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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 February 2011

Paul Lettinck
Faculty of Science, Department of Science and Technology Studies, University of Malaya, 50603 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Email:


Books belonging to adab literature present material about a variety of subjects, considered from various points of view, such as religious, scientific, historical, literary, etc. They contain knowledge and at the same time entertainment for educated people. Here we consider the content of two adab works, insofar as they discuss subjects from the scientific point of view: (an extract of) Faṣl al-Khiṭāb by al-Tīfāshī (d. 1253) and Mabāhij al-fikar wa-manāhij al-ʿibar by al-Waṭwāṭ (d. 1318).

Al-Tīfāshī's work discusses astronomical and meteorological subjects. The passages on astronomy give the usual Aristotelian cosmological picture of the world in a simplified version for non-specialists. The passages on meteorological subjects explain these phenomena in agreement with Aristotle's theory of the double exhalation, and it appears that they are based to a large extent on Ibn Sīnā's interpretation of this theory.

The book of al-Waṭwāṭ consists of four sections, which deal with the heaven, the earth, animals and plants respectively. One chapter of the first section deals with meteorological phenomena and presents a survey of the explanations current in his time, such as may be found in the works of al-Kindī and Ibn Sīnā.

One will probably not find new and original scientific ideas in the adab literature, but one gets an impression of how besides knowledge of Qurʾān, ḥadīth, poetry and literary prose scientific knowledge was a part of the education of a certain class of people, also of those whose special interest was not science. It also appears that the subjects of science were not restricted to those which were useful for religion and Muslim society. Science was an integrated activity in society, pursued for intellectual satisfaction and pleasure in knowledge, and most groups in that society held that there was nothing in it that would be incompatible with Islam as a religion. This would support the ‘appropriation thesis’ defended by Sabra, that science in medieval Islamic society was well assimilated and widely accepted, as opposed to the the ‘marginality thesis’ adopted by von Grünebaum, that science was a marginal activity, restricted to small elite circles and not rooted in society.


Les livres relevant du genre littéraire de l'adab présentent des matériaux sur un grand nombre de sujets, considérés sous des angles divers: sujets religieux, scientifiques, historiques, littéraires, etc. Ils propsent un savoir et, en même temps, de l'agrément aux gens éduqués. Nous considérerons ici deux œuvres relevant de l'adab, en tant qu'elles discutent leurs thèmes d'un point de vue scientifique: (un extrait du) Faṣl al-Khiṭāb d'al-Tīfāshī (m. 1253) et Mabāhij al-fikar wa-manāhij al-ʿibar d'al-Waṭwāṭ (m. 1318).

L'œuvre d'al-Tīfāshī traite de sujets astronomiques et météorologiques. Les passages portant sur l'astronomie dressent le tableau aristotélicien usuel du monde dans une version simplifiée pour non-spécialistes. Les passages sur des sujets météorologiques expliquent ces phénomènes en se conformant à la doctrine aristotélicienne des deux exhalaisons – ils se fondent, dans une large mesure, sur l'interprétation développée par Avicenne de cette théorie.

Le traité d'al-Waṭwāṭ comporte quatre sections, qui envisagent respectivement le ciel, la terre, les animaux et les plantes. Un chapitre de la première section traite de phénomènes météorologiques et présente synthétiquement les explications proposées à l'époque, telles qu'on les lit dans les œuvres d'al-Kindī et d'Avicenne.

On ne trouvera probablement pas d'idées scientifiques nouvelles dans la littérature d'adab, mais on y perçoit bien comment, à côté de la maîtrise du Coran, du ḥadīth, de la poésie et de la prose littéraire, la connaissance scientifique constituait une partie intégrante de l'éducation d'une certaine classe sociale, assimilée y compris par des gens dont la science n'était pas la préoccupation principale. Il apparaît également que les thèmes scientifiques traités ne se bornaient pas à ceux qui présentaient un intérêt pour la religion et la société musulmane. La science était une activité qui avait partie liée avec la société, poursuivie en vue d'une satisfaction intellectuelle et du plaisir de la connaissance, et la plupart des groupes sociaux formant cette société considéraient qu'il n'y avait rien là d'incompatible avec l'Islam comme religion. Cela pourrait bien corroborer la “thèse de l'appropriation” défendue par Sabra, selon laquelle la science était bien assimilée et largement acceptée par la société islamique médiévale, par opposition à la “thèse de la marginalité” soutenue par von Grünebaum, d'après laquelle la science était une activité marginale, confinée à une certaine élite et sans ancrage social véritable.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011

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* A preliminary version of this article was presented at the conference “A Shared Legacy. Islamic Science East and West”, Barcelona, 11–14 april 2007.

1 von Grünebaum, G.E., “Muslim world view and Muslim science”, in Islam. Essays in the Nature and Growth of a Cultural Tradition (London, 1955; 2nd ed. 1961; repr. Westport, Conn. 1981), pp. 111–26Google Scholar.

