What Eleventh-Century Spain Knew About Indian Science and Math
By Alok Kumar, PhD
In the eleventh-century, an important manuscript titled “The Categories of Nations” was authored in Arabic by Said al-Andalusi, who was a prolific author and in the powerful position of a judge for the king in Muslim Spain. A translation and annotation of this was done S.I. Salem and Alok Kumar and published by University of Texas Press: “Science in the Medieval World”. This is the first English translation of this eleventh-century manuscript. Below is one complete chapter from this that pertains to the scientific strength of India. It demonstrates how European scholars felt about India prior to the colonial period, during which such works were stopped and prior manuscripts not translated and/or brought into the public attention.
Chapter V: Science in India (Translation)
The first nation (to have cultivated science) is India. This is a powerful nation having a large population, and a rich kingdom (possession). India is known for the wisdom of its people. Over many centuries, all the kings of the past have recognized the ability of the Indians in all the branches of knowledge.
The kings of China have stated that the kings of the world are five in number and all the people of the world are their subjects. They mentioned the king of China, the king of India, the king of the Turks, the king of the Furs (Persians) and the king of the Romans (1). They referred to the king of China as the “king of humans” because the people of China are more obedient to authority and are stronger followers of government policies than all the other peoples of the world. They referred to the king of India as the “king of wisdom” because of the Indians careful treatment of `ul?m (sciences) and their advancement in all the branches of knowledge. They referred to the king of the Turks as the “king of lions” because of the courage and the ferocity of the Turks. They referred to the king of Persia as the “king of kings” because of the richness, glory and importance of his kingdom, since Persia had subdued the kings of the center of the populated world, and because it controlled, to the exclusion of other kingdoms, the most fertile of the climatic regions. And they referred to the king of the Romans as the “king of men” because the Romans, of all the peoples, have the most beautiful faces, the best built bodies and the most robust physique.
The Indians, as known to all nations for many centuries, are the metal (essence) of wisdom, the source of fairness and objectivity. They are peoples of sublime pensiveness, universal apologues, and useful and rare inventions. In spite of the fact that their color is in the first stage of blackness, which puts them in the same category as the blacks, Allah, in His glory, did not give them the low characters, the poor manners, nor the inferior principles associated with this group and ranked them above a large number of white and brown peoples.
Some astrologers came up with an explanation for this condition; they said that both Saturn and Mercury control the destiny of the Indian people. Because of the influence of Saturn, their color turned black, while the influence of Mercury provided them with intellectual power and fine spirit. Saturn in partnership with Mercury gave them correctness of reasoning and depth of perception. This is why they enjoy the purity of talent and the power of distinction, making them totally different from the people of Sudan (Blacks) (2) such as the Zinj, the Abyssinians, the Ethiopians and others. To their credit, the Indians have made great strides in the study of numbers (3) and of geometry. They have acquired immense information and reached the zenith in their knowledge of the movements of the stars (astronomy) and the secrets of the skies (astrology) as well as other mathematical studies. After all that, they have surpassed all the other peoples in their knowledge of medical science and the strengths of various drugs, the characteristics of compounds and the peculiarities of substances.
Their kings are known for their good moral principles, their wise decisions, and their perfect methods of exercising authority. As to theology, they are in agreement as to the unity of God, may His power and glory be proclaimed, and they exalt Him above any polytheism, but they are in disagreement about His various manifestations (4). Some of them are Brahman and others are Sabians (5). The Brahman are few in number and are descendants of noble ancestry. Some of them believe in the creation of the world while others believe in its eternity. But they are in agreement as to the banning of prophecies, prohibiting the slaughter of animals and refraining from maltreating them or eating their food (6). But the sabians, and they are the overwhelming majority of the Indians, believe in the eternity of the world because it is created by the creator of creators, God Himself, may His power and glory be proclaimed. They revere the stars and represent them in paintings and approach them with offerings, each in accordance with what they have learned about its nature. Thus, they obtain the power of each star and use it in the lower world in accordance with their wishes. They believe in the times of return, in the revolutions of planets and their orbits, in the destruction of all the derivatives of the four elements every time the seven planets meet in the head of the lamb (Aries), and in the recreation of compounds during every cycle (7). On this matter, they have numerous views and a variety of doctrines as we have indicated in our book “Articles about the Doctrines and Religions of Peoples.”
