Fate of Learning among the Arabs

Cornelius Dietrich Koch

Koch was born in 1676 in Quakenbruck, Lower Saxony. He first attended a school run by his father, in which he acquired knowledge of Latin, Greek, French, philosophy, and mathematics, before enrolling in the municipal school of Helmstedt. Afterwards, he studied theology at the University of Helmstedt, a Lutheran institution. He won a scholarship to study oriental languages for two years in Hamburg under the prominent Lutheran theologian Esdras Edzard. He acquired the degree of Magister in 1700 in Helmstedt and took an academic journey to Holland when he failed to be considered for the chair in poetry despite the recommendation of Leibniz, the well-known seventeenth-century German Enlightenment philosopher. In 1711, he obtained his doctorate in theology under the supervision of the Lutheran theologian Johann Andreas Schmidt. Koch then became a professor of philosophy at Helmstedt, teaching logic, metaphysics, theological dogmatic, and morality. Although he is neglected in the modern scholarship, Koch is considered a forerunner of the early Enlightenment in Halle. He was an influential figure as he established the basis of studying the history of logic. His contribution was recognized by a letter sent to him by Leibniz. He died in Helmstedt in 1724?

Variant Names: C. D. Koch, Corn. Diet. Koch, Cornelius Didericus Koch, Cornelius Dietericus Koch, Cornelius Dietericus Kochius, and Corneille Theodore Koch

Summary and Analysis

At the beginning of his dissertation, Koch remarks that throughout history learning has originated, flourished, and declined in various parts of the world. Intending to trace the history of learning among the Arabs, he begins by listing the categories of knowledge valued by the pre-Islamic Arabs, namely poetry, rhetoric, astronomy, genealogy, dream interpretation, and medicine. However, he thinks that the advent of Islam

Fate of Learning among the Arabs 255 and their wars of expansion distracted the Arabs from their literary studies. According to him, fifty years or so after Muhammad’s death, learning resumed, this time with a considerable interest in a new category: Islamic law.

Despite this renewed attention to learning, Koch claims that the Arabs had no knowledge of philosophy and, indeed, were discouraged from its study by religious prohibition. Arabs did not hesitate to burn philosophical books in the lands they conquered; Koch recounts the tale of the caliph ‘Umar ordering books from the library of Alexandria to be burned to heat the baths. However, Abu Ja‘far al-Mansur, the twenty-second caliph after Muhammad (and second Abbasid caliph), became a patron of philosophical learning, and the Arabs began to take up the study of philosophy in earnest. After al-Mansur, their interest in philosophy continued. The caliph Hârûn al-Rashîd traveled in the company of a hundred learned men, scholars sought books written by the Greek philosophers and translated them into Arabic, and many universities and libraries were founded throughout the Arab world. Koch compares this favorably with the situation in the West, which “seemed to threaten ruin and destruction for the best letters when barbarousness slowly crept into our minds.” Koch particularly emphasizes the Arab contribution to mathematics, whose notation was used in Europe in his day. Inspired by the works of Aristotle, the Muslims also produced accomplished philosophers of their own, whose names Koch lists from the early Islamic period, unlike Ludewig and Steuchius who also mention later Islamic philosophers, such as Nasïr al-Dïn al-Tusi (d. 1274) as well as Najm al-Din al-Qazwini (d. 1276), the author of popular work Hikmat al-Ayn.

Koch goes on to name some famous Arab patrons of philosophy and learning, including many Abbasid caliphs, to show that philosophy did not lack for official patronage in the Arab world. He attributes the decline of their learning to the general war and chaos which engulfed the Islamic world during the time of Tamerlane, but, strangely, he does not mention the earlier destruction of Baghdad by the Mongols. He says that the various disciplines of learning, such as poetry and history, saw a resurgence among the Persians. Therefore, he presents Persian and Turkish scholars’ preference for writing in Persian instead of Arabic as proof of the decline of learning among Arabs. He ends his dissertation with a statement that it was his original intention to go into detail about the life and doctrine of the Arab philosopher al-Kindi, but that he will leave that task for someone else. Thus, by using the Arabs as an example, Koch’s dissertation leaves the reader with the impression that the state of civilized learning is cyclical, flourishing, and declining according to internal factors, such as religion and official patronage, and external factors, such as war and empire building.




