Étiquette : science


Mutazilism and Arab astronomy, two bright stars in our firmament

By Karel Vereycken

(texte original en français)

“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.”

Sayings (Hadith) most often attributed to the Prophet.


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

Miniature of emancipated slave Bilal, Islams first Muezzin.

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 CE 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.

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, popularly known as the Blue Mosque, in Mazar-e-Sharif, Balkh Province, Afghanistan.

Among the first verses revealed to the Prophet Muhammad one finds :

Read! And your Lord is the Most Generous, Who taught by the pen ; Taught man that which he knew not.”

(Surat 96).

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”.

Historical center of Samarkand (Ouzbekistan). The Registan and its three madrasahs.
Astronomical and mathematical notations. Manuscript page from Timbuktu.

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 accompanied by 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.

Spherical geometry

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.


Socrates discussng philosophy with his disciples, Arabic miniature from a manuscript, Turkey 13th Century.

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
their original author,
by analogy, is seen.

(Book of Wisdom, 13:5)

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, the five principles of the Mutazilite faith 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 principles, described by the Mutazilite theologian Abdel al Jabbar Ibn Ahmad (935-1025) 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

Abbasid Caliphate.
Caliph with his advisors. Maqamat of al-Hariri Illustration by Yahyá al-Wasiti, 1237.

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.

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.

The total number of muslim scientists in the 9th Century was larger that the non-muslim scientists in the 15th Century.

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.”


Artist view of ancient Bagdad. Note the canal that runs through the city and allows it to be integrated into the natural infrastructure of the Tigris River. In reality, the surrounding area was urbanized.

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) [*3], 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).

Minaret of the Grand mosque of Samarra that many Westerners believed to be the Tower of Babel…

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) [*2], 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

Thanks to high quanlity paper, arab astronomical research survived.

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.

Agro-industrial revolution

Watermill in Cordoba, Spain.
Floating watermill, to be attached with cables in a strong current.

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]

Ancient wind mills in Persia

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.

At its peak in the tenth century, Baghdad had a population of 400,000 to 500,000. Its food survival depended entirely on an ingenious system of canals for the irrigation of crops and the management of the recurring floods of the Euphrates and Tigris. Example: the Nahrawan canal, parallel to the Tigris, which allowed the waters of the Tigris to be diverted to protect the capital from flooding.

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

Charlemagne receiving elephant, camel and other gifts sent to him by Hâroun al-Rachîd.

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.

The death of the Prophet Mohammed. Ottoman miniature painting from the Siyer-i Nebi, kept at the Topkapı Sarayı Müzesi, Istanbul (Hazine 1222, folio 414a) . circa 1595. Ottoman miniature painter 492 Siyer-i Nebi 414a

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.

Frescos of the « desert castle » of Qusayr ‘Amra (Jordan).

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…

Illustration of Kalima and Dimna.

And at the end of his story, the wise Bidpaï warns the young king Dabschelim:

I must insist on this last point: my stories do not require, at this stage, any commentary, any elucidation, any analysis on your part, on mine or on anyone else’s. Of all habits, the worst would be to waste the active substance in recipes for behavior. One must stubbornly resist the temptation to attach nice little rationalizations, snappy formulas, analytical summaries, symbolic markers or any other attempt of classification. Mental encapsulation perverts the remedy and renders it inoperative. It actually short-circuits the true purpose of storytelling, for to explain is to forget. It is also a form of hypocrisy – something toxic, an antidote to the truth. So let the stories you remember act on their own by their very diversity. Get familiar with them, but don’t make them a toy…

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

Ruins of Gondichapur (Iran)

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].

A Tang Dynasty Chinese ceramic statuette of a Sogdian merchant riding on a Bactrian camel.

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

Scholars at an Abbasid library. Maqamat of al-Hariri Illustration by Yahyá al-Wasiti, 1237.

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.

An illustration of a self-trimming lamp from Ahmad’s (Banu Musa) On Mechanical Devices, written in Arabic.

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

Socrates and his Students, illustration from ‘Kitab Mukhtar al-Hikam wa-Mahasin al-Kilam’ by Al-Mubashir, Turkish School, (13th c).

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.

Inter-religious dialogue:
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

Aristotle trying to explain the astrolab to his pupils. Miniature from The best rulings and the most precious sayings of Al-Moubachir, Arabic manuscript, 13th Century. Istanbul.

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.

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…

Astrolabe made of brass by mathematician Ibrahim ibn Sa’id al-Shali. It is dated in the year 459 of the Hegira, corresponding to 1067 and was built in a Toledo workshop.

