PTOLEMY AND THE ALMAGEST
The Alexandrian Claudius Ptolemy (circa 100-170 AD) was the most influential astronomer of antiquity. Along other important works on different fields such as astrology, geography, optics and harmonics, he was the author of the Almagest (circa 150 AD), the pinnacle work of Greek mathematical astronomy and the most significant work on mathematical astronomy for 1500 years until Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543).
The Almagest, initially known in Greek as the Mathematike Syntaxis or Mathematical Collection and later as He Megale Syntaxis or The Great Treatise, is a work in thirteen books in which Ptolemy, after careful observations, first developed geometrical and kinematical models accounting for the apparent movements of the visible celestial bodies and then provided their final versions. The models were the result of articulating non-homocentric and non-uniform circular motions, which as such violated Aristotelian physics based on homocentric, uniform and circular motions. Thus, Ptolemaic models were not intended to provide an explanation of a physically consistent geocentric universe, but a description of the apparent motions of the celestial bodies to accurately predict the motions and future positions of celestial bodies.
THE ALMAGEST IN THE ISLAMIC WORLD
The Almagest was translated numerous times, first into Arabic, and then into Latin. The current English title, Almagest, derives from the Latinised form, Almagesti, of the Arabised form, al-Majasti, al-Majisti or al-Mijisti. In turn, the Arabic derives from the superlative form of the Greek megale, that is megiste, the Greatest, as in Megiste [scil. Syntaxis], the Greatest Composition, probably through a Middle Persian spelling mgstyk. The Arabs first knew of the Almagest through contacts in Persian soil in Gondeshapur, south-west Iran, a city under heavy Greek and Nestorian influence. However, their first direct contact was through a Syriac translation which was probably available to the first translator of the Almagest into Arabic. Still, Ibn al-Salah (d.1154 AD) had access to the Syriac translation.
The first translation into Arabic, now lost and of unclear authorship, was executed around the year 800 AD, probably under patronage of the caliph al-Maʾmun (d.813 AD). There are few quotations of this translation by al-Battani (d.929 AD). A second translation of the Almagest, this time extant, was executed in 828-9 AD by al-Ḥajjaj b. Yusuf b. Matar (d.833 AD), the translator of Euclid’s Elements, and Sirjis b. Hiliyya al-Rumi, the translator into Arabic of Kassianos Bassos Scholasticos’ Geoponika as the al-Filaha al-rumiyya. There are four manuscripts of al-Hajjaj’s version, although only one, MS Leiden, Universiteitsbibliotheek, Or. 680, is complete.
Some fifty or sixty years later, the celebrated Ishaq b. Hunayn (d.910-1 AD ), a translator from Greek and Syriac, executed a new translation of the Almagest. Ishaq b. Hunayn’s translation was later revised by the mathematician and astronomer Thabit b. Qurra (d.901 AD). There are six known extant manuscripts of the revised version, while Ishaq b. Hunayn’s version prior to Thabit b. Qurra’s correction seems to have been lost. According to the number of extant manuscripts and quotations in later works, the Ishaq/Thabit version, as it is usually referred to in current scholarship, was the most widespread.
A fourth translation of the Almagest was executed by Thabit b. Qurra himself once he finished his correction of Ishaq b. Hunayn’s translation. Thabit b. Qurra’s translation is central to the present manuscript.
Despite the influence of the Almagest on the Islamic world as the founding text of mathematical astronomy, the number of extant manuscripts is rather scarce. Soon after the the Almagest was translated, scholars in the Islamic world began producing abridgements and commentaries. The most successful one, particularly in the central and eastern Islamic world, was Nasir al-Din al-Tusi’s (d.1274 AD) Tahrir al-Majisti completed in 1247 AD. The Tahrir al-Majisti superseded the Almagest itself particularly in the central and eastern Islamic lands. Accordingly, many, if not most, of the extant manuscripts of the different versions of the Almagest are either Andalusi or Maghribi.
