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Science in the Medieval World

[ Science ]

Science in the Medieval World

"Book of the Categories of Nations"

By Sa`id al-Andalusi

A medieval Spanish Muslim manuscript describing the contributions of nine nations to human knowledge.

1996

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6 x 9 | 144 pp. | 1 maps

ISBN: 978-0-292-70469-5

During the Middle Ages, a thriving center for learning and research was Muslim Spain, where students gathered to consult Arabic manuscripts of earlier scientific works and study with famous teachers. One of these teachers was Sa'id al-Andalusi, who in 1068 wrote Kitab Tabaqat al-'Umam, or "Book of the Categories of Nations," which recorded the contributions to science of all known nations. Today, it is one of few surviving medieval Spanish Muslim texts, and this is its first English translation.

Science ('ulum), as used by Sa'id and other scholars of that period, is a broad term covering virtually all aspects of human knowledge. After initial discussions of the categories of nations that did or did not cultivate science, Sa'id details the specific contribution of nine nations or peoples-India, Persia, Chaldea, Greece, Rome, Egypt, the Arab Orient, al-Andalus, and the Hebrews. He includes the names of many individual scientists and scholars and describes their various contributions to knowledge, making his book a significant work of reference as well as history.

  • Acknowledgments
  • System of Transliteration
  • Sa'id al-Andalusi
  • Introduction
  • Tabaqat al-'Umam
    • Chapter 1. The Seven Original Nations
    • Chapter 2. The Two Categories of Nations
    • Chapter 3. Nations Having No Interest in Science
    • Chapter 4. Nations That Cultivated the Sciences
    • Chapter 5. Science in India
    • Chapter 6. Science in Persia
    • Chapter 7. Science of the Chaldeans
    • Chapter 8. Science in Greece
    • Chapter 9. Science of the Romans
    • Chapter 10. Science in Egypt
    • Chapter 11. The Arabs: General Information
    • Chapter 12. Science in the Arab Orient
    • Chapter 13. Science in al-Andalus
    • Chapter 14. Science of Banu Israel
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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Although Tabaqat al-'Umam is by far the most common Arabic title given to this work, other titles or variations on this title have frequently been used. Among them are al-Ta'rif bi-Tabaqat al'Umam [A Knowledge of ... ] and Tarikh al-'Umam [History of Nations]. Yaqut (d. A.D. 1229/A.H. 626) and ibn Khallikan (d. A.D. 1282/ A.H. 681) extracted passages from Sa'id's book and referred to it as Kitab Akhbar al-Hukama' [Book of the Annals of Sages]. Ibn Sa'id (d. A.D. 1286/A.H. 685) extracted exact passages from Tabaqat al-'Umam and referred to it as al-Ta'rif bi-Akhbar Hukama' al-'Umam Min al-'Arab wa al-'Ajam [A Knowledge of the Annals of the Sages of the Nations from the Arabs and Non-Arabs]. It is quite possible that this was the original title of Sa'id's book, later abbreviated to Tabaqat al-'Umam. Varying titles for books were not uncommon in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and Sa'id's work, becoming well known, could have been reproduced under different titles.

The author's name, [Arabic characters], sounds more like Saw`id than Sa'id, which is a different Arabic proper name. But his name was written as Sa'id in the French translation, the Dictionary of Scientific Biography, and other reference books. We have chosen tradition over phonetics.

The first modern study of this manuscript appeared in 1912. In 1907, the Jesuit Father Louis Shaykhu [Cheikho], bought a copy of the manuscript in Damascus and brought it to Beirut. He described it as being no more than two hundred years old and containing many errors. Later he was able to obtain a photocopy of the complete manuscript, as well as copies of segments of the manuscript, from the London Library. Based on these copies, he introduced some corrections, added appendices and footnotes, and published it under the title Kitab Tabaqat al 'Umam in 1912.

Tabaqat al-'Umam was translated into French by Régis Blachére in 1935 and published under the title Kitâb Tabaqât al-Umam (Livre des catégories des nations). It has become known in the West by that title. To avoid confusion, we have chosen to retain the familiar title Categories of Nations, though a more appropriate translation of the original title would probably be Classifications of Nations. But in conformity with accepted English-Arabic transliteration, we have chosen to spell tabaqat with a q rather than a k. The word tabaqat is used frequently in the text; to preserve its full meaning, we retain it as such in the translation.

In 1967, M. Bahr al-'Ulum edited and published Tabaqat al'Umam in Arabic. Recently, Hayat Bu-'Alwan carried out a more comprehensive study of several copies of the manuscript, including the work of Shaykhu [Cheikho] and Blachére, and republished Tabaqat al'Umam in Arabic in 1985.