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

Ptolemy’s Almagest in arab with figures of Hipparchus epicycles.

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.

Al-Biruni (973-1048).
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.

Al-Tûsî (1201-1274).
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′.

Al-Kashi (1380-1439).
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.

Arab observatories

Scale model of the giant sextant constructed inside the Maragheh observatory (1259).

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.

Today’s museum in Maragheh, Iran.


Mongol siege of Bagdad of 1258

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.

British troops entering Bagdad in 1917.


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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).
  12. 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 .
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. Astronomical ephemeris: registers of the positions of stars at regular intervals.
  16. 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;
  • 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;
Merci de partager !

« l’Homme de Vitruve » de Léonard de Vinci

Alors que nous commémorons cette année, avec une belle exposition au Louvre, Léonard de Vinci (1452-1519), mort en France il y a cinq cents ans, bien des bêtises circulent à propos de ce personnage si inspirant.

Ayant eu la chance de pouvoir assimiler, dès mon adolescence, les rudiments de l’anatomie lors de ma formation à l’Institut Saint-Luc de Bruxelles comme peintre-graveur, je m’efforcerais ici de vous livrer quelques clés permettant au grand public de pleinement apprécier un dessin très connu de Léonard, présent à Paris, « l’Homme de Vitruve ».

Or, comme Léonard l’indique lui-même dans ses carnets en reprenant l’expression de Nicolas de Cues, ce n’est qu’avec « les yeux de l’esprit » que l’art nous devient « visible », car les « yeux de la chair » y sont aveugles.

Canons de proportions

A gauche : statue égyptienne ; à droite un Kouros de la Grèce archaïque.

La civilisation grecque, et avec elle celle de l’Europe, comme chacun le sait, n’a pu atteindre toute sa splendeur que grâce à l’assimilation patiente des apports d’autres grandes civilisations.

L’Asie, connue chez nous grâce au monde arabo-musulman, et l’Afrique, en particulier l’Égypte, jouèrent un rôle majeur. Les cultes funéraires de l’Égypte ancienne, dont la momification des défunts, permirent aux médecins locaux, grecs et levantins travaillant en Égypte, d’explorer les secrets du corps humain.

Comme le montrent les sculptures de l’Égypte ancienne, la taille exacte du corps humain avoisine l’équivalent de 7 ¼ à 7 ½ la taille de la tête d’un individu.

Fiche d’un cours de dessin de l’auteur.

La taille d’un nouveau-né dépasse à peine 4 têtes, celle d’un enfant de sept ans est de 6 têtes, et celle d’un adolescent de dix-sept ans atteint les 7 têtes.

En sous-divisant la partie supérieure du corps humain, du sommet du crâne jusqu’au bas du torse, l’on mesure 4 têtes : la première jusqu’au menton ; la deuxième jusqu’aux mamelons ; la troisième jusqu’au nombril et la quatrième jusqu’au pubis. En partant de l’autre bout du corps humain, en remontant à partir de la plante des pieds, l’on mesure également 4 têtes : 2 jusqu’au haut du genou et 2 têtes supplémentaires jusqu’au « grand trochanter », c’est-à-dire l’articulation entre le fémur et l’os iliaque du bassin.

Ces deux fois quatre têtes s’emboîtent au milieu de notre corps d’une demie tête, ce qui donne, non pas huit, mais 7 ½ têtes au total. Ces tailles varient proportionnellement avec la taille du corps et toute disproportion provoque assez vite un sentiment de monstruosité.

Polyclète contre Lysippe

Dès le Ve siècle, le sculpteur grec Polyclète capta, dans son fameux « doryphore » (porteur de lance) du Musée national d’archéologie de Naples, ce magnifique canon anatomique, connu depuis comme le « canon de Polyclète ».

Il faut souligner qu’à l’époque de la Renaissance, certains nostalgiques de l’Empire romain préféraient un autre canon grec, celui de Lysippe (IVe siècle av. J.C.), codifié par la suite par l’architecte, auteur et ingénieur civil romain Vitruve (Ier siècle av. J.C.).

Vitruve n’a fait qu’exprimer le goût dominant de son époque. Les sculpteurs grecs, afin de donner une apparence athlétique et héroïque aux Empereurs dont ils dressaient les portraits, en adoptant le « canon de Lysippe », réduisaient souvent la tête de leur modèle à seulement 1/8e de la longueur totale du corps.

Ainsi, avec la réduction de la taille de la tête, celle du corps se retrouva proportionnellement augmentée permettant à la figure de gagner en proéminence musculaire, chose que les empereurs, pas forcément doté dès la naissance d’un physique à la hauteur de leur ambition, ne pouvaient qu’apprécier et favorisaient grandement leur popularité.

