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Inkstone and box, Qing dynasty (1644-1911); Metropolitan Museum, New YorkInkstone and box, Qing dynasty (1644-1911); Metropolitan Museum, New York

medieval scribemedieval scribe

Persian calligraphyPersian calligraphy

Der Hofgelehrte Adam Olearius: Neugier als Methode?

Posted 2/7/2015

June 24-27, 2015 a conference of German, Swiss, Polish, Estonian and Persian researchers took place at Castle Gottorf in Schleswig. The organizers, Dr. Kirsten Baumann and Dr. Uta Kuhl, wanted to learn about Adam Olearius and the different facets of his life work from academic and amateur students of his texts, instruments and images. It was a broad kaleidoscope of themes, historiographical approaches, and evaluations.


For me, the most interesting aspects concerned the great-format paintings of the Black Fraternity at Reval (today Tallinn) of local merchants and scholars, but also of the rulers of Russia and Safavid Iran, which Olearius apparently copied as portraits and used in his book, as well as the analysis of Olearius's preface to the German translation of Sa'adi's Gulistan (Der Persianische Rosenthal), which he had produced together with the former secretary Haq Virdi of the embassy of Sha Safi (r. 1629-1642). The fascination to me of the paintings collected by the Black Fraternity in Reval went beyond the fact that Olearius had incorporated their small-scale copies in his travel account without saying so. It consisted in their seeming similarity with great-format paintings of allegedly Safavid women and men produced only a short time later for European travelers or residents in Isfahan, the Safavid capital. These Safavid oil paintings have been often discussed. But no art historian has so far compared them to the paintings in the collection of the Black Fraternity in Reval and discussed whether they might have been related. The other fascinating aspect of the paintings of the Black Fraternity is the remarkable similarity of the presentation of the Romanov prince with a Tatar ruler and the oriental-style decoration of his precious coat. The Estonian colleague who works on these paintings was not aware about any Ottoman, Timurid, Safavid or Crimean Tatar miniatures in early-seventeenth-century Reval. But it would be worthwhile to trace the commercial and diplomatic relationships between the mostly German merchant community of Reval and the Ottoman and Safavid Empires as well as other Islamicate societies of their time.


A Swiss colleague of German Studies presented Olearius's preface to the Persianische Rosenthal. She highlighted Olearius's explicit acceptance that translating is always more than rendering one language into another one. Olearius emphasized that a good translation presupposed a good knowledge of the culture from where the text came that was to be translated. He reported that translating Sa'adi's Gulistan was very difficult, because he did not know Persianate literary culture nor Islamic religious concepts and values. His companion and partner Haq Virdi was a reluctant facilitator, because he did not wish to make his homeland and its culture the laughing stock of Lutheran Christians in the Dukedom Holstein. That is why he refrained from sharing many of his experiences, insights, and words. The Swiss colleague proposed to consider Olearius's reflections as a form of translation theory.


The talk about Olearius's presentation of the Greenlanders in his travel account by a historian working at a vocational school center contradicted Olearius's generous attitude towards Haq Virdi. While he treated Haq Virdi as a partner and valuable resource of knowledge, he used the three kidnapped Innuit women as a resource for confirming his beliefs about their low status as 'savages' in his hierarchy of human cultures. The competence of his Danish translator did not suffice to identify reliably a play toy, which was an object of Gottorf's 'Kunst- und Wunderkammer' (The Chamber of the Arts and Miracles). Olearius believed it was an idol and 'understood' the translation of the women's report confirming that their religious rituals included a dance in circles around the puppet.


Other talks and conversations that broadened my knowledge of early-modern German court cultures concerned the ballets orchestrated in Schleswig. Olearius apparently was responsible for their intellectual and artful design, the choice of their motifs, the roles each member of the court had to play and the sequence of the movements. The Duchess may also have been prominently involved in this pastime which was an element of disciplining women and men, teaching them their place at court and in society and subordinating them to the new rules of military training of the body.