It is quite easy to make mistakes in copying Arabic script; for example, [Arabic characters] are five different letters of the Arabic alphabet. It is not uncommon to have two Arabic words that differ by only one dot. Thus one single dot could change the meaning of an entire sentence or make it incomprehensible. For our translation, we have thoroughly reviewed three of the four published versions. We have eliminated many mistakes and pointed out only serious errors and statements whose authenticity we could not verify.

As is always true of medieval manuscripts, the half-dozen or so existing copies of Sa'id's work have been reproduced at various times by different copyists. Thus they differ in many respects. Dates, names, and places are not the same in all copies. As was common practice, some sections may have been added to the original, while others may have been intentionally or unintentionally deleted. For example, the copy at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, Ireland, ends with the Arab nation; the contribution of the nation of Israel is completely omitted from this copy. Most of the copies are not dated; therefore, it is difficult to trace them back in time and to determine their accuracy relative to the original copy.

While many of the eleventh-century manuscripts were lost or destroyed, Tabaqat al-'Umam survived primarily because of its relative importance and because of the interest it generated in scholarly circles. A small book that summarizes scientific contributions from all the nations of the world was surely considered a prize possession.

Sa'id spent most of his last few years conducting observations and teaching; a man of means and consequence, he organized a school of thought and gathered around him a group of students. Through his generous support and patronage, he freed them from the need to earn a living and enabled them to devote all their time to scholarly pursuits. Sa'id's school survived him and continued to study his writings for several generations. One of his students, Abu Bakr 'Abd al-Baqi ibn Muhammad, also known as ibn Baryal al-Ansary, explicated Tabaqat al-'Umam and improved on its style and language before handing it down to two of his own students, Abu Muhammad 'Abd al-Haq ibn 'Atiyah (d. A.D. 1147/A.H. 541) and Qadi ibn Abu 'Amir ibn Shruyah (d. A.D. 1153/A.H. 548). These and several other scholars of that school referred to Tabaqat al-'Umam in many of their writings. By so doing they established the book as a reference source for scientific information and to a certain extent ensured its survival.

Al-Zarqali [Arzachel] Abu Ishaq Ibrahim ibn Yahya al-Naqqash was probably the most accomplished of Sa'id's students. He combined theoretical knowledge and technical skill to construct most of the astronomical instruments used in their observations. Al-Zarqali also constructed the famed water clocks of Toledo, which in reality constituted a very precise lunar calendar. With guidance and assistance from his mentor, he also revised the astronomical tables of al-Khuwarizmi and prepared what became known as the Toledan Tables. These highly successful tables became the basis for the Marseilles Tables, which were used throughout Europe by the twelfth century.

Tabaqat al-'Umam deals with practically all aspects of human knowledge; it discusses philosophy, religion, political science, geometry, mathematics, natural sciences, the arts, poetry, geography, climate, languages, and human behavior. These various fields were referred to collectively as 'ulum [sciences]. The book is organized in sections, each of which gives the contributions of one of the various nations. In certain cases, it discusses these contributions in some detail, stating the names of the scholars, the places of their birth, and with whom they studied. It contains the names of a large number of scientists and scholars and the dates of their contributions to the various branches of human intellect. The work is unique in the sense that it is comprehensive and highly condensed, containing a tremendous amount of information. This made it a very desirable reference book requiring a relatively short time to copy. Thus several copies must have been made, and a few of them have survived.

In the first two centuries after its publication, it was quoted and referred to by several well-known scholars. Among them are Abu al-Qasim Khalaf ibn 'Abd al-Malik ibn Bashkuwal (d. A.D. 1183/A.H. 579), Abu 'Abd Allah Muhammad ibn 'Abd Allah ibn al-Abbar (d. A.D. 1260/A.H. 658), Abu al-Hasan 'Ali ibn Yusuf al-Qifti (d. A.D. 1246/A.H. 644), Muwaffaq al-Din Abu al'Abbas Ahmad ibn al-Qasim ibn Abu 'Usaybi'ah (d. A.D. 1270/A.H. 668), and Abu al-Faraj Yuhanna ibn al-'Ibri (d. A.D. 1268/A.H. 666). The world traveler Muhammad ibn 'Abd Allah ibn Battutah, writing about the origin of science in Egypt, copied verbatim from Tabaqat al 'Umam.

Interest in Tabaqat al-'Umam did not subside for many centuries after its publication. Long after its science had been superseded, it was prized for its historic value. In A.D. 1632/A.H. 1042 al-Maqqari made full use of the information in Tabaqat al-'Umam while discussing eleventh-century scientific progress in Andalusia. In A.D. 1657/ A.H. 1067 Haji Khalifah relied heavily on Sa'id's book in writing about advances in astronomy during that period.

