ARTISANS AND MATHEMATICIANS IN MEDIEVAL ISLAM.
In the form of an appendix, there is a short essay by Mohammad al-Asad that deals with the geometric analysis of the phenomenon of muqarnas, the stalactite-like decorative architectural elements that are often characterized as the distinctive creation of Islamic architecture. In this essay al-Asad tries to teach the reader how to transform, with the help of computer-assisted design software, one of the plane designs of a muqarnas, as represented in the scroll, into a three-dimensional architectural unit. But he quickly admits that, with the many "adjustments," "symmetry (which) is partially broken" and lack of "exacting standards of precision" inherent in medieval manuals, his rendering is only one possible interpretation of the design and many other renderings could be conjured up, as well. Towards the end of the essay he confesses: "Although the conversion of these plans into three-dimensional objects may seem to the modern eye to be a highly interpretative process, it was standardized for medieval artisans." Only we do not know how, for "the procedure was a carefully guarded secret known only to members of the guild, who often belonged to the Sufi orders, or tariqas...." In other words, despite not documenting the existence of such guilds and their secrets, the author confesses that we do not know how these plans, if they did indeed exist in the first place, were materialized architecturally by working artisans on a given site.
But even with the help of a relatively elaborate description of how those artisans could have calculated areas of various types of muqarnas, as preserved in the work of the fifteenth-century mathematician and astronomer Kashi (d. 1429), one can still not tell for sure the exact measurements involved. Al-Asad is correct in concluding (p. 354), with Kashi that, in the final analysis, such measurements depend on "the aesthetic judgment of the builder, the profile of the arch or vault surrounding the muqarnas ...," and other such extraneous factors.
Exploring the relationship between the predominant geometric features of Islamic art and the theoretical works on mathematics that were produced during the heyday of Islamic civilization can shed light on the relationship between the artisan and the scientist in that culture--and that is surely desirable. But first one has to demonstrate that such a connection really did exist. One might have hoped that the introductory five-part essay of this book would have accomplished that task. What it seems to do, however, is to analyze instead a scroll of uncertain date anal provenance, filled with designs that are subject to various interpretations and have no text accompanying them so as to control any of those interpretations. It then attempts to solicit aid from other written sources that are either for the most part irrelevant (as are the tenth-century Buzjani's manuals that are still preserved but have no descriptions of designs that are similar to the ones in the Topkapi scroll) or actually do not exist (as the works of Ibn al-Haytham [d.c. 1040] and Karaji [d. 1020] from the next century) in a vain effort to discern what it could all mean, and ends up saying that "the absence of anachronistic motifs inconsistent with an international Timurid-Turkmen design vocabulary further argues for the late fifteenth- or sixteenth-century date that Filiz (Cagman assigns to the Topkapi scroll on the basis of her long experience with comparable documents in the Topkapi Palace Museum Library's manuscript collection" (p. 34).
Anyone who has dealt with those manuscript collections, as well as others, knows quite well how risky it is to assign dates to manuscripts that are sometimes even supplied with explicit colophons, let alone those that have no "writing, date, or watermark that might point to when and where it was put together or how it entered the Ottoman imperial treasury collection" (p. 29). In light of the Ottomans' famous practice of recording almost everything in a special defter (record), the last remark becomes all the more poignant, especially when the author herself readily admits that: "It may, of course, be that the scroll's Timurid-Turkmen repertory was copied at a much later date, but this is quite unlikely given the striking difference between its sophisticated drafting conventions and those of nineteenth- and twentieth-century scrolls" (pp. 33-34). However, on the basis of techniques and conventions alone, one would intuitively expect to move chronologically from less sophisticated to more sophisticated rather than the other way around. As to how the scroll ended up at the Topkapi Palace, this reviewer finds the suggestion (pp. 38-39) of its having been carried there by the astronomer and mathematician Qushji (d. 1474) simply unfounded. Because a mathematician had mathematical treatises in his library does not mean that he also carded scrolls on his last perilous journey, especially as he had no apparent intention of using such scrolls and was not known to have worked as an engineer or architect in so far as we can tell.
With the predicament of date and provenance left unresolved, the author builds enough circumstantial evidence, such that, if a reader accepts it, he will be led to believe that this specific Topkapi scroll can be regarded as a "mirror of late Timurid-Turkmen architectural practice," as the heading of chapter three suggests. But, on demanding more rigor in the documentation, one is left with many more problems unresolved.
