The Royal Society: European Discovery of Arabic Culture
24 October 2011
5.45pm (for a 6.00pm start) on 24 October 2011
The Royal Society, London
Prof. Charles Burnett
Prof. Jim Al-Khalili
European Discovery of Arabic Culture
Reception and Lecture at the Royal Society 24th October 2011,5.30 pm -7.00pm
This public lecture was organised jointly by the Royal Society and the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation (FSTC). It traced the stages in the discovery of Arabic culture by European scholars from the early middle ages until the early-modern period.
Celebrating 12 years of a journey: Uncovering the Past to Built a Better Future
The subject of the influence of Arabic/Muslim culture on Europe is becoming increasingly important in today’s socio-political-economic environment. The cultural roots of science, technology and art can play a significant role in enhancing inter-cultural respect.
In his lecture, Charles Burnett traced the stages in the discovery by European scholars of Arabic culture from the early middle ages until the early-modern period, through their translations of secular and religious works from Arabic into Latin. He addressed questions such as:
Why did the early European scholars, including some founders of the Royal Society, study Arabic?
How did the acquisition of manuscripts take place?
How was the study of Arabic established in European universities?
It’s a great pleasure to welcome you to the Royal Society this evening to hear Professor Burnett’s lecture and to see the wonderful exhibition, which I hope you may have time to see afterwards, which the exhibition curator Dr. Rim Turkmani will show you later in the evening.
Now, as Jim’s just said, I’m foreign secretary of the Royal Society and my brief from the 1663 charter, the 1663 charter which was three years after the Society was founded, it said that Fellows had to go out and have affairs with all manner of foreigners... well, it’s been a very good job for the past five years, I have to tell you!
Well the early Fellows were not just interested in living scientists, but in the giants of science that went before. When the Society was founded, as I said in 1660, 350 years ago, the Fellows were not content to just think about science: they were experimentalists. They had to carry out experiments and make observations. Their motto, as it still is, was nullius in verba, which sort of loosely translated, is “take no man’s word for it”. From the very beginning, they were interested in the observations and experiments of others, of course, which is why they were so interested in the Arabic and Persian manuscripts arriving at that time in England and describing so many experiments and observations, some written by scholars living centuries before. And not content with translation, they wanted to read them in the original script. The most famous chemist at that time, Robert Boyle, had studied Arabic for other reasons, but he was able to use this knowledge and that of his friends, who were familiar with Arabic and Persian, to read many treatises. Edmund Halley, the astronomer, learned Arabic when he was 50 because he had spotted errors in a Latin translation he was reading. The Royal Society does not just elect Fellows from the UK and the Commonwealth, it always elects foreign Fellows each year, who we always welcome, but it is interesting to note that the Society elected three Arab Fellows in the 17th and 18th centuries.
I should like to thank the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation(FSTC) and the Qatar Foundation for sponsoring the curating and research of the Arabick Roots exhibition, and of course that was done by Dr Rim Turkmani, who will show you round later, and I also think this is a really wonderful occasion for us to meet together and hear about the Arabic world.
(Left to Right) Prof. Lorna Casselton and Prof. Salim Al-Hassani
Thanked Bettany Hughes for flying all the way from Geneva to lead this reception, when Peter Fell was standing by. Such is the passion of our members and associates. Another example of the passion of our supporters is an unbelievable story. A recent member of FSTC, who shall be nameless, was lying down in hospital bed undergoing a surgical procedure for inserting a stent in his heart arteries. Whilst observing video screen showing the catheter being navigated through arteries, he though he must of think of something to take his mind away from that. So he said let me think of Salim’s Royal society’s speech to be given on the 24th Oct. At that moment his heart stopped. After few seconds he was resuscitated back to live by electric shock. The following day he wrote to tell that story with bullets points he had wished that I consider in my speech. Fantastic ! What a demonstration of passion and loyalty to the cause of our noble mission. I now tell you a mixture of his thoughts and my words.
12 years go with a single question from my colleague professor Donald Cardwell saying there is a gap of a 1000 yrs , which we call the dark ages, How can we filled it with the contributions of other cultures and civilizations? and another question from the Lord Mayor of Watford, Dorothy Thornhill, asking why are none of the inventions and scientific achievements of non-European civilizations in our National curriculum?
It was a humble beginning in one room. We recognized when we look at history through the lens of science and inventions, we see harmony and mutual respect. We saw how male and female Muslims, Jews, Christians and others worked together within the Muslim civilization. We saw how Muslims inherited and added upon knowledge from previous cultures and how Christian Europe inherited and added upon all that, hence the use of the term “Muslim Heritage”. We understood the meaning of Newton’s famous sentence of “I stood on the shoulders of giants”.
