization” (Rashed 2010, 62).
Interest in the Arab scientific mind has spawned multilingual translations of Rashed’s works, from Arabic into French, back to Arabic and into several other languages, including English, Italian, Polish, Persian, Japanese, and Chinese. These translation were done by academics and highly qualified scholars, introducing their work with studies that are themselves worthy of academic appraisal. Some of them have their names mentioned alongside Rashed’s on the covers, like the Lebanese academic Nikola Faris and the Moroccan scholar Mohammed al Baghdadi.
The scientific Arab mind is based on self-criticism of the so-called “formation of the Arab mind.” “There can be no talk of what some would like to call ‘the Arab mind’ without in-depth and thorough knowledge of scientific tradition. Only then will we learn that, rather, ‘minds’ or more accurately ‘rationalities’ had developed and multiplied over centuries of serious and innovative research by some of mankind’s finest scientists and philosophers. They had written their books and papers in Arabic, lived and taught in Arab urban centres. Al Kindi’s corpus can by no means be understood without knowledge of his works in geometry and mathematics. Nor can we appreciate al Farabi’s work without the state of algebra in his time. The same can be said of other philosophers like Avicenna and Averroes, theologists like an-Nadham and Abu Hashim al Jubba’i as well as jurisprudents and hermeneutical scholars like Fakhr al Din al Razi who had a wide knowledge of the sciences in his time” (Rashed 2011b, 10–11).
Rashed does not examine this tradition for boastful nostalgia over times gone by. “As a whole, it is a historical study that is not worth the trouble if it does not lead us to think of the present and build it on sound foundations. The goal of these studies is to acquire objective, precise knowledge of the nation’s memory. An amnesic nation ignorant of its own being might as well not exist. This is what history teaches us. It also teaches us that without such knowledge there can be no renewal or revival. Mathematics and other natural as well as human sciences, in short, all rational endeavours, are a paramount component of memory. It is no exaggeration to say that the Arab nation, nay the Islamic community as a whole, is in pressing need today and tomorrow for a critical objective knowledge of this memory, all the more so given the weakness and divisions that have plagued this nation” (Rashed 2011b, 11).
The formation of the Arab mind means a science-based mind that is not restricted to scientists and students of science but rather more inclusive. As an example, Rashed cites a simple Baghdadi barber from One Thousand and One Nights as saying, “You will find me the best barber in Baghdad, an empiricist, a thoughtful chemist, an infallible astrologist, an authority on grammars and eloquence, qualified in mathematics, geometry, arithmetic and algebra, knowledgeable in history of world domains, and moreover I know all branches of philosophy, memorise all laws and conventions, and I am a poet and engineer as well” (Rashed 2011b, 51–52).
This “mathematical rationality” held, according to Rashed, pride of place in people’s general knowledge in the big cities at that time. Algebra is mentioned as a branch of mathematics in its own right. The barber’s statement echoes al Farabi and Avicenna’s classification of the sciences. This classification differed from its Greek counterpart by celebrating a new discipline with its own name, algebra. The general interest in mathematics, its popularity, and algebra’s distinguished place are all characteristic features of what may be called the Arab science (Rashed 2011b, 51–52).
If an ardent student of Arab science “wanted to give it an overall description, that is, its essence, it would be self-evident that this science had consistently realized what was potential in Greek science and embryonic to Alexandria’s scientists, meaning that tendency to go beyond a certain region and a specific culture for world-wide outreach. We find it had become full-fledged as a Mediterranean science not only in terms of geography but also as a hub of interaction and exchange between all civilizations that had emerged in this region, centre of the ancient world, and on its peripheries as well. ‘Global’ would be a most suitable description of the new Arab science. This science was global in terms of its origins and sources, global in terms of its advances and extensions. Although most of its origins were Hellenistic, it also included Syriac, Sanskrit and Persian works. Needless to say, these fountains had different flows and different impact. But their plurality and variety are noteworthy. They played an important role in forging characteristics of Arab science” (Rashed 2011b, 36–37).
The birth and development of Arab science can by no means be imagined outside the scientific elite’s communities, their clinics, labs, observatories, and schools in urban centers. Like all other sciences, Arab science is inherently global but the culture and scientific tradition it grows in is country-specific. Global science was a formative component of the Islamic state from the outset, according to Rashed. “If we omit the scientific dimension of Islamic civilization we will not understand any of it. Science was the beating heart of the state: in the mosque to determine the time, in family affairs to resolve inheritance issues by algebra, in clinics and pharmacies to treat the sick, in observatories, in sporting equipment, in astronomical instruments, in mathematical geography, in schools, etc. Moreover, any attempt to understand a great deal of work in the human and social sciences like linguistics, lexicology, aspects of law and branches of philosophy would be futile without having some knowledge of the mathematics of the time” (Rashed 2011b, 36–37).