At the beginning, where Necipoglu attempts to document the references to architectural drawings in Islamic literary texts, her zeal to engage the European reader in the enterprise by restricting most, if not all, of her primary-source references to those that have been translated into European languages, leads her at the same time to fall victim to those same translations by reading into them nuances that are not present in the original. For example, the first reference that she cites for the existence of architectural plans is a note in the history of Ya qubi (d. 897), his Kitab al-buldan, where he describes the founding of the city of Baghdad by the caliph al-Mansur (r. 754-75). In that regard she asserts that Ya qubi "mentioned the tracing of the plan directly on the ground" (p. 3). Her reference is Gaston Wiet's translation of Ya qubi's work, which appeared under the title Les Pays. Now the original text of Ya qubi (vol. 2, p. 373, of the Beirut edition) says of al-Mansur: "fa-ikhtatta madina-tahu ..." (he laid out his city). The verb ikhtatta been obviously interpreted to mean the technical drawing of a plan on the ground, thus making of al-Man.sar an architect in disguise, although he would probably have been the only caliph ever to have had such a skill. A few pages earlier, however (p. 358 of the same edition), the same Ya qubi had already mentioned the establishment of another city, al-Rafiqa, on the Euphrates for which he uses the same terminology, thus saying "wa-ikhtatta al-Rafiqa ala shatt al-Furat" (he founded al-Rafiqa on the shore of the Euphrates) but adds immediately after that " wa-handasaha lahu Adham b. Muhriz" (and it was constructed/engineered [or drawn up] for him by Adham b. Muhriz). In the mind of Ya qubi, there seems to have been a difference between the two terms ikhtatta and handasa, and the second of the two technical terms handasa was in all likelihood meant to be as close as one could get to the sense of the drawing of a plan, even though we only know of this Adham B. Muhriz as an army commander and not as engineer. The original meaning of the first term ikhtatta implied the general act of marking a place on public land as one's own, as in staking a claim to it, which is a far cry from "tracing a plan directly on the ground," as Wiet and after him the author wishes it to read.
Less than half a century after Ya qubi, Jahshiyari (d. 943) tells us, in his Kitab al-wuzara wa'l-kuttab, that such a tracing was indeed done and by a muhandis, as in the report of al-Rafiqa, but this tracing is referred to as taswir (the drawing) of a sura (picture), not as takhtit ("making a plan" as in modern usage) of a khatt (a line, a tracing, or the like). The full text of Jahshiyari (p. 79 of the Beirut edition) says: "The village that Muriyani had recommended to Abu ja far for Salih was the one known as Subaytiya in the region of Basra," and immediately following that he says: "Abu Ja far had requested from one of the engineers (ba d al-muhandisin) that he draw it for him (bi-taswiriha), which he did, and showed him the picture, which he liked."
In another instance, the same Ya qubi (p. 358) uses the term ittakhadha to mean something similar to ikhtatta, as in the case of Abu'l- Abbas marking off his own capital al-Hashimiya. But neither sawwara nor ittakhadha are anywhere mentioned by Prof. Necipoglu, because, I would presume, none of these other sources have been translated into English.
Similarly, her use of a reference to Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) is equally marred by the nuances translators sometimes insert unintentionally into the texts. The passage from Ibn Khaldun that she quotes (p. 6) reads: "Architecture is also needed when rulers and people of a dynasty build large towns and high monuments [hayakil]. They try their utmost to make good plans and build tall structures with technical perfection, so that (architecture) can reach its highest development." I assume that Necipoglu uses this citation as evidence of the existence of architectural drawings in the Arab world at the time of Ibn Khaldun, because the English text uses the terms "make good plans." The original Arabic, however, is quite ambiguous and uses the general term itqan al-awda (sg. wad). That could mean anything from "laying something down well" to "delivering a baby;' but was most probably intended to mean "well executed," which is not at all similar to the equally general term ikhtatta, or even the more technical terms sawwara, and handasa.
