S. Irfan Habib in Conversation with S. M. Razaullah Ansari: Discipline of History of Sciences

S. Irfan Habib in Conversation with S. M. Razaullah Ansari: Discipline of History of Sciences

in Video
Published on: 02 November 2020

S. Irfan Habib

Syed Irfan Habib is a noted historian of science, public intellectual and author. He was a faculty of the National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies. He held the post of Abdul Kalam Azad Chair at the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi, between 2009–2016.

S. Irfan Habib in Conversation with S. M. Razaullah Ansari.

Primarily a physicist, Shaikh Mohammad Razaullah Ansari has always been passionate about history of exact sciences, researching and working towards establishing it as a discipline in India. Born in 1932 in Delhi, Ansari completed his M.Sc. in physics from Delhi University, and after securing a research fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, went abroad for pursuing his doctorate. He completed his D.SC. in theoretical physics at Eberhard Karl University, Tübingen, Germany. It was the university lectures there that ignited and cemented his interest in the field of history of sciences.

In 1969, Ansari joined the faculty of physics department at Aligarh Muslim University. There, he established a then relatively new branch of science called astrophysics, and nurtured a group of young researchers in this field. His work in solar physics and interstellar matter won him national and international recognition. In 1972 he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, and became a member of International Astronomical Union in 1973. Ansari served in leading capacities of several prestigious associations in the field of science. A well-cited scholar, Ansari has contributed chapters on history of science in many books, and published several books like History of Science in Medieval India, History of Oriental Astronomy, etc. Ansari retired from Aligarh Muslim University in 1994, and continues to pursue his research on primary sources in history of sciences.  

Following is the revised and edited version of the conversation with Shaikh Mohammad Razaullah Ansari conducted by Syed Irfan Habib

Syed Irfan Habib (SIH): Ansari sahab, welcome to Sahapedia. This is such a great opportunity to meet and converse with you. We have been meeting for several years— some meetings were professional while some were personal too.

Before coming to the main subject, let us go back to your childhood, your early life. The way you have led your life, few people in the field of history of sciences have dedicated their lives to their field of work, few people have worked like this or associated themselves with the history of sciences so much.   

Shaikh Mohammad Razaullah Ansari (SMRA): I used to go to a school which was in the street where I used to live with my parents. It was an ordinary school, but in those days, this was in the 1940s, even the ordinary schools were very good.

Anyway, I passed my primary school and then went on to a government higher secondary school, which was changed later into Delhi Polytechnic with an Englishman as its principal. However, from the very beginning I was interested in science like my father, S. M. Habibullah, who was an allopathic doctor, who wished that at least one of his sons—we were two brothers—should go for the medical profession, although the department of biology was not very good there. The same Polytechnic was changed or rather upgraded afterwards to Engineering College of Delhi, and now the Technical University of Delhi.

Now my father came from Danapur. Danapur was a cantonment in those days, adjacent to Patna. He belonged to a religious family, so he went to a school which was a madrasa actually. My grandfather, Karim Bakhsh, was the mukhiya or the chief of the Danapur Cantonment. You will be astonished to know that my grandmother or dadi advised my father not to continue his madrasa education. Obviously all this happened a long time ago. I was not born at that time, so I cannot tell you which year it was. And she said: Enough of madrasas, you go for a new profession, maybe an allopathy profession. So, he went to Patna to learn science and then afterwards went to College of Medicine or Medical College, Culcutta (Kolkata). But at Medical College in those days no degree was awarded, instead there was a licentiate of surgery and medicine which he passed.
What is important is that his life in a madrasa made him interested in literature, so later he became a poet. I have his two compositions, i.e., two collections of poetry, diwan as we call it in Urdu. He wrote prose in Urdu as well. Actually, his family belonged to the Ansari community, who came to India much earlier, but they were not the Ansaris of the weaver biradri (community) who adopted the name Ansari as their family name. My father wrote of the history of Ansari community and published it. Fortunately, I still have that booklet. Probably in this way he became interested somehow in history. Continuing his medical education in Calcutta, he completed his doctorate. To pursue his medical profession further, he came to Delhi and married my mother, who was from Delhi itself. And by the time we (four sisters and two brothers) were born, he had become intensely interested in history. He used to tell us stories about Islamic history particularly. Thus, history was part of our intellectual life so far as the environment of our family is concerned, so that probably shaped my subconscious mind.

So, from the very beginning I was interested, probably subconsciously, in history because we used to have some discussions about Ansaris and about Islamic history at home, since my father belonged to a special sect in India which is known as Wahabis. Wahabis are actually Ahl-i Hadith, those who believe in the Quran and traditions (in Arabic Ḥadith) of Prophet Muhammad only. They say: Whatever in those two sources exist, we will believe and we will follow them. But if an Imam (a great scholar, like Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Hanbal or Imam Shafii) has written in his book about Islam—how to practice it, what are actual problems and how will anyone solve it. etc.—we do not believe just simply in his writing. We will judge whether it is logical and is tallying with the prophetic traditions and the Quran Sharif, then we will accept it. So somehow a sort of critical approach, even for religious issues, was the main Islamic practice in our family.

SIH: Was it due to some influence of Shah Waliullah?

SMRA: Yes, surely some influence of Shah Waliullah and also of other scholars like him. Anyway, from the primary school I went to a government high school in Delhi. But my father was not satisfied. He said: This is a very strange school, you are learning everything, sciences, etc., but if you are not learning Persian, and you are not learning theology, then you are not learning anything worthwhile.

