S. Irfan Habib in conversation with S. M. Razaullah Ansari: Modern Astronomy and Islamic Studies

S. Irfan Habib in conversation with S. M. Razaullah Ansari: Modern Astronomy and Islamic Studies

in Video
Published on: 02 November 2020

Syed 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 an edited transcript of the conversation with Shaikh Mohammad Razaullah Ansari conducted by Syed Irfan Habib in Delhi, November 2018. 

Syed Irfan Habib (SIH): Ansari saab, you have done substantial work on several Persian sources, especially on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century astronomy. What sort of problems did you confront? You have also written about it—Jai Singh’s observatory and other observatories in India in the eighteenth century, and Prof. S.R. Sharma has written actually even more on Jai Singh particularly. My question is, and I have raised it with some other people as well, though Jai Singh was exposed to the West—there were lots of Europeans visiting India in those times—why did Jai Singh stick to the masonic observatory and did not really use the modern telescopic astronomy which was already getting popular in Europe even though he was in touch with it, he was familiar with it. What were the reasons?

Shaikh Mohammad Razaullah Ansari (SMRA): This is very strange that—he was in eighteenth century, right, in 1740s—a person like Jai Singh who was a maharaja and a scholar of Sanskrit was aware that the Sanskrit sources are not sufficient so far as the development of astronomy or mathematics are concerned probably. Otherwise there was no need of translating the Arabic sources. So, he knew or somebody tried to convince him, we don’t know who convinced him, but there were a number of astronomers of Persian and Arabic in Delhi and some of them were also in Jaipur or Rajasthan. He thought that this Sanskrit or ancient Indian astronomy and mathematics should be overhauled. A [member of the] higher echelon, like a maharaja, is thinking about it. He himself was a scholar and he clearly understood that whatever we have in ancient India was not sufficient. At that point of time when he got that translated, he was not probably very much in contact with the Jesuits. He came into contact with Jesuits when he started coming to Delhi more often and, in Delhi, he met them. And then afterwards he invited them here also.

In those days in medieval period there was the transmission of sources, astronomical sources as well as mathematical sources, from central Asia and Iran into India. Normally central Asia and Iran should have Persian sources. But Arabic was the language of science in those days, so people used to write in it. So, Jai Singh found the Ptolemaic Astronomy, Almagest (second century mathematical and astronomical treatise written by Ptolemy in Greek; this is also an Arabic word from al-mageste but this is now also used in English as well as other sources). They were studied further, they were promoted further or probably modernised by Nasiruddin Tusi (Nasir al-Din al-Tusi) who was the Director of Maragheh Observatory (at Maragheh in Iran). So Tusi was interested in real good excellent astronomy. He criticised Almagest and its mathematical method and some parameters which Ptolemy used which were not supposed to be there, and also there was no theoretical basis for those parameters. So, he wrote recensions of Ptolemaic astronomy and also wrote a recension on the geometry of Euclid. He used to call them tahrir. Tahrir we understand today as writing but tahrir meant review or recension. Tahrir al-Majisti (Commentary on the Algamest), Tahrir al-Uqlidis (Commentary of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry). So those two Arabic sources were translated. This is very interesting. Persian sources were not translated. Probably there were already Persian sources or recensions of those in Persian sources, which were used in madrasas afterwards. So, Jai Singh got them translated, he built a school, and his Sanskrit teacher/scholar…

SIH: Jagannath Samrat?

SMRA: Yes. So, Jagannath translated it. Probably Jagannath himself didn’t translate them, others who knew Arabic together with persons who knew local language must have translated it into local language, from Arabic to the local language, from local language into Sanskrit, and Jagannath edited it, wrote in good Sanskrit, rather excellent Sanskrit.

SIH: Zij-i-Muhammed Shahi?

SMRA: Zij-i-Muhammed Shahi is different. We are talking about only the translation of Tusi’s book on astronomy and Euclid. So, they were translated into Sanskrit. And then he built a school of astronomers, and he commissioned that the Ulugh Beg table and other books of practical astronomy should also be studied. Now Ulugh Beg also had an observatory and there was this famous sextant which Ulugh Beg built. And in those days, in Maragheh also, and Ulugh Beg, only the masonry instruments were there and the telescope was not known. So, he started making this.

This is very interesting to know that in astronomy if you have done some research and you have seen something special in the sky, then somebody else in some other place should also see that. And, therefore, he said that: No, one observatory is not enough, there should be four or five observatories. So, people will do the observations of the same phenomena at various places. So, this is something quite modern.

Anyway, that was done. However, no repercussions of those translations took place. They were archived in the library and, probably, some people might have done some work on the book of Jagannath, but nobody wrote any commentary. And, similarly, other translations, Euclid’s Elements, nobody wrote any commentary. So, it means, people were not interested.

