11 January 2022

Online Workshop: “Sailing the Early Modern Indian Ocean”

An international workshop to approach from various perspectives the generation, constitution and circulation of nautical-related knowledge throughout the Indian Ocean World, following the late medieval and early modern trade routes.
Join us on the 24 and 25 January to share “case studies”, problems, or curiosities in a collegial setting, benefitting from the expertise, insights and help of interested colleagues. And please spread the word among those who may be interested.
And here is the program, To register, please email juan.acevedo@fc.ul.pt

08 November 2021

Knowledge Weaponized

Towards the end of chapter 6 of his Fawā’id, after going over the complexities of various kinds of routes and course-plotting options, Ibn Mājid explains:

I have made distinctions (farraqtu), because the different skills (‘ulūm, “sciences”) are like weapons: sometimes you need a bow and sometimes a sword, sometimes a spear and sometimes an ax or a dagger, and yet, for all this, you may never be dispensed of using a knife.

The explicit point seems to be that every skill, as a subdiscipline of knowledge, has its own irreplaceable and particular application, and that it is necessary to have a rounded preparation, because, as he puts it later, borrowing a saying from Imam ‘Ali: “man is the enemy of anything he is ignorant of,” or rather, given the context, “man is at war with everything he is ignorant of” (al-insān ‘aduww mā jahilahu). That is (and we must put it in the context of piloting a ship through the ocean and having to land safely thousands of miles away), everything we ignore is a hostile prompt to catastrophic failure. And the obvious way to be prepared, or armed, is to acquire the panoply of knowledge required by our respective field.

The implicit point is in that initial “making distinctions”, associated to terms like farq, “distinction, discrimination, severance”, and furqān, an epithet of the Qur’an meaning “a criterion”. As it happens, this root-meaning of division and discernment is exactly the same of the English-Germanic skill, and also of Latin scientia. The suggestion that science and skill have a common origin in discernment/dissection should give us pause now, as it would be better developed in another post.

So now, instead, going back to the image of waging war against ignorance, we can see how the mighty ancient saying is so much better when applied in science than in politics: Divide et impera! or in Arabic, Farriq tasud!, discern and you shall rule. [JA]

30 July 2021

Arab Tridua: Three-Day “Weeks” in Arabia

This post is about a rather neglected aspect of time division in early Arabia. In his Fawā’id (IV, 7) Ibn Mājid explains: “Every month is divided in ten parts of three days each, and each part has its name.” Then he lists the ten triads or, more specifically, tridua: Ghurar, Nufal, Tusa‘, ‘Ushar, Buhr, Bīd, Durā‘, Muhāq, Hanādis, Ziyād, Surar. Most of the names are straightforward in meaning, relating to the appearance of the moon or to the date count, and the word “three” is implicit. For example, “The three of Tusa‘” (al-thalāth al-tusa‘) means something like “the three [days] of the ninth”, because this triad ends on the ninth day of the lunar month. Al-thalāth al-bīd means “the three of whiteness”, because they are near the full moon.

Keen-eyed readers will have noticed that the above list actually contains eleven tridua, not just ten. This means to reflect the garbled textual condition in which Ibn Mājid’s list reached his readers in the 15th century, with obvious ingrained misspellings and interpolations. The earlier references I can find for these names are Ibn Wādih al-Ya‘qūbī (9th century) and al-Bīrūnī (11th century), who give slightly different lists. In comparison to them, Ibn Mājid’s does look like the outcome of centuries of Chinese whispers.

Now, al-Bīrūnī explains first that the names are derived “from the distinctness revealed by the state and the curvature of the moon,” and shortly after that they are “taken from the faces of the moon and its curvature.” This is what I find warrants a thought on our concept of “week”. Our weeks derive in part from a division of the lunar cycle in quarters.

Let us leave aside for now the numerological relevance of the division in three, seven or ten, which we have discussed previously. We can see how the beautiful continuum of the lunation allows for as many divisions as our powers of observation allow us to determine distinct—hence nameable—units. How many nights do we need to appreciate each clearly distinct aspect of the moon?

Nama-rupa, in the Sanskrit philosophical terminology, “name-form”: mutually dependent and inseparable aspects of every phenomenon, everything that appears to then vanish “under the Sun.” The gentle and ever-so-fleeting light of the moon is perhaps the phenomenon par excellence, now there, now vanished… What is left to us, puny sublunary creatures is to wield our power to name, and thus, by naming, to create scientia, the knowability and the knowledge, a “possession for ever.” [JA]

06 July 2021

The Spacetime of Early Modern Navigation

As we continue to read chapter 4 of the Fawā’id, about the nautical rhumbs, and as we go through detailed descriptions of time and distance measurements, we come across technical concepts which in their practicalities bring us, once again, to reflect on some of the principles of our modern technoscience.

