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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

Teaching the sciences in ninth-century Baghdad

Posted 22/5/2015

There is no research on how the sciences were taught in ninth-century Baghdad or in any other city of the Abbasid caliphate before the twelfth century. We do not know whether and if so how this social practice was part of the translations of Greek or Syriac scientific texts into Arabic. Neither do we know whether individual texts or entire manuscripts were translated. While an important reason for this lack of knowledge rests in the kind of texts and manuscripts which were preserved over the centuries, another equally important reason consists in our lack of interest in this kind of questions. We either take it for granted that the translated texts were used in the same manner as before without any further need for investigating the matter or we simply overlook the tiny traces of teaching activities left in copies of treatises translated or newly composed during the ninth century.

Hence, I was rather surprised when I saw statements in two of Thabit b. Qurra's (d. 901) scientific texts according to which he dictated them, lectured about them or had them dictated to him. They were my first encounter with texts produced for or in a classroom during the ninth century in Baghdad. The textual properties of one of these two texts, the Book on the Steelyard, moreover, can only be understood as a combination of fragments from different ancient Greek treatises on balances. Thabit's critique at translators and copyists in the preface of his second Book on the Steelyard, which is preserved only in Latin, strongly indicates that nothing but such fragments were available to him in Arabic. Hence, it is plausible to assume that they were extracts of longer texts penned down in Greek manuscripts, which were fully translated from cover to cover instead of translating only individual of their complete texts.

Today I found another hint that information about teaching in late antiquity was transmitted via translated manuscripts. A single page in a manuscript of scientific texts, among them Thabit's first book on the steelyard, previously held by the library of St Joseph University in Beirut and lost during the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990), contains a few lines claiming to be a copy of a note originally written by Thabit's colleague and friend Ishaq b. Hunayn (d. 911). Its header promises to provide the order in which scientific books should be read after finishing with Euclid's Elements. Since all named books are exclusively translations of ancient Greek geometrical and astronomical works this note about in which sequence they should be studied comes either from a Greek manuscript Ishaq translated or, perhaps, describes the sequence of reading them in a Christian school in Baghdad, although the one his father Hunayn b. Ishaq (d. 873) described is called medical and no geometrical or astronomical works are mentioned as subjects of teaching.

A comparison with one of the preserved Greek manuscripts that contains the collection of ancient texts known as "Little Astronomy" and thought to be studied after Euclid's Elements and before Ptolemy's Almagest shows that Ishaq's sequence differs from medieval practice. This offers two further interesting questions for future research: do both sequences reflect late ancient teaching practices, i.e. did different schools teach these texts in a different order, or does Ishaq's list represent a late ancient practice and the sequence in the Greek manuscript today in the library of the Vatican reflects medieval Byzantine teaching?


Sonja Brentjes

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Medieval translation movements and their interpretations

Posted 19/5/2015

Although translations of all kinds of texts were undertaken in many different medieval communities across the globe, only two have been graced with the label movement: translations from Greek into Arabic and translations from Arabic into Latin. I have to admit that I do not know when the term 'movement' was applied to these translations and whether there ever was a clear definition of what the term entailed. When I began to work on Arabic translations of Greek mathematical texts with the occasional excursion into Latin translations of Arabic mathematical texts the concept 'translation movement' was already well established. When I moved from the ninth or thirteenth centuries forward into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, encountering translations of Arabic, Persian, Latin, Italian, or French texts into Ottoman Turkish on my way through the literature I began to wonder why in the case of the Ottomans translating mathematical and other texts from one language into another one was seen as a negative process, an expression of decline, while for the eighth, ninth, twelfth and thirteenth centuries the same kind of activity was regarded as a highly positive undertaking, an expression of bringing the light to the east.


But this contradictory approach to evaluating cross-cultural translations of scientific and other knowledge was not limited to periods separated through many centuries. It also applied and continues to do so to the two so-called translation movements and their participants. In the case of translations into Arabic, Greek is the clear favorite, while the contributions from other languages such as Middle Persian or Sanskrit are often judged negligible. Since Dimitri Gutas' book Greek Thought, Arabic Culture  (1998), colleagues studying primarily Syriac literature and its translations from Greek or into Arabic are highlighting what they perceive as Gutas' neglect of the contribution of Syriac Christians to the 'Islamic' translation movement. A particularly vocal voice in this interpretive conflict is that of John Watt. Other colleagues protested against Gutas' emphasis on the role of translations from Middle Persian into Syriac and Arabic as a motor for the translation movement. In a reply against the appreciation of Syriac and Middle Persian contributions to the translation movement in the eight and ninth centuries, George Saliba (2007) pointed to the low theoretical level of extant Syriac astronomical texts. New Persian astronomical writings are, unfortunately, all lost, except, perhaps, for limited traces in Zoroastrian religious literature of the ninth century and later, as Pouyan Rezvani (Suhayl 13, 2014) has recently argued. On these grounds, Saliba rejected the possibility that Syriac or Middle Persian astronomical texts and/or scholars speaking either of the two languages as their mother tongue could have played a decisive role in starting and promoting the translation movement, which he understands like Gutas and others as a movement of translating Greek texts - via Syriac or not - into Arabic. The only point that most students of this translation movement agree about is that Muslims mostly contributed to this process as patrons, but only rarely, if at all, as translators. Hence, one important issue among others is the typical chicken-egg kind of question: who was more important for instigating and maintaining the translations - the translators or the patrons?