You see, he didn’t think of that at the time of admission in the high school, which was actually a polytechnic and specialised only in science and technology. So, I was asked to shift from the very well-organised Delhi Polytechnic School at Kashmiri Gate to the famous Anglo-Arabic Higher Secondary School (at Ajmeri Gate, Delhi) when I was in Class 8. There, I learnt some Persian and some theology besides other subjects. However, just after one year, from class 9—in those days of the British period the medium of every subject was English—since I was a student of Science, I did not learn history, etc., and other non-science subjects.
This school was plundered and looted during the communal riots of Delhi in 1947. The sharanarthis (refugees) came from West Pakistan and they started living in the school building forcibly. Some senior school teachers managed to evacuate them with great difficulty and the school was started again in 1949–50. In 1947, I was in class 10, but when the school reopened, I had to repeat in class 10, thereby losing two years of my school education, and I passed my higher secondary from there in 1950.

After passing my higher secondary examination, I joined the University of Delhi. Actually, I was a student affiliated to Delhi College (pre-1947 Anglo-Arabic College). When I joined the Physics Department of Delhi University, Prof. D.S. Kothari was the Head of the Department. I passed my BSc (Honours) and MSc in physics from Delhi University in 1953 and 1955, respectively. Thereafter, I did my PhD research under Prof. R.C. Majumdar. Prof. Kothari, a very intelligent person, was a student of M.N. Saha, the astrophysicist. He continued working in astrophysics, thereby building an astrophysics group in the Physics Department. Surprisingly, Kothari Saheb thought that for the students of Physics (Honours), history of science should be available as a subsidiary subject besides mathematics and chemistry. This choice of taking history of science as a subsidiary subject was a complete novelty in the history of Delhi University. Therefore, I grabbed the opportunity and so my subsidiary subjects were mathematics and history of science; I didn’t choose chemistry. The duration of a subsidiary course was of two years. So, for two years—1951–52—I learnt history of physics and history of biology. Then, the history of biology was taught by a very famous teacher, Prof. Maheshwari, who was the Head of the Department of Botany at Delhi University.

I did my MSc in physics since history of science was only a subsidiary subject in Delhi University and it could not be offered as a major discipline, although a large number of students opted for it as a subsidiary subject. So far as I know, despite their strong interest, nobody pursued history of science as I did later in my life.

I was appointed Lecturer for Physics in Delhi College (Delhi) in 1956, when Mirza Mahmood Baig Saheb was the principal. Fortunately, in 1959, I got the fellowship of Alexander von Humboldt Foundation of Germany, with the out-of-the-way help of late Baig Saheb. I cannot forget his kindness and love for competent students. Alexander von Humboldt Foundation is almost of the same status as the Ford Foundation in America. I got that fellowship for doing PhD in physics. I selected theoretical physics for my research degree, because in the Department of Physics under the headship of D.S. Kothari, only theoretical physics was developed as an important branch of physics, rather along with experimental physics, which to my knowledge is still weak in almost all Indian universities even today.  

Anyway, I got this fellowship and went to Germany in 1959. I got the fellowship for doing research in theoretical elementary particle physics, and I could not change the subject for the duration of the fellowship. I joined the Institute of Theoretical Physics of Hamburg University as a fellowship holder. The fellowship was offered initially for 10 months, with two months for learning German. I was told it could be extended another year also on the basis of my actual research. I had thought I would be able to complete my PhD within four years, and then return to India. However, it so happened that I remained in Germany for my doctorate and then postdoctoral research work and could return to India only after ten years, in October 1969. I found in Hamburg University a full-fledged Institute of History of Science as well. Naturally, I involved myself with its activities. Doctoral students were researching on sources and history of various disciplines in that institute. In Germany, the doctoral candidates have to pass some subsidiary subjects as well. So, I chose history of science along with higher mathematics as my subsidiary subjects.

There, history of science comprised history of physics, history of astronomy and history of mathematics. That institute became very famous under the directorship of Prof. Bernard Sticker.[1] For instance, scholars were researching history of modern physics particularly. So, the research activities at the institute was, in fact, a providential boon for me. I would like to add that when I went there and talked with Prof. Sticker, he agreed to my request of offering history of science as my subsidiary subject. However, he wanted me to present a paper at a seminar. So, I gave a talk on ‘Sir C. V. Raman and his Effect’ for which he got the Nobel Prize in 1930.

To start with, I did some research and published a paper in the Italian journal Nuovo Cimento. And then I didn’t like to continue that hi-fi mathematical/theoretical physics at Hamburg. So, I shifted from Hamburg to Tübingen University and got a scholarship from German Research Council. I restarted my PhD work in theoretical physics under a very nice and gentle physicist, Prof. G. Molière, who became famous for his researches with Warner Heisenberg, the Nobel Laureate in Atomic Physics. Unfortunately, he died prematurely, and I had to complete my doctoral dissertation on a problem of mathematical physics under Prof. G. Elwert, and secured my D.Sc. in 1966 from Karl Eberhard University at Tübingen (Germany). There I came to know one Professor Joseph Hoffmann who was engaged in the study of history of mathematics. He was a retired school teacher, knew Latin and Greek very well and was working on the famous German mathematician Leibnitz, the inventor of Calculus as Newton in England. So, I took the course that he offered as a subsidiary subject. Besides him there was also another professor, Matthias Schramm, who was an expert on the history of Islamic sciences. He was working on Ibn al‒Haytham's Arabic writings. So, I decided to attend his lecture as well. These lectures completely opened my eyes, about what actually history of science is and how the history of science can be pursued on the basis of primary sources and not just confined to secondary sources. I completed my D.Sc. in 1966. I was so much impressed by Matthias Schramm’s lectures on history of science in Islamic culture that I went to him one day to discuss with him my wish to do my post-doctoral research in Islamic science after completing my D.Sc. degree. He said: You cannot do it because you don’t know any classical language, i.e. either Arabic or Persian. I said: I know some Persian and I shall be able to improve it. He replied: Yes, you will be able to improve it surely, but for serious research one requires quite a bit of time for reading primary sources. So, you continue research in physics and after brushing up your Persian thoroughly, then come to me and we will see what could be done.