Early in the twelfth century, 'Abd Allah ibn Muhammad ibn Marzuq al-Yahsubi, a student of ibn Baryal, carried a copy of the Tabaqat with him while on hajj to Makkah [Mecca]. On his way back he passed through Alexandria, Egypt, where he shared the book with the traditionalist Abu Tahir al-Salafi al-Misri [the Egyptian] (d. A.D. 1181/A.H. 576), who publicized it not only in Egypt but in the entire Middle East. Probably this, more than any other event, contributed to the preservation of Tabaqat al-'Umam; most of the works of the Arabs in Spain perished or were destroyed during the reign of al-Hajib Abu 'Amir and after the Arabs were forced out of that country. "Tabagat al-Umam is important in two main respects: First, it gives an insight into the origin and cultivation of the sciences as they were known by the Andalusians of the eleventh century, and second, it enables us to gauge the extent of their cultivation and appreciation on Andalusian soil." It is not only considered a fundamental work, but is also regarded as a very precise source of information. Probably for that reason George Sarton, the noted historian, writes, "Critical edition of the Tabaqat al-'Umam.... An English version is very desirable."

In his recent study, L. Richter-Bernburg mentions the shortcomings of Blachère's edition and the Iraqi edition and suggests that "a truly critical edition [of Tabaqat al-'Umam] has long since been overdue."

Franz Rosenthal, in his translation of ibn Khaldun's al-Muqaddimah, used Tabaqat al-'Umam as an authoritative source. B. B. Lawrence, writing about Indian religions, states, "Qadi Sa'id al-Andalusi (d. 1070 A.D.) notes, in Tabaqat al-'Umam, that the Hindus have two sects; some are followers of Brahma, the others are Sabians." M. S. Khan relies heavily on Tabaqat al-'Umam in writing about ancient Indian sciences and culture. M. Mahdi describes Tabaqat al-'Umam: "In Muslim Spain ... Sa'id (d. 1070 A.D.) wrote his Classes of Nations ... in which he presented the history, learning, character and social life of various nations.... He considered the cultivation of the sciences ... a decisive moment in human history, and divided the nations, accordingly, into two broad categories." And R. K. Chaube uses long quotations from Sa'id's work to describe India as viewed by the Muslims.

Tabaqat al-'Umam is still being used as a precise reference to identify natural philosophers of the Islamic era; A. I. Sabra, writing in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography (DBS), uses this document to discuss the work of 'Abd Allah ibn Muhammad ibn Ja'far al-Farghani (DSB, IV, 542), and to ascertain the presence of al-Hasan ibn al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham in Egypt in A.D. 1039/A.H. 430 (DSB, VI, 189). Similarly, David Pingree makes use of Tabaqat al-'Umam to describe the life of 'Umar ibn Farkhan al-Tabari in the Abbasid court (DSB, XIII, 538) and to explain some of the stories attributed to the Indian philosopher Kanka (DSB, VII, 223).

In this book, Sa'id divides the people of the world into two classes. In one class he includes the eight nations that made significant contributions to science: the Indians, the Persians, the Chaldeans, the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Arabs, and the Hebrews. In the second class he groups all those who did not cultivate science: the Chinese, the Turks, all the people of Africa (except Egypt), the people of northern Siberia, and the people of parts of the Balkan region. One is inclined to believe that geographical distances and language barriers played a significant role in this grouping and in Sa'id's knowledge of the contributions of the various nations. He was very candid about this shortcoming; on many occasions he writes, "I have received no information about..." or "I have not been informed."

Of the nations that did not cultivate science, the Chinese and the Turks were the most advanced. These two nations excelled in manual labor, industrial technology, and the construction of various implements. But Sa'id believes that the elites among God's creatures are those who have cultivated science, and he provides many examples where animals surpass humans in the performance of most other functions.

In discussing the contributions of the various nations, Sa'id begins each section by describing the general traits of the people about whom he is writing. He briefly mentions their religion, their language, and their history. The geographical location of each nation is then presented in some detail. This is generally followed by the enumeration of the nation's celebrated scholars and a few statements about their lives and their works.

Sa'id states that India is the first nation to have cultivated science. He praises the knowledge and wisdom of the Indian people and refers to their king as the "king of wisdom." He writes about the three Indian astronomical systems—the Sindhind, the Aryabhatiya, and the Khandakhadyaka—then adds, "We have received correct information only about the Sindhind system." He marvels about the remarkable structure of Hisab al-Ghubar (arithmetic of dust or dustboard arithmetic), but is able to cite the name of only one Indian scholar, "Kanka al-Hindi." One may deduce from the text that most of Wid's information about India came to him through Baghdad, specifically from Abu Ma'shar's book al'Uluf.