Altogether, the conference was an interesting learning experience for me, although the historiographical differences between me and numerous participants could not have been greater.


Sonja Brentjes 

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A model of the universe from the year 816

Posted 29/6/2015

MS UB Leiden, Voss Q79, 18 March 816: a map of the universe in a model that Tycho Brahe reinvented about 800 years laterMS UB Leiden, Voss Q79, 18 March 816: a map of the universe in a model that Tycho Brahe reinvented about 800 years later

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Politics, History and Academic Cooperation

Posted 29/6/2015

I thank Francesca Bray, Shervin Faridnejad and all friends on Facebook wo so far contributed to this website. With cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural cooperation this website cannot flourish. Today, I received the first entry for the blog. I am very grateful that Mercedes García-Arenal allowed me to publish her description of a workshop she did in Madrid on translations of sacred texts on the Iberian Peninsula.


During the last months, political adventures have increased the dangers for all of us, not merely for the people who die in the Middle East and the Ukraine thanks to the unlimited greed of international corporations, the desire of the arms industry to sell their weapons in ever growing numbers, the corrupt inclusion of politicians from all camps into lobbies, 'friendship' committees and think tanks and misguided young men who believe it is in their right and power to interpret God's will on earth and force everybody who has the misfortune to fall into their hands to live according to their dictate.


Thanks to all those criminals and the silence of us we are now living on the Vesuvius short before its outbreak. Do we really all are so disinterested in our own survival that we close our eyes and shut our mouths and let them do to us what they want?!


I decided to engage in local and other forms of politics trying to become a more responsible citizen of the world than before. I work now in the little town where I live in a small group for support of the refugees who live here. I joined an Italian colleague of mine in an organization for helping to save the refugees crossing the Mediterranean. Today, receiving an email from scientists for peace on the 60s anniversary of the Einstein-Russell declaration for peace and against nuclear weapons, I decided to join them in their struggle against a new nuclear arms race and the increasing danger of a war by NATO against Russia. Where is Greece and her people in all this? With grief and sadness, I sign one petition after the other against the politics of Schäuble, Merkel, Junckers, Lagarde and all the other irresponsible politicians and financial blackmailers of an entire population. It is a shame how they ruined the small country profiting in unbelievable numbers (2.5 billions alone for the IMF) from the debt policies that they enforced on Greece. This all is uncontrolled, untamed capitalism at its worth. The only difference to the wars of the 19th and 20th centuries will be that in all likelihood it will be the last world war humans ever will launch and loose.


Why do I write about all this on this website? I do not know anymore whether a project like this one makes sense. Nonetheless I pretend that we are not one step away from an abyss of no return. I try to keep my hope that things will not go the course I see.

Doing this website is one way to keep me sane.


Sonja Brentjes

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Translating Sacred Texts

Posted 29/6/2015

The Iberian Peninsula is the European territory which had closest contact with Judaism and Islam throughout the period of the Middle Ages. For some eight centuries there existed in Iberia an entire region, al-Andalus, that was under Islamic political control and which granted a statute of protection to its Jewish and Christian minorities; a similar statute was adopted by the Christian political entities in the north of the peninsula. Throughout these centuries the boundaries between the territories under Islamic and Christian control varied, with the result that a number of populations lived under the control of elites of a different religion and language from themselves. Our interest in this volume lies in considering how this context of fluctuating boundaries within which religious communities lived immersed among Christian or Islamic majorites came to influence or condition the translation of the sacred texts of the three religions into a language that was not that of its own revelation.

            Translation is one of the privileged fields within which it becomes possible to grasp the modalities of relations between the Hispanic religious communities, i.e. the forms of familiarity and polemic between the “neighboring faiths” of Iberia, during the long and complex process leading to the confessional homogenization of the modern age. This process of homogenization by no means brought the task of translating holy scriptures to an end. What makes the translation of holy scriptures different from other translations? It could be said that the translation of holy scriptures conveys in a radical manner the hermeneutical scope of all translation, seen as a basic gesture of textual interpretation. In this sense, sacred translation allows for an exploration of the limits of the construction of meaning and of the forms of appropriation of ideas and words that circulate in culturally complex spaces.

