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Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Address delivered at the dedication of the hall of the Boston medical library association, on December III, MDCCCLXXVIII online

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fifth century of the Hegira by Nizam ul-Mulk, the great Vizie
of Malik Shah, Sultan of the Seljuks ; and the second, buil
two centuries later, by the Caliph Al-Mustansir b'illah.

" It is a remarkable fact," says the historian of Culture unde
the Caliphs, " that the sovereign who makes us forget some c
the darker sides of his nature by his moral and mental quahtia'
also gave the impetus to the great intellectual movement whic
now commenced in the Islamic world." ^ It was by Mansur'
command that literary and scientific works in foreign language
were first translated into Arabic. Himself no mean scholar an
mathematician he had the famous collections of Indian fabk
(the Hitopadesa), the Indian treatise on astronomy called th
Siddhanta, several works of Aristotle, the Almagest of Claudir
Ptolemy, the books of Euclid, as well as other ancient Greel
Byzantine, Persian, and Syrian productions, translated int
the language of the Arabs. Mas'udi mentions that no soont
were these translations published than they were studied wit
much avidity. Mansur's successors were not only wan
patrons of the learned, who flocked to the metropolis from a
quarters, but were themselves assiduous cultivators of eveii
branch of knowledge. Under them the intellectual develojl
ment of the Saracens, in other words of the conglomerate rac('
of the vast empire which constituted the Cahphate, proceeds
with wonderful rapidity.

Each great nation of the world has had its golden ag
Athens had her Periclean era ; Rome, her Augustan age ; s
too, had the Islamic world its epoch of glory ; and we may wii
justice look upon the period which elapsed from the accessic
of Mansur to the death of Mu'tazid-b'illah, with only a bri
intermission during the reign of Mutawakkil, as an epoch
equal, if not of superior greatness and magnificence. Und
the first six Abbaside Caliphs, but especially under Mamu
the Moslems formed the vanguard of civilisation. Tl
Saracenic race by its elastic genius as well as by its centr
position, — with the priceless treasures of dying Greece ai
Rome on one side, and of Persia on the other, and India ai

1 Kremer, Cidturgeschichte des Orients tinter den Chalifen, vol. ii. p. 412.



IX. THE LITERARY AND SCIENTIFIC SPIRIT 371

China far away sleeping the sleep of ages, — was pre-eminently
fitted to become the teacher of mankind. Under the inspiring
influences of the great Prophet, who gave them a code and a
nationality, and assisted by their sovereigns, the Saracens
caught up the lessons of wisdom from the East and the West,
combined them with the teachings of the Master, and " started
from soldiers into scholars." " The Arabs," says Humboldt,
" were admirably situated to act the part of mediators, and to
influence the nations from the Euphrates to the Guadalquivir
and Mid-Africa. Their unexampled intellectual activity marks
a distinct epoch in the history of the world."

Under the Ommeyyades we see the Moslems passing through
a period of probation, preparing themselves for the great task
they were called upon to undertake. Under the Abbasides
we find them the repositories of the knowledge of the world.
Every part of the globe is ransacked by the agents of the Caliphs
for the hoarded wealth of antiquity ; these are brought to the
capital, and laid before an admiring and appreciating public.
Schools and academies spring up in every direction ; public
Ubraries are established in every city free to every comer ; the
great philosophers of the ancient world are studied side by side
with the Koran. Galen, Dioscorides, Themistius, Aristotle,
Plato, Euclid, Ptolemy, and Apollonius receive their due meed
Df appreciation. The sovereigns themselves assist at literary
meetings and philosophical disquisitions. For the first time in
the history of humanity a religious and autocratic government
s observed to ally itself with philosophy, preparing and
participating in its triumphs.