The formation of the Arab scientific mind can hardly be known without al Kindi’s work on the relationship between philosophy and mathematics. In it, according to Rashed, he not only tried to renew the fundamentals “but to go further to conceiving a philosophical methodology based on mathematics” (Rashed 2011b, 85–86). Rashed underlines three points that would help us understand the historical formative process of the Arab mind. “First, we should not separate the adoption of fundamentals from renewing them. It can be said that there are three phases: translation, assimilation and creativity. Creativity had begun before, with, during and after translation. Second, the adoption of scientific fundamentals, including of mathematics and philosophy, cannot be understood without taking into account the achievements made in the humanities, like philology, jurisprudence, hermeneutics, history, etc. Third, cultures do not clash but mutually impact, reach out and interact with one another. Muslim scholars had reached out to Greek culture with its science and philosophy as a capable force renewing and developing its fundamentals in spheres that could not have been imagined by its original inventors” (Rashed 2011b, 85–86).
Arabic would no longer be the language of a single nation but the language of world sciences. “Arabic was the language of science in Samarkand, Grenada, Khurasan and Sicily. If a scholar missed his mother tongue and wanted to use it, especially Persian, like Nasir al Din al Tusi, he would sooner than later translate what he had written into Arabic. This was shown by Abu Rayhan al Biruni who had confirmed that Arabic was the language of science in his time. Overall, it would be no exaggeration at all to say that as of early third century Hijri, science had come to have a language. This language was Arabic, which in turn had acquired global proportions and was no longer the language of several nations or of a certain culture but rather the language of all mental knowledge, both scientific and philosophical” (Rashed 2011b, 168).
Rashed’s encyclopedic Analytical Mathematics, comprising some five thousand pages, outlines the historical geography of the formation of Arab scientific mind. In the first volume, entitled Founders and Explainers: Musa’s Sons, Ibn Qurra, Ibn Sinan, al Khazin, al Quhi, ibn al Samh and Ibn Hood, we read: “Thabit Ibn Qurra was a banker from Harran, in upper Mesopotamia. He was accompanied by the rich and mathematical wizard Mohammed bin Musa to Baghdad where the latter introduced him to the Caliph al Mu’tadid and initiated him into a group of astrologists. Ibn Qurra had brought the leadership of the Sabian or Mandaean sect to Iraq where they found stability and attained a high status. He climbed to such elevated echelons that he had become the Caliph al Mu’tadid’s closest confidant always present in his council and favoured by the Caliph over his Wazirs” (Rashed 2011a, 128). That was one of the most important periods in the history of mathematics and science in general. In the second half of the ninth century, when Baghdad was the political center of the world and its beating cultural heart luring talents of every sort, “the ascension to Baghdad” was “the ambition of young people seeking top quality education in a city of science built thanks to a group of scholars who had settled there and maintained long-standing links with the authority” (Rashed 2011a, 128).
We get to know the formative process of the scientific Arab mind by “knowing those traditions screened behind a diversity of events where the major players would sometimes be invisible” (Rashed 2004, 10). Rashed cites big names that were unknown in the history of mathematics like al Samau’al and Sharaf al Din al Tusi. “We knew nothing more than their names; we would remember history of the numerical theory without al Khazin and al Farisi’s works, the history of optics without Ibn Sahl’s works or astronomy without a clear idea about the Maragheh observatory” (10). Exploration required “precise and constantly alert epistemological speculation although such speculation would remain, as it should be, undisclosed. Only such analysis would enable us to understand how epistemological structures moved and developed from one epoch to another” (10). Here Rashed puts forward the argument that “we can understand nothing about individual innovations unless we place them within the traditions that saw their birth,” concluding that it is “necessary to break with the way of finding historical shortcuts, which is still being used in this respect. It is no longer enough to rely on random research plucking a flower from each garden” (10).