            Sacred translation implies, firstly, a religious community’s relationship with its own tradition, the continuity of which can be compromised in situations of political dominance. Indeed, the three religions harbored grave doubts and experienced serious problems concerning the pertinence of translating their own sacred text, i.e. concerning the translatability of sacred texts. For can translation not be seen as a kind of conversion? Is the divine message not distorted when couched in terms which point to the conceptual world of another religion? Such was the case for the Christians of al-Andalus, or the Jews and Muslims who lived in Christian territory and who, having lost the use of the Hebrew and Arabic languages, needed to translate their sacred texts for their own use. One singular characteristic of Iberia was the existence of Bible translations carried out by Jews for Jews, which existed alongside and were different from the Bible translations carried out by Jews (or with the assistance of Jews) for Christians; in addition there were translations into the vernacular tongues (Castilian, Catalan) which became problematic in the period of the European Reformation. We find similar phenomena in the Quranic translations which were still being produced by members of the Morisco minority as late as the early seventeenth century.

In addition to all of this, textual tradition is itself built upon forms of continuity and rupture with regard to other traditions, thereby determining the essential nature of religious polemics, and the need to construct difference in a dialectical manner. In such a dynamic context, political dominance is the decisive element. It is not just a matter of the dominance of one religion over others, or of the growing pressure of Christian evangelization in what became the modern age; it is a question of the construction of forms of textual and religious authority within the textual traditions themselves.

            It is clear that in its origin the translation of sacred texts is linked to the needs of religious polemic. Yet even when it is carried out in a polemical context, the translation of texts from other religious traditions often implies a transformation of the agents of polemic. It becomes not simply a matter of approaching the Other by gaining knowledge of his texts, but of integrating them in an order of discourse and history, and in the course of theological reasoning. Insofar as translation produces knowledge, that knowledge is no longer reducible to its polemical nature, but is subject to the logic of intellectual manipulation.

Who were the translators and on behalf of what did they carry out their translations? Research has long emphasised the collective nature of translation, and of the different forms of mediation which it implies. The problem of authority re-emerges, but also that of “expertise”. Experts in another language, or in another theology, worked alongside polemicists or sponsors. It is worth asking ourselves if the model of the “cultural broker” can truly define these decisive actors in the process of sacred translation. As we have pointed out, the biographical dimension intervenes in the construction of polemical authority, often in the form of “conversion”. Whereas the problem of testimony raises the issue of the relationship between  “conversion” and “translation”, sacred translation brings us face-to-face with the issue of “experience” as a historiographical problem.



List of participants


Camilla Adang

Gemma Avenoza

Pere Casanellas

Mònica Colominas

Alexander Fidora

Mercedes García-Arenal

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Adam Olearius (1599-1671) and Haq Virdi's Persian-Latin Dictionary

Posted 22/6/2015

The State Library in Berlin, Oriental Department, owns a manuscript dictionary, MS orient. fol. 100, whose title ascribed it to Olearius as the author and Haq Virdi as the helpmate. It is a precious document of a seventeenth-century cooperation between the German scholar and court librarian Adam Olearius and Haq Virdi, the secretary of an embassy sent by the Safavid Shah Safi' (r. 1629-1642)

Shah Safi, IranShah Safi, Iran

 to the Duke of Holstein who decided to stay in Holstein and to convert to Christianity. 