In the same vein Necipoglu reads (p. 174) into Jazari's title for his chapter on the door that he had "designed it," as in the following statement: It was a "chef-d'oeuvre, to view it saddles are strapped on [i.e., to control one from shaking]...." Her reading obviously depended on the translation of Jazari by the late Donald Hill--a translation based on a defective manuscript and executed before the original text of Jazari had been critically edited--and thus her interpretation of the title in the context of her argument in that chapter makes her add the explanatory material between the square brackets, namely, "to control one from shaking" (presumably in the face of awesome beauty). The original Arabic, however, simply says ila ru yatihi tushaddu al-rihal (it is well worth a journey to see it). The misunderstanding of the idiom shadd al-rihal by the original translator, who rendered it literally as "saddles are strapped," has misled Necipoglu and necessitated the explanatory statement. Admittedly the literal translation does not make much sense on its own. Had Necipoglu consulted the Arabic--which is, by the way, available now in a rather good critical edition by A. Y. al-Hassan, but not even mentioned in the rather extensive bibliography supplied by Necipoglu--she would have realized that the Arabic idiom shadd al-rihal simply means "to start out on a journey" and has nothing to do with strapping on saddles in order to prevent one from shaking.(1)
In summary, because of Necipoglu's overreliance on the translations, whether in attempting to solicit the testimony of the literary sources in support of the development of such technical concepts as "tracing an architectural drawing" or in attempting to "contextualize" a document like the Topkapi scroll, many of the idioms and the technical terms are lost or changed, or are given somewhat misleading interpretations, at best.
As for the repeated references to craft secrets--already noted in connection with al-Asad's appendix but which appear throughout the book in order to sustain a claim of a connection with the few surviving architectural drawings, whether in scrolls or in manuscripts, such as the Parisian manuscript studied by Chorbachi and others--to argue that these documents are difficult to interpret because their executors intentionally wished "to protect secret craft knowledge," requires much more probative evidence for the very existence of such crafts in the Islamic--though not the European--domain, and a knowledge of their operation and a clear exposition of the methods by which such drawings were interpreted at the construction site.
What is even more curious in the case of the Topkapi scroll is the suggestion that it belonged to a group of surviving architectural drawings that had been rejected, as is argued by Necipoglu (p. 29) on the basis that they do not seem to "correspond to extant buildings." If that were the case, how could one attempt to "contextualize" them by relying on extant buildings to date them, or even attempt to understand how they were to be interpreted had they been accepted? Even more curious is the disappearance "without a trace" of royal archives of such drawings in Istanbul, despite the well-known Ottoman and modern Turkish skill in and predilection for keeping records.
In the second part of the introductory essay the author wishes to raise the important question of the relationship between the mathematical sciences and the arts in Islamic civilization. She notes correctly that the question is an old one and goes back at least to the nineteenth century, if not earlier. And in that regard she seems to know how this problem ought to be approached. But on page 85, note 54, she says that she is not qualified to undertake the mathematical analysis of the drawings, which is a route followed by others and which apparently promises to shed light on that particular relationship. Instead she examines the historical context in which geometric patterns were created. She argues against interpreting them "as aspects of the multiplicity of the Creator" (p. 77) and properly sees that interpretation as an extension of nineteenth-century orientalist discourse. She claims to follow Grabar in denying the existence of "a single instance justifying the view that the Muslim community, the umma, as opposed to individual thinkers, understood mathematical forms as symbolizing or illustrating a Muslim cosmology" (p. 83). But how does one gauge what the Muslim community saw in such mathematical forms? She admits in her own way (p. 92) that the theological orientation of the community, with "its constrictions on the scope of figural representation" must have led to non-figural representations. But then she goes on to assert (p. 95) that the appearance of specific geometric interlocking patterns during the ninth century was due to the interaction between Mu tazilite rational thought and the Sunni revival that was to follow. She concludes that "the vision of a continually fluctuating atomistic world open to endless permutation by incessant accidents may well have informed the Samarran beveled aesthetic with its deliberate ambiguity in representing natural forms, caught as if they were in an ambivalent zone between intelligibility and unintelligibility, being and becoming, actuality and potentiality" (p. 95). Later on, she asks if those geometric patterns could not "have been intended as abstract visual analogues for the rhythmic order of a divinely created atomistic universe, constantly kept in check by an all-powerful God whose wisdom was manifested in the wonders of creation?" (p. 97).
