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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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