Islamicate Transformations of Knowledge

Islamicate Transformations of Knowledge

Other involved Scholars: 

Matteo Valleriani, Helge Wendt, Imad Samir, Matthias Schemmel, Jochen Büttner

Cooperation Partners: 

Research Unit Intellectual History of the Islamicate World, FU Berlin, Department of Neohellenic Research, Institute for Historical Research Athens, Departamento de la Filosofía y Lógica y Filosofía de la Ciencia, Universidad de Sevilla


Table of contents of ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Khazini’s (d. after 1130) work on the Balance of Wisdom. From the Lawrence J. Schoenberg Collection, courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Libraries.

Islamicate transformations designates a broad variety of processes of change that scholars, artisans, courtiers and civil as well as military rulers brought to the knowledge and its practices in the territories they inhabited, conquered or reigned. These processes included several major changes in language (between 700 and 1600, three main languages of cultures, including the sciences as then understood, were created and repeatedly modified: Arabic, Persian, Ottoman Turkish), knowledge systems (Bedouin astral and meteorological knowledge, Sasanian, Indian and Greek knowledge, religious and philosophical sciences, occult and mathematical sciences, Galenic and prophetic medicine), methodologies (epistemology, models, methods), organization (institutions, inter- and intra-disciplinary arrangements, modes of localization), practice (textual, observational, collecting, teaching, unity of research and teaching, multiplicity of skills and identities, collaboration across boundaries) and value systems (pride or submission, secular or faith based, future or past oriented, poetry versus prose, worldly and otherworldly). The term Islamicate is an artifice created by Marshal Hodgson to describe the cultural composition of societies with either Muslim rulers or a Muslim majority population, without limiting it to the role of their creeds and religious practices.

The transformations studied in the framework of this project encompass four of the listed main fields of change: the creation of languages of science; the change in knowledge systems; the emergence of new modes of organization; and the differences between research and teaching practices in local contexts. The investigation of new languages of science and the change of knowledge systems focuses on geometry(Euclid’s Elements) and mechanics (the knowledge of balances). The study of new modes of organization investigates four shifts in knowledge production, reproduction and dispersion in Islamicate societies (Sasanian to Abbasid, Greek to Greco-Arabic, court sciences to madrasa sciences, traditional to modern) and their representation in medieval sources as well as in current historical research. The analysis of differences between research and teaching practices aims at exploring processes of hybridization and collaboration through boundary crossing and the creation of shared cultural spaces (medieval and early modern cartography, formation of hegemonic knowledge, cultural imitations and reinventions). The main localities and time periods of study are Iraq, Iran, Syria and Egypt from the later eighth to the fourteenth centuries; the Mediterranean and its northeastern extensions from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries; Egypt, Turkey and Iran in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

  • Sonja Brentjes, ‘Medieval Portolan Charts as Documents of Shared Cultural Spaces,’ in R. Abdellatif, Y: Benhima, D. König, E. Ruchaud (dir.), Acteurs des transferts culturels en Méditerranée médiévale, München : Oldenbourg, 2012, pp. 134-146.
  • Sonja Brentjes, ‘On two manuscripts by Abū Bakr b. Bahrām al-Dimashqī (d. 1102/1691) related to W. and J. Blaeu’s Atlas Maior, in Gottfried Hagen, Baki Tezcan (eds.), Other Places: Ottomans traveling, seeing, writing, drawing the world, Osmanlı Araştırmaları/The Journal of Ottoman Studies 40 (2012), 171-192.
  • Sonja Brentjes, ‘The Presence of Ancient Secular and Religious Texts in Pietro della Valle’s (1586-1652) Unpublished and Published Writings, in Willem Floor and Edmund Herzig (eds.), Iran and the World in the Safavid Age, London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2012, pp. 327-346.
  • Elio Brancaforte, Sonja Brentjes (guest curators & eds.), From Rhubarb to Rubies: European Travels to Safavid Iran (1550-1700); The Lands of the Sophi: Iran in Early Modern European Maps (1550-1700), Harvard Library Bulletin, 23.1-2 (2012).
  • Sonja Brentjes, Jürgen Renn, The Arabic Transmission of Knowledge on the Balance; forthcoming