I clearly understood my disadvantage, and so I decided to take up Joseph Hoffmann's course work. He was an excellent historian of mathematics working on Latin writings   by Newton, Leibniz and the French mathematician Fermat. After his retirement from school, the University of Tübingen invited him to give lectures and even teach courses in history of mathematics. A school teacher because of his expertise in the history of mathematics was offered a post of university lectureship! It means, he was allowed to announce his lecture series, for which every two days a week he used to travel from his home town to Tübingen, and stayed privately in a guest house supported by the university. General students were not interested in the history of mathematics, although several students joined Prof. Matthias Schramm’s lectures on history of science in Islamic culture. Prof. Schramm was the director of the then recently founded Institute of History of Science at Tübingen University. Interesting to note that for Hoffmann's lectures, I was the only research student to attend them regularly. He used to come regularly from his residence to stay in Tübingen for two days at the university campus. Moreover, when the university authorities came to know about only one student attending his course as a subsidiary subject, they allowed Hoffmann to continue his course work as usual, since according to the university rule there had to be at least two persons in the lecture hall for an offered course. In this case the two persons were the lecturer (Hoffmann) and at least one student (myself). What a great support to a student for the sake of learning! As a matter of fact, my case of taking up history of mathematics as a subsidiary subject made history too. I was told that it was the first time in the history of the University of Tübingen‒‒then more than 500 years old‒‒that a student took up and passed history of mathematics as a subsidiary subject as part of his research degree. I am happy that I specialised in the history of mathematics in India and Islamic countries by the course work of internationally known German historian of mathematics Joseph Hoffmann.

Obviously, all those circumstances contributed towards shaping my in-depth interest in the history of science in general and the history of mathematics and astronomy in particular.
SIH: After coming back to India, when you joined Aligarh Muslim University as a faculty and started teaching in the Department of Physics, your interest in the history of science continued besides your main task of teaching Physics. I know you made some efforts in the beginning and, later on, we together made so many efforts to introduce history of science in universities. But despite your long stint at the Department of Physics in Aligarh and despite your engagements with history of science outside the university, why was history of science not institutionalised as a subject, either in the Department of Physics or as a separate department within the university or as an extension of History Department?

SMRA: I was appointed as a theoretical physicist in the Department of Physics of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), so my first task was to teach physics to students of the BSc (Honours) and MSc courses. Moreover, I was interested also to introduce a new branch of physics, namely, astrophysics and astronomy, which I introduced first in the MSc Physics syllabus. In fact, I succeeded in building a small research group in the above-mentioned subject. And one research student completed his PhD on a problem of interstellar physics under my supervision. [2]

History of science as an independent subject, as I had studied it in Germany, was not present as a selective subject in the Science Department of AMU. However, there was a subsidiary course of history of science offered by the Department of History to students of physics, mathematics particularly and probably also for students of other sciences, just like the course on history of science in Delhi University. Prof. Nurul Hasan, the head of the History Department, was interested in the history of science, and he got it introduced as a subsidiary course.    
In fact, in 1970, I requested Prof. Hasan to subscribe a couple of journals of history of science, so that the teaching faculty and even students could appreciate the international research development on the subject. I must appreciate Prof. Hasan’s vision, since he agreed to my request and subscribed to a couple of journals: Indian Journal of History of Science (New Delhi), Journal of History of Astronomy (Cambridge, UK) and ISIS, the journal of the American History of Science Society. However, I think I was the only teacher to consult those journals and nobody else in the History Department ever looked through them, not even the lecturer who was assigned to teach the history of science course to science students. Anyway, with my continued interest in history of science, I decided to do something on my own when I came into contact with a few historians of science at the Indian National Science Academy, New Delhi. In 1971 a seminar was organised by INSA on “History of Science in India” and, in 1976, INSA announced the “1500th Anniversary Celebration of the Indian astronomer Āryabhata (born in AD 476)”. That was a godsend opportunity for me to do some research on the basis of primary sources on my own. I participated in that symposium, held on November 24, 1976, with my paper, “A Comparative Study of the Mathematics of Aryabhata and al-Khwarizmi”. Further I published a fairly detailed study, “Āryabhata I, his Life and his Contributions”, in the Bulletin of the Astronomical Society of India, 1977. This account is based on the translation from Sanskrit into English of the only extant work of Āryabhaṭīya by W. E. Clark (Chicago 1930), text editions by H. Kern (Leiden 1874) and K.S. Shukla (New Delhi 1976). I am giving here these details in order to stress the point that history of science cannot be pursued without thoroughly consulting the primary sources of the subject. I may add that this paper of mine has been cited very frequently and I wonder now how I collected my primary and also standard secondary sources, actually in this first paper of my mine on history of astronomy[3]. Also, in the 96th Critical Bibliography of documentation on history of science, published in ISIS in 1971, 323 periodicals were surveyed and then more than 100 journals in the world were reported to be exclusively devoted to the discipline of history of science. We cannot imagine present update of this statistics because of its enormity.

Coming back to the efforts of INSA to promote history of science studies in universities, I wish to recall Dr B.V. Subbarayappa, whom you also knew.  Subbarayappa was then in INSA. He was one of the authors of the jointly edited treatise, The Concise History of Science in India. Eds. S.N. Sen, B. V. Subbarayappa and D.M. Bose, and he was one of the editors of The Indian Journal of History of Science as well, the publication of which started in 1966. Both published by INSA (New Delhi). Afterwards Subbarayappa became the Secretary of INSA also. So, we see that Indian National Science Academy was the only organisation which was promoting history of science on its own. And scholars were coming from various Indian institutions as individual historians to attend those conferences, seminars and symposia, all organised by INSA.

