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Volume 6, No 3, Fall 1996 [back]

Book: Science in the Medieval World
-- "Book of Categories of Nations"

Sa'id al-Andalusi; reviewed by Tanju «ataltepe

translated and edited by Sema'an I. Salem and Alok Kumar
University of Texas Press, Austin, 1996
ISBN 0-292-70469-0

The Andalusian scholar, Sa'id al-Andalusi [d. A.D. 1070/A.H. 462], in his short book Tabaqat al-'Umam [Categories of Nations] surveys the contributions of various nations to science. He groups nations into two categories (tabaqatayn): Those who cultivated science (ilm) and those who did not.

Sa'id who was living in the far west corner of the Islamic world bases his discussion on what he read and the interviews he had with travellers. The nations that contributed to science are Indians, Persians, Chaldeans, Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Arabs, and Banu Israel. Before discussing the contributions of these nations, he has a chapter on those nations that did not show an interest in science.

The nations that did not cultivate science include Slavs, Bulghars, black people. The explanation that Sa'id gives for their lack of interest is the environmental conditions they live in: The extreme coldness of the northern zone blunts the sharpness of understanding and perception. The hot weather of the sub-Saharan regions induces hot and fiery temperament which is not conducive to the pursuit of science. This type climate-based classification is also found in Ibn Khaldun's [d. A.D. 1406/A.H. 808] The Muqaddimah.

In addition, he pays particular attention to the Chinese and the Turks among the non-science oriented nations. About the Chinese, he says, "They surpassed other nations in industrial technology and graphical arts. They excelled in their endurance while performing arduous labor and in improving their work and perfecting their products." As for the Turks, "They distinguished themselves by their ability to wage wars and by the construction of arms, and by being the ablest horsemen and tacticians. They have the sharpest eyes when it comes to throwing lances, striking with swords, or shooting arrows." Yet these characteristics do not qualify these nations to be included among the elect in the eyes of Sa'id. In fact, he specifically mentions the accomplishments of the Turks and the Chinese as things that can be surpassed by animals in nature, such as fine construction of spiders and birds, courage and tenacity of tigers and lions.

Then he continues to discuss the contributions of those who cultivated science. He focuses on the philosophers, astronomers, physicians, mathematicians, grammarians. These chapters give a picture of what was known of the intellectual heritage of ancients by the Muslim scholars of the time. From the way Sa'id tells this history, it is obvious that he saw his nation as the intellectual inheritor of all these previous nations.

This book by Sa'id al-Andalusi is not exceptional in its field. In fact, al-Nadim's [d. A.D. 990/A.H. 380] The Fihrist earlier and Ibn Khaldun's The Muqaddimah later are more comprehensive and better known than Sa'id's Tabaqat. However, what is worthy of attention is the context for science (ilm) that Sa'id succinctly gives at the beginning: It is an activity that purifies the soul and straightens the human nature; it is removed from ambition; as he states the difference between these two categories of nations:

"[The tabaqat that cultivated science] focused their attention to achieve the purity of soul that governs the human race and straightens its nature. They have disregarded what was attractive to [the tabaqat that did not cultivate science] who compete with anger in their souls and pride themselves in their animal strength."
In the light of this assessment, it is interesting to think how much of what is glorified as 'science' today would qualify as such in Sa'id's society. This social dimension is an oft-ignored aspect of 'science' debates among Muslims. There is an abundant literature that discusses the Muslim "philosophy of science", or why Muslims couldn't develop 'science' as the Europeans did after the Medieval period. We need studies of scientific activity in the context of a Muslim society, not only abstract epistemological treatments, or "Muslims invented this or that first" type of proclamations. The commonly accepted 'wisdom' is that the Renaissance Europe by breaking the hold of the Church (which is generalized to mean 'religion') opened up a humanist space where individuals were free to question authority, follow their inquisitive tendencies, etc. The sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit corollary to this version of intellectual history is that the East (particularly the Muslims) remained authoritarian and prohibitive to free inquiry as the revealed law/custom suppressed the questioning individual. Any cursory examination of the intellectual history of the Muslim societies would show that this allegation is false: There were intense and lively debates, a thriving intellectual activity. It was not free-for-all, but it never is anywhere. The comparison cannot be based upon whether there was freedom of inquiry or not, but on the differences of the social mechanisms that determine the perimeters of legitimate discussions (scientific or otherwise).

If we look at the evolution of the institutions of science in these two different environments, we see that a major achievement of the modern Europe was the impersonal institutions that produced and reproduced knowledge (mainly universities). This is in harmony with commodification of everything that was taking place during the European 'progress'. In the Muslim society learning and teaching continued to have a dominant personal (and human) dimension. The certifications in various disciplines of science were worth based on the identity of the teacher who gave them not on the institutions. In the credentials of traditional ulema you would find that the "ijaza" was issued by shaikh so-and-so not by this-or-that madrasah. (Nowadays, in contrast, you often hear the qualifications "trained by al-Azhar" etc.) In fact, as in many other areas, those who claim the liberation of the individual, mostly accomplished the banishment of the individual from the area of 'science'. It is not surprising then that 'science' of today is not about purity of soul but rather about ambition and aggression.


Other reading:

The Muqaddimah -- An Introduction to History by Ibn Khaldun, translated by Franz Rosenthal, abridged and edited by N. J. Dawood, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1967. ISBN 0-691-01754-9

The Fihrist of al-Nadim -- A Tenth-century Survey of Muslim Culture, (two volumes) edited and translated by Bayard Dodge, Columbia University Press, New York, 1970. ISBN 231-02925-X


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