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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 9    Issue 2   01-15 June 2014

Fuat Sezgin

Fuat Sezgin, 89, is the world’s greatest living authority on the monumental contribution of Islamic civilization to the advancement of science and technology.

By Professor A. R. MOMIN

Fuat Sezgin, now Professor Emeritus of the History of Natural Sciences at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, was born in Bitlis in eastern Turkey on October 24, 1924. He graduated from the faculty of literature at Istanbul University in 1947. An encounter with Hellmut Ritter, a highly respected German Orientalist, at Istanbul University in 1943 proved to be a turning point in young Sezgin’s career and life.

Hellmut Ritter

Hellmut Ritter was born in Lichtenau, Germany on February 27, 1892. His father was a Protestant pastor. Gerhard Ritter, the famous German historian, was his elder brother. Ritter studied under Carl Brockelmann in Halle and Theodor Noeldeke in Strasbourg and served as a research assistant in Persian of Carl Heinrich Becker at Hamburg.

Carl Brockelmann (1868-1956) was a renowned German Orientalist who made a highly significant contribution to Arabic and Islamic studies. In his monumental work Geschichte der Arabischen Litteratur (in 5 volumes, 1937-49), Brockelmann provided a detailed inventory of thousands of Arabic, Persian and Turkish manuscripts.

Ritter received his doctoral degree at the age of 22 in 1914. During World War I, he served as an interpreter in Turkish, Persian and Arabic for the German staff of the Ottoman army in Iraq and Palestine. In 1919, when he was 27, Ritter was appointed a professor of Oriental languages at the University of Hamburg. He had a special interest in Sufism and Persian literature. In 1923 he published a German translation of Ghazali’s celebrated work Kimaiya-e-Sa’adat. In 1927 he published Uber die Bilderprache Nizamis, a critical study of metaphor in Nizami’s poetry.

In 1926 Ritter was awarded a fellowship to pursue further studies in Persian literature and Islamic mysticism. He chose to travel to Istanbul for the purpose. He was greatly fascinated by the immensely rich collection of Arabic, Persian and Turkish manuscripts in the libraries of Istanbul and stayed there from 1926 to 1949. In 1933 Ataturk closed down the old Ottoman University or Darul Funun in Istanbul, established by Sultan Abdul Hamid II in 1900, and replaced it by a modern, Western-style university, which later came to be known as Istanbul University. A number of German scholars were appointed to teach at the new university. In 1935 Ritter was offered a lecturer’s post in Arabic and Persian at the university. In 1937, when the Oriental Institute (Sarkiyat Enstitusu) was established in Istanbul, Ritter was appointed its first director. He was entrusted with the responsibility of training a new breed of Turkish scholars who would study Islamic traditions and the Turkish legacy with the European methods of scholarship.

Ritter was a scholar of profound and encyclopaedic learning. He wrote 26 books and more than 100 learned articles on Persian, Arabic and Turkish poetry and Islamic mysticism. Between 1928 and 1961 Ritter published “Philologika,” a series of 16 erudite articles, in which he provided a detailed description of scores of highly important manuscripts in the libraries of Istanbul. These included the works of Ibn al-Nadim, Ansar Haravi, Sanai Ghaznavi, Fariduddin Attar and Jalaluddin Rumi. He also edited and published Abul Hasan al-Asha’ri’s Maqalat al-Islamiyin and Navbakhti’s Firaq al-Shi’a. Ritter also established an institution, Bibliotheca Islamica, for the purpose of publishing important texts on Sufism, which received grants from the German government. Ritter’s magnum opus Das Meer der Seele: Mensch, Welt und Gott in den Geschichten des Fariduddin Attar (The Ocean of the Soul: Men, the World and God in the Stories of Fariduddin Attar) was published from Leiden in 1955.

In 1948 Ritter returned to Germany. In 1956 he travelled to Istanbul again and resumed teaching at Istanbul University. Ritter was elected a corresponding member of the Arab Academy of Damascus as well as a member of the British Academy. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by Istanbul University. He died at the age of 79 in 1971.