Dn. corn. diet, kochio,









Figure 13.1 Cornelius Dietrich Koch, Dissertatio inauguralis historico-litteraria de fatis studiorum apud Arabes, 1719 (Courtesy of the Bavarian State Library, Munich).

Dissertation on the Fate of Learning among the

Arabs (Helmstedt, 1719)

The nature of human affairs is so fluid that it is no wonder I frequently discover varying transformations in the history of letters. Literature flourished for long intervals of time, so that one would have thought it had risen to perfection. But in a short period, it withered so much that

Fate of Learning among the Arabs 257 it seemed to disappear altogether and be buried with hardly any trace. Once Greece won great praise for its wisdom; its fame fed many men who were conspicuous in their erudition and cultivated the most efficacious disciplines, so that they were a miracle to the whole world. People from outside gathered there, where they became immersed in the precepts of these men. But the happiness of this region, although it cheered its inhabitants over the course of many centuries, could by no means be perpetual and endure until our age. Instead of the old splendor of their belles-lettres, we see now in that same place a certain barbarousness and an ignorance of the best studies.

In turn, the peoples who had once been ignorant of letters, and were not concerned with learning anything from them, became polished in all the delights of the better literature. We Germans are ourselves an example. Indeed, our ancestors are still distinguished in the study of military tactics; but they have left the literary disciplines untouched. As Tacitus’ Germania said “they loved laziness,” which does not lend itself to the literary disciplines. In fact, those poems, whose authors Germans celebrate as their heroes, were without a doubt primitive, and not endowed with native polish. The state of the ancient Germans was so primitive and barbarous that they either did not study letters or treated them with disregard. Therefore, they struggled in any type of learning compared to other people.

We can now examine the vicissitudes that letters underwent among the Arabs as literature moved from the West to the East. Although there is no way that everything I have mentioned can be discussed, I will still touch on the notable moments in the history of letters. Now, if we look back at more ancient times [pre-Islamic Arabia], we must certainly think about how that race fell in love with literature, which we consider the most elegant; astronomy, which is the most undeveloped; and the art of medicine, which they cultivated with the highest care. Abu al-Faraj in History of the Dynasties, which Edward Pococke published in Arabic and Latin, recounts their strongest areas of learning:

The erudition of the (ancient) Arabs, for which they were especially enthusiastic, was this: skill in their own language, propriety in speech, composing poetry, and writing speeches. The rising of the stars was also known to them, and their setting, and likewise how the stars are so positioned so that as one sets the other rises, and what influence the stars have in producing rain. Indeed, they pursued these things with the highest attentiveness and daily experimentation, with which true knowledge is acquired, since their way of life produced practical knowledge of these things.

But in this passage, however notable it is, Abu al-Faraj did not explain the extent of the erudition of the ancient Arabs. Otherwise, he should havealso recalled their study of genealogy and history; the art of interpreting dreams (if indeed this deserves to be called an art, and not instead a cunning and fraudulent semblance); and certainly medicine. It is clear from the testimony of al-Shahrastanl, which Edward Pococke mentions in the preface to the commentary on the poem of al-Tughra’i, where there is a concise mention of “a knowledge of genealogies, histories, and interpreting dreams,” which Arabs studied. In Life of Pythagoras, Porphyry, after the introduction, says that Pythagoras had also gone to Arabia, “where he became acquainted with the knowledge and interpretation of dreams.” Furthermore, the most celebrated al-Harith ibn Kalada, already famous before Muhammad, whose life he influences, proves that medicine had some value among the Arabs. After Ibn Kalada set off to Persia to learn the art of medicine, he made so much progress that he came back to his homeland with such excellent skills in curing diseases that Muhammad himself recommended him to the sick. Therefore, he was held in such high esteem that he was called “the doctor of the Arabs” [tabib al-‘Arab]. His general rule that he prescribed to anyone wanting a long life is wonderful: “If anyone wants to live for a long time, eat in the morning, wear light clothes, and have sex sparingly.” By “light clothes,” Abu al-Faraj thinks that Ibn Kalada is hinting that one should not burden oneself with debt. The Arabs valued poetry most of all and they cultivated it with a fervent enthusiasm. Like the Greeks who enclosed all their wisdom in poetry, the Arabs also expressed every kind of learning in verses, which displayed the splendor of their language. There is a memorable saying of Muhammad ibn Salam: “During the age of ignorance, poems were encyclopedic pandects, the repository of wisdom, from which they drew what was useful to them and where they deposited everything.” Hence, when a unique poet arose among them, he was a common joy to all, a common source of applause, who would keep the nation’s erudition in good shape; indeed, he would increase it, and defend their deeds from oblivion. Thus, we have the old Arab grammarians, poets, orators, astronomers, historians, interpreters of dreams, and doctors.