If one cannot document, as Grabar would say, that the Muslim community saw those forms in cosmological terms, how can one establish that the same community saw them as representations of such atomistic concepts as are now being proposed? This atomistic world view is not much different from the mystical world view that saw the geometric forms as invitations to meditate on the unity of God as exhibited in multiplicity, which was rejected earlier. In fact, the author comes very close to accepting that same mystical interpretation when she says: "Their visual repetition has been compared with verbal repetitions known in Sufi practice ... designed to intensify mystical meditation, ... seen as a method of reminding oneself of God's greatness and the marvels of the divine creation" (p. 122).
On a more fundamental level, in order to "contextualize" a certain concept, whether in art or in any intellectual domain, it is not sufficient simply to juxtapose contemporary political and theological conditions with that concept, in the absence of a demonstration of the relevance of such conditions. It is not enough to note (p. 97) that "Al-Ghazali, the Ash arite theologian who worked under Seljuq patronage ... formulated a new synthesis of Ash ari Sunnism," and that it was in "this context of Sunni revival during the hegemony of the Great Seljuqs that the girih mode suddenly flourished," without showing how one brought the other into being or even influenced it. The simple assertion made by the author to the effect that "the striking parallelism between the geometric mode and the ethos of the Sunni revival ... goes beyond just an assumed zeitgeist" (p. 123) is not a demonstration. Similarly, and thinking along the lines of Ghazali himself, to document the contemporaneity of two phenomena, such as the "visual asceticism of the Almohads" and "that of the Cistercians" (p. 101), does not necessarily demonstrate any relationship between them beyond their contemporaneity. It is not sufficient, as well, to imply (p. 103) that, since Ibn Khaldun and al-Ghazali both attacked philosophy, Ibn Khaldun's characterization of geometry is similar to that of al-Ghazali. One still needs to demonstrate how "the divinely created Ash ari atomistic universe (shared by the Maturidi School) was permeated with a harmony that resonated with two- and three-dimensional geometric patterns generated by indecipherable grids evoking a sense of wonder" (p. 103).
Unfortunately, the long-drawn process of "contextualization" that the author had embarked on, with all its good revisionist anti-orientalist discourse, which this reviewer admires, seems to have failed. For on page 116, the author confesses that "neither the few remaining early medieval monuments nor the written texts provide much information about the original associations of the girih at the time of its inception ...," and on page 104, she had already stated that "the time and place in which the girih originated cannot conclusively be proven with the present state of the archeological record...." Despite all that, she still relies on "indirect evidence" and tries to make a case for the centrality of Baghdad in the process. This evidence is loosely presented and comes from the different field of calligraphy which in itself needs to be contextualized. As a matter of fact there is some evidence that speaks against the thesis proposed by Yasser Tabbaa and followed by the author (p. 107) which says that the script that was codified by Ibn al-Bawwab constituted "a final break with the majestic but ambiguous script of the first three Islamic centuries." For on the authority of Hajji Khalifa, Ibn Ishaq was supposed to have said that "there were four classes of Arabic writing: the Makki, the Madani, the Basri, and the Kufi; and the first who wrote the Qur an in a clear and elegant writing, was Khalid b. Abi al-Haiyaj, and that he was set to the work by Sa d, who employed him as a calligraphist for the Caliph Walid b. Abd al-Malik, and that Khalid wrote it in what is now called the Kufic character." Thus, for those earlier centuries, the Kufic, rather than "ambiguous," was the "clear and elegant" character.
In the same context it is hard to follow the argument made on page 123 that the "codification in Baghdad of the canonical Arabic scripts according to a geometric system of proportioning was not only related to theological and political controversies about the nature of the Koran but also to the popularization of the mathematical sciences in that city." It is hard to see how the controversy over the createdness of the Qur an could have led to geometric systems, or how the codification of script led to popularization of mathematical sciences, when we know that the only manual on practical geometry from that period made no mention whatsoever of the types of script in vogue or in itself had any effect that can be detected on the artisans or the mathematicians.
But let us return to the issue of the relationship between the mathematicians and the artisans. The thesis at issue, as this reviewer understands it, claims that since there are those distinctive geometric features in Islamic art, and those features seem to be technically difficult to execute, and since it is independently established that there was a high level of mathematical sophistication in the Islamic civilization that produced this art, there must have been some sort of a relationship between the mathematicians, who were quite capable of sophisticated geometric conceptualization, and the artisans, who executed these concepts in drawings, architectural units, and the like. When, however, one looks for the features of that relationship, one begins to find difficulties.