Sezgin’s Tutelage under Ritter

Sezgin came in contact with Ritter when he was a student at Istanbul University. During one of Ritter’s lectures Sezgin asked him if there were any great Muslim mathematicians in the past. Ritter told him, to his great surprise, that “there were as many great mathematicians in the Islamic world as in Greece and in Europe.” After the lecture, Ritter took him aside and urged him to read the works of Al-Khwarizmi, Ibn Yunus and Ibn al-Haytham in order to broaden his knowledge of mathematics. “I had never heard of them,” Sezgin recalls. Ritter also lent him some books from his personal collection. Sezgin stayed up all night reading the books that his teacher had lent him. The next day Ritter took him to the Topkapi Saray Library and showed him some of the monumental works of Muslim scientists, including Al-Jazari’s Kitab fi-ma’rifat al-hiyal al-hindasiyah (The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices). Recalling this exciting moment, Sezgin says, “I decided right then and there that (the history of Islamic science) was the research I wanted to dedicate my life to….This was the time that I was born again.” Ritter, however, warned Sezgin that the pursuit of a scholarly career was not a soft option and emphasised that he would have to work for at least 17 hours a day to realise his cherished dream.

Sezgin decided to work under Ritter for his doctoral dissertation. He selected “Buharinin Kaynaklari” (The Sources of Al-Bukhari’s Sahih) as the subject of his research, which he completed in 1954. The subject of Sezgin’s research was of great significance. Western Orientalists claimed that the Traditions of the Prophet (Hadith) were transmitted orally from generation to generation for well over two centuries, that the process of oral transmission undermined their authenticity and reliability, and that they were committed to writing after a lapse of over two centuries. This claim has been found to be without substance. The narration and transmission of Hadith was effected, simultaneously, through the complementary processes of memorization, oral transmission and writing. The Prophet’s Companions took great care in the narration and transmission of Hadith because he warned that one who deliberately attributed a false or fabricated statement to him would find his abode in hell. A substantial part of the corpus of Hadith was committed to writing during the lifetime of the Prophet. The constitution of Madinah was committed to writing at the Prophet’s instance. A large number of official documents, including letters sent to kings and rulers, treaties, charters and instructions to officials, were written down at the instance of the Prophet and were transmitted from generation to generation. The texts of nearly 400 documents have been preserved and published. At least five of the original letters of the Prophet, which bear his official seal, are extant. Historians have mentioned the names of at least 50 Companions, including some women, who wrote down Hadith. Some of them, such as Abu Hurayra and Abdullah ibn Amr ibn al-A’s, meticulously collected Hadith and passed on their valuable collections to their descendants and pupils. Abdullah ibn Amr ibn al-A’s, for example, collected over 10,000 Hadith, with the Prophet’s permission, which he called Al-sahifa al-sadiqa. Abu Hurayra compiled a collection of about 150 Hadith for his pupil Hammam ibn Munabbih (d. 101 AH/719 CE). The collection, known as Sahifa Hammam ibn Munabbih, has survived the ravages of time and has been edited and published by Muhammad Hamidullah. Urwa ibn Zubayr (d. 93 AH/711 CE), a companion of the Prophet, wrote a treatise on the biography of the Prophet on the basis of oral as well as written sources.

The narration, transmission, writing and compilation of Hadith continued with added dedication in the subsequent period. Caliph Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz (d. 101AH/719 CE) sent instructions to the governors of various provinces to make serious efforts to collect Hadith from authoritative and reliable sources. Some of the earliest collections of Hadith, which have fortunately survived the vicissitudes of time and have been published in recent decades, include the Muwatta of Imam Malik (d. 179 AH/795 CE), Kitab al-zuhd war-raqaiq of Abdullah ibn al-Mubarak (d.181 AH/797 CE), the Musannaf of Abd al-Razzaq (d. 211 AH/826 CE), the Musannaf of Ibn abi Shayba (d. 211 AH/826 CE) and the Musnad of al-Humaydi (d. 240 AH/854 CE). The earliest extant biography of the Prophet, whose incomplete text has have survived the ravages of time and which was edited and published by Muhammad Hamidullah in 1976, is that of Ibn Ishaq (d. 151 AH/768 CE).