Through Muhammad’s skills, another religion, or rather superstition, entered the lands of the Arabs; circumstances suddenly changed, and minds were turned away from literary studies. Then, they were clearly obsessed with an insatiable desire to propagate the new religion and to extend the boundaries of their rule. When they were able to achieve this using violence, as usually happens, by constantly restraining the neighboring peoples and also their own countrymen, the Arabs diminished their own power with their all-encompassing religion. For this reason, everyone was converted to the study of arms, which suffocated letters, and destroyed it for a time. With this, the whole nation was at war, some on Muhammad’s side, and some opposing him. And the Muses were drowned out among the din of arms. After about fifty years, these

Fate of Learning among the Arabs 259 conflicts quietened down a bit. Then the ancient studies were resumed, with an additional one added, namely Muhammadan law. This is the time that al-QadT Sa‘id ibn Ahmad al-Andalusi talks about:

In the beginning of Islam, the Arabs cared about no other disciplines than skill in their own language, and knowledge of the constitutions of their law, with the exception of medicine, which some were familiar with, and most did not prohibit because it was universally necessary for men. This was the state of the Arabs under the rule of the Umayyads.

The Umayyads had fourteen caliphs, who succeeded each other in power in an almost unbroken line. Their dynasty was founded by the seventh caliph after Muhammad, called Mu‘awiya, the son of Abu Sufyan, in the year 41/661. But the era of the Umayyads ended with Marwan, the twenty-first caliph, in the year 131/748.

However, the Arabs had not yet applied their minds to the philosophical sciences. Of those who came before Muhammad, Abu al-Faraj says: “God had still granted nothing of philosophy to them, nor had He made them suitable for this study.” Although the author observes that the ancient Arabs were indeed lacking in philosophy, the reason that he proposes is weak. So, did they, who were capable in other disciplines and arts, persuade themselves that their minds were unsuitable for philosophy? Rather, they neglected philosophical studies because they lacked philosophy teachers to reveal the secrets of these sciences to them. Therefore, they dedicated their lives to other occupations and studies. Afterwards, when the laws of Muhammad were so strong in this nation, religion stood in the way of philosophy as he banned them from immersing themselves in this. This is what Ibn Tufayl openly states in his novel Hayy bin Yaqzan, which Pococke published in Arabic and Latin in 1671 at Oxford. When Ibn Tufayl contemplates philosophy, he says that “there were several men among the Arabs who were adept in philosophy, especially of the more sublime kind, but they never dared to profess it openly.” Then, he immediately adds: “The Hanifite school and Muhammadan law forbade men to study philosophy and warned them to beware of it.”2 Perhaps this was in case their minds became more observant through cultivation, and philosophy laid bare the absurdity of Islam and the deceit of Muhammad, and caused men to slowly cease to follow the religion. We also see that the caliphs of the Muslim Arabs observed this ban of Muhammad with such superstitious rigor that they had no fear in destroying with fire and flames the most outstanding philosophical books. Abu al-Faraj tells an illuminating example of this concerning ‘Amr ibn al-‘As, the leader of the Arab army. When he seized Alexandria, the noblest city of Egypt, he was asked by the grammarian Yahya al-NahwI, whom he otherwise favored, to givehim the many philosophical books that were found in the royal library. But ‘Amr ibn al-‘As did not dare to decide on this matter himself, and deferred it to the caliph ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab looking for his judgement. ‘Umar pronounced thus:

Either those books agree with the Qur’an, or they contain doctrines against it. If the former, we will easily get on without them, since one Qur’an is enough, and is equal to all of them. If the latter, they are undoubtedly not to be tolerated, but rather are to be destroyed.

Accepting this response, ‘Amr ibn al-‘As ordered them to be distributed immediately throughout all the baths in Alexandria (of which there were 4000 then in the city) to be burned to heat the baths. In this way they were destroyed in the space of six months. So much did the Arabs despise the eminent sciences of the time, submerged in a deep abyss of ignorance.