Prof. Salim Al-Hassani giving his speech at Royal Society
We had resonance very quickly.
Since then we have been round the world, met many many people
Via 1001 Inventions Exhibitions, films and websites, we have helped millions to enrich their identity and to see that we can work together for the future
The key point is that we all have a partly shared past. This means that we have a partly shared identity. This in turns means that we can look at how we work in the present for a better shared future in new ways.
Along the way we have always focused on the cultural roots of science as new space for dialogue, neutral to religion and politics
I never thought, 12 years ago, that I would be standing here at the Royal Society, the oldest living established scientific institution in the world, representing FSTC as a sponsor of the research that produced this excellent Arabick Roots exhibition. Dr Turkmani has done a wonderful job and we are proud to be associated with this work, which is so directly in line with FSTC’s vision and mission. Thank you to the Royal Society for their openness to allow access to their archives and enabling us all to see the kind of connections that mark the transfer of knowledge, discovery, invention and wisdom from the many Arab scholars into the West. Of course there are other roots that form the basis of our global scientific knowledge, but it is good to see these specific roots being illuminated in such an august institution as the Royal Society – it stands as a beacon for other such organisations around the world.
Nothing ever stands still and FSTC must be the same, it is time for the next part of our continuing journey, our unfolding adventure is about to commence
Starting in January 2012, FSTC will begin the next chapter of its story with the appointment of a new Chairman, my distinguished colleague Professor Mohamed El- Gomati, Professor of Nanotechnology at the University of York.
(Left to Right) Professor Mohamed El- Gomati and Prof. Salim T S Al-Hassani
I will continue my work with FSTC, in the role of President. I will be representing our organisation on an international basis and leading our efforts to build new relationships and ensure that our existing ones flourish during our new era.
The new chapter has new goals, new energy, and new people. The vision remains the same – to help all people enrich their identity by an understanding of a shared past so that we can all work better together for a share future. Surely that is what we all want and need?
But how will we do this?
We will continue with the many projects that we have under way. We are now embarking upon new strategic relationships with many important institutions e.g. British Science Association (UK), MIT(US), National Geographic Society (US), The Warburg Institute, University of London (UK), Six key Turkish universities including the new Istanbul civilization university (Turkey), various Arab, Malaysian, Indonesian, Chinese and Indian educational institutions. We must find new ways of funding these and our new endeavours. FSTC has a very well proven track record of achieving great things with modest funding, for our new work we must now think bigger.
Just how big we are now thinking is revealed by our new goals, we believe that from the platform we have built so far, we can achieve them.
As of today, I am announcing four key goals for FSTC:
Global Education Heritage Fund to support project promoting the cultural roots of science.
Programmes for our noble mission reach10% of all shools and educational institutions worldwide
Campaign to set up new version of Davos. Using the successes in the past to build a better future.
Lobby the United Nations to recognize and honour those great men and women scientists and inventors from all cultures who have been overlooked.
These are really big goals for a relatively small organisation, but let us not forget the words of Margaret Mead “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful dedicated people can change the world, indeed it has never been any other way”. I believe that we are such a group and that others like you will join us in our work
When you look at what FSTC has achieved so far, I have no doubt that we can do it, it is something we have to strive for. Maybe not for ourselves, but for our children and their children’s children. We need to get back to thinking about the long term and not just about ourselves and the short term
To achieve our vision we will need help and support. I ask you to join us in this noble endeavour.
Thank you for your time, enjoy the lecture and the exhibition.
Dr Rim Turkmani is a Dorothy Hodgkin Research Fellow of the Royal Society and FSTC. She works at the Astrophysics group at the Imperial College London. She also specialises in the impact of the Arabic science on the scientific revolution, and has conducted original research in this area which was developed into the ‘Arabick Roots’ exhibition. Having studied and worked as a scientist in many countries, including her home Syria, she has particular appreciation of cultural diversity in science and the importance of dialogue in the making of modern science.
Exhibition Curator Dr Rim Turkmani said: "This exhibition uncovers the never-before told story of the connections between the early Royal Society and contemporary and classical Arabic learning, and how they were used to solve some of the most pressing problems of the day.”
“This was a time when British society as a whole was largely ignorant of the cultural achievements of the Arabic world – yet we find that the early Royal Society’s group of ‘ingenious and curious gentlemen’ included three Fellows from the Arabic world. This forgotten history reveals a rich tradition of communication between two very different cultures, and shows that then – just like today – collaboration across linguistic and cultural boundaries can lead to great results.