Consequently, Indian National Science Academy as an organisation became quite well known internationally, and its membership was approved by the executive committee of the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science (IUHPS), i.e., INSA joined it as one of its member organisation. There was no history of science society in India at that time, and even afterwards also, although many of us tried our best to found it but we did not succeed and even today. Finally, I may add that somehow my acquaintance with Subbarayappa flourished quite well, and under his advice I thought to work closely with all activities of INSA concerning history of science, activities both at the national and international levels. I was elected twice as a member of the National Commission of History of Science under the auspices of INSA, and also a member of the medieval Indian research group of the above-mentioned commission. Thereby a new vista was opened for me, so far as my researches and activities in the field of history of science are considered.
Let me interrupt a little, otherwise I will forget. This involvement of Indian National Science Academy which you have seen more than me, I have also watched it for 30 years now. The involvement of INSA in history of science, about which I may comment as something negative, I have watched it, you have seen it during the IUHPS conferences which we have attended all these years. Most of the participants used to come as part of the university system or professional societies they have set up in their countries or something like the professional in various disciplines, whichever discipline of science they represented. In India, Indian National Science Academy (INSA), with which you have been actively involved, has been a very bureaucratic platform, and actually did not have a number of students, professional teachers and connections with funding agencies to support research. It supports scholars who actually are interested in history of science as teachers of chemistry, physics, mathematics, etc., in universities, but they are not teaching history of science in any university. This is something I have watched very regularly and you have watched it too. So most of the people who are beneficiaries of the INSA funding are because of their subsidiary interest in pursuit of history of a particular science, but which they have not pursued as a discipline, that is as a profession. So, the representation of INSA in these international conferences was always weak because of that. And that is something sad, which has actually harmed us.

SMRA: No, INSA supported science teachers for their work in history of their own discipline, e.g., history of chemistry, mathematics, astronomy (myself), etc. There was nothing wrong in such a support, provided the abstract of their talks was accepted by the organising committee of the History of Science Congress. For instance, the history of a particular mathematical/astronomical problem was and is recognised as part of history of science. For instance, in the context of history of algebraic equations, the work of Omar Khayyam (twelfth century) to solve cubic equation for the first time geometrically given in his Tract on Algebra (originally in Arabic) is a masterpiece. A contribution on this work by any historian of mathematics is of paramount importance.   
For the other point regarding INSA, what you are missing is the following. When some scientists started history of science as an activity of INSA, their aim was also that INSA as an organisation joins the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science, and similarly also, for instance, International Union of Mathematics, International Astronomical Union etc., so that India is represented in such international organisations. At the same time, they wanted also to have an institute or a group which should start working not just as a unit as they have now, that is just publishing Indian Journal of History of Science, organising seminars and conferences and so on and so forth. They wanted to introduce research and teaching in history of science as a discipline. In other words, those scientists wished also to have an independent Institute of History of Science affiliated to INSA or sponsored by INSA. I think that Prof. D.S. Kothari and his colleagues must have been the initiator of this idea. However, the Department of Science and Technology of Government of India, which provides funds to INSA, did not agree. The idea was refused outright. Despite the example of Academy of Science of the erstwhile Soviet Russia, which sponsored and supervised not only the Institute of History of Science but also other institutes of other sciences as well, Institute for Geography or Mathematics and so on. The idea was that INSA should be the agency to supervise and support various institutes financially. To start with, INSA planned to have Institute of History of Science. The Department of Science and Technology refused to implement this idea, since it was not part of the Act of INSA. Probably the original idea was to allow INSA to initiate institutes in new emerging fields of science not pursued in India. In fact, such situations happened always. For instance, Psychology began initially as a course work in Philosophy Department, Islamic Studies in the History or Political Science Departments, Astrophysics‒Astronomy in Physics Department, Physiology in Anatomy, etc. However, later they developed as full-fledged departments. These course works developed into disciplines gradually and then they separated naturally from the parent departments. You see, this scenario was the result of the hard work of devoted individual experts during many years. 

SIH: My problem is now that scholars like me or you or even those before us are almost at the end of our professional careers, we are not part of any university, job or university system. When we were part of NISTADS, Deepak Kumar, me and so many others, actually were members of so many committees in Delhi University, in JNU, to formulate courses of or even to teach history of science. However, nobody came forward. We were actually discouraged by teachers of JNU. The reason I could imagine was that nobody wanted to get out of the grooves they were in, they had their economic history, their cultural history, they had all sorts of interests in history which they were pursuing for years, and they just did not want any new subject to come in. All this I am taking as a failure.

SMRA: Another reason could be that there was not even a small group of Indian historians of science existing at that point of time to pressurise the old guards at universities. At the same time, a possibility arose to build something in favour of history of science by A. Rahman, whose interest in history of science was quite known among the high echelons of the Indian government. He knew many functionaries from every walk of life, and also big advisers to the government. He could have built an Institute of History of Science despite his actual job of science policy expert. However, he preferred to build something for science policy only, namely National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies (NISTADS). So, in 1973, I went to Poland as a member of two-member delegation of INSA—B. V. Subbarayappa and myself. S.N. Sen was there as a delegate of the Institute of Cultivation of Science (Calcutta). The occasion was the 500 Birth Anniversary Celebration Conference of Nicolaus Copernicus, the father of heliocentric system of planets.[4] We saw there how the Institute of History of Sciences worked and what they were publishing about Copernicus. We were flabbergasted that Poland, a relatively small European country, just because of one Copernicus, had a full-fledged Department of History of Science, and Polish historians of science were celebrating his birth anniversary in a big way. There is a Nicolaus Copernicus University at Toruń, the birth city of Copernicus, and also a Copernicus Science Centre, rather a museum. What a sad contrast that in India no such Institute for Aryabhata, Brahmagupta and even Bhaskara exist, where studies in history of science at least in India are organised and promoted.
Anyway, we came back from the conference, and then I made up my mind to begin some work in source material research in history of science. I strengthened my connections, so to say in another way, with the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science (IUHPS) by attending its conferences regularly and organised there a few symposia, with the result that I became known for my work published in Indian Journal of History of Science (IJHS) and Archives Internationales d’ Histoire des Sciences (AIHS) and elsewhere also, with the result that I was elected first at the International Congress of History of Science (ICHS) held in Hamburg as the Vice President of the Commission of History of Science and Technology in Islamic Countries for 1989–1993 [5] and then in the following Congress held in Saragossa (Spain) as the President of the Commission for 1993–1997. In that capacity, the secretary of the Commission, the German scholar Sonja Brentjes, and I published a newsletter of the Commission during 1993–1997.

