On the History of the Commission

by Julio Samsó

I think the idea of creating a Commission on the History of Science in Islamic Civilisation appeared in 1988. Between 1982 and 1989 I was treasurer of the D.H.S. of the I.U.H.P.S. and, thus, gained some knowledge about the activities of its commissions as well as about the organisation of the International Congresses of History of Science. As you all know, these conferences are huge gatherings of people who deal with the History of Science from the Neolithic period to twentieth-century physics and in which the contributions of Islamic science were limited to a few papers to be read at one of the so-called “Scientific sections” practically lost within large subjects as “Science and Technology from Antiquity to 1600” (Edinburgh, 10–19 August 1977; Bucharest, 26 August–3 September 1981). It gained a more specialised character at the Berkeley Congress (31 July– 8 August 1985 ) in which there were scientific sections related to “Arabic and European Astronomy in the Middle Ages,” “Early Concepts of Chemistry and Alchemy,” “Near and Far Eastern Analysis in the Middle Ages,” “Practice of Science in the Middle Ages” etc. Some of these titles corresponded to real symposia, organised by one or two scholars who invited the speakers and could oversee the quality of the papers presented. The formula had been tested successfully by Prof. E. S. Kennedy in 1981, during the Bucharest Congress, by organising one of the “Meetings on Specialized Topics” the subject of which was “Mathematics and Physics in the Arab Countries during the Middle Ages.” Little by little it was becoming clear that “symposia” were adequate methods that could be used to put a little order into the general chaos of an International Congress. I participated in the organisation of two symposia in 1985, one of them on “Alfonso X and his Era” in which I was extremely interested because 1984 had seen the celebration of the seven-hundredth anniversary of the death of the Castilian king, whose scientific work was so important for the transmission of Arabic Astronomy. My surprise, when I made my first attempt to organise it, was that I was made aware of the fact that symposia were, in principle, connected with the existence of a D.H.S. commission related to the subject.

No such commission existed at the time and I discussed the subject in Barcelona, in 1988, with Professors Edward S. Kennedy, who was spending three months at my University, and David A. King, who had come to give a few lectures. We decided to send a circular letter, signed by the three of us, suggesting the need to create a D.H.S. commission specialised in Arabic and Islamic History of Science. The letter was sent to some fifty colleagues interested in the subject and all the answers, except two, were highly favourable to the idea. I transmitted the project to the Executive Committee of the D.H.S. and a tentative meeting of interested scholars was convened in Hamburg on 3rd August 1989 during the International Congress held in Hamburg and Munich that year. Quite a number of people attended the meeting and the main subject of discussion was the name of the Commission: Arabic Science was not acceptable for obvious reasons, and Islamic Science had religious connotations that did not correspond to the spirit of the enterprise. It was Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu who offered the solution which was accepted by everybody: “Science in Islamic Civilisation.” At that meeting we elected Prof. E. S. Kennedy as the first President of the new commission, whose creation was formally approved by the General Assembly of the D.H.S. in its gathering in Munich on 7th August 1989. Dr. Sonja Brentjes, as Secretary, played an essential role by initiating the publication of the Newsletter. Later on (1993), in Zaragoza, Prof. S. M. Razaullah Ansari was elected as the second President. Prof. Ansari was followed, in 1997 (Liège) by my humble self and in 2001 (Mexico) by Prof. Gül A. Russell. Our gratitude should also be expressed to the successive Secretaries of the Commission who followed Sonja Brentjes and were in charge of the laborious task of publishing the Newsletter, with the always invaluable support of Sally Ragep.

In Hamburg we had the first symposium (“Exact Sciences of the Arabs”) organised unofficially by the Commission, which technically speaking did not yet exist. It kept us occupied during three sessions and the formula used was, on the one hand, to invite some speakers to talk about a specific subject (Islamic zijes in that occasion) and, on the other, to recover high quality papers which had been sent, in principle, to the corresponding scientific section. The experience continued during the Zaragoza Congress (22–29 August 1993) in which the symposium was held in honour of Prof. Juan Vernet (“The transmission of scientific ideas, in the field of the Exact Sciences, between Eastern and Western Islam in the Middle Ages”), later published in two volumes under the title From Baghdad to Barcelona (Barcelona, 1996). In Liège (20–26 July 1997) two symposia were organised whose centres of interest were outside the Arab world: one by J. P. Hogendijk and M. Bagheri on “Science and Technology in ancient and medieval Iran” and the other by E. Ihsanoglu and A. Djebbar on “Science, technology and industry in the Ottoman world.” The last symposium organised by the Commission took place during the Mexico City Congress (8–14 July, 2001) and its subject was “The Medieval Nexus: Scientific Transmission Within and From Islamic Lands.”

Any interested reader who takes the trouble of doing exactly what I have been obliged to do in order to write these few lines, that is to have a look at the programmes of the International Congresses of History of Science in the eighties and the nineties, will easily discover an increasing interest in our subject reflected in the fact that a number of symposia related to Islamic Science have been organised besides those fostered by the Commission. This is a very good sign which shows the vitality of the discipline and that the organisers of our International Congresses are becoming more and more flexible. Our Commission was born with the purpose of linking the scholars interested in Islamic Science with the organisation of the D.H.S. and, consequently, with the planning of the activities of the International Congresses. This is less important today than it was twenty years ago.

Due to the initiative of our former Secretary, and now President, Jamil Ragep, the Commission website provides a new vehicle for contact between scholars. Apart from the obvious implications this has for the transmission of scientific information, it is clear that it also implies the possibility of important changes in the process of decision making. In the past the membership of the Commission was open to all interested scholars but an official meeting took place only every four years, on the occasion of an International Congress, and this was the only opportunity we had to nominate and elect the new officers who would serve for the next four-year period. Obviously only those who attended the meeting had a right to nominate and to vote. Nowadays this may easily change for the better and many more people will be able to nominate candidates and to vote for them.

The Mexico meeting decided that a set of rules of procedure designed to regulate the normal functioning of the Commission should be prepared by the new Executive Committee and circulated in time for the next Beijing International Congress in 2005.

Let us hope this increases our vitality in the future.