An unidentified abridgement of Ptolemy’s Almagest probably based, at least partially, on Thābit b. Qurra’s translation or recension of the Almagest. The present abridgement covers the complete Almagest, except for Ptolemy’s epilogue addressed to Syrus, which nevertheless is listed in the table of contents.
The work is divided in two parts (juzʾ). The first one covers Books I-VI and the second Books VII-XIII. The second part lacks a colophon. The work is written as if it were the Almagest itself. There is no hint that this is an abridgement written by a later author. This abridgement addresses Syrus as the Almagest does, and the work references itself as the Almagest or the Kitab al-Taʿalim. Thus, the aim of the author is to provide a summarised version of the Almagest which will stand as the Almagest itself. However, even though this abridgement follows closely the arrangement of the Almagest, it departs from it on few instances. In the Ishaq/Thabit version, a short preface indicating it to be the translation by Ishaq b. Ḥunayn corrected by Thabit b. Qurra precedes first the table of contents and then Almagest I.1. In the present abridgement, the preface of the Ishaq/Thabit version is left out and Almagest I.1 is used as a new preface. Then follows the table of contents and the first chapter of Book I, which matches Almagest I.2. Another important departure from the arrangement of the Almagest is that the star catalogue is placed in Book VII instead of Book VIII. Additionally, diagrams in Almagest I.13 are executed for all possible cases.
THABIT B. QURRA
Abu'l-Ḥasan Thabit b. Qurra b. Marwan al-Harrani al-Sabiʾ (836–901 AD) was a Syrian polymath and translator from Greek and Syriac into Arabic. He is mostly known as a mathematician and astronomer, but was also proficient in medicine, geography, physics, astrology and philosophy. Thabit b. Qurra was born in Kafartutha in a deeply Hellenised environment of Sabian ascription. He studied in the nearby city of Harran (south of Turkey). Back in Kafartutha, the mathematician Muḥammad b. Musa b. Shakir (d.873 AD) met him and invited him to move to Baghdad to study and work in the circle of his brothers, the Banu Musa. In Baghdad, Thabit b. Qurra later worked as astronomer and physician in the caliphal court, securing him a preeminent position. His works in the exact sciences are extremely numerous. As translator and editor, he produced translations of numerous mathematical works by Greek authors such as Euclid, Archimedes, Apollonius, Theodosius, and Menelaus. As translator of astronomical works, Thabit b. Qurra is known for correcting Ishaq b. Ḥunayn’s translation of the Almagest and for his own translation of this text.
THABIT B. QURRA’S TRANSLATION AND ABRIDGEMENT OF THE ALMAGEST
The existence of Thabit b. Qurra’s translation cannot be doubted. Ibn al-Qifṭi (d.1248 AD) mentions this translation on the basis of a reference that he saw in the hand of Abu ʿAli al-Muhassin b. Ibrahim b. Hilal al-Sabiʾ (d.1010 AD), the great-grandson of Thabit b. Qurra (Ibn al-Qifti, Taʾrikh al-hukamaʾ, 119). Ibn al-Qifti points out that Thabit b. Qurra executed his translation after correcting Ishaq’s translation of the Almagest. Then, Ibn al-Qifti continues, Thabit b. Qurra produced an abridgement of his translation in thirteen books. Even though Ibn al-Qifti does not give any title of this abridgement, he uses the terms ikhtasara and ikhtisar, that is ‘to abridge’ and ‘abridgement’, so that the title Mukhtasar al-Majisti can be inferred. Except for this reference, this abridgement is not generally listed in Thabit b. Qurra’s extensive bibliography since probably the references to his translation of the Almagest and to the abridgement of his translation were merged in one. Ibn al-Qifti also points out one peculiarity of this abridgement. He asked his teachers the reason why the thirteenth book was not abridged. Their answer was that it was not abridged, because there was nothing in it that could be abridged. Therefore, it would be possible to identify Thabit b. Qurra’s abridgement because it should contain an unabridged version of Book XIII. Lastly, Ibn al-Qifti mentions that many of his contemporaries had appropriated this abridgement as their own and commented upon it. Ibn al-Qifti’s remarks on Thabit b. Qurra’s translation of the Almagest seem second-hand through al-Muhassin al-Ṣabiʾ’s reference, but he shows direct knowledge of Thabit b. Qurra’s abridgement.