I was elected as the President of not only of the Islamic Science and Technology Commission of IUHPS, but also of a number of international commissions concerning history of astronomy as listed in the following.

1. President of Commission for Science and Technology in Islamic Civilization (1993‒97).
2.  President of IUHPS‒IAU [6] Joint Inter-Union Commission for History of Astronomy (1997‒2001).
3.  President of the IAU Commission for History of Astronomy (1994-97); I organized a Cclloquium held at IAU Assembly (Kyoto/ Japan), and edited alone its proceedings, History of Oriental Astronomy, published by Kluwer Academic, Dordrecht, 2002.
4.  President of the Commission for History of Ancient and Medieval Astronomy
      (2001‒ 2005
). This Commission (CHAMA) was proposed by me at ICHS [7], held
        in Mexico in 2001.

5.  Re-elected as President of CHAMA (2005‒2009) at the Congress held in Beijing.
I was also invited to hold a Plenary Lecture at the VIIIth Congress (Beijing 2005).  
7.  Elected as assessor of IUHPS Council for 1989–93, re-elected for 1994–97.

8.  Leader of the Indian Delegation at Congresses held in Liège (1997) and Manchester (2013).

I may stress particularly the point that once a scholar is fully devoted to his field of research, he can surely find opportunities to promote it, and sooner or later his work is recognised both nationally and more often internationally. For all my above-mentioned achievements I did not require any specific institution, only good and friendly contacts by attending the conferences at INSA, and the congresses of IUHPS and IAU.[8]
I was fortunate to attend 10 congresses/conferences every four years during 1977­–2013.
So, my work later was confined to congresses of IUHPS and IAU. I chaired their commissions, and as chairman I organised a symposium in the conference every four years.
Let me give here an example of my work. In 2001 when ICHST took place in Mexico, I could submit a proposal to the Executive Council of IUHPS that a commission should be established for the ‘History of Astronomy in Ancient and Medieval Period' (CHAMA). The council after some discussion approved it and I was elected as its first President for 2001–2005, and re-elected in the following congress held in Peking for 2005­2009. The secretary of the commission, Prof. Anne Tihon (Louvain, Belgium), and I published regularly the newsletter of the commission.  

SIH: Now coming back to a very important question, which actually is very crucial for both history of science and history itself, actually more important for the former, namely that of classical languages. I mean, sources available in classical languages, resources which are not published are in just manuscript form in many Indian languages, e.g., Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic and also in other regional languages such as Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, etc. So, our dilemma is and has been all these years, many scholars like Prof. K.V. Sarma actually have worked, but who could not really achieve what he wanted to achieve using the sources available in Sanskrit. He himself could do whatever he could do as an individual, but he could not institutionalise the whole process of recovering these manuscripts, unravelling what is available therein for a larger world. Similarly, when you use Persian sources, I think you confronted a similar problem. I will talk about it, I faced it. Although I have not worked in Persian sources but I coordinated a project for several years and worked with A. Rehman, despite his limitations and weaknesses; actually, he brought me into NISTADS in 1981–82 and I joined gladly the History of Science Group at NISTADS. Now Rahman, despite being a very important functionary of science in India in his time, he lived at the time when things could be done at an ad hoc level. Today you can’t work like that, that is, you cannot appoint anybody without any real issue. But then you could pursue any project, and you could even found an institution, which Rehman did. Now you say the word history is not mentioned in the title of NISTADS. However, I remember large number of scholars in the world knew NISTADS as an institution of history of science because history of science was the most prolific group and most visible group for several years. In fact, we made efforts to actually identify people who could read and work on scientific sources in Persian. We wished to bring one scholar, Aftab Rizvi, with a doctorate in history of mathematics, but we could not get him. Many other names of Sanskrit scholars were suggested to us, but we found that they were not up to the mark, since neither they knew English, nor mathematics, physics, and/or any science for that matter. So, the dilemma in India has been this mismatch of the available manpower which is either equipped in a classical language or equipped in science. So, the main problem at NISTADS for us had been non-availability of manpower. On the contrary, in Europe students know their own modern languages, and then they spend two to three years or more to learn a relevant classical language. In India, no Indian student wants to spend three or four years learning a language and then to begin a career in some discipline of science, history or even history of science. So, what has been your experience in this regard because you have worked with Persian sources?

SMRA: Before I answer that let me say a couple of things. First, had Aftab Rizvi been offered a confirmed position of professorship at NISTADS he might have joined it. He was the only historian of science then who had a PhD in history of medieval Indian mathematics (Persian sources). In fact, he should have been given all possible facilities for promoting his speciality further. Secondly, researchers with doctorates in any science subject as well as keen interest in history of science were not given opportunity to work on the actual source material of science available in various Indian manuscripts collections. Of course, your own mathematician colleague Rana was an exception. My third comment is regarding the logic of working followed by Indian students. Without any hesitation I may add that careerists cannot promote history of science or for that matter any new emerging discipline. In Europe students choose a subject on the basis of their real interest with which they overcome the difficulty of learning classical languages.   