Rashed set out to examine the formation of the Arab scientific mind, devoting his entire life to the project. He discovered that works accumulated over at least seven centuries and contained in myriads of volumes scattered in every corner of the globe would render purely superficial any unmethodical attempt to write their history. Mathematicians separated by centuries are chronicled as directly succeeding each other due to ignorance as to who came after whom. Thus, we come to understand that any general history is impossible now. But if we limit ourselves to one country or one land this history will be deceptive, irrelevant to its actual subject matter (Rashed 2004). Rashed is a good representative of this new global phenomenon. “Never in the history of science in all forms and specializations had it flourished as it did in the 20th century, especially its latter half. This unprecedented advance is evident everywhere, in newly created disciplines, in the number of works publicized, the research and teaching sites launched, the institutes opened, the specialized journals printed and the collections made public. It can be said without exaggeration that the advances of the past fifty years match everything we owe to the last two centuries” (Sasaki 2013, 319–25). Thus Rashed introduced his article “History of Science: Between Epistemology and History.” In the meantime, Rashed has written about 52 books and published some 140 papers. What we have is a historical “corpus,” both in quantity and quality, by which Rashed changes “the science of history,” according to the Japanese historian Chikara Sasaki from the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, College of Human and Social Sciences at the University of the Japanese Academy of Science (Sasaki 2013).
Reviewing the French edition of Rashed’s book From al Khwarizmi to Descartes, the Japanese scholar points out that Rashed has over the past twenty years criticized a Eurocentrism that regards Arab mathematics as a mere intermediary for introducing Greek sciences to medieval and Renaissance Europe. He notes that Rashed’s book unveils the new mathematics developed by the Arabs in Khwarizmi’s work on algebra and Ibn Haytham’s notion of empiricism in his work on optics. He further points out that the title of Rashed’s book could have been “European Mathematics and their Latin Extension to Arab Mathematics.” The Japanese scholar warns against “making the mistake of viewing Rashed as an advocate of Arab-centrism as his knowledge of ancient Greek mathematics and early modern European mathematics is more than perfect. If Descartes was the modern founder of mathematics, he is also the product of Latin extension to Arab mathematics, and the modern classical European mathematics as an extension to Arab mathematics” (Sasaki 2013). The Japanese scientist concludes his article by recalling Rashed’s Beijing visit in 2010, which has drawn the attention of the Chinese historians of mathematics to the likely influence of Arab mathematics on Chinese and East Asian mathematics during the “mercantile revolution” under the Song dynasty between the tenth and thirteenth centuries.
Rashed, who studied mathematics and philosophy in Cairo University, was not at first concerned with the history of Arab sciences. His doctorate dissertation in France was “Mathematization of Non-Formal Theories,” which discusses the application of mathematics in fields where such application is difficult, like the human and social sciences. According to him, any philosophy of science would be vacuous without a history of science. On the other hand, any history of science would be blind without a philosophy of science. This was his starting point. Rashed had studied science before any scientific revolutions. In this context, he studied Ibn al Haythem and scientists before him. His focus was on probability and mechanics. He had written two books on the subject with no reference to Arab contribution. Then the 1967 war broke out, triggering successive defeats that caused many people working in various spheres to escape the Arab world, both physically and spiritually. But for Rashed it was a motivation to study Arab and Islamic scientific and philosophical heritage without such study aiming “to revive the past for boastful or nostalgic purposes. Like any other, such study would not be worthwhile if it did not lead us to think of the present and build it on solid foundations. The goal of such studies is to gain objective thorough knowledge of the nation’s memory. An amnesic nation ignorant of its own being might as well not exist. This is what history teaches us. . . . mathematics and other natural as well as human sciences, in short, all rational endeavours, are a paramount component of memory” (Rashed 2011b, 11).
Roshdi Rashed may have delved into the history of Arab sciences and philosophy not to escape from but rather to the present. “Following the disastrous defeat by Israel I was shocked. I still don’t know if I have overcome its aftermath. But I became aware that the system we have can only breed defeat. I decided to look into Arab scientific and intellectual heritage formed over four centuries in order to build a new civilization we can lean on as Arabs in the present because I was convinced that the blow was a civilizational rather than a military defeat. There were no donors; my work was individual but methodical in which I had edited books by Arab mathematicians, translated Arab manuscripts into French, interpreted them in historic, philosophical and mathematical terms with my own comments. I came to have my own school with mostly French students and two from the Maghreb. My work has resulted in reviving a heritage associated with Ibn al Haytham, al Khwarizmi, al Kindi and Omar al Khayyam. I presented facts about them that were not known before” (Rashed 2009).
“Most of those interested in the history of Arab sciences and philosophy were orientalists of Western or Muslim origins” (Rashed 2011b, 29). At the time, there was no real specialization in this field, neither in Europe nor in the world at large. The judgments passed before that were on science during the Arab era. A debate raged with not only European experts but also Arab and Muslim historians viewing Arab civilization as one of theology, literature, and philosophy rather than science, which is usually cited as a cause for pride. Rashed was the right man or found himself bound, by dint of his specialization in mathematics, science, and scientific philosophy, to stand the history of sciences in the Islamic civilization on its feet, which means a restructuring of this history. That is what he has done and has not stopped doing for almost half a century. “A historian of science is neither a science critic, like an art critic, nor a philosopher among philosophers of science, but simply a phenomenologist of conceptual structures, of their origin and ramifications within constantly changing conceptual norms” (Rashed 2011b, 29).