There are no known complete Arabic manuscripts of Thabit b. Qurra’s translation of the Almagest. It is not clear if MS Jaipur, Maharaja Man Singh II Museum Library, 20, contains Thabit b. Qurra’s Arabic translation of the Almagest. The Jaipur manuscript contains 157 folios and 23 lines per page. It was copied in the sixteenth century and breaks off after the beginning of the sixth book (Bahura, Catalogue, 74-75; King, ‘Handlist’, 82). Saliba and Lorch were able to take some notes in December 1991 when they examined it in situ on the occasion of a congress in Jaipur (Kunitzsch, ‘The Role’, 148, n. 4). In 1978, King identified this manuscript as Thabit b. Qurra’s translation of the Almagest (‘Handlist’, 82), but Kunitzsch dismissed this identification on the basis of Saliba/Lorch’s notes (Kunitzsch, ‘A Hitherto Unknown Arabic Manuscript’, 32).
A second witness of Thabit b. Qurra’s translation of the Almagest may be MS Dresden Db.87. It contains a Latin version of Almagest Books I-IV initially thought to be translated directly from the Greek (Björnbo, ‘Die mittelalterlichen lateinischen Übersetzungen’). Grupe, in his dissertation (2013) containing an edition of the Dresden manuscript, has argued convincingly, based on formulaic Latin reproductions of Arabic terms and phrases in the Latin text, that the Dresden manuscript is rather a translation of an Arabic version of the Almagest. However, the wording of this version differs substantially from the al-Hajjaj/Sirjis and Ishaq/Thabit translations, so Grupe, on grounds of additional theorems present in this translation based on the sector-figure that go back to Thabit, and marginal glosses in manuscripts of Ṭusi's Tahrir al-Majisti describing Thabit’s version, compellingly concludes that the Dresden manuscript is a translation of Thabit’s own rendering of the Almagest.
THE PRESENT MANUSCRIPT
The present manuscript, formerly known as MS Tehran, Nasiri 789, has attracted substantial interest in scholarship. In 1978, Sezgin listed it (GAS VI, 89) as an incomplete copy of the Ishaq/Thabit translation of the Almagest indicating that this manuscript was copied by Quṭb al-Din al-Shirazi (d.1311 AD) although he did not provide any evidence to prove this attribution. In 1990, Kunitzsch obtained a "badly made” microfilm (‘A Hitherto Unknown Arabic Manuscript’, 31) that was the basis for his description of the present manuscript published in 1991 in his Der Sternkatalog des Almagest: die arabisch-mittelalterliche Tradition III, 200. There, Kunitzsch dismissed Sezgin’s claims that that manuscript was a copy of the Almagest and suggested that it was an Epitome (mulakhkhas) of the Ishaq/Thabit translation of Ptolemy’s work. He based his conclusions on the fact that the chapter titles throughout the manuscript matched those of the Ishaq/Thabit version. However, Kunitzsch, after pointing out that the attribution to Quṭb al-Din al-Shirazi is nowhere present in the manuscript, supported Sezgin’s claims that this manuscript was copied by Quṭb al-Din al-Shirazi on the basis of a comparison of the hand of the present manuscript and two autographed copies in the hand of the same scribe in MSS Istanbul, Nuruosmaniye 2941 and Istanbul, Topkapi Sarayi, Ahmet III 3455. Kunitzsch also supported the plausibility that this epitome was authored by Quṭb al-Din al-Shirazi, although he also pointed out that there is no reference to such an epitome by Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi in bibliographies of his works.