The distance unit in early modern Arab navigation was the zām (pl. azwām). The technical concept is the taraffā or tirfa, called by early Portuguese explorers the “Rule of the Leagues” (regimento das leguas), the function between the distance travelled, the latitude progress, and the azimuth of the destination: e.g. if you travel straight up north, it takes you one hour to shift your position by one degree northwards, but if you travel towards the north-east, it will take you longer to advance that same degree northwards. A nice image of this concept is given by the triangle below, where A is the point of origin, and the latitude difference between A and B would be one degree. Simply put: the AB diagonal path takes longer to reach the same parallel.

Now, how to measure the advance without any points of reference on the flat surface of the ocean? The key point is: time is a function of movement. Something has to move for there to be a sign of time, because, as ordinary language teaches us: “time passes”, and we speak about “a space” or “an extension” of time, and we ask “how long?” as if we were speaking of a stretch of a road or a piece of string.

The solution: look up from the surface of the ocean and into the sky, where the positions and the continuous movement of the heavenly bodies show us directions and show us time. This relation between movement and time brings to mind Plato’s formulation: “time is the moving image of eternity” (Timaeus 37d). A sundial illustrates this too, being somehow “a moving shadow of eternity”. The passing stars were the necessary reference, and so, one of the definitions of zām reads, “the distance it takes to raise the Pole Star by one eighth of a finger if the ship sails due north”.

Fundamental coexistence of space and time, and strikingly obvious continuity of their dimensions… What to make, in this light, of the complexities of the space-time formalism of contemporary physics, with their illustrious history and mathematical refinements? Is this yet another case of “nothing new under the sun”? The word itself, spacetime, goes perfectly well with the medieval perception of navigators—the consubstantiality of space and time was immediately obvious. Perhaps it is just a matter of continuing to deepen the dialogue, the centuries-old conversation between the depths of metaphysical speculation and the frontlines of physical enquiry. Time will tell. [JA]

01 June 2021

Ostriches? What Ostriches!?

The early Arabic sky has some ostriches running through it: one of the lunar stations of early Bedouin astronomy is called The Ostriches (al-Na‘ā’im), and two of the brightest stars in the sky, Fomalhaut (α PisA) and Hadar (β Centauri), are also called “ostriches”, zilmān. We have been reading about these ostriches for long months now and, busy with astronomical and nautical details, we missed the question obvious to any contemporary reader: what ostriches in Arabia?

It is a historically well-known fact that we humans, as cultural and mythical beings, always project on the night sky our lives, including both what surrounds us everyday and what informs our minds. This is how the Greeks had the Ship Argo and their deities and fabled animals above, while in Patagonia they had rheas in the sky, and in Australia emus. Of course, you could say that if the Greeks had a winged horse, the Arab bedouins could very well have had their ostriches and an ice cream cart too, but… is there something missing?

As it turns out—and this is the beauty of how uranography and astronomy intertwine with very down-to-earth disciplines across the natural sciences—there were ostriches in Asia Minor and Arabia, but they were hunted to extinction by the middle of the 20th century. The Arabian ostrich (Struthio camelus syriacus) was very close genetically to its North-African cousins, and it had an important place in the culture of the Middle East since prehistoric times, but alas, it could not survive the arrival of firearms and motor vehicles.

While they remain undisturbed in the night sky, though, they help us on several fronts. They bring to mind the frailty of life on this sublunar place, and they can make us wonder at how we relate to the configuration of the night sky: while we obviously project parts of our lives on those glittering lights, what do we receive from them? What is the quid pro quo we have with the stars? What does their “life” project on earth? As readers of this blog will remember, there are very early and strong arguments to say that every systematic, controlled, “mathematical” way of pursuing knowledge here below derives from the observation of those ostriches and their celestial companions. There seems to be, in a very strict etymological sense, a dialogue between the stars and men: logos going through between high and low and low and high, for the advancement of science. [JA]

10 May 2021

If You Are Patient…

Speaking of celestial rhumbs, Ibn Mājid is constantly going back to fine points of astronomical observations, how one star is “fettered” to another and how each one pertains to a rich interplay of positions. “Look at it when it is rising, then what is at the zenith and four fingers to the north at the same level. Then look at it when it is culminating, and check what is level with it and what is setting and rising at the same time…” and so on and so forth to a point of baffling complexity. It was the business of the pilots, who watched through the night and recognised the different configurations, as is encapsulated in the following advice:

If you persevere from its rising to its setting, from the beginning to the end of the night, you will see how all the configurations of its altitude measurements take shape through the sky.

