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The Astronomical Tradition Of Maragha: A Historical Survey And Prospects for Future Research

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 October 2008

George Saliba
Department of Middle East Languages and Cultures, Columbia University, Kent Hall, New York 10027, USA


This paper surveys the results established so far by the on-going research on the planetary theories in Arabic astronomy. The most important results of the Maragha astronomers are gathered here for the first time, and new areas for future research are delineated. The conclusions reached demonstrate that the Arabic astronomical works mentioned here not only elaborate the connection between Arabic astronomy and Copernicus, but also that such activities, namely the continuous reformulation of Greek astronomy, were not limited to a specific group of astronomers or to a specific geographical area. It is shown that such activities were spread over a period of more than seven hundred years, from the early eleventh till the sixteenth century, and over an area stretching from the Andalusian peninsula in the west to the farthest reaches of Central Asia in the east.

L'auteur expose, dans cet article, les résultats établis jusqu'ici par les recherches en cours concernant les théories planétaires de l'astronomie arabe. Les résultats les plus importants relatifs aux astronomes de Maragha sont rassemblés ici pour la première fois et le contour de nouveaux domaines pour la recherche future s'y trouve délimité. Les conclusions auxquelles on parvient dans cet article montrent d'une part que les oeuvres en astronomie mentionnées nous permettent de mieux saisir la liaison entre l'astronomie arabe et celle de Copernic, d'autre part que l'activité de reformulation continue de l'astronomie grecque ne fut limitée ni à un groupe spécifique d'astronomes, ni à une aire géographique déterminée. On montre ici qu'une telle activité s'est en fait étendue sur une période de plus de sept siécles, depuis le début du Xle siècle jusqu'au XVIe siècle, et sur une aire allant de la péninsule andalouse à l'Ouest jusqu'aux confins les plus éloignés de l'Asie centrale à l'Est.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1991

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1 The Ultimate Quest regarding the Rectification of [Astronomical] Principles. A critical edition of this text using all the extant manuscripts is now completed by the present author. There exists an English translation based on one manuscript, completed by Victor Roberts more than twenty years ago but never published. A new comprehensive translation of the critically edited text and a commentary on the whole work are now in preparation by the present author.

2 Neugebauer, O., Exact Sciences in Antiquity (Providence, RI, 1957), Appendix, pp. 197, 203–204.Google Scholar Neugebauer was already working on the Maragha results from a French translation of a text by Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī (d. 1274) describing the “Ṭsī Device” and Ṭūsī lunar model. It was Baron Carra De Vaux who first made that text available in French as Appendix VI to Tannery's, P.Recherche sur l'histoire de l'astronomie ancienne (Paris, 1893), pp. 337361.Google Scholar

3 Neugebauer, O., Exact Sciences, note 2.Google Scholar

4 All these articles are now gathered together in Kennedy, E.S. et al. , Studies in the Islamic Exact Sciences (American University of Beirut, Beirut, 1983), Pp. 50107.Google Scholar

5 The important chapter in Ṭūsī's work, where the description of his lunar model is to be found, was already published in translation by Carra De Vaux, see note 2 above.

6 See for example, Saliba, G., “The Original Source of Quṭb al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī's Planetary Model,” Journal for the History of Arabic Science (1979) 3: 318.Google Scholar

7 Urḍī's text, Kitāb al-Hay'a, was first used by Swerdlow, Noel in his unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, “Ptolemy's Theory of the Distances and Sizes of the Planets: A Study of the Scientific Foundation of Medieval Cosmology” (Yale, 1968),Google Scholar and identified simply as the “Anonymous Astronomical Treatise in Bodleian Arabic Ms March 621.” Later, the same manuscript was used by Goldstein, B. and Swerdlow, N. in “Planetary Distances and Sizes in an Anonymous Arabic Treatise Preserved in Bodleian Ms March 621,” Centaurus (19701971) 15: 135170.CrossRefGoogle Scholar The present author finally identified this Bodleian MS as being the work of 'Urḍī, in The First non-Ptolemaic Astronomy at the Maragha School,” ISIS (1979) 70: 571576.Google Scholar

8 In reality it was Carra De Vaux who first published Ṭūsī's lunar model, see note 2 above.

9 See note 6.

10 Saliba, G., “A Medieval Arabic Reform of the Ptolemaic Lunar Model,” Journal for the History of Astronomy (1989) 20: 157164.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

11 Parts of the Tadhkira were edited, translated into English, and supplied with a commentary by Ragep, F. Jamil as a Ph.D. dissertation at Harvard University, 1982. Since then, I understand that the same author has undertaken to edit the whole work and to translate it into English and comment upon it.Google Scholar