L’engouement pour cette astuce a même conduit certains artistes à imaginer des figures 12 à 15 fois la taille de leur tête. En bref, les relations publiques trônaient au détriment de la science et de la vérité.

Aujourd’hui les illustrateurs de bandes dessinées choisissent les proportions selon le rôle qu’ils veulent donner à leur sujet :
— pour une personne ordinaire : 7,5 ou « canon normal »
— pour une star de cinéma : 8 têtes ou « canon idéalisé »
— pour un modèle de mode : 8,5 têtes
— pour un héro du type superman : 9 têtes ou « canon héroïque »

L’Homme de Vitruve

L’Homme de Vitruve, dessin de Léonard de Vinci.

Autour du dessin, le texte suivant, en image miroir, traduction de Léonard d’un extrait du Livre III sur l’Architecture de Vitruve :
« Vitruve dit, dans son ouvrage sur l’architecture : la Nature a distribué les mesures du corps humain comme ceci :
Quatre doigts font une paume, et quatre paumes font un pied, six paumes font un coude : quatre coudes font la hauteur d’un homme. Et quatre coudes font un double pas, et vingt-quatre paumes font un homme ; et il a utilisé ces mesures dans ses constructions.
Si vous ouvrez les jambes de façon à abaisser votre hauteur d’un quatorzième, et si vous étendez vos bras de façon que le bout de vos doigts soit au niveau du sommet de votre tête, vous devez savoir que le centre de vos membres étendus sera au nombril, et que l’espace entre vos jambes sera un triangle équilatéral.
La longueur des bras étendus d’un homme est égale à sa hauteur.
Depuis la racine des cheveux jusqu’au bas du menton, il y a un dixième de la hauteur d’un homme. Depuis le bas du menton jusqu’au sommet de la tête, un huitième. Depuis le haut de la poitrine jusqu’au sommet de la tête, un sixième ; depuis le haut de la poitrine jusqu’à la racine de cheveux, un septième.
Depuis les tétons jusqu’au sommet de la tête, un quart de la hauteur de l’homme. La plus grande largeur des épaules est contenue dans le quart d’un homme. Depuis le coude jusqu’au bout de la main, un quart. Depuis le coude jusqu’à l’aisselle, un huitième.
La main complète est un dixième de l’homme. La naissance du membre viril est au milieu. Le pied est un septième de l’homme. Depuis la plante du pied jusqu’en dessous du genou, un quart de l’homme. Depuis sous le genou jusqu’au début des parties génitales, un quart de l’homme.
La distance du bas du menton au nez, et des racines des cheveux aux sourcils est la même, ainsi que l’oreille : un tiers du visage. »

Évidemment, le fait que Léonard, en le dessinant, ait étudié « l’Homme de Vitruve », ne signifie nullement qu’il s’agisse là des « proportions idéales ». Sans doute, en disséquant plusieurs cadavres de façon clandestine comme il fut obligé de le faire à l’époque, le maître s’est-il forgé sa propre idée sur la question.


Il faut savoir qu’en Italie, le pur goût romain est redevenu tendance suite à la découverte en 1506 de la statue du Laocoon sur l’emplacement de la villa de Néron à Rome. On y redoublera le volume des masses musculaires prétendant travailler « à l’Antique ».

Bien qu’il n’ait jamais critiqué ouvertement ce courant, on a du mal à ne pas penser aux fresques de Michelange dans la Chapelle Sixtine, lorsque Léonard, cherchant à élever l’esprit à des hauteurs philosophiques inégalées, conseille aux peintres : « ne donne pas à tous les muscles des figures un volume exagéré » et « si tu agis différemment c’est davantage à la représentation d’un sac de noix que tu seras parvenu qu’à celle d’une figure humaine » (Codex Madrid II, 128r).

Dessin de l’architecte Giacomo Andrea, un ami proche de Léonard de Vinci qui s’était penché sur l’œuvre de l’architecte et ingénieur romain Vitruve.

Sans doute inspiré par son ami, l’architecte Giacomo Andréa, dans « l’Homme de Vitruve », Léonard s’intéresse avant tout à d’autres harmonies : si une personne étend ses bras en direction parallèle au sol, l’on obtient la même longueur que toute sa taille.

Egalité que Léonard inscrit dans un carré (symbole du domaine terrestre). Si l’on étire ses bras et ses jambes en étoile, ils s’inscrivent dans un cercle dont le centre est le nombril. Or, l’emplacement de ce dernier divise le corps selon le nombre d’or (dans cet exemple 5 têtes sur un total de 8 têtes, 5+3 faisant partie de la série de Fibonnacci : 1+2 = 3 ; 3+2 = 5 ; 5+3 = 8 ; 8+5 = 13 ; 13+8 = 21, etc.).

