An Odyssey Through Fuad Sezgin’s Life: Deconstruction, Authenticity And Reciprocity In Muslim Sciences

By Mahmood Abdul Fathah

Published in The Companion

The epoch when Muslim intellectual was abysmal, termed by Algerian Muslim philosopher, Malek Bennabi, as civilization bankruptcy, the intellectual pedagogy was captive to euro centrist tendencies. Spanning across the realms of art, literature, culture, and politics, euro centrist theories were ingrained into where ever the human psyche discoursed upon. Euro centrist thought currents, tainted by colonialism and imperialism, showcase modern science as a prerogative of European civilization and predate a marked interest in negating and subsiding non-European creative elements underlying many of recent developments. Though modern science made giant leaps from archaic oriental tradition, a comprehensive reading on catalysts that shaped the modern world and science prerequisites an explicit representation of these elements. Presently, many of de-colonial studies were serious efforts to address the lacunae we discern in the euro-centrist history, exposing many thoughts that could possibly provide a fillip to modern science. What imminent such an endeavor can hardly be construed as apologetic orientation, rather these cultural moorings strongly underpin identity construction of many.

Among the grand line-up which steered this approach to hitherto ignored tradition, Aydin Sayih and Fuad Sezgin, two Turkish scholars, lasered their reckless charisma to the farthest balcony. Making a defining argument on Muslim scholars precedence in astronomical observatory, backed by their requirement to precisely measure the prayer times, Aydin Sayih, a Ph.D. scholar of Harvard University is no doubt a forerunner in this regard. Nevertheless, who enlivened this de-colonial response, sweetening and ennobling the pursuit through his own revolutionary ideas, Fuad Sezgin, who recently passed away on June 30, deserves much more ecstatic gratitude .

Among his counterparts, Fuad Sezgin was a man different in many aspects. Even though hailing from Turkish region of Bitlis , traditionally educated and himself bearing an orthodox background, Sezgin identified himself in the lineage of German orientalists. Sezgin’s research methodology and thought currents were consequently moved by German parlance, notably by those German orientalists as Eilhard Wiedemann and Franz Woepcke. A ten-volume biography of German language Arabic and Islamic studies and the fact that many of his published works were in German would firm this belief. Verily what distracted his mind from the faculty of engineering, a passion he caressed so determined and led him to the densest repositories of Arab Islamic science was the lectures provided by Helmutt Ritter, a German philosopher of Istanbul university during the Hitler’s Third Reich regime. Ritter was a mentor with resolute commitment and in Sezgin’s own words, “given him what he has learned, that you can’t find anywhere, you can’t find in any books.” Earlier, a decade-long work of Ritter had paved the way for a phonological approach to Arab, Turkish and Persian science. Sezgin, in turn, worked along these lines, galvanizing them by fruitfully engaging in the tremendous Arabic treasures in Istanbul library. Later, Sezgin who found it desperate to live in his motherland following the military coup of 1980 that ascended left Kamalist junta to power, was fortunate enough to get innumerable vistas before him for research in Frankfurt. However, Sezgin was unfortunate to have pretty unusual things to happen in the nick of his life time, i.e., to lock horns with German govt. over the ownership rights of the manuscripts in his institution.

Widely recognized as a masterpiece among the copious amount of works written in his long writing odyssey, Geschichte des Arabischen Schrifttums was shaped under most unsparing circumstances. At the outset, thirty-year-old Sezgin was primarily concerned with revising Carl Brockelmann’s first chronicle of Istanbul library with his own new recipes and newly fangled values, evidently, to write a continuation to his work. But amidst the work, he began to conceive that it was not a continuation, but itself an independent work encompassing the entire world’s works. However, initial responses from his colleagues and mentor to his embarking upon this herculean task were rather disgusting. Many a man said, “nobody in the world can do that, you will be self-tired.” However, with the publishing of the first volume in 1967, the initial resentment soon gave to what obviously is emblematized by Ritter’s comment “no one has ever been able to do so, until now, other than you.” Meanwhile, revival projects for long lost Islamic science were on an upward trajectory. The book that chronicled umpteen ways by which Arab Islamic science and technology advanced, and channeled unrivaled insights into a fruitful interlude, between 7th and 14th centuries, is presently deemed to be the cornerstone reference in academic circles. The 17 volume book straddles in its descriptive accounts subjects varying from Quran, and hadith studies, History, Poetry, Sufism, Islamic theology together with natural sciences including medicine, zoology, chemistry, mathematics, meteorology.etc. More than 4 lakh manuscripts on which this over arching study was based largely owes to ancient libraries of middle east America and Europe, carrying in them the residues of Arab Islamic literature. These included works known only through biographical references till date or at the time known only through quotations. In particular, researches in the field have been rendered an impetus and novel destiny with these unparallel works.