Although the dictionary is a Persian-Latin dictionary, the man who decided on its content and the order of its words was Olearius. The 368-pages do not follow the Persian order from 'back' to 'beginning', but the 'western' sequence. Some Persian words like the name of the Timurid ruler Timur the Lame (r. 1370-1405) are spelled according to the Latin form as Tamar. Several word clusters present Latin scientific concepts, which are translated into Persian vernacular, but not into the scientific terms of the early modern period. The content of the vocabulary is Christian, medieval and personal. No traces of the new scientific debates can be found, but also no traces of Iranian literature, history or society. The few Islamic terms included in the dictionary are nor always well translated.

Despite this recognizable dominance of Olearius as the main actor in this dictionary, the work itself apparently was compiled for Haq Virdi. Numerous Latin words contain pronunciation marks, but no Persian vocalization. The content is an introduction into Olearius' society, not into Safavid Iran. The social hierarchies, which are taught, are mainly those of German lands. The many Christian exclamations teach Haq Virdi what to say in which kind of situation. 

Adam OleariusAdam Olearius

Fascinating are also the many imbalances between the Persian and the Latin words. As in the case of the scientific terminology, the imbalances are mainly found on the Persian side like in the two following cases: ars liberalis (liberal art) = pisheh-yi sharif (the noble business/profession) and ars mechanica (mechanical art=mechanics) = pisheh-yi zabun o-haqir (the ignoble/vulgar business/ profession). The first concept does not exist in the intellectual world of Islamicate societies before 1900. The second concept should have been rendered as 'ilm al-hiyal (knowledge of tricks/automata), one of the two standard labels for mechanical knowledge in those societies. The other label was 'ilm jarr-i athqal (knowledge of lifting heavy bodies/loads).


                                                Sonja Brentjes

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Sanctioning and Contesting Knowledge

Posted 13/6/2015

A research result from sociology and other academic fields says: it is not merely censorship, exclusion, exile and other forms of punishment that define norms and boundaries for scholars and the knowledge they produce and distribute. Positive forms of sanctioning how scholars may speak, write, argue, verify, in short exercise their profession, but also dress or interact with other members of society establish these norms and boundaries with long-term efficacy.


In Islamicate societies, such positive norm setting achieved to establish for instance the axiomatic and deductive pattern of Euclid’s Elements with first principles, definitions, theorems, constructions and proofs as the presentational norm for some four centuries in geometry and related fields like mechanics. Individual texts on farther away topics like water lifting or predicting from cooked shoulder blades of sheep indicate the power of this norm at least for some writers. Texts on arithmetic and algebra, however, followed other norms set by other authoritative texts such as those by Nikomachos of Gerasa (2nd c) or Muhammad b. Musa al-Khwarazmi (9th c). Overall though the writing mode of the ancient Greeks, whether Euclid (3rd c BCE ?), Nikomachos, Ptolemy (ca. 90-168), Aristotle (384-322 BCE) or Plato (424-348 BCE), including the terminology formed during the translations of their works, was a powerful model for many authors to emulate in different fields well into the twelfth century.


The general conviction among historians of science in Islamic societies is that this role model became so attractive because of its scientific qualities, i.e. because of its efficacy to explain, order and model phenomena, solve problems and create theories. While these were undoubtedly important factors in the eyes of scholars likeYa’qub b. Yusuf al-Kindi (d. ca. 866), Thabit b. Qurra (d. 901), the Banu Musa (three brothers; the oldest, Muhammad, died in 873; of the two others, Ahmad and al-Hasan, the dates of their passing away are unknown), Abu Sahl Wayjan al-Kuhi (d. ca. 1000), Abu Rayhan al-Biruni (d. 1048), Ibn al-Haytham (ca. 965-1040) or Ibn Sina (d. 1036), did they apply too to writers on geography like Abu l-Hasan ‘Ali al-Mas’udi (d. 956) or Yaqut b. ‘Abdallah al-Rumi (1179-1229) and scholars of the religious disciplines when writing on mathematical themes like Abu Mansur ‘Abd al-Qahir b. Tahir al-Baghdadi al-Shafi’I (d. 1037)? There is no research available so far that explores other motivations for adopting the scientific model based on ancient Greek archetypes by scholars of the mathematical sciences and beyond in Islamic societies except for Dimitri Gutas’ proposal to understand the translation movement as the result of socio-cultural factors, in particular specific needs of individual Abbasids for creating legitimacy and forming alliances.[1] Based on his studies, we can consider cultural policies of a dynasty or of its individual members as providing further motivations for positive norm setting and compliance with such positive norms. Other examples for dynastic shaping of boundaries or orientations of knowledge are known thanks to the work of art historians for the Timurids and thanks to past historians and biography writers for the Ottomans.[2]


