30 November 2020

Wipe Out; Learn; Repeat

Some of the lunar mansions, as we have seen before, are of no practical use, but only useful theoretically. That is, quite paradoxically, shiny objects in the sky which are important in spite of their invisibility. They are useful as “placeholders”, like the contours of a glass, perhaps, which are important as limits and containers.

Speaking of one such mansion, al-Na‘a’im, no. 21, Ibn Majid speculates of someone who might have devised a new personal method to use them for navigation, a method which then disappeared (yandarisu) after the inventor’s death, and he concludes: “There isn’t any good in altitude measures that are not put to use.” Let us dwell on the triliteral root (d-r-s) used for the “disappearance” of knowledge, because it combines two apparently opposite meanings of “erasing” and “learning”, and in so doing it illustrates key aspects of knowledge transmission. For example: dars means both “a lesson” and “effacement”—the image is that of the wind blowing signs on the sand, or a teacher wiping out a blackboard.

Like with a glass, where emptiness is a pre-condition of fullness, it seems that a certain kind of erasure is a prerequisite of learning. Science, understood as an accumulation of knowledge through the ages, is built on ignorance, we could say, and not only as an initial mythical tabula rasa, but as ever ascending and ubiquitous instances of unknowing. One apt image for this is the unknown sign, the x in an equation, “what is sought” (al-matlūb), in Arabic.
Another image is the vastness of space, which attracts the explorers and provokes their quests, time and again over the centuries. Two aspects of unknowing: the disappearance due to a break in the transmission is like a vacuum, sterile, an extinguished fire; while the burning “ignorance”, the open question, the “hope” for lands of legend, is an ever-receding horizon, like a plenum and a “matrix of all possibilities.” [JA]

23 November 2020

Star-Magical Charm of Scorpio

Reading about the eighteenth lunar mansion, al-Qalb, “The Heart” (of Scorpio), we find once again, but concentrated in one single little passage, several of the themes, the literary and cosmological threads that make the Fawā’id so illuminating and appealing.

On the theme of celestial complementarity, of ever-paired rising and descending stars, which is crucial for the navigational use of the skies, we first find some verses. As earlier in the book, the relations between heavenly bodies are used as pattern and subject of love poetry:
I came across her, when the wind,
Blew on her cheek a curl like the heart of Scorpio.
I asked her for a kiss when we were together,
And she hid from me with a heart of scorpion.
This is presented in the context of Aldebaran (“the eye of the Bull”), just mentioned as the diametrical opposite of this Heart (Antares), and of how both stars are alike in their ill-omened character. But it is Ibn Mājid’s own commentary which brings everything into play: “This poem belongs to permitted magic for love and magnetic attraction of the innermost hearts of men, because of its power, its subtlety, its symbolism, and its correspondence.” The image of the magically charged lock of hair runs from antiquity in the Song of Songs through to St John of the Cross, and globally across cultures. To write these lines you need a peculiar knowledge of celestial mechanics, to be sure, but also of seemingly unrelated disciplines like prosody, lexicology, astrology, magic, and a keen sense of the concretely human. As Ibn Mājid likes to repeat, nautical knowledge is far from exclusively theoretical, and if anything, it is above all an experiential knowledge.

Traditional navigation skills, in the way they have been preserved by Indian Ocean nautical literature—be it in Arabic or any of the languages of Gujarat, or the Konkan and Malabar coasts—consists of a very synthetic, and not merely systematic, but organic, understanding of man’s situation in the cosmos. Early modern pilots in Ibn Mājid’s lineage were heirs of a tradition beyond our trite dichotomies of humanities vs. science, or arts vs. technology—it was all more roundly human, and for that, so much more enjoyable and rewarding! [JA]

03 November 2020

“The Clouds” and Stellar Fraternity

Just a brief note this week, prompted by a passing remark by Louis Massignon in his article about the Magellanic Clouds, “Les nuages de Magellan et leur découverte par les arabes”. Apart from their astronomical interest, these two galaxies, called the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) and the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC), are especially notable for being about 20 degrees from the South Celestial Pole, and as such of great aid to navigation. Even more, their current and historical position bears echoes of an even greater archaic importance, for around 1000BC they were almost on the Pole.

Unknown to Ptolemy, these Two Clouds (al-Sahābatān) were first mentioned in writing by al-Sūfī in the 10th century, and as such they were known to Ibn Mājid, and a common fixture of Indian Ocean navigation. The Celestial Pole can be located at the vertex of an equilateral triangle based on them (or alternatively a larger triangle based on Canopus and Achernar)—see the illustration below, where the Pole is approximately within the blue circle, and the two faint Clouds show on the centre right.
Massignon comments on the warmth of the relation of southern hemisphere nations to the Two Clouds, comparing it to the relation with the Pleiades, and observing: “it is fraternal respect rather than worship.”

