The scholarly milieu of Abu'l-Wafa

In May 2002 I sent Jeff Oaks (Mathematics, University of Indianapolis) the following question:

I read with great interest your paper, "Was al-Khwarizmi an applied algebraist?", which you had posted on the web. One thing that I wanted to ask you about was the role of Abu'l-Wafa, whom you mention in the paper. Is it consistent with your understanding of his activities that he may have given lectures or lessons? Would there have been a palace school that he would have taught at? Might he have had a disciple? Or do you think that the person who transcribed his book "On the Geometric Constructions Necessary for the Artisan" was just a volunteer who attended some series of meetings?

Jeff responded the next day:

Len Berggren wrote in some paper that at the time of Abu'l-Wafa, if one wanted to learn mathematics, one hired a tutor. There was no place for mathematics (or many other subjects) in the curricula of the schools which did exist at the time. Abu'l-Wafa probably did teach---I think that most scholars did---so you are on safe ground here. I do believe that the person who transcribed his work was a student. Could he have had more than one student at a time? No one knows, but it is certainly not unreasonable.

I do not think there would have been any specific institution in which he taught. In medieval Baghdad, society was not institution-based like ours is. If you wanted to learn, you studied with a teacher who, at the completion of the course, would give you a certificate. The student thus entered the chain of transmission of the particular subject or work. No institution was involved. Even when the madrasa (college) became an integral part of Islamic cities, the institution itself played a minor role apart from providing facilities---the certificates were still issued by individual scholars, who were not officially employed at any one madrasa.

The famous Islamic educational institution, the madrasa (college), was only just beginning to develop in the 10th century. The curriculum of the madrasa was concerned with religion and law, and not mathematics (or other secular sciences). But math did creep in occasionally because of topics like inheritance problems (a branch of law), which require calculation, and religious topics (finding the direction to Mecca, times of prayer, etc. which require spherical trigonometry.

The House of Wisdom was set up as a palace library, perhaps under al-Mansur (decades before al-Ma'mun), for the preservation of Persion national culture. Probably the function of the library shifted somewhat in the early 9th century, but there is so little information that we cannot even guess what such a new direction was. The bottom line is that modern scholars (and late medieval Islamic scholars as well!) have made too much out of the library. It was not the grand repository of Greek learning, of translation, or many of the other functions attributed to it. It may be that Abu'l-Wafa's works were stored there, but even if they were it would have been no big deal. There were many other libraries, private and public, and the House of Wisdom should not be taken as a medieval version of the Library of Congress. Also, I don't believe there is any primary source which says Abu'l-Wafa was associated with the library. But I bet there are a lot of secondary (or should I say tertiary?) works which make such an assertion! Where did you read it?

It is too bad the House of Wisdom isn't the grand university it has been made out to be, since its name has such a nice ring to it. Besides, what other institution can be named? Here you can see how the myth got started---historians want to attach great intellectual activity with institutions, but medieval Islam did not rely on institutions the way we in the west do.

But we are saved in the case of Abu'l-Wafa: He made observations at the Baghdad observatory. I can dig up some details on the observatory if you want. I am at home now, and my books are in my office.

Message reproduced with the permission of Jeff Oaks.
Other material: Copyright 2002, Greg N. Frederickson
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Last updated May 17, 2002.