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A.I. Sabra (1930-2013), the editor and translator of Ibn al-Haytham's opus magnum, the Kitab al-manazir (Book on Optics).A.I. Sabra (1930-2013), the editor and translator of Ibn al-Haytham's opus magnum, the Kitab al-manazir (Book on Optics).

The early centuries of the history of sciences in Islamicate societies in North Africa are not well known. Better is the situation for the development of the religious disciplines and history writing. There are also regional differences. Our knowledge for Egypt is much better than our knowledge about regions, which are today part of Tunisia, Algeria or Morocco. 


The first, albeit vague information about scientific activities in the west of North Africa concerns the ninth century when the movement started that led to the Fatimid dynasty, the first Muslim ruling elite with a commitment to a specific form of Shi'ism (Isma'iliyya or 7-Shi'ism). Later writers about debates what the proper direction of prayer should be report that the Fatimid missionaries encouraged astronomical activities and distributed astronomical tables for determining a scientifically based prayer direction towards Mecca. The Arabic name of this direction is qibla. Its value and how to determine it played a great role in religious, scientific and political debates and even conflicts for many centuries.


According to Taqi al-Din al-Maqrizi (1364-1442), the Fatimids determined the beginning of each month on the basis of astronomical tables. Monica Rius seems to suggest that the appreciation shown by the Isma’ili dynasty for mathematical methods strengthened their rejection by Maliki jurists. [1] Having talked to Paul Walker, University of Chicago, about the application of mathematical methods to issues like the beginning of Ramadan by the Fatimids it appears that it is not certain whether the Fatimids did indeed employ them in any systematic manner. Walker suggested that this was not very likely during their Egyptian period since they tried not to alienate their Sunni population. He conceded, however, that they may have employed them in their early North African time when they tried to enforce various of their beliefs on the local population. Obviously, a systematic investigation of Fatimid efforts to impose their calendar in North Africa is needed to clarify the historical background of this critique at Fatimid mathematical practices by later Maliki scholars. 


Clearer information about scholars of the mathematical sciences are preserved from the tenth century onwards. They refer primarily to Egypt, with a particular focus on its capital Cairo, al-Qahira = the Victorious. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, talented scholars whose works were appreciated for many centuries in numerous Islamicate societies were Ibn Yunus (950-1009) and Ibn al-Haytham (lived circa from 965 until after 1040). [2]

[1] Rius, La Alquibla en al-Andalus y al-Magrib al Aqṣà, Anuari de Filologia (Universitat de Barcelona) XXI (1998-99) B-3, Institut “Millás Vallicrosa” d’Història de la Ciència Àrab, Barcelona 2000, pp. 225-229.

[2] King, David A. (2008) [1970-80]. "Ibn Yūnus, AbuʿL-Hasan ʿAlī Ibn ʿ Abd Al-Rahmān Ibn Yūnus Al Sadafī"Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Encyclopedia.com; King, David A. (2007). "Ibn Yūnus: Abū al‐Ḥasan ҁʿAlī ibn ʿAbd al‐Raḥmān ibn Aḥmad ibn Yūnus al‐Ṣadafī". In Thomas Hockey et al. The Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers. New York: Springer. pp. 573–4. ISBN 978-0-387-31022-0Sabra, A. I. (1994), Optics, Astronomy and Logic: Studies in Arabic Science and Philosophy, Collected Studies Series 444, Variorum, Aldershot, ISBN 0-86078-435-5OCLC 29847104 30739740.


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