Proportion d’or

Léonard avait compris ce que signifie réellement la proportion d’or : non pas un « nombre magique » en lui-même, ni une fantaisie numérologique, mais l’expression et le reflet, dans le visible, d’une dynamique de moindre action qui caractérise aussi bien le principe du vivant que celui du travail humain, c’est-à-dire le principe même qui unit l’homme (le carré) au Créateur et à l’univers (le cercle).

Alors, si vous y jetez un œil, faites attention ! Car, il y a ce que vous voyez, et ce que vous vous interdisez de voir !

Merci de partager !

Le « rêve d’Erasme », le Collège des Trois Langues de Louvain


Le Collège des Trois Langues de Louvain (1517-1797)

Erasme, les pratiques pédagogiques humanistes et le nouvel institut des langues.

Sous la direction de Jan Papy, avec les contributions de Gert Gielis, Pierre Swiggers, Xander Feys & Dirk Sacré, Raf Van Rooy & Toon Van Hal, Pierre Van Hecke.

Edition Peeters, Louvain 2018.
230 pages, 60 €.


En Belgique, il y a un an, dans la vieille ville universitaire de Louvain, et ensuite à Arlon, une exposition très intéressante a échappé à notre attention.

Réunissant des documents historiques, gravures et manuscrits de la bibliothèque universitaire ainsi que de nombreuses pièces de l’étranger, du 19 octobre 2017 au 18 janvier 2018, l’évènement a voulu, à l’occasion du 500e anniversaire de sa fondation, retracer l’origine et mettre à honneur l’activité du fameux « Collège Trilingue » érigé en 1517 grâce aux efforts du grand humaniste chrétien Erasme de Rotterdam (1467-1536).

Quand on parle de civilisation européenne, c’est bien cette institution, bien que peu connue et de taille modeste, qui en fut l’un des artisans majeurs.

Car tout comme Guillaume le Taciturne (1533-1584), l’organisateur de la révolte des Pays-Bas contre la tyrannie habsbourgeoise, les visionnaires More, Rabelais, Cervantès et Shakespeare s’inspireront de son combat exemplaire, de sa verve et de son grand projet pédagogique.

Vitrail récent représentant Jérôme de Busleyden devant sa résidence à Mechelen. C’est là qu’il introduisit Erasme auprès de Thomas More.

L’occasion pour les Editions Peeters de Louvain de consacrer à cet anniversaire un beau catalogue et plusieurs recueils, publiés aussi bien en néerlandais, en français, qu’en anglais, réunissant les contributions de plusieurs spécialistes sous l’œil avisé (et passionné) de Jan Papy, professeur de littérature latine de la Renaissance à l’Université de la ville, appuyé d’une « équipe trilingue louvainiste » qui n’a pas épargné ses efforts pour relire attentivement toutes les publications ayant trait au sujet et explorer des sources nouvelles dans diverses archives d’Europe.

L’histoire de cet établissement humaniste en est une non seulement d’une remarquable visée scientifique et pédagogique, mais aussi d’efforts obstinés, voire de combats courageux, couronnés d’un succès international sans précédent. Mettant à profit le legs de Jérôme de Busleyden (1470-1517), conseiller au Grand Conseil de Malines, décédé en août 1517, Érasme s’attela aussitôt à la création d’un collège où des savants de renommée internationale prodigueraient un enseignement public et gratuit du latin, du grec et de l’hébreu. Dans ce collège ‘trilingue’, étudiants-boursiers et professeurs vivaient ensemble.

peut-on lire sur la jaquette du catalogue de plus de 200 pages.

Pour les chercheurs, il ne s’agissait pas de retracer de façon exhaustive l’histoire de cette entreprise mais de répondre à la question :

Quelle fut la ‘recette magique’ qui a permis d’attirer aussi rapidement à Louvain entre trois et six cents étudiants venant de partout en Europe ?

Portrait d’Erasme de 1517 par son ami le peintre anversois Quinten Metsys.

En tout cas, la chose est inédite, car, à l’époque, rien que le fait d’enseigner et en plus gratuitement, le grec et l’hébreu —considéré par le Vatican comme hérétique— est déjà révolutionnaire. Et ceci, bien que, dès le XIVe siècle, initié par les humanistes italiens au contact des érudits grecs exilés en Italie, l’examen des sources grecques, hébraïques et latines et la comparaison rigoureuse des grands textes aussi bien des pères de l’Eglise que de l’Evangile, est la voie choisie par les humanistes pour libérer l’humanité de la chape de plomb aristotélicienne qui étouffe la Chrétienté et de faire renaître l’idéal, la beauté et le souffle de l’église primitive.