! Every city in the empire sought to outrival the other in tlie
cultivation of the arts and sciences. And governors and
provincial chiefs tried to emulate the sovereign. Travelling in
search of knowledge was, according to the precept of the Master,
I pious duty. From every part of the globe students and
-cholars flocked to Cordova, to Bagdad, and to Cairo to listen
o the words of the Saracenic sages. Even Christians from
remote corners of Europe attended Moslem colleges. Men who
)ecame in after-Hfe the heads of the Christian Church, ^ acquired
heir scholarship from Islamic teachers. The rise of Cairo

^ Such as Gerbert, afterwards Pope Sylvester II., who studied in Cordova.



■^12 THE SPIRIT OF ISLAM n.

under al-Muizz li-din-illah added a spirit of rivalry to the
patronage of learning on the part of the Caliphs of the Houses
of Abbas and Fatima. Al-Muizz was the Mamun of the West
— the Maecenas of Moslem Africa, which then embraced the
whole of the continent from the eastern confines of Egypt to
the shores of the Atlantic and the borders of the Sahara. During
the reign of al-Muizz and his first three successors, the arts and
sciences flourished under the especial and loving protection of
the sovereigns. The free university of Cairo, the Ddy-ul-Hikmat
— Scientific Institute — established by al-Muizz, "anticipated
Bacon's ideal with a fact." The Idrisides at Fez, and the
Moorish sovereigns in Spain, outvied each other in the cultiva-
tion of arts and letters. From the shores of the Atlantic
eastward to the Indian Ocean, far away even to the Pacific,,
resounded the voice of philosophy and learning, under Moslem
guidance and Moslem inspiration. And when the House of
Abbas lost its grasp on the empire of the East, the chiefs who
held the reins of government in the tracts which at one time
were under the undivided temporal sway of the Caliphs,|
extended the same protection to science and literature as the'
Pontiffs from whom they still derived their title to sovereignty.
This glorious period lasted, in spite of the triumph of patris-
ticism and its unconcealed jealousy towards scientific and
philosophical pursuits, until the fall of Bagdad before the
Tartar hordes. But the wild savages who overturned the
Caliphate and destroyed civilisation, as soon as they adoptee
Islam, became ardent protectors of learning !

What was the condition of learning and science in Christen
dom at this epoch ? Under Constantine and his orthodo
successors the ^Esclepions were closed for ever ; the public
libraries established by the liberality of the pagan emperon
were dispersed or destroyed ; learning was " branded as magi(
or punished as treason " ; and philosophy and science wen
exterminated. The ecclesiastical hatred against human learn
ing had found expression in the patristic maxim, " Ignoranci
is the mother of devotion " ; and Pope Gregory the Great
the founder of ecclesiastical supremacy, gave effect to thi
obscurantist dogma by expelling from Rome all scientific
studies, and burning the Palatine Library founded by Augustu



IX. THE LITERARY AND SCIENTIFIC SPIRIT 373

Caesar. He forbade the study of the ancient writers of Greece
and Rome. He introduced and sanctified the mythologic
Christianity which continued for centuries the predominating
creed of Europe, with its worship of rehcs and the remains of
saints. Science and hterature were placed under the ban by
orthodox Christianity, and they succeeded in emancipating
themselves only when Free Thought had broken down the
barriers raised by orthodoxy against the progress of the human
mind.

Abdullah al-Mamiin has been deservedly styled the Augustus
of the Arabs. " He was not ignorant that they are the elect
of God, his best and most useful servants, whose lives are
devoted to the improvement of their rational faculties . . . that
the teachers of wisdom are the true luminaries and legislators
of the world." ^

! Mamun was followed by a brilliant succession of princes who
Continued his work. Under him and his successors, the prin-
:ipal distinguishing feature of the school of Bagdad was a true
and strongly marked scientific spirit, which dominated over all
its achievements. The deductive method, hitherto proudly
:'egarded as the invention and sole monopoly of modern Europe,
.vas perfectly understood by the Moslems. " Marching from
ihe known to the unknown, the school of Bagdad rendered to
tself an exact account of the phenomena for the purpose of
■ising from the effect to the cause, accepting only what had
Deen demonstrated by experience ; such were the principles
:aught by the (Moslem) masters." " The Arabs of the ninth
:entury," continues the author we are quoting, " were in the
Dossession of that fecund method which was to become long
ifterwards, in the hands of the moderns, the instrument of
heir most beautiful discoveries."