But the darkness has its own limits, so that the light can emerge when it was dispelled; and the sciences once oppressed were highly regarded in another time. This indeed happened, when a prince favored the best letters. The Arabs had already caused enough injury and calamities to philosophy, so that it was impossible to succumb to them any longer. So, it was a necessity for some Maecenas [patrons] to rise to redeem philosophy from further contempt and oppression to bring it to the light and treat it with due respect. This man was Abu Ja‘far al-Mansur, the twenty-second caliph after Muhammad, from the family of the Abbasids, a most prudent prince and of the best nature. He was endowed with an admirable spirit and stood out as a great lover of the sciences. Without a doubt, he took pains so that his subjects were roused from their previous stupor, in which they had completely neglected philosophical doctrines, and were inspired to study as much as him. Abu al-Faraj, already deservedly praised so many times, says about this eminent prince:

After God founded the dynasty of the Hashemites, and passed the kingdom to them, their minds were turned from their previous lack of care, and their intellects were awoken from their delinquency. But the first of them, who cared about the sciences, was the caliph Abu Ja‘far al-Mansur, who excelled in law, and also fostered an enthusiasm for studying philosophy and, especially astronomy.

Indeed, it should be noted in this passage that to Abu al-Faraj, the Hashemites were the same people who George Elmacin called the Abbasids. One of their ancestors called Hashem, and all the Saracen princes who descend from him are known as Hashemites. But we should hardly believe that the studies of philosophy were propagated so widely by the auspices of this excellent prince, so that they immediately fully occupied

Fate of Learning among the Arabs 261 their minds with it. Circumstances were such that this would demand not the lifetime of one man, but whole centuries. But the Arabs slowly began to cleanse themselves of their indolence, especially since after Abu Ja‘far al-Mansur, they also enjoyed several caliphs who incited them to seek greater wisdom with their illustrious examples. Among these, the most praiseworthy of all is the fifth caliph of the Abbasids, Harun al-Rashld, who George Elmacin says was the most humane and liberal caliph toward the erudite. He was so captivated with love for the erudite that he never went on a journey without the company of one hundred learned men. Hence, there was a great conflux of them in his court. Elmacin writes: “In no caliph’s court did as many learned men (philosophers), erudite men, and poets meet as in Harun al-Rashld’s court.” [...].

The son of Harun al-Rashid, his father’s sole heir, is given the seventh place among the Abbasids. Known as Abu ‘Abbas al-Ma’mun or Abu Ja‘far ‘Abdallah, he was a prince worthy of eternal remembrance because of his distinguished merits in letters. According to Abu al-Faraj:

His grandfather al-Mansur arose and began to seek knowledge. When corresponding with the Greek kings, al-Ma’mun asked them to send him books on philosophy. When they sent him the books they had, he gathered translators to translate them accurately. When they translated them to the best of their ability, he encouraged men to read them, and expressed his wish that they learn. Al-Ma’mun also had time for learned men and was interested in their disputations. He delighted in their disputations, since he knew that ‘those whom God chose from His creatures were learned and protected his own men from his slaves’.

George Elmacin praises al-Ma’mun “His nature was excellent in every way, liberal, very merciful, and a good ruler.”

Neither was there anyone more erudite, nor more outstanding than him among the Abbasids. He had especially become learned in astronomy and the positions of the winds. Hence, ‘the wind of al-Ma’mun’ is known among those skilled in this science. R. Abraham Sachut also remembers him with a similar eulogy: “Ma’mun bin Rashid loved wisdom (sciences) and wise men (philosophers and mathematicians) and celebrated them.” Also, “In his time, many books were translated from Greek to Arabic.” But a certain Takiddinus fearlessly pronounced thus: “It is possible that God punished al-Ma’mun because he has hindered the Muslims’ piety by introducing the philosophical sciences.” Meanwhile, these testimonies prove that the Arabs had shaken off all their sleepiness in the illustrious disciplines and had begun to compensate for it with a certain dogged industry. Edward Pococke says: “The slower the study of philosophy burst forth, the deeper its roots dug, and at last it reached maturity in happy increments.”