Pour Erasme, comme l’avait fait avant lui Lorenzo Valla (1403-1457), en promouvant ce qu’il appelle « la philosophie du Christ », il s’agit d’unir la chrétienté en mettant fin aux divisions internes résultant de la cupidité (les indulgences, la simonie, etc.) et des pratiques de superstition religieuse (culte des reliques) qui infectent l’Eglise de haut en bas, en particulier les ordres mendiants.

Pour y arriver, Erasme désire reprendre l’Evangile à sa source, c’est-à-dire comparer les textes d’origine en grec, en latin et en hébreux, souvent inconnus ou sinon entièrement pollués par plus de mille ans de copiages et de commentaires scolastiques.

Frères de la Vie Commune

Wessel Gansfort, détail d’un portrait posthume peint récemment par Jacqueline Kasemier.

Mes recherches propres me permettent de rappeler qu’Erasme est un disciple des Sœurs et Frères de la Vie commune de Deventer au Pays-Bas. Les figures fondatrices et emblématiques de cet ordre laïc et enseignant sont Geert Groote (1340-1384), Florent Radewijns (1350-1400) et Wessel Gansfort (1420-1489) dont on croit savoir qu’ils maitrisaient précisément ces trois langues.

Le piétisme de ce courant dit de la « Dévotion Moderne », centré sur l’intériorité, s’articule à merveille dans le petit livre de Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471), L’imitation de Jésus Christ. Celui-ci souligne l’exemple personnel à suivre de la passion du Christ tel que nous l’enseigne l’Evangile, message qu’Erasme reprendra.

Rudolphe Agricola.

En 1475, le père d’Erasme, qui maîtrise le grec et aurait écouté des humanistes réputés en Italie, envoie son fils de neuf ans au chapitre des frères de Deventer, à l’époque dirigé par Alexandre Hegius (1433-1498), élève du célèbre Rudolphe Agricola (1442-1485), qu’Erasme a eu la possibilité d’écouter et qu’il appelle un « intellect divin ».

Disciple du cardinal-philosophe Nicolas de Cues (1401-1464), défenseur enthousiaste de la renaissance italienne et des belles lettres, Agricola a comme habitude de secouer ses élèves en leur lançant :

Soyez méfiant à l’égard de tout ce que vous avez appris jusqu’à ce jour. Rejetez tout ! Partez du point de vue qu’il faut tout désapprendre, sauf ce que, sur la base de votre autorité propre, ou sur la base du décret d’auteurs supérieurs, vous avez été capable de vous réapproprier.

Erasme reprend cet élan et, avec la fondation du Collège Trilingue, le portera à des hauteurs inédites. Pour ce faire, Erasme et ses amis appliqueront une nouvelle pédagogie.

Désormais, au lieu d’apprendre par cœur des commentaires médiévaux, les élèves doivent formuler leur propre jugement en s’inspirant des grands penseurs de l’antiquité classique, notamment « Saint Socrate », et ceci dans un latin purgé de ses barbarismes. Dans cette approche, lire un grand texte dans sa langue originale n’est que la base.

Vient ensuite tout un travail exploratoire : il faut connaître l’histoire et les motivations de l’auteur, son époque, l’histoire des lois de son pays, l’état de la science et du droit, la géographie, la cosmographie, comme des instruments indispensables pour situer les textes dans leur contexte littéraire et historique.

L’art et la science au peuple. Le début du XVIe siècle a connu un engouement pour les sciences.

Cette approche « moderne » (questionnement, étude critique des sources, etc.) du Collège Trilingue, après avoir fait ses preuves en clarifiant le message de l’Evangile, se répand alors rapidement à travers toute l’Europe et surtout s’étend à toutes les matières, notamment scientifiques !

En sortant les jeunes talents du monde étroit et endormi des certitudes scolastiques, l’institution devient un formidable incubateur d’esprits créateurs.

Certes, cela peut étonner le lecteur français pour qui Erasme n’est qu’un littéraire comique qui se serait perdu dans une dispute théologique sans fin contre Luther. Si l’on admet généralement que sous Charles Quint, les Pays-Bas et l’actuelle Belgique ont apporté leurs contributions à la science, peu nombreux sont ceux qui comprennent le lien unissant Erasme avec la démarche d’un mathématicien tel que Gemma Frisius, d’un cartographe comme Gérard Mercator, d’un anatomiste comme André Vésale ou d’un botaniste comme Rembert Dodoens.

