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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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