At this time in the West, barbarousness slowly crept into our minds and threatened the ruin and destruction of the best letters (literature). Hence, exhausted with our contempt, literature looked for a home elsewhere in the East, with good success. For there, as we just saw, it straightaway found favor, especially among the Arabs, who welcomed it most humanely and treated it most kindly. They showed literature such honor that in time it gained pleasant dwelling, magnificent mosques, and innumerable worshippers among them. Famous universities were founded in Baghdad, Kufa, and Basra, in which the most learned men gathered. They built well-stocked libraries and the youth competed marvelously over their studies. Once the study of literature was established, their attention turned to other types of letters they had previously overlooked. They studied ornate writing, which we usually call calligraphy, especially after Abu ‘All ibn ‘All ibn Muqla transformed their old, primitive Kufan characters into something much more elegant. “For he was a famous author of (modern) writing, and he was the first to translate the foreign Kufan writing into something useful to the Arabs.” Following the example of their elders, they excessively loved the humanities. The fertile crop of their most genius poets, such as al-Mutanabbi, and Abu al-‘Ala’ al-Ma‘arn, and their most subtle grammarians, such as Abu al-‘Abbas Ahmad ibn Yahya and Malek, and their most eloquent orators, such as Hariri of Basra, and finally their most accurate geographers, such as Abu al-Fida’ and their historians, such as ‘All ibn al-Athir al-Jazari and Abu Ja‘far al-Tabari, proves this sufficiently. Arabs also cultivated the more sublime disciplines with accurate diligence and also demonstrated how sharp their minds were in these as well.

Nor are the Arabs enemies of the sciences, but for seventy whole years have been most studious not only in war, but in art as well, throughout almost the whole of Africa and Asia, and also a kingdom of Europe, Spain, which they then held sway in, darlings of Mars and Minerva. Indeed, although we were very barbarous, they themselves were very studious and instructed in prestigious universities in each of their most noble cities, Morocco, Fez, Istanbul, Tunis, Tripoli, Alexandria, Cairo, and others. Nor were they names without substance. One could hardly speak of any science that their most distinguished professors, of which there were many in any university, had not produced the most accomplished works.

Although we know that the Arabs began to pursue the sciences in the time of al-Ma’mun, there is still no agreement on the extent of their contributions. Philosophy and mathematics especially flourished in Arab schools. Indeed, no one will doubt this if one bears in mind that the best Greek writers were translated from Greek into Arabic, among whom were Euclid, Plato, Ptolemy. Pococke says that “it was barely one

Fate of Learning among the Arabs 263 hundred years ago before we read any Greek philosopher, mathematician, or doctor that had not been translated from Arabic.” But what use would these translations have been, if we did not learn the mathematical disciplines? No one denies that there were mathematicians among us, and it is certain that mathematical sciences, especially astronomy and algebra, were transmitted to us by the Arabs. Are there not enough examples of Arab contributions, which still today are frequently cited in the school of mathematics? According to Johann Gravius, Arab works on mathematics were translated into Latin for the first time when Alfonso X, King of Castile and Leon, sponsored the Alfonsine Tables by Hebrews, Moors, and Arabs, whom he had gathered together. This occurred in about the middle of the thirteenth century. There was a reward for explaining certain foreign words since it mattered to the Republic of Letters to know the origins of these words. The word “zenith” is the most overused among astronomers, although it is used wrongly, because it denotes “the point of the sky lying opposite to our pole.” This word is derived from Arabic samt, which properly signifies a “way” or a “course” in general. If samt is joined to the word ar-ra’s, so that it reads Arabic samt ar-ra’s (i.e., “the course of the pole”), then it indicates the point just defined, which the Arabs assigned to the circle of the horizon as if it were the pole. The same word joined with the Arabic article al, placed before nouns, denotes the same as the Greek ho, he, to, giving a new word to mathematicians: Arabic as-samt, i.e., “the way,” corrupted to Azimut, with a very different meaning than before. For that word usually denotes “the arc of the horizon, which is between the vertical circle, in which the sun or another star turns, and in which the meridian of another location is contained.” Jacob Golius explains it otherwise, because he thinks it is “a region or point on the horizon, and a circle pertaining to it from a pole in the sky.” A nadir, on the other hand, denotes “the zenith (i.e. samt}, a course, or point in the sky lying opposite to our feet.” But there is an Arabic word Nadzir or Nazir, which properly signifies “the thing that looks to the other, and lies opposite to the same,” from the word nazar, “looked back at, positioned from a region.” Another noun, with the same sense, is called samt al-qadam, a “course of a foot.” Algebra, the name for the most outstanding mathematical discipline, equally owes its origin to the Arabs. They have the word jabr, which means “the broken whole restored.” Hence, jabr or with the article al-jabr, from which Algebra is formed: “a restoration of the broken to wholeness, a mathematical analysis.” This is its special function “to reduce the terms for comparison to a desired form of equation; and especially to restore the parts of the same to a whole.”