To start with, there are few documents that could shed light on that particular relationship. What is known so far seems to be reducible to the following list. Two works by the mathematician cum astronomer Abu'l-Wafa al-Buzjani (d. 940) have survived? One deals with what the secretaries and state functionaries (kuttab wa ummal) needed by way of arithmetic, and the other what the artisan (al-sani) needs by way of geometry. The geometry text was apparently translated into Persian and that has also survived in what looks like a unique manuscript in Paris. The Paris manuscript forms part of a larger collection (a majmu a). In it there is another anonymous Persian text that has no introduction and no date of composition but contains some drawings that have been studied, most recently by Chorbachi, and they are referred to in the bibliography. Finally, there is a short and ambiguous segment of a much larger text written in the fifteenth century by Kashi, in which he describes specifically the methods of artisans in finding the area of the architectural unit muqarnas. But that is almost all that is known to have survived in the literature-or is apparently also known to Prof. Necipoglu.
To this list one should add three more literary references coming from various periods of Islamic history. There are also other possible instances of such texts that, however, need to be worked on and studied before they can be cited. Of those that are relatively clear, the first comes from the autobiography of a tenth-century mathematician cum astronomer by the name of Ibrahim b. Sinan (908-46), who died relatively young. I shall quote his remarks in full because of their direct relevance to the relationship between mathematician and artisan. He mentions that he had written a book about gnomons on spherical surfaces and
had passed it on to one of the artisans (ba d al-sunna)
in a language different from the one he had used for his
own book. The reason for this was that he [the artisan]
was executing for us the ring with which we performed
our observations. It was a ring that I did my utmost to
widen and to subdivide precisely, its diameter being three
cubits, and I used it for measuring the solar altitude. I had
already demonstrated, in my book on the sun and its motions,
the reasons why observing with this ring was necessary.
I liked his craftsmanship (sun atahu) and found
him to be technically clever (latif al-hila) in his work. So
I dictated to him the description of the instrument, demonstrating
how to set up on a spherical surface a gnomon
whose shadow falls on the spherical surface during the
whole day for all days of the year. I made my description
for him of the type that befits those who work with their
hands (al-sunna al-ladhina ya malun bi'l-yad).(3)
As far as I know this is the only reference where we have a mathematician sitting next to an artisan teaching him in the artisan's language how to execute a specific task. We must immediately note, however, that the two people concerned did not use the same language, and that, because there was a language barrier between the two, the mathematician had to make a special effort to render his conceptual scheme comprehensible to the artisan. This situation should, at least, warn against the assumption that artisans of medieval Islam, in particular, could on their own render and modify mathematical concepts simply because mathematical concepts were available in the society.
The next two references come from the work of the eleventh century polymath Abu'l-Rayhan al-Biruni (d. c. 1048). The first appears in a text devoted to the projection of a sphere on a plane surface, and in it Biruni makes the important statement:
Some of the artisans favor the use of arithmetic and
prefer it over craft methods (yu thiruhu ala al-turuq
al-sina iya), as we have found with all the makers of astrolabes
and instruments. For that reason we shall now transfer
all that we have mentioned thus far into arithmetical
methods and shall give the values of the circles' diameters,
the distances of their centers from the assumed circle, the
intersection of the lines, and their circumferences.(4)
Contrary to what Necipoglu has argued in the book under review, there were apparently some artisans, especially astrolabe and instrument makers known to Biruni, who preferred exact arithmetical measurements over the approximative artisanal ones apparently used by masons and architects and which were usually frowned upon by the scientists rather than being inspired by them.
The last reference--from Biruni's work as well--comes from his mathematical geographical work called Tahdid nihayat al-amakin (Determination of the Coordinates of Cities). In this work, Biruni develops the necessarily complicated mathematics for the calculation of the direction of prayer (qibla), and then adds:
These methods are sufficient for those who wish to use
elaborate methods, but as architects and artisans cannot
work out the precise amounts which we have derived,
they may proceed as follows....(5)
There follows a description of an approximative method which is itself followed by another approximative method for the determination of the local meridian, which is needed for the determination of the qibla. Here again we have specific instructions for architects and artisans who are, however, also portrayed as being less interested in precision.