Sezgin convincingly showed that while compiling an authoritative compendium of Hadith, Imam Bukhari relied mainly on written sources of Hadith, and not just on oral narrations, as Western Orientalists wrongly and mischievously suggested.

Sezgin was appointed a professor at Istanbul University in 1955. In 1958 he established, in association with Zeki Velidi Togan, a Turkish historian, the Islamic Sciences Research Institute in Istanbul. On May 27, 1960, the Turkish military, which considered itself the custodian of Ataturk’s secularist legacy, staged a coup and overthrew the government. The military leaders detained and tortured a large number of people who were suspected of having Islamic leanings. Two of Sezgin’s brothers were arrested and 147 professors from Istanbul University, including Sezgin, were sacked. In 1961 Sezgin bid a tearful adieu to his beloved city and migrated to Frankfurt, where he got an appointment as a visiting lecturer at the University of Frankfurt. He completed a post-doctoral dissertation on the history of Arabic and Islamic sciences in 1965 and in the same year he was appointed as a professor at the University of Frankfurt. He is now Professor Emeritus of the History of Natural Sciences at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt. In addition, he is the Director of the Institute of the History of Arabic-Islamic Sciences at the university.

Sezgin’s Monumental Contributions

Sezgin has devoted more than half a century to documenting and highlighting the intellectual legacy of Islamic civilization and the contribution of Muslims to the advancement of science and technology. Five aspects of Sezgin’s outstanding contributions are particularly note-worthy. First, he has provided an authoritative and comprehensive account of the seminal and wide-ranging contributions of Muslim scientists. Second, he has provided a cogent refutation of the widely prevalent Eurocentric view that the history of science should begin with the ancient Greeks and then the Renaissance. Third, Sezgin has documented and projected the debt that science and technology in the West owe to the ingenious researches and innovations of Muslim scientists, physicians, astronomers, cartographers, mathematicians, geographers and engineers. Fourth, he has espoused a balanced and critical view of the contributions of Western Orientalists to Islamic studies. He has appreciated their efforts and role in recognizing and highlighting the contribution of Muslims to the advancement of science and technology. At the same time, however, he has painstakingly identified and corrected the misrepresentations in the Western narrative of the history of science. Finally, he has projected and highlighted the contribution of Muslims to the advancement of science and technology through the establishment of two innovative museums in Frankfurt and Istanbul.

History of Islamic Science

While Sezgin was a student at Istanbul University he read Carl Brockelmann’s five-volume work Geschichte der Arabischen Litteratur (History of Arabic Literature). Sezgin noticed that despite its fairly comprehensive coverage, Brockelmann’s work left out many important Islamic manuscripts. Sezgin decided to fill up the lacuna in Brockelmann’s work. He undertook extensive travels to Germany and other parts of Europe, Africa, Russia the Middle East and India to search for Islamic manuscripts. In the course of his travels to more than 60 countries around the world, Sezgin tracked down more than 400,000 Islamic manuscripts.

A painstaking study of thousands of Islamic manuscripts led him to embark on the ambitious project of the history of science and technology in the Islamic world and its pervasive impact on European science. In 1967 he published the first volume of his monumental and truly magnificent work Geschichte des Arabischen Schrifttums. It was widely appreciated and applauded by the scholarly world. Till date, 15 volumes of this monumental work have been published. They deal with a wide range of subjects, including chemistry, physics, astronomy, medicine, biology, mathematics, optics, geography, cartography, and engineering and technology. Sezgin plans to publish the 16th and 17th volumes in the series, which will be devoted to Arabic literature, sometime in 2015. In addition to this masterpiece, Sezgin has edited the Journal for the History of Arabic-Islamic Sciences since 1984.

Sezgin’s works are not confined to a mere recounting of the wide-ranging contributions of Muslim scientists to the advancement of science and technology but are suffused with original discoveries, perceptive insights and highly creative ideas. In 1948 he discovered at Istanbul’s Topkapi Library a copy of a landmark global map drawn for the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mamun in the 9th century. It gives the first really accurate representations of longitude and the circumference of the earth. The astronomers in Al-Mamun’s court correctly depicted the Atlantic and Indian Oceans as open bodies of water, not land-locked seas, as Ptolemy had mistakenly suggested. Sezgin has convincingly argued that Muslim seafarers had reached the Americas in about 1420 CE, many centuries before Columbus.