12 See al-Haytham, Ibn, Al-Shukūk 'ala Baṭlamyūs, edited by Sabra, A. and Shehaby, N. (Dubitationes in Ptolemæum) (Cairo, 1971).Google Scholar

13 The present author is aware of the facsimile edition produced by Goldstein, B., “The Arabic Version of Ptolemy's Planetary Hypothesis,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society (1967) 57, and of an on-going project, conducted by Régis Morelon, the aim of which is to produce a critical edition of the Planetary Hypothesis.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

14 Goldstein, B., Al-Biṭrūjī: On the Principles of Astronomy (New Haven and London, 1971).Google Scholar

15 Koyré's statement, in Taton, R., Histoire générale des sciences, vol. 2, p. 64,Google Scholar was also quoted in Neugebauer, O., “On the Planetary Theory of Copernicus,” Vistas in Astronomy (1968) vol. 10, p. 89,CrossRefGoogle Scholar reprinted in Neugebauer, O., Astronomy and History: Selected Essays (New York, Berlin, Heidelberg, Tokyo, 1983), pp. 491505. See also infra.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

16 Swerdlow, N. and Neugebauer, O., Mathematical Astronomy in Copernicus's De Revolutionibus (New York, Berlin, Heidelberg, Tokyo, 1984), p. 295.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

17 Neugebauer, O., “On the Planetary Theory of Copernicus,” p. 90, note 15.Google Scholar

18 See, for example, Hartner, W., “Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī's Lunar Theory,” Physis (1969) 11: 287304;Google ScholarLa science dans le monde de l'Islam après la chute du califat,” Studia Islamica (1970) 31: 135151;Google ScholarCopernicus, the Man, the Work, and its History,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society (1973) 117: 413422;Google Scholar“The Islamic Astronomical Background to Nicholas Copernicus,” Ossolineum 1975, Colloquia Copernica III, Nadbitka, 716 [all now reprinted in W. Hartner, Oriens-Occidens II (1984)];Google ScholarSwerdlow, N., “The Derivation and First Draft of Copernicus's Planetary Theory: A Translation of the Commentariolus with Commentary,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society (1973) 117: 423512.Google Scholar

19 See, Hartner, W., “Copernicus, the Man,” note 18.Google Scholar

20 Hartner, continued to explore this connection between Copernicus and the Maragha astronomers till the last years of his life. Just before he died, he published, for example, “Ptolemaische Astronomie im Islam und zur Zeit des Regiomontanus,” Regiomontanus-Studien, Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-Historische Klasse, Sitzungberichte, 364. Band (1980), Heraugegeben von Günther Hamann, 109124.Google Scholar

21 Swerdlow, N., “Derivation,” note 18.Google Scholar

22 For a detailed analysis of the use of 'Urḍī's Lemma by the Maragha astronomers and its eventual use by Copernicus, see Saliba, G.Arabic Astronomy and Copernicus,” Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Arabisch-Islamischen Wissenschaften (1984) 1: 7387, esp. pp. 78–79.Google Scholar

23 See A History of Ancient Mathematical Astronomy (New York, Heidelberg, Berlin, 1975), p. 1456 for plate IX of Vat. Gracec. 211, fol. 116r.Google Scholar

22 Swerdlow, Noel and Neugebauer, Otto, note 16, figs. 5 and 6.Google Scholar

24 See for example, Saliba, G., “The Role of the Almagest Commentaries in Medieval Arabic Astronomy,” Archives Internationales d'Histoire des Sciences (1987) 37: 320.Google Scholar

25 Most of these interpretations are now grouped together for the reader's convenience in one article by Gingerich, Owen, “Islamic Astronomy,” Scientific American (1986) 254: 7483. This article was later translated into Arabic with many gross mistakes in the Arabic and published in the Arabic version of the Scientific American Majallat al-'Ulūm, 1.1: 8–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

26 Saliba, G., “Theory and Observation in Islamic Astronomy: The Work of Ibn al-Shāṭir of Damascus (d. 1375),” Journal for the History of Astronomy (1987) 18: 3543.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

27 Saliba, , “The Role of the Almagest Commentaries,” note 25.Google Scholar

28 See Roberts, note 4.

29 See note 10.

30 Roberts, Victor, note 4, p. 430.Google Scholar

31 For a more detailed treatment of the problem of periodization in Arabic astronomy, see Saliba, G., “The Role of Maragha in the Development of Islamic Astronomy: A Scientific Revolution Before the Renaissance,” Revue de Synthèse (1987) 3.4: 361373.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed

32 For a short survey of Tāj al-Sharīcas models, see G. Saliba, “Islamic Planetary Theories After the Eleventh Century,” to appear in a book devoted to the history of Arabic science edited by R. Rashed. See also the edition, translation, and commentary on Tāj al-Sharīca's works in the Ph.D. dissertation of Ahmad al-Dallāl, Department of Middle East Languages and Cultures, Columbia University (1990).Google Scholar

34 The only reference we have to this book comes from an elementary treatise called Kitāb al-Hay'a (A Book on Astronomy), by the same anonymous Spanish author, now preserved at the Osmania University Library, Hyderabad, MS N° 520RH.

35 Cf. Arabic manuscript Ahmad III 3338, fol. 4v, in the Topkapi Library, Istanbul.

36 The latest of these studies is Sabra, A.I., “The Andalusian Revolt against Ptolemaic Astronomy,” in Transformation and Tradition in the Sciences, edited by Everett, Mendelsohn (Cambridge, 1984).Google Scholar

37 The last study of Swerdlow, N., “Jābir Ibn Aflah's Interesting Method for Finding Eccentricities and Direction of the Apsidal Line of a Superior Planet,” in From Deferent to Equant, edited by King, D. and Saliba, G., Annals, New York Academy of Sciences (1987) 500: 501512, explains the methodological sophistication of Jābir, but does not touch directly upon the issues raised here.Google Scholar

38 I have noted the importance of these texts and their interrelationship in the preliminary survey of the Tahrĭr. See Saliba, G., “The Role of the Almagest Commentaries,” note 25.Google Scholar

39 Cf. Shīrāzī's text, Majlis Shūra-i Milli MS 3944, Teheran, fol. 7r.

40 Se ISIS (1983) 74: 388401CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Centaurus (1986) 29: 249271.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

41 This treatise was mentioned by the biographer Zādeh, Taşköprü (d. 1561), al-Shaqā 'iq al-Nu'mānīya fi al-Dawla al-'Uthmānīya, edited by Ahmad, S. Furāt, Istanbul Üniversitesi Edebiyat Fakültesi Yayinlari N°: 3353 (Istanbul 1985), p. 159.Google Scholar

42 The existence of this treatise was first brought to my attention, in 1981, by A.I. Sabra, of Harvard University, who has kindly sent me a copy of his own handwritten selections from it. I gladly acknowledge his kind gesture.

43 See Suter, H., Die Mathematiker und Astronomen Der Araber und Ihre Werke (Leipzig, 1900), p. 188.Google Scholar

44 See Sédillot, L.P.E.A., Prolégomènes des Tables Astronomiques d'Ouloug-Beg (Paris, 1853).Google Scholar

45 Süleymaniye, Hüsrev Paşa MS 246.

46 Ibid., fol. 46v.

47 Ibid., fol. 50v.

48 See, for example, Suter, , Die Mathematiker und Astronomen, p. 189,Google Scholar note 43 and Brockelman, C., Geschichte der Arabischen Literatur (Berlin, 1902), II, p. 414.Google Scholar

49 MS Arabic Revan 1996.

50 Ibid., fol. 90r.

52 Ibid., fol. 92v.

53 lstanbul University MS Arabçe 2466.

54 See, Suter, Die Mathematiker und Astronomen, p. 190, note 43, where he gives a variant of the name as Chalīl b. Ahmed el-Naqīb, Gars ed-dīn Ḥalebī, but does not mention the work discussed here.

55 MS Arabçe Yeni Cami 1181.

56 Ibid., fol. 174v.

57 More on this author in Suter, Die Mathematiker und Astronomen, p. 194, note 43.

58 Süleymaniye Library, Istanbul, Laleli Arabic MS 2126, fols. 64r-116v.

59 lstanbul University, MS Arabçe 2466.

60 Ibid., fol. 6v.

61 See, Saliba, G., “Ibn Sīna and Abū 'Ubayd al-Jūzjāni: The Problem of the Ptolemaic EquantJournal for the History of Arabic Science (1980) 4: 376403.Google Scholar

62 lstanbul University, MS Arabçe 2466, fol. 6v.

63 Ibid., fol. 7r.

64 In this context I am thinking of the work of the Ḥanbalite theologian Ibn Taymīya al-Harrānī (d. 1328) who did make such statements in his Dar' al-Ta'āruḍ Bayn al-'Aql wa-l-Naql, but this is the subject of another article.

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