Or, comme l’avait déjà documenté en 2011 le professeur Jan Papy dans un article remarquable, en Belgique et aux Pays-Bas, la Renaissance scientifique de la première moitié du XVIe siècle, n’a été possible que grâce à la « révolution linguistique » provoquée par le Collège Trilingue.

Car, au-delà de leurs langues vernaculaires, c’est-à-dire le français et le néerlandais, des centaines de jeunes, étudiant le grec, le latin et l’hébreu, accèderont d’un coup, à toutes les richesses scientifiques de la philosophie grecque, des meilleurs auteurs latins, grecs et hébreux. Enfin, ils purent lire Platon dans le texte, mais aussi Anaxagore, Héraclite, Thalès, Eudoxe de Cnide, Pythagore, Ératosthène, Archimède, Galien, Vitruve, Pline, Euclide et Ptolémée dont ils reprennent les travaux pour les dépasser ensuite.

Vestiges de l’ancienne muraille de Louvain. Au premier plan, la tour Jansénius, au deuxième, la tour Juste Lipse.

Comme le retracent en détail les œuvres publiées par les Editions Peeters, dans le premier siècle de son existence, le collège dut traverser des moments difficiles à une époque fortement marquée par des troubles politiques et religieux.

Le Collège Trilingue, près du Marché aux poissons, au centre de Louvain, a notamment dû affronter de nombreuses critiques et attaques de la part d’adversaires « traditionalistes », en particulier certains théologiens pour qui, en gros, les Grecs n’étaient que des schismatiques et les Juifs les assassins du Christ et des ésotériques. L’opposition fut telle qu’en 1521, Erasme quitte Louvain pour Bâle en Suisse, sans perdre contact avec l’institution.

En dépit de cela, la démarche érasmienne a d’emblée conquis toute l’Europe et tout ce qui comptait alors parmi les humanistes sortait de cette institution. De l’étranger, des centaines d’étudiants y accouraient pour suivre gratuitement les cours donnés par des professeurs de réputation internationale. 27 universités européennes ont nommé dans leur corps professoral d’anciens étudiants du Trilingue : Iéna, Wittenberg, Cologne, Douai, Bologne, Avignon, Franeker, Ingolstadt, Marburg, etc.

Le Wentelsteen, l’escalier du Collège Trilingue. Crédit : Karel Vereycken

Comme à Deventer chez les Frères de la Vie Commune, un système de bourses permet à des élèves pauvres mais talentueux, notamment les orphelins, d’accéder aux études. « Une chose pas forcément inhabituelle à l’époque, précise Jan Papy, et entreprise pour le salut de l’âme du fondateur (du Collège, c’est-à-dire Jérôme Busleyden) ».

En contemplant les marches usées jusqu’à la corde de l’escalier tournant en pierre (Wentelsteen), l’un des rares vestiges du bâtiment d’alors qui a résisté à l’assaut du temps et du mépris, on imagine facilement les pas enthousiastes de tous ses jeunes élèves quittant leur dortoir situé à l’étage. Comme l’indiquent les registres des achats de la cuisine du Collège Trilingue, pour l’époque, la nourriture y est excellente, beaucoup de viande, de la volaille, mais également des fruits, des légumes, et parfois du vin de Beaune, notamment lorsque Erasme y est reçu.

Avec le temps, la qualité de son enseignement a forcément variée avec celle de ses enseignants, le Collège Trilingue, dont l’activité a perduré pendant longtemps après la mort d’Erasme, a imprimé sa marque sur l’histoire en engendrant ce qu’on qualifie parfois de « petite Renaissance » du XVIe siècle.

Erasme, Rabelais et la Sorbonne

Quitte à nous éloigner du contenu du catalogue, nous nous permettons d’examiner brièvement l’influence d’Erasme et du Collège Trilingue en France.

A Paris, chez les chiens de garde de la bienpensance, c’est la méfiance. La Sorbonne (franciscaine), alarmée par la publication d’Erasme sur le texte grec de L’Evangile de Saint Luc, fait interdire dès 1523 l’étude du grec en France. En Vendée, à Fontenay-le-Comte, les moines du couvent de Rabelais confisquent alors sans vergogne ses livres grecs ce qui incitera l’intéressé à déserter son ordre mais pas ses livres. Médecin, Rabelais traduit par la suite Galien du grec en français. Et, comme le démontre la lettre de Rabelais à Erasme, le premier tient le second en haute estime.

L’Abbaye de Thélème, gravure au burin, d’après la description donnée par Rabelais dans Gargantua, son conte philosophique.