Meanwhile, by chance, he came to know the Jesuits, and the Jesuits told him that astronomy has developed a lot and you are still building these observatories! And when these observatories were there, there were always people there to do observations. There are observations, there are lots of tables in Sanskrit using such observations from this type of observatories, naked-eye astronomy, which Jai Singh did.

Then he was shown a telescope. There is that particular page from the diary in which it is written that this telescope was presented from Jai Singh to Mohammad Shahi. So, he knew that the telescope is there.

Now whatever they found was almost the same thing which Galileo had seen through the telescope. That means the satellite or moons of various planets and so on and so forth. It is written in Persian in one of the chapters, and I found in a few manuscripts that on the margin there was also some description, diagrams, for example, of Saturn and the ring, the salt of Saturn and Jupiter with bands and so on and so forth. And I have also written an article on that.

But then he writes there also about this question I studied quite a bit and I have written that they are alright, I can see sunspot and I can see the planets and Jupiter and so on and so forth. But a normal person doesn’t have a telescope at his disposal. So, he will not be able to do any experiment. He has to use naked eye. This he writes. But he doesn’t give the very important reason for it. The telescopes were only for looking, not for measuring. For the measurement there should be a crosswire. Just like today when you take a photograph and there is a square [in the middle of the lens] which you see, similarly a crossfire. And then there is a Vernier which has to be there somewhere with which you can measure to decimal points/values the reading of a particular situation or location of a planet or of a star. These were not available in those telescopes. The telescopes were meant only for looking. So, you can enjoy the object and that is all. So, this happened in European observatory also and there are articles on it. And I have given in my article ‘Modern Astronomy in India’, which was published in Indian Journal of History of Science in 1985, that such devices were not available and, therefore, Jai Singh thought that this is just useless, it cannot give a good reading and his instruments which are so big can give a better reading. So, this is one of the reasons.

But my question is or my thinking is . . . and there is one thing more, there is probably one or two sources which are available in Sanskrit in which some modern astronomy or the telescopic astronomy is given. But there are many in India of modern astronomy afterwards. The people who came into contact with the engineers, British engineers and so on, were told what a telescope today is and, therefore, they wrote, I wrote in ‘Modern Astronomy’, on Indo-Persian sources. Abu Talib Landani, Mir Muhammad, they went to Europe, they saw there. At that point of time the telescopes were better, and also in Europe where the people never used telescope in the beginning.

SIH: Mirza Abu Talib, when he comes back in 1803, writes his memoirs/travelogue, he makes this comment that whatever he saw in London, in Paris, in Europe . . .

SMRA: And it was translated into Persian.

SIH: . . . but in India we are actually quite far behind in our understanding of astronomical studies.

SMRA: Although at Gurukul Kangri and the madrasas these manuscripts are still there, you can go and you can read those manuscripts—they were bought or purchased and preserved there but they were not used. Modern Astronomy was not used at all. And there were no telescopes available. But the telescopes were available for the son of Shahjahan and he used to play with it. The telescopes probably became available afterwards when the observatories in Presidency College and the other colleges like St. Xavier’s began.

SIH: You mentioned Shahjahan. Mulla Mahmud Jaunpuri, who wrote this beautiful text Shams al-bazighah, was commissioned by Shahjahan to go to Samarkand and to study in the observatory over there and come back and set up an observatory in India.

SMRA: You are talking about the India that nobody talks about. What happened to Shahjahan who was interested, who brought a very important person and a scholar, but the ministers and their clique of the ministries didn’t let this scholar have his own way. So, he went back to his home town.

SIH: All the money which was earmarked for observatory, etc., was probably used for building the Taj Mahal.

SMRA: Whether the money was used for Taj Mahal or not is immaterial. But it was probably used by the ministers for some other work.

SIH: It was the same period. Same period. Exactly the same period.

SMRA: Possibly. They must have said: What is the use of this, the Taj mahal is more important.

SIH: Observatory, science, astronomy and these monuments . . . so what are the priorities? For example, if you go even further to Akbar’s court, there were Jesuits, there were all these embassies which used to come to Mughal court, had started coming to the Mughal court, one of them brought a mechanical clock and that clock was presented to Akbar. Now when it was seen by him, it was seen as some sort of a curiosity. Now clock for us were not so important then. He asked his workshop people to actually replicate it, which they did, yes, but it was not mass produced. So, the clock actually was not available generally to people. It was not seen as something very useful. Why? Because Europe was going through industrial revolution, was going through a transmission where time keeping was important…

SMRA: Not here.