After the twelfth century the adherence to Greek writing styles gave way to other forms of a more distinctive religious as well as literary flavor. Quotes from the Qur’an, hadith and more loosely religiously grounded arguments began to dominate the introductions to mathematical texts written by experts. They tended to permeate the whole corpus of a treatise if the author’s qualification rested primarily in the religious sciences. Poems, wisdom sayings and other literary devices entered the realm of the mathematical sciences either as a didactic device or as a reflection of broader cultural norms that privileged scholars with poetic skills. In the past it was often Abu Hamid al-Ghazali who was declared responsible for this shift in norms and styles. My suggestion though is that the inclusion of the mathematical sciences in the education of students at madrasas, mosques and cognate institutes, the subsequent adaptation of the mathematical fields to norms regulating the teaching of religious knowledge and the various other practices of these disciplines and the regulatory power of the biographical literature were the socio-cultural factors that  stimulated the shift from writing mathematics in an axiomatic and deductive style to a rule- and recipe-oriented format as well as from a value system that favored novelty and achievement to one that praised the copying of the ancestors whose achievements could barely be reached, let alone be surpassed.


Religious beliefs are a further element that is often considered as having determined boundaries in society at large, including scientific goals and scholarly rhetoric. The most important such element is the negative normative function of bida that is believed to have impeded in later centuries the open admission of innovation or novelty as the goal of an author or the property of a text, a solution, an instrument or a map. Toby Huff uses it in the misunderstood interpretation of heresy as a central argument in his unconvincing explanation of the traditional and in my view wrongly posed question of why there was no scientific revolution in Islamic societies after the advancement of knowledge during the first Abbasid centuries, the period which I dated here tentatively until the later twelfth century.[3] He also has little to no understanding of the various cultural means created by scholars of the mathematical sciences and other members of society to express self-confidence, talk about new results or criticize earlier scholars or contemporaries for their real or perceived shortcomings.[4]


Scholars in the Abbasid period were not exactly shy to express what they thought of others and themselves. Some of them were blunt, while others believed that good style rested in letting the results speak for themselves.[5] Until the eleventh and probably also the twelfth centuries bida did not appear in debates in the mathematical sciences. Debates in other intellectual, political or religious contexts about bida did not reflect on the practices of the people writing mathematical texts. In the subsequent period we find even authors who characterized explicitly their work as jadid (new, novel).[6] Hence while bida indeed had a negative meaning and was used for setting boundaries in society at large, the scholars arguing for its normative relevance did not have the power to enforce this norm and the boundaries derived from it fully and completely.


The scholars of the mathematical sciences avoided apparently to import it into these disciplines, even if they used it in debates about fiqh, hadith and other themes. Norms and boundaries are not merely established by argument, fatwa or royal herald. To function in the mathematical sciences they need to be accepted and defended by their practitioners, not transgressed or ignored. This means negative control alone is insufficient for supervising knowledge and isolating it from undesirable thoughts and other practices. Positive control that instills standards, rituals, and self-control, that constructs suitable narratives of legitimacy and appropriateness, and that provides rewards for conformist behavior is the necessary alter ego.

[1] Dimitri Gutas, Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco- Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early 'Abbasid Society (2nd–4th/8th–10th centuries). London and New York: Routledge, 1998.