Unlike Brockelmann who sparred of general remarks on the history of the various branches of literature, Sezgin, who left no room for skepticism, attempted to give a survey of a particular disciple at the beginning of each chapter. The technical accuracy with respect to name, date, catalog numbers and citations are indeed impressive enough to surpass Brockelmann. Moreover, Sezgin’s strict adherence to standards he himself set, i.e., inspecting the actual manuscripts, to rely on translations for his research and determination with which he mastered in 30 languages were sufficiently paid off in his research. Sezgin still recollects how under his influential teacher, Ritter, who wants his students to learn a new language every year, he excelled in Arabic, many times pouring over difficult Arabic texts 17 hours a day. Nevertheless, Sezgin’s efforts were in no terms perfect as were his ancestors and contemporaneous. The details to the citation he gave itself denote no far presence of some unreliable catalogs and many whose existence would become apparent in coming years. Remnants of incomplete and consequently unidentified manuscripts too could not be out rightly denied. Alongside, the little heed the author paid to pre Islamic Arabic tradition of sciences and his negligence of some of core Islamic achievements, mainly, Muslim achievements in astronomical timekeeping have come under harsh criticism from reviewers.

Though his works have come in criticism on these regards, the risks with which he ventured on the long journey to ancient libraries of Europe and Near East, a great deal frustrations he confronted while pouring over hand lists in ancient libraries, many of them devoid of catalogues arranged as per subject matter, were brownie points to note. The intellectual fervor with which he attended to much of enigmas existed in previous works, the division between astronomy and mathematics and the absence of hitherto publications on sources, to list a few, were rather satisfactory.

Sezgin bought into his treasures an array of accolades, most prominently, the glamorous King Faisal award of 1978 by virtue of the sterling talent he displayed for the Islamic world. In fact, King Faisal award session, attended by various avatars of the Islamic world, scholars, Arab businessmen and royal delegates, offered him an idyllic atmosphere to channelize his thoughts and metamorphose them. His own magazine entitled “Arab Islamic Science” and the institute of Arab Islamic science in Frankfurt owes a great deal to financial and diplomatic support of well heeled Arabs. It is a premier destination much sought after by researchers on the intellectual heritage .Adjacent to it, the Frankfurt museum, called by one of his friend  as Indiana Jones of Islamic manuscripts, showcases 400, 00 texts tracked down by Sezgin over a life period. All of them were manually binded by Sezgin himself. It also brilliantly captures sizzling replicas of 800 complex and sophisticated tools employed in Islamic golden age, mostly in Bagdad, Andalusia, and Western Europe.Sezgin’s initiativeno doubt stemmed from his determination to provide a lucid account of these inextricable features .Gaining inspiration from German physicist Eilhard Wiedemann , who had made five such instruments in a time span of 30 years, Sezgins initial doubt while working on these was whether he could make 30 of such.

Alongside, Sezgin propounded fresh thoughts on age, authenticity, and continuity of written scholarly tradition in Islam. Sezgin was of the stand that an unambiguous appraisal of the authority of Islamic and pre Islamic traditions demands a gigantic overhaul of certain studious constructions on Hadees literature and retrieval of many thoughts that are subsided from the banalities of Orientalist studies. Sezgin’s discourses on hadith tradition may now well be read from this dimension. Verily, as David A King rightly put it, Sezgin’s research genius is more evident in this regard. Fairly distanced from oriental notions on the subject and in times subjecting them to critical inquiry, Sezgin’s discourses on the historicity of Hadees transmission and collection were almost in line with mainstream Muslim scholars thought paradigm.