In subsequent contributions, Kunitzsch has qualified his initial support of this manuscript being an autograph by Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi. In 1997, in his ‘The Role’ (p. 148, n.4), he refers to it as “a paraphrase or epitome of the Almagest by an unknown author made on the basis of the Ishaq-Thabit version”. While in 2001, in his ‘A Hitherto Unknown Arabic Manuscript’ (p.31), Kunitzsch points out that this is “some sort of a recension, uncertain whether by Quṭb al-Din al-Shirazi himself, who seems to have written the manuscript, or by someone else”. More recently, Grupe in his forthcoming article ‘Further Witnesses’ in which he revisits the present manuscript, follows Kunitzsch's initial surmises, attributing its authorship to Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi.
Moreover, the present manuscript has been instrumental in Kunitzsch's dismissing of King’s statement that MS Jaipur, Maharaja Man Singh II Museum Library, 20, was Thabit b. Qurra’s translation of the Almagest. On the basis of the notes taken by Saliba and Lorch, Kunitzsch concluded that the incipits of the different books of the present abridgement were very close to the incipits of MS Jaipur. Thus, Kunitzsch reasoned that the works conveyed by the present manuscript and by MS Jaipur were the same, and dismissed the Jaipur manuscript as containing a partial copy of the Almagest. However, the present manuscript contains an abridgement covering the thirteen books of the Almagest in 128 folios and 22 lines per page, while the Jaipur manuscript covers a little more of five books in 157 folios and 23 lines per page. Therefore, both works cannot be the same as the length of the work in the Jaipur manuscript, as should it be complete, it would double the length of the work in the present manuscript. The similar incipits may be explained by the fact that both works drew on the same source, or that the present manuscript draws on the work conveyed by the Jaipur manuscript. Whatever the case, the present manuscript is a unicum, that is the only known copy of this work.
THE ATTRIBUTION TO QUTB AL-DIN AL-SHIRAZI
The attribution of this manuscript to Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi cannot be sustained. After examining the hand of this manuscript and that of MS Istanbul, Nuruosmaniye 2941 containing an autographed copy by al-Shirazi of Ṭusi’s Tahrir al-Majisti dated 684 AH/1285 AD, it can be concluded that there is no basis to support that both hands are the same. The overall appearance of both scripts, strokes and slants are different. Additionally, the attribution to Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi of the authorship of the work contained in this manuscript can also be dismissed. A recension authored by al-Shirazi would have been far more widespread, while it would have been fairly difficult that such a work would be conveyed in an anonymous manuscript, since Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi was particularly efficient in disseminating works of his interest as he did with Tusi’s Tahrir al-Majisti. Furthermore, the second section of the fourth jumla of Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi's Durrat al-taj, a work completed between 1294 and 1306 AD, contains a Persian recension of the Almagest. As al-Shirazi points out in the colophon of the section devoted to the recension of the Almagest (Pourjavady/Schmidtke, ‘Qutb al-Din’, 313; MS Istanbul, Süleymaniye, Ayasofya 2405, f.159v), this section in Durrat al-taj is his translation into Persian of the otherwise unknown Talkhis al-Majisti by Abu'l-Ḥasan ʿAbd al-Malik b. Muḥammad al-Shirazi (d. circa 1200 AD). Therefore, bearing in mind that the lengths of both recensions are similar, if Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi is the author of an abridgement of the Almagest dated as early as 671 AH/1272 AD, why would he translate ʿAbd al-Malik al-Shirazi’s recension into Persian instead. That precludes the attribution of the authorship of the abridgement in the present manuscript to Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi. Additionally, a comparison of the abridgement of the Almagest in the present manuscript and the Persian translation of Quṭb al-Din al-Shirazi in his Durrat al-taj shows that both works are different. Thus, the work in the present manuscript cannot be the Talkhiṣ al-Majisti by Abu'l-Ḥasan ʿAbd al-Malik b. Muḥammad al-Shirazi.
Even though this is a distinct abridgement of the Almagest, and most of the text does not follow the Almagest word by word, a close comparison of some sections of this manuscript copied literally from the Almagest shows that, particularly after Almagest I.2, the wording is different from both the al-Ḥajjaj/Sirjis and Ishaq/Thabit versions. However, it matches the Latin translation in MS Dresden Db.87. Thus, it is safe to conclude that this abridgement is at least partially based on Thabit b. Qurra’s translation.