A similar situation prevails in the case of the translations from Arabic into Latin. Muslims are often accused of not having contributed to this process or even having put obstacles in its way. Foreigners, Catholic Christians coming from Italy, Dalmatia, England and elsewhere outside the Iberian Peninsula, were praised for more than a century as the decisive actors in this translation movement. The contributions of local Christians from the Peninsula and Jews were downplayed as either those of unskilled native speakers of dialects or those of scholars without knowledge of the most important language - Latin. It took almost as much time to recognize that it was not the search for Greek philosophy, medicine, astronomy or mathematics that motivated most of these translations but the interest in astrology, magic, divination and perhaps alchemy seen as the royal sciences.


Given that these opposing interpretations of participation, achievement and value not only misled us for too long a time in our academic judgments of what was undertaken how by whom in which contexts and for which purposes, but more often than not reflect more our own views about how things work today projected back in time, I wonder which questions do we need to ask today to go beyond the isolating glorification of some translations to the detriment of others, whether within one culture or across various cultures in Asia, Africa and Europe.


Sonja Brentjes


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Summer Seminar "Science and Religion" at Abraham Kuyper Center, VU University, Amsterdam

Posted 19/5/2015



August 17-20, 2015
 Abraham Kuyper Center
, VU University Amsterdam



Michael Ruse (Florida State University)

Denis Alexander (St Edmund's College)

Helen de Cruz (VU University Amsterdam)

Gijsbert van den Brink (VU University Amsterdam)

Vincent Brümmer (Utrecht University)

Nidhal Guessoum  (American University of Sharjah)

Kelly James Clark  (Grand Valley State University)

Jeroen de Ridder (VU University Amsterdam)

Nancey Murphey  (Fuller Theological Seminary)

Emanuel Rutten (VU University Amsterdam)

Dick Swaab (Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience)

Henk de Regt (VU University Amsterdam)

Ab Flipse (VU University Amsterdam)

Tjerk Oosterkamp (Leiden University)




During this Summer Seminar the main topics on Science and Religion will be discussed.


Day 1: The Nature of Science and the Nature of Religion

-          What is the Nature of Science?

-          What is the Nature of Religion?

-          Can Religious Belief be Rational?

Day 2: Science and Religion in Historical Perspective

-          What is the Relation between Science and Religion?

-          Islam and Science

-          Case Studies

Day 3: Science and Religion in contemporary perspective

-          What does Cognitive Science say about Religion?

-          Does CSR debunk Religion?

-          Is there a conflict between Science and Religion?

Day 4: Religious Belief and the Theory of Evolution

-          Evolution, Theology and Biblical Interpretation

-          Evolution and Evil


PhD-students, postdocs, Bachelor and Master students, and faculty members from different disciplines, who have an interest in speaking knowledgeably about the intersection on science on the one hand and religion on the other, are most welcome to participate.

Information on registration, accommodation, and other administrative matters will be made available on the conference website: www.abrahamkuypercenter.vu.nl/SummerSeminar2015



VU University Amsterdam
De Boelelaan 1105
1081 HV Amsterdam
The Netherlands



Gijsbert van den Brink (VU University)

René van Woudenberg  (VU University), 
Abraham Kuyper Center

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Books as Material and SymbolicArtifacts in Religious Book CulturesKäte Hamburger Kolleg, Center forReligious Studies, Ruhr University Bochum: 28 & 29 May 2015

Posted 18/5/2015

The Käte Hamburger Kolleg Workshop on Books as Material and Symbolic Artifacts in Religious Book Cultures will analyze the connections between books and manuscripts as material artifacts and the formation of religious book cultures before the printing era. It will also explore the ways in which, in religious book production, the medium, in its forms of “human and institutional interactions,” influences the transmission of the religious message, allowing for the material format to receive further alterations from the religious message itself. Finally, this workshop will investigate interactions between modern religious groups and the very academic books which describe them.


Thursday, 28 May 2015

  • Costantino Moretti (Paris): "Non-Textual Uses in Buddhist Medieval China"
  • Grégoire Espesset (Bochum): "Petitioning in Pre-Modern Taoist Liturgy"
  • Vladimir Glomb (Bochum): "Sagehood for Young Boys: Confucian Primers in Traditional Korea"
  • Shervin Farridnejad (Berlin): "The Zoroastrian “Holy Book”: The Understanding and Construction of the Avesta as a Book in Zoroastrian Tradition and Oriental Studies"
  • Kianoosh Rezania (Bochum): "The Zoroastrian “Pahlavi Book”: The Genesis of the Dēnkard in the Early Abbasid Period"
  • Marie Efthymiou (Aix-Marseille): "Suras Collections in Central Asia: From Manuscripts Used in Daily Devotions to Teaching Subject in Quranic Schools"