The word “government”, we tend to forget, is not directly related to force and to the “might is right” delusion, or to other delusions of imperial grandeur, but to the Greek root kubernao, “to steer”, “to pilot” on the authority of knowledge. That we can benefit from our elder siblings in the sky, all those guiding lights, and to do so fraternally, like a passenger approached a pilot in the middle of the night on board a ship, to have a chat and learn… this is a reassuring thought in stormy times, and as good pilots know, some times are stormier than others. [JA]

27 October 2020

Masters of One Language

Speaking of poetry, Ibn Mājid regaled us last week with a demanding passage in verse, though certainly not technical this time. It was a poem introduced as a “a riddle” (lughz), and purportedly about how nobility is related to elevation—we are still on a mainly astronomical section of the book, you see. It had some of the signature boasting of the author: “My name is like the radiant sun to which you entrust the direction of your way,” and yet it also played on quite a different level.

At the end of the cryptic verses, Ibn Mājid gives a hint and also issues a stern caveat: “This riddle is about that name which can only be understood by him who reads it with morphological knowledge, for it contains a fine point of language on the name Ahmad.” The hint about this name is welcome, because it is certainly not apparent in the text! and it has a double meaning: Ahmad is Ibn Mājid’s first name, but it is also recognised immediately by Muslims as an inner name of the Prophet, based on the same three letters h-m-d, from which derives Muhammad. The caveat given is precious: it points to the fundamental need for thorough training in one canonical language. A pilot and a sailor of the 15th century could boast of his grammatical subtlety because mastery of a classical language was a given in a normal education.

Perhaps in our days we have reached a nadir of linguistic proficiency in academia, when the question of the need to learn languages other than one’s own is even asked. At all times and everywhere (like still in most of the world today), the rule was to move at ease between languages, because the living contact with ancient sources guaranteed a direct and profound experience of “grammar.” Even today, unlettered peasants in India can recite Vedic verses in Sanskrit, like Arab nomads the Qur’an or any Chinese villager Confucius’ Analects—so the anomaly is ours, and the relevant questions are Eliot’s questions: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” [JA]

19 October 2020

Be Practical: Learn Your Poems!

Once again, starting from a minimal astronomical excuse, Ibn Mājid takes us on a major literary digression about Arabic proverbs, including the horrible story of the poor milkmaid—well above the content rating allowed to our younger blog readers… and in any case bringing us again to the serious question of audience: who were these “Commentaries” written for? what for?

It is obvious that if you are a pilot in need of directions and practical nautical references, you won’t have time to read the lengthy excursus fancied by Ibn Mājid. You need straightforward data, concrete information to arrive safely to your harbour. In that case, what you need is to read Ibn Mājid’s poems.

In an interesting reversal of our contemporary views, this early nautical literature, or at least Ibn Mājid as its preeminent representative, used verse as the preferred medium for strictly technical contents. If you wanted to use metaphors and all the panoply of belletristic effects, and to ramble on in stories and anecdotes, then write prose. If, on the contrary, you wanted to convey highly technical and indeed vitally precise information, then write poems!

Still in our days, some old pilots on the shores of the Red Sea and the Gulf do remember their nautical verses for this or that orientation detail. It is a striking survival of a medieval and ancient tradition of “artisanal poetry”, of which the famous pre-Christian example is Aratus’ astronomical Phaenomena. It is also a testimony to the discreet relation between “music” in a broad sense and scientific and technological endeavours. We can picture the old sea dogs, retired at home after a lifetime of sailing, and now enjoying the crazy stories told by Ibn Mājid. They had all their music of science and skill inside their minds, and now they could sit back and enjoy the Fawā’id. [JA]

12 October 2020

The Interplay of the Two Zodiacs

As we continue reading through al-‘Awwā’, Ibn Mājid tells us about the positions of the lunar mansions in the solar zodiac. “At the time of Alexander,” the first northern and southern mansions were al-Sharatān and al-Ghafr respectively—what this means is that, around the fourth century BC, al-Sharatān was the first mansion to be seen rising after the vernal equinox; and Al-Ghafr the first after the autumn equinox—“but they are different in our time, in respect to the zodiac.”

