In response to “The First Golden Age of Islamic Science” (Vol. 4, No. 1).
To the editors:
Julio Samsó’s essay is perhaps the best brief, yet comprehensive, biography available for one of the most prolific authors of Islamic science. In addition to the chronological details of al-Bīrūnī’s life, it also gives an overarching assessment of his works, always touching on the most essential and leaving nothing of importance unsaid. This is all beautifully recounted in a highly easy to read style. The prose flows effortlessly even when the author is narrating some of the most technical material, such as the remarkable difference between the manner in which the Hellenistic astronomer Ptolemy (d. ca. 170 CE) and his contemporaries treated trigonometric functions and the manner in which the much further developed trigonometric functions were treated by al-Bīrūnī and his colleagues in the Islamic civilization. Another example is the subtle manner in which al-Bīrūnī dealt with the subject and techniques of the nuanced discipline of astrology. Here, al-Bīrūnī comes across as a most rigorously demanding mathematical astronomer applying his wit to a subject for which he gives little credence to its application, and then turning to the much less appealing and unscientific art of astrological predictions. Exercising one’s utmost rigor to calculate the horoscope of a native, with all that is involved by way of mathematical astronomy and highly developed spherical trigonometry is one thing; the pseudoscience of interpreting that horoscope and predicting its implications for the native is a completely different thing altogether, and much less rewarding for curious scientific minds.
No one could have told this story of al-Bīrūnī’s engagement with Islamic science, or even the story of the development and tribulations of Islamic science itself, better than Julio Samsó. I highly recommend this short jewel of a narrative to any reader who has the slightest interest in the history of science in general or Islamic science in particular.
George Saliba is Professor Emeritus of Arabic and Islamic Science at Columbia University.