Now to answer your question, may I say that it consists actually of two parts. The first part is what about the sources? Where are they? Whether they are arranged or not, whether we can use it or not. Now, I can assure you, that there are centrally funded libraries like the Raza Library in Rampur, Khuda Baaksh Library in Patna, and many libraries in Hyderabad, M. A. Library in Aligarh Muslim University, etc., with manuscripts in classical languages. Similarly, Benares Hindu University library is known for its Sanskrit collections. So the sources, the hardware of history of science, are available in these libraries. They are well preserved also. But it is very difficult to acquire any manuscript as an individual. The librarians do not want that the whole manuscript to be given to any scholar. The rule is, only one-third of the text will be given to the user; a strange rule not followed by any library in the world. If one has a project, one wants to have the whole manuscript and work on its text, namely translate it, collate it with other manuscripts and then publish a text edition with a translation in English with commentary. I know all that from my own experience. So, some such rules of our Indian libraries are to be changed. However, these libraries are not centralised and the government cannot dictate anything. Even the directors are helpless. Only the syndicate or the managing committee of the library have the power to change the rules, if at all. So, we have this difficulty with securing our sources.

SIH: My problem is not this. Sources are there, we all know. These rules can be changed, if one makes an effort. That is the other point. The point is we need to have skills, we need to have skilled people.

SMRA: From where will you bring the skill unless the teacher himself knows science and simultaneously a classical language and inculcate in students a keen interest in history of sciences in general or particular subject like mathematics, astronomy, physics, etc.?

SIH: We have not created a platform, you have not created institution in all these years where people could come, learn a classical language, get their bread and butter out of doing history of science. You get your bread and butter by teaching physics while you do history of science on the side. That is not the way to do history of science. That is the problem.                                           

SMRA: Irfan Saheb, ‘Rome was not built in a day’ is the famous saying. Actually, in that way HS was developed in Germany and also in France, etc. The school teachers knew classical languages—Greek, Latin or even Arabic. They started working and published their findings and later became professors at universities. I have cited already the example of Joseph Hofmann, under whom I learnt history of mathematics in Germany. Let me inform you here about my effort concerning the platform you have mentioned.

When Prof. A.M. Khusro was the Vice-chancellor at the Aligarh Muslim University, I talked with him and discussed the paradox of promotion of history of science as a discipline. At that time Prof. Izhar Husain was the chairman of Mathematics Department and Prof. Wasiur Rahman was the chairman of Chemistry Department. We three professors from the science faculty were very much interested in history of science. So Khusro agreed with me and said: Why don’t you organise a centre for history of science? I agreed readily. So, he set up a committee to think over about it and suggested to involve some persons from the engineering college also. He made the convener of the committee a high-statured professor from History Department. However, the convener was not interested in the foundation of a Centre of History of Science and Technology, since history of science as a subsidiary course at the undergraduate level was offered by the History Department.

SIH: And History of Technology.

SMRA: No, history of technology was just a field of research but history of science as a course for subsidiary subject for science students. In reality he was interested in history of technology only, for the simple reason that his one-time student Jan Qaisar, who did PhD under him in history of technology, could get a post of Professorship. So that was his main purpose.

SIH: Ahsan Jan Qaisar.
SMRA: Yes, Ahsan Jan Qaisar, you are right. So, the convener manipulated our sittings. No member of our committee could stand against him. And our main purpose of founding a centre was scuttled from the beginning. So probably the difficulty was and still persists that there are no scholars who know or are interested in history of science or who have even heard about research in primary sources of sciences in our universities or even in departments of various sciences. Only such a group in the history of science (HS) can generate a positive environment for historians of science or scientific disciplines in the first instance. That is also the reason why the Society for HS has not appeared in India till date.  

SIH: This is precisely what I am saying. We have failed on that account, because we have not been able to create a platform, we have not been able to create a place where you can have dedicated manpower to do history of science through Persian sources, Sanskrit sources, etc.

SMRA: Yes, you are right. To continue, when founding of a centre was proposed by me and other colleagues and a committee to that end was formed, at that time the historian Satish Chandra was in Aligarh. Satish Chandra later became the UGC chairman. So far as I know, he was interested in history of science also. Because he was a scholar just like Nurul Hasan who was interested not only in history in general, but considered sciences a part of the culture, and also a very important part of the society. So, if that centre would have been proposed to UGC, we could have got it as the first Centre for HS in India in AMU. Moreover, the committee members wanted to propose it under Science faculty, not under Faculties of Arts or Social Science. The reason was simple. What anything worthwhile by anyone could be done, despite one's knowledge of Persian, Arabic or even Sanskrit, unless the researcher has an in-depth knowledge of mathematics, physics, chemistry, that is of science subjects? So, we have to make science students interested in the history of science. This wish of the committee was unimaginable to the convener, who was a historian. Strangely enough the convener did not wish to appreciate, might be intentionally, that primary sources for research in history of science are actually hardwares of actual sciences, for instance, works on Algebra and its topics, in astronomy the geocentric and heliocentric theories of planetary motion and therefore the understanding of Copernicus’ great contribution in the history of astronomy.

Without a centre or an independent department for history of sciences, one cannot attract students, because they won’t have anywhere to go once they complete their PhD degrees. Suppose I, from Physics Department, and Izhar Hussain, from Mathematics Department, had taken a student each to supervise their doctorate in history of physics/astronomy and mathematics. The moot question is, where those students would have got any respectable post of lectureship in future. The science departments in universities are interested only in doctorates in mathematics/physics and not in the history of mathematics/astronomy/physics, etc. So, this has been the main problem.