The information in the section devoted to the Persians is of little interest; Sa'id mentions without elaborating their contribution to theology and astronomy as it was known to the Arabs of the eleventh century, extracting his information from Kitab al-'Uluf and Kitab al-'Iklil. Here Sa'id neglects to mention the many Persian scholars who flourished during the Abbasid period. Noted among them, we have the illustrious ibn Sina (Avicenna), (A.D. 98o-10371 A.H. 369-428), and the famous algebraist 'Umar al-Khayyam (c. A.D. 1020-1110/A.H. 410-503). Another notable omission is Abu al-Hasan ibn Abu al-Rijal, of al-Qayrawan, the famous astrologer-secretary of al-Mu'izz ibn Badis (r. A.D. 1016-1062/A.H. 406-454).

In chapter 7, Sa'id presents with some precision the contribution of the Chaldeans to the science of astronomy and optics. He enumerates authors and book titles and points out scientific links among Chaldea, Egypt, and Greece. This is important in view of the fact that early Greek scientists established a tradition of visiting Babylon to learn from its magi (DSB, Supplement, XV, 672). Understandably, there is no mention of the contributions of the early Babylonian Empire.

The work of the Greeks is well presented in chapter 8; the author gives the names of philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers, and physicians and critically discusses their works. He mentions the seven Greek schools of philosophy and points out the importance of the school of Pythagoras and that of Plato and Aristotle. Sa'id states that Empedocles, Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are the leaders among the Greek philosophers, but has high regard for all Greek scholars; "They served humanity with their labor and guided it with their lights." He chides Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi for being a detractor of Aristotle. This section is a good concise summary of the Greek scholarly contributions and an indication that by the eleventh century most of the Greek work had been translated into Arabic.

In chapter 9, Sa'id writes about the fifth nation to have cultivated science, the Romans. This is a letdown from the previous chapter. After presenting the history of the development of the Roman Empire, he enumerates the non-Muslim scholars who worked during the Abbasid period and ignores all Latin contributors.

The following chapter begins with some ancient legends about the land of the Nile and strange animals. Then the author rapidly names the scientists of Alexandria and apologetically notes: "I do not know the definite date of any of the individual scientists of Alexandria... or any additional specific information about them." Supplemental information about science in ancient Egypt was deemed appropriate.

A large portion of the manuscript is reserved for the Arabs. In chapter 11, Sa'id writes in general terms about the history, religions, and social customs of the Arabs and recalls some old verses to describe their conditions prior to the advent of Islam.

In chapter 12, the author discusses in some detail the Arab contributions, during the Abbasid dynasty, to astronomy, mathematics, philosophy, medicine, geometry, and genetics. He praises the role played by Caliph al-Ma'mun: "his noble soul craved the understanding of wisdom." The giants of the Abbasid period are also singled out: al-Razi, "the unparalleled physician of the Muslims"; al-Farabi, "truly, the philosopher of the Muslims"; al-Kindi, "the philosopher of the Arabs and the son of one of their kings"; al-Khuwarizmi, "the mathematician of the Arabs"; and Musa ibn Shakir, "one of the best-known of al-Ma'mun's astronomers."

Chapter 13 is a unique treatment of the scientific developments in al-Andalus. After a precise description of the geography of the country, Sa'id remarks on the influence of the Umayyad caliphs, 'Abd al-Rahman III and al-Hakam II, on the manifestation of science in al-Andalus. He laments the eclipse of scientific activities during the reign of al-Hajib Abu 'Amir, who ordered the destruction of the Umayyad library. This dark period was short-lived and was followed by rapid progress in all the fields of knowledge. With encyclopedic knowledge, Sa'id writes about the scholars who lived in Muslim Spain between the eighth and eleventh centuries, making this section an invaluable and precise reference source about the scientific activities in Muslim Spain during that period. Sa'id's broad picture of science in Muslim Spain is correct, and his limitations reflect on the intellectual environment rather than on his shortcomings.

Here Sa'id's support of Aristotelian philosophy represents a trend in Andalusian thoughts that later culminated in the work of ibn Hazm and ibn Rushd [Averroës].

The last chapter of the manuscript is presented by Sa'id as if it were an afterthought; he writes with some authority about the Hebrew scholars of al-Andalus to the neglect of all others, except for the very few who prospered during the Abbasid period: "the Jewish scientists who specialize in Jewish laws are too numerous to count...." But the inclusion of this chapter is a tribute to the important role the Hebrew scholars played in the development of science in Islamic Spain.