2 Sabra, A.I., “The appropriation and subsequent naturalization of Greek science in Medieval Islam: a preliminary statement”, History of Science, 25 (1987): 223–43CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 Gutas, D., Greek Thought, Arabic Culture (London, 1998)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 The relevant passage from al-ʿĀmirī is quoted in Rosenthal, F., Das Fortleben der Antike im Islam (Zürich, 1965), translated as The Classical Heritage in Islam (London and New York, 1975), pp. 6370Google Scholar.

5 This sketch of al-Tīfāshī's life and works is taken from the introduction to Surūr al-nafs bi-madārik al-ḫawāss al-khams by the editor Iḥsān ʿAbbās. See also C. Brockelmann, Geschichte der arabischen Literatur (Leiden, 1937–1949), vol. I, p. 652 and Suppl. I, p. 904.

6 Al-Tīfāshī, , Nuzhat al-albāb fīmā lā yūjad fī kitāb, ed. Jumaʿa, Jamal (London, 1992)Google Scholar. French translation, based on the Arabic manuscripts, by René Khawam, R. as Les délices des coeurs, ou ce que l'on ne trouve en aucun livre (Paris, 1971)Google Scholar. Parts of it were translated and edited from the French into English by Lacey, Edward A. and Leyland, Winston as The Delight of Hearts: Or What You Will Not Find in Any Book (San Francisco, 1988)Google Scholar.

7 Al-Qurʾān, Sura 38:20.

8 Al-Tīfāshī, , Surūr al-nafs bi-madārik al-ḥawāss al-khams, revised by Ibn Manẓūr, edited by ʿAbbās, Iḥsān (Beirut, 1980)Google Scholar.

9 The concepts ‘science' and ‘pseudo-science’ are of course modern and not current in the time of al-Tīfāshī; we just follow here the terminology of the editor Iḥsān ʿAbbās.

10 The printed text has: kayyafa; this should be read as kathufa.

11 Apparently the name ‘Atlas’ for the highest sphere is assumed here to be derived from the Arabic ṭalasa, which means ‘to efface, obliterate’. However, Atlas is the name of a figure from Greek mythology. He sided with the Titans in their war against the Olympian gods. When the Titans were defeated, Atlas was punished by Zeus and made to bear the weight of the heavens and earth on his back.

12 See for instance Ibn Sīnā, , Kitāb al-Najāt, ed. Fakhrī, M. (Beirut, 1985), p. 316Google Scholar.

13 The dry smoke and the moist vapour are both here referred to as bukhār. Smoke and vapour are not always strictly denoted by the words dukhān and bukhār respectively.

14 The issue of multiple haloes is mentioned by Ibn Sīnā, see Kitāb al-Shifā', al-Ṭabīʿiyyāt 5, ed. A. Muntaṣir, S. Zāyid, A. Ismāʿīl, I. Madkūr (Cairo, 1964), pp. 48 ff.

15 The cloud acting as a mirror is a feature typical for Ibn Sīnā, see Kitāb al-Shifā', al-Ṭabīʿiyyāt 5, pp. 50 ff.

16 Ibn Sīnā's text concerning the hoarfrost has: ‘before the condensation.’ See Kitāb al-Shifā', al-Ṭabīʿiyyāt 5, p. 36.

17 The printed text has: milḥan mutaḥallilan (dissolving salt). Instead of milḥ one should read thalj (snow).

18 Ibn Sīnā, al-Qānūn (Bulāq, 1294), Book I, p. 90.

19 Mazhar H. Shah, The General Principles of Avicenna's Canon of Medicine (Karachi, 1966), pp. 172–4.

20 Cf. Ibn Sīnā, , Kitāb al-Shifā', al-Ṭabīʿiyyāt 4, ed. Qāsim, M., Madkūr, I. (Cairo, 1969), p. 204Google Scholar.

21 al-Ghazzī, Kāmil, Kitāb Nuzhat al-ʿuyūn fī arbaʿat funūn, in Majallat al-majmaʿ al-ʿilmī al-ʿarabī, vol. 9 (Damascus, 1929), pp. 681–7Google Scholar.

22 Jamāl al-Dīn al-Waṭwāṭ, , Manāhij al-fikar wa-mabāhij al-ʿibar, ed. Sezgin, Fuat, Publications of the Institute for the History of Arabic-Islamic Science, Series C, vol. 49, 1-2 (Frankfurt am Main, 1990)Google Scholar.

23 Muḥammad b. Ibrāhīm al-Waṭwāṭ, , Mabāhij al-fikar wa-manāhij al-ʿibar, ed. ʿAbd al-Razzāq Aḥmad al-Ḥarbī, (Beirut, 2000)Google Scholar.

24 Ibn Sīnā, Kitāb al-Shifā’, al-Ṭabīʿiyyāt 5, p. 58.

25 Ibn Sīnā, Kitāb al-Shifā', al-Ṭabīʿiyyāt 5, p. 59.

26 Al-Kindī, “On the reason why in some places it almost never rains”, in Rasāʾil, II, 70–5.

27 Al-Kindī, “On the causes of snow, hail, lightning, thunderbolts, thunder and zamharīr”, in Rasāʾil, II, 80–5.

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