The other two sources, mentioned above, that were supposed to have addressed architectural issues specifically, namely one by Ibn al-Haytham and the other by Karaji, have not yet been located and at least one of them, if not both, is presumed lost. But it should be noted here that we do not even know their titles; and we have only the report of the encyclopedist Ibn al-Akfani (d. 1348) about them. In the original text of Ibn al-Akfani (later copied by many others, as listed on page 140 of the book under review), the two works are classified under the rubric ilm uqud al-abniya(6) (Science of Erection of Structures) with the understanding that vaulting (aqd), and not knotting, is the predominant activity. The dictionary specifies that aqada al-bina means to "vault the structure." But, in the general description of the discipline, Ibn al-Akfani Says: "It is a science from which one learns the conditions of structures, the method of digging canals, dredging them, damming openings, and the establishment of houses. Its benefit is immense for the construction of cities, forts, and houses, as well as in agriculture. In it there are two books--one by Ibn al-Haytham and the other by Karaji."(7)
With the stress in this discipline on agricultural activities, with all that it entails by way of digging and dredging canals, damming, and the like, this reviewer thinks that the work of Karaji intended here is the extant treatise called Inbat al-miyah al-khafiya (Extraction of Hidden Waters), which has been published several times and even translated into French, although it still needs to be properly studied.(8) The other work--that by Ibn al-Haytham--seems truly to be lost.
But what should be stressed here is that neither the description of the discipline by Ibn al-Akfani nor the probably extant work of Karaji have anything to do with geometric "knots," as stipulated by Necipoglu (p. 140). What has mislead the author is probably the fecund Arabic root qd into which she would like to read the idea of knotting but which in this context stretches the meaning too far, especially when the idiom aqada al-bina does exist in the dictionary.
One more source claimed by the author as having something to do with her thesis on the relationship between the mathematical sciences and artisans is a work, by the same Buzjani mentioned before, that she cites on page 133 under the title Kitab ma rifat al-dawa ir min al-falak (sic) and translates as "Book on the Knowledge of the Circle (sic) from the Heavens," which makes little sense as such. One does not even know which of the multitudes of circles in the heavens known to such astronomers as Buzjani are those intended here. But the mistake in the citation, and hence in the accompanying implication that this particular book demonstrates "the cosmic associations of geometric figures" is to be blamed on F. Sezgin who himself followed an erroneous reading in the Fihrist of al-Nadim (d. 989) and indeed cited this work in this fashion in his volume of the Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums on mathematics (vol. 5, p. 325). In volume 6, p. 224 of the same work, however, Sezgin corrected his mistake and read the title properly as al-da ir min al-falak, a technical term of astronomy meaning "arc of revolution," or in layman's language "what has revolved of the sphere" until the moment of observation.(9) As is well known, the book is devoted to time-telling by solar observation, and no further cosmological meaning can be read into it.
Returning briefly to the general problem of the relationship between theoretical scientists and artisans, we can summarize the preceding discussion by saying that we do not know much about that relationship. We do know, however, that in all cases, with the exception perhaps of the instance mentioned by Ibrahim b. Sinan, theoretical mathematicians rarely taught artisans directly, and seldom wrote for them specifically. The extant works of Buzjani are replete with references to how artisans err in what they do, the kind of loss or danger that results from their errors, and how one should know better than to follow them. In his book on arithmetic for the bureaucrats, Buzjani says at one point that those bureaucrats
sometimes use, in their calculations and their surveying,
things that result in loss for the authorities or injustice to
their agents. They make mistakes in their works, and are
not aware of them, for they lack the principles of this
craft [obviously meaning the craft of calculation, hisab].
For I see that, when they wish to calculate the area of a
pentagon or a circle or any other figure with multiple angles,
they multiply four of its sides by the same and
claim that the result would be the area of that land. And
that is far from the truth, and is indeed a grave error
Similar remarks were made by Abu'l-Wafa in his book on geometry.