Prior to the Arab invasion of Spain, the Romans were the ruling class in Europe. But the Roman contributions to science were limited at best. With the fall of the Roman Empire around A.D. 455/B.H. 172, Europe was beset by the Dark Ages: overrun by barbarians from the North, it was unable to recover until the Arabs invaded Spain in the eighth century.

The scientific renaissance of the Middle Ages came into Europe through the introduction of Arabic and Greek sciences; most of the work of the Greeks entered into Europe via Spain by means of Arabic, not Latin, manuscripts. During that period, Muslim Spain possessed the writers, and the Greek works from which they drew, to transmit knowledge to Western Europe.

For Europe and Western civilization, the contributions of Islamic Spain were invaluable and included practically all fields of knowledge. Until the end of the eighth century, the Arab culture in Spain was mostly derived from the thriving cultural centers of Baghdad. But Islamic Spain began to make its own contributions during the reign of 'Abd al-Rahman III (A.D. 912-961/A.H. 299-350). He imported books, recruited scholars, and built research centers, hospitals, libraries, and institutions for Islamic studies to make Córdoba a scientific center that rivaled Baghdad.

One of the famous scholars to join the court of 'Abd al-Rahman was 'Abbas ibn Firnas (d. A.D. 887/A.H. 273). He came to Córdoba to teach music, but soon developed an interest in the mechanics of flight, anticipating Leonardo da Vinci by some six hundred years. He constructed a mechanized planetarium in which the planets actually revolved and influenced the development of astronomy in Europe.

Other Andalusians who made significant contributions to the field of astronomy include Muslamah al-Majriti (d. A.D. 1007/A.H. 397 in Córdoba). He was a prolific author with a profound knowledge of both mathematics and astronomy. There was also al-Bitruji [Alpetragius] (fl. A.D. 1190/A.H. 586 in Seville). He developed an adequate theory of stellar movement, and his work includes the Book of Form that became very popular in the West. There was also al-Zarqali, one of Sa'id's accomplished students, as mentioned earlier.

The impact of the work of Andalusian astronomers on the West is partly reflected in the many Arabic terms that are still in use, such as Aldebaran [the follower], alidade, almanac, Altair [the flier], azimuth, Betelgeuse [bayt al-Jawza', house of the twins], Deneb [tail], nadir, zenith, and many others.

In the development of astronomy and mathematics and in a broad sense, Greece was indebted to Mesopotamia, Islam to Greece, Iran, and India, and Western Europe to Islam.

Physicians of Islamic Spain made tremendous contributions to Western medicine; outstanding among them was Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi [Abulcasis or Albucasis] (c. A.D. 936-1013/c. A.H. 324-403). He was probably the most famous surgeon of the Middle Ages. He authored al-Tasrif, a book that was later translated into Latin to become the leading medical textbook in European universities. The section on surgery contains illustrations of functional, elegant precision surgical instruments.

"...ibn Sina (Avicenna) (980-1037 A.D.), the illustrious Shaikh, the prince of all learning! His medical encyclopedia—al-Qanun (the Canon)—which was for centuries a sort of medical bible—was translated into Latin by Gerard of Cremona. Al-Qanun was large and forbidding and hopelessly out of reach for the majority of physicians, but every one of them knew of it and thought of it as the supreme monument of medical learning and wisdom." The Canon of Medicine dominated the European medical field for centuries and was used as a text at the universities of Montpellier and Louvain until A.D. 1650/A.H. 1060.

As a consequence of their work in medicine, the Muslim scientists of Spain became interested in botany. The most famous Andalusian botanist, ibn al-Baytar (c. A.D. 1190-1248/c. A.H. 586-646), wrote a compendium of medical plants and arranged them in alphabetic order for the benefit of his readers. He spent most of his life gathering information in Spain and North Africa. Another botanist, ibn al 'Awwam (fl. c. A.D. 1170/c. A.H. 565), wrote a treatise that gives precise instructions for the cultivation and use of hundreds of species of plants.

The most famous geographer of that period was 'Abd Allah ibn Idris al-Sharif al-Idrisi (A.D. 1100-1166/A.H. 493-561), who, after studying in Córdoba, traveled widely. He then settled in Sicily, where he wrote The Book of Roger, a geography of the world. He also engraved, on a silver planisphere, a disk-shaped map that was considered the first scientific map of the world and one of the wonders of that period.

