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Early Printed Translations of Other Arabic Scientific Texts

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Commentary

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Alhazen, Geber, Gerard of Cremona

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Early Printed Translations of Other Arabic Scientific Texts

Early Printed Translations of Other Arabic Scientific Texts
by The Arcadian Library
The Arcadian Library
The Arcadian Library
DOI: 10.24157/ARCS_005

  • Subtitle:
    An Introduction
  • Keywords:
    Abbasid, Arabic manuscripts, Aleppo, Astrology, Astronomy, Baghdad, Chemistry, Cremona, Early Modern Period, Geometry, Incunable, Mathematics, Oxford, Padua, Renaissance, Seville, Venice
  • Identifier:
    ARCS_005
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As part of the Translation Movement centring on the House of Wisdom in Abbasid Baghdad, numerous works relating to chemistry, physics, astronomy and astrology were brought together and translated into Arabic, facilitating new discoveries, theories and systems of experimentation. From the astrological works of Albumasar, Masha’Allah and Ulugh Begh to the Ptolemaic commentaries by Alfraganus, Al-Tusi and Alhazen, from new astronomical tables that would be used by the greatest European physicists of the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to mathematical innovations that form the basis of modern technology, these Arabic works found a large audience in late Medieval and Renaissance Europe. Arabic scholars were also valued in Europe for their contributions to the advancement of other areas of science, such as chemistry, optics and astronomy.

Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics

Besides medicine, the Arabs and Persians were known for their achievements in chemistry, and above all in alchemy. The very identity of the most productive writer in this field, Geber (Jabir ibn Hayyan), probably from Khorasan, working in the late eighth and early ninth centuries, has been questioned, but his works were highly successful and contain valuable views on methods of chemical research. The library has an edition of his Summa perfectionis magisterii, printed in Venice in 1542; the exposition of his work by the alchemist from Brescia, Giovanni Bracesco, De alchemia dialogi duo of 1548; the last sixteenth-century edition printed in Strasburg together with his De alchemia; and a first edition of the German translation of his texts published in 1710 with woodcut illustrations.

There was also a strong interest in Arab and Persian mathematicians, geometricians and physicists. In 1570 the Italian mathematician from Urbino, Federico Commandino, edited the fragment of a work by Muhammad al-Baghdadi who died in 1141, possibly translated by Gerard of Cremona, on ‘the division of surfaces’, an exercise in Euclidean geometry which Commandino had received from the English magus and engineer John Dee. Two years later, in 1572, there appeared the Opticae thesaurus of Alhazen, or Ibn al-Haitham, who revolutionized the science of optics in the tenth century. The work, edited by the German mathematician Friedrich Risner, was venerated by Kepler, Constantijn Huygens and Descartes. Then, in 1594, the Medici Press in Rome printed in Arabic the recension of Euclid by Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, once the adviser of the Mongol leader Hulagu Khan and the builder of the observatory at Maragha in the thirteenth century.

The work that intrigued so many mathematicians in the seventeenth century was the Conics of Apollonius of Perga. The first four books of this text were known in Greek, but there remained the fifth, sixth and seventh books which seemed to exist only in Arabic. The translation had been made in Baghdad in the ninth century by the brothers known as the Banu Musa. It introduced the words ellipse, parabola and hyperbola into mathematical vocabulary. Various Arabic manuscripts of the Conics had found their way to Western Europe during the seventeenth century. Some were the full translation by the Banu Musa, and others were of a summary made by ‘Abd al-Malik al-Shirazi. In 1668 a manuscript of the summary was presented to the Bodleian Library in Oxford. In the same year Oxford University commissioned a transcription of the full translation from a manuscript held by Leiden University Library. The mathematician Edward Bernard, who later became Savilian professor of astronomy at Oxford, travelled to Leiden to complete the transcription, and thereafter worked for many years on a Latin translation of books V, VI and VII of the text, making meticulous comparisons with the summary version. But his work was incomplete at his death.

It was the English astronomer Edmund Halley who published an edition of the Conics in 1710 which presented the Greek text, with a Latin translation, of the first four books, and a Latin translation of the three Arabic books, together with his own conjectural restoration of the lost eighth book. To do so he had used Bernard’s transcription of the Arabic and had collated it with another manuscript of the Banu Mousa translation which had belonged to Jacobus Golius, professor of Arabic and mathematics at Leiden. Four years earlier, in 1706, Halley had also translated another text by Apollonius known only in Arabic, ‘on the division of a ratio’, the De sectione rationis. This too had been transcribed and partly translated into Latin by Bernard from a manuscript brought to England by John Greaves, and it was the discovery of Bernard’s version at the Bodleian which prompted Halley to complete it, to learn Arabic and to tackle the Conics.