Volumes would be required to enumerate the host of scientific
ind learned men who flourished about this epoch, all of whom
lave, in some way or other, left their mark on the history of
)rogress. Mashallah and Ahmed ibn Mohammed al-Neha-
^endi, the most ancient of the Arab astronomers, Hved in the
eign of Mansur. The former, who has been called the Phcenix
'f his time by Abu'l Faraj, wrote several valuable treatises on

* Abu'l Faraj.



374 THE SPIRIT OF ISLAM ii

the astrolabe and the armiUary sphere, and the nature anc
movements of celestial bodies — works which still evoke th(
admiration of scientists. Ahmed al-Nehavendi wrote from hi;
own observations an astronomical table, al-Mustamal, whicl
formed a decided advance upon the notions of both the Greek;
and the Hindus. Under Mamun, the Almagest of Ptolemy was
re-translated, and the Verified Tables prepared by famou;
astronomers like Send ibn Ali, Yahya ibn Abi-Mansur, anc
Khalid ibn Abdul Malik. Their observations connected witl
the equinoxes, the eclipses, the apparitions of the comets, anc
other celestial phenomena, were valuable in the extreme, anc
added greatly to human knowledge.

Mohammed ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi made a new translation
under the orders of Mamun, of the Siddhanta, or the Indiai
Tables, with notes and observations. Al-Kindi wrote tw(
hundred works on various subjects — arithmetic, geometry
philosophy, meteorology, optics and medicine. Thoroughly-
versed in the language of the Greeks, he derived from the schooli
of Athens and Alexandria part of the information which h'
embodied in his invaluable treatises. " His works," say
Sedillot, " are full of curious and interesting facts." Abu
Ma'shar (corrupted by the Europe of the Middle Ages int'
Albumazar) made the celestial phenomena his special study
and the Zij-abt-Ma'shar, or the Table of Abu-Ma 'shar, ha
always remained one of the chief sources of astronomical know
ledge. The discoveries of the sons of Musa ibn Shakir,^ wh
flourished under Mamun and his two immediate successon
especially with respect to the evaluations of the mean movemen
of the sun and other astral bodies, are almost as exact as th
latest discoveries of Europe. They ascertained with wonderfi
precision, considering the appliances they possessed, th
obliquity of the ecliptic, and marked for the first time th
variations in the lunar altitudes. They also observed an'
determined with remarkable accuracy the precession of th
equinoxes, and the movements of the solar apogee (which wer
utterly unknown to the Greeks). They calculated the size c
the earth from the measurement of a degree on the shor
of the Red Sea — this at a time when Christian Europe wa

^ Mohammed, Ahmed, and Hasan.



:ix. THE LITERARY AND SCIENTIFIC SPIRIT 375

asserting the flatness of the globe. Abu'l Hasan invented the
telescope, of which he speaks as '' a tube to the extremities of
which were attached diopters." These " tubes " were improved
and used afterwards in the observatories of Maragha and Cairo
with great success. Al-Nairezi and Mohammed ibn Isa Abii
Abdullah continued the great work of Musa ibn Shakir's sons.^
By the time al-Batani appeared, the Moslems had evolved from
the crude astronomy of the ancients a regular and harmonious
science. 1 Al-Batani, ^ though surpassed by his successors,
occupies a high position among astronomers, and a competent
judge pronounces his role to be the same among the Saracens
as that of Ptolemy among the Greeks. His Astronomical
Tables, translated into Latin, furnished the groundwork of
astronomy in Europe for many centuries. He is, however,
best known in the history of mathematics as the introducer of
the sine and co-sine instead of the chord in astronomical and
trigonometrical calculations.