Dans son Gargantua (1534), esquissant les contours d’une Eglise du futur, Rabelais évoque le Collège Trilingue sous le nom d’abbaye de Thélème (Thélème = désir en grec, peut-être une référence à Désiré, prénom d’Erasme), un magnifique bâtiment hexagonal à six étages, digne des plus beaux châteaux de la Loire où l’on puisse retrouver, « les belles grandes librairies, en Grec, Latin, Hébrieu, François, Tuscan et Hespaignol, disparties par les divers estaiges selon langaiges », référence on ne peut plus claire au projet érasmien.

Marguerite de Valois, reine de Navarre. Soeur de François Ier, femme de lettres, poétesse, lectrice d’Erasme et protectrice de Rabelais.

Contre la Sorbonne, en 1530, le Collège Trilingue d’Erasme servira explicitement de modèle pour la création, à l’instigation de Guillaume Budé (ami d’Erasme), du « Collège des lecteurs royaux » (devenu depuis le Collège de France) par François Ier, avec les encouragements de sa sœur Marguerite de Valois reine de Navarre (1492-1549) (grand-mère d’Henri IV), poétesse, femme de lettres et lectrice d’Erasme.

Dans le même élan, en 1539, Robert Estienne est nommé imprimeur du roi pour le latin et l’hébreu, et c’est à sa demande que François Ier fit graver par Claude Garamont une police complète de caractères grecs dits « Grecs du Roi ».

Pour les mettre à l’abri des foudres des sorbonagres et des sorbonicoles, François Ier déclare alors les lecteurs royaux conseillers du roi. A l’ouverture, il s’agit de chaires de lecture publique pour le grec, l’hébreu et les mathématiques mais d’autres chaires suivront dont le latin, l’arabe, le syriaque, la médecine, la botanique et la philosophie. Aujourd’hui, il aurait sans doute ajouté le chinois et le russe.

Ce qui n’empêche pas qu’à peine un an après sa publication, en 1532, Pantagruel, le conte philosophique de Rabelais déchaîne les foudres de la Sorbonne. Accusé d’obscénité, en sus d’apostasie, Rabelais s’en tire de justesse grâce à l’un de ses anciens condisciples, Jean du Bellay (1498-1560), diplomate et évêque de Paris, qui l’emmène à Rome à titre de médecin.

A son retour, les esprits calmés, la bienveillance de François Ier et de Marguerite de Navarre, lui permettent de retrouver son poste à l’Hôtel-Dieu de Lyon.

Si certains historiens de l’Eglise estiment qu’Erasme, à Louvain en particulier, a exagéré et parfois même suscité des réactions hostiles de la part de certains théologiens à son encontre, rappelons tout de même que lors du Concile de Trente (1545-1563), l’œuvre complète d’Erasme, taxée d’hérésie, fut interdite de lecture pour les catholiques et mise à l’Index Vaticanus en 1559 où elle restera jusqu’en 1900 !

Si Thomas More, en qui Erasme voyait son « frère jumeau », a été béatifié en 1886 par le pape Léon XIII, canonisé par Pie XI en 1935 et fait saint patron des responsables de gouvernement et des hommes politiques par Jean-Paul II en l’an 2000, pour Erasme, il va falloir attendre.

Interrogé en 2015 au sujet d’un geste éventuel de réhabilitation en faveur d’un chrétien qui a tant fait pour défendre le christianisme, sa Sainteté le pape François, dans sa réponse écrite, a vivement remercié l’auteur pour ses réflexions.

Reconstruisons le Collège Trilingue !

Reconstitution sous forme d’image numérique, sur la base de documents historiques, du Collège Trilingue de Louvain. Crédit : Visualisations Timothy De Paepe

Ce qui reste du Collège Trilingue aujourd’hui : au fond d’une cour, entourée de bâtiments plus récents et sans intérêt, une petite porte donnant sur la salle d’escalier et une façade refaite au début du XVIIe siècle.

Dans le catalogue de l’exposition, le professeur Jan Papy retrace également le destin qu’ont connu les bâtiments qui abritaient jadis le Collège Trilingue.

Il mentionne notamment la tentative d’un des recteurs de l’Université Catholique de Louvain, de récupérer l’édifice en 1909, un projet qui échoua malheureusement à cause de la Première Guerre mondiale.

Le bâtiment est ensuite transformé en dépôt et en logements sociaux. « Dans la chapelle du Collège Trilingue, on fume alors le hareng et la salle de cours sert d’usine à glace… »

Aujourd’hui, à part l’escalier, rien n’évoque la splendeur historique de cette institution, ce qui fut forcément ressentie lors des commémorations de 2017.