As Indians are far from our country and many kingdoms separate us from them, we have very few of their books. Only a small fraction of their knowledge and a few fragments about their religions have reached us, and we have heard about only a small number of their scholars (8).
Of the Indian’s astronomical systems, the three that are well known are the Sindhind and it means the cyclic time and the Arjbahd (Arjabhar) and the Arkand (Khandakhadyaka of Brahmagupta) (9). We have received correct information only about the Sindhind system, which was adopted and further developed by a group of Muslim scientists. Among them were Muh.ammad bin Ibrahim al-Faz?ri (fl.c.760-790 A. D.) (10), H.abesh bin `Abd Allah al-Baghd?di, Muh.ammad ibn M?s? al-Khuwarizmi (c.800-c.847 A.D.), al-H.usayn ibn Muh.ammad also known as ibn al-?dami? (fl. c. 920 A.D.) and others (11). The meaning of Sindhind is ad-dahr ad-d?hir (the infinite time or the cyclic time) (12). This is the way it was reported by ibn al-?dami? in his tables of astronomy. Those, who believe in the Sindhind, say that all the seven planets and their apogees and perigees meet in the head of Aries once every four thousand thousand thousand years and three hundred thousand thousand year and twenty thousand thousand solar years (13). They call this cycle “the period of the universe” because they believe that when all the planets meet in the head of Aries everything found on earth will perish leaving the lower universe in a state of destruction for a very long time until the planets and their apogees and perigees disperse back to their zodiacs (constellations). When this takes place the world returns to its original state. The cycle repeats itself indefinitely. The Sindhind advocates gave no explanation for this behavior but they claim that for each planet and its apogee and perigee there is an orbit, which it completes in a given time which they call the period of the universe. I have already mentioned that in my book, “Written for the Rectification of the Movements of the Stars.”
Those who believe in the Arjbahd agree with the followers of the Sindhind except for the length of the period of the cycle of the universe. They believe that the planets and their apogees and perigees meet in the head of Aries in one thousandth of the period claimed by the Sindhind, and this is the essence of their doctrine.
The followers of the Arkand differ from the two previous schools in their description of the movements of the planets and also in the length of the period of the cycle of the universe. I have not been informed of the exact nature of this difference (14).
What has reached us from the work of the Indians in music is the book known in the Indian language as Bafir (Nafir) which means Thimar al-H.ikmah (the fruits of wisdom). It contains the fundamentals of modes and the basics in the construction of melodies.
What has reached us from their works on the improvement of morals and the amelioration of upbringing is the book “Kalilat wa Dimna”, which was brought by the Persian H.akim (physician or wise) Burzuwaih from India to Anusharwan (fl. 550 A.D.) ibn Qib?d ibn Fayruz, king of Persia. Burzuwaih translated Kalilat wa Dimna for the king from the Indian Language to the Farsi. It was later translated from Farsi into Arabic during the Islamic period by `Abd Allah ibn al-Muqaffa`(15). This is a book of noble purpose and great practical worth.
That which has reached us from their work on numbers is “H.is?b al-Ghubar” (Dust-board Arithmetic) (16) which was simplified by Ab? Ja`far Muh.ammad ibn M?s? al-Khuwarizmi. This method of calculating is the simplest, fastest, and easiest method to understand and use, and has a remarkable structure. It is a testimony to the intelligence of the Indians, the clarity of their creativity, and the power of their inventiveness.
That which has reached us from the discoveries of their clear thinking and the marvels of their inventions is the (game) of chess. The Indians have, in the construction of its cells, its double numbers, its symbols and secrets, reached the forefront of knowledge. They have extracted its mysteries from supernatural forces. While the game is being played and its pieces are being maneuvered, there appear the beauty of structure and the greatness of harmony. It demonstrates the manifestation of high intentions and noble deeds, as it provides various forms of warnings from enemies and points out ruses as well as ways to avoid dangers. And in this, there is considerable gain and useful profit.
Of the Indian scientists, who are knowledgeable in the shape of the physical universe and in the composition of the celestial spheres and the movement of stars, we have heard of Kanka al-Hindi (the Indian) (17). Ab? Ma`sher Ja`far bin Muh.ammad bin ‘Umar al-Balkhi (787-886 A.D.) had mentioned in his book “al-Ul?f” (the Thousands) (18) that this scientist is considered a leader in his knowledge of astronomy by all the Indian scientists of the past. I have received no information as to when or where he lived or anything about his work or his life except what I have just mentioned.