[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]
This handsomely illustrated volume, a full catalogue of the predominantly manuscript collection, complete with 100 color illustrations, of the homonymous exhibition at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World this past winter and spring is most welcome. My own interest in reviewing the book stems not from any expertise in the Islamic reception of Graeco-Roman culture, but from a desire as a teacher of pre-modern world history to enrich my students’ understanding of the diverse legacies with which the Islamic world, itself a multi-ethnic and multi-faith universe, engaged.
For those seeking to problematize and deconstruct world-historical narratives predicated on a deeply rooted idea of an East-West divide, Romance and Reason provides considerable fodder. The book is clearly aimed at a wider audience. Each chapter is written in an accessible style, presumes little prior knowledge on the subject, and seeks to correct popular misconceptions through a survey of the latest scholarship. A key misconception that the authors rectify is the notion that Islamic thinkers simply translated and preserved classical knowledge, until they were able to transmit it unchanged to a dormant—but primed for rebirth —Western Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Instead, Islamic intellectuals are presented as actively transforming the stories and bodies of knowledge contained in the Greek (and Syriac) texts that they inherited, “establishing a self-perpetuating intellectual culture that was free to challenge as well as elaborate the ancient sources” (Thrope and Ukeles, 15).
The book, like the exhibition, has a double focus, namely the reception of Alexander and of classical science. Two chapters treat the Islamic engagement with the Alexander Romance tradition, with a particular emphasis on medieval Persian literature. Rubanovich’s contribution provides a useful introduction to how and why Persian poets adapted the figure of Alexander/Iskandar to their differing agendas. Whereas Firdausi depicts a hero prone to errors in order to highlight moral lessons, Nizami creates for his readers a protagonist who evolves from a justice-bringing conqueror into a sage philosopher and finally into a proto-Islamic prophet. Later poets focused on the philosophical aspect of Iskandar’s legendary character. Milstein’s article analyzes the paintings within the manuscripts from the exhibition, exploring the interplay between continuity of content and historically contingent developments across the visual landscape of Iskandar imagery—for example, the keen interest of the Mongol sultans in this earlier foreign invader who successfully attained legitimacy, in much of the Romance tradition at least. Milstein also includes a welcome section on Ottoman and Mughal depictions of Iskandar.
The final three chapters address the Islamic transformation of key branches of classical “science.” Chipman’s survey of Islamic medicine not only acknowledges the foundational contributions of Hippocrates and especially Galen to the system on which Muslim and Jewish medical writers based their work, but also stresses these later intellectuals’ successes in incorporating new knowledge unknown to Greek writers, in particular from East Asia, and in improving upon ancient methods and anatomical descriptions. An important example of revision, rather than mere preservation, is the “weaving together of Islamic tradition and Hellenistic medicine” that typified the genre of “prophetic medicine” (78), based on the sayings and actions of the founder of Islam. In the next chapter, Langermann enumerates the ways in which Islamic thinkers expanded upon Greek geometrical accomplishments, most importantly in what he dubs the “computational sciences,” drawing attention to the significant influence of Babylonian and Indian knowledge in the Islamic creation of new mathematical fields like algebra. The Babylonian legacy played an even larger role as a key ingredient of Hellenistic astronomy and astrology, which, in turn, influenced the efforts of Islamic scientists to improve upon the Ptolemaic system. For example, while working in a Mongol-sponsored observatory that included Chinese scientists, the Persian theologian Nasir al-Din Tusi developed a device for more accurately explaining planetary motion, and his advances eventually featured in the work of Copernicus.
The concluding chapter by Harvey explores the Islamic engagement with Aristotle and Plato, which was anything but uniform, except in expending considerable ink to justify this engagement to critics who accused the Muslim philosophers of infidelity. While al-Farabi privileged political science (culled from abridgements of Plato) and sought to reconcile Plato and Aristotle, Ibn Sina (“Avicenna”) leveled substantial critiques against Aristotle in developing an independent philosophical position. In the Islamic “East” (never clearly defined), Ibn Sina’s works dominated; only in Muslim Spain did al-Farabi’s influence live on, most famously in the work of Ibn Rushd (“Averroes”). Harvey’s efforts to convince us that philosophers were at considerable risk of persecution in Andalusia is only partially successful. His examples consist of vague reports of popular hostility or imprisonment that give no clear idea of the specific reasons behind each act of persecution (were social tensions or court politics also involved?) and ignore the one-sided nature of our sources, which were all written by philosophers.
In their introduction to the volume, Thrope and Ukeles suggest that another aim of the book is to challenge “just what we mean by ‘classical past’,” in drawing attention to the importance of other ancient traditions, such as Babylonian and Indian, to Islamic intellectual culture (21). This claim is a bit of an overstatement, since only Langermann devotes more than a few sentences to this aspect of Islamic reception. The book also elicits discomfort when one considers the notable and ironic contrast between the content just summarized and the volume’s context of composition. Weinberg in his introduction is right to point out the rich and multicultural “cross-pollination” (11) that the book reveals, both in terms of ethnic (Syrian, Arab, Persian, Indian, Frank, Mongol) and religious (Muslim, Christian, Jewish) diversity. Yet the exhibit and the book are the product of a much narrower collaborative space. The contributors hail from only two universities, and the manuscripts are housed in Western (American and Israeli) institutions. Given this context, one wonders if the central argument that Islamic intellectuals transformed classical knowledge before transmitting it to the “West” does not represent another, slightly subtler, form of appropriation. The authors mention only the European legacies of Islamic science; the Islamic present is an inconvenience to be ignored. The implication seems to be that, just as the classical past matters because of its role in the creation of Western culture, now the Islamic past has merit for the same reasons. And just as modern Europeans have, at times, felt themselves to be truer heirs of the ancient Greeks than the citizens of modern Hellas, perhaps we find here the same underlying sentiment about the West’s relationship to the Islamic past as compared to modern Muslims.
Alongside its merits as an up-to-date, revisionist introduction to Islam’s central place in the literary and scientific afterlife of “Classical Civilization,” Romance and Reason is worth owning for the paintings that supplement the text and, at times, serve as the focus for analysis. No doubt every reader will gravitate toward different images; I myself enjoyed how the paintings of Alexander and various zodiac signs exposed the historical contingency of modern interpretations of these figures. I found a few minor typographical mistakes but these did not detract from the text. However, a major error does cause some confusion. On p. 117 we learn that the caliph al-Ma’mun, who reigned from 813 to 833, killed Ibn Habib al-Qasri around 1228. These issues aside, the volume’s quality is a testament to the value of the exhibition collection on which it was premised.
Table of Contents
“Letter from ISAW” – Alexander Jones 8
“Letter from NLI” – Oren Weinberg 10
“Acknowledgments” – Roberta Casagrande-Kim 12
“Romance and Reason: Islamic Transformations of the Classical Past” – Samuel Thrope, Raquel Ukeles 14
“The Alexander Romance” – Julia Rubanovich 26
“Picturing the Archetypal King: Iskandar in Islamic Painting” – Rachel Milstein 48
“Islamic Medicine: Refractions of the Classical Past” – Leigh Chipman 64
“Mathematics, Astronomy, and Astrology” – Y. Tzvi Langermann 84
“Rationalizing the Divine: Greek Philosophy in the Islamic World” – Steven Harvey 104
Exhibition Checklist 120
Note on Transliteration 149
Photography Credits 151