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A quadrant and a sundial from Abu 'Ali al-Hasan al-Marrakushi's (flourished 1281/2 in Cairo) work "" in a fourteenth-century copy; MS Paris BnF, Arabe 2508.A quadrant and a sundial from Abu 'Ali al-Hasan al-Marrakushi's (flourished 1281/2 in Cairo) work "" in a fourteenth-century copy; MS Paris BnF, Arabe 2508.

The sciences in Islamicate societies are classified over the centuries in different forms. One can find twofold, threefold and fourfold classifications into which the individual disciplines are grouped. A twofold classification that shaped encyclopedias and treatises on the order or ranks of the sciences for many centuries named the religious and philological disciplines the 'modern' sciences ranking them before the 'ancient' sciences, which included the four disciplines of the quadrivium (number theory, geometry, astronomy, theoretical music), other mathematical areas like algebra, magic squares, burning mirrors, optics or systems of calculation (Indian decimal positional system; calculation with the knuckles of the finger; calculation in the mind), philosophy, medicine or astrology. Which disciplines of the two classes were discussed in a specific work depended on its author. Some strove for comprehensiveness. Others preferred a selection. Another twofold classification without much direct impact was proposed by Abu Yusuf Ishaq b. Ya'qub al-Kindi (lived circa 800-870 first in Basra, then in Baghdad), who was and is praised as the (first) philosopher of the Arabs. Others like Qusta b. Luqa (died after 922), a  Greek scholar from Damascus, who worked for some time as a translator of Greek medical and mathematical works at the Abbasid court in Samarra before he moved on to Armenia, or the well-known and very influential philosopher and physician Ibn Sina (died 1037) preferred Aristotle's twofold scheme of philosophy to which they added branches. This scheme opposed theoretical and practical philosophy, each with a threefold division. Theoretical philosophy consisted of metaphysics at its top, followed by mathematics. Physics, i.e. natural philosophy, was the lowest discipline. Practical philosophy included politics, economics or how to run a big household and ethics. Ibn Sina added for instance medicine and astrology to practical philosophy as branches. A new threefold division stabilized during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It embraced the disciplines based on Muslim traditions, the rational sciences based on human reason and the mathematical sciences. The religious disciplines were now classed into the first group as well as the second group, where they joined the philosophical disciplines except for mathematics. Disciplines like astrology, alchemy, the science of the letters and various other arts of divination could be grouped under the rational or the mathematical sciences, depending on an author's perspective. This threefold classification of knowledge dominated teaching as well as scholarly literature in many Islamicate societies well into the nineteenth century. Fourfold classifications are rarely discussed. They separate either the philosophical disciplines from the rational sciences or group the divinatory disciplines, alchemy and magic in a fourth class.


Sonja Brentjes                                                8 May 2015

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