Étiquette : India
There are over a billion Indians. Unfortunately, around half of them are illiterate. Only one in four has access to proper sanitation. Some 350 million Indians live on less than one euro a day. And yet, in a strange paradox, India is also home to some of the world’s most advanced high-tech companies. New Delhi is, in a way, India’s Silicon Valley. And very recently, Indian genius has succeeded in landing a rover on the Moon.
Scandalized by the lack of access to education for his country’s children living far from urban centers, Dr. Sugata Mitra, an Indian physicist turned educational technology researcher, has been conducting a series of experiments since 1999, dubbed « The Hole-in-the-Wall », whose astonishing results are calling into question the foundations of conventional pedagogy.
“In early 1999”, writes Mitra, “colleagues and I sunk a computer into the opening of a wall near our office in Kalkaji, New Delhi. The area was located in an expansive slum, with desperately poor people struggling to survive.”
The screen was visible from the street, and the PC was available to anyone who passed by and all the people living “on the other side of the wall”. The computer had online access and a number of programs that could be used, but no instructions were given for its use. In principle, the children in this neighborhood could neither read nor write, and spoke a Tamil dialect. So, objectively speaking, the chances of them being able to cope with the computer were almost nil.
Fortunately, in the real world, things are different. Barely eight minutes after the computer had been installed, a young boy who had never seen a television screen in his life came up to sniff it out and explore the strange intruding object.
Asked if he could touch the screen, Mitra replied, « It’s on your side of the wall. » The rule was that everything on their side of the wall could be touched. The child soon realized that by moving the mouse in a certain direction, something moved on the screen in a similar way. Excited by what he had discovered, he immediately called his friends and showed them what he could do.
Typically, in the « Hole in the Wall » experiment, only one child operates the computer. He is surrounded by a first group of three others who give him advice. A second group of around sixteen children completes the team, who also interact with the child handling the equipment. Their advice is often less sound, or even wrong, but they learn too.
In hardly a few months, these kids were able to learn up to 200 English words. Although they couldn’t always pronounce them correctly, they understood their meaning and were able to interact with the computer. « You left us these machines that only speak English, so we had to learn it, » they said. Most of them succeeded in learning to navigate, play games and to draw pictures with a given application. What’s more, they have no trouble exchanging emails, and much more besides.
By repeating the experiment in several poor Indian towns, with boys as well as girls, Mitra, suspected of charlatanism by those who felt challenged by what his experience revealed, managed to dispel initial doubts that « someone » had secretly offered training to the children in advance.
What to conclude?
If the results are astonishing, they are often misinterpreted, with everyone, including Mitra himself, trying to demonstrate his or her own pre-established theory. You be the judge.
For Europeans, the experiment itself is considered borderline acceptable. Using children as “guinea pigs” without their parents’ permission is unethical by European standards. And isn’t bringing technology to the poor and thinking that everything will take care of itself one of those practices tinged with neo-colonialism that the World Bank ranks among the worst approaches to educational technology?
For their part, the gurus of Silicon Valley and GAFAM (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft) were jubilant! They’ve been telling us for years: just give every child a computer (which they manufacture and control) and they’ll educate themselves! Really?
Remember the « One Laptop per Child » project launched a decade ago, to provide inexpensive solar-powered laptops and tablets to children in the poor countries? Without wishing to criticize the good will of its promoters, let’s just say that simply making computers available has not proved a promising approach. A recent evaluation of the project in Peru confirms this.
For his part, Mitra, whose goodwill cannot be questioned, came to the conclusion that experience shows that primary education can, at least in part, pretty much “take care of itself,” if the pupils are offered a « non-invasive education » environment.
Dr. Mitra, unfortunately, seems to be missing the major point of what his experience brilliantly demonstrates.
In France, after having been an enthusiastic proponent of computers for all, author and high school teacher Vincent Faillet has also come to believe that giving every child a tablet is not the right approach. With good reason, he points out that it’s not the computer, tablet, or screen that teaches children, but the human interaction among students:
« Peer-to-peer learning, as defined by Sugata Mitra and which has amazed many pedagogues, » writes Faillet, « is in reality nothing more and nothing less than a modern, spontaneous form of ‘mutual education’. It’s striking to note that, despite the centuries that separate these observations, we find a constant pattern: children in a learning situation, grouped around a common screen for interaction, be it a box of sand, a blackboard or a computer screen. The idea of interaction is essential. As Sugata Mitra himself says, students don’t get the same results if there were to be one computer per child. You always require several children for ONE computer, in the same way that several children in mutual schools gather around the same blackboard. » (La Métamorphose de l’Ecole, Vincent Faillet, 2017)
(For more on the “Mutual Tuition” methods of Carnot, Bell and Lancaster, see the author’s article on artkarel.com website)
The experiment is obviously promising for remote and poor regions, provided we understand what has just been said. What is certain is that the experience reminds the inhabitants of the North of the ineffectiveness of their pedagogical practices, and the high level of passivity engendered by our educational systems.
After the eradication of Lazare Carnot’s cherished « mutual teaching » methods in 1815, Jean-Baptiste de La Salle’s « simultaneous » method triumphed. The master teaches. His authority is unquestionable. As if at mass, the pupils stand still, remain religiously silent and obey.
In 2004, Hole-in-the-Wall Education Ltd., was founded, exporting Mitra’s idea to Cambodia and Africa. Mitra has also applied his method in England. Also there, the spectacular results caused quite a stir: students who teach each other, he claims, are 7 years ahead of their academic peers. As long as they are part of a mutual teaching process, the Internet, tablets and smartphones will find their rightful place as mere tools at the service of the teacher, and not destined to replace him or her.
Pupils as young as 8 or 9 who are allowed to search the internet to prepare for the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), not only pass the test, but still remember what they have learned when tested again three months later. We’ve even seen 14-year-olds pass baccalaureate-level tests at Newcastle University. Will they find jobs commensurate with their skills in the Global West ?
In the following excerpt,
Dr Mitra describes his findings:
“Certain common observations from our experiments emerged, suggesting the following learning process occurs when children self-instruct in computer usage:
1. Discoveries tend to happen in one of two ways: When one child in a group already knows something about computers, he or she shows off those skills to the others. Or, while the others watch, one child explores randomly in the GUI (Graphical User Interface) environment until an accidental discovery is made. For example, the child may discover that the cursor changes to a hand shape at certain places on the scre
2. Several children repeat the discovery for themselves by asking the first child to let them try it.
3. While in Step 2, one or more children make more accidental or incidental discoveries.
4. All the children repeat all the discoveries made and, in the process, make more discoveries. They soon start to create a vocabulary to describe their experiences.
5. The vocabulary encourages them to perceive generalizations, such as, « When you click on a hand-shaped cursor, it changes to the hourglass shape for a while and a new page comes up. »
6. They memorize entire procedures for doing something, such as how to open a painting program and retrieve a saved picture. Whenever a child finds a shorter procedure, he or she teaches it to the others. They discuss, hold small conferences, make their own timetables and research plans. It is important not to underestimate them.
7. The group divides itself into the « knows » and the « know-nots, » much as they might divide themselves into « haves » and « have-nots » with regard to their possessions. However, a child that knows will share that knowledge in return for friendship and reciprocity of information, unlike with the ownership of physical things, where they can use force to get what they do not have. When you « take » information, the donor doesn’t « lose » it!
8. A stage is reached when no further discoveries are being made and the children occupy themselves with practicing what they have already learned. At this point, intervention is required to plant a new seed for discovery (…) Usually, a spiral of discoveries follows and another self-instructional cycle begins.”
By Karel Vereycken, July 2023, PARIS.
2. Learning and teaching at the same time, a precious joy
A. In India
B. In France
4. Gaspard Monge’s brigades
5. Andrew Bell
6. Joseph Lancaster
7. Mutual Tuition, how it works
A. The class room
B. Teachers and monitors
C. A day at a mutual school
D. Progress according to each pupil’s knowledge
8. Bellists vs. Lancasterians
9. France adopting Mutual Tuition
10. Lazare Carnot takes the helm
11. Mutual tuition and choral music
12. The rue Saint-Jean-de-Beauvais pilot project
13. Jomard, Choron, Francœur and elementary knowledge
14. Going Nationwide
16. Mechanistic drift?
17. Death of mutual tuition in France
19. Short list of books and texts consulted
« Answer, my friends: it must be sweet for you
To have as your only mentors children like yourselves;
Their age, their mood, their pleasures are your own;
And these victors of one day, tomorrow vanquished by others,
Are, in turn, adorned with modest ribbons,
Your equals in your games, your masters on the benches.
Mute, eyes fixed on your happy emulators,
You are not distracted by the fear of ferulas;
Never an avenging whip, frightening your spirits,
Makes you forget what they taught you;
I listen badly to a fool who wants me to fear him,
And I know much better what a friend teaches me. »
Victor Hugo, Discours sur les avantages de l’Enseignement mutuel, 1817.
Teaching reading and writing to 1,000 children in the same room, without a teacher, without school books, without paper and ink, is clearly impossible. And yet, it has been imagined and put into practice with great success!
Shh! we mustn’t talk about it, because it could give some people ideas, and not just in emerging countries!
That such a challenge could be taken up could only worry the oligarchy and its servants, who since the dawn of time have been mandated to train an « elite » (the high priests of knowledge, « experts » and other know-it-alls) who reproduce in a vacuum at the top, while ensuring that the great mass of people below are educated just enough to be able to deliver parcels, pay their taxes, abide by the rules defined by the top, and above all, not make (too) much of a mess.
And yet, as Hippolyte Carnot, Minister of Public Instruction in the Second Republic, understood long before us, without a republican education – in other words, without genuine citizen training from kindergarten onwards – universal suffrage often becomes a tragic farce capable of producing monsters.
In the early 19th century, « mutual tuition », (sometimes referred to as the English Monitorial System, also known as Madras System or Lancasterian System), spread like wildfire across Europe and then the rest of the world including the United States of America.
If the teacher addresses a single pupil, it’s the individual mode (as in the case of the preceptor); if he addresses an entire class, it’s the simultaneous mode; if he instructs some children to teach others, it’s the mutual mode. The combination of simultaneous and mutual modes is called mixed mode.
Mutual tuition quickly fell victim to personal quarrels and ideological, political and religious issues. In France, it was seen as an aggression by religious congregations who practiced « simultaneous teaching », codified as early as 1684 by Jean-Baptiste de La Salle : classes by age, division by level, fixed and individual places, strict discipline, repetitive and simultaneous work supervised by an inflexible master.
With the formation of small groups where pupils teach each other and move around the classroom, mutual teaching immediately gave rise, rather foolishly, to the fear of an ass-over-head world straight out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. What kind of world are we in if the pupil teaches the teacher? the child the parent? the faithful the priest? the citizen the government ! Without a clear leader, aren’t we lost ?
In 1824, Pope Leo XII (not to be confused with the benevolent Leo XIII), the « Pope of the Holy Alliance », a fierce supporter of order and suspect of a vast Protestant plot against the Vatican, forbade such teaching, believing it to « weaken the authority » of both teachers and political and religious authorities.
In France, where in the years following the 1830 revolution over 2,000 mutual schools existed, mainly in towns, in competition with denominational schools, François Guizot, Louis-Philippe’s minister and initially a promoter of broad public education, had them closed down.
2. Learning and teaching at the same time,
a precious joy
Today, « tutoring » is enjoying a revival in the context of school and vocational training. It is a process of « assistance by more experienced subjects to less experienced subjects, likely to enrich the latter’s acquisitions ».
Tutoring between children, in particular between children of different ages, is encouraged from nursery school right through to university, with the institutionalization of methodological tutoring at undergraduate level. Since the 1980s, elementary and secondary schools in France and abroad have seen the development of numerous tutoring experiments.
In reality, tutoring is no more than the pale heir to the mutual tuition system developed in England and then France in the 19th century.
Hence, the future of humanity depends on an exclusively human faculty: the discovery of new universal physical principles, often totally beyond the limits of our sensory apparatus, enabling Man to increase his capacity to transform the universe to qualitatively improve his lot and that of his environment. A discovery is never the result of the sum or average of opinions, but of an individual, perfectly sovereign act. Are we able to organize our society so that this « sacred » creative principle is cherished, respected and cultivated in any newborn child?
Because, without the socialization of this discovery, it will be useless. The history of mankind is therefore, by its very nature, the history of « mutual tuition ».
Is not the greatest pleasure of those who have just made a discovery – and this is natural for children – to share, with a view to a shared future, not only what he or she has just discovered, but the joy and beauty that every scientific breakthrough represents? And when those who discover teach and those that teach, discover, the pleasure is immense. So let’s give our professional teachers the time they need to make discoveries, for the quality of their teaching will be enhanced!
A. In India
In 1623, the Italian explorer Pietro Della Valle (1586-1652), after a trip to « Industan » (India), in a letter dispatched from Ikkeri (a town in south-west India), reports having seen boys teaching each other how to read and write using singing :
« In order to inculcate it perfectly in their memory, to repeat the previous lessons that had been prescribed to them, lest they forget them, one of them would sing in a certain musical tone a line from the lesson, such as two and two make four. After all, it’s easy to learn a song.
« While he sang this part of the lesson to learn it better, he wrote it down at the same time, not with a pen, nor on paper. But to spare him and not spoil it unnecessarily, they marked the characters with their fingers on the same floor where they were sitting in a circle, which they had covered for this purpose with very loose sand. After the first of these children had written in this way while singing, the others sang and wrote the same thing all together
« (…) When I asked them who (…) corrected them when they missed, given that they were all schoolboys, they answered me very reasonably, that it was impossible that a single difficulty should stop them all, four at the same time, without being able to overcome it and that for the subject they always practiced together so that if one missed, the others would be his teachers.«
In Della Valla‘s report, we can already identify some of the basic principles of mutual tuition, notably the simultaneous learning of reading and writing, the use of sand for writing exercises to avoid wasting paper, which is scarce and very expensive, a group lesson given by a teacher, followed by work in sub-groups in which pupils learn to self-regulate, and finally, an integration of knowledge which, thanks to the use of song, will facilitate memorization.
B. In France
In Lyon, the priest Charles Démia, was one of the precursors of mutual tuition, which he put into practice in the « petites écoles » for poor children he founded and theorized as early as 1688. According to the Nouveau dictionnaire de pédagogie et de l’instruction primaire:
« Démia introduced what later came to be known as mutual tuition into the classroom: he recommended that a certain number of officers be chosen from among the most capable and studious pupils, some of whom, under the name of intendants and decurions, would be responsible for supervision, while the others would have to have the master’s lessons repeated, correct pupils when they made mistakes, guide the hesitant hand of ‘young writers’, etc. » In order to make simultaneous teaching possible, Démia’s idea of ‘mutual teaching’ was based on the principle of ‘teaching to one another’. To make simultaneous teaching possible, the author of the regulations divides the school into eight classes, to be taught in turn by the master; each of these classes can be subdivided into bands ».
In Paris, as early as 1747, mutual education was practiced with great success in a school of over 300 pupils, established by M. Herbault, at the Hospice de la Pitié, in favor of the children of the poor. Unfortunately, the experiment did not survive its founder.
In 1772, the ingenious charity of Chevalier Paulet conceived and carried out the project of applying a similar method to the education of a large number of children, left without support in society by the death of their parents.
4. Gaspard Monge’s « brigades »
Finally, as recounted in his biography of Gaspard Monge by his most brilliant pupil, the astronomer François Arago (1786-1853), himself a close friend of Alexander von Humboldt, it was at the École Polytechnique that Monge perfected his own system of mutual tuition and tutoring.
Finding it unacceptable to have to wait three years for the first engineers to graduate from the Ecole Polytechnique, Monge decided to speed up student training by organizing « revolutionary courses », an accelerated training program lasting three months for those in charge of teaching to the others. To achieve this, he perfected the concept of « chefs de brigades », a technique he had already successfully tested at the Mézières engineering school.
« The brigade leaders, always working with small groups of students in separate rooms, were to have the extremely important task of ironing out difficulties as they arose. Never had a more skilful combination been devised to remove any excuse for mediocrity or laziness.
« This creation belonged to Monge. At Mézières, where the engineering students were divided into two groups of ten, and where, in fact, our colleague acted for some time as permanent brigade leader for both divisions, the presence in the classrooms of a person who was always in a position to overcome objections had produced results that were too fortunate for this former repetiteur, in drafting the developments attached to Fourcroy’s report, not to try to endow the new school with the same advantages.
« Monge did more; he wanted the 23 sections of 16 students each, of which the three divisions were to be composed, to have their brigade leader, as in ordinary times, following the revolutionary lessons, and at the opening of the courses of the three degrees. In a word, he wanted the School, at its beginning, to function as if it had already been in existence for three years.
« Here’s how our colleague achieved this seemingly unattainable goal. It was decided that 25 students, chosen by competitive examination from among the 50 candidates who had received the best marks from the admission examiners, would become brigade leaders of three divisions of the school, after receiving special instruction separately. In the mornings, the 50 young people, like all their classmates, attended revolutionary classes; in the evenings, they were brought together at the Hôtel Pommeuse, near the Palais-Bourbon, and various teachers prepared them for the functions they were destined to perform. Monge presided over this scientific initiation with infinite kindness, ardor and zeal. The memory of his lessons remains indelible in the minds of all those who benefited from them.
Arago then quotes Edme Augustin Sylvain Brissot (1786-1819), son of the famous abolitionist, , one of the 50 students, who reported : « It was there that we began to get to know Monge, this man so kind to youth, so devoted to the propagation of science. Almost always in our midst, he followed lessons in geometry, analysis and physics with private discussions where we found even more to gain. He became a friend to each and every one of the students at the Ecole provisoire, joining in the efforts he was constantly provoking, and applauding, with all the vivacity of his character, the successes of our young minds ».
While mutual teaching is fully practiced, the total dedication of a master as devoted as Monge completes what otherwise becomes nothing more than a « system ».
5. Andrew Bell
It was a Scotsman, the Anglican clergyman Andrew Bell (1753-1832), who claimed the paternity of mutual tuition, which he theorized and practiced in India, at the head of the Egmore Military Asylum for Orphans (Eastern India), an institution created in 1789 to educate and instruct the orphans and destitute sons of the European officers and soldiers of the Madras army.
After 7 years there, Bell returned to London and, in 1797, wrote a report to the East India Company (his employer in Madras) on the incredible benefits of his invention.
Russian physician, naturalist and inventor Iosif Khristianovich (Joseph) Hamel (1788-1862), a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, was commissioned by Alexander I, Emperor of Russia, to write a full report on this new type of education, which was then being discussed throughout Europe.
In Der Gegenseitige Unterricht (1818), he reports what Bell wrote in one of his writings: « It happened at this time, that one morning as I was taking my usual walk, I passed a school of young Malabar children, and saw them busy writing on the ground. The idea immediately occurred to me that perhaps the children at my school could be taught the letters of the alphabet by tracing on the sand. I immediately went home and ordered the teacher of the last class to carry out what I had just arranged. Fortunately, the order was very poorly received; for if the master had complied to my satisfaction, it is possible that all further development would have been stopped, and with it the very principle of mutual education… »
Mutual education was coldly received in England, but eventually won over Samuel Nichols, one of the school leaders at St. Botolph’s Aldgate, London’s oldest Anglican Protestant parish. Bell’s precepts were implemented with great success, and his method was taken up by Dr. Briggs when he opened an industrial school in Liverpool.
6. Joseph Lancaster
In England, it was Joseph Lancaster (1778-1838), a twenty-year-old London schoolteacher, who seized upon the new way of teaching, perfected it and generalized it on a large scale. (See text of his 1810 booklet)
In 1798, he opened an elementary school for poor children in Borough Road, one of London’s poorest suburbs. Education was not yet totally free, but it was 40% cheaper than other schools in the capital. Lacking money, Lancaster did everything in his power to drive down the costs of what was becoming a veritable « system »: use of sand and slate instead of ink and paper (Erasmus of Rotterdam reported in 1528 that in his day, people wrote with a kind of awl on tables covered in fine dust); boards reproducing the pages of school books hung on the walls to avoid having to buy books; auxiliary teachers replaced by pupils to avoid paying salaries; increase in the number of pupils per class.
By 1804, his school had 700 pupils, and twelve months later, a thousand. Lancaster, getting deeper and deeper into debt, opened a school for 200 girls. To escape his creditors, Lancaster left London in 1806, and on his return was jailed for debt. Two of his friends, dentist Joseph Foxe and straw hat maker William Corston, repaid his debt and founded with him « The Society for the Promotion of the Lancasterian System for the Education of the Poor ».