[2] Thomas W. Lentz, Glenn D. Lowry (eds.), Timur and the Princely Vision, Persian Art and Culture in the Fifteenth Century, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2007, pp. 28-9, 32-3, 42-3, 45, 50-3, 63, 74, 80-1, 98-101, 145-53.

[3] Toby E. Huff, The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 104.

[4] For examples of such declarations see, for instance, Franz Rosenthal, 'Al-Asṭurlâbî and as-Samaw᾿al on scientific progress,' Osiris 9 (1950), 555-64.

[5] Sonja Brentjes, 'La Nouveauté comme valeur culturelle,' in Sarah Carvallo, Sophie Roux (eds.), Du nouveau dans les sciences, Paris: Librairie Philosophique Vrin, 2007, pp. 37-70, in particular pp. 55-8.

[6] Brentjes, 'La Nouveauté comme valeur culturelle,' p. 49.

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Convivencia Project at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin

Posted 13/6/2015

Four Max Planck Institutes (History of Art, Florence; History of Science, Berlin; European Legal History, Frankfurt; Social Anthropology, Halle) have received funding for a five-year research project on Convivencia between 500 and 1800 in the Mediterranean and the Iberian World. The MPIWG will host a two-year and a three-year post-doctoral position. The two-year position will be advertised soon. It will invite applications for one of the following three topics:

1. Drug trade and networks of knowledge from the western Mediterranean to the Northern Black Sea (1200-1500)

2. The places of natural philosophy in the theologic-philosophical spaces of higher education and at courts in Islamicate and Catholic societies (1200-1600)

3. Cross-cultural elements in portolan charts and their contexts (1300-1600).

If you are interested in any of the three topics, please, check the website of the MPIWG over the next few weeks: www.mpiwg.de



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Fourteenth-century sea charts of the Mediterranean

Posted 31/5/2015

There are two main classes of sea charts of the Mediterranean preserved from the late 13th to the 16th centuries: those that show only the coastal lines of Europe, North Africa, a short part of the Atlantic coast and sometimes parts or all of the Black Sea on the one hand and those that also provide information about the inland behind those coasts. I usually work with the latter class. My main goal is to determine the cultural elements that are inscribed in those charts and their regional and socio-cultural origins.


The main positions since the nineteenth centuries were two: the portolan charts were fully independently produced in Italy, at Majorca and some time later in Aragon, while the Arabic an later Ottoman charts are copies of such northern products; the northern products were taken over wholesale from Arabic or Persian charts of the Mediterranean. Neither of the two positions is correct. Portolan charts are fascinatingly complex mixtures of elements from different cultures along the Mediterranean: Arabic, Byzantine, Italian, Jewish, Majorcan, Ilkhanid (Mongols in iran), Turkic, Slavic, Persian. Some of these elements come from images, others from oral knowledge and again other from books and maps. The second fascinating feature of these Mediterranean charts is the fact that they were obviously translatable and appreciated across political, linguistic, cultural and religious boundaries. Thirdly, in addition to this permeability of symbols, names and forms, all chart-makers invested time and efforts to adapt the charts to their local culture.


Once, the models had become fixed no major changes were integrated into them, despite their continued malleability and openness to change. Only in the seventeenth century, when new expectations arose and new standards were introduced, did the sea charts change fundamentally. One might even say they experienced a paradigm shift.


In this sense, the fourteenth-century portolan charts of the Mediterranean are a good representation of the historiographic type that characterizes the sciences in Islamicate societies. We should perhaps reflect on what these two cultural phenomena share with each other.


Sonja Brentjes

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A female collector of al-Sufi's Book on Star Constellations

Posted 30/5/2015

Emilie Savage-Smith translated in her paper on the copy of al-Sufi's book on star constellations from 1125 different parts of the colophon. They contain important information about how the copyist worked, that al-Sufi taught his book to at least one student whom he gave apparently some kind of testimony that the student's copy was correct, that the copyist had also access to the alleged autograph of al-Sufi produced for the treasury of the Buyid ruler 'Adud al-Dawla which had since then moved into the possession of the 'Abbasid caliph. This last mentioned part of the colophon contains the only reference to a high-raking female official in the caliphal household as a collector and owner of scientific books - the head mistress of the women's part of the palace.