Looking at the two works together one cannot fail to note that the overall concern of Buzjani was to demonstrate the error of the artisans, and he makes every attempt to set them right. In that sense such books could be read as instructions for artisans. But that claim has to be documented by evidence that artisans did indeed consult those books and that they followed the instructions in them. Similarities of drawings or discussions of subject matter that has a similarity to the drawings found in anonymous manuscripts and scrolls is not enough to "contextualize" the relationship between the theorists and the artisans. And no quantity of pictures from manuscripts in juxtaposition to pictures from scrolls and the like will make that point any clearer. Furthermore, the fact that a miniature, such as the one reproduced on page 200, which originally appeared without any decipherable designation at the beginning of a collection of manuscripts that were bound in a bookform with one of the works of Tusi, does not make that miniature a representation of "Nasir al-Din al-Tusi and his colleagues at the Maragha observatory," as claimed by the author and many others who have reproduced this same miniature before her.
By the same token, the discussions in the last part of the book regarding the developments in optics during medieval Islamic times, particularly the sophisticated Optics of Ibn al-Haytham, and its possible relationship to the general aesthetic taste of ummah--to use Grabar's terminology again--still needs proof. By the admission of A. I. Sabra himself, who has worked on the Optics of Ibn al-Haytham for more than four decades now, that book does not seem to have had an impact even on the learned community in any way commensurate with its sophistication. It is well known that the solitary commentary of Kamal al-Din al-Farisi (d. 1320) seems to be the only work that could be cited as having dealt directly with the work of Ibn al-Haytham. Given such a state of affairs, how could the sophisticated theories of Ibn al-Haytham have spread beyond the circles of specialists so as to inform the ethos of the ummah, and create such an impact as to persuade that ummah of a specific approach to aesthetics?
What seems to be relatively clear is that there was a direct, documented relationship between scientists and artisans. But that relationship requires contextualization; the artisans cannot all be painted with the same brush. Those who produced scientific instruments, such as astrolabes, sundials, globes and the like, seem to have worked closely with scientists, and indeed benefited from their instruction, as can be documented by the textual evidence quoted above and as exhibited in the surviving, jewel-like instruments that those artisans fashioned. Others who dealt with agriculture, canal digging and dredging, and the like, may have also benefited from the instructions given by Karaji. Yet others who produced fantastic mechanical devices seem to have had a different enterprise in mind. As I have demonstrated in my article on the subject, quoted above, it is hard to classify them as artisans when they themselves thought that they were making more "philosophical instruments" and thus demonstrating scientific principles. The architect, the mason, the surveyor, and the like seem to have earned the disrespect of the scientists and were at the receiving end of their criticism. One can even document that these artisans did not listen to scientific advice and instead stuck to the old techniques that they inherited from their own teachers, mistakes and all. Buzjani's remark in his manual on Arithmetic for the Bureaucrats addresses this point specifically.
This brief characterization of the relationship of the various types of craftsmen (and we know of one female astrolabist) with the scientists is by no means definitive, but is enough to illustrate the kind of contextualization this reviewer thinks is necessary in this case and highlights the importance of the distinctions that have to be made among the various types of artisans.
Finally, there is another related problem. Necipoglu argues in several places in the book that the rise of geometric forms in Islamic art, and the emphasis on geometric designs in general, can be read as expression of the "Sunni revival" that followed the defeat of the Mu tazilites in the ninth century. Yet she also argues that geometric forms and the emphasis that Islamic culture placed on them were a by-product of a philosophical tradition that was Greek in origin and was later developed into a form of emanationism by Avicenna and others. But then on page 192 the author has noticed that both positions cannot be held at the same time, since she has also argued that one of the distinguishing features of the Sunni revival was its attack against the philosophers and against "speculative philosophy," as already noted before in her coupling of Ghazali and Ibn Khaldan. She articulates her own paradox in the following terms:
The Sunni orthodox worldview, formulated to vindicate
the absolute power of God, subordinated the primacy of
human free will and the "light of reason" to the subintellectual
categories of intuitive experience, mystical illumination,
and love as means of acquiring metaphysical
knowledge. Despite this major shift in emphasis, aesthetic
concepts originally associated with the doctrine of
emanation proved extremely durable.
The same tradition, here called "Sunni revival" whose raison d'etre was its attack on the rationalist tradition exemplified by such concepts as "light of reason" and "speculative philosophy," has to be interpreted now as having tolerated the essence of that same rationalist tradition, namely its aesthetic concepts. The problem with such arguments is that they all derive from an old orientalist vision of Islamic intellectual history. To use simple terms, that vision posited a dichotomy between the orthodoxy of Islam and the rationalism that derived from the Greek tradition, and tried in every way possible to document this dichotomy--only to discover what I. Goldziher had found out in his famous article, "Stellung der alten islamischen Orthodoxie zu den antiken Wissenschaften."(11) Goldziher concluded his argument concerning the acceptability of logic by orthodox Islam by saying that the same applied to the other branches of the "ancient sciences" and that they too had their own impact on real life, despite the protestations of the theologians.