SIH: . . . and India was still far behind in those times. So, there were so many reasons why technologically also we could not adopt things which were available to us and we just saw them as curiosities.

SMRA: But, in any case, during the medieval period people were interested at least in predicting the eclipses of moon, whether it was for astrological reason or not. And in the medieval period in Zijes, there are always a catalogue of stars. Probably because of the fact that they were based on Ulugh Beg Zij, Zij’s astronomical tables and mathematical tables. That is one of the reasons. But in no Sanskrit up till now, so far as my knowledge is concerned, in no Sanskrit text any catalogue of stars is available. So, it depends on what are you interested. In India people were interested in planets, for them they were very important but not the stars. And in Islamic astronomy, planets alright but at the same time the stars also.

The famous astronomer Abdur Rehman Sufi wrote a book in Arabic about all the constellations of stars, which are observable in the sky. He included in it also illustrations of the constellations, with names of each star in a particular constellation. For example, this pole star and Great Bear (Dubb-i Akbar) and Small Bear (Dubb-i Asghar). So, in Islamic culture, not only the planets but also the stars were very important for observation.

This book has not been translated from Arabic into any other language so far as I understand. This book of Abdur Rehman Sufi is very important.

SIH: My concern here is related to what we have been talking about. Like, for example, we have not been able to create a community of scholars who can access manuscripts, analyse manuscripts, read manuscripts and write about what the manuscript says. Whether it is Sanskrit, Persian or Arabic. Now, similarly, if you just take an example, there are many scholars like him, like Roshdi Rashed in France, an Egyptian settled in France who has written extensively. This man has been visiting India and I have been part of so many of his visits to India to different libraries. Once he went to Aligarh and I had a lot of difficulty in arranging the facilities of photocopying, etc.—he wanted some manuscript. Similarly, I got some manuscripts photocopied for him from Raza library, I can’t read Arabic, it was on Euclid and geometry, etc., which he used in his books which were published later on. 

The point is people like him, and this is just an example, there are so many others like him who can access these manuscripts which are our repositories in our country. They have to travel all the way from France, England or the US. We live here in India, these libraries are with us, these resources are with us, we are familiar with them but still we don’t have the capability to understand, to read, to analyse, write about those manuscripts. They are all languishing in our libraries. There is a Manuscript Mission which collects large number of manuscripts and preserves them but what will you do with that preservation if you don’t have people to utilise them.

SMRA: Now let me say something. With Roshdi Rashed it is so that he came as an Egyptian to France and then started working. He knoww very good Arabic. He also knows mathematics. In the beginning he had lot of difficulties in bringing French people to learn Arabic and to do some mathematics. The whole group of Roshdi Rashed came after CNRS (French National Centre for Scientific Research) supported it. So, this is the point. There is one person and he produced lot of material himself for publicity. He could say this is in Arabic, this is in Arabic, this is in Arabic, this is in Arabic. He is doing what we have done on our own individually; we have also done it. But we were not supported. And CNRS could support it. The French people could understand that this man is very important and we should support it. And once he was given funds, he asked people, young people—old people would not come to learn Arabic—so he offered scholarships, brought young people and those young students learnt mathematics, young people learnt astronomy and they learnt also Arabic and then they started working. Now that CNRS group—his own institute is very famous but this is done by only one person with the support of the research council—CNRS is the council of scientific research, only when CNRS helped him he could build a whole, an enormous group and later an institute of history of Arabic Science . . .

SIH: I have watched it very closely, I have been part of it for some time. I have seen how these people work and the point is we could not replicate something like this in India. That is our problem. That is what I am trying to emphasise again and again.

SMRA: You have not been able to replicate it, and sooner or later you will not be able to replicate even people who could speak or read Arabic or Sanskrit because Sanskrit people are not learning now, mathematics and so on and so forth. They are interested in scriptures and Vedas probably.  But so far as our Arabic and Persian is concerned, we have a department of Islamic Studies in Aligarh University. We have in Aligarh University also a faculty of Theology in which there is a Department of Sunni Theology and then Shia Theology. Just like the seminaries of Jesuit, Catholic and Protestant orders in medieval Europe.

Islamic Studies does not only mean theology. Islamic Studies does not only mean that you talk about Quran Sharif or Hadith, the traditions. And what the great Imams have written, Imam means the leader. Islamic Study means Islam as a culture and cultural aspects, social aspects, philosophical aspects, even scientific aspects.

When I write anything about Islamic science, I write in the footnote that it does not mean it has to do with Islam as a religion but it has to do with Islam as a culture.