, Among the numerous astronomers who lived and worked in
Bagdad at the close of the tenth century, the names of two men,
AH ibn Amajur and Abu'l Hasan Ali ibn Amajur, generally
known as Banu-Amajur, stand prominently forward. They
are noted for their calculation of the lunar movements.

Owing to the weakness of the central power, and an increasing
inability to maintain the sway of the Caliphate in outlying and
distant parts, there arose on the confines of the empire, towards
the end of the tenth century, several quasi-independent chiefs.
Spain had been lost to the Abbasides at the commencement of
their rule ; about this period the Bani-Idris established them-
selves at Fez, the Bani-Rustam at Tahart, and the Bani-
Aghlab at Kairowan in Africa. Soon, however, the whole of
the northern part of that continent was brought under the
domination of the Bani-Fatima, and then another era of glory
for arts and literature commenced. Fez, Miknasa, Segelmessa,
Tahart, Tlemcen, Kairowan, but above all, Cairo, became
centres of culture and learning. In Khorasan the Taherides,

* For their names, see ante, p. 374. Mohammed ibn Musa ibn Shakir died
in A.H. 259 (a.c. 873).

- Abu Abdullah Mohammed ibn Jabir ibn Sinan al-Batani was a native of
Ilarran, died ah. 317 (a.c. 929-30).



376 THE SPIRIT OF ISLAM i

in Transoxiana the Samanides, the Buyides in Tabaristan an^
afterwards in Persia and Bagdad, as mayors of the palace;
extended a lavish patronage to scientists and scholars. Abdij
Rahman Sufi, one of the most brilHant physicists of the ag(
was an intimate friend of the Buyide Ameer 'Azud ud-Dowlfj
deservedly called the second Augustus of the Arabs. Abdt!
Rahman improved the photometry of the stars. 'Azud uc
Dowla,^ himself a scholar and a mathematician, welcomed t
his palace as honoured guests the learned men who flocked t;
Bagdad from every part of the globe, and took part in theil
scientific controversies. Ja'far, the son of the Caliph Muktai
b'illah, made important observations regarding the errati
movements of comets, and wrote a treatise on them ; an
other princes cultivated the sciences side by side with thai;
subjects. :

Under the Buyides flourished a host of astronomen
physicists, and mathematicians, of whom only two need b
mentioned here, Al-Kohi and Abu'1-Wafa. Al-Kohi studied an!
wrote on the movements of the planets His discoveries cor.;
cerning the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox adde'
materially to the store of human knowledge. Abu'1-Wafa waj
born in 939 A.c. at Buzjan in Khorasan ; he established himseJ
in Irak in 959, where he applied himself chiefly to mathematicj
and astronomy. His Zij-ush-Shdmil {the Consolidated or Generc\
Table) is a monument of industry and keen and accuratj
observation. He introduced the use of the secant and thj
tangent in trigonometry and astronomical observations. " Bu!
this was not all," says M. Sedillot ; " struck by the imperfec'
tion of the lunar theory of Ptolemy, he verified the ancien'
observations, and discovered, independently of the equation c
the centre and the eviction, a. third inequality, which is no othe!
than the variation determined six centuries later by Tych
Brahe." ^

Under the Fatimides of Egypt, Cairo had become a neMJ
intellectual and scientific centre. Here flourished, in the reigni

1 To 'Azud ud-Dowla (Malik Fanakhusru) Bagdad owed several hospital;
for the sick and refuges for orphans. He built magnificent mausoleums ove
the tombs of Ali and Husain at Najaf and Kerbela. He rendered navigabi
the river which flows by Shiraz by erecting the famous dyke called Bend-emir

* Abu'l Wafa died in a.h. 387 (a.c. 997).