Another famous geographer and world traveler was Muhammad ibn 'Abd Allah ibn Battutah. He was born in Morocco in A.D. 1304/A.H. 703 and traveled extensively through most of the known world, spending about eight years in India alone. He kept a diary that became a book titled Rihlat [Travels]. The book achieved lasting greatness and became a rich source for both geographers and historians, especially about fourteenth-century India, the Maldives, southern Russia, and black Africa (DSB, I, 516).

The Andalusian philosopher and physician ibn Rushd Abu'l-Walid Muhammad [Averroës or Averrhoës] (A.D. 1126-1198/A.H. 520-594) was an ardent Aristotelian scholar. After being translated into Latin, his books had a very lasting effect on the development of Western philosophy and medical theories. Ibn Rushd built his philosophy on the work of earlier Andalusian scholars, among them Abu Muhammad 'Ali ibn Ahmad ibn Hazm (d. A.D. 1064/A.H. 456), who had to address the problem generated by the introduction of Greek thoughts into the context of Islam. Ibn Hazm was an intellectual giant, with more than four hundred titles to his credit.

By the twelfth century, European pioneers turned beyond the Pyrenees, seeking the key to knowledge. Al-Andalus remained their principal source until the close of the thirteenth century. During that period, Islamic Spain became the bridge through which the scientific accomplishments and the philosophical legacy of the Arabs and the Greeks passed into Europe. And European scholars began a large-scale, practically indiscriminate conversion of Arabo-Greek learning from Arabic into Latin; literally thousands of treatises were translated.

Leaders of this movement include Robert of Chester, Daniel of Morley, Alfred of Sarashel, Adelard of Bath, Roger of Hereford, John of Seville, Plato of Tivoli, Gerard of Cremona, Marc of Toledo, Stephen of Antioch, and others. These were instrumental in introducing scientific materials from Muslim Spain into Latin Europe, signaling the dawn of the European Renaissance.

It is as exciting to look back and rediscover the past as it is to look forward into the future. When Sa'id wrote Tabaqat al-'Umam, astrology was a highly respected science, ranked with astronomy and medicine. A knowledge of the influence that the stars have on events on earth was extremely important. Although Sa'id distinguishes between astronomers and astrologers, he names many astronomers who were also astrologers. As a rule it was believed that the signs of the zodiac and the planets control the destiny not only of persons but also of nations, determining their physical characteristics as well as their intelligence and other traits; Sa'id recounts why certain races were scientifically productive and superior, while others were sterile and inferior.

Eleventh-century geographers knew that the earth is spherical, but referred to the land mass between Spain and China as the populated world. There was no mention of continents, but the earth was divided into climatic zones. Sa'id adhered to these concepts.

The Arabs always stressed the importance of genealogy; in many instances Sa'id lists scores of ancestral names tracing the scientist back to a known personality, such as a king, a prince, or a companion of the Prophet. In certain instances, the length of the genealogical list appears to the modern reader to verge on the ludicrous.

Something needs to be said about writing Arabic words for English readers; about half of the twenty-eight Arabic letters have no English equivalent and most of them originate deep from within the chest; thus their correct pronunciation requires some practice.

Every European language except English has formally developed a single standard system for transliterating Arabic words. We follow the guidelines used in the Concise Encyclopedia of Islam. If a word is known in some other form, we include the commonly accepted English form in brackets to clarify some ambiguities.

Several Arabic words are commonly used. The definite article al- corresponds to the English article "the." Ibn means "son of." Banu indicates a family or a tribe. Abu means "father of" but is often used to form a nickname, rather than in the biological sense. 'Abd means "servant of," as in 'Abd Allah [Servant of Allah] and 'Abd al-Rahman [Servant of the Merciful].

The post-Renaissance revolution in scholarly methods, the recent excavations in the Middle East, and the decipherment of several ancient scripts have added significantly to our knowledge of early times. What is available to us now far exceeds what was available to Sa'id in the eleventh century, so we include a few notes for added clarification, most often to support a statement in the manuscript.

The dates in the manuscript are given in accordance with the Muslim calendar that was established by Caliph 'Umar. Its starting date is the day the Prophet entered Yathrib [Medina], some 200 miles north of Makkah, July 16, A.D. 622. This marks the end of the celebrated Hijrah of the Prophet and the beginning of the first Islamic state. The Muslim year is a lunar year and is designated A.H. for Anno Hegirae.

A lunar month contains 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes, 2.8 seconds. A lunar year of 12 months is, therefore, made up of 354 days, 8 hours, 48 minutes, 33.6 seconds, or approximately 354 11/30 days. Thus 32 solar years plus 6.5 days are equal to 33 lunar years. To convert dates from the Muslim calendar to the Gregorian calendar, the following relation is adequate:

A.D. = 622 + (32/33) A.H.