SIH: Yes, Ansari saab, Islamic Studies. In Islam, what is the madrasa curriculum, curriculum of a seminary or a department of Theology, etc., in Aligarh University or anywhere else. Most of this curriculum was actually formulated at a time in the history of Islam when the scientific revolution, the science in Islam of the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries, that particular period of philosophy or the period of Bayt al-Hikma, etc., in Baghdad, science itself has become suspect. Madrasas did not come up in Islam during that period. Madrasa comes up in the twelfth century.

SMRA: No, this is not true. In India it is the case but not in other Arabic countries, after all Al-Biruni, Ibn al-Haytham and Ulugh Beg came out of the extant madrasas of their times. So, in those days madrasas used to teach not only religious sciences but also other subjects like history, especially the sciences because in those days the Greek sciences were translated.

SIH: You read History of Observatory in Islam by Aydin Sayili, the appendix of that book which is more than 30 pages just talks about this. Why was science not taught in madrasas?

SMRA: If this is true that science was not taught, then how did these people know science? How did Ibn al-Haytham know about optics?

SIH: You are talking of very few people. This is not the whole representation of the Islamic world. This continues in Islam even after the downfall of rationality, of rationalism, of free thinking, critical thinking, Ijtihad in Islam. Even then we will find scholars in the fifteenth sixteenth centuries. That is the exception. General situation in Islam was very depressing.

SMRA: But Irfan, during the period when Al-Mamun was trying to get the…

SIH: That is the best period. Al-Mamun Harun al-Rashid. That is the only period.

SMRA: So that is the period in which Greek sciences were translated into Arabic, and their scientists were being produced and they also did some experiments.

SIH: All these names you are taking is from that period, not from this period.

SMRA: Of which period you are talking about?

SIH? I am talking of the later period when institutionalisation of a madrasa took place as an educational institution.

SMRA: So, madrasa was not there...?

SIH: No, no, it was not institutionalised as an educational institution. They were all private schools where people were taught privately. Read George Saliba. He has given the whole history—when madrasa comes up as an institution.

SMRA: But what about the madrasa which Ulugh Beg founded in Samarqand? And the Nizamiyya Madarsa in Basra or Iraq? I think the madrasas were there and even in India if you see the syllabus, I can tell you that mathematics was taught and it was obsolete mathematics because it was only Arabic mathematics which was transmitted, so it was obsolete.

I am sure you know that Al- 'Âmulî's astronomy book was taught even in India, and there were also lots of other very important books taught. This happened in India specially—that all these books on mathematics which were taught were given up, they were deleted from the syllabus and they said there is no need of science. Our madrasa is for religious [studies] only. But this never happened in Iran. And, therefore, Iranian madrasas became modernised and then became modern universities. It happened like that. Why it happened in Iran and Uzbekistan and Tajikistan? There the madrasas were the basis, but at that time they have some knowledge of science—it was not major fields but minor fields—people were there who were studying them. And then when they went from one place to another, they promoted them. This is not true that madrasas, when they were institutionalised, science was not included. Because the people who were at the helm of affairs, that means the government, they were not interested in religion so much. Otherwise you say it was a theocratic state, the king or the caliph didn’t ask them not to do any science. This is not the case. In madrasas, the Greek sciences in Arabic translations were studied and not only in the Greek but from other languages also, from Persian and pre-modern Persian, they were there but they didn’t develop further.

SIH: Why?                                                                                            

SMRA: Because the patronisation was not there.

SIH: Why was patronisation not there?

SMRA: Because they became more interested in conquests of neighbouring countries.

SIH: You are contradicting yourself, that is the problem. If everything was so hunky-dory, then why was Islam in such a deplorable state?  

SMRA: In the history of science, old history of science, and probably in other fields also, there is always like this, there are centres. Then these centres shift from one place to another. Another centre. Whatever be the name. For example, in Germany there was a centre of physics and mathematics, then it shifted to France, and now the Europe is not so much developed as the America. And, similarly, Iran, from Iran India became a centre at that time at least, the Mughal patronised those scholars who fled from there because of one reason or the other, because of religious persecution, therefore they came here, and therefore the centre of science or centre of any discipline came to India. So, the centres changed. And now there is not only one centre which shifted from one place to another, now there are many centres. The Chinese and the Japanese and what not.

Now, I would say, somehow or other the madrasa people themselves are responsible for this state of affairs. They deleted (removed from the syllabus) science on their own.

SIH: As a scientist, you should be more aware than me that science is a dynamic discipline, science changes, science progresses, science rubbishes its own theories because it has to progress further. It was a nice opportunity to get back to you after so long and get back to you semi-formally, and good to get back to old questions which have remained unresolved all these years and we have not been able to solve them even now. Also we didn’t really sit together to solve any question, we just wanted to get together and have a conversation about you and your own work and the work which reflects upon evolution, the history of the growth of the science discipline in India or the lack of it.