Other Quakers stepped in with support, notably abolitionist William Wilberforce (1759-1833), whom the french sculptor David d’Angers depicted alongside Condorcet and Abbé Grégoire on his famous monument commemorating Gutenberg in Strasbourg.
From there, as Joseph Hamel recounts in his 1818 report, the new approach spread to the four corners of the world: England, Scotland, France, Prussia, Russia, Italy, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, Poland and Switzerland, not forgetting Senegal and several South American nations such as Brazil and Argentina and of course, the United States of America. Mutual Tuition was adopted as the official pedagogy in New York City (1805), Albany (1810), Georgetown (1811), Washington D.C. (1812), Philadelphia (1817), Boston (1824) and Baltimore (1829), and the Pennsylvania legislature considered statewide adoption.
7. Mutual tuition, how does that works ?
The fundamental principle of « mutual tuition », particularly relevant to elementary school, is reciprocity of instruction between pupils, with the more able serving as teacher to the less able. From the outset, everyone progresses gradually, regardless of the number of pupils.
Bell and Lancaster, and their French disciples, postulated: the diversity of faculties, the inequality of progress, the rhythms of comprehension and acquisition. This led them to divide the school into different classes according to subjects and children’s level of knowledge, with age playing no part in this classification. Schoolchildren thus brought together take part in the same exercises. Their study program is identical in content and methods.
If the number of pupils in a division is too high in a particular subject – reading or arithmetic, for example – sub-groups are formed, which progress in parallel, while the teaching methods and materials remain identical.
So what does a school under the new system look like?
A. The classroom
Whatever the number of pupils – around a 100 in French villages, close to a 1000 in the Lancaster school in London, 200 in Parisian schools – they are grouped together in one single rectangular room with no partitions.
Jomard, who was extraordinarily active and prolific in the early years of the mutual education system, set desirable standards for class sizes ranging from 70 to 1,000 pupils.
For 350 pupils, for example, he indicated the need for a room 18 m long by 9 m wide (graphic).
In England and the French countryside, a barn was often used for the new school. In France, a large number of religious buildings have been disused since the revolutionary period, and meet the required standards perfectly. Many mutual schools were built in these buildings.
B. « Masters » and « monitors »
The mutual method divided responsibility for teaching between the « master » and students designated as « monitors », considered « the linchpin of the method ».
As Bally reminded us as early as 1819: « The basis of mutual teaching rests on the instruction communicated by the strongest pupils to those who are weaker. This principle, which is the merit of this method, required a very special organization to create a reasonable hierarchy, which could contribute in the most effective way to the success of all. »
Each day, in a dedicated « classroom » reserved for instructors, the master imparts knowledge and provides his assistants with technical advice on the proper application of the method. During the course of the day, he remains in charge of the 8th class, and as such is responsible for conducting their exercises. He conducts periodic, monthly or occasional examinations in the classes, and may decide to change classes. Finally, it is he who, at the final stage, distributes punishments and rewards.
C. A day at a mutual school
Thus, on a platform, the teacher’s desk with a large drawer where money, reward tickets, registers, writing templates, whistles and children’s notebooks are kept.
Behind the teacher, next to the clock – an essential instrument for organizing teaching life – is a blackboard on which are written sentences and writing models.
At the foot of the platform, benches are attached across the desks, of different sizes, in the middle of the room. The first tables, which are not inclined, have sand on which small children trace signs, while the other tables have slates; on the last of these there are lead inkwells and paper, and chopsticks to indicate words or letters to be read.
At the end of each table are « dictation tables » and telegraphic signals indicating the lesson’s moments, such as « COR » for « correction » or « EX » for « examination of work ». Semicircular table models were then proposed to facilitate the work of the instructors.
D. Progress according to each person’s knowledge
Initially, the mutual school program was limited to the 3 fundamental disciplines of reading, writing and arithmetic, and to the teaching of religion. Geography, grammar, writing, singing and linear drawing were soon added. The instrumental disciplines (music) are taught together, rather than in succession, as is customary in other schools. Pupil groupings are flexible, mobile and differentiated, depending on the nature of the subjects studied and the activities practised in the discipline.
Each subject matter taught in mutual schools is based on a precise, codified curriculum. This program is divided into 8 hierarchical levels, which must be covered in succession. Each degree is called a « class », and this is how we speak of the 8 classes of writing or arithmetic.
The term « class » refers only to acquisitions and knowledge, the 1st class being that of beginners and the 8th that of the completion of the school curriculum. The pace of learning and acquisition varies from student to student and from subject to subject.
Thus, after six months’ attendance, pupil « X » may find himself in 4th class reading, 5th class writing and 2nd class arithmetic. As we said, class assignment is decided on the basis of knowledge level, not age.
But this initial allocation is accompanied, within each class and in each subject, by the constitution of restricted groups established according to the activities to be practiced. In arithmetic, for example, written work is done on the slate. This takes place seated on benches reserved for this purpose, with a maximum of 16 to 18 students per bench, according to the standards established by Jomard.
Oral exercises, in reading or arithmetic, or with the aid of a blackboard, arithmetic or linear drawing, are done standing up, in groups of no more than 9, with pupils standing side by side, forming a semi-circle. Hence the name given to this kind of activity: « circle work ».
So, in a mutual school with 36 students in 3rd arithmetic class, bench work will be done in two groups with two monitors, and blackboard exercises with 4 groups and 4 monitors. Class sizes can therefore vary from school to school and throughout the year, the only limitation being the size of the premises.
Low costs are one of the preoccupations of the new teaching method. Furniture was therefore very basic.
- Benches and desks are made of ordinary planks, fastened with heavy nails. The benches have no backrests: a superfluous luxury!
- The platform is clearly elevated: about 0.65 m. Several steps lead up to the teacher’s desk. The master reigns over the children’s community as much by his material position as by his personal ascendancy.
- The clock is noted as « indispensable », as teaching and maneuvers are strictly timed.
- Half-circles, also known as reading circles, give mutual schools a typical and original appearance. These are usually semi-circular iron hangers that can be raised or lowered at will. Sometimes, the materialization is simply applied to the floor: grooves, large nails or arched strips.
- Blackboards were systematically used for linear drawing and arithmetic. They are 1 m long and 0.70 m wide, with a movable meter at the top. They are placed inside each semicircle.
- Telegraphs. When work takes place at the tables, such as writing, signals are used to link and communicate between the general monitor and the individual monitors: these are the telegraphs. A planchette, attached to the upper end of a round stick 1.70 m high, is installed at the first table of each class, thanks to two holes drilled at the top and bottom of the desk. On one side is the class number (1 to 8); on the other, EX (examen), replaced around 1830 by COR (correction). These telegraphs are portable. They could be moved if the number of students increased or decreased. In this way, the master and the general monitor have the exact composition of each class and the number of tables occupied by each. As soon as an exercise is completed, the class monitor turns the telegraph and presents the EX side to the desk. All monitors do the same. The general monitor gives the order to proceed with inspection and any corrections. Once these have been completed, the class number is presented again. And the exercises resume. Next to the telegraphs are the occasional board stands.
- Monitor rods. These are used to indicate on tables the letters or words to be read, the details of operations to be carried out, and the lines to be reproduced. In rural schools, these are generally only available thanks to the good will and ingenuity of the teachers, who obtain them from nearby woods.
- Sand (for writing) and then slates are constantly used in all subjects. This was an essential innovation in the mutual mode, as other schools did not use them.
- Boards instead of books. The first reason is financial, as a single board is sufficient for up to nine pupils. But the pedagogical reasons are no less important. The format makes them easy to read and store. The concern for presentation and highlighting certain characters is accompanied by a different layout from that of the textbooks.
- Books are reserved for the eighth grade, as are nibs, ink and paper.
- Registers, currently in use, ensure sound management of the schools. One in particular deserves special mention: « Le grand livre de l’école » (the school’s ledger), which is first and foremost a registration book. It records the child’s surname, first name and age, as well as the parents’ occupation and address. The teacher enters the precise date of entry and exit of each child, in each class, including music and linear drawing.
To ensure that dozens or hundreds of pupils are led and developed correctly, and to avoid wasting time, those in charge of mutual education have planned precise, rapid, immediately comprehensible orders:
- The voice is rarely used. Injunctions transmitted in this way are generally addressed to the instructors, sometimes to a specific class;
- The bell attracts attention. It precedes information or a movement to be executed;
- The whistle has a dual function. It is used to intervene in the general order of the school, « to impose silence », for example, and to signal the start or end of certain exercises during the lesson, « to have the pupils say by heart, to spell, to stop reading ». Only the teacher is authorized to use them.
- As for hand signals, they have been used extensively. Intended to evoke the act or movement to be accomplished, they attract the eye and should bring calm to the community.
« Bellists » versus « Lancasterians »
While the two schools, Bell’s and Lancaster’s, were very close to each other in terms of content, methods and organization, they clashed violently over the role and place of religious education. All other program-related differences are a matter of taste, habit or local circumstance.
As Sylvian Tinembert and Edward Pahud point out in « Une innovation pédagogique, le cas de l’enseignement mutuel au XIXe siècle » (Editions Livreo-Alphil, 2019), Lancaster, as a follower of the dissident Quaker movement,
« recognized Christianity but professed that belief belonged to the professional sphere and that each person was free in his or her convictions. He also advocates egalitarianism, tolerance and the idea that, in this country, there is such a variety of religions and sects that it is impossible to teach all doctrines. Consequently, it is necessary to remain neutral, to limit teaching to the reading of the Bible, avoiding any interpretation, and to leave fundamental religious instruction to the various churches, ensuring that pupils follow the services and teachings of the denomination to which they belong ».
Nevertheless, Bellists and Lancasterians had their differences. For the Lancasterians, Bell had invented nothing and was merely describing what he had seen in India. For the Bellists, furious that Lancaster found a positive response from certain members of the Royal family, Lancaster was portrayed as the devil, an « enemy » of the official Anglican religion, who admitted children of all origins and denominations to his schools !
9. France adopting mutuel tuition
In London, the Lancaster association was joined by a number of high-ranking personalities, both English and foreign. These included Geneva physicist Marc Auguste Pictet de Rochemont (1752-1825), French paleontologist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) and his compatriots, agronomist Charles Philibert de Lasteyrie (1759-1849) and Lancaster’s future translator into French, archaeologist Alexandre de Laborde (1773-1842).
After the peace of 1814, many countries – notably England, Prussia, France and Russia – bled dry by the Napoleonic wars, which had resulted in the loss of thousands of young teachers and qualified executives on the battlefields, made education their top priority, not least to keep up with the industrial revolution that was coming to shake them to their foundations.
Added to this is the fact that the number of orphans in Europe has become a major problem for all states, especially as the coffers are empty. To keep street children occupied, schools were needed, many of them to be built with very little money and many teachers… nonexistent. Learning of the resounding success of mutual education, several Frenchmen travelled to England to discover the new method.
Laborde brought back his « Plan d’éducation pour les enfants pauvres, d’après les deux méthodes (du docteur Bell et de M. Lancaster) », and Lasteyrie his « Nouveau système d’éducation pour les écoles primaires ». In 1815, the Duc de la Rochefoucauld-Liancourt (1747-1827) published his book on Joseph Lancaster’s « Système anglais d’instruction ».
Since 1802, Paris had been home to the « Société d’encouragement pour l’industrie nationale », whose Secretary General was linguist Joseph-Marie de Gérando (1772-1842), and of whom Laborde was a founder together with Jean-Antoine Chaptal (1752-1832). Unsurprisingly, Gérando had been raised by the Oratorians and was initially destined for the Church.
On March 1, 1815, Lasteyrie, Laborde and Gérando proposed to the Société d’Encouragement the creation of a new association whose purpose would be « to gather and spread enlightenment likely to provide the lower classes of the people with the kind of intellectual and moral education most suited to their needs ».
In his report presented to the Société d’Encouragement on March 20, 1815, Gérando proposed that the newly-appointed Minister of the Interior, Lazare Carnot (During les Cents-Jour, i.e. between March 20-June 22, 1815), be asked to promote « the adoption of procedures likely to regenerate primary education in France », i.e. the system of mutual tuition.
Political and social interests were not the only ones at stake. The French economy, too, was much to benefit from the development of education. « What can we expect, » said Carnot in 1815, « if the man who drives the plough is as stupid as the horses that pull it?«
Gérando also proposed the creation of an association dedicated specifically to its propagation, underlining the advantages of the new approach: economic advantage first, since it involves « employing the children themselves, in relation to each other, as teaching aids », and that a single teacher is sufficient for 1,000 pupils; educational advantage second, since it is possible « to teach, in two years, everything that children of inferior conditions need to know, and much more than they learn today by much longer processes »; a moral and social advantage, insofar as children « are imbued from an early age with a sense of duty, a feeling that will one day guarantee their obedience to the law and their respect for the social order ».
The engineer-geographer and polytechnician Edeme-François Jomard (1777-1862), for whom the education of the people is an obligation of society towards itself, said nothing else: « How can we demand that unfortunate people, devoid of all enlightenment, know the social pact and submit to it? Or how can we, without being foolish, count on their invariable and blind submission?«
The Société d’Encouragement then validated the conclusions of its report by subscribing the sum of 500 francs in favor of the new association, and by deciding that, in addition to its moral influence, it would place at the latter’s disposal the various means of execution that might belong to it.
10. Lazare Carnot at the helm
Following the Concordat between Napoleon and the Vatican, the Emperor issued a decree on education on August 15, 1808, requiring schools to follow the « principles of the Catholic Church ».
The Frères des Ecoles Chrétiennes (Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools), unconditional advocates of the « simultaneous education » theorized by their founder Jean-Baptiste de La Salle (1651-1719), were to take charge of all primary education and train teachers.
Disbanded during the Revolution, the Brothers resumed their functions in 1810. Encouraged to develop to counter the influence of the Jesuits, authorized in 1816 to return to France, they rapidly expanded throughout France.
But the educational situation was pitiful. This is what senior French officials constantly say when they visit the territories annexed by the Empire, notably North Germany and Holland. The comparison with France makes them blush with shame.
In 1810, the naturalist Georges Cuvier wrote in his report:
« We would be hard pressed to convey the effect produced on us by the first elementary school we entered in Holland. Children, teachers, premises, methods, teaching, everything is in perfect order (…) Several prefects have assured us that we would not find a single young boy in their department today who did not know how to read and write. »
Faced with such a contrast, which was not to the conqueror’s advantage, the Imperial University, like ancient Rome, set out to teach the conquered country. In his decree of November 15, 1811, the Emperor decided:
« The council of our Imperial University will present us with a report on the part of the system established in Holland for primary instruction that would be applicable to the other departments of our Empire. »
The Emperor abdicated on April 4, 1814, before any decision had been taken to regenerate the French « petites écoles ». At least the Imperial University’s reports had exposed their misery and drawn public attention to them.
Appointed Minister of the Interior, and therefore in charge of Education during the Cents-Jours, Lazare Carnot, a co-founder of the Ecole Polytechnique, was completely convinced of the potential excellence of « mutual education ».
On April 10, 1815, he set up a Council for Industry and Charity, at whose first meeting he himself presented Gérando‘s report;
On April 27, 1815, he submitted a report to the Emperor in which he stated:
« There are 2 million children in France clamoring for primary education, and of these 2 million, some receive a very imperfect education, while others are completely deprived« .
He then recommended mutual education, whose « purpose is to give primary education the greatest degree of simplicity, rapidity and economy, while also giving it the degree of perfection suitable for the lower classes of society, and also by bringing into it everything that can give rise to and maintain in the hearts of children a sense of duty, justice, honor and respect for the established order ».
Minutes later, Lazare Carnot had the French Emperor sign the following decree:
« Article 1. – Our Minister of the Interior will call upon those persons who deserve to be consulted on the best methods of primary education. He will examine these methods, and decide on and direct the testing of those he deems to be preferable.
« Art. 2 – A primary education test school will be opened in Paris, organized in such a way as to be able to serve as a model and to become a normal school for training primary school teachers.
« Art. 3 – Once satisfactory results have been obtained from the trial school, our Minister of the Interior will propose the appropriate measures to ensure that all departments can rapidly benefit from the new methods that will have been adopted.«
For Carnot, contrary to those in the business of Philanthropy, there were not any longer poor or rich children. All citizens of the Republic required and had to be offered the best education available on Earth.
The advisory board set up by Carnot included his friends Laborde, Jomard, Abbé Gaultier, then Lasteyrie and Gérando, i.e. the very promoters or first founders of the Société en formation.
Thus, on June 17, 1815 (the eve of the defeat at Waterloo), the Société pour l’instruction élémentaire (SIE) was born, still under the impetus of Carnot, determined to win the war for education. The SIE’s first general meeting was held on the premises of the Société d’Encouragement. At its head were several protagonists of the ministerial commission: Jomard became one of the secretaries of the new society, alongside Gérando (president), Lasteyrie (vice-president) and Laborde (general secretary).
Before the ordinance of 1816, the number of children attending « petites écoles » was 165,000 throughout France, and by the end of 1820 it had risen to 1,123,000. Almost a factor of 10!
Lazare Carnot clearly wanted to perpetuate the offensive he had launched during the Hundred Days to propagate mutual education throughout the country and, in so doing, to rapidly develop the education of all the children of the Patrie.
After its creation, subscriptions for the SIE poured in, and before long 150 names were added to those of the founders to promote and organize mutual education in France. One of these subscribers was Lazare Carnot.
In its first year of existence, the SIE attracted almost 700 members, initially teachers from the École Polytechnique (Ampère, Berthollet, Chaptal, Guyton de Morveau, Hachette, Mérimée, Thénard), and then some 30 alumni, around half of them from the first graduating class (1794) of the École Polytechnique. Among the latter were a fellow student of Jomard‘s at the geographers’ school, Louis-Benjamin Francœur, professor of higher algebra at the Paris Faculty of Science, comrades from the Egyptian campaign, and Chabrol de Volvic, prefect of the Seine since 1812.
All had but one hope: that Monge’s genial methods of brigades and mutual tuition, which had been diminished and banned once Napoleon turned Polytechnique into a mere military school under the direction of mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827), could benefit the greatest number and organize a national recovery.
Based in Paris, the SIE extended its operations to the provinces, where it encouraged the founding of subsidiary companies, to which it offered « to send them teachers, to provide them with any information they might need, to give them paintings and books at cost price… ».
The SIE was also interested in education girls (art. 10). It set up a committee of ladies to look after them: president, Baroness de Gérando; vice-president, Countess de Laborde.
Beyond women, the movement spread to uneducated adults, so numerous at the time. On May 1, 1816, the Society set up a commission for the establishment of adult schools. It was also concerned with barracks, which were to be turned into military schools; prisons, especially children’s prisons; and the colored inhabitants of the colonies, who were to be regenerated by the development of education.
Finally, the members of the Society, attributing a human and general value to their mission, dreamed of founding branches abroad. In November 1818, Laborde called for the creation of a special committee to do so.
rLast but not least, the Society did not limit its activities to simply creating schools, but also organized inspections and examinations. It published works (on the mutual tuition method, elementary books on reading, grammar and arithmetic). It distributed awards to the best teachers and instructors.
Following the promulgation of the ordinance of July 29, 1818 authorizing Caisse d’Epargne societies (Saving Banks associations), it asked teachers to entrust part of their salaries to these funds to ensure their retirement; setting an example, it deposited funds with the Caisse for the teachers of the schools it had set up.
Today, the SIE, whose head office is a specially-built building at 6, rue du Fouarre in the 5th arrondissement of Paris, remains the oldest and largest secular primary education association in France.
11. The rue Saint-Jean-de-Beauvais pilot program
As said before, after his trip to England, Jomard, whose portrait appears in a medaillon on the façade of the SIE, also embraced the new system.
In his « reflections on the state of English industry », he wrote, after expressing his enthusiasm for various inventions observed across the Channel: « There is, however, something even more extraordinary: these are schools without teachers: nothing, however, is more real. We now know that there are thousands of children taught without a teacher, and at no cost to their families or the State: an admirable method that will soon spread to France.«
A graduate of the Ecole Polytechnique, and an exceptionnal scientist who went with Monge to Egypt, Jomard was the ideal man to oversee the material organization of the test school, in particular by arranging for furniture to be made and teaching aids to be printed in accordance with English principles. Jomard also supervised the training of a small nucleus of students – around 20 – as « monitors » before the opening of the school proper in September 1815, planned for 350 students: a modality reminiscent of the « chefs de brigade » of the first graduating class of the École polytechnique.