S. I. S. and A. K.

This is Kitab Tabaqat al 'Umam written by Sa'id, Mercy be upon him.

The Qadi Abu al-Qasim Sa'id ibn Ahmad ibn Sa'id wrote: it is known that all the people on earth from the East and from the West, from the North and from the South, although they constitute a single group, differ in three distinct traits: behaviors, physical appearances, and languages.

Those interested in the history of nations, in the study of the chronological record of human events, who have searched the tabaqat of the centuries claim that all the people of the distant past, before the branching of tribes and the division of languages, formed seven nations.

The first nation was al-Furs [the Persians], who inhabited the center of the populated world. Their territory bordered on the mountains in northern Iraq, reaching 'Aqabat Hulwan [Gulf of Zagros], which includes Mahat, Karaj [EI, IV, 1056], Dinur, Hamadan, Qumm [EI, V, 369], Qashan, and others. These borders extended to the countries of Armenia, al-Bab wa al-Abwab [Darband, EI, 1, 189], which is situated on the sea of Khazar [EI, IV, 1172], and to Azerbaijan, Tabaristan, Muqan, Baylaqan, Ran, Shabaran, Talaqan, and Jurjan, and to the land of Khorasan [EI, V, 55], such as Nishapur, Murwan, Sarkhas, Hirat, Khawarizm, Balakh, Bukhara, Samarkand, Farghana, and Shash, and other cities in the land of Khorasan, Sigistan, Kirman [EI, V, 147], Faris, Ahwaz, Isbahan [Isfahan or Ispahan], and other neighboring countries. They had one kingdom, one king, and one language—Farsi [Persian]. Although they spoke slightly different dialects, they were in agreement on the shapes and the number of the letters in their alphabet, and their differences did not affect the various aspects of those languages, such as the Pahlavi and the Dari as well as other languages of the Furs.

The second nation was the Kildaniyuns [Chaldeans]; they are the Sirianiyuns and the Babylonians; those peoples were comprised of the Kan'aniyuns [Canaanites], the Assyrians, the Armenians, and the Jaramiqah [Mas'udi 1966-1970:118-121], who inhabited Mussil [Mosul], and the Nabatiyuns, who inhabited most of Iraq. Their country was also in the center of the populated world and included Iraq, al-Jazirat [the island] located between the Tigris and the Euphrates [rivers] and known as Diar Raby'ah, Mudar, al-Sham, and the Arabian Peninsula, which included Hijaz, Najd, Tahamah, Ghfir, and Yemen. All of these are located between Zabid, Sand', 'Aden, 'Urud, Shahr, Hadramut, Oman, and other parts of the Arabian countries. All this was one kingdom having one king and one language, Syryani [Syriac]. This is the ancient language spoken by Adam, Idris, Noah, Ibrahim, Lot, and others. Later on, Syriac branched out into Arabic and Hebrew. The Hebrews, also known as Banu Israel, conquered al-Sham and inhabited it. The Arabs took over Jazirat al 'Arab [the Arabian Peninsula], which is also known as the land of Raby'ah and Mudar, and inhabited all of it. The rest of the Sirianiyuns had retreated into Iraq, where the capital of their kingdom was Kalwaza [Kalwadha, Mas'udi 1966-1970:70, 602].

The third nation was comprised of the Greeks, the Romans, the Ifranjah [Franks], the Jalaliqah [Austrians], the Burjans, the Slavonians, the Russians, the Burghuz, and the Llan as well as other nations living around the Sea of Neitosh [a corruption of Puntus, Black Sea], the Lake of Maytus [probably the Sea of Azov], and other areas in the Northwest quadrant' of the populated earth. They had one kingdom and spoke the same language.

The fourth nation was the Copts; they are the people of Egypt and the people of the South. They are the Sudanese [black people] from Abyssinia, Nubia, the Zinj [black people, most of central Africa], and others. Also the people of the Maghrib [the West] and they are the Berbers and their neighbors to the west bordering on the Sea of Uqiyanus [Atlantic Ocean]. They spoke the same language and had one kingdom.

The fifth nation was the races of Turks, which include the Karluks, the Kimaks, the Taghuzghuz, the Khazars, the Sarirs, the Jilans [EI, II, 111], the Khuzans, the Tilsans, the Kazakhs, and the Burtas [EI, I, 1337]. They spoke one language and had one kingdom.

The sixth nation was India and Sind and neighboring peoples. They had one language and one king.

The seventh nation was China and the neighboring country of 'Amur [between Manchuria and Russia], named after 'Amur, the son of Yafith, son of Noah. Their kingdom was one and their language was one.

