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Berlin exhibition tells how science bridged faiths

12 January 2018

©Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

A painting depicting two astronomers, which is in the exhibition “Jews, Christians, and Muslims: Scientific Discourse in the Middle Ages 500-1500”, in Berlin

A painting depicting two astronomers, which is in the exhibition “Jews, Christians, and Muslims: Scientific Discourse in the Middle Ages 500-150...

THE extent to which today’s scientific world is still based on intercultural and interreligious scientific discourse and the translated scriptures of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholars which date back nearly 1000 years is explored in an exhibition in Berlin.

Devoted to the history of a millennium of en­­­­counter between cultures, the exhibition “Jews, Christians, and Muslims: Scientific Discourse in the Middle Ages 500-1500”, is cur­ated and compiled by Dr Andreas Fingernagel, of the Austrian National Library.

It seeks to show how scientists from the three Abrahamic religions during this period co- operated, influenced each other, initiated a creative process of appropriation through trans­lations, and mutually benefited from inter­cultural dialogue in medicine, astrology, and astro­­­n­­­omy, as well as philosophy, ethics, and mathematics.

“The subject of the encounter between cul­tures has lost nothing of its topicality,” Dr Fingernagel said. “The conflicts that have con­stantly arisen among different ethnicities, reli­gions, and global philo­so­phies easily cause us to forget the positive impact that dialogue and mutual communica­tion have had on the de­­velopment of the respective civilisations.”

The exhibition starts with a quotation from the Arab father of Muslim peripatetic philo­sophy, al-Kindi, in 850: “We should not be ashamed of acknowledging and processing the truth, regardless of the source it derives from, even if it is brought to us by former generations and foreign people.”

Born in Basra and educated in Baghdad, al-Kindi brought the writing of Aristotle into
the Muslim world, while, as a mathematician, he introduced Indian numerals to the Muslim and Chris­tian worlds. From Baghdad, the Greek writ­­ings of Aristotle were translated, and reached Western Europe through intellectual centres in southern Italy and Spain.

The Middle East and the Mediterranean states were the melting-pot of this cross-cultural scient­ific discourse. The predominantly Muslim states and the courts of the caliphs especially showed a tolerance towards Jewish and Christian scholars.

The exhibition presents the four traditions of writing from 500 to 1500: Greek, Arabic, and Hebrew, and the transition in Western Europe to Latin and later German, French, Catalan, Spanish, and other languages. Publications that compare how the various cultures and languages dealt with the same subject, as well as medical and astronomical instruments from the time, are on display.

The multilingual aspect of the discourse meant that translation schools were important to making texts available in other languages. The in­flu­­­­­ential translation school of Baghdad, the House of Wisdom, founded in the ninth century, led the field in making ancient texts available to medieval scholars, and, through translation, creatively appropriated those texts into their new cultural spheres.

An example was the Arab medical doctor Abulcasis, from the Spanish city of Cordoba, then under Muslim rule. His book the Tasrif, first published in Arabic in about 1000, is seen as the first significant work on surgery, and in­­cluded influences from doctors from Greece, Alexan­dria, and Persia.


“Jews, Christians, and Muslims: Scientific Dis­course in the Middle Ages 500-1500”, is at the Martin Gropius Bau, Niederkirchnerstraße 7, 10963 Berlin, until 4 March 2018.


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