However, the members of the SIE soon realized that they needed to train trainers. The English therefore welcomed several Frenchmen to train them in mutual teaching. A pastor from the Cévennes, François Martin (1793-1837), after training as a « monitor » in England, was called in by Lasteyrie to run the first mutual school, which opened its doors on June 13, 1815, on rue Saint-Jean-de-Beauvais in Paris, close to Place Maubert. This was the model school that would enable other mutual schools to be opened, thanks to the training of competent « monitors ». The school was soon unable to keep up with demand from hundreds of communes, which were considering sending one of their own to be trained in the new method.
Pastor Paul-Emile Frossard, also trained by the English, took charge of a Parisian school on rue Popincourt, while Bellot ran another. In July, Martin submitted his report. The model class takes in some 15 students destined to become monitors and principals of elementary schools with up to 350 children. Martin reports that in six weeks, they read, write, calculate and « know how to execute the movements that form the gymnastic part of the new education system ».
12. Mutual tuition and music
As Christine Bierre amply documents in her article « La musique et formation du citoyen à l’ère de la Révolution française » (1990):
« It was at this school on rue Saint-Jean-de-Beauvais, under the direction of a Commission comprising Gérando, Jomard, Lasteyrie, Laborde and Abbé Gaultier, that the application of mutual teaching to the learning of solfeggio and singing was tested for the first time. Alexandre Choron (1771-1834), who since 1814 had opened two music schools for boys and girls, was also a member of the Commission. Not surprisingly, it was on the initiative of Baron de Gérando that the idea of introducing singing into primary education was adopted. When Monsieur le baron de Gérando proposed the introduction of elementary singing in primary schools’, says Jomard in a report presented to the Board of Directors of the Société pour l’Enseignement mutuel, ‘you were all struck by the correctness of the views developed by our colleague (…) It showed the happy influence that such a practice could have, and the real connection that exists between the proper use of song and the perfecting of morals, the ultimate goal of instruction and of all our efforts. Not only was the application of mutual instruction to music revolutionary in itself, but what was equally revolutionary was the fact that children were learning to read and write, almost as intensively. Children studied singing, for four to five hours a week! »
In fact, it was Lazare Carnot himself who wanted to introduce music into the mutual education schools. To this end, he met several times with musician Alexandre Choron (1771-1834), who brought together a number of children and had them perform in his presence several pieces learned in very few lessons. Carnot also was acquinted with Guillaume-Louis Bocquillon, known as Wilhem (1781-1842) for ten years. He saw the possibility of using him to introduce singing into schools, and together they visited the one on rue Saint-Jean-de-Beauvais, a free pilot school for mutual education in Paris open to three hundred children.
Michael Werner‘s recent article, « Musique et pacification sociale, missions fondatrices de l’éducation musicale (1795-1860) », echoes and confirms the groundbreaking research initiated by Christine Bierre in 1990.
« One of the fields in which the results of mutualist pedagogy are clearly visible is musical education. Several players played a decisive role here, and deserve a brief mention.
The first is Guillaume-Louis Bocquillon, known as Wilhem (1781-1842). The son of an officer and himself from a military background, he then devoted himself to musical composition and teaching, particularly at the Lycée Napoléon (later Collège Henri-IV). His friend Pierre Jean de Béranger put him in touch with Joseph-Marie de Gérando and François Jomard, the leading lights of the SIE. Through them, he learned about mutual teaching and immediately understood the benefits of this method for musical education. In 1818, the Paris municipality allowed him to set up a first experiment at the elementary school on rue Saint-Jean-de-Beauvais. Wilhem developed a method, the necessary teaching materials (in the form of charts) and instructed the chosen student monitors. The results were, according to Jomard, spectacular. At the end of a few months’ instruction, the pupils had not only acquired the basic notions of solfeggio and musical notation, chromatic scales, intervals and measures, but were also performing collective songs in several voices (Jomard 1842: 228 ff)
This success led the SIE to propose to the Prefect and Minister of the Interior that music be introduced into the teaching of elementary schools in the city of Paris, a move officially endorsed in 1820. Wilhem himself was appointed full professor of music teaching in Paris, and music classes were introduced in many of the city’s schools, before spreading to the départements and regions. At the same time, the municipality opened two teacher-training colleges to train future singing teachers.
The second early player in the debate was the composer Alexandre Choron (1771-1834). A member, like Jomard and Francœur, of the first graduating class of the École polytechnique (1795), composer and friend of André Grétry, he had been concerned since 1805 about the decline of choral singing following the abolition of the master classes. An opponent of the Conservatoire, whose academicism and lack of interest in the teaching of choral singing he criticized, in 1812 he was entrusted by the Ministry with a mission to « reorganize the choir and the choirmasters of the churches of France ». He developed a teaching method known as the « concertante method », but also remained committed to the social vocation of choral music. Choron was also one of the founding members of the SIE in 1815, a sign of his commitment to educational issues. During the Restoration, he turned more to religious songs, which he considered to be the historical heart of choral practice. (…) Finally, with the king’s support, he founded the Institution royale de musique classique et religieuse, successfully competing with the Conservatoire in the teaching of vocal art.
For the general public, he arranged for oratorios, requiems and cantatas to be performed by singers from his school in a number of spacious churches, thus ensuring a new presence for sacred music on the Parisian stage. For some of these concerts, he sometimes mobilized student singers from elementary and poor schools, whom he never ceased to follow throughout his career. »
« (…) What fostered this expansion of music education for young people and the working classes from 1820 onwards was a political will shared by a broad spectrum of leaders and stakeholders. The liberals who formed the core of the SIE continued to adhere to the emancipatory mission of education set out by the Convention. By focusing on both the inner formation of the soul and the blossoming of a collective conscience, music – and singing in particular – became a prime field for popular education. Liberals therefore emphasized the moral benefits of music. Thus, in his proposal to introduce singing into elementary school, Gérando remarks:
‘Those of us who have visited Germany have been surprised to see how much simple music plays a part in popular entertainment and family pleasures, even in the poorest conditions, and have observed how salutary its influence is on morals. And Joseph d’Ortigue states lapidary: ‘A people that sings is a happy people, and therefore a moral people. This emphasis on the social benefits of musical activity fits in well with the idea of ‘universal education’, inherited from the Enlightenment and the foundation of the pedagogies of Lancaster in England or Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi in Switzerland.' »
After a trial run at the St-Jean-de-Beauvais school in 1819, singing quickly spread to all the mutual schools. Wilhem was both the creator and the architect of the development of this teaching method, which soon spread to adult and apprentice classes. Periodic meetings of children initiated into vocal music were organized. Thus was born the first French post-school organization: the Orphéon, which, after Wilhem, counted Charles Gounod and Jules Pasdeloup among its directors.
In an 1842 speech to the SIE, Hippolyte Carnot asserted that Wilhem had « elevated music to the rank of a civic institution », and that the « ennoblement » of the individual soul was to be achieved in the new collective order of the reunited nation.
13. Jomard, Choron, Francoeur and « elementary » knowledge
Renaud d’Enfert‘s comprehensive article, published on the website of the Société de la bibliothèque et de l’histoire de l’Ecole polytechique (SABIX), completes the picture with a close-up on the work of Jomard and Francoeur, whose portraits are featured in a medallion on the façade of the SIE headquarters on rue du Fouarre in Paris.
Right from the start of the Second Restoration, the SEI received the backing and support of the Prefect of the Seine, Gaspard de Chabrol de Volvic (1773-1843). In the summer of 1815, the latter appointed Jomard, a linguist in contact with the Humboldt brothers who had been part of the short-lived commission under Carnot and who had protected him during the Hundred Days, « head of the office of public instruction and arts », a position he held until 1823.
In a decree dated November 3, 1815, Volvic, in order to take « the necessary measures to extend the benefits of instruction to all poor families domiciled within the prefecture » and to develop « the new system of elementary instruction » throughout the Seine department, created an eleven-person committee « to extend the benefits of free education to the Seine department », and included all the influential members of the SIE (Jomard, Gérando, Laborde, Doudeauville, Lasteyrie, Gaultier, etc.). ).
In this role, Jomard was responsible for finding sites for new schools. These rapidly multiplied in and around the capital: in 1818, he counted 18 free and 32 fee-paying mutual schools covering all of the capital’s arrondissements, as well as 13 schools in the arrondissements of Sceaux and Saint-Denis. From this work, he drew up his « Abrégé des écoles élémentaires » (1816), a sort of practical guide in which he compiled everything a cityen decided to set up a mutual school needed to know about material organization.
On the pedagogical front, Jomard was the author, in 1816, of a reading method produced in collaboration with the composer and musician Alexandre Choron, who had published a method for learning to read and write as early as 1802, and Abbé Gaultier, a pedagogue who had developed a teaching method under the name of « jeux instructifs » and had traveled to London to study English methods.
Designed for the new elementary school on rue Saint-Jean-de-Beauvais, where Choron was appointed music teacher, it breaks with the traditional spelling method.
Instead of saying « b-o-n = bon », she uses the musical sounds of the language to say « b-on = bon ». In 1821-1822, Jomard also published « Arithmétique élémentaire » (Elementary Arithmetic), designed to remedy the weaknesses of Lancaster’s arithmetic method, which he accused of « making children contract a simple, routine and mechanical habit » instead of serving « to fortify their attention and train them in reasoning ». In the meantime, he and Francœur and Lasteyrie had set up a « calligraphy commission » at the SIE, to develop the principles that would guide the teaching of writing in mutual schools, a writing style intended to be « national », to replace the English models.
For his part, Louis-Benjamin Francoeur (1773-1849) provides, according to Jomard, « a long series of luminous reports on treatises on arithmetic, weights and measures, singing and musical art, drawing and geometry, which it would take far too long to relate or quote ». Filling a gap, in 1819 Francœur published « Le dessin linéaire » (Linear Drawing), a drawing method based on freehand drawing of geometric figures, which broke with traditional, academically inspired ways of teaching and learning drawing.
For Jomard and Francoeur, the idea behind « mutuel tuition » was to broaden the range of subjects taught in primary schools beyond the traditional « reading, writing and arithmetic »: in addition to drawing, also singing, gymnastics, geography and grammar now made their appearance in elementary school.
Linear drawing was nonetheless seen as an elementary skill in its own right, on a par with reading, writing and arithmetic.
Presenting Francœur‘s method to the Société d’Encouragement, Jomard declared:
« The usefulness that industry may one day derive from it is so great and so visible, that it would be superfluous to insist on it. It is not without reason that this result has been considered as precious for the people, as the knowledge of reading and writing ».
Finally, for Jomard, the widespread teaching of reading, writing, arithmetic, linear drawing and singing is the prerequisite for the scientific education of the people:
« In recent times, we have rightly insisted on the usefulness of teaching the elements of the physical and mathematical sciences to the working class. On this depends the advancement of industry and agriculture, which, despite all their progress, are still backward in many respects. It is only through the possession of these elementary notions that workers will perfect their processes, their means, their instruments and their products, and will be able to become skilful foremen and good workshop managers. But how can this be achieved when the mass of the population is still so ignorant?
How, without the art of reading and writing, could they not understand a single word of the chemical and mechanical arts, but only feel their advantage and consent to engage in arduous studies? What’s this! Fifteen million Frenchmen and more perhaps, do not know how to do the first two rules of arithmetic, and we would flatter ourselves to propagate among them the first principles of mechanics and geometry! The basis of this improvement is obviously primary education made more general or even universal ».
The results of mutual education are spectacular and rapid, both in terms of learning time and the quality of skills acquired. Whereas in the Lasalle Brothers’ schools it took 4 years to learn to read, this time was reduced to a year and a half in the mutuel establishments!
The enthusiastic French of 1815, with their vivid imagination, saw in this teaching system a veritable panacea. It had undeniable advantages. First of all, it was economical, requiring few teachers and enabling a considerable number of children to be taught at low cost. It is estimated that 4,000 to 5,000 fr. a year were sufficient to maintain a school of 1,000 children: 4 fr. per pupil! Education would never have been so cheap. It also ensured rapid development of primary education, since the shortage of teachers was no longer a limiting factor. With figures to back it up, it was calculated that it would only take a dozen years to extend the benefits of primary education to the whole of France!
To these indisputable advantages, the travelers of 1815 added qualitative arguments. They considered the teaching of instructors superior to that of masters: « He does not know his lesson better than the master, » wrote Laborde, « but he knows it differently ». The child instructor (monitor) takes pleasure in communicating his newly acquired knowledge to his classmates, doing his job « with as much charm as a preceptor finds it disgusting » (Laborde).
On the other hand, being a child himself, he knows better than the teacher the difficulties of the task, the pitfalls of the lesson, over which he has just stumbled. He will therefore lead his classmates more slowly, more surely, and be a better guide for them.
But teaching won’t be the only thing to benefit from the mutual system; school discipline and morals will also benefit. The child, submissive to his classmate, will obey him more readily than the teacher, since the young instructor owes his superiority solely to his own merit. Finally, the child, with his classmate who knows him well because he lives with him, will not have, as with the teacher, the resource of lying to hide his intimate thoughts or faults: and dissimulation, the social scourge that was learned from the school benches, will thus disappear from mutual establishments.
And Laborde concluded his apology for the method : in the new schools, « work is for them a game, science a struggle, authority a reward ».
The benefits of this teaching were not to be confined to the school: children returning home would in turn exert a happy influence on their parents, becoming « missionaries » of both morality and truth in their families.
Gontard wrote in 1956:
« And let no evil spirits say that these are the daydreams and utopias of idealists! There is irrefutable proof of the value of this method. Look at Scotland. At the end of the 17th century, it was a land of beggary and misery, living without law, without religion, without morals, men drinking, women blaspheming, all fighting. In 1815, thanks to the magic wand of the mutual school, Scotland became a paradise. « It is not uncommon in Scotland to find a shepherd reading Virgil… but it is almost unheard of to meet a malefactor there, »
« Let’s develop the method in France and, by 1850, it will be a land of prosperity and happiness, from which immorality, fanaticism, revolutions and social unrest, all sons and daughters of ignorance, will be banished. »
In 1818, Joseph Hamel, in his report to the Emperor of Russia, notes:
« The method of mutual education has been introduced throughout France with a rapidity and success far greater than could reasonably be expected, and in less than three years more than 400 schools have already been founded. There is every reason to hope that, in the not-too-distant future, more than 2 million children who were still in complete ignorance will be able to receive the benefits of a free education, sufficient for their future vocation.«
Right from the start, with Carnot and a generation of brilliant scientist coming out of Polytechnique, France was giving leadership !
Amiens and the Somme department
Interesting in that regard, the following account of the adoption of mutual tuition methods in Amiens and the Somme department.
« On May 15, 1817, after much mistrust and hesitation, the Amiens town council founded a society to encourage elementary education in the department. More than ennobling the pupils’ souls, for the rector, it was a question of ‘giving the children of these workers an elementary education, [to prepare them] not only for the habit of order and subordination that is acquired in the mutual education schools and which they carry over to the workshops, but also to put them in a position to serve more usefully inside the factories, how to study the industrial processes whose preservation and improvement are so essential to national prosperity' ».
For the Rector, speed of acquisition was a guarantee of success for the new method compared to the « simultaneous method »:
« That a primary education which takes children away for whole years from work necessary for the family’s subsistence becomes for the poor a very onerous burden; but that experience teaches the father of a family that a few months will suffice to procure for his children an advantage which he has regretted so many times in the course of life not to have been able to enjoy himself, we must hope that he will not sway to make a slight sacrifice in order to obtain an important result ».
These are mainly boys’ schools. There are a few girls’ schools and evening classes for adults. They mainly catered for the children of small craftsmen: dyers, octroi clerks, innkeepers, foremen, tailors, millers, dressmakers, coopers, dressmakers, locksmiths, butchers, spinners, ironers, laborers, car loaders, carpenters, booksellers, lamplighters, cutlers, bookbinders and so on.
At its peak, in 1821, mutual education in the Somme department included not one but 25 schools, 4 of them for girls (for a fee): 4 out of 10 were located in towns. In 1833, there were 16 more. The network shrank considerably thereafter, but did not disappear altogether. The last two schools in Amiens closed their doors involuntarily in 1879, and the one in Abbeville in 1880: until then, it played an important role in preparing candidates for examinations.
The Amiens Model School – the first provincial model school – prepares future teachers for the practice of mutual education. It was founded on May 26, 1817. It welcomed over 200 pupils. By 1818, 6 teachers from the Somme had graduated. Most of the teachers from the Aisne, Oise and Pas-de-Calais departments spent some time there before taking up their duties.
In 1831, when the Prefect created the Ecole normale de garçons, it was called the « Ecole normale primaire d’enseignement mutuel ». At first, it served as a training school: student teachers were required to visit the school once a week to observe and practice the mutual teaching method.
After the government reshuffles of 1817-1818, several SIE members were appointed to important ministries: Mathieu Molé (1778-1838) to the Navy, Laurent Gouvion-Saint-Cyr (1764-1830) to the War, Elie Decazes (1780-1860) above all to the Interior, the ministry on which primary education depended. Government support became systematic.
The Minister of the Interior supported the SIE de Paris and its subsidiaries with grants for school foundations and maintenance. He invited the prefects to contribute in any way they could to the development of the method. Prefects took the initiative in setting up local companies, and lobbied local assemblies for subsidies.
A growing number of General and Municipal Councils voted to set up mutual schools. Once a school had been founded, the local authorities (prefect and mayor) visited it and presided over the prize-giving ceremony. For its part, on July 22, 1817, the Commission d’Instruction Publique, which since 1815 had replaced the Grand Master of the University, decided to establish a model mutual-education school in the chief towns of France’s twelve Academies, as a breeding ground for future teachers. Other ministers, each in their own sphere, supported the method.
Molé, in charge of the colonies, founded mutual tuition schools in Senegal.
In 1818, Gouvion-Saint-Cyr established a full-fledged « Ecole normale militaire d’enseignement mutuel » in the caserne Babylone of Paris. Each regiment in Paris and the provinces was required to send one officer and one non-commissioned officer, who would return after a few months’ training to teach the troops the benefits of primary education.
In 1817-1818, mutual tuition triumphed. An irresistible enthusiasm carried France towards it. The network of schools continued to expand. From term to term, more and more reports arrived in Paris from the provinces, counting schools and their pupils.
It was a song of victory that Jomard could sing at the SIE meeting in January 1819. Of the 81 départements in France, only 5 had no mutual school; the other 76 had 687 schools, attended by over 40,000 pupils. There were also 105 regimental schools, 5 adult schools, 4 prison schools and 2 or 3 schools in Senegal.
Exemplifying what was becoming a new Promethean paradigm of scientific optimism, on December 15, 1821, at a meeting at Paris City Hall, the Geographical Society was founded by 217 leading figures, including some of the greatest scientists of the day, such as Jomard, Champollion, Cuvier, Chaptal, Denon, Fourier, Gay Lussac, Berthollet, von Humboldt and Chateaubriand. Other illustrious members include Jean-Baptiste Charcot, Dumont d’Urville, Élisée Reclus and Jules Verne.
The collection and study of geographical data from many continents enabled certain members, such as Gustave Eiffel and Ferdinand de Lesseps, to propose major infrastructure projects, notably the Suez and Panama Canals.
The first criticisms of mutual education came not from its failure, but from its success. The first « risk » was that the children, having learned too effectively and too quickly (2 to 3 times faster !), would return « to the streets » too soon, not yet being old enough to go to work!
Children weren’t « locked up » at school long enough, and so mutual education disturbed the existing social order. In 1818, the General Council of Calvados heard:
« The greatest service to be rendered to society would perhaps be to devise a method that would make instruction for the lower and indigent classes of society more difficult and time-consuming »…
The second « risk » was that, by continuing to use mutual education, these newly-educated people, mostly from the poorer classes, would become too intelligent, too « enlightened », and begin to express political or social demands, in particular that everyone should have the same rights as the better-off social classes.
Imagine the mess if the social order were challenged! French urban planner and sociologist Anne Querrien notes that, in fact, most of the organizers of the labor movement at the time came from the mutual school, where they had of course learned to read, write and count, but also to trust themselves and their comrades. The mutual school encouraged its pupils to think, and in particular to reflect on the organization of society, a society that assigned them a destiny of submission and obedience.