These seven nations comprised the entire human race, and they were all sa'bat [Sabians], worshiping idols representing celestial objects, including the seven planets and others. Later on, these seven nations were dispersed, their languages branched out, and their religions became different.


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We have determined that all these nations, in spite of their differences and the diversities of their convictions, form tabaqatayn. One tabaqat has cultivated science, given rise to the art of knowledge, and propagated the various aspects of scientific information; the other tabaqat did not contribute enough to science to deserve the honor of association or inclusion in the family of scientifically productive nations. Members of this group formulated no useful philosophy and generated no practical idea.

The tabaqat that cultivated science is comprised of eight nations: the Indians, the Persians, the Chaldeans, the Greeks, the Romans, the people of Egypt, the Arabs, and the Hebrews.

The tabaqat that showed no interest in science is comprised of all the remaining 'umam [nations] that were not previously mentioned. This includes the Chinese, Hajfij and Majuj [Gog and Magog], the Turks, the Burtas, the Sarirs, the Khazars, the Gilans, the Tilsans, the Murqans, the Kazakhs, the Alains, the Slavonians, the Bulgarians, the Russians, the Burjans, the Berbers, and the various people of Sudan [or black people], including the Ethiopians, the Nubians, the Zinj, and the Ghanaians, as well as others."

Of the nations who have shown no interest in science, the most advanced are the Chinese and the Turks. The Chinese are the most numerous of all nations. They have the richest kingdom and occupy the largest territory. They inhabit the eastern sector of the populated world between the equinoctial line and the farthest of the seven regions to the north. They surpassed other nations in industrial technology and graphic arts. They excelled in their endurance while performing arduous labor and in improving their work and perfecting their products.

The Turks are also a nation having a large population and a rich kingdom. They inhabit the region between the eastern regions of Khorasan of the Islamic kingdom, the western regions of China, and the northern parts of India to the end of the populated world to the north. They distinguished themselves by their ability to wage wars and by the construction of arms, and by being the ablest horsemen and tacticians. They have the sharpest eyes when it comes to throwing lances, striking with swords, or shooting arrows.

The rest of this tabaqat, which showed no interest in science, resembles animals more than human beings. Those among them who live in the extreme North, between the last of the seven regions and the end of the populated world to the north, suffered from being too far from the sun; their air is cold and their skies are cloudy. As a result, their temperament is cool and their behavior is rude. Consequently, their bodies became enormous, their color turned white, and their hair drooped down. They have lost keenness of understanding and sharpness of perception. They were overcome by ignorance and laziness, and infested by fatigue and stupidity. Such are the Slavonians, the Bulgarians, and neighboring peoples.

Also in this category are the people who lived close to the equinoctial line and behind it to the end of the populated world to the south. Because the sun remains close to their heads for long periods, their air and their climate have become hot: they are of hot temperament and fiery behavior. Their color turned black, and their hair turned kinky. As a result, they lost the value of patience and firmness of perception. They were overcome by foolishness and ignorance. These are the people of Sudan who inhabited the far reaches of Ethiopia, Nubia, the Zinj, and others.

The Jalaliqah [Galicians, Austrians], the Berbers, and the rest of the populations of the western sector that belong to this tabaqat are nations that Allah, may He be glorified, has provided with despotism, ignorance, enmity, and violence. This is in spite of the fact that these peoples did not inhabit the far North or the far South to be punished by severe climates. In fact their domain is close to the temperate zones. The Galicians reside in the western parts of the fifth climatic region and some of the neighboring provinces of the sixth region. The Berbers inhabit the western parts of the second climatic region, and what borders it from the third and fourth regions. But Allah provides generously for whomever He chooses and diverts His grace away from whomever He chooses.

All the other peoples of this tabaqat that I have not previously included are similar in their ignorance to those already mentioned. Although they have varied classifications and unequal shares [of ignorance], they belong to the same class and may be described by the same words. They have never searched for wisdom or practiced the study of philosophy. Most of them are an urban population, while their servants live in rural areas. No matter where they are, in the East, in the West, in the South, or in the North, they are governed by royal decrees and divine laws. The only peoples that reject these humane institutions and live outside these rational laws are a few of the inhabitants of the deserts and the wilderness such as the beggars of Bajah [Boga], the savages of Ghana, the misers of the Zinj, and those resembling them.

Sema‘an I. Salem is Professor of Physics at California State University, Long Beach. Alok Kumar is Associate Professor of Physics at State University of New York, Oswego.

"An invaluable reference work for historians of Islamic science in particular, but also for historians of science in other cultural areas."

British Society for the History of Science