Shapes seen in the sky by more than thirty different civilizations.
Design by Eleanor Lutz.

We had had occasion to comment on this “figurative” view of the stars, including its artisanal aspects and some of its more abstract associations. What is peculiar here is the emphasis on the prolonged observation to get “the full picture”, the direct relation between the tenacity of the practitioner and the access to the whole of the material, as it where.

In a few words we get a vivid and timeless picture of the Indian Ocean pilot’s discipline: watching through the night, patiently, registering the manyfold complexity that made wayfinding possible. I wonder to what extent this applies to the proficiency in other arts and techniques: the relentless attention, watching while everyone else sleeps, absorbing those guiding, principial forms—in the end, this is as good an image as it gets of what “in-formation“ used to mean; not just being exposed to data, but imbibing knowledge through the night with diligent eyes, to find a way. [JA]

19 April 2021

Black and White Waters at Sea

One of the abiding question marks as we study the Indian Ocean nautical texts is that practically all their wayfinding lore, all their sophisticated, awe-inspiring system of astronavigation depends on darkness—specifically on the absence of daylight. No wonder that one of the recurrent pieces of advice of Ibn Mājid to aspiring pilots is that “they shall sleep very little at night.” It is as if the astronomical skill of the pilots required them to live by night, because it was by night, in darkness, that they found their guidance and their certainty. One wonders at some reports in European nautical literature, about pilots who habitually slept by day to be awake at night.

Drawing clarity from darkness and coming to life in the dead of night are motives of inversion which are common to other nocturnal professions; they speak of an inversion of normality related to a special kind of knowledge. Noblesse oblige, in the case of the pilots, meant that they could no longer live like ordinary sailors.

Another remarkable inversion of values at sea is the appreciation of black waters mentioned in the Fawā’id. Black waters do not mean stormy weather or anything ominous, but are foam-less waters, while white waters are choppy waters, when it is windy and small peaks of foam take shape on the surface of the sea. Black smooth water means stability, calm winds, and above all, an even ride for the observation of the sky and for better calibrated measures.

In what is a typical experience of reversal (taqallub) as one advances through the degrees of knowledge, down the rabbit-hole, or through the looking-glass, or coming out of the cave of ordinary life, the Arab pilots (the ma‘ālimah, “those who know and teach”), seem to have led lives of subtly shifted values. The night and dark which inspire fear and misgivings to ordinary mortals, and which give shelter to crime and transgression, was their element and was for them a time of discernment and attainment. [JA]

30 March 2021

Canopus: Gentle Celestial Key

Known in Arabic as Suhayl, Canopus is the second-brightest star in the night sky, second only to Sirius, and it has a cultural importance which it would be hard to exaggerate. In Islamic civilisation in particular, it is notable because the major axis of the Kaaba is aligned with its rising point.

As we read on through the nautical rhumbs, Suhayl has a prominent place, forming part of a diametrical pair which is closest to the poles. Suhayl would be practically a South Pole indicator, while its complementary opposites (al-Na‘sh, the Plough) would be North Pole indicators. Ibn Mājid explains: “Young and old among the people of the desert and the people of the sea, everyone knows Suhayl by sight.” And he adds: “Nothing is better than Suhayl to take altitude measures among what has been set in motion by the Turner of the Spheres (Tornator Caelorum, al-Dawwār). Southern peoples use it to unlock the routes to all of India and Arabia.”

It is remarkable that the name Suhayl, a star of such mighty practical importance, should mean literally “the little easy-going one”. As a diminutive of sahl, it has a range of related meanings, all familiar names of gentleness. As we had seen with the Pleiades (Thurayyā, Soraya, Zorayda?), Suhayl has also the discreet yet pervasive distinction of being used as a personal given name; it is a common male name not only in Arabic, but in Urdu, Persian and Turkish as well.

This archaic, indeed pre-Islamic, custom of using star names for children makes you wonder about similar practices across cultures. Apart from Spanish Sol and Luna, Sun and Moon, which are used as girls’ names (in Arabic, Shams is for men while Qamar is for women), I can only recall literary characters like Lyra Belacqua (His Dark Materials) and Sirius Black and his family of Harry Potter’s characters. I wonder if our readers can tell us about other people named after celestial bodies? Not sure Arthur would count… Any Betelgeuses or Achernars you are acquainted with!? [JA]