The influential theologian and politician Félicité Robert de Lamennais (1782-1854) said it loud and clearly :
« Lancaster-style schools are the craze of the day. All the authorities in this country, and especially the Prefect, are infatuated beyond expression. Hatred for priests has a lot to do with this mania. The fact is that everything good about this method has been practiced for over a century by the Brothers of the Christian Schools; the rest is pure charlatanism. There is talk of teaching children to read and write in four months: in the first place, this would be a great misfortune, for what can be done with such well-educated children, whose age would not yet allow them to work? Secondly, nothing could be further from the truth than these marvellous results. »
If one has « to decide between the instruction of Abbé de La Salle and that of Lancaster, the question is quite simple; it’s a question of choosing between society and anarchy ».
His brother, the vicar Jean-Marie de la Mennais (1780-1860), took the lead in what can only be described as a political witch-hunt. He said:
« Mutual education was introduced into France by Protestants during the disastrous Hundred Days. M. Carnot was then Minister of the Interior; under his auspices, the Société d’Encouragement, established to propagate this method, held its first meeting on May 16, 1815 ».
He struggled to prove that « the Lancastrian method is defective in its procedures, dangerous for religion and morals in its results » and in a brochure, De l’Enseignement mutuel, published in 1819 in Saint-Brieuc, Brittany, he vigorously attacked this teaching method.
It’s true that questioning authority and the established order is inherent to mutual education. The « simultaneous » method is based on the premise that to pass on knowledge, you need to be qualified (to be the teacher). Conversely, in the mutual school, the teacher is no longer the repository of knowledge, as each student can enlighten his or her classmates.
Another concern for the elites was that, with this method, children are merely instructed, not « educated », and no Christian moral education is imparted.
Last but not least, mutual teaching required fewer supervisors, given the pupils’ role as creators, transmitters and bearers of knowledge. Some may have feared for their jobs…
In 1818, in his report to the Emperor of Russia, Joseph Hamel told the mutualists’ main opponents, the « Brothers of the Christian Schools », that they were almost entirely unaware of what they were denouncing. Hamel also points out that there are 40,000 communes to be provided with elementary school, and that the number of Brothers‘ schools « does not amount to more than one hundred in the kingdom… ».
On the negative side, what is striking, when examining the incriminations, is that one thing is said in the morning and its opposite in the afternoon. In the morning, it’s said that mutual education blurs minds by diluting the authority of teachers; in the afternoon, it’s asserted that it overly « militarizes » education through a totally hierarchical command structure!
On the question of « morality », Lazare Carnot would never have endorsed an education that ruined the Christian spirit, let alone the notion of legitimate authority, while vigorously combating those that lacked it, such as the Monarchy of divine right or the Consulate for life imposed by Napoleon. In the same way, in the morning, the mutualist system was accused of failing to transmit Christian « morals »; in the afternoon, it was seen as a Protestant plot…
And yet, the national impulse in favor of « the fatherland » and future generations has succeeded in uniting personalities from all political and religious backgrounds in a single effort.
Cuvier (Protestant) and Gérando (Catholic), both fervent republicans and promoters of the mutual mode, as well as the Inspector General of the University, Ambroise Rendu (1778-1860, Catholic), even took part in drafting the ordinance of February 29, 1816, promulgated by Louis XVIII and the Minister of the Interior, de Vaublanc (1756-1845).
Following massive pressure from the congregations, mutualist teachers Martin, Frossard and Bellot, all Protestants, were forced to leave their school headships. Martin went on to be very useful in other European countries, notably Brussels, where in 1820 he organized a mutual school at Les Minimes.
16. Mechanistic drift?
Without grasping the state of mind and enthusiasm that young polytechnicians might have had for the blossoming of an industrial culture and the wonders of machinismo, the defenders of a feudal France see only a « fundamentally mechanistic vision », when Jomard compares the mutual method to a machine, with its cogs and springs, of which the teacher is a mere operator:
« Once the school has been establisehd out and equipped with all the furniture it needs, all that remains to be done is to introduce the pupils and the teacher, and then to set in motion all the springs of this kind of mechanism, by means of the new practices ».
While Victor Hugo evoked a « happy swarm », Laborde was accused of a « mechanistic » drift when he compared the buzzing activity of pupils in English mutual schools to the noise of machines in cotton mills.
Communication, argued critiques, is « entirely mechanical and hierarchical ». It flows « only from the master or general instructor to the instructors and pupils, not in the other direction. It’s a means of action, not a means of exchange.«
Let’s face it, any pedagogical approach, no matter which one, set up as a system and postulating that it’s « enough » to apply mechanically to a human being, can be horrifying. It’s easy, then, to accuse the mutual school of all the ills from which those who accused them suffered, perhaps even more so.
At the mutual school, corporal punishment is banned. It was a courageous decision that Octave Greard was quick to point out:
« It is one of the claims of the founders of the mutual schools to public recognition that they outlawed the corporal punishments, ferulas and whips, which were still in use, and we cannot be too grateful to them for having sought to replace in the hearts of pupils the feeling of fear with the feeling of honor, or, as M. de Laborde used to say, the feeling of well-administered shame ».
Knowing the immense happiness of the thousands of children who quickly gained access to a minimum of public instruction and experienced the indescribable joy of educating their peers, one can only suspect the pen of jealous congregations behind this poem falsely lamenting the misfortune of the poor little ones:
« This system, it is said, born of Anglomania,
Contrasts horribly with our genius.
There, everything is mechanism and our sad children
Seem like a machine, in the middle of their benches;
Their absurd discipline, and no doubt fatal,
Governs even the steps, the attitude or the gesture:
Today, we can prophesy the fate
Of this automaton people thus moved by spring ».
17. Death of Mutual Tuition in France
In 1815, after Waterloo, King Louis XVIII, who had fled, returned on July 8, 1815. Unlike his brother, the future Charles X, leader of the ultra-royalists, was fully aware that the history of the Revolution could not be erased. He realized that France could no longer be a country of « subjects », and that it had become a Nation. Hence the « Constitutional Charter » he promulgated, which had the force of a constitution. In the same spirit, in view of the popularity of mutual education, he granted it favors (subsidies, creation of model schools, protection from the Ministry of the Interior).
Mutual education soon lost its protectors, as the ministerial commission created by the decree of April 27 did not survive Napoleon’s fall in June 1815.
By the autumn of 1816, criticism was pouring in from the Congregationalists. The Grand Chaplain of France, Cardinal de Talleyrand-Périgord, Archbishop of Reims (John Baptist de La Salle’s birthplace…), for his part, addressed the King to express the alarm of Catholics.
By 1820, the SIE already had a network of 1,500 mutual schools, grouping together more than 170,000 pupils thanks to an audacious collective pedagogy. However, mutualism came under fire from the ultras, who considered it too liberal, too favorable to children’s autonomy and incapable of « raising youth in religious and monarchical sentiments ».
The child who leaves this school, they say, « is a learned parrot, without religious ideas, without moral values, more dangerous than the ignorant for the political and social order, since instruction has developed new needs in him, always ready to engage in new scenes of revolution or dechristianization. Ah, Carnot, the regicidal conventionalist and patron of mutual education, knew what he was up to when he introduced it into France with the decree of 1815! »
As said earlier, in France, mutual tuition was seen as an aggression by the religious congregations who practiced « simultaneous teaching », codified as early as 1684 by Jean-Baptiste de La Salle (1651-1719) for Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools (Latin : Fratres Scholarum Christianarum; French Frères des Écoles Chrétiennes; Italian: Fratelli delle Scuole Cristiane, abbreviated FSC) : classes by age, division by level, fixed and individual places, strict discipline, repetitive and simultaneous work supervised by an inflexible master.
And the merits of the FSC’s schools and « simultaneous teaching », confirmed by centuries of experience, were considered in total opposition to those of mutual education, the « mania of the moment », and considered the work of « charlatans » speculating on primary education.
A fierce supporter of order and suspecting a vast Protestant plot against the Vatican, Pope Leo XII, the « Pope of the Holy Alliance », decided in Quod Divina Sapientia, his papal bull of August 28, 1824 (art. XXVII, 299), that « public schools of mutual instruction will be suppressed and abolished in all the Papal States. The bishops will prosecute those who continue to use this teaching method or who attempt to introduce it into their dioceses ».
In anticipation of the Papal Bull, the Ordinance of April 1824 placed mutual education in France under the strict supervision of the traditional Church, which took over the entire educational question. In August, just after Leo XII’s bull, a Ministry of « Ecclesiastical Affairs and Public Instruction » was created, a name that reflected the Church’s return to business. The accession of Charles X only exacerbated this situation. The Church of the time loved the Enlightenment, but above all it loved candlelight…
From then on, the schooling situation took a dramatic turn for the worse.
In 1828, of the 39,381 communes :
- around 24,000 had boys’ schools, catering for 1,070,000 children ;
- no more than 430,000 girls attended elementary school;
- 15,381 communes have no boys’ schools ;
- and perhaps 20,000 without girls’ schools;
- 1,680,000 boys and 2,320,000 girls attend no school at all, making a total of 4 million.
Despite an upturn between 1828 and 1829, mutuellism was rejected, its schools closed one after the other (their number fell by three-quarters compared to 1820), although the electoral weight of the ultras diminished from election to election. However, the people’s educators resisted.
In the years following the 1830 revolution, over 2,000 mutual schools were still in operation, mainly in towns, in competition with the denominational schools promoted by the regime. Officially, the mutual school was not a guarantor of morality, and was said to be « industrial » and inhumane.
Then came the famous « Guizot moment ». Although he had initially campaigned for the development of mutual education within the SIE, François Guizot (1787-1874), Louis-Philippe’s Minister of Public Instruction from 1832 onwards, gave mutual education the coup de grâce in France by having the « simultaneous » method endorsed as the only official teaching method.
Schools adopting mutual tuition were no longer subsidized, nor did they receive any support from the government or the Church. Faced with material difficulties, the majority of pupils mostly admitted free of charge had now to pay a fee. Many parents in need withdrew their children and sent them to the newly opened Brother of the Christian Schools, who had become free of charge…
The Church slanders, casts doubt on the morality of the teachers, tried to keep the children of Catholic families away from the « devil’s school », persecutes and threatens to keep them away from catechism and communion in order to break mutual tuition. Most of the teachers using that method felt obliged to bandon it and embrace the official « simultanous » method. With no more pupils, no more teachers, mutual schools gradually disappeared.
It was Guizot who put the final nail in the coffin of mutual tuition, creating the École normale des instituteurs in 1867 to train the future teachers of Jules Ferry’s school in the simultaneous method still the norm today.
The young Hippolyte Carnot also joined the SIE in order to reconnect, post mortem, with his father. In 1847, when he became Minister of Public Instruction under the Second Republic, he attempted to revive the mutual education cherished by his father Lazare Carnot, but although his work was great, his enemies were many and his term of office very short.
Education is in deep crisis. Everything that was largely accomplished by Lazare Carnot and his son Hippolyte has been systematically destroyed by the new church of our time: the financial, transhumanist and decadent oligarchy, having led the world to the brink of collapse, still determined to save its privileges by organizing the physical and moral ruin of humanity.
To rebuild an education worthy of the name, we are convinced that mutual education, provided it is adapted to our times, is an extremely promising avenue. Several African countries, currently lacking sufficient resources, are already taking inspiration from it.
Mutual tuition is not a relic of the past, but an experiment to be renewed to open the gates of the futur. For the Global South, still plagued by post-colonial exploitation, war and epidemics, education of this kind is the way to go: efficient, rapid and cheap but also humanizing and joyfull, it is the way to go.
It’s a message that Vincent Faillet, a young french teacher with a doctorate in education and training in the Paris region, who is reviving this method, cleary expresses in this video:
19. Short list of works consulted
- François Arago, Biography of Gaspard Monge, read at the Académie des Sciences, 1846.
- Joseph Hamel, L’enseignement mutuel, 1818, Paris.
- John Franklin Reigart, The Lancastrian System of Instruction in the schools of New York City, Teachers College, Columbia University, 1916.
- Sylviane Tinembart, Edward Pahud, Une innovation pédagogique, le cas de l’enseignement mutuel au XIXe siècle. Editions Livreo-Alphil, 2019, Neuchâtel, Switzerland;
- Bruno Poucet, Petite histoire de l’enseignement mutuel : l’exemple du département de la Somme, Carrefours de l’éducation, N° 27, 2009/1, pages 7 to 18;
- Michel Chalopin, L’enseignement mutuel en Bretagne, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2011;
- Claire Giordanengo, La grande vogue de l’enseignement mutuel, Hypotheses, Bibliothèque Diderot de Lyon;
- M. Gontard, Un aspect des luttes de partis en France au début de la Restauration : la question de l’enseignement mutuel, Revue d’Histoire du XIXe siècle – 1849, Année 1953, pp. 48-63.
- Dell Upton, Lancasterian Schools, Republican Citizenship, and the Spatial Imagination in Early Nineteenth-Century America, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 55, No. 3 (Sep., 1996), pp. 238-253,University of California Press;
- Alexis de Garaudé, Manuel de l’enseignement mutuel et populaire de la musique, 1854;
- Anne Querrien, L’école mutuelle – Une pédagogie trop efficace?, Les Empêcheurs De Penser En Rond, 2005.
- René Girard, Carnot et l’éducation populaire pendant les Cents Jours, 1907, Paris.
- Michael Werner, Musique et pacification sociale, missions fondatrices de l’éducation musicale (1795-1860) « , Gradhiva (N° 31/2020);
- Rémi Dalisson, Hippolyte Carnot – 1801-1888, La liberté, l’école et la République, CNRS, Paris, 2019;
- Renaud d’Enfert, Jomard, Francœur et les autres… Des polytechniciens engagés dans le développement de l’instruction élémentaire (1815-1850), Bulletin de la Société des amis de la Bibliothèque et de l’Histoire de l’École polytechnique (SABIX), 2014.
By Karel Vereycken
(texte original en français)
“The ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyr.”Sayings (Hadith) most often attributed to the Prophet.
“Seek knowledge from the Cradle to the Grave.”
“Seek knowledge even as far as China.”
We live in a time of cruel stupidity. While the history of civilization is characterized by multiple cultural contributions allowing an infinite and magnificent mutual enrichment, everything is done to dehumanize us.
By dint of media coverage of the most extreme crimes, notably by claiming that such and such an abject or barbaric act has been committed « in the name » of such and such a belief or religion, everything is done to set us against each other. If we do not react, the famous thesis of a « Clash of Civilizations », concocted by the British Islamologist Bernard Lewis (Henry Kissinger’s, Zbigniew Brzezinski’s and Samuel Huntington’s mentor) as an evil tool of geopolitical manipulation, will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In order to combat prejudices and dangerous misunderstandings about “Islam” (with 1.6 billion believers a non-negligible part of the world’s population), here follows a brief overview of the major contributions of the Arab-Muslim civilization.
By recalling two major contributions of the “Golden Age” of Islam, notably Arab astronomy and mutazilism, what is at stake here is the recognition that –just like Memphis, Thebes, Alexandria, Athens and Rome– Baghdad, Damascus and Cordoba were major crucibles of a universal civilization which is ours today.
While Europe has come to recognize that the invention of printing took place in China long before Gutenberg, and that America was visited way before Christopher Columbus, consensus and group think keeps repeating that the Arabs contributed nothing to the progress of science.
In the 1300 years separating the Greek astronomer from Alexandria, Claudius Ptolemy (ca. 100-178 AD) from the Polish Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), they pretend, nothing but “a black hole”.
In 1958, in his book The Sleepwalkers, British Hungarian writer Alfred Koestler, who helped Sydney Hook to co-found the CIA’s cultural cold war front, the Congress for Cultural Freedom, epitomized western arrogance, writing:
the Arabs had merely been the go-betweens, preservers and transmitters of the heritage. They had little scientific originality and creativeness of their own. During the centuries when they were the sole keepers of the treasure, they did little to put it to use. (…) and by the fifteenth century, the scientific heritage of Islam had largely been taken over by the Portuguese Jews. But the Jews, too, were no more than go-betweens, a branch of the devious Gulf-stream which brought back to Europe its Greek and Alexandrine heritage, enriched by Indian and Persian additions.
Nothing is more false. Definitely, one must be born on the right spot to be allowed to have a seat in the train of history…
Copernicus himself, unlike Koestler, was perfectly familiar with Arab astronomy. In 1543, in his De Revolutionibus, he quotes several Arab scientists, more precisely Al-Battani, al-Bitruji, al-Zarqallu, Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and Thabit ibn Qurra. Copernicus also refers to al-Battani in his Commentariolus, a manuscript published posthumously. Later, the great Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) would also refer to Ibn Al-Haytam in his work on optics.
In reality, Copernicus and even more Kepler, whose creative genius cannot be overrated, came up with answers to questions raised by several generations of Arab astronomers preceding them and whose contribution remains largely ignored and even worse, unexplored. To this day, with about 10,000 manuscripts preserved throughout the world, a large part of which has still not been the subject of a bibliographic inventory, the Arab astronomical corpus constitutes one of the best preserved components of medieval scientific literature waiting to be rediscovered.
Science and religion versus slavery
Before examining the contributions of Arab astronomy, a few words about the intimate link between Islam and the development of science.
According to tradition, it was in 622 AD that the Prophet Muhammad and his companions left Mecca and set out for a simple oasis that would become the city of Medina.
If this event is known as the “Hegira”, an Arabic word for emigration, break-up or exile, it is also because Mohammad broke with a societal model based on blood ties (clan organization), in favor of a model of a shared destiny based on belief. In this new religious and societal model, where each person is supposed to be a “brother,” it is no longer permissible to abandon the poor or the weak as was the case before.
The powerful clans in Mecca did everything they could to eliminate this new form of society, which diminished their influence.
The “Medina Constitution” allegedly proclaimed equality among all believers, whether they were free men or slaves, Arabs or non-Arabs.
The Koran advocates strict equality between Arabs and non-Arabs in accordance with the Prophet, who said, in his farewell address:
“There is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab, or of a non-Arab over an Arab, and no superiority of a white person over a black person or of a black person over a white person, except on the basis of personal piety and righteousness.”(Reported by Al-Bayhaqi and authenticated by Shaykh Albani in Silsila Sahiha no. 2700).
Hence, if after the Prophet’s passing away, slavery and slave trade became a common practice in close to all Muslim countries, he cannot be held accountable. Zayd Ibn Harithah, according to tradition, after having been the slave of Khadija, Muhammad’s wife, was freed and even adopted by Muhammad as his own son.
For his part, Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s companion and successor as the first Caliph (Arab word for “successor”), also freed Bilal ibn-Raba, the son of a former Abyssinian princess who had been enslaved. Bilal, who had a magnificent voice, was even appointed the first muezzin, that is to say the one who calls for prayer five times a day from the top of one of the mosque’s minarets.
Among the first verses revealed to the Prophet Muhammad one finds :
“Read! And your Lord is the Most Generous,(Surat 96).
Who taught by the pen — Taught man that which he knew not.”
The Prophet also states,
“The best among you (Muslims) are those who learn the Koran and teach it.”
Other sayings, often attributed to the Prophet, clearly invite Muslims to seek knowledge and cherish science :
“The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr”.
“Seek knowledge from the Cradle to the Grave”.
“Seek knowledge even as far as China”.
The mosque is therefore much more than a place of worship, it is a school of all sciences, where scholars are trained. It serves as a social and educational institution: it may be completed with a madrassa (Koranic school), a library, a training center, or even a university.
As in most religions, in Islam, practices and rituals are punctuated by astronomical events (years, seasons, months, days, hours). Every worshipper must pray five times a day at times that vary depending on where he or she is on Earth: at sunrise (Ajr), when the sun is at its zenith (Dhohr), in the afternoon (Asr), at sunset (Magrib) and at the beginning of the night (Icha). Astronomy, as a spiritual occasion to fine-tune one’s earthly existence according to the harmony of the Heavens, is omnipresent.
As an example, to underscore its importance, July 16, 622 AD, the first day of the lunar year, was declared the first day of the Hegira calendar. And during the eclipse of the sun, mosques host a special prayer.
Islam encourages Muslims to guide themselves by the stars. The Koran states :
“And He is the One who made the stars for you
to guide you with them in darkness of the land and the sea”.
With such an incentive, early Muslims could not but feel compelled to perfect astronomical and navigational instruments. As a result, today more than half of the stars used for navigation bear Arabic names. It was only natural that the faithful constantly tried to improve astronomical calculations and observations.