The Phenomenology of Mind, Hegel’s greatest work, was described by Marx as “the birthplace of Hegel’s philosophy and secret”. In it Hegel posits that all intellectual development of mankind has hitherto been the necessary logical work of mind reasoning itself. The logic of this process is not a conventional normative one but rather Hegel’s dialectical logic, which reveals the inherited logical necessity in the historical process of the development of human perception (Honderich 2005, 342).
“The absence of a thing’s name does not mean its non-existence,” according to Rashed who, applying phenomenology, gives the Arab scientific mind back its place as an epistemological lever (Seamon and Zajonc 1998, 187). The notion of phenomenology was not yet known when Goethe made his first phenomenological approach to the sciences some two hundred years before phenomenology emerged as a philosophical discipline in the twentieth century. In Goethe’s approach, we discern view of the founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, that phenomena are things that show themselves as though a thing under study would describe itself if it could speak. Goethe adds that an individual who can use his healthy senses is the best and most precise possible scientific tool. Modern physics’ most serious scourge is the isolation of its experiments from people, as if physics refuses to acknowledge nature in anything not shown by industrial means, even when this is used as a measure of its own achievements (Seamon and Zajonc 1998).
Rashed, a mathematician by training with works on the history of algebra, the theory of numbers, and Diophantine analysis, came to studying the history of science from philosophy, and came to philosophy from mathematics, reminding us of al Kindi’s statement that philosophy can only be mastered by mathematics. Like al Kindi, Rashed does not renew fundamentals “whether in Aristotle’s books, in Yahya al Nahwi’s books or al Iskandar al Afrudisi’s books, but wants to go beyond this to conceiving a new philosophical school based on mathematics” (Rashed 2008, 3).
“What allows Roshdi Rashed to pass judgments, to which there is no objection, is, first and foremost, this profound and extensive knowledge he has of the history and philosophy of science; of Greek works and his contribution to uncovering, editing and annotating them or translating and commenting on them; then his knowledge of celebrated scientific historians in the West and Arab bibliographers, and finally his untiring search for Arab manuscripts travelling across continents to discover, edit and translate and give them their rightful place as building blocks of scientific exploration” (Rashed 2008, 11).
“The Name of the Rose: A History of Arab Mathematics and Geometry” is the title of an article I have written about Rashed (Aref 1997). In it I compare the detective work in Umberto Eco’s novel with Rashed’s hunt for Arab manuscripts scattered all over the world. The Name of the Rose is an entertaining drama whereas Rashed’s inquiry is a drama that changes the history of science by unveiling “disappeared,” “concealed,” “truncated,” or “redacted” texts. Finding the Baghdadi scientist Ibn Sahl’s manuscript put paid to the conventional wisdom identifying the laws of optics with Descartes, who came seven centuries after Ibn Sahl. The plot, so to speak, in Rashed’s story is his rearranging the jumbled pages of the manuscript to arrive at the body text of the book from which ten pages had been removed. In these pages, Ibn Sahl examined the parabolic and elliptical mirrors. “The pages were plucked by a reader fond of these two mirrors!”(Aref 1998).
Rashed is a historian whose narrative turns into animated events. This is what I realized when I wrote my first article about him following a conference he organized on history of Arab sciences and philosophy in Paris (Aref 1989). The conference discovered, among other things, that the geometrical laws of lenses and light refraction were worked out by Arab scientists in the tenth century rather than having been discovered in Europe during the seventeenth century, as was thought. The conference, attended by prominent Arab and foreign science historians, called for the history of world sciences to be redivided. Last year Rashed drew the attention of the international community, which was marking the millennial anniversary of Ibn Sahl’s book on optics, to the fact that two Iraqi scientists named Ibn al Haytham were being confused with each another. One was Mohammed Ibn al Haytham, a philosopher who had lived in Baghdad, and the other was al Hasan Ibn al Haytham, who had lived in Basra and later moved to Egypt.
In his book Omar al Khayyam’s Mathematics, Rashed addresses a similar mix-up over the existence of two people named Omar al Khayyam. One of them was a mathematician who founded algebraic geometry and achieved results attributed later to Descartes. The other was a Persian poet famous for his short poems of four lines each. “So far we have nothing to irrevocably convince us that the poetic talent and mathematical ingenuity belong to one and the same person. The meagre historical accounts about al Khayyam the mathematician make no mention whatsoever of the poet and those about al Khayyam the poet make no mention of his mathematical and philosophical interests” (Rashed and Zada 2005, 300). Rashed does not commit himself to one view or another although he cites reports claiming that the mathematician and the poet are one person. As al Khayyam says in a letter explaining ambiguities in a book by Euclid, “this part of wisdom has the mathematical benefit of sharpening the mind and training the soul to abhor what is without proof” (Rashed and Zada 2005, 300).