In our country intellectuals are interested only in their own narrow research field. They are not widely read. And this problem which you said has been solved in European countries like Germany and France, since they know probably from school itself Latin or Greek. And then afterwards they listen to general lectures in universities on oriental studies or Islamic sciences or on Indology, and then they might be convinced of the importance of these subjects, and might think also that the competition in these new subjects would be quite less and then they would opt learning Sanskrit or Arabic along with their main science subject. Such a situation does not arise in India. In Europe, this way of thinking is normal.

SIH: The main problem is institutionalisation of the discipline which has not happened here. You are talking of the West. Look at David King or Julio Samso. Now these people are well known for their work in history of Islamic sciences. They are now old, Edward Kennedy has already died. There were so many scholars during all these years who have been part of an institutional process. They have been funded and they have published their research findings.

SMRA: I think that you have oversimplified or overlooked the original development of their career. I have been in contact with all of them for many decades. These scholars were not trained at a specialised institute of history of science. They studied mathematics or astronomy as normal science subjects along with Arabic as a classical language. Their universities, where they studied, were normal educational institutions.  Let me spell out some details here. 

David King studied Mathematics at Cambridge University (1961–64) and later Arabic at Near Eastern Languages and Literatures at Yale University (1968–72). He was director of a project in medieval Islamic astronomy funded by the Smithsonian Institution at the American Research Center in Egypt (1972–79), and later got the professorship at Near Eastern Languages and Literatures at New York University (1979–85), presumably to teach Arabic. After about seven years, in 1985, he finally became the director and the professor at the Institute of History of Science of the Goethe University in Frankfurt. He worked at Frankfurt diligently on primary sources of astronomy in Islamic culture and civilization and trained many young researchers also, but alas the Institute of History of Science was abolished in 2007 by the University after King’s retirement, unfortunately, despite the fact that the Institute at Frankfurt was the second one, established in 1943 by his predecessor Prof. Willy Hartner, the famous historian of Islamic Science. The first one founded by the German historian of science Julius Ruska in 1922 at Berlin, which was bombed in 1944 during the WWII.

Julio Samso completed both of his MA (1964) and PhD (1967) from University of Barcelona. He became professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of La Laguna (Canary Islands) during1974–76, and later at Department of Arabic at University of Barcelona, from where he retired in 2012. Since then he is Emeritus Professor of the University of Barcelona. However, he was fortunate to work under the very famous Arabist and Spanish science historian, Juan Vernet (1923–2011), who served the University of Barcelona for thirty years.[9] With his active support, Samso could build a group of young researchers, whom he guided to work on the history of Arabic astronomy particularly, as developed in Andalusia, the Islamic Spain during the Medieval Europe. He has been very actively engaged without any specific Department of History of Arabic-Islamic Science.

Finally, let me summarise the wonderful career of Edward S. Kennedy (1912–2009), who graduated with a BS in Electrical Engineering, and whose first appointment was to teach in a secondary school for boys outside Tehran (Iran). Kennedy utilised that opportunity and became fluent in both spoken and written Persian, and his time in Iran inculcated an interest in Islamic culture and history. After his return to the US, he earned from Lehigh University his PhD in mathematics, which he completed in 1939. He then joined the Alabama University as an assistant professor, during which time he began to pursue research on medieval astronomical tables, called Zijes in Persian and Arabic. After WWII, Kennedy returned to the US to work with the famous historian of science George Sarton, at Harvard University (Massachusetts). There he got acquainted with the most famous historian of exact science Otto Neugebauer.[10] To focus his research on the reading of medieval manuscripts in Arabic, and to improve his knowledge of Arabic language, Kennedy accepted in 1946 an offer of professorship at the Mathematics Department of the American University of Beirut (Lebanon). He continued to teach there for the next 35 years, retiring in 1976. At Beirut he inspired many young scholars, e.g. George Saliba, David King and others to take up history of Islamic exact science as their field of research. When civil war broke out in Lebanon, he got opportunities to work at the American Research Centre in Egypt (1976–1978) and at the Institute for the History of Arab Science in Aleppo in Syria during 1978–1980. Four years at the Institute for the History of Arab and Islamic Science in Frankfurt were followed by a move to the Institute of Advance Studies in Princeton (USA) in 1989. There he continued working on Islamic exact science till his death at the age of 97 years. In fact, Kennedy was recognised the ‘Father of the Exact Sciences in the Medieval Islamic World’ through his translation and analysis of Arabic manuscripts, especially those not well known.

These scholars were not initially trained in history of science particularly. They learnt mathematics and/or astronomy in their college days, but also the classical Arabic, in which they acquired excellent expertise during their career. The main point is that they were inspired by some of the then living famous scholars who were interested keenly in the history of science, for instance science in the Islamic medieval period or science in antiquity. I stress that to become a historian of any scientific discipline one requires primarily the in-depth knowledge of that discipline along with the expertise of a classical language like Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, etc.

SIH: That is what I am saying. That at some point of time they were working in a specialised Institute of history of science.

SMRA: Yes, but only during the advanced years of their career. May I tell you, to establish an institution is very difficult. Samso and his superiors could not establish such an institution. He worked and his students now are working in the Department of Arabic of the University of Barcelona. So, you have found out, you have seen that even if there is an institution, unless there are people to work, the people are interested in it. What happened in Germany and other countries in Europe, first there are people who were interested, even before any institution was established. Obviously to build an institution is very difficult because whosoever is already there, he would like to grab the money. They will not like to divide the overall budget. So, what the Germans did, they established a society. When the society promotes a discipline just like the Indian Society of History of Mathematics, if the society is there and they have the conferences and they bring people and so on, then they can have an institution also one day because the society is there, society is working with them.