The first reason to do so is that during the Muslim prayer, the worshipper has to prostrate himself in the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca, so he has to know how to find this direction wherever he is on Earth. And the construction of a mosque will be decided according to the same data.
The second reason is the Muslim calendar. The Koran states :
“The number of months in the sight of Allah is twelve (in a year)-
so ordained by Him the day He created the heavens and the earth;
of them four are sacred: that is the straight usage.”
Clearly, the Muslim calendar is based on the lunar months, which are approximately 29.5 days long. But 12 times 29.5 days is only 345 days in the year. This is far from the 365 days, 6 hours, 9 minutes and 4 seconds that measure the duration of the rotation of the Earth around the Sun…
Finally, a last challenge was posed by the interpretation of the lunar movement. The months, in the Muslim religion, do not begin with the astronomical new moon, defined as the moment when the moon has the same ecliptic longitude as the sun (it is therefore invisible, drowned in the solar albedo); the months begin when the lunar crescent starts to appear at dusk.
The Koran says: “(Muhammad), they ask you about the different phases of the moon. Tell them that they are there to indicate to people the phases of time and the pilgrimage season.”
For all these reasons, the Muslims could not be satisfied with either the Christian or the Hebrew calendar, and had to create a new one.
In order to forecast the phases of the moon, new methods of calculation and new instruments capable of observing them were required. The calculation of the day when the crescent moon starts to become visible again was a formidable challenge for the Arab scholars. To predict this day, it was necessary to be able to describe its movement in relation to the horizon, a problem whose resolution belongs to a rather sophisticated spherical geometry.
It was the determination of the direction of Mecca from a given location and the time of prayers that led the Muslims to develop such geometry. To solve these problems, it is necessary to know how to calculate the side of a spherical triangle of the celestial sphere from its three angles and the other two sides; to find the exact time, for example, it is necessary to know how to construct the triangle whose vertices are the zenith, the north pole, and the position of the Sun.
The field of astronomy has strongly stimulated the birth of other sciences, in particular geometry, mathematics, geography and cartography. Some people like to recall that Platonists and Aristotelians were arguing about rather abstract concepts, each of them believing that reason was sufficient to understand nature. Arab astronomy, on the other hand, played a decisive role in the emergence of a true scientific method by verifying the various hypotheses, by building measuring instruments and astronomical observatories and by rigorously recording observations over many years.
The question then arises as to where this infatuation with science and astronomy could have come from, in a culture essentially centered on religion?
A first answer comes from the fact that in the 8th century, shortly after the birth of Sunnism (656), Kharidjism (657) and Shi’ism (660), but independently of these currents, a school of Muslim theological and philosophical thought appeared, founded by the revolutionary theologian Wasil ibn Ata (700-748), a current known as “mutazilism” (or motazilism), branded in the West as “the rationalists” of Islam. One explanation of its name came from the fact that the mutazili refused to take part in the internal strife inside factions using theological interpretations for earthly power, the arab word iʿtazala meaning “to withdraw”.
Wasil was born in Medina in the Arabian Peninsula and moved to Basra, now in Iraq. From there he formed an intellectual movement that spread all over the Arab-Muslim world. Many of his followers were merchants and non-Arabs (mawâlî) from Iranian or Aramaic “converted” families, victims of the Omayyad dynasty’s discriminating policies between Arabs and non-Arabs. This hypothesis is sufficient to back the claim of a Mutazilite participation in the overthrow of the Omayyad and that dynasty’s replacement with the Abbasid.
In a clear break with dualistic cosmology (Mazdeism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, etc.), Mutazilism insists on the absolute unity of God, conceived as an entity outside time and space. For them, there is a close relationship between the unity of the Muslim community (Ummah) and the worship of the Lord. The Mutazilites are closely inspired by the Koran, and it is quite wrong to present them as the “free thinkers” of Islam.
However, “we reject faith as the only way to religion if it rejects reason,” the Mutazilite saying goes. Relying on reason (the logos dear to the Greek thinkers Socrates and Plato), which it considers compatible with Islamic doctrines, Mutazilism affirms that man can, outside of any divine revelation, access knowledge.
Just as Augustine, a christian, emphasized man can advance on the path of truth, not only through the Gospel (revelation), but by reading “the Book of Nature”, a reflection and foretaste of divine wisdom. One book of the Bible, The Book of Wisdom, recognizes that
For from the greatness and the beauty of created things(Book of Wisdom, 13:5)
their original author,
by analogy, is seen.
The Mutazilites differed from their opponents in their teaching that God has endowed man with reason specifically so that he can come to know the moral order in creation and its Creator; that is what reason is for. Reason is central to man’s relationship to God.
In the Fundamentals, the great Mutazilite theologian Abdel al Jabbar Ibn Ahmad (935-1025), whose texts were discovered only in the 1950’s by Egyptian scholars in a mosque in Yemen, begins by positing the primary duty to reason: « If it is asked: What is the first duty that God imposes you? Say to him: Speculative reasoning which leads to knowledge of God, because He is not known intuitively or by the senses. Thus, He must be known by reflection and speculation ».
Therefore, Reason logically precedes revelation. Reason first needs to establish the existence of God before undertaking the question as to whether God has spoken to man. Natural theology mus be antecedent to theology.
Al Jabbar says: « The stipulates of revelation concerning what we should say and do are no good until after there is knowledge of God, » which knowledge comes from reason. « Therefore, » he concludes, « it is incumbent on me to establish His existence and to know Him so that I can worship Him, give Him thanks and do what satisfies Him and avoid disobedience toward Him ».
How does Reason lead man to the conclusion of God’s existance? It is through the observation of the ordered universe that man first comes to know that God exists, says Al Jabbar. As he sees hat nothing in the world is its own cause, but is caused by something else, man arrives at the contingent nature of creation. From there, man reasons to the necessity of a Creator, an uncaused cause.
The concept of an inherent nature in things (tab’) means that God, though he is the First Cause, acts indirectly through secondary causes, such as the physical law of gravity. In other words, God does not immediately or directly do everything. He does not make a rock fall; gravity does. God allows some autonomy in his creation, which has its own set of rules, according to how it was made.
As Mutazilite writer and theologian Uthman al-Jahiz (765-869) stated, every material element has it own nature. God created each thing with a nature according to which it consistently behaves. The unsupported rock will always fall where there is gravitational pull. These laws of nature, then, are not an imposition of order from without by a commander-in-chief, but an expression of it from within the very essence of things, which have their own integrity. Creation is possessed of an intrinsic rationality from the Creator. That is why and how man is able to understand God’s Reason as manifested in his creation (This does not discount God’s ability to supercede natural laws in the case of a miracle). From that standpoint, the act of discovery of the nature and beauty of things, by each human individual, brings him closer to God.
Hence, Muzatilism gives human reason (the faculty of thinking) and freedom (the faculty of acting) a place and importance not only unknown in other trends of Islam but even in most philosophical and religious currents of the time. Against fatalism (“mektoub!” = it was written!), which was the dominant tendency in Islam, mutazilism affirms that the human being is responsible for his acts.
More than five centuries before Erasmus, Mutazilite faith and philosophy offered already the foundations to solve most of the sterile theological disputes that would destroy the Renaissance and throw Europe in the abyss of self-destruction known as the “wars of religion”.
Here are the five Fundamentals (Principles), described by Abdel al Jabbar and summarized in 2015 by economist Nadim Michel Kalife:
—Monotheism (Al Tawhid) whose concept of God is beyond the simple intellect of the human mind. That is why the verses of the Koran describing God “sitting” on a throne should be interpreted only allegorically and not literally. Hence the Mutazilites called their opponents anthropomorphists who sought to reduce God who is unknowable to a human appearance. And they concluded that this one detail (!) of the Koran is sufficient to prove that the Koran is not “uncreated” but “created” by Allah, via man, to make it accessible to the believer, and therefore, that it can and should evolve and adapt according to the times and circumstances ;
—Divine justice (Adl) is about the origin of evil in our world where God is all-powerful. Mutazilism proclaims free will, where evil is man’s doing and not God’s will, because God is perfect and therefore cannot do evil or determine man to do it. And, if human wrongdoings were the will of God, punishment would lose all meaning since man would be doing nothing but respecting the divine will. This unquestionable logic allowed Mutazilism to refute predestination and the « mektoub » of the Sunni schools;
—Promise and threat (al-Wa’d wa al-Wa’id): this principle concerns the judgment of man at his death and that of the last judgment where God will reward the obedient in the heavenly paradise, and punish those who disobeyed him by damning them eternally in the fires of hell;
—The intermediate degree (al-manzilatu bayn al-manzilatayn), the first principle opposing Mutazilism to the Sunni schools. A great sinner (murder, theft, fornication, false accusation of fornication, drinking alcohol, etc. ) should be judged neither as a Muslim (as Sunnism thinks) nor as a disbeliever or kâfir (as the Kharidjites think), but considered in an intermediate degree from which, when he dies, he will go to hell if he failed to be redeemed by God’s mercy ;
—To order the good and blame the blameworthy (al-amr bil ma’ruf wa al-nahy ‘an al munkar): this principle authorizes even rebellion against authority when it is unjust and illegitimate, to prevent the victory of evil over all. This principle attracted the hatred of the ulama (theologians) and imams (predicators) who saw it as a manouver to weaken their own authority over the faithful. And the Seljuk Turks considered it a serious danger since it called into question their power… over the Arabs.
Mutazilism under the Abbasid
In Baghdad, it was with the rise of the Abbasid Caliphate in 749 that Mutazilism gained influence, first under the Caliph Hâroun al-Rachîd (765-809) (“Aaron the Well-Guided”) and then under his son, Al-Ma’mûn (786-833) (“The one to be trusted”). Shortly before his death in 833, the latter made Mutazilism the official doctrine of the Abbasid Empire.
This was too much for the conservative ulama and imams who rebelled against the Caliph’s enlightened vision that created a space for secular society and limited their grip over society. Faced with the revolt, the Abbasid administration (made up largely of Persians), which was won over to Mutazilism, carried out a ruthless crackdown on Sunni (Arab) clerics for fifteen years, from 833 to 848. This bloody persecution left an increasingly bitter taste in people’s minds, especially when the Abbasid power refused to release Muslim prisoners in the hands of the Byzantines if they did not renounce the dogma of the “uncreated” nature of the Koran…
Finally, in 848, Caliph Jafar al-Mutawakkil (847-861), changed course completely and asked the traditionalists to preach hadiths according to which Muhammad had condemned the Mutazilites and their supporters.
Dialectical theology (Kalâm) was banned and the Mutazilites were not any longer welcome at the Baghdad court. This was also the end of the spirit of tolerance and the return of persecution against Christians and Jews. If the craze for science continued, Mutazilism disappeared with the fall of the Abbasids and the destruction of Baghdad by the Mongols in the 13th century.
Mutazilism also influenced Judaism. The Kitab Al-Amanat Wa’l-I’tiqadat – that is, the Book of Beliefs and Opinions – by the tenth-century Jewish rabbinic scholar Saadia Gaon (882-942), who lived in Baghdad, draws its inspiration from Christian theological literature as well as from Islamic models. The Kitab al-Tawhid, the Book of Divine Unity, by Saadia’s Karaite contemporary, Jacob Qirqisani (d. 930), is unfortunately lost.
This makes the German Islamologist Sabine Schmidtke say:
The new tradition of Jewish rational thought that emerged in the course of the ninth century was, in its initial phase, mainly informed by Christian theological literature, both in its content and methodology. Increasingly, specifically Mutazilite Islamic ideas, such as theodicy [*1] and human free will, as well as the emphasis on the oneness of God (tawhid), resonated among Jewish thinkers, many of whom eventually adopted the entire doctrinal system of the Mutazila. The now emerging ‘Jewish Mutazila’ dominated Jewish theological thought for centuries to come.
Brothers in Purity
Also worth mentioning in this context, are the Epistles of the Brothers in Purity (Ikwân al-Safâ), an encyclopedia of 52 epistles (dealing with mathematics, natural sciences, rational sciences and theological sciences), composed between the beginning of the ninth and the end of the tenth century and containing common knowledge. The text will be promoted by the Ismailis, an esoteric branch of shiite islam strongly contesting the ruling powers of that time. Produced in Basra, in present-day Iraq, the book, neo-platonic in character, is a collective work. As for the authors, designated under the mysterious name of Brothers of Purity, they belonged to a brotherhood of sages and intellectuals who met regularly to organize sessions of discussion, readings and recitation. Its followers considered that knowledge was an indispensable condition for any spiritual and mystical elevation. Its avant-garde character is apparent in its hymn to tolerance advocating a plurality of paths to salvation. Some experts believe that the Epistles of the Brothers in Purity are the work of a high-level Pythagorean philosopher, a disciple of the mutazilist platonic, al-Kindi.
Leaving aside, therefore, the errors that were very real, it has to be recognized and underscored that the optimistic philosophical vision of Mutazilism (reason, free will, responsibility, perfectibility of man) strongly contributed to the emergence of a true « golden age » of Arab culture and sciences.
Finally, it is not uninteresting to note that today, “neo-Mutazilite” currents are appearing in reaction to obscurantist doctrines and the barbaric acts they provoke. For the Egyptian reformist thinker Ahmad Amin, “the death of mutazilism was the greatest misfortune that befell Muslims; they committed a crime against themselves.”
In 762, the second Abbasid caliph Al-Mansur (714-775) (“the victorious”) began construction of a new capital, Baghdad. Called Madinat-As-Salam (City of Peace), it houses the court palace, the mosque and the administrative buildings. Built on a circular plan, it is inspired by previous traditions, notably the one that gave birth to the Iranian city of Gur (current name: Firouzabad).
We are in the heart of fertile Mesopotamia, the “land between the rivers”, essentially the Euphrates and the Tigris, both of which have their source in Turkey. It is here that the Sumerians invented irrigation, agriculture (cereals and livestock) [*2], and writing (3400 years BC), starting in the 10th millennium BC.
Baghdad, a powerful and refined city, reigned over the entire East and became the capital of the Arab world. Crossed by the Tigris River, populated today by some 10 million inhabitants, it remains the largest city in Iraq as well as the second most populated city in the Arab world (behind Cairo in Egypt).
The Abbasid cities were built on huge sites. The palaces and mosques of Samarra, the new capital from 836, stretch along the banks of the Tigris for 40 kilometers. To match the scale of the sites, monumental buildings were erected, such as the Abu Dulaf Mosque or the Great Mosque of Samarra, which had no equivalent elsewhere. Its curious spiral minaret (52 meters high) inspired in the following centuries the Western representations of the Tower of Babel.
Moreover, by relying on an extremely disciplined and obedient army from Khorassan (a region in north-eastern Iran) [*3], as well as on an elaborate system of stagecoaches and mail distribution, the Abbasid rulers managed to increase their hold on the provincial governors. The latter, who in the time of the Omayyad caliphs paid little tax on the pretext that they had to spend locally for the defense of the caliphate’s borders, now had to pay the taxes imposed by the ruler.
The New “Paper” Road
After the military victory against the Chinese in the battle of Talas (a city in present-day Kyrgyzstan) in 751, the year that marked the most eastern advance of the Abbasid armies, Baghdad opened up to Chinese and Indian cultures.
The Abbasid quickly assimilated a number of Chinese techniques, in particular paper-making, an art developed in Samarkand (capital of Sogdiana, now in Uzbekistan), another stopover city on the Silk Roads. The craftsmen of this city smoothed the paper with an agate stone. The resulting extremely smooth and shiny surface absorbed less ink and as a result, both sides of the same sheet became usable. The Chinese, who had invented silk paper, did not need to smooth their paper because they wrote with brushes and not with pens.
Hâroun al-Rachîd was very interested in the industrial production of paper. He ordered the use of paper in all the administrations of the Empire: it is easier to manufacture, less expensive and more secure than silk, because one cannot easily erase what is written on it. He developed the paper factories of Samarkand and established similar ones in Baghdad, Damascus and Tiberias around 1046 – the paper of Tripoli or Damascus was then referred to, and its quality was considered better than that of Samarkand – in Cairo before 1199, where it was used as a packaging for goods, and in Yemen at the beginning of the 13th century. At the same time, several paper factories were established in North Africa. There were 104 paper factories in Fez, Morocco, before 1106, and 400 paper mills between 1221 and 1240. They will emerge in Andalusia, Spain, in Jativa near Valencia in 1054 and in Toledo in 1085.
The first Abbasid caliphs led the economic transition from the Umayyad model of tribute, booty or the sale of slaves to an economy based on agriculture, manufacturing, trade and taxes. The introduction of more energy dense modes of technologies modes of energy (compared to the former ones), will revolutionize irrigation and agriculture:
–Construction of canals ensuring irrigation and limiting flooding;
–Construction of dams and the exploitation of the mechanical energy they produce;
–Construction of water mills;
–Use of tidal energy;
–Construction of windmills;
–Distillation of kerosene used as fuel for lamps and used since. [*4]
Industrial uses of water mills in the Islamic world date back to the 7th century. During the time of the Crusades, all provinces of the Islamic world had operating mills, from al-Andalus and North Africa to the Middle East and Central Asia.
These mills performed various agricultural and industrial tasks.
When Erasmus’ follower Cervantes’ Don Quichote starts attacking the windmills of La Mancha, a Spanish region where Arab influence was notable, he not only ironially mocks the cult of chivalry, but also the insane undertaking called the crusades.
Irrigation, inherited from the ancient world (floods of the Nile in Egypt, canals in Mesopotamia, pendulum wells (shadoof), water wheels used to raise water (noria), dams in Transoxiana, Khuzistan and Yemen, underground galleries at the foot of the mountains in Iran (qanat) or in the Maghreb (khettara), is organized thanks to a solid community organization and the intervention of the State.
Abbasid artisans and engineers will develop machines (such as pumps) incorporating crankshafts and use gears in mills and water-lifting machines. They will also use the dams to provide additional power to watermills and water-lifting machines. Such advances will allow the mechanization of many agricultural and industrial tasks and free up the workforce for more creative occupations.
Agricultural production gains in diversity : cereals (wheat, rice), fruits (apricots, citrus fruits), vegetables, olive oil (Syria and Palestine), sesame (Iraq), roe, rapeseed, flax or castor oil (Egypt), wine production (Syria, Palestine, Egypt), dates, bananas (Egypt), sugar cane.
Breeding remains important for food, for the supply of raw materials (wool, leather) and for transport (camels, dromedaries, horses). Sheep are present everywhere but buffalo farming is developing (marshes of lower Iraq or Orontes). Small poultry, pigeon and bee farms are in high demand. The people’s diet is predominantly vegetarian (rice cake, wheat porridge, vegetables and fruits).
A number of industries will emerge from this agro-industrial revolution, including the first textile factories, the production of ropes, silk and, as noted above, the manufacture of paper. Finally, metalworking, glassware, ceramics, tooling and crafts also experience high levels of growth during this period.
Charlemagne, Baghdad and China
Finally, in the eighth and ninth centuries, seeking to counter the Omayyad and the Byzantine Empire, Abbasid and Carolingian Franks conclude several agreements and alliances.
Three diplomatic missions were sent by Charlemagne to the court of Hâroun al-Rachîd and the latter sent at least two embassies to Charlemagne. The caliph sent him many gifts, such as spices, fabrics, an elephant and an automatic clock, described in the Frankish Royal Annals of 807. It marked the 12 hours with copper balls falling on a plate at each hour, and also had twelve horsemen who appeared in turn at the same intervals.
The same caliph sent a diplomatic mission to Chang’an (now called Xi’an), capital of the Tang dynasty. Chang’an being the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, the western market of Chang’an became the center of world trade. According to the record of the Tang Six Authority, more than 300 nations and regions had trade relations with Chang’an.
Maritime Silk Road
These diplomatic relations with China were contemporary with the maritime expansion of the Muslim world into the Indian Ocean and the Far East. Apart from the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates, navigable rivers were uncommon, so transport by sea was very important. The ships of the caliphate began to sail from Siraf, the port of Basra, to India, the Straits of Malacca and Southeast Asia.
Arab merchants dominated trade in the Indian Ocean until the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century. Hormuz was an important center for this trade. There was also a dense network of trade routes in the Mediterranean, along which Muslim countries traded with each other and with European powers such as Venice or Genoa.