I IX. THE LITERARY AND SCIENTIFIC SPIRIT 377

of Aziz b'illah ^ and Hakim bi-amr-illah, one of the master-
spirits of the age, Ibn Yunus,- the inventor of the pendulum
'and the measurement of time by its oscillations. He is, how-
;ever, famous for his great work named after his patron and
I sovereign, Zij-ul-Akhar-al-Hdkimi, which soon displaced the
iwork of Claudius Ptolemy. It was reproduced among the
I Persians by the astronomer-poet Omar Khayyam (1079) ;
among the Greeks, in the Syntax of Chrysococca ; among the
Mongols by Nasir ud-din Tusi, in the Zij-il-Khdni ; and
among the Chinese, in the astronomy of Co-Cheou-king in 1280 ;
and thus what is attributed to the ancient civilisation of China
;is only a borrowed light from the Moslems.^
! Ibn Yunus died in 1009, and his discoveries were continued
by Ibn un-Nabdi, who lived in Cairo in 1040, and Hasan ibn
Haitham, commonly called in Europe Alhazen, and famous for
the discovery of atmospheric refraction. He flourished about
ithe end of the eleventh century, and was a distinguished
astronomer and optician. He was born in Spain, but resided
chiefly in Egypt. He is best known in Europe by his works
ton optics, one of which has been translated into Latin by
, Risner. He corrected the Greek misconception as to the
i nature of vision, and demonstrated for the first time that the
I rays of light come from external objects to the eye, and do not
issue forth from the eye, and impinge on external things. He
determined the retina as the seat of vision, and proved that the
impressions made upon it were conveyed along the optic nerves
to the brain. He explained the phenomena of a single vision
by the formation of visual images on symmetrical portions of
the two retinas. He discovered that the refraction of light
varies with the density of the atmosphere, and that atmospheric
density again varies with the height. He explained accurately
and clearly how in consequence of this refraction, astral bodies
;are seen before they have actually risen and after they have
iset, and demonstrated that the beautiful phenomenon of

' ' 'Aziz b'illah was one of the greatest sovereigns Egypt ever had. " He
loved his people as they loved him." He was married to a Christian lady,
whose brothers, Jeremiah and Arvenius, held the posts of patriarchs, one of
Jerusalem and the other of Alexandria. Both of them belonged to the
orthodox or melkite sect.

■ See Appendix TTI. '^ S6dillot.



378 THE SPIRIT OF ISLAM ii

twilight was due to the effect of atmospheric refraction com
billed with the reflecting action of the air upon the course o
the rays of hght. In his book called the Balance of Wisdom \\<
discusses dynamical principles, generally supposed to be thi
monopoly of modern science. He describes minutely th
connection between the weight of the atmosphere and it
density, and how material objects vary in weight in a ran
and in a dense atmosphere. He discusses the submergence o
floating bodies, and the force with which they rise to thi
surface when immersed in light or heavy media ; he full\
understands the principle of gravitation, and recognises gravitjj
as a force. He knows correctly the relation between tho
velocities, spaces, and times of falling bodies, and has van.
distinct ideas of capillary attraction. ^ j

In Spain the same activity of mind was at work from th(i
Pyrenees to the Straits : Seville, Cordova, Granada, Murcia'
Toledo, and other places possessed their public libraries an(
colleges, where they gave free instruction in science and letters
Of Cordova, an English writer speaks thus : " Beautiful a
were the palaces and gardens of Cordova, her claims to admira
tion in higher matters were no less strong. The mind was a:
lovely as the body. Her professors and teachers made her th(
centre of European culture ; students would come from al
parts of Europe to study under her famous doctors, and ever
the nun Hroswitha far away in her Saxon convent of Ganders
heim, when she told of the martyrdom of Eulogius, could no
refrain from singing the praises of Cordova, ' the brightes i
splendour of the world.' Every branch of science was seriousljl
studied there, and medicine received more and greater additionij
by the discoveries of the doctors and surgeons of Andalusia thar|
it had gained during all the centuries that had elapsed since th(
days of Galen. . . . Astronomy, geography, chemistry, natura
history, all were studied with ardour at Cordova ; and as fo;
the graces of literature there never was a time in Europe whei
poetry became so much the speech of everybody — when peoplt

1 The annalist 'Ayni says that at this period the pubHc Hbrary of Cairo con
tained over two miUion books, of which six thousand treated exclusively Ojj
mathematics and astronomy. I have only mentioned a few of the name.-'
among the thousands of mathematicians and physicists who flourished durinf'
this epoch, when the scientific spirit of Islam was at its zenith.