Astronomy and Astrology

The Arabs excelled in the fields of astronomy and astrology, and here too the Arcadian Library has some of the earliest examples of printed books on the subject. The earliest, published in Venice in 1485, is the Libellus isagogicus, the third edition of the introduction to astrology written in Aleppo in the tenth century by Abu ‘l-Saqr al-Qabisi, known as Alcabitius, translated into Latin by John of Seville and edited in the fourteenth century by John of Saxony. Then, also translated by John of Seville, edited by Regiomontanus’s pupil Johann Engel, and dating from 1488, there is Albumasar’s astrological manual, Flores astrologiae. Dating from 1489 we have the printed translation of a standard work on the motions of the planets and their effects, the De magnis coniunctionibus, annorum revolutionibus, ac eorum perfectionibus and the Introductiorium in astronomiam, also by Albumasar. A further edition, with a beautiful frontispiece and other woodcuts, appeared in Venice in 1515. 1533 saw the publication of the astrological handbook by Firmicus Maternus together with various texts by Arab authors and a preface by Brunfels. In 1577, there appeared the Latin translation by Leunclavius of Albumasar’s work on dreams, Apotelesmata. The text only existed in Greek—the Arabic version had long been lost—and in Paris in 1603 the first edition of the Greek version was published together with the Latin under a different title, Oneirocritica.

A further incunable on astronomy is the 1493 edition of Ptolemy’s Liber quadripartitus,which also contains important Arabic texts. The authors include, besides Geber, Muhammad ibn Jabr al-Harrani al-Battani, who worked in Syria in the late ninth and early tenth centuries. One of his main achievements was the accurate determination of the solar year, and his work had an immense effect on European astronomers such as Copernicus, Tycho Brache and Kepler. The library also has the 1645 edition of his De scientia stellarum. Another author in the 1493 edition of the Liber quadripartitus is Masha’allahibn Athari from Basra. Masha’allah was one of the astronomers who took part in the debates which led to the foundation of the Abbasid capital of Baghdad in the eighth century. His De elementis et orbibus coelestibus, containing an introduction to astronomy and a study of Aristotle’s Physics, is an early indication of the Islamic interest in Greek science. The text exists only in Latin and influenced Joachim Rheticus, who saw to the publication of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus in 1543. It was edited by Rheticus’s pupil Johann Heller in 1549. The Arcadian copy, once in Rheticus’s own library before becoming part of the Schönborn-Buchheim collection in Vienna, has his marginal annotations. The library also has, dating from the same year, Heller’s edition of John of Seville’s translation of other astrological texts by Masha'allah.

Another astronomical text in the library is the astrological compendium by the eleventh-century Tunisian astronomer al-Shaibani, or Haly Abenragel, whose presentation of lunar mansions is also thought to have influenced Kepler. The library has a Venice edition of his Liber in iudiciis astrorum printed in 1485, the third edition of 1520, and a copy of the 1571 edition of the same text, which had been translated from Arabic into Spanish by Judah ben Moshe and thence into Latin by Aegidius de Tebaldis and Petrus de Regio. Then there are two editions of the Rudimenta astronomica by Alfraganus (Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Kathir al-Farghani), who worked in Baghdad and Egypt in the ninth century, translated by John of Seville. The first is an incunable printed by Andreas Belfort in Ferrara—it has the distinction of being the first illustrated book to be produced in that city—and the second is the 1537 edition.

Besides working on the construction of a nilometer, Alfraganus wrote on the astrolabe and played an important part in propagating the knowledge of Ptolemaic astronomy. Edited by the Reformer Philip Melanchthon and with notes by Regiomontanus who had lectured on Alfraganus at Padua, the 1537 edition also contains, in a translation by Plato of Tivoli, al-Battani’s text on the motion of the stars.

The European Quest for Arabic and Persian Astronomy

The European quest for Arabic and Persian astronomy was persistent and increased as the concern with chronology intensified. The adoption in many parts of Europe of the Gregorian calendar after the reform carried out in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII and the progressive abandonment of the earlier Julian calendar led to various works on chronology in which Arab tables played an important part. The most famous—and the best—of such works was the De emendatione temporum by the French scholar working in Leiden, Joseph Justus Scaliger. It first appeared in Paris in 1583, but was heavily revised many years later, and it was for the second edition of 1598 that the printer and Arabist Franciscus Raphelengius, the son-in-law of the French typographer in Antwerp Christophe Plantin, the Leiden branch of whose firm he was managing, had a set of Arabic types cut. The Arcadian Library has a copy of this second edition, once owned by the vice-admiral Dominique Méry de Vic, Vicomte d’Ermenonville.

In the early seventeenth century we find some of the best Orientalists in England producing editions of the astronomical tables drawn up by Tamerlane’s grandson, Ulugh Beg, governor of Samarkand, where he built an observatory, and his father’s successor as ruler of the entire area. Beg was killed in 1449. In 1648 John Greaves published the tables at Oxford, together with a text by John Bainbridge, the Savilian professor of astronomy. He republished the same tables in London in 1650 twice, while the polymath Thomas Hyde, professor of both Arabic and Hebrew at Oxford, issued yet another edition in 1665.