Additionally, Ḥajji Khalīfa in his Kashf al-ẓunun (col. 1595) points out that the different translations of the Almagest could be distinguished by the term used for chapters. The translation of the Almagest by Thabit b. Qurra uses the term bab (pl. abwab) to refer to book chapters, whilst the al-Hajjaj/Sirjis translation uses the term nawʿ (pl. anwaʿ). In turn, the Ishaq/Thabit version does not use a particular term for ‘chapter’. The present abridgement, when the chapter headings are provided, follows Thabit b. Qurra’s version in referring to chapters by the term bab. Additionally, it is important to underline that this is an unfinished copy. Thus, the missing headings do not import that in those sections the text would be based on the Ishaq/Thabit version.
Bearing in mind that the translation of the Almagest by Thabit b. Qurra is one of the sure sources of this abridgement, Thabit b. Qurra’s Mukhtasar al-Majisti would be a suitable possibility to identify this work. Ibn al-Qifṭi points out that Thabit b. Qurra did not abridge Book XIII of his Mukhtasar al-Majisti. However, a quick examination of Book XIII of the present abridgement shows that it also conveys an abridged version. Thus, the most likely possibility is that this work is not Thabit b. Qurra’s Mukhtasar al-Majisti. Nevertheless, as Ibn al-Qifti points out, Thabit b. Qurra’s Mukhtasar al-Majisti was appropriated and reworked by later authors. The present anonymous manuscript may be one of these reworkings based on Thabit b. Qurra’s Mukhtasar al-Majisti.
Whatever the case, this unique manuscript containing the single known copy of this abridgement is one of the most important extant witnesses of Thabit b. Qurra’s seemingly lost translation of the Almagest.
We are indebted to Dr. José Bellver for providing the above catalogue note.
Grube 1972 Grube E., Islamic paintings from 11th to the 18th century in the Collection of Hans P. Kraus, New York 1972
Grupe forthcoming Grupe, Dirk, Further Witnesses of Thabit ibn Qurras Version of the Almagest, in Dag Nikolaus Hasse, Charles Burnett, David Juste and Benno van Dalen (eds.), Ptolemys Science of the Stars in the Middle Ages, Turnhout: Brepols, forthcoming.
Grupe 2013 Grupe, Dirk, The Latin Reception of Arabic Astronomy and Cosmology in Mid-Twelfth-Century Antioch: The Liber Mamonis and the Dresden Almagest, PhD dissertation, University of London, 2013
Grupe 2012 Grupe, Dirk, The Thabit-Version of Ptolemys Almagest in MS Dresden Db.87, Suhayl 11, 2012, pp. 147-153.
Kunitzsch 1974 Kunitzsch, Paul, Der Almagest: Die Syntaxis mathematica des Claudius Ptolemäus in arabisch-lateinischer Überlieferung, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1974
Kunitzsch 1986-1991 Kunitzsch, Paul, Der Sternkatalog des Almagest: die arabisch-mittelalterliche Tradition, 3 vols., Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz Verlag, 1986-1991, III
Kunitzsch 1995-1996 Kunitzsch, Paul, The Role of Al-Andalus in the Transmission of Ptolemys Planisphaerium and Almagest, Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Arabisch-Islamischen Wissenschaften 10, 1995/96, pp.147-155.
Kunitzsch 2001 Kunitzsch, Paul, A Hitherto Unknown Arabic Manuscript of the Almagest, Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Arabisch-Islamischen Wissenschaften 14, 2001, pp.31-37.
Kunitzsch 2015 Kunitzsch, Paul, Almagest: Its Reception and Transmission in the Islamic World, in Selin, Helaine (ed.), Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures, Dordrecht: Springer, 2015, pp.140-1.
Sezgin 1978 Sezgin, F., Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums (= GAS). Band VI. Astronomie bis ca. 430 H., Leiden, 1978
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