Due to the extreme rarity of such information about the interest of women in scientific books I copy here Emilie's translation of this part of the colophon:


        "I compared this book from its beginning to end, during the month of Safar of the year mentioned earlier [March 1125], with the copy that was made for the treasury of al-Malik 'Adud al-Dawla Abu Shuja' Fana-Khusraw ibn Rukn al-Dawla, may God be pleased with him, and it was a copy in an upright? (mujallas) script derived from Kufic, and all of the corrections and additions which were in it were in the handwriting of Abu’l-Husayn al-Sufi, the author of this book, and all the drawings (suwar) were the work of (san'a) Abu’l-Husayn al-Sufi in his own hand. 

And this copy moved about amongst the treasuries of the rulers of the Banu Buway [the Buyids] until it reached al-Sahliya, head housekeeper (qahramana) of the Prince of Believers [the caliph] al-Qa'im bi-Amr Allah (d.1075), and he [the caliph] bequeathed it as a waqf." Emilie-Savage Smith, The Most Authoritative Copy of 'Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi's Tenth-century Guide to the Constellations, p. 137 (paper is uploaded on academia.edu).


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'Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi's (died 986) Book of the Star Constellations

Posted 30/5/2015

'Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi was an astrologer at the court of the Buyid ruler 'Adud al-Dawla in Rayy (today a suburb of Tehran). He is also said to have been one of 'Adud al-Dawla's teachers. He dedicated his book on the star constellations to his prominent student. Until today, I thought that the copy in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, MS Marsh 144, was the oldest copy of his work extant today, since its colophon dated it to the year 400 Hijra, i.e. 1009-10. Trying to tag images from this manuscript for a panel in Paris on July 6, 2015, I found Emilie Savage-Smith's paper on another copy of this work kept in the Museum for Islamic Art at Doha. This manuscript contains a fascinating colophon, which dates the manuscript to the year 1125. Emilie argues in her paper that the Bodleian manuscript cannot have been produced by 'Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi's son Husayn as is believed so far on the basis of the colophon. She suggests that the manuscript should rather be dated to the late 12th century. Unfortunately she does not give specific arguments for this late dating. This forces me to study the manuscript myself and see what I might find out about its composition and properties.


The reason I need to do this is that my colleague Dagmar Schäfer and I wish to build a collection of visualizations of the heavens in different cultures in Asia. Our intention is to document the different aspects of the idea 'heaven' which were visualized in different cultures, to create a survey on the material which has been used for such depictions and to register the occasions of use of visual forms about the heaven. Our goal is to show the similarities between such depictions across different cultures in Asia, to determine the differences and to study the relationships and changes that occurred when boundaries were crossed between different areas of knowledge, use, geography and culture.


MS Marsh 144 is famous for its iconographic relationship to painting styles and symbols used in Buddhist and Chinese art forms in Central Asia, India and China. The cautious suggestion proposed by Barbara Brend in the 1990s is that the Seljuqs brought these central and east Asian elements of portraying humans with them when they conquered Iran, Iraq, parts of Anatolia and Syria in the second half of the eleventh century. In her view, the manuscript consists of two parts. The first one should have been written and drawn by Husayn, 'Abd al-Rahman's son. The second part, with the new pictorial program, was introduced later by an anonymous artist. Emilie rejects now the identification of Husayn with 'Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi's son and believes that nobody with sound knowledge of astronomy was involved in the production of this manuscript.


If her suggestion turns out to be reasonably well grounded, i.e. that the entire manuscript might be much later then previously believed, then the thesis of the Seljuq introduction of its pictorial program needs to be reconsidered. We would then need to ask who considered such an 'alien' artistic repertoire attractive, where did this happen and why was is it so extremely successful?


Sonja Brentjes

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