Instead of rejecting the orientalist dichotomy and searching for a new approach to Islamic intellectual history, as Prof. Necipoglu often declares she wishes to do, especially in her attack against the orientalist interpretation of Islamic art, she unfortunately succumbs to the sweeping generalizations of the same orientalist tradition on other grounds, and ends up having to justify the persistence of features of the "rationalist tradition" in the bosom of orthodoxy. But such issues need to be discussed much more elaborately in a completely different context, and her insertion of them in the discussion at hand, which should have focused on the relationship between the artisan and the mathematician, or on the specific contextualization project of the Topkapi scroll, only distracts from the main focus of the book.
As stated before, the book is beautifully laid out and the conscious arguments against the orientalist vision of Islamic civilization are well articulated, with much humor. They were indeed a joy to read. But the various issues raised in this review still need to be addressed before the general reader, and especially someone like the present reviewer, who has little to do with Islamic art or its history, can participate actively in what promises to be a most interesting discussion regarding the relationship between the scientist and the artisan in Islamic society and the contexts in which such people worked.
(1) Moreover, when citing in the bibliography the translation of Jazari's work by Hill, her additional note to the reader on page 371, regarding the original title of that work (cited as kitab fi ma rifat al-hiyal al-handasiya), demonstrates that she has neither seen the critical edition (which is not cited in the same bibliography, as we have said) nor has she apparently read this reviewer's article on "The Function of Mechanical Devices in Medieval Islamic Society," which she cites nonetheless. In that same article I argue that the title of the book as used in the translation has indeed led to a misunderstanding of the true nature of the book, and thus has blurred the context in which it was written. I then send the reader to the critical edition where the original title is preserved as al-Jami bayn al-ilm wa'l-a-mal al-nafi fi sina at al-hiyal (A Compendium of Theory and Useful Practice in the Mechanical Arts).
(2) Both have been edited in their Arabic originals (although none of those editions are noted in Prof. Necipoglu's bibliography).
(3) G. Saliba, "Risalat Ibrahim b. Sinan b. Thabit b. Qurra fi al-ma ani al-lati istakhrajaha fi al-handasa wa-l-nujum," in Studia Arabica et Islamica, ed. Wadad al-Qadi (Beirut: A.U.B., 1981), 195-203, esp. pp. 198-99.
(4) A. S. Saidan, "Kitab tastih al-suwar wa-tabtih al-kuwar," Dirasat 4 (1977): 7-22, esp. p. 18.
(5) Biruni, Tahdid nihayat al-amakin, tr. Jamil Ali, The Determination of the Coordinates of Cities (Beirut: A.U.B., 1967), 255.
(6) Not al- uqud al-abniya, as on p. 140.
(7) Ibn al-Akfani, Kitab irshad al-qasid ila asna al-maqasid, ed. J. J. Witkam (Leiden: Ter Lugt Pers, 1989), 55.
(8) See, for example, the Hyderabad edition (Osmania Publications, 1359 A.H.), and Aly Mazaheri, La Civilization des eaux cachees (Nice: Universite de Nice, 1973).
(9) The book was also studied by E. S. Kennedy in Mathematics Teacher 53 (1960): 460-63.
(10) A. S. Saidan, Abu al-Wafa al-Buzjani: ilm al-hisab al- arabi (Amman: Jam iyyat Ummal al-Matabi , 1971), 202.
(11) Abhandlungen der Koniglich preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Jahrgang 1915, no. 8 (Berlin, 1916), 3-46.
This is a review article of: The Topkapi Scroll: Geometry and Ornament in Islamic Architecture. By GULRU NECIPOGLU. Getty's Sketchbooks and Albums, vol. 1. Santa Monica: THE GETTY CENTER FOR THE HISTORY OF ART AND THE HUMANITIES, 1995. Pp. xiv + 398. $160.
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|Publication:||The Journal of the American Oriental Society|
|Date:||Oct 1, 1999|
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