Jan Papy regrette, bien que l’Université ait célébré les 500 ans avec « tout le faste académique requis », que l’ « on ne peut cependant s’empêcher d’éprouver des sentiments équivoques à la pensée que cette même Université n’a toujours pas pris à cœur le sort de cet institut qu’Erasme avait appelé de ses vœux et pour lequel il avait tant œuvré ».

Les restes du bâtiment, certes, dans leur état actuel, n’ont pas grande « valeur », du point de vue « objectif ». Ce n’est qu’en fonction de l’attention subjective que nous leur attribuons, qu’elles ont une valeur inestimable et précieuse comme témoignage ultime d’une partie de notre propre histoire.

Passage actuel (Busleydengang), à partir du Marché à poissons, vers le Collège Trilingue au centre de Louvain.

A cela s’ajoute que reconstruire le bâtiment, dont il ne reste pas grand-chose, coûterait à peine quelque petits millions d’euros, c’est-à-dire pas grand-chose à l’aube des milliards d’euros que brassent nos banques centrales et nos marchés financiers. Des mécènes privés pourraient également s’y intéresser.

Demain ? Reconstitution du portail d’origine donnant sur Collègue Trilingue à partir du marché à poissons. Crédit : Visualisations Timothy De Paepe

De notre point de vue, la reconstruction effective du Collège Trilingue dans sa forme originale, qui constitue en réalité une partie du cœur urbanistique de la ville de Louvain, serait une initiative souhaitable et incontestablement « un énorme plus » sur la carte de visite de la ville, de son Université, des Flandres, de la Belgique et de toute l’Europe. N’est-il pas un fait regrettable, alors que tous les jeunes connaissent les bourses Erasmus, que la plupart des gens ignorent les idées, l’œuvre et le rôle qu’a pu jouer un si grand humaniste ?

Des images en trois dimensions, réalisées dans la cadre de l’exposition sur la base des données historiques, permettent de visualiser un bel édifice, du même type que ceux construit par l’architecte Rombout II Keldermans à l’époque (Note), apte à remplir des missions multiples.

Crédit : Visualisations Timothy De Paepe

Enfin, chaque époque est en droit de « ré-écrire » l’histoire en fonction de sa vision de l’avenir sans pour autant la falsifier. Rappelons également, bien qu’on tende à l’oublier, que la Maison de Rubens (Rubenshuis) à Anvers, un Musée qui attire des milliers de visiteurs chaque année, n’est pas du tout le bâtiment d’origine ! Comme le reconnaît le site du Musée actuel :

La maison de Rubens reste sans doute inchangée jusqu’au milieu du 18e siècle, après quoi elle est entièrement transformée. Les façades sur la rue sont démolies et reconstruites selon le goût de l’époque. La demeure du XVIe siècle est aussi en grande partie remplacée par une bâtisse neuve. Le bâtiment est confisqué par les Français en 1798 et devient une prison pour les religieux condamnés au bannissement. La maison est rachetée par un particulier après l’époque napoléonienne. L’idée de faire de la maison un monument naît dans le courant du XIXe siècle. La Ville d’Anvers en fait l’acquisition en 1937. Les années suivantes seront mises à profit pour rendre autant que possible à la demeure son aspect à l’époque de Rubens. Le musée Maison Rubens ouvre ses portes en 1946. C’est la maison que vous visitez aujourd’hui.

L’annonce officielle d’une reconstruction du bâtiment pourrait éventuellement se faire le 18 octobre 2020, date anniversaire du jour où le Collège Trilingue ouvrait ses portes. Moi j’y serais !

Note: On pense à la Cour de Busleyden et le Palais de Marguerite d’Autriche à Malines ou à la Cour des marquis (Markiezenhof) de Bergen-op-Zoom

Merci de partager !
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The old geezer

The old geezer, Karel Vereycken, eau-forte sur zinc, 8e état.


The old geezer, Karel Vereycken, eau-forte sur zinc, 7e état.



6e état.


5e état, mars 2018.


3e état, mars 2018.

old geezer

Deuxième état.

Premier état

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Portrait de Louis Pasteur

Portrait de Louis Pasteur
Louis Pasteur, Karel Vereycken, huile sur toile, juin 1986
Présentation de l’œuvre, lors de la conférence internationale en honneur de Louis Pasteur,organisée par la Fondation pour l’Energie de Fusion (FEF) à Paris en 1986.
couverture du livre de la FEF
Livre publié par la Fondation pour l’Energie de Fusion (FEF) en 1986.
Merci de partager !