The Silk Road crossing Central Asia passed through the Abbasid caliphate between China and Europe. At that time, Canton, or Khanfu in Arabic, a port of 200,000 people in southern China, had a large community of traders from Muslim countries. And when the Chinese Emperor Yongle decided to send his famous flotilla of ships to Africa, he chose Admiral Zheng He (1371-1433), a court eunuch who was born a Muslim. And when in 1497 the Portuguese captain Vasco da Gama reached the Kenyan city of Malindi, he was able to obtain an Arab pilot who took him directly to Kozhikode (Calicut) in India. In short, a sailor who knew how to navigate on the stars.
Scientific and cultural renaissance
Thus, it is under the caliphate of Hâroun al-Rachîd and his son Al-Ma’mûn, that Baghdad and the Abbasids will experience a real golden age, both in the sciences (philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, etc.) and in the arts (architecture, poetry, music, painting, etc.). For the British writer Jim Al-Khalili, “the fusion of Greek rationalism and Mutazilite Islam will give rise to a humanist movement of a type that will hardly be seen before 15th century Italy.”
In the field of sciences, an assimilation of Hellenistic, Indian and Persian astronomical doctrines took place very early. Several Sanskrit [*5] and Pehlevi [*6] writings were translated into Arabic.
Indian works by the astronomer Aryabhata (476-560), a prominent scientist of the Indian Gupta Renaissance, and the mathematician Brahmagupta (590-668) were cited early on by their Arabic counterparts. A famous translation into Arabic appeared around 777 under the title Zij al-Sindhind (or Indian Astronomical Tables). Sources indicate that this text was translated after the trip of an Indian astronomer invited to the court of the Abbasid caliph Al-Mansur in 770. The Arabs also adopted the sines (inherited from Indian mathematics) which they preferred to the chords used by Greek astronomers. From the same period, a collection of astronomical chronicles compiled over two centuries in Sassanid Persia and known in Arabic as the Zij al-Shah (or Royal Tables).
In the field of music, the Persian-born Arab musician Ishaq al-Mawsili (767-850), among others, can be mentioned. A composer of about two hundred songs, he was also a virtuoso on the oud (a kind of lute with a short neck but no frets). He is credited with the first system of codification of learned Arabic music.
Respecting the visual arts, let us first stress that, contrary to the prevailing opinion, the Koran does not prohibit figurative images. There is no explicitly stated and universally accepted “ban” on images of living figures in Islamic legal texts. On the other hand, Islam, like other major religions, condemns the worship of idols.
From the eighth to the fifteenth century, numerous historical and poetic texts, both Sunni and Shi’a, many of which appeared in Turkish and Persian contexts, include admirable depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. The purpose of these images was not only to praise and pay homage to the Prophet, but represent occasions and central elements for the practice of Muslim faith.
In this respect, the book by the German art historian Hans Belting with the catchy title Florence & Baghdad, Renaissance Art and Arab Science (2011) is not only misleading but downright outrageous. Belting presents “Islam” as an aniconic faith (banning all human and animal representations), while in reality, besides exquisite calligraphy and geometric patterns in search for the infinite, representations of men and animals are an essential part of Islamic artistic expression.
In addition, other religions have experienced strong outbreaks of iconoclasm. For example, and this is one of the reasons why so little is known about ancient Greek painting, between 726 and 843, the Byzantine Empire ordered the systematic destruction of images representing Christ or the saints, whether they were mosaics adorning church walls, painted images or book illuminations.
From there on, Belting, for whom Islam is in essence an aniconic civilization, has great difficulty in demonstrating what he announces in the title: the influence of Arab science (notably Ibn al-Haytam work on human vision) on the Renaissance in Florence (in particular its definition of “geometric perspective”). In fact, presenting himself as an erudite, peaceful and “objective” scholar, Belting’s book feeds into the bellicose thesis of a supposed “Clash” of civilizations, while claiming the opposite.
The first manifestations of pictorial art in the Arab-Muslim world date back to the Omayyad period (660-750). It is from this period that date the famous “desert castles”, such as Qusayr ‘Amra, in Eastern Jordan. Covered with wall paintings, these palaces reflect a contribution of the Byzantine, but also Persian Sassanid modes of representation. Thus, in the palace of Qusayr ‘Amra, used as a resort by the Caliph or his princes for sport and pleasure, the frescoes depict constellations of the zodiac, hunting scenes, fruits and women in the bath.
In the field of literature, Al-Rashid built up a vast library including a collection of rare books as well as thousands of books that kings and princes of the ancient world offered him.
For example, Kalila and Dimna, also known as the Indian Fables of Bidpaï, one of the most popular works of world literature. Compiled in Sanskrit nearly two thousand years ago, these animal fables, from which Aesop and La Fontaine drew, were translated from China to Ethiopia. Translated into Arabic around 750 by Ibn al-Muqaffa, they were richly illustrated in the Arab, Persian and Turkish worlds. The oldest illustrated Arabic version was probably produced in Syria in the 1200s. The landscape is symbolized by a few elements: a strip of grass, shrubs with stylized leaves and flowers. Men and animals are represented with bright colors and simplified lines.
A true manual for the education for kings, one of the fables evokes the idea,
of creating a university dedicated to the study of languages,
ancient and modern, and to the preservation,
in renewed forms, of the heritage of the human species…
And at the end of his story, the wise Bidpaï warns the young king Dabschelim:
“I must emphasize this last point: my stories require, at this stage, no extra commentary, wretched imaginings, or vapid guesswork by you, me, or anyone else. The very worst habit would be that of moralizing away the effective substance. Thus the urge to tag tidy little rationalizations, persuasive formulas, intellectual summaries, symbolical labels, or nay other convenient pigeon-holing device, mus be steadfastly resisted. Mental encapsulation perverts the medecine, rendering it impotent. It amount to a bypass around the story’s true destination; to explain away is to forget. It is also a type of hypocrisy – poisonous, an antidote to truth. Thus, let the stories which you can remember do their own work by their very diversity. Familiarize yourself with them, but fiddle with them not.”
Also noteworthy is The Sessions of the poet and man of letters Al-Hariri (1054-1122) [*7], written at the end of the tenth century and which had a tremendous diffusion throughout the Arab world. The text, which recounts the adventures of the brigand Abu Zayd, is particularly suitable for illustration.
Al-Ma’mûn and the Houses of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikma)
After a violent dispute with his brother who sought to remove him from power, Al-Ma’mûn, the youngest son of Al-Rashid, became the eighth Abbasid caliph in 813. He was particularly interested in the work of scholars, especially those who knew Greek. He gathered in Baghdad thinkers of all beliefs, whom he treated magnificently and with the greatest tolerance. They all wrote in Arabic, a language that allowed them to understand each other. He brought manuscripts from Byzantium to enrich the vast library of his father. Open to scholars, translators, poets, historians, physicians, astronomers, scientists and philosophers, this first public library became the basis of the Bayt Al-Hikma (the “Houses of Wisdom”) combining translation, teaching, research and even public health activities, long before the Western universities. It was here that all known scientific manuscripts of the time, especially Greek writings, were gathered for study.
In Baghdad, this cultural bubbling will not remain confined to the Court but will go down to the street as this description of Baghdad by Ibn Aqul (died in 1119) testifies:
“First there is the large space called the Bridge Square. Then the Birds’ Market, a market where one can find all kinds of flowers and on the sides of which are the elegant stores of the money changers. (…) Then the caterers’ market, the bakers’ market, the butchers’ market, the goldsmiths’ market, unrivaled for the beauty of its architecture: high buildings with teak beams, supporting corbelled rooms. Then there is the huge booksellers’ market, which is also the gathering place for scholars and poets, and the Rusafa market. In the markets of Karkh and the Gate of the Ark, the perfumers do not mix with the merchants of grease and products with unpleasant smells; in the same way the merchants of new objects do not mix with the merchants of used objects.”
Persia, the Nestorians and medicine
As a model for the Houses of Wisdom, the Persian influence and precedents are often mentioned. It is true that the Barmakids, a family of Persian origin [*8], had a great influence on the first Abbasid caliphs.
In fact, al-Ma’mûn’s tutor was Jafar ben Yahya Barmaki (767-803), a member of the family of the Armenians and the son of the Persian vizier of his father Al-Rashid. The Persian elite who advised the Abbasid caliphs took a keen interest in the works of the Greeks, whose translation had begun during the reign of the Sassanid king Khosro I Anushirvan (531-579).
The latter founded the Academy of Medicine in Gondichapur. Many Nestorian (Christian) scribes and scholars had taken refuge there after the Council of Ephesus in 431. [*9]
The liturgical language of the Nestorians was Syriac, a Semitic dialect [*10].
Like the Jews, these Nestorian Christians possessed a cosmopolitan culture and a knowledge of languages (Syriac and Persian) that enabled them to act as intermediaries between Iran and its neighbors. And thanks to their access to the wisdom of ancient Greece, they were often employed as physicians. [*11]
The Academy of Medicine of Gondichapur [*12] had reached its peak in the 5th century thanks to the Syriac scholars expelled from Edessa. In this school, medicine was taught based on the translations of the Greek scholar and physician Claudius Galen. These teachings were put into practice in a large hospital, a tradition taken up in the Muslim world. This school was a meeting place for Greek, Syriac, Persian and Indian scholars, whose scientific influence was mutual. Heir to the Greek medical knowledge of Alexandria, the school of Gondichapur trained several generations of physicians at the court of the Sassanid and later at that of the Muslim Abbasid. As early as 765, the Abbasid caliph Al-Mansur, who reigned from 754 to 775, consulted the head of the Gondichapur hospital, Georgios ben Bakhtichou, and invited him to Baghdad. His descendants will work and teach medicine there. Long after the establishment of Islam, the Arab elites sent their sons to this Nestorian Christian school.
Timothy I (727-823) was the Christian patriarch of the Church of the East (“Nestorian”) between 780 and 823. His first decision was to establish the seat of his church in Baghdad, where it was to remain until the end of the thirteenth century, thus forging privileged links between the Nestorians and the Abbasid caliphs. A man with a good command of Syriac, Arabic, Greek and eventually Pehlevi, Timothy enjoyed the consideration of the Abbasid caliphs Al-Mahdi, Al-Rashid and Al-Ma’mûn.
During his forty-three years of pontificate, the Eastern Church lived in peace. Moreover, the Nestorians played a major role in the spread of Christianity in Central Asia as far as China via the Silk Road. In Central Asia, before the arrival of Islam, it was Sogdian, (the Iranian language of Sogdia and its capital Samarkand) that served as the lingua franca on the Silk Road. [*13]
Translating, understanding, teaching, improving
In Baghdad and Basra, in the Houses of Wisdom, the histories and texts collected after the collapse of the empire of Alexander the Great were translated and made available to scholars, texts initially collated and translated from Syriac into Persian under the aegis of the Sassanid emperors.
The Arab historian and economist Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), who came from a large Andalusian family of Yemeni origin, paid tribute to this effort to preserve and disseminate the Greek heritage: “What happened to the sciences of the Persians whose writings, at the time of the conquest, were annihilated by order of Omar? Where are the sciences of the Chaldeans, the Assyrians, the inhabitants of Babylon? Where are the sciences that reigned among the Copts in the past? There is only one nation, that of the Greeks, whose scientific productions we possess exclusively, and that is thanks to the care that Al-Ma’mûn took in translating these works.”
These first translations into Arabic made available to the Arab-Muslim world hundreds of texts on philosophy, medicine, logic, mathematics, astronomy, music, etc., from Greek, Pehlevi, Syriac, Hebrew, Sanskrit, etc, including those of Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, Sushruta, Hippocrates, Euclid, Charaka, Ptolemy, Claudius Galen, Plotinus, Aryabhata and Brahmagupta.
They were accompanied by reflections, commentaries, translations of commentaries, etc. and gave rise to a new form of literature. According to the Nestorian patriarch Timothy I, it was at the request of the Caliph Al-Mahdi that he translated Aristotle’s Topics from Syriac into Arabic. He also wrote a treatise on astronomy entitled The Book of Stars, now lost.
An astrology and astronomy enthusiast, Al-Ma’mûn once made it a condition of peace with the Byzantine Empire to hand over a copy of the Almagest, Ptolemy’s main work, which was supposed to summarize all Greek astronomical knowledge. In 829, in the upper district of Baghdad, he built the first permanent observatory in the world, the Baghdad Observatory, allowing his astronomers, who had translated the Astronomical Treatise of the Greek Hipparchus of Nicaea (190-120 B.C.), as well as his star register, to methodically monitor the movement of the planets.
Here is what Sâ’id al-Andalusî (1029-1070) tells us about Al-Ma’mûn’s interest in astronomy and his efforts to advance it:
“As soon as Al-Ma’mûn became caliph, his noble soul made every effort to attain wisdom, and to this end he was particularly concerned with philosophy; moreover, the scholars of his time studied in depth a book by Ptolemy and understood the diagrams of a telescope that was drawn therein. So Al-Ma’mûn gathered all the great scholars present throughout the regions of the caliphate, and he asked them to build the same kind of instrument so that they could observe the planets in the same way as Ptolemy had done and those who had preceded him. The object was built and the scholars brought it to the city of al-Shamâsiyya in the region of Damascus in the Sham in the year 214 AH (829 AD). Through their observations they determined the exact duration of a solar year as well as the inclination of the sun, the exit of its center and the situation of its various faces, which allowed them to know the state and positions of the other planets. Then the death of the caliph al-Ma’mûn in 218 A.H. (833) put an end to this project, but they nevertheless completed the astronomical telescope and named it ‘the Ma’mûn telescope’”
Now, let me present you a short list of the main astronomers, mathematicians, thinkers, scholars and translators who frequented the Houses of Wisdom:
—Al-Jahiz (776-867). The encyclopedic approach of this Mutazilite is conceived as « a necklace gathering pearls » or as a garden which, with its plants, its harmonious organization and its fountains, represents in miniature the whole universe. He sketches the principle of the evolution of species;
—Al-Khwarizmi (780-850), (in Latin Algorithmus). This Persian mathematician and astronomer, according to some a Zoroastrian converted to Islam, would have been a follower of mutazilism. He is best known for having invented the method of solving mathematical problems, which is still used today and which is called algorithm. He studied for some time in Baghdad but it is also reported that he made a trip to India. Al Khawarizmi invented the word algebra (from the Arabic word j-b-r, meaning force, beat or multiply), introduced the Indian numerical system to the Muslim world, institutionalized the decimal system in mathematics, and formalized the testing of scientific hypotheses based on observations;
—Sahl Rabban al-Tabari (786-845), a Jewish astronomer and physician whose name means “The son of the rabbi of Tabaristan”. His son Ali was the tutor of al-Razi (865-925). An alchemist who became a physician, he is said to have isolated sulfuric acid and ethanol and was among the first to advocate their medical use. He greatly influenced the conception of hospital organization in connection with the training of future doctors. He was the object of much criticism for his opposition to Aristotelianism;
—Al-Hajjaj (786-823) made the first Arabic translation of Euclid’s Elements from Greek. He also translated Ptolemy’s Almagest;
—Al-Kindi (801-873) (known as Alkindus), considered the father of Arab philosophy, was a mutazilist. He was a prolific author (about 260 books) and explored all fields: geometry, philosophy, medicine, astronomy, physics, arithmetic, logic, music and psychology. Along with his colleagues, Al-Kindi was entrusted with the translation of the manuscripts of Greek scholars. After the death of Al-Ma’mun in 833, he was considered too much of a mutazilist, fell into disgrace and his library was confiscated;
—The Banu Musa (“children of Moses”) brothers, three brilliant sons of a deceased astrologer, friend of the Caliph. Mohammed will work on astronomy; Ahmed and Hassan on the canals linking the Euphrates to the Tigris, a guarantee of the control and optimization of their respective floods. They published the Book of Ingenious Mechanisms, an inventory of new techniques and machines [*14];
—Hunayn ibn Ishâk (808-873) (known as Iohannitius). This Nestorian Christian was entrusted by Al-Ma’mun with the task of overseeing the quality of translations; a physician, he translated some of the works of the Greek physician Claudius Galen;
—Thabit ibn Qurra (836-901), a Syrian astronomer, mathematician, philosopher and musicologist;
—Qusta ibn Luqa (820-912), a Greek Byzantine physician, also a philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, naturalist and translator. A Christian of the Melkite Church, he spoke both Greek (his mother tongue) and Arabic, as well as Syriac. Considered, along with Hunayn ibn Ishaq, as one of the key figures in the transmission of Greek knowledge from Antiquity to the Arab-Muslim world. He was the translator of Aristarchus of Samos for whom the Earth revolved around the Sun and the author of a treatise on the astrolabe;
—Ibn Sahl (940-1000), in the footsteps of Al-Kindi, wrote a treatise on burning mirrors and lenses around 984, explaining how they can focus light on a point. His work was perfected by Ibn Al-Haytam (965-1040) (Latin name: Alhazen), whose writings reached as far as Leonardo da Vinci, via the Commentaries of Ghiberti. In Ibn-Sahl, we find the first mention of the law of refraction, later rediscovered in Europe as the law of Snell-Descartes.
Drawn into Bagdad for the opportunities it offered, these scholars generally worked in teams in a totally interdisciplinary spirit. Al-Ma’mûn, monitoring the science projets and noting the contradictions that arose from the translations of Greek, Persian and Indian sources, fixed with the scholars the next great scientific challenges to be met:
–To obtain, thanks to more efficient astronomical observatories, tables of astronomical ephemerides [*15] of greater precision than those of Ptolemy;
–To calculate with precision the circumference of the Earth with more advanced methods than those of the Greek astronomer Eratosthenes (3rd century BC);
–Produce a world map integrating the latest geographical knowledge concerning the distances between cities and the size of the continents;
–Deciphering the Egyptian hieroglyphs that Al-Ma’mûn had discovered during his trip to Egypt.
Translations of Plato
By asserting that what had advanced science at this period was the rediscovery of Aristotle and his purely empiricist method, one forgets the rediscovery of Plato, whose dialectical and hypothetical method has often done more for science than blind empiricism.
Al-Kindi’s intense involvement in the Platonic tradition is reflected in his summaries of the Apology and the Crito, and in his own works that paraphrase the Phaedo or are inspired by the Meno and the Symposium. The Syrian scientist Ibn al-Bitriq, a member of Al-Kindi’s “circle” in Bagdad, translated the Timaeus.
Otherwise, the House of Wisdom’s top translator, Hunayn ibn Ishaq and his circle translated the Greek physician Claudius Galen’s commentaries on the Timaeus, especially his On what Plato said in the Timaeus in a medical way and his On the doctrines of Hippocrates and Plato. And from Hunayn’s own works, we know that some of his students translated Galen’s lost Greek summaries of Plato’s Cratylus, Sophist, Parmenides, Euthydemus, Republic and Laws. Finally, the physician al-Razi presented and commented on Plutarch’s treatise On the Generation of the Soul in the Timaeus.
possible for some, complicated for others
In the West, the name of Al-Kindi is best known in association with The Apology of Al-Kindi, an anonymous text of the time. It is probably a fictitious dialogue between two believers, one Muslim (Abdallah Al-Hashimi), the other Christian (Al-Kindi), both criticizing the other’s and praising one’s own religion and inviting the other to join him! This dialogue supposedly took place at the time of the caliph Al-Ma’mûn. What we know about the open-mindedness of the Caliph does not contradict this assertion. The earliest known mention of the existence of this Apology came to us from Al-Biruni (973-1048).
The manuscript of Al-Kindi’s Apology was translated into Latin in 1142 at the request of Peter the Venerable (1092-1156), grand abbot of the abbey of Cluny, the most powerful and important in Latin Europe. That same year, after visiting Toledo, he conceived the idea of a systematic refutation of the Muslim religion, which he considered heretical and errant.
Here is how he explains the translation he has just ordered of the Koran (the Lex Mahumet pseudoprophete) by a team of translators (including an Arab) brought together for the occasion:
“Whether one gives the Mohammedan error the shameful name of heresy or the infamous one of paganism, one must act against it, that is, write. But the Latins and especially the moderns, the ancient culture perishing, according to the word of the Jews who once admired the polyglot apostles, do not know any other language than that of their native land. So they could neither recognize the enormity of this error nor stop it. So my heart was inflamed and a fire burned in my meditation. I was indignant that the Latins did not know the cause of such a perdition and their ignorance robbed them of the power to resist it; for no one answered, for no one knew. So I went to find specialists in the Arabic language which has allowed this deadly poison to infest more than half the globe. I persuaded them, by dint of prayers and money, to translate from Arabic into Latin the history and doctrine of this wretched man and his very law, which is called Koran”.