Rashed’s more important corrections have to do with reviewing the history of mathematics and in them he draws on studies and investigations spanning decades. Among the most important results achieved in this work is discovering al Ala ibn Sahl and his two manuscripts. One of the discovered manuscripts refuted the received wisdom identifying the laws of optics to Descartes who came seven centuries after ibn Sahl. Rashed painstakingly put together the pages of the manuscripts that were dispersed between the Milly Library in Tehran, the National Library in Damascus, and al Sulaymaniyah Library in Istanbul. It shows why his fellow scientists quoted him, unanimously acknowledged his superiority, and would turn to him when they were stuck on a scientific question. The two manuscripts make it clear that ibn Sahl was a first-class engineer. He not only elaborated theoretical rules but also laid out designs for manufacturing “fire machines” that can be compared to advanced weaponry in our age. These designs were inspired by a legend that the third-century BC Greek scientist Archimedes had placed mirrors against the sun to focus its energy, and the heat thus generated was enough to burn a fleet that attacked the city of Sarasota.
The first scientist to show interest in the “incendiary mirrors” was al Kindi, who had written a treatise on the technique in the ninth century. In a comment on Greek scientists’ views in this regard he displayed what was a characteristic feature in Arab revolutionary scientific thinking. Al Kindi notes that the Greek scholar Anthimos gave his own reasoning when he said that “since it is unlikely to refute Archimedes who all accounts agree that he had burned enemy ships using sun rays, we hold that this has to be plausible” (Rashed 2001, 20). According to al Kindi in his comment, “Anthimos should not have assented to a report without proof offered in learning, especially in the field of engineering” (Rashed 2001, 20).
Einstein is known for saying, “Strange is our situation here upon this earth . . . that I who have written only unpopular books should be such a popular fellow.” Like Einstein, no one thought that Rashed’s works would be showered with so many Arab and international awards and honors, including the ordre national de la Légion d’honneur, the highest French order of merit, in 1989, the History of the World Science Academy award in 1990, the Avicenna Gold Medal awarded by the UNESCO chief in 1999, the Nobel-equivalent King Faisal International Prize in 2007, the Kuwait Prize for advancement of science in 1999, and the Sheikh Zayed Book Award and the al Owais Cultural Award, both in 2016. These high honors, like Rashed’s work, celebrate the rich history of Arab and Islamic sciences and philosophy. They are a token appreciation of “what we know today about Arab scientific heritage,” according to Rashed who has under his belt sixty books written in French on history of mathematics and philosophy, about ten translated into Arabic, including History of Geometry and Optics in the Fourth Century Hijri, History of Arab Mathematics between Algebra and Arithmetic, al Khawarizmi’s Mathematics, and the Encyclopedia of the History of Arab Sciences, the latter in three volumes published in ten languages.
Next year will mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Arab edition of the Encyclopedia of the History of Arab Sciences. Rashed was an editor overseeing the publication of its French, English, and Arabic versions. The occasion is worthy of a fitting celebration given the stature of those who have contributed to authoring, translating, and editing this remarkable work. They number some forty prominent scholars and researchers specialized in the history of Arab and Islamic sciences and technology from France, the United States, Russia, Spain, Britain, Belgium, Germany, and several Arab countries, including Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan. The first of the encyclopedia’s three volumes, entitled Theoretical and Applied Astronomy, deals with mathematical geography, and Arab navigation science along with an examination of planetary movement. The second volume, Mathematics and the Physical Sciences, centers on numerology, computation, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, musicology, and optics. The third and final volume, Technology, Chemistry and the Science of Life, has as its subject matter civil and mechanical engineering, geography, botany, agronomy, chemistry, and medicine.
The celebration should match the encyclopedia’s ambition by publishing a supplementary update to keep abreast with the dramatic developments that have taken place in the history of Arab science topic over the past three decades. Some of these developments have been driven by Rashed’s own research work, including on topics overlooked in the encyclopedia, like the earth sciences, or that have not received due attention, like the sciences of nature and life. The history of science would inevitably be replete with adventures and discoveries, that is, with the surprises seen since the encyclopedia was published. Equally important, if not more so, is to publish a popular edition for the general reader in one volume as well as a print and multimedia electronic edition for the young and school children, including illustrations and video footage.