But the Society of people who are interested in that subject, whether it is a subject of mathematics, whether it is a subject of physics, if that society is there, then only people …

SIH: There is a National Commission for History of Science. It is a big name. Now what it does? All these years the commission has been funding people who are interested in history of science, most of the people who have actually taught all their lives, at the end of their career when they retire, they want to pursue the history of the discipline they have been teaching. During their active research life they didn’t bother to do history of science. They were not interested. They were actually doing physics, teaching physics, which was fine. But the point is when they come to do the history of the discipline they have been teaching all these years, these people have no clue what the history of their subject is? They come from exact sciences, hard sciences and I have no problem with that, it is their discipline. But when they come to do history of science, they do history of science, which is actually a celebration of the discipline, of the subject they have been teaching all their lives. It is a hagiography. It is not history of science. There is no critical engagement with that idea of science. There is no social engagement because you can’t do history of physics without engaging with the society of that particular period, and these people have no skills to do that because they have never done it. And so most of the projects of history of science, unfortunately, are poor because of that. Most of them, leave aside few, some people are good, I am not saying about all of them, but 80 to 90 per cent projects are of this nature. People get money because they are retired, they want 2.5–3 lakh, and they will just produce some half-baked work which will not be noticed anywhere. Finish. And that is the future.

SMRA: There are people who are interested in their subject whether astronomers or physicists or, for example, medical people, and they cannot do history of their subject because they have to teach or they have to do some work and so on and so forth. And when they retire, then at that point of time they wanted to do history which actually was their main interest which they could not do earlier. And then they can produce if they are interested. So, the main thing is that a person or a human being should be interested first in a particular field. It is said that history of science in Germany was also not there. And there was one person, I am forgetting his name, in Leipzig University, he started history of medicine. He was the first person to have studied the history of medicine, and then he worked very hard and got an Institute of History of Medicine. Now when we tried, when I tried for example, this centre, the Indian National Science Academy, does not mean only an office, there are many people there, D.S. Kothari who was a big personality, R.C. Majumdar and others. There were many Bengalis especially who were interested in history of science but they could not found an institute.

Now how Saha left Allahabad University and went to Calcutta and established an Institute of Advanced Centre in Nuclear Physics. So, if at a certain level, like A. Rehman or somebody else, he can do that. And the government of Bengal must have helped him to establish an institute.

First, we should try to explain to the people of our country that history of science is important and has heritage value, and when we talk about heritage, we should go to the primary sources. And we should work only on primary sources, then it is history of science or history of mathematics, history of geography, etc. Unless you go to the primary sources, nothing can be done.

Second, you go to the various encyclopaedias, take everything from there and then write an article. Maybe you can write a book also. That is good for popularisation but it is not history of science in general. So, unfortunately, we don’t have people who are interested in their culture, in their heritage, and we have to live with it. Now, given this situation, what should we do? Then as an individual I tried to do that. At least history of astronomy in Medieval period and in modern, even the astronomers in India are not interested in the history of modern period. They should be interested in the history of what has been done in astronomy in the last 50 years. Nobody is interested. Our society, Indian Society of Astronomy, is not interested in history of astronomy. They are all modern astronomers, but they are not even interested in modern astronomy, what to talk about Sanskrit or Tamil, and of course Arabic is completely different.

In the bulletin of ASI, a few people would have written and have written about the history of astronomy. In 1975, I published a paper on Aryabhatta and others also used to write something about history of science. And we could, for example, in the ASI, we could have written a report of a conference in Europe or Brazil—last congress on the history of science and philosophy of science and technology took place in Brazil. We could have written a report, what happened, why they were interested. How many people were there? But the Astronomy Society is not interested. Even modern people are not interested in history of their own subject, what to talk about the heritage.

[1].  In fact, even today that Institute of History of Science of Hamburg University is still quite famous, so much so that

 it was the main institution to organise International Conference of History of Science. This conference series is actually sponsored by the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science (IUHPS). Naturally, I participated in this conference as an Indian delegate.

[2] I may add that our few research papers were published in the well-known journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, published from London. Moreover, on my request, Prof. M. J. Seaton FRS, based in London, agreed to become the foreign examiner of the thesis of my research student. This is just to indicate the quality of the doctoral thesis under my supervision in the newly introduced field of astrophysics.

[3] I may add that I emphasised in this paper the importance of  history of sciences in India  in the last section. I quote:
“A cursory look through the bibliography of this very paper will convince everyone that even the secondary literature, let alone the primary, is out of reach of an Indian historian of science working on his own. It is the need of the hour that Indian universities and especially institutions of national importance recognize History of Science as a discipline, so as to provide facilities for a directed program of research and teaching in the History of Science in India”.

[4] "Quinquecentenary of Nicolaus Copernicus: The Father of Heliocentric System––Report of the International Conference, held in Warsaw (Poland), Sept.4, 1973, Indian Journal of History of Science, Vol. 10 (1975):

[5] The president of this commission was the famous historian of Islamic Science, the American Edward Kennedy.

[6] IUHPS is the acronym for International Union of History and Philosophy of Science; IAU is for International Astronomical Union, of which I am also the elected member since 1973.

[7] ICHS is the acronym for International Congress for History of Science, which is sponsored by IUHPS and which takes place every four years. 

[8] I acknowledge here gratefully INSA and Aligarh Muslim University for partial travel grants and local hospitality by the organising committees of the congresses/conferences.

[9] Juan Vernet had been the pupil and intellectual heir of orientalist Maria Millàs Vallicrosa, whose  rigour and scope of  scholarly work made  him an international authority in the field of the history of science and cultural transfers between East and West. Author of the book What culture owes to the Arabs of Spain, he was also a translator of the Quran and the Thousand and One Nights in the Spanish language (Castilian).

[10] Otto Neugebauer (1899–1990) was the historian of Babylonian and Greek mathematics and astronomy, who founded later the History of Mathematics Department at Brown University in Rhode Island. David Pingree was his successor. Kennedy began a close working relationship and also friendship with him, which lasted till Neugebauer’s death in 1990.