Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Desalination, falconry, camel reproduction?

At the TLS, Robert Irwin has a rather good piece about an interesting-sounding book on Islamic science by Muzaffar Iqbal:
People who are only aware of Jabir (or Geber as he was known in the medieval West) as the name of an early scientist, may not be aware of what richly bizarre treasures are to be found in his strangely diverse writings: sperm is a crucial ingredient in the elixir of life; bird sperm is needed for producing a man with wings; the effigy of a Chinaman in bed will keep one awake at night; a picture of a man killing snakes done in magical ink will actually kill snakes; there is a fish called “the doctor of the sea” that carries a stone in its head that has the power to cure all ills; putrefied hair generates serpents; demons can be usefully trapped in statues. In the monumental Jabir ibn Hayyan: Contribution à l’histoire des idées scientifiques dans l’Islam, Paul Kraus (1904–44), a genius who committed suicide at an early age, surveyed the Jabirian corpus, which covered sexology, alchemy, the art of warfare, the manufacture of talismans, artisanal techniques, religious polemic, grammar, music, invisible inks, the artificial generation of human beings and much else. Kraus showed that the corpus was not the work of a single hand. Moreover, most of the treatises dated from the late ninth and early tenth centuries and contained radical Shia propaganda. Iqbal is aware of Kraus’s findings but oddly refuses to engage with them and continues to treat Jabir as a real person who lived when he is supposed to have done and who wrote several hundred miscellaneous treatises. In general, Iqbal elides the pervasiveness of occult thinking in Islamic science. Also when writing about cosmology, he refers en passant to a genre of literature known as the “Wonders of Creation” (in Arabic aja’ib al-makhluqat), but the treatises in this genre that I have consulted have more in common with Ripley’s Believe It or Not! than anything seriously scientific.

But Iqbal is successful in arguing that the “Quran itself lays out a well-defined and comprehensive concept of the natural world, and this played a foundational role in the making of the scientific tradition in Islamic civilization”. Faith impelled rather than impeded the Islamic scientist. The Koran commands man to study Allah’s creation. The eleventh-century cosmologist al-Biruni wrote: “Sight was made the medium so that [man] traces among the living things the signs and wisdom, and turns from the created things to the Creator”. At a more practical level, astronomy and mathematics were studied and further developed to assist in such matters as the orientation of mosques, the determination of prayer times and the division of inheritances according to Islamic law.

1 comment:

  1. But will a picture of a man done in magical ink killing an ouroboros kill an ouroboros?