IX. THE LITERARY AND SCIENTIFIC SPIRIT 379

of all ranks composed those Arabic verses which perhaps
suggested models for the ballads and canzonettes of the Spanish
minstrels and the troubadours of Provence and Italy. No
speech or address was complete without some scrap of verse,
improvised on the spur of the moment, by the speaker or quoted
by memory from some famous poet." ^ To these we may add
the words of Renan : " The taste for science and literature
liad, by the tenth century, established, in this privileged
comer of the world, a toleration of which modern times hardly
offer us an example. Christians, Jews, and Musulmans spoke
the same tongue, sang the same songs, participated in the same
literary and scientific studies. All the barriers which separated
the various peoples were effaced ; all worked with one accord
in the work of a common civilisation.. The mosques of Cordova,
where the students could be counted by thousands, became the
active centres of philosophical and scientific studies." ^

The first observatory in Europe was built by the Arabs.
The Giralda, or tower of Seville, was erected under the super-
intendence of the great mathematician Jabir ibn Afiah in
1190 A.c. for the observation of the heavens. Its fate was not
a httle characteristic. After the expulsion of the Moors, it was
turned into a belfry, the Spaniards not knowing what else to
do with it !

Omar ibn Khaldun, Ya'kub ibn Tarik, Muslimah al-Maghr'ibi,
and the famous Averroes (Abu'l Walid Mohammed ibn Rushd)
are some of the physicists whom we may mention here. Nor was
Western Africa inactive during this period : Ceuta and Tangier,
Fez, and Morocco, rivalled Cordova, Seville, and Granada ;
their colleges sent out able professors, and numerous learned
works testified to the indefatigable ardour of the Moslem mind
in all departments of learning.

The beginning of the eleventh century saw a great change
in the political condition of Central Asia. The rise of

' Stanley Lane-Poole, The Moors in Spain, p. 144. For a full account of
Cordova, see Short History of the Saracens (Macmillan), p. 515.

'Renan, Averroes et Averroism, p. 4. The golden age of literature and
science in Spain was under Hakam al-Mtistansir b'illdh who died in 976 a.c.
The catalogue of his library consists of forty-four quartos. He employed
agents in every quarter of the globe to procure for him, at any price, scientific
works, ancient and modern. He paid to Abu'l Faraj al-Isphahani 1000 dinars
of gold for the first copy of his celebrated Anthology {Kifah ul-Aghdni).



38o THE SPIRIT OF ISLAM i

Mahmud/ the great Ghaznavide conqueror, Yemin ud-Dowl^
and Amin iil-Millat, " right hand of the empire " and " custodial
of the Faith," brought Transoxiana, Afghanistan, and Persi
under the sovereignty of Ghazni. He collected round him
body of scholars and Utterateurs who shed a glorious lustre o|
his brilliant reign. Attached to the renovated " orthodoxy " c!
al-Asha'ri, and consequently piously inimical to the rationalist!
school of thinkers, chary in his munificence to the poets wh
made his name famous in the annals of the world, he yet haj
the genius to perceive the merits of men like Abu Raiha\
Mohammed ibn Ahmed al-Beiruni, philosopher, ma thematiciarj
and geographer. Firdousi, the prince of poets, Dakiki, ari''
Unsuri. Al-Beiriini's mind was encyclopaedic. His work o:
astronomy, entitled after his patron Sultan Ma.su' d,^ al-Kdnm
al-Mas'udi, Canon Masudicus, is a monument of learning ani



Online LibraryOliver Wendell HolmesAddress delivered at the dedication of the hall of the Boston medical library association, on December III, MDCCCLXXVIII → online text (page 41 of 55)