Sezgin has convincingly shown that the history of science and medicine can be traced, several centuries before the European Renaissance, to China, India and the Islamic world, that Muslim scientists were forerunners of the European Renaissance, and that the development of science, medicine and technology in Renaissance Europe owed a great deal to the seminal and path-breaking researches, discoveries and inventions of Muslim scientists.

Sezgin points out that “until the 18th century, eighty per cent of the history of cartography dated from the medieval Islamic period, and only twenty per cent came from the ancient Greeks and the later European sources.” In the Middle Ages, Chinese and Korean maps used Arab, not European, place names, he adds.

Theft of the History of Islamic Science

In his stimulating and deftly argued book The Theft of History (2006), Jack Goody uses an evocative metaphor -- the ‘theft of history’-- to describe a particularly iniquitous aspect of Eurocentrism. The theft of history, according to Goody, refers to the take-over or expropriation of history by the West. He says: “The past is conceptualized and presented according to what happened on the provincial scale of Europe, often Western Europe, and then imposed upon the rest of the world.” The theft of history, according to Goody, is reflected in the widely-held view among Western intellectuals and historians that some of the key institutions of modern times, such as science, democracy, mercantile capitalism and modernity, were invented in Europe. Goody argues that Europe has deliberately neglected or underplayed the history of the rest of the world, as a consequence of which it has misinterpreted much of its own history. He states that the claim that these institutions originated in Europe is historically untenable, and the fact of the matter is that they can be found over a much more widespread range of human societies.

I would like to carry Goody’s brilliant argument a little further and draw attention to what may be termed as the theft of the history of Islamic science in the Western context. The theft of the history of Islamic science and medicine is vividly reflected in the plagiarism and expropriation of the researches, discoveries, instruments and devices invented by Muslim scientists by European scientists and scholars in the medieval period, in the fraudulent claims of authorship of books and treatises written by Muslim scientists, and in claims of originality and precedence for European scientists over scientific and medical discoveries made by Muslim scientists and physicians in earlier times. Sezgin has brilliantly analyzed the contours of the theft of the history of Islamic science in medieval Europe.

Some of the highly important works in medicine that were written by Muslim physicians and were translated into Latin were wrongly attributed to Galen and other Greek physicians. Thus, Ishaq ibn Imran’s work Kitab al-Malaykhuliya and Ibn al-Jazzar’s book Kitan al-Bah were attributed to Galen (d. 200 CE) and Alexander of Tralles (d. 605 CE) for centuries. It was only in the first half of the 20th century that this theft of the history of science was brought to light. Ibn Sina’s book Kitab al-ahjar was wrongly attributed to Aristotle. Raymundus Lullus (d. 1315) resisted, without success, the dissemination of Islamic science in Europe. He fraudulently claimed the authorship of some books in chemistry and other branches of sciences which were actually written by Muslim scientists.

Ibn al-Nafis (d. 1288) was the first scientist who discovered and described the coronary vessels and the pulmonary circulation. He contradicted Galen, who held that blood passes from one side of the heart to the other through septal pores. In one of his major works, Sharh tashrih al-Qanun, Ibn al-Nafis argued that there are no pores in the cardiac septum, and that blood flows from the right side of the heart via the pulmonary artery to the lung, where it is aerated and purified in the alveoli. It then returns via the pulmonary veins to the left part of the heart.