Accused hence “the Arabic language which allowed this deadly poison (Islam) to infest more than half of the globe”…
This declaration of war was undoubtedly required to motivate his troops. Let us recall that Eudes de Châtillon, the grand prior of the abbey of Cluny, who will become Pope Urban II in 1088, will be, in 1095, at the origin of the first crusade sending the bandits who ravaged France, to go and wage war elsewhere.
The decline and Al-Ghazali
Let us return to the Abbasids. As we have said, with the arrival in power of Al-Mutawakkil in 847, mutazilism was removed from power and the Houses of Wisdom were reduced to simple libraries. This did not prevent a traveller, describing his visit to Baghdad in 891, from reporting that the city contained more than one hundred public libraries. Following the Bayt Al-Hikma model, small libraries were founded on every street corner of the city…
Entangled in endless theological debates between experts and won by sectarianism, the mutazilist elite cut itself off from a people who were losing confidence and eventually welcomed with a sense of relief the obscurantist doctrine of Al-Ghâzalî (1058-1111) (Latin name: Algazel), the worst enemy of the mutazilites.
Al-Ghâzalî proposed a radical solution: philosophy is only right when it agrees with religion – which, according to Al-Ghâzalî, is rare. This leads him to radicalize his position, and to attack more and more the Greco-Arab philosophy, guilty, in his eyes, of blasphemy.
Where someone like the Persian Ibn Sina (980-1037) (Latin name: Avicenna), author of the Canons or Precepts of Medicine (around 1020), crossed Greek philosophy and Muslim religion, Al-Ghazali wanted to filter the first through the second.
Hence his most famous and important work, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, written in 1095. In it, he denounces the “pride” of the philosophers who claim to “rewrite the Koran” through Plato and Aristotle. Their error is above all a logical one, as the title of the book itself indicates, which underlines their “incoherence”: they want to complete the Koran with Greek philosophy, whereas the Koran comes later in history and therefore does not need to be completed. He therefore promotes a much more literal approach to the Koranic text, whereas Ibn Sina defended, cautiously it is true, a metaphorical approach. In truth, it is Aristotelianism and nominalism that triumph. The doctrine opposing Mutazilism became known as Ash’arism.
For Ascharites, to speak of God’s justice and rationality is a double blasphemy, because it amounts to limiting his omnipotence. If God were, as the Mutazilites say, compelled to will what is good, then he would be … compelled, which the Ascharites find theologically unacceptable. Therefore, believers should not admit the idea that God wills good, but submit to the principle that whatever he wills is good because he wills it.
Similarly, it is blasphemous to look for « second causes » in nature, i.e. scientific laws. The world exists because God, at every moment, wants it to exist. Any scientific research, any attempt to apply reason and analysis, is an offense to the divine omnipotence.
For Sébastien Castellion, the rejection of reason by the Ascharite school – and subsequently by much of Muslim civilization – was not an implicit and subterranean process, but an explicit decision based on theological principles. The great jurist Ibn Hanbal, whose school is predominant in Saudi Arabia today, said that « all those who indulge in reasoning by analogy and personal opinions are heretics (…). Accept only, without asking why and without making comparisons. »
The fall of Bagdad
From the eleventh century onward, the Abbasid, whose Empire was fragmenting, called upon the Turkish Seljuk princes to protect them against the Shiites, supported by the Fatimid caliphate of Cairo. Gradually, the Turkish and Mongol troops, coming from Central Asia, ended up governing the security of the Abbasid caliph while letting him exercise his religious power.
Then, in 1258, they deposed the last caliph and confiscated his title of successor of the Prophet, which gave them religious power over the four schools of Sunnism. In order to subdue the Arab and Persian populations, the Seljuk Turks created the madrasa (Koranic school) where the conservative doctrine of Acharite Sunnism was taught to the exclusion of the dialectical Mutazilite theology, considered an ideological threat to Turkish authority over the Arabs.
The Abbasid Empire declined as a result of administrative negligence, abandonment of canal maintenance, flood-induced famine, social injustice, slave revolts, and religious tensions between Shiites and Sunnis. At the end of the 9th century, the Zendj, black slaves (from Zanzibar) who worked in the marshes of the lower Iraq, revolted several times, even occupying Basra and threatening Baghdad. The Caliph restored order at the cost of an unprecedentedly violent repression. The rebels were only crushed in 883 at the cost of many victims. The empire did not recover.
In 1019, the Caliph forbade any new interpretation of the Koran, radically opposing the Mutazilite school. This is a brutal stop to the development of critical thinking and intellectual and scientific innovations in the Arab Empire, the consequences of which are still felt today.
Since the dawn of time (it is the case to say it), man has tried to understand the organization of the stars in the environment near the Earth.
Installations such as Stonehenge (2800 BC) in England allowed the first observers to identify the cycles that determine the place and the exact day when certain stars rise. All these observations posed paradoxes: around us, the earth appears relatively flat, but the Moon or the Sun that we perceive with the same eyes seem spherical. The Sun « rises » and « sets », our senses tell us, but where is the reality?
It seems that Thales of Miletus (625-547 BC) was the first to have really wondered about the shape of the Earth. He thought that the Earth was shaped like a flat disk on a vast expanse of water. Then Pythagoras and Plato imagined a spherical shape, which they considered more beautiful and rational. Finally Aristotle reported some observational evidence such as the rounded shape of the Earth’s shadow on the Moon during eclipses.
The Greek scientist Eratosthenes (276 BC- 194 BC), chief librarian of the Alexandria library, then calculated the Earth’s circumference. He had noticed that at noon, on the day of the summer solstice, there was no shadow on the side of Aswan. By measuring the shadow of a stick planted in Alexandria at the same time and knowing the distance between the two cities, he deduced the circumference of the Earth with a rather astonishing accuracy: 39,375 kilometers against some 40,000 kilometers for current estimates.
Between Ptolemy’s Almagest and Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus, as we have said, Arabic astronomy constitutes “the missing link”.
The original title of Ptolemy’s work is The Mathematical Composition. The Arabs, very impressed by this work, called it “megiste”, from the Greek meaning “very great”, to which they added the Arabic article “al”, to give “al megiste” which became Almageste.
It is important to know that Ptolemy never had the opportunity to re-read his treatise as a whole. After writing the first of the thirteen books of his work, the one on “The Fundamental Postulates of Astronomy”, Ptolemy passed it on to copyists who reproduced it and distributed it widely without waiting for the completion of the other twelve books…
In the end, confronted with observations that called into question his own observations and in order to rectify his errors, Ptolemy wrote another work, after the Almagest, entitled Planetary Hypotheses. The author returned to the models presented in the Almagest while making modifications to the average motions (of the planets) to take into account the latest observations. However, his Planetary Hypotheses went beyond the mathematical model of the Almagest to present a physical realization of the universe as a set of nested spheres, in which he used the epicycles of his planetary model to calculate the dimensions of the universe. Finally, the Almagest also contains a description of 1022 stars grouped into 48 constellations.
Ptolemy also presents stereographic projection invented by Hipparchus, the theoretical basis for the construction of the astrolabe by Arab astronomers.
In the ninth century, when the Arabs became interested in astronomy, knowledge was based on the following principles summarized in the work of Ptolemy:
–Ignoring the assertions of Aristarchus of Samos (310-230 BC) for whom the Earth revolved around the Sun, Ptolemy resumed in the second century AD the thesis of Eudoxus of Cnidus (approx. 400-355 BC) and especially Hipparchus (180 to 125 BC) to assert that the Earth is a motionless sphere placed at the center of the world (geocentrism);
–Ptolemy agreed with Plato, who was inspired by Pythagoras, that the circle was the only perfect form, and that the other bodies turning around the Earth did so according to circular and uniform trajectories (without acceleration or deceleration);
–Yet everyone knew that some planets do not follow these perfect rules. In the 6th century, the neo-Platonic philosopher Simplicius, in his Commentary on Aristotle’s Physics, wrote: “Plato then poses this problem to the mathematicians: what are the uniform and perfectly regular circular motions that should be taken as hypotheses, so that we can save the appearances that the wandering stars present?” ;
–In order to account for the « apparent retrograde motion » of Mars, Hipparchus will introduce other secondary perfect figures, again circles. The articulation and interaction of these “epicycles” gave the appearance of sticking with the observed facts. Ptolemy took up this approach;
–However, the more the precision of astronomical measurements improved, the more anomalies were discovered and the more it was necessary to multiply these interlocking “epicycles”. It quickly became very complicated and inextricable;
–The universe is divided into a sub-lunar region where everything is created and therefore perishable, and the rest of the universe, supra-lunar, which is imperishable and eternal.
Hipparchus of Nicea
The Arab astronomers, for both religious and intellectual reasons that we mentioned at the beginning of this article, initially discovered and then, on the basis of increasingly detailed observations, challenged Hipparchus’ hypotheses, which were the basis of the Ptolemaic model.
Hipparchus imagined a system of coordinates for the stars based on longitudes and latitudes. We also owe him the use of parallels and meridians to locate the Earth as well as the division of the circumference into 360° inherited from the sexagesimal calculation (base 60) of the Babylonians.
In astronomy, his works on the rotation of the Earth and the planets are numerous. Hipparchus explains the mechanism of the seasons by noting the obliquity of the ecliptic: the inclination of the Earth’s axis of rotation. By comparing his observations with older ones, he discovered the precession of the equinoxes due to this tilt: the Earth’s axis of rotation makes a conical movement from East to West and of revolution 26,000 years. Thus in a few millennia, the North Pole will no longer be found with the North Star (Polaris) but with another star, Vega.
Based on Hipparchus, the Arabs perfected and fabricated an important instrument for measuring positions: the astrolabe. This “mathematical jewel” allows to measure the position of stars, planets, to know the time on Earth. Later, the astrolabe was replaced by more precise and easier to use instruments, such as the quadrant, the sextant or the octant.
With the manuscripts at their disposal in the Houses of Wisdom and the observatories of Baghdad and Damascus, the Arab astronomers had texts of an incredible richness but often in flagrant contradiction with their own observations of the movements of the Moon and the Sun. It is from this confrontation that later discoveries were born. The Arabs introduced a lot of mathematics to solve problems, especially trigonometry and algebra.
The Arab astronomers
In order to present the main Arab astronomers and their contributions, here is an excerpt from J. P. Maratray’s remarkable article L’astronomie arabe.
—Al-Khwarizmi (783-850) called Algorithmi.
A mathematician, geographer and astronomer of Persian origin, he was a member of the « House of Wisdom ». He is one of the founders of Arab mathematics, inspired by Indian knowledge, in particular the decimal system, fractions, square roots… He is credited with the term “algorithm”. Algorithms are known since antiquity, and the name of Al-Khwarizmi (Algorithmi in Latin) will be given to these sequences of repeated elementary operations. He is also the author of the term “algebra”, which is the title of one of his works on the subject. He was also the first to use the letter x to designate an unknown in an equation. He wrote the first book of algebra (al-jabr) in which he described a systematic method of solving second degree equations and proposed a classification of these equations. He introduced the use of numbers that we still use today. These “Arabic” numbers are in fact of Indian origin, but were used mathematically by Al-Khwarizmi. He adopted the use of the zero, invented by the Indians in the 5th century, and adopted by the Arabs through him. The Arabs will translate the Indian word “sunya” by “as-sifr”, which becomes “ziffer” and “zephiro”. Ziffer will give “number”, and zephiro, “zero”. Al-Khwarizmi established astronomical tables (position of the five planets, the Sun and the Moon) based on Hindu and Greek astronomy. He studied the position and visibility of the Moon and its eclipses, the Sun and the planets. It is the first completely Arabic astronomical work. A crater of the Moon bears his name.
—Al-Farghani (805-880) called Alfraganus (mentioned in Dante’s Commedia).
Born in Ferghana in present-day Uzbekistan, he wrote in 833 the Elements of Astronomy, based on the Greek knowledge of Ptolemy. He was one of the most remarkable astronomers in the service of Al-Ma’mûn, and a member of the House of Wisdom. He introduced new ideas, such as the fact that the precession of the equinoxes must affect the position of the planets, and not only that of the stars. His work was translated into Latin in the 12th century, and had a great impact on the very closed circles of Western European astronomers. He determined the diameter of the Earth, which he estimated at 10500 km. We also owe him a work on sundials and another on the astrolabe.
—Al-Battani (850-929) called Albatenius.
He observed the sky from Syria. He is sometimes called “the Ptolemy of the Arabs”. His measurements are remarkably accurate. He determined the length of the solar year, the value of the precession of the equinoxes, the inclination of the ecliptic. He noted that the eccentricity of the Sun is variable, without going so far as to interpret this phenomenon as an elliptical trajectory. He wrote a catalog of 489 stars. We owe him the first use of trigonometry in the study of the sky. It is a much more powerful method than the geometrical one of Ptolemy. His main work is The Book of Tables. It is composed of 57 chapters. Translated into Latin in 1116 by Plato of Tivoli, it will greatly influence the European astronomers of the Renaissance.
—Al-Soufi (903-986) known as Azophi.
Persian astronomer, he translated Greek works including the Almagest and improved the estimates of the magnitudes of stars. In 964, he published « The Book of Fixed Stars », where he drew constellations. He seems to have been the first to report an observation of the large Magellanic cloud (a nebula), visible in Yemen, but not in Isfahan. Similarly, we owe him a first representation of the Andromeda galaxy, probably already observed before him. He described it as « a small cloud » in the mouth of the Arabian constellation of the Great Fish. Its name (Azophi) was given to a crater on the Moon.
—Al-Khujandi (circa 940- circa 1000).
He was a Persian astronomer and mathematician. He built an observatory in Ray, near Tehran, with a huge sextant, constructed in 994. It is the first instrument able to measure angles more precise than the minute of angle. He measures with this instrument the obliquity of the ecliptic, by observing the meridian passages of the Sun. He found 23° 32′ 19 ». Ptolemy found 23° 51′, and the Indians, much earlier, 24°. The idea of the natural variation of this angle never occurred to the Arabs. They discussed for a long time about the accuracy of the measurements, which made their science advance.
—Ibn Al-Haytam (965-1039) called Alhazen.
A mathematician and optician born in Basra in present-day Iraq, he was asked by the Egyptian authorities to solve the problem of the Nile floods. His solution was the construction of a dam towards Aswan. He gave up in front of the enormity of the task (the dam was finally built in 1970!). Faced with this “failure”, he feigned madness until the death of his boss. He made a critical assessment of Ptolemy’s theses and those of his predecessors, and wrote Doubts on Ptolemy. He draws up a catalog of the inconsistencies, without however proposing an alternative solution. Among the inconsistencies he noted were the variation in the apparent diameter of the Moon and the Sun, the non-uniformity of the allegedly circular motions, the variation in the position of the planets in latitude, the organization of the Greek spheres. Observing that the Milky Way has no parallax, he placed it very far from the Earth, in any case further away than Aristotle’s sub-lunar sphere. Despite his doubts, he maintains the central place of the Earth in the universe. Ibn Al-Haytam takes up the work of Greek scholars, from Euclid to Ptolemy, for whom the notion of light is closely linked to the notion of vision: the main question being whether the eye has a passive role in this process or whether it sends a kind of fluid to “interrogate” the object. Through his studies of the mechanism of vision, Ibn Al-Haytam showed that the two eyes were an optical instrument, and that they actually saw two separate images. If the eye sent this fluid, one could see at night, he speculated. He understood that the sunlight reflected off the objects and then entered the eye. But for him, the image is formed on the lens… He took up Ptolemy’s ideas on the rectilinear propagation of light, accepted the laws of reflection on a mirror, and sensed that light has a finite, but very great speed. He studied refraction, the deviation of a light ray as it passes from one medium to another, and predicted a change in the speed of light as it passes. But he could never calculate the angle of refraction. He found that the phenomenon of twilight is related to the refraction of sunlight in the atmosphere, which he tried to measure the height, without success. Already known in antiquity, we owe him a very precise description and the use for experimental purposes of the dark room (camera obscura), a black room that projects an image on a wall through a small hole drilled in the opposite wall. The result of all this optical research is recorded in his Treatise on Optics, which took him six years to write and was translated into Latin in 1270. [*16] In mechanics, he asserted that an object in motion continues to move as long as no force stops it. This is the principle of inertia before the letter. An asteroid bears his name: 59239 Alhazen.
Certainly one of the greatest scholars of medieval Islam, originally from Persia, he was interested in astronomy, geography, history, medicine and mathematics, and philosophy in general. He wrote more than 100 works. He was also a tax collector and a great traveler, especially in India, where he studied language, religion and science. At the age of 17, he calculated the latitude of his native town of Kath (in Persia, now in Uzbekistan). At the age of 22, he had already written several short works, including one on cartography. In astronomy, he observed the eclipses of the Moon and the Sun. He is one of the first to evaluate the errors on his measurements and those of his predecessors. He noticed a difference between the average speed and the apparent speed of a star. He measured the radius of the Earth at 6339.6 km (the correct figure is 6378 km), a result used in Europe in the 16th century. During his travels, he met Indian astronomers who supported heliocentrism and the rotation of the Earth on its axis. He will always be skeptical, because this theory implies the movement of the Earth. But he will ask himself the question: « Here is a problem difficult to solve and to refute ». He believes that this theory does not lead to any mathematical problems. He refuted astrology, arguing that this discipline is more conjectural than experimental. In mathematics, he developed the calculation of proportions (rule of three), demonstrated that the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter is irrational (future number Pi), calculated trigonometric tables, and developed methods of geodesic triangulations.
—Ali Ibn Ridwan (988-1061).
Egyptian astronomer and astrologer, he wrote several astronomical and astrological works, including a commentary on another book of Claudius Ptolemy, the Tetrabible. He observed and commented on a supernova (SN 1006), probably the brightest in history. Its magnitude is estimated today, according to the testimonies that have come down to us, at -7.5! It remained visible for more than a year. He explains that this new star had two to three times the apparent diameter of Venus, a quarter of the brightness of the Moon, and that it was low on the southern horizon. Other western observations corroborate this description, and place it in the constellation of the Wolf.
—From the 11th to the 16th century.
After a first phase, more important observatories were built. The first of them, model of the following ones, is that of Maragheh, in the current Iran. Their purpose was to establish planetary models and to understand the movement of the stars. (…) The school thus constituted will have its apogee with Ibn Al-Shâtir (1304-1375). Other observatories will follow, such as the one in Samarkand in the 15th century, Istanbul in the early 16th century, and, in the West, the one of Tycho Brahe in Uraniborg (Denmark at that time) at the end of the 16th century. The new models were no longer Ptolemaic inspired, but remained geocentric. The physics of the time still refused to put the Earth in motion and to remove it from the center of the world. These models were inspired by the Greek epicycles, keeping the circles, but simplifying them. For example, Al-Tûsî proposes a system comprising a circle rolling inside another circle of double radius. This system transforms two circular motions into an alternating rectilinear motion, and explains the variations of the latitude of the planets. Moreover, it accounts for the variations of the apparent diameters of the stars. But to go further, it will be necessary to change the reference system, which the Arabs refused to do. This change will occur with the Copernican revolution, during the Renaissance, in which the Earth loses its status as the center of the world.
—Al-Zarqali (1029-1087) said Arzachel.
Mathematician, astronomer and geographer born in Toledo, Spain, he discussed the possibility of the movement of the Earth. Like others, his writings will be known to Europeans of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. He designed astrolabes, and established the Toledo Tables, which were used by the great Western navigators such as Christopher Columbus, and served as a basis for the Alphonsine Tables. He established that the eccentricity of the Sun varies, more precisely that the center of the circle on which the Sun rotates moves periodically away from or towards the Earth. A crater of the Moon bears his name, as well as a bridge of Toledo on the Tagus.
—Omar Al-Khayyam (1048-1131).
Known for his poetry, he was also interested in astronomy and mathematics. He became director of the Isfahan observatory in 1074. He created new astronomical tables even more precise, and determined the duration of the solar year with great accuracy, given the instruments used. It is more accurate than the Gregorian year, created five centuries later in Europe. He reformed the Persian calendar by introducing a leap year (Djelalean reform). In mathematics, he was interested in third degree equations by demonstrating that they can have several solutions (he found some of them geometrically). He wrote several texts on the extraction of the cubic roots, and a treaty of algebra.
Astronomer and mathematician, born in the city of Tus in present-day Iran, he built and directed the observatory of Maragheh. He studied the works of Al-Khayyam on proportions, and was interested in geometry. On the astronomical side, he commented on the Almagest and completed it, like several astronomers (Al-Battani…) before him. He estimates the obliquity of the ecliptic at 23°30′.
