White Supremacism and Islamic Astronomy in History of Astronomy Texts from the Eighteenth Century to the Present Day

Source: The Muslim Heritage

By Joe Lockard

This paper reviews manifestations of racism in European and American histories of Arab and Persian astronomy from the eighteenth century to the present day. Its first section discusses the representation of Islamic astronomy from Adam Smith to late Victorian writers, particularly tracing ideas of Arab unoriginality and scientific incapacity. The second section first relates the appearance of scientific racism in the early twentieth-century historiography of astronomy, then how the rise of scientifically and linguistically competent scholarship in the latter twentieth century provided much-improved information on Islamic achievements in astronomy. The paper’s conclusion underlines the importance of avoiding ethnic supremacism and integrating research on Islamic astronomy into teaching and publishing on the history of astronomy.

Note of the Editor: This article was originally published as: Joe Lockard, “White Supremacism and Islamic Astronomy in History of Astronomy Texts from the Eighteenth Century to the Present Day”, Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, 21(1), 29-38 (2018). We are grateful to the author and the editor for allowing us to republish the article on MuslimHeritage.com. (Banner image source: thoughtco.com)
1. Arabic Astronomy In Eighteenth And Nineteenth-Century European Thought

(Figure 1. Adam Smith (1723-1790) and Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) Source: Ibn Khaldun and Adam Smith: Contributions to Theory of Division of Labor and Modern Economic Thought by James R. Bartkus)

The disappearance of astronomical knowledge from Europe, its preservation in Arabic and Persian-speaking domains, and the eventual recovery of Ptolemaic science through re-translated manuscripts are standard points of contemporary scientific history (Pingree, 1973). In British and American histories of astronomy published from the eighteenth century forward, this story often remains obscure. When the English cleric and antiquarian George Costard (1710 ‒1782) published A Letter to Martin Folkes in 1746, he derived a historical line for astronomical knowledge that included Egyptians, Babylonians, Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans, with the Greeks being most important. More recent science conducted in Arab lands remained unmentioned and absent. Costard, one of the earlier English language writers on astronomical history, spoke for an older non-observational school where the Bible remained a crucial text for astronomy and where scientific evidence of the Earth’s age was rejected. Costard’s combination of biblicism and Hellenophilia (Pingree, 1992) could not stand up against the flow of atlases, codices and scientific manuscripts of every sort flowing into European libraries from Asia, Africa, and the Americas as a result of colonial empire-building. The noted Scottish scholar Adam Smith (1723-1790) wrote from this newer school of Enlightenment fostered empirical thought. In his lengthy philosophical inquiry and scientific survey “The History of Astronomy”, apparently completed prior to 1758 (Ross, 1995: 100) and only published posthumously, Smith (1795: 68) recited received opinion. He stated that Arabs bowed to the superiority of Greek philosophers…

…above the rude essays which their own nation had yet had time to produce and which were such, we may suppose, as arise every wherein the first infancy of science, necessarily determined them to embrace their systems, particularly that of Astronomy: neither were they ever afterwards able to throw off their authority.

Arabs were, according to Smith (1795: 69), “… too much enslaved to those [Greek] systems, to dare to depart from them …” Like nearly all European intellectuals of this period, Smith offered these suppositions despite having no personal acquaintance with the Arabic language and its literature. Rather than the empiricism that Smith professed as a method, his words represented the transmission of received opinion through the prism of European cultural superiority.

Linguistic incapacity similarly characterized the well-known French astronomer-revolutionary Jean Sylvain Bailly (1736-1793) in his frequently-cited 1787 Traité de l’Astronomie Indienne et Orientale that explored Asian astronomy. To adequately address the topics covered in his treatise, knowledge of Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, Chinese, Cambodian and Vietnamese would have been necessary. However, Bailly had no command of any of these languages. Instead, he relied on second-hand European reports, particularly those of the famous Italian founding-Director of Paris Observatory Giovanni Domenico Cassini (1625-1712)—who also spoke no Asian language. Unfamiliarity with non-European languages remained the norm among Western historians of astronomy until after WWII.

By the late eighteenth century, intellectual tides were shifting away from religious astronomy, although astronomical texts continued to exercise magnetic effect over theologians seeking biblical proofs. Yet this more extensive understanding of astronomical history had a limited effect. A more modem text such as History of Astronomy by R.W. Rothman (1829: 32-35) provides a brief history of Arab astronomy in an appreciative and objective fashion. although he acknowledges passing over much history. Meanwhile, in his Mahometanism Unveiled, which was generally dedicated to a condemnation of Islam as heresy, the British cleric Reverend Charles Forster (1787-1871) nonetheless took time to review at length—and praise—Islamic sciences. In terms of astronomy, Forster (1829: 267) wrote:

The progress made by the Saracens, in their scientific researches, is to be measured, not so much by the amount of their actual discoveries, as by the surprising reach of their conjectural anticipations, while criticizing the now-exploded systems of the ancients.

Forster, an Orientalist (and grandfather of novelist E.M. Forster), had dubious competence in Semitic languages—he claimed to read Egyptian hieroglyphs in Hebrew characters—and none at all in astronomy.

In 1852 the Scottish astronomer Robert Grant (1814-1892) published his influential volume, History of Physical Astronomy from the Earliest Ages to the Middle of Nineteenth Century, but despite its comprehensive title this book largely ignores Chinese, Persian and Arab astronomy prior to Newton.

This contrasts with the extensive treatment that Paris Observatory Director Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre (1749-1822) provided on Arab and Asian astronomy in his magisterial Histoire de l’Astronomie du Moyen Age. where he wisely began the discussion with the following disclaimer:

“We have very imperfect knowledge of the astronomical works composed by the Arabs.” (Delambre, 1819:1; our English translation).

This point is important. Throughout much of the twentieth century, histories of astronomy failed to heed Delambre’s caution. Islamic astronomy generally received an exceedingly brief mention in basic astronomy texts, and not much more in longer treatments of the history of astronomy. In Seeds’ Foundations of Astronomy, for example, we read:
“For 1000 years Arab astronomers studied and preserved Ptolemy’s work, but they made no significant improvement in his theory.” (Seeds, 1990: 70).

Since archeoastronomy and Greek astronomy receive much more attention from Seeds, his college-level readers might conclude from this one-paragraph reference that Islamic astronomy was negligible, deserving mention only for its alleged storehouse function.’ Rarely does one encounter one thousand years of intellectual history so blithely dismissed.


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