The first ever serious western criticism on the authority of Hadees literature was aired by Alois Sprenger. Sprenger’s reservation on the reliability of Hadees as a historical source was later taken up by William Muir. These repudiations from western scholarship culminated in the works of Ignaz Goldziher, unquestionably the most influential of that sort in the nineteenth century. Goldziher’s claims were posed from the vantage point of Hadees as a source of beliefs, conflicts, and concerns of the later generation of Muslims, rather than the other way round, i.e., the rise of Islam. Goldziher’s contributions remained untouched until Joseph Schacht whose thesis that Isnad -the chain of narrators of the hadith reaching back to the prophet- have a tendency to grow backward and common link theory had a defining effect on scholars who came after him. Following Azmi who lampooned Schacht’s assumption that few if any Hadees originated from the prophet, Sezgin’s approach was directed against Goldziher’s historical claims on Hadees literature.

Through his Turkish dissertation on the source of Sahih Bukhari – a compilation of a respected collection of legal sayings from the prophet – Sezgin take a head on the taken for granted notion that written sources were alien to Islamic history and prerogative of European intellect. Sezgin clearly elucidated that the written sources employed by the author reach back to the seventh century. However, a contrast to most of the Muslim scholars who generally believed in the oral tradition of Hadees transmission during the first century Hijra, Sezgin was of the opinion that many of them were in written form from earliest times itself. Sezgin sources out a number of early Muslim texts namely Ilal of Ahmad b. Hanbal, Tabaqatof Ibn Sa’d and Tarikh of Al Bukhari.etc to cement this claim, but forgo the fact that many of them were contemporaneous with classical Hadees tradition. A similar conviction seems to be employed in his works on the commencement of Arabic science among early writers who used Greek sources. Sezgin’s research on Arab chemistry and alchemy, one of his outstanding works made use of authentic transmission of Greek sources in the cities of Syria and Iraq by the seventh century, mostly in the hands of polyglot academicians. They were later translated into Arabic in the wake of 8th century Arabicization.

Much of Sezgin’s research and study hover over two inflicting ideas, perhaps what I could discern as the leitmotif of his whole life. Coming as it does from forerunners in his path, in the first stance, Sezgin emphasized the contribution of Arab Islamic culture wedded with Greek science in Europe’s awakening. However, he was of firm conviction that it should not come to the point that Muslims could patent whatsoever scientific advancement Europe further ended up at, from space shuttles to nuclear theories, which bought them into the global exposure. Secondly, they were an espousal of commonalities in thought paradigm of Europe and Islam and how they have inherited similar scientific reasoning, one that takes on still greater resonances. Sezgin, who centered his research on Frankfurt, was rather counterpoised to Huntington’s civilization wars and, in turn, was an ardent advocator of cooperation with Europe. His constant beaconing to readers was to strip themselves of the long worn leaves of animosity.

Sezgin’s interventions in the social milieu too were steered by these ideals. While apologetic of the bygone golden era, when it spearheaded the knowledge production and inspired others to do so, Sezgin was deeply conscious of historical and contemporary undercurrents that made it so baffling at present. This was an enigma that haunted many of his German friends, who though impelled to admire the relics in the museum often, aired those on him. It is thus no surprise that he profoundly conceived no less role of Muslims in fortifying euro centric history, a history that they themselves are polemic of. He was more a self-critic when he says that the detrimental factors to the decline of the Ottoman Empire, his Turkish ancestors, should be searched in the inner circles of Muslim civilization.

From one who despised the recesses of his motherland for being hesitated to surrender to dominant Kamalist junta, Sezgin’s turn out to be an overarching persona for his nation was rather an archetypal replica of prophetic Hijra. Years after, the Turkish govt. etched the name of this hitherto expelled scholar on one of the streets, paying obeisance to his works. In the land of Ataturk, President Recep Tayyib Erdogan, extending condolences over the demise of the historian, declared 2019 as Fuad Sezgin year. Over a prolonged time, they were striking contrasts.

Even after 80 years of age, this man with irrepressible energy and inveterate optimism sparred no time through which he could determine the future contours of Arab Islamic science. Under the AK party, Sezgin spearheaded a number of scientific-historic projects ranging from Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Istanbul Islam and Technology Museum, History of Science department in Fathih University and Dr. Fuad Sezgin Institute of Science in Islam .While passing away at 90, Sezgin was in the workshop of the 18th volume of his most renowned work. Nevertheless, Sezgin, who acknowledged significant gaps and loopholes in Arab Islamic scientific traditions, rekindled hope in the maneuvers of posterity. In a more pessimist reading, these shortcomings ought to be taken as what his reviewer Franz Rosenthal rightly put it “Arabists have no reason to despair. There is still scope of discoveries”