On the role of Arabic sources in early modern astronomy

In a 2014 paper I questioned the standard view that Copernicus copied various things from Arabic sources. Professor F. Jamil Ragep, whose career is to a significant extent predicated on the standard view, dismisses my work as “derivative.”

Some day I will write a follow-up paper, but for now let us consider Ragep’s most overarching argument. He thinks independent discovery by Copernicus is implausible because:

> Perhaps most importantly, why would someone seek to start from scratch when it was certainly known in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that Islamic astronomers still had much to teach their European counterparts? (194)

Is this true? Did Europeans at the time consider Islamic astronomers way more advanced than themselves? Is there even a shred of evidence that Copernicus ever held such an opinion? No.

Ragep opts to back up his claim with one single, peculiar reference: the chapter by Feingold in Ragep (ed.), Tradition, Transmission, Transformation. Here’s what Feingold has to say:

> Most of those who sought access to Arabic science were animated by … “reductionist” motives: They viewed “the achievement of Islamic scientists … merely [as] a reflection, sometimes faded, sometimes bright, or more or less altered, of earlier (mostly Greek) examples.” Certainly they recognized the existence of a considerable body of scientific knowledge available in Arabic, but it was usually adjudged either as derivative of the Greeks or, at best, the fruit of sheer drudgery. (445)

A few had “great hopes” to find “most precious stones for the adornment and enriching of my syntaxis mathematike” “in that happy Arabia” (447), and set out to learn Arabic for the purpose. But this was soon followed by a “rapid decline of such studies” (448).

> Some were simply disillusioned by what they viewed as the small return on their investment. John Greaves, for example, griped … that the drudgery he had put himself through editing Abulfeda’s Geography was simply not worth it: “to speak the truth, those maps, which shall be made out of Abulfeda, will not be so exact, as I did expect; as I have found by comparing some of them with our modern and best charts. In his description of the Red sea, which was not far from him, he is most grossely mistaken; what may we think of places remoter?” (448)

Others too lamented “how greate the losse of time was to study much the Eastern languages” and no longer “much care for to trouble myself about the keys [to oriental learning] when there was no treasure of things to be come at.” (449) Francis Bacon agreed:

> “The sciences which we possess come for the most part from the Greeks. … Neither the Arabians nor the schoolmen need be mentioned; who in the intermediate time rather crushed the sciences with a multitude of treatises, than increased their weight.” (443-444)

> Thomas Sprat, the official historian of the [Royal] Society, was willing to admit that the Arabs were “men of deep, and subtile Wit,” but he also felt it unnecessary to discuss them in surveying the progress of knowledge because their studies “were principally bent, upon expounding Aristotle, and the Greek Physitians.” Besides, “they injoy’d not the light long enough. … It mainly consisted, in understanding the Antients; and what they would have done, when they had been weary of them, we cannot tell.” (454)

> More disparaging was Joseph Glanvill who faulted the Arabs principally for their blind devotion to Aristotle. … “These Successors of the Greeks did not advance their Learning beyond the imperfect Stat­ure in which it was delievered to them.” (454)

> William Wotton [held that the Arabs] “translated the Grecian Learning into their own Language [but] had very little of their own, which was not taken from those Fountains.” … “There is little to be found amongst them, which any Body might not have understood as well as they, if he had carefully studied the Writings of their Grecian Masters. … There are vast Quantities of their Astronomical Observations in the Bodleian Library, and yet Mr. Greaves and Dr. Edward Bernard, two very able Jugges, have given the World no Account of any Thing in them, which those Arabian Astronomers did not, or might have not learnt from Ptolemee’s Almagest, if we set aside their Observations which their Grecian Masters taught them to make.” (455)

> Theophilus Gale … [argued that] it is not Aristotle … who should be blamed for breeding that “Sophistic kind of Disputation, which now reigns in the Scholes.” This was the doing of his Arab commentators, Averroes and Avicenna in particular, “who, being wholly unacquainted with the Greek Tongue, were fain to depend upon the versions of Aristotle, which being very imperfect, left them under great darknesse and ignorance touching Aristotle’s mind and sense; whence there sprang a world of unintelligible Termes and Distinctions, with as many Sophistic Disputes and Controversies. These the Scholemen (more barbarous than the Arabians) greedily picked up … and incorporated with their Theologie.” (456)

All of this is quoted from the one article Ragep himself singled out as support for his claim that it made no sense for people like Copernicus to think for themselves since they had so much to learn from the much wiser Arabic sources. If this is the evidence in favour of his claim, you can imagine for yourself what evidence against it would look like.