Andreas Alpagus (1522), who was a professor at Padua University in Italy and was a great admirer of the contributions of Muslim scientists and physicians, learnt Arabic, undertook extensive travels to Islamic lands and stayed in Damascus for nearly 30 years. In the course of his stay in Damascus, he delved into the treasures of Arabic learning and translated many Arabic works on science and medicine into Latin. One of these translated works was Sharh tashrih al-Qanun of Ibn al-Nafis. This translation was printed in Venice in 1547. Shortly after the publication of the translation, half a dozen works written by European scientists described the pulmonary circulation exactly the way it was described by Ibn al-Nafis, but without acknowledging the source. In 1553, Michael Servitus described the pulmonary circulation in his book Christianismi Restitutu and claimed it as his own discovery. Similarly, the second edition of Vesalius’s book De Humani Corporis Fabrica described the pulmonary circulation, which was evidently lifted from the Latin translation of Ibn al-Nafis’s work. Interestingly, the first edition of Vesalius’s book, printed in 1542, did not mention this ‘discovery’. In the same way, the works of Valvarde (1554), Cesalpino (1554), Realdo Colombo (1558) and William Harvey (1628) described the pulmonary circulation, without revealing the source.

Vesalius, who is credited with the discovery of the pulmonary circulation in Western accounts of the history of science, was quite familiar with the works of Muslim scientists and physicians, through Latin translations as well as the original Arabic works. He had a fairly good knowledge of Arabic and had even translated a part of Al-Razi’s celebrated work Kitab al-Mansuri in Latin.

For nearly three centuries, the discovery of the pulmonary circulation was attributed to the English biologist William Harvey. In 1924, an Egyptian physician, who was studying medicine at Albert Ludwig University in Germany, discovered a manuscript of Ibn al-Nafis’s book Sharh tashrih al-Qanun. A close study of the manuscript revealed that Ibn al-Nafis had accurately described the pulmonary circulation three hundred years before Harvey.

Constantine the African (d. 1087) was a Christian Arab merchant of Algiers who had a keen interest in Arabic works in science and medicine. He travelled to Italy and brought from there many Arabic books written by Muslim scientists and translated some of them into Latin. He not only suppressed the names of the Muslim authors of the books he translated but also shamelessly attributed their authorship to Greek writers and even to himself. For nearly two centuries, Ali ibn Musa’s book Kamil al-sinaa al-tibbiyya was considered to be a work of Constantine the African.

Michael Scott (d. 1235), who knew Arabic and was fascinated by the works of Muslim scientists, translated some Arabic works on science and medicine into Latin. These included the work of Nur al-Din al-Batruji on astronomy and Ibn Rushd’s commentaries on some of Aristotle’s works. He then rehashed the contents of some of these books into a new book and attributed its authorship to Nicolaus Damascenus, who lived in the first century CE.

The discovery of camera obscura in optics, spherical triangles in mathematics and Jacob’s Staff in astronomy is attributed to the French mathematician and astronomer Levi Ben Gerson (d. 1344). In reality, these discoveries were made by Muslim mathematicians, scientists and astronomers centuries before Gerson. Strangely, people who perpetrated this scientific fraud did not care to reflect as to how a single person could have made such amazing discoveries in three distinct fields of science.

The Arabic works on science and medicine that were translated into Latin in the medieval period included the commentaries of Muslim scientists and physicians on the works of the Greek botanist Dioscorides, who lived in the first century CE. The translators attributed the commentaries, which contained valuable botanical information, to Dioscorides, and not to Muslim scientists. Some fair-minded European historians of science, such as Cumston, have noted that many of the medicinal herbs and substances attributed to Dioscorides were in fact of Islamic origin.

Albertus Magnus (d. 1280) is considered the father of several sciences, including botany, zoology, chemistry and meteorology. It was believed, until recently, that his scientific knowledge was derived from classical Greek sources. It has now come to light that he was ignorant of Greek and that he became familiar with Aristotle’s ideas through the commentaries of Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina on Aristotle’s works. The Italian scholar Robertus Grosseteste (d. 1253) is considered the most influential defender and exponent of Aristotle in Europe. Historians of science have now discovered that he had no direct access to Aristotle’s original works and that his writings on Aristotle were almost entirely based on the commentaries of Arab scientists on Aristotle’s works.

Western historians of science generally maintain that the foundations of trigonometry as an independent science were laid by the German mathematician and astronomer Regiomontanus (d. 1476). Fuat Sezgin has convincingly argued that the real credit for founding trigonometry goes to Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (d. 1274).