Persian mathematician and astronomer, he witnessed a lunar eclipse in 1406 and wrote several astronomical works afterwards. He spent the rest of his life in Samarkand, under the protection of Prince Ulugh Beg (1394-1449) who founded a university there. He became the first director of the new observatory of Samarkand. His astronomical tables propose values with 4 (5 according to the sources) digits in sexagesimal notation of the sine function. He gives the way to pass from a system of coordinates to another. His catalog contains 1018 stars. He improves the tables of eclipses and visibility of the Moon. In his treatise on the circle, he obtained an approximate value of Pi with 9 exact positions in sexagesimal notation, that is to say 16 exact decimals! A record, since the next improvement of the estimation of Pi dates from the 16th century with 20 decimals. He leaves his name to a generalization of the Pythagorean theorem to any triangles. This is the Al-Kashi theorem. He introduced the decimal fractions, and acquired a great reputation which made him the last great Arab mathematician astronomer, before the West took over.
—Ulugh Beg (1394-1449).
Grandson of Tamerlan, prince of the Timurid (descendants of Tamerlan). Viceroy from 1410, he acceded to the throne in 1447. He was a remarkable scholar and a poor politician, a position he delegated to devote himself to science. His teacher was Qadi Zada al-Rumi (1364-1436) who developed in him a taste for mathematics and astronomy. He built several schools, including one in Samarkand in 1420 where he taught, and an observatory in 1429. He worked there with some 70 mathematicians and astronomers (including Al-Kashi) to write the Sultanian Tables published in 1437 and improved by Ulugh Beg himself shortly before his death in 1449. The accuracy of these tables will remain unequaled for more than 200 years, and they were used in the West. They contain the positions of more than 1000 stars. Their first translation dates from around 1500, and was made in Venice.
—Taqi Al-Din (1526-1585).
After a period as a theologian, he became the official astronomer of the Sultan in Istanbul. He built an observatory there with the aim of competing with those of European countries, including that of Tycho Brahe. The observatory was opened in 1577. He drew up the Zij tables (“the unbroken pearl”). He was the first to use comma notation, rather than the traditional sexagesimal fractions in use. He observed and described a comet, and predicted that it was a sign of victory for the Ottoman army. This forecast turns out to be erronous, and the observatory is destroyed in 1580… He then devotes himself to mechanics, and describes the functioning of a rudimentary steam engine, invents a water pump, and is fascinated by clocks and optics.
The destruction of the observatory of Istanbul marks the end of the Arab astronomical activity of the Middle Ages. It was not until the Copernican revolution that new progress was made, and what progress! Copernicus and his successors were certainly strongly inspired by the results of the Arabs through their works. Travel and direct contact between scientists of the time were rare. Since Westerners did not understand Arabic, Latin translations probably influenced the West, along with the works of some Greek philosophers who had questioned the central position of the Earth, as Aristarchus of Samos had proposed around 280 BC.
The modern observatory, in its conception, is a worthy successor of the Arab observatories of the late Middle Ages. Unlike the private observatories of the Greek philosophers, the Islamic observatory is a specialized astronomical institution, with its own premises, scientific staff, teamwork with observers and theoreticians, a director and study programs. They have recourse, as today, to increasingly large instruments, in order to constantly improve the accuracy of measurements.
The first of these observatories was built during the reign of Al-Ma’mûn in Bagdad in the 9th century. We have already mentioned the observatory of Ray, near Tehran and second city of the Abbasid Empire after Baghdad, with its monumental wall sextant dating from 994. To these must be added the observatories of Toledo and Cordoba in Spain, Baghdad and Isfahan.
Finally, the one in Maragheh in the north of present-day Iran, built in 1259 with funds collected to maintain hospitals and mosques. Al-Tusi worked there. Then came the era of the observatory of Samarkand, built in 1420 by the astronomer Ulugh Beg (1394-1449), whose remains were found in 1908 by a Russian team.
Much more than the crusades, it will be the Mongol offensives that will devastate entire sections of the Arab-Muslim civilization. Genghis Khan (1155-1227), to the great pleasure of some Westerners, will destroy the Muslim kingdoms of Khwarezm (1218) and Sogdia with Bukhara and Samarkand (1220). The great city of Merv in 1221. In 1238, his son will seize Moscow, then Kiev. In 1240, Poland and Hungary will be invaded. In 1241, Vienna was threatened.
Before bringing down the Song Dynasty in China in 1273, the Mongols turned against the Abbassid.
Hence, the Houses of Wisdom came to a brutal end on February 12, 1258 with the Mongol invasion of Baghdad led by Hulagu (Genghis Khan’s grandson), who killed the last Abbasid caliph Al-Mu’tassim (despite his surrender) and destroyed the city of Baghdad and its cultural heritage. Hulagu also ordered the massacre of the caliph’s entire family and entourage.
Mutazilism was banned and the magnificent collection of books and manuscripts in the House of Wisdom in Baghdad was thrown into the muddy water of the Tigris, which turned brown for a few days because of the inked papers of the books and manuscripts.
One report says that the Mongols exterminated twenty-four thousand scholars and an incalculable number of books were lost. Of Mutazilism, its doctrine was only known through the texts of the traditionalist theologians who had attacked it. It was only the discovery of the voluminous works of Abdel al Jabbar Ibn Ahmad in the 19th century that made it possible to understand the key role played my this current of thought in the Arab renaissance and the formation of current Muslim theology, whether Sunni or Shiite.
Closer to home, the Iraq war of 2003: until then, Iraq was the world’s largest publisher of scientific publications in Arabic. As a result of the chaos caused by a war waged in the name of “democracy” and “the war on terror”, both the National Library and the National Archives were looted and burned. The same happened to the Central Library of Pious Legacies, the Library of the Iraqi University of Sciences, as well as many public libraries in Baghdad, Mosul and Basra. The same was true for the archaeological treasures of the Iraqi Museum and its library. It seems that some people have declared war on civilization.
- A theodicy or « righteousness of God ») is an explanation of the apparent contradiction between the existence of evil and two characteristics peculiar to God: his omnipotence and his goodness.
- Sumer. The natural environment of the Sumerian country was not really favorable to the development of a productive agriculture: poor soils with a high content of salts harmful to the growth of plants, very high average temperatures, insignificant rainfall, and flooding of rivers coming in the spring, at harvest time, and not in the fall when the seeds need them to germinate, as is the case in Egypt. It was therefore the ingenuity and relentless labor of Mesopotamian farmers that enabled this country to become one of the granaries of the ancient Middle East. From the 6th millennium BC, the peasant communities developed an irrigation system which gradually branched out to cover a large area, thereby taking advantage of the advantage offered to them by the extremely flat relief of the Mesopotamian delta, where there was no no natural obstacle to the extension of the irrigation canals over tens of kilometers. By regulating the level of water derived from natural watercourses to adapt it to the needs of crops, and by developing techniques aimed at limiting soil salinization (leaching of fields, practice of fallow), it was possible to obtain very high cereal yields.
- Khorassan is a region located in northeastern Iran. The name comes from the Persian and means « where does the sun come from ». It was given to the eastern part of the Sassanid Empire. Khorassan is also considered the medieval name of Afghanistan by Afghans. Indeed, this territory included present-day Afghanistan, as well as southern Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
- In the 10th century, the Persian medical scholar Mohammad Al-Razi describes the distillation of petroleum to obtain kerosene or « illuminating petroleum » in his Book of Secrets.
- Sanskrit is a language of India, among the oldest known Indo-European languages (older even than Latin and Greek). It is notably the language of Hindu religious texts and, as such, it continues to be used as a cultural language, like Latin in centuries past in the West.
- Peshlevi or Middle Persian is an Iranian language that was spoken during the Sassanid era. She descends from Old Persian. Middle Persian was usually written using the Pahlevi script. The language was also written using the Manichean script by the Manichaeans of Persia.
- Abu Muhammad al – Qasim ibn ’Ali al – Hariri (1054–1122), Arab man of letters, poet and philologist, was born near Basra, in present-day Iraq. He is known for his Oaths and his maqâmât (literally fashions, often translated as assemblies or sessions), a collection of 50 short stories combining social and moral commentary with the brilliant expressions of the Arabic language. If the genre of maqâma was created by Badi’al – Zaman al – Hamadhani (969–1008), it is the sessions of al – Hariri that best define it. Written in a rhyming prose style called saj ’and interwoven with exquisite verse, the stories are meant to be entertaining and educational. Each of the anecdotes takes place in a different city in the Muslim world during the time of al – Hariri. They tell of an encounter, usually at a gathering of townspeople, between two fictional characters: the narrator al – Harith ibn Hammam and the protagonist Abu Zayd al-Saruji. Over the centuries, the work has been copied and commented on many times, but only 13 copies still in existence today have illuminations illustrating scenes from the stories. The manuscript presented here, executed in 1237, was both copied and illustrated by Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti, often considered the first Arab artist. It contains 99 miniatures of exceptional quality. No other known copy contains so much. The miniatures, recognized for their striking depiction of Muslim life in the 13th century, are considered to be the earliest Arab paintings created by an artist whose identity is known. Al – Wasiti, founder of the Baghdad School of Illumination, was also a remarkable calligrapher, as evidenced by his fine Naskhi style. The almost immediate popularity of the maqâmât reached Arab Spain, where Rabbi Judah al-Harizi (1165-c. 1225) translated the sessions into Hebrew under the title Mahberoth Itiel and subsequently composed his own Tahkemoni, or Hebrew sessions. . The work was also translated into many modern languages.
- The Barmecids or Barmakids are members of a Persian nobility family originally from Balkh in Bactria (north of Afghanistan). This family of Buddhist religious (paramaka means in Sanskrit the superior of a Buddhist monastery) who became Zoroastrians and then converted to Islam provided many viziers to the Abbasid caliphs. The Barmakids had acquired a remarkable reputation as patrons and are regarded as the main instigators of the brilliant culture which then developed in Baghdad.
- The Christological thesis of Nestorius (born c. 381 – died 451), Patriarch of Constantinople (428-431), was declared a heretic and condemned by the Council of Ephesus. For Nestorius, two hypostases, one divine, the other human, coexist in Jesus Christ. From the Eastern Church, Nestorianism was one of the historically most influential forms of Christianity in the world throughout late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, to India, China and Mongolia.
- Syriac (a form of Aramaic, the language of Christ) is alongside Latin and Greek the third component of ancient Christianity, rooted in Hellenism but also descended from Near Eastern and Semitic antiquity. From the first centuries, in a movement symmetrical to that of the Greco-Latin Christian tradition towards the west, Syriac Christianity developed towards the east, as far as India and China. Syriac is still today the liturgical and classical language (a bit like Latin in Europe) of the Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Assyrian, Chaldean and Maronite Churches in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and South India. Where is. Finally, it is the branch of Christianity most in contact with Islam in which he continued to live.
- In South-West Asia, the Greek influence remained alive in several cities under Christian influence: Edessa (now Urfa in Turkey), at the time capital of the county of Edessa, one of the first Eastern Latin states, the closest to the Islamic world; Antioch (now Antakya in Turkey); Nisibe (now Nusaybin in Turkey); Al-Mada’in (ie “The Cities”), an Iraqi metropolis on the Tigris, between the royal cities of Ctesiphon and Seleucia on the Tigris and Gondichapour (now in Iran) whose ruins remain. To this must be added the cities of Latakia (in Syria) and Amed (today Diyarbakir in Turkey) where there were Jacobite centers (Christians of the East, but members of the Syriac Orthodox Church, not to be confused with the Nestorians).
- The Gondishapour Academy was located in present-day Khuzestan province in southwestern Iran, near the Karoun River. It offered the teaching of medicine, philosophy, theology and science. The faculty was well versed not only in Zoroastrian and Persian traditions, but also taught Greek and Indian languages. The Academy included a library, an observatory, and the oldest known teaching hospital. According to historians, the Cambridge of Iran was the most important medical center in the Old World (defined as the territory of Europe, the Mediterranean and the Near East) during the 6th and 7th centuries.
- Sogdian is a middle Iranian language spoken in the Middle Ages by the Sogdians, a trading people who resided in Sogdiana, the historic region encompassing Samarkand and Bukhara and covering more or less present-day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan. Before the arrival of Arabic, Sogdian was the lingua franca of the Silk Road. Sogdian traders settled in China and Sogdian monks were among the first to spread Buddhism there. As early as the 6th century, Chinese rulers appealed to the Sogdian elite to resolve diplomatic, commercial, military and even cultural issues, prompting many Sogdians to migrate from Central Asia and China’s border regions to major Chinese political centers.
- The Book of Ingenious Machines contains a hundred machines or objects, most of them due to the Banou Moussa brothers or adapted by them: funnel, crankshaft, conical ball valves, float valve and other hydraulic regulation systems, mask gas and ventilation bellows for mines; dredge, variable jet fountains, hurricane lamp, auto-off light, auto-powered; automatic musical instruments including a programmable flute.
- Astronomical ephemeris: registers of the positions of stars at regular intervals.
- Ibn Al-Haytam. In 2007, during a conference at the Sorbonne, I explored the use, by the Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck (early 15th century), of a bifocal geometric perspective, wrongly qualified as « primitive », erroneous and intuitive, actually inspired by the work and binocular experiences of the Arab scholar Ibn Al-Haytam (Alhazen). The latter drew on the work of his predecessors Al-Kindi, Ibn Luca and Ibn Sahl. Alhazen was widely known in the West thanks to the translations of the Franciscans of the University of Oxford (Grosseteste, Bacon, etc.). See summary biography.
- 310-230 BC.: Life of the Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos;
- 190-120 BC.: life of the Greek astronomer Hipparchus of Nicaea;
- v. 100-160 : life of Roman astronomer Claudius Ptolemy;
- 700-748: life of Wasil ibn Ata, intellectual founder of Mutazilism;
- 750: beginning of the Abbasid dynasty;
- 751: Abbasid victory against the Chinese at the battle of Talas (Kyrgyzstan);
- 763: founding of Baghdad by Caliph Al-Mansur;
- 780: Timothy I, patriarch of the Nestorian Christian church in Baghdad;
- 780-850: life of the Arab mathematician al-Kwarizmi;
- 786 to 809: caliphate for 23 years of Haroun al-Rachîd, legendary hero of the Thousand and One Nights tales. Development of mutazilism;
- 801-873: life of the mutazilist and Platonic philosopher Al-Kindi;
- 805-880: life of Al-Farghani, treatise on the Astrolabe;
- 813-833: caliphate of Al-Ma’mûn (20 years);
- 829: creation of the first permanent astronomical observatory in Baghdad followed by that of Damascus;
- 832: creation of the public library and creation of the Maisons de la Sagesse;
- 833: shortly before his death, Al-Ma’mûn decrees the created Koran and has mutazilism adopted as the official doctrine of the Abbasids;
- 836: transfer from the capital to Samarra;
- 848: the mutazilites removed from the Baghdad court;
- 858-930: life of Al-Battani, known as Albatenius;
- 865-925: life of translator and doctor Sahl Rabban al-Tabari;
- 869-883: revolt of the Zanj (black slaves from Zanzibar);
- 892: return from the capital of the Abbasids to Baghdad;
- 965-1039: life of Ibn Al-Haytam, known as Alhazen;
- 973-1048: life of Al-Biruni;
- 1095: first crusade;
- 1258: Baghdad sacked by the Mongols;
- 1259: creation of the Maragheh Astronomical Observatory (Iran);
- 1304-1375: life of Ibn Al-Shâtir;
- 1422: creation of the Astronomical Observatory of Samarkand, capital of Sogdiana;
- 1543: Polish astronomer Nicolas Copernicus publishes his De Revolutionibus;
- 1917: British troops enter Baghdad;
- 2003: looting and destruction by systematic arson of libraries and museums during the Iraq war.
- Mutazilism, website of the Association for the Renaissance of Mutazilite Islam (ARIM);
- Antoine Le Bail, Who are the mutazilites, sometimes called the « rationalists » of Islam ?, website of the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA), Paris;
- Richard C. Martin, Mark R. Woodward with Dwi S. Atmaja, Defenders of Reason in Islam, Mu’tazilism from Medieval School to Modern Symbol, Oneworld, Oxford, 1997;
- Rober R. Reilly, The Closing of the Muslim Mind, How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis, ISI, Wilmington, 2011;
- Nadim Michel Kalife, The Lights of the First Centuries of Islam, on financialafrik.com, 2019;
- Mahmoud Azab, A Vision of the Universality of Arab-Islamic Civilization, Oberta de Catalunya University, www.uoc.edu;
- Sabine Schmidke, The People of Monotheism and Justice: Mutazilism in Islam and Judaism, Institute for Advanced Study, 2017;
- Malek Chebel, Slavery in the Land of Islam, Fayard, Paris 2012;
- Jacques Cheminade, Sublime words and idiocy by Nasr Eddin Hodja;
- Jacques Cheminade, Proposals for an inter-religious dialogue;
- Hussein Askary: Baghdad 767-1258 A.D., Melting Pot for a Universal Renaissance, Executive Intelligence Review, 2013;
- Hussein Askary: The Beauty of the Islamic Renaissance, the Elephant Clock, S&P website;
- Dr Subhi Al-Azzawi, The House of Wisdom of the Abbasids in Baghdad or the beginnings of the University, pdf on the internet;
- Dimitri Gutas, Greek Thought, Arab Culture. The movement of Greco-Arabic translation in Baghdad and primitive Abbasid society (2nd-4th / 8th-10th centuries), Aubier, Paris 2005;
- Jim Al-Khalili, The House of Wisdom, How Arab Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance, Pinguin, London 2010;
- Jonathan Lyons, The House of Wisdom, How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization, Bloomsbury, London 2009;
- Pastor Georges Tartar, Islamo-Christian Dialogue under Caliph Al-Ma’mûn, Les épitres d’Al-Hashimi and d’Al-Kindî, Nouvelles Editions Latines, Paris, 1985;
- Al-Kindî, On First Philosophy, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1974;
- Marie Thérèse d´Alverny, The transmission of philosophical and scientific texts in the Middle Ages, Variorum, Aldershot 1994;
- Danielle Jacquart, Françoise Micheau, Arab medicine and the medieval West, Maisonneuve, Paris 1990;
- Juan Vernet Gines, What culture owes to the Arabs of Spain, Sindbad, Actes Sud, Paris, 2000;
- Karen Armstrong, Islam, A Short History, Phoenix, London, 2002;
- Muriel Mirak Weisbach, Andalusia, a gateway to the Renaissance;
- Régis Morelon, Eastern Arab Astronomy between the 8th and 11th Century, in History of Arab Sciences, edited by Roshdi Rashed, Vol. 1, Astronomy, Theoretical and Applied, Seuil, Paris, 1997;
- George Saliba, Planetary Theories in Arab Astronomy after the 11th Century, in History of Arab Sciences, edited by Roshdi Rashed, Vol. 1, Astronomy, Theoretical and Applied, Seuil, Paris, 1997;
- Roshi Rashed, Geometric Optics, in History of Arab Sciences, edited by Roshdi Rashed, Vol. 2, Mathematics and physics, Seuil, Paris, 1997;
- Jean-Pierre Verdet, A History of Astronomy, Seuil, Paris, 1990;
- J. P. Maratray, Arab Astronomy, on the Astrosurf.com website;
- Jean-Pierre Luminet, Ulugh Beg – The Astronomer of Samarkand, 2018;
- Kitty Ferguson, Pythagoras, His Lives and the Legacy of a Rational Universe, Walker publishing Company, New York, 2008;
- Sir Thomas Heath, Aristarchus of Samos, The Ancient Copernicus, Dover, New York, 1981:
- A. T. Papadopoulo, Islam and Muslim Art, The Art of Great Civilizations, Mazenod, Paris, 1976;
- Olag Grabar, Art and Culture in the Islamic World, Arts & Civilizations of Islam, Köneman, Cologne, 2000;
- Christiane Gruber, Images of Muhammad in Islam, Afkar / Ideas, Spring 2015;
- Hans Belting, Florence & Baghdad, Renaissance art and Arab science, Harvard University Press, 2011;
- Dominique Raynaud, Ibn al-Haytham on binocular vision: a precursor of physiological optics, Arabic Sciences and Philosophy, Cambridge University Press (CUP), 2003, 13, pp. 79-99;
- Jonathan M. Bloom, Paper Before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World, Yale University Press, 2001;
- Karel Vereycken, Jan Van Eyck, a Flemish painter in Arabic optics, S&P website;