Unlike the mansions of the moon, which correspond to stars visible in the night sky, the solar zodiac was determined by the tropical year. The Babylonian system inherited by the Greeks divided the zodiac into twelve equal divisions of 30 degrees, starting near αβ Arietis, on which the equinoctial sun rose around the year 400 BC. Nowadays, the zodiac is divided in the same way: the sun is said to be in Aries after the vernal equinox, to be in Taurus after 30 degrees, in Gemini after 60, and so on. However, due to the Earth’s axis movement (the precession movement), the equinoctial points have been slowly shifting to the west in relation to the stars in the background. Even though Aries conventionally begins after the spring equinox, the constellation actually seen rising at that period is Pisces. At the time of Ibn Mājid, “when the sun or the moon descend in al-Sharatān (αβ Arietis), only six degrees of Aries remain there, and all of al-Butayn (εδρ Arietis) is within Taurus.” The lunar zodiac remained throughout a sidereal system, and this is one of the reasons why it had, and still may have, very practical usages for navigation. [IB]

06 October 2020

How Many Do We Need?

We have once again come across a mention of al-Sufi’s Book on the Shapes of Stars (Kitāb suwar al-kawākib, 10th century), considered by many as the the most important update on Ptolemy’s enormously influential Almagest (originally entitled Μαθηματικὴ Σύνταξις; the Syntaxis Mathematica, 2nd century).

The fascinating history of this relation has been explored time and again from many angles. Briefly, as regards uranography, the “cataloguing of stars” contained in books 7 and 8 of the Almagest, al-Sufi was the pivotal figure who revised the Alexandrian material and prepared it for further developments, culminating with Tycho Brahe’s Rudolphine Tables (1627).
Now, coming to our nautical context: when Ibn Mājid mentions al-Sufi, he invariably adds “and his forty-eight constellations,” a number which seems to go back to Ptolemy. Studying the lunar mansions has made palpable how arbitrary the division of the ecliptic is: you have a rotating circle dotted with shiny specks, you introduce some boundaries and project your lines. You can have 28 mansions or 12 signs or 36 decans or even 144 dodecatemoria. The division in 36 is easy to understand if we think of the rationale of the Babylonian “Three Stars Each” catalogues: for each twelfth of the ecliptic you select one equatorial, one southern and one northern star or asterism, so you cover a wider area and thus give more parameters for orientation (we are not going to waste all those stars!).

In a very useful summary of Ibn Mājid’s uranography, Ibrahim Khoury speaks of 24 major stars used in Indian Ocean navigation. Why 24? and why 48? These figures might be a Greek alphabetic reminiscence: the Greek alphabet has 24 letters, and using this number meant you were speaking of “the alpha and omega” of the stars, the “heavenly ABC.” It meant it was enough, that no other element was needed. I suspect some earlier source for this, perhaps Hipparchus… but the abiding and concrete question is how many stars do we really need to find our way. Right now, dear reader, when it is dark, how many stars in the sky do you need to know in order to find your way home? [JA]

28 September 2020

When the Pole is Lost… Sail On!

As we advance through the lunar mansions, and as we find new constellations south of the celestial equator, we are given specific advice by Ibn Mājid. “When the Pole Star is lost, the Two Calves (al-Farqadān, in Ursa Minor) can be used. Then when you lose these two in southern regions, make use of al-Jūn and al-‘Anāq (ε and ζ of Ursa Major) to do your work and make your calculations.” We are still relying on the circumpolar stars so far, but further south we must, and “When the Plough disappears, this is the beginning of darkness.”

“The Darkness,” al-Zulumāt (in fact a plural, “the darknesses”, tenebrae) became over the centuries a customary expression for the open ocean, and at some point in particular for the Atlantic, al-Bahr al-zulumat. But it was at its origin a term full of Qur’anic resonance, and it was not limited to water navigation, since “It is He Who maketh the stars for you, that ye may thereby have guidance through the dark (zulumāt) of land and sea” (6:97).
We will find indications for further south navigation in the next sections and chapters of the Fawā’id, but it is remarkable here how the stellar frame of reference changes in such direct relation to the latitude, and how despite moving into deeper waters and unfamiliar skies, we are still within a clearly defined geographical area where pre-modern Arab navigation took place. Shores from the Red Sea, through the Arabian Sea and eastwards to the South China Sea, and as far south as Madagascar were all part of the tightly-knit network of commercial and countless cultural exchanges going back for many centuries.

The intense human activity and the vast area of this maritime expanse is part of the fascination of Ibn Mājid’s works, which as we have mentioned represent the common heritage of generations of many and very different peoples. It is mostly in this cultural sense that it does make sense to speak historically of the Indian Ocean as a “Mediterranean,” a larger and more diverse Mare Nostrum which even included, as we would put it today, “going into the unknown.” [JA]