Hieronymus Cardanus [Gerolamo Cardano] says that a certain Arab, called Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizml, was the author of the science of Algebra, and took the name Algebraicus. The name Almagesti, which denotes Ptolemy’s great work, is also known to mathematicians,

especially astronomers. But this word does not get its origin from Arabic, but rather Greek. For it seems to be corrupted in the Arabs’ schools from megale syntaxis megiste; to which they add the article and say Almagest. We should note that this work was also translated with other Greek writings in the time of al-Ma’mun. If anyone wants to know why these foreign words were not translated into Latin, I think that it was because they could not be easily expressed with one Latin word.

Now, I turn from the mathematical sciences to philosophy, in which the Arabs excelled as well. This is demonstrated by the many great philosophers that arose among them. For anyone who wishes to know about them in detail, I recommend Hottinger’s Bibliotheca Orientalis, as he recounts histories of a great many of them. They had so much enthusiasm for the precepts of Aristotle’s philosophy that they had all of his works translated into Arabic. They also translated several commentaries on Aristotle’s works; however, I do not believe that translations reflected the “true Aristotle.” This man, Aristotle, of course, influenced some Arabic philosophers whose names are renowned. Such men (to leave aside al-Kindl, who I will expand on later) were: al-Farabi, the miracle of the third and fourth centuries after hijra; Abu al-Qasim al-Junayd ibn Muhammad ibn al-Junayd, who lived in the third century of hijra; Avicenna, famous in the fourth and fifth centuries after hijra; Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali, who they honor by calling “the proof of religion and the ornament of Islam,” the ornament of the fifth century after hijra; Ebno’l Sajeg or Abu Bakr Mohammed Ebn Johja Ebno-Sajeg, a most intelligent man, who was the honor of the sixth century; Averroës, or Ibn Rushd, who illuminated the shore of Africa with his light also in the sixth century of hijra. Among them, Avicenna and Averroes especially are so famous that anyone who dabbles even lightly in the history of philosophy knows their names. They say that Emperor Frederick II invited Averroes to Europe and took pains to have Avicenna’s books and those by many other Arab writers on every science brought by him. But I think that this was Frederick I, Barbarossa, since Aegidius Roma-nus [Giles of Rome] testifies that he saw Averroes’ two sons in his court. Besides this coincides better with the time period, since historians say that Frederick I died in the year 1190, though Averroes died in the year of hijra 595, which corresponds to 1198. From this, it is clear that they were the same age.

Arabs also had notable doctors that they could boast of, Avicenna and Averroes, who I just now presented among the philosophers. Their works are still to this day esteemed by many doctors. Guerner Rolfinck, a doctor in Jena, wrote marginal notes found in the book Institutiones medicas on Avicenna. In these, Rolfinck demonstrated his high regard for Arab doctors as he wrote that there was much to learn from them. I am silent about the Arabs’ jurisprudence and theology, neither of which they neglected, but inquiry and disputation were not encouraged

Fate of Learning among the Arabs 265 by Muhammad’s doctrines and laws. From these, I think it is evident that the Arabs were consistently zealous in mathematics, philosophy, and other disciplines after al-Ma’mün, and they were not content with elegant literature alone.

Thus, from the previous evidence, it seems that literary study had a kind fate among the Arabs. Now I especially want to point out some favorers, patrons, and incubators, who were particularly celebrated after al-Mamun. The first is the ninth caliph of the Abbasids, Harun al-Wathiq Bi’llah Abu Ja‘far, in the year 227/841, who held power and “loved poetry, and rewarded it, and imitated al-Ma’mün in most of his ways.” Under him, al-Hasan, a celebrated astrologer, wrote a book Kitab al-Anwar (The Book of Lights). Al-Wathiq’s brother, Ja‘far Mutawakkil succeeded him from 231/845 on. [...]. Under his rule, the Christian doctor, Hunayn ibn Ishaq, found fame.

