Last week at the Royal Society in London, Professor Charles Burnett of the Warburg Institute, University of London, delivered apublic lecture on “The European Discovery of Arab Culture.”
In invitations to the event, the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilization (FSTC) advised, “This is a significant lecture; the recognition at the Royal Society of the impact and influence of Arabic culture is an important contribution to the understanding of the development of science in our world.”
The lecture is the culmination of the Royal Society’s “Arabick Roots” Exhibition, which was opened last June at an evening reception attended by Qatar Foundation Chairperson Sheikha Moza bint Nasser. The exhibition showcased rare books, scientific instruments and correspondence, revealing the never before told story of how the connections between the early Royal Society and Arabic science helped to lay the foundations of the scientific revolution in Europe.
The “Arabick” roots of knowledge were important during the founding period of the Royal Society in 1660. According to the Royal Society, “English philosophers showed continued appreciation for the classical science of the Arabic and Islamic worlds and interest in its living knowledge; they used both as sources for their research. This exhibition highlights the ways in which early Fellows of the Royal Society, such as Edmond Halley and Robert Boyle, used the work of Arabic and Islamic scholars as a basis for their research. Many of the items on display are drawn from the library and archives of the Royal Society, and have not previously been on public display.”
This was the second major exhibition to be put on by the Royal Society’s Center for History of Science. It was supported by the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development. FSTC sponsored Dr. Rim Turkmani, the curator and researcher for the exhibition. The exhibition concludes Nov. 11, but there’s still plenty of time to explore the artifacts on display through http://royalsociety.org/events/Arabick-roots-exhibition/. It is anticipated that the exhibition will move to Doha in 2012.
Before his lecture, Arab News spoke with Professor Burnett. He commented on how pleased he is with the interest now being shown in the Arabic language and culture. When Burnett first became a lecturer at the Warburg Institute in 1983, his area of specialization was completely new. As professor of the History of Islamic Influences in Europe, his work has centered on the transmission of Arabic science and philosophy to Western Europe.
“I got my job as a lecturer, upgraded to a professorship at the Warburg Institute, thanks to the notorious Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister of the time,” Burnett said. “In the early 1980s, the UK’s universities were suffering from a lack of funds and she proposed that government money should be given directly to university departments which set up lectureships in areas which had not been taught before — new areas. At the time, my appointment was unprecedented.”
Burnett advised that interest is growing concerning the influence of the Arabic World particularly on the fields of philosophy and science. He asserted that for a time, since Europe and later the United States had been regarded as dominant in various fields of scientific study, scholars had “neglected” research into the contributions of the Arabic World to the foundations of subjects from astronomy to medicine.
“If you go back to the Middle Ages, you can see that Europeans had a lot to learn from the Arabic World,” said Burnett
He explained that in Europe in the 12th and 13th century, there was a massive translation of texts from Arabic into Latin. There had been a previous movement of information from Greek to Latin, but the Arab translation movement was very important because it occurred at the same time as European universities were being set up.
“The texts that were translated became central texts in the curricula of these universities,” Burnett said. “In philosophy for example, the basic texts were those of the classical philosopher Aristotle but these had been commented upon by Arabic philosophers including Averroes, Avicenna and Al Farabi. Averroes in particular was regarded as the most helpful interpreter of the books of Aristotle. So in philosophy, Latin scholars from the late 12th century onwards were reading Arabic philosophers’ works in Latin.”
Philosophy wasn’t the only area where Arabic scholars had an impact. In medicine, Avicenna’s “Cannon of Medicine,” was a comprehensive work on all aspects of medicine. Having been translated into Latin in Toledo at the end of the 12th century, it became the standard medical text for all medical students in Europe until well into the 18th century. In the fields of arithmetic, geometry and astronomy, Arabic was dominant.
“This was not only because of the use of Arabic numerals,” said Burnett, “which the Arabs had indeed themselves taken from the Indians, we call them Indo-Arabic numerals, but also thanks to new subjects such as algebra and trigonometry. In astronomy, they had done important work in showing the positions and the movement of the stars and the planets.”
Arabic dominated the whole gamut from the most cerebral philosophical works on logic and metaphysics through to practical subjects, such as chemistry and even smallpox inoculation. According to Burnett, it took time for the works translated in the 12th and early 13th centuries to be disseminated to European scholars, but once books began to be printed in the late 15th and 16th centuries, the Latin translations became prominent in libraries and universities across Europe and new translations were made with improvements for the sake of the new audience who had the books before them.
“Since I’m sitting now in the Royal Society,” said Burnett, “it’s worth saying that even the scientists, the fellows of the Royal Society were very inquisitive about inventions, about experiments and about various scientific activities in the Arabic World.”
But Burnett noted that it was not until the beginning of the 17th century that an interest arose in Arabic poetry and in Arabic civilization for itself, rather than because it might contribute to Europe’s knowledge of astronomy or mathematics. At this time as well, interest in Islam grew in Europe, not merely to refute it, but to understand religious ideas better.
“This all goes together with the founding of professorships in various universities in Paris, Leiden, Oxford and Cambridge where one could study Arabic culture and civilization for itself, rather than for its possible contributions to the development of science, which was its main role previously,” said Burnett.
Fast forward to 2011 and finally, here we are again, considering the role Arabic civilization has played in shaping our world and what its contributions may be for the future.