Friday, 29 May 2015

  • Ksenia Pimenova (Bochum): "Ethnographers, Their Books, and Their Shamans: The Scripturalization of Post-Soviet Tuvan Shamanism"
  • Mareile Haase (Bochum): "The Zagreb Mummy Wrappings: An Etruscan Linen Book from Egypt"
  • AnneMarie Luijendijk (Princeton): "Put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time (Jer. 32:14): On Saving and Discarding Sacred Books"
  • Flavia Ruani (Ghent): "Books of Protection, Books of Perdition: Book Imagery in Ephrem the Syrian's Heresiology"
  • Eduard Iricinschi (Bochum): "No one in Rome really has time to attend readings (Pliny, Letters, 3.18.4): The Anxiety of Publishing Books in Late Antiquity"




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Why is glorifying scholars of the past bad historiography?

Posted 17/5/2015

When I did my graduate studies and for years afterwards praising a scholar of the past for his achievements either in respect to the ancient Greeks or the medieval, early modern or modern Europeans was a standard mode of evaluating his texts, methods or theories. The price for this approach was a superficial care for the scholar's own times and his place in them or their total neglect. My own thesis is a good expression of this style. I cannot remember when I got utterly frustrated with this kind of history writing. Maybe some twenty years ago. Did we progress in these two decades? Yes and no. There are still too many historians of science and maybe also of medicine who neglect a scholar's context or simplify it to mere rhetoric and dates. Those who engage in contextualization and historiographical criticism are often younger scholars from countries of Africa and Asia or from migrant families. They bring their own problems and shortcomings to the study of past knowledge. They tend to exaggerate the political and to neglect the technical aspects of knowledge. They praise the mere existence of knowledge products without a serious study of their content and complexity. 


In my view, any kind of glorification is bad historiography since our task is to undertake efforts for identifying causes and motivations of why past people engaged with knowledge, how they produced new knowledge and what for they used it. To do this we need other kinds of questions than those for imagined superiority which all too often is merely a veiled debate about our own desires for greatness and relevance.


Sonja Brentjes

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New Post Title

Did Muslims invent modern sciences, medicine and technologies?

Posted 15/5/2015

This is a question positively answered on various sites of the Internet. Its affirmation makes many young as well as older Muslims proud. I have encountered this pride in Muslim relevance to modern sciences, medicine and technology with students and on conferences. Islamophobic websites of people like Pamela Geller and her crowd deny with fervor that Muslims ever contributed anything worthwhile to the intellectual, medical or technical development of humankind. Amateurs among scientists, mathematicians, physicians and engineers believe to know that Muslim scholars did rarely produce anything that had not been already done in antiquity in the same form and with the same methods. I have met all three kinds of deeply distorting perspectives and interpretations on the Internet, among my students in London and Seville and at academic conferences or public events.


To me, this situation signifies three things:

1. the history of science, medicine and technology in past Islamicate societies is hugely important as a political and ideological tool for very different groups today.

2. academic amateurs from the sciences, medicine and engineering fields believe to have the right to history writing without previous acquisition of the needed skills and knowledge.

3. professional historians of science, medicine and technology in past Islamicate societies have far too long abstained from talking to interested lay people about their research in an accessible and interesting manner.


I hope that this website will create over time spaces for discussion and showcases for trustworthy stories about past scholars, their lives and their works that will attract non-expert readers.


Sonja Brentjes

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News: New Links to other websites

Posted 11/5/2015

I am very happy to inform all of you, dear readers, that you now find new links on the West Asia (main page + Sciences) and Medieval Europe (medicine) pages. The news about publications, new and forthcoming, as well as events, new research projects and videos continue to appear on our homepage. We will change them in appropriate intervals, at the beginning perhaps every two or three months.


Sonja Brentjes

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Difficulties with the Display on the Internet

Posted 10/5/2015

Emilie Savage-Smith reported today that the website appears as empty frames on her computer. Rana and I went to check on my Mac, our PC desktop and on the IPad how it appeared there. The Mac shows the website fine. The PC shows it in good order, but less glossy collars. The IPad shows a destroyed order on its display: everything is sorted in a long vertical column. Checking Web.de's help did not help. Who can help? What should we do to solve the problem? Thanks, Sonja and Rana


We are happy to report that Emilie's problem could be solved by changing the http: address. But the IPad problem continues to exist, unfortunately.

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Organization of the website

Posted 8/5/2015

 We decided to start the website after the homepage with a blog as the primary platform for discussion and information.


After some trials, we opted for a geographical division of those parts of the Old World, which are our primary concern. If other colleagues with other geographical and hence cultural interests join this website they are welcome to propose further pages. Each regional page is subdivided in eight thematic or disciplinary blocs. Each thematic bloc can be subdivided further as we did already in the case of West Asia, Sciences. An exception is  East Asia, which includes a ninth bloc making room for the main research approach of Dagmar Schäfer, a sinologist, historian of science and director of Department 3 at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. We hope that she will join us soon and head the East Asia page on this website.


We are looking for colleagues willing to head either an entire region or one or more of the sub sites of one or more regions.


Sonja and Rana Brentjes                            8 May 2015

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