Later, ‘Abd Allah Muqtadir Billah became caliph in 296/908. He “was an outstanding poet, and the eloquent author of the Similitudes, which was of a unique nature, as nobody had published anything like it before.” The most praiseworthy is the twentieth caliph of the Abbasids, Ahmad Abü al-‘Abbas al-Rádi Billah, who took the reins of empire in 322/933, and is particularly praised by Elmacin as “munificent, liberal, erudite, and a poet of great eloquence, rejoicing in the presence and conversation of erudite men, and endowed with many virtues.” Under him, the Christian dialectician Matta b. Yunus, very skilled in the art of logic, flourished. In around the middle of the century, the emperor Sayf al-Dawla also held erudite men in high honor, since he himself was learned. His house was “a synagogue of learned men,” and his court “a refuge for the erudite and the poets.” He loved Mutanabbi above others, a most elegant poet, who sang his praises in seven poems. Nor did he cherish al-Fárábl any less, a renowned philosopher, often praised by Maimonides, who came to the court in the year of hijra 343. At the same time, Kafur Akshidi, a ruler of Egypt, proved himself as a great patron to the erudite, who “invited all learned and distinguished men to his court including poets, such Mutanabbi,” by whom he was no less praised in a special poem than Sayf al-Dawla. In almost the end of the fifth century of hijra (in the eleventh century after Christ), the twenty-seventh caliph of the Abbasids, ‘Abd Allah Abü al-Qasim al-Muqtadl Billah, “the most studious of learned men,” himself an excellent poet, nurtured good letters. His successor, Ahmad Abü al-‘Abbas al-Mustadhir Billah, followed his example, and showed that he was no less “a lover of the erudite.” He died in 512/1118. These individual examples confirm that the Arabs did not lack the best caliphs, who wondrously promoted the study of letters with their favor, munificence and rewards, and produced so many diligent practitioners.

Thus, the Arabs’ progress in the sciences was continuous until the age of Timur, commonly known as Tamerlane, which covered the eighth and ninth centuries of hijra (Timur came to power in the year hijra 771

and died in 807, the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries of Christ). There were still some distinguished erudite men among the Arabs when Timur was ravaging the East as he pleased, and flooding everything like a tidal wave. Slowly their minds began to detach from their former passion for letters, as they were concerned whether they could hold back the invader’s attack with their force of arms and be safe from his injustices and tyranny. Although I do not want to imply that no trace of their studies remained among the Arabs, it is certain that the center of scientific learning was removed to the land of Tartars. The Persians now applied themselves to literature as they had before, as well as poetry and history; astronomy was not completely neglected either.

Hence, we see a resurgence of the most elegant poets; Hafez, who sang about divine love, deserves the most praise. His handwritten poetic work is kept in the library of Orphanotropheus Halensis. Emir Shah, commonly known as Khondemir, famous in the beginning of the tenth century of hijra, stands out among their historians as the most effusive writer of global history. If his work had been known it would have poured out the distinguished light of Eastern history, a small part of which I am still ignorant of. According to the astronomical writing of Persian Mahmud Shäh Khuljl, published by Johann Gravius, the Persians were strong in astronomy. Also, the Tartars applied themselves to mathematics and astronomy in particular. Astronomers still gratefully celebrate to this day the works of Ulugh Beg, prince of the Tartars, grandson of Tamerlane. His geographical tables, in which he assigns his measurements of latitude and longitude to more noble cities, were published by Johann Gravius in London in 1652. [In the future], I will expound on the condition of literature in today’s Turkish Empire, and then in Tartary, since there is much information available [on this subject].

Indeed, my intention in this treatise was to show some examples of Arabic erudition, especially of the philosopher al-Kindl, explaining his life and philosophy at length; but it seems best to leave that exercise to another man, to be undertaken soon, God willing. That is all.


  • 1 Koch’s biography was compiled from the following sources: Johann Heinrich Zedler (ed.), “Koch, Cornelius Dietrich,” in Grosses vollständiges Universal-Lexicon aller Wissenschafften und Künste, vol. 15 (Leipzig, 1737), 1186; Christian Gottlieb Jöcher, Allgemeines Gelehrten-Lexicon, vol. 2 (Leipzig, 1750), 2131-2; and Julia Hauser, “Koch, Cornelius Dietrich,” in The Bloomsbury Dictionary of Eighteenth-Century German Philosophers, 430.
  • 2 [MK] On the significance of Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy b. Yaqzän in the post-classical Islamic intellectual history, see Mehmet Karabela, “Cedel ile Burhan arasmda: ibn Tufeyl’in Hayy b. Yakzän adh eseri iizerinden klasik dönem sonrasi Islam düsünce tarihini okumak,” Ankara Üniversitesi Hahi-yat Fakültesi Dergisi 54/2 (2013): 77-93.
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