It is generally believed that Roger Bacon (d. 1292) was the founder of the experimental method in science. In the 19th century, C. Prantil (d. 1893) took exception to this view and argued that Bacon was greatly influenced by the views of Muslim scientists, mathematicians and physicists, including Ibn al-Haytham, Al-Razi, Ibn Zuhr and Al-Zahrawi, who emphasized, centuries before Bacon, that the experimental method was at the heart of scientific research. Prantil’s argument was supported by E. Wiedemann and M. Schramm, who pointed out that the credit for the invention of the experimental should indeed go to Muslim scientists.

The most important factor in the theft of Islamic science and medicine in the West that has been outlined in the foregoing was a deeply entrenched feeling of prejudice, antipathy and hostility towards Islam. A set of ideological, political and cultural factors, including the legacy of the Crusades, confrontations with the Ottoman Empire, the ideology of white supremacy and European colonialism, have been responsible for the misrepresentation of Islam and Islamic civilization.

Institute for the History of Arab-Islamic Sciences Theft

In 1978 Sezgin was awarded the King Faisal Prize for Islamic Sciences. In 1982 he established the Institut fur Geschichte der Arabish-Islamischen Wissenschaften (Institute for the History of Arabic-Islamic Sciences) at Goethe University in Frankfurt. He donated the entire prize money ($97,000) to the Institute. In 1983 he established at the same Institute a unique museum, where more than 800 replicas and models of scientific, surgical, mathematical and astronomical instruments and devices made by Muslim scientists in the Golden Age of Islamic Science (750 to 1100 CE) are on display. The replicas and models at the museum, which occupies two floors of a three-storey villa on the campus of Goethe University, include astrolabes, water-lifting machines, automatons, surgical devices and instruments, globes, maps, clocks, balances and astronomical and navigational instruments. Some of the models were designed by Mahmut Inci, a Turkish-born designer, Ayman Mohammed Ali Ibrahim, an instrument-maker in Cairo, and Martin Brunold, a Swiss clock-maker. The villa that houses the museum was purchased and donated by the Emir of Kuwait, Jaber al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah.

The catalogue of the museum, Science et Technique en Islam, which has been published in five volumes in German, French, Arabic, Turkish and English, offers detailed descriptions as well as photographs of the replicas of instruments and devices.

Among the most amazing inventions made by Muslim scientists were clocks and timepieces. The museum has a model of a 13th century clock from Toledo, Spain, which has hands that move as mercury shifts from compartment to compartment around a wheel. The mercury rotates the wheel through a 24-hour cycle. The clock also represents an astrolabe that indicates the position of the sun and the stars. There are 38 models of astrolabes made of wood and brass, which were designed at different points of time and in various parts of the Islamic world. There is a model of a 12th century world map, drawn by Muhammad al-Idrisi for Roger II, the Norman king of Sicily. In one of the rooms of the museum, replicas of ten astronomical instruments, designed by the 16th century Danish astronomer Tyco Brahe, are on display. These instruments were modeled on instruments that were designed by Muslim astronomers at the Maragha observatory in northwestern Persia in the 13th century.


Sezgin set up a similar museum in Istanbul, known as the Istanbul Museum of the History of Science and Technology in Islam. The museum, located at Gulhane Park in Istanbul and spread over 3500 square metres, was inaugurated by the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2008. Sezgin has donated his personal collection of 5000 Islamic manuscripts to the Istanbul museum.

Some Exhibits at Istanbul Museum

(Sources of photographs: Prof. Dr. Fuat Sezgin Research Foundation for the History of Science in Islam, Istanbul, and Islam Bilim ve Teknoloji Tarihi Muzesi Mudurlugu, Istanbul)

Professor Sezgin has received several honours and awards in recognition of his outstanding contributions. He received the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany and the King Faisal International Prize in 1978. He was the recipient of an honorary doctorate from the International Islamic University, Malaysia. In 2012 a square in Turkey’s capital Ankara was named after him. An institute in honour of Sezgin, called Professor Dr Fuat Sezgin Research Foundation for the History of Science in Islam, was established in Istanbul in August 2010. The institute’s primary objective is to promote awareness about the scientific legacy of Islamic civilization.

Though Professor Sezgin has spent the greater part of his life in Germany, he has retained his Turkish citizenship and has declined the offer of German citizenship from the German government.

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