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Arabic/Islamic Astronomy in Intercultural and European Context

George Saliba
Tuesday June 29, 2010

The 20th International Planetarium Society Conference (IPS2010)
This illustrated talk will focus on the role that was played by the Arabic/Islamic astronomical tradition in critiquing the more ancient Greek tradition, not because this earlier tradition was simply Greek but because it was found to have violated the very scientific principles it claimed to have been based upon. In a systematic and exhaustive manner, almost every parameter upon which the Greek astronomical tradition was based was subjected to a very thorough scrutiny. Whether it was the inclination of the ecliptic, the position of the solar apogee, the rate of precession, the solar eccentricity, the solar equation, or the more complex planetary motions, each and every one of those fundamental concepts were found to be poorly articulated in the Greek tradition. The critique even encompassed the very methodology and the instruments and the manner in which those methods and instruments were used in the Greek tradition to determine the fundamental astronomical parameters in that tradition. With the passage of time, and as the critique deepened, a sense of rebellion started to emerge, and a serious search began to be pursued with the sole purpose of finding an astronomy that could replace the Greek one. By the fifth century AH (the eleventh AD), the astronomers who were involved in this enterprise began to produce one alternative astronomy after another, and persisted to do so well into the tenth century AH (sixteenth century AD) as we can now fully document. From a purely theoretical perspective, this talk will demonstrate that the best astronomical works that were almost exclusively produced in Arabic were in fact the very best and most sophisticated astronomical works that were ever produced in the Islamic culture, during a period most people characterize as a period of decline in Islamic culture. The talk will offer the counter argument with ample illustrated proof to the effect that the Islamic astronomical tradition was mostly a rebellion against the Greek tradition, rather than a preservation of it as we are often told, and by its very rebellion offered the theoretical mathematical foundation upon which the later European astronomy of the Renaissance was eventually based. With reference to Arabic and Latin manuscripts, the talk will illustrate the manner in which European Renaissance astronomers intricately manipulated the mathematical and astronomical results that were first developed within the Islamic culture so that they could embed those results in their own Latin works, and thus lay the foundation for what was later called the emergence of modern astronomy. On the cultural level, the lecture will demonstrate the universal character of the Islamic astronomical tradition as it moved freely from an early intercultural critique of earlier Persian, Sanskrit and Greek traditions, to a constructive scientific engagement with the emerging astronomy of the European Renaissance.
George Saliba, is professor of Arabic and Islamic Science at Columbia University, and was a Distinguished Senior Scholar at the Kluge Center of the Library of Congress in 2005-2006. He has been a visiting professor at several universities in the US, Europe and the Middle East, and has lectured at more than a hundred international conferences and venues on four continents. He has published more than eight books and close to two hundred articles dealing with Arabic/Islamic science and Technology and its relationship to Renaissance Europe. His more recent works include: Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance, MIT Press (2007), A History of Arabic Astronomy: Planetary Theories During the Golden Age of Islam (NYU Press 1995), Rethinking the Roots of Modern Science: Arabic Manuscripts in European Libraries, (Georgetown University, 1999), “Greek Astronomy and the Medieval Arabic Tradition,” American Scientist, 2002, and “Islam and Modern Science: Lessons from the Past,” Oxygen: La Scienza per Tutti, April 2008.