While producing his most famous works, Dante looked to an unexpected source for inspiration – the works of Islamic astronomer, Al-Fargani.
In political or scientific disputes, emphasis is usually placed on differences. Commonalities in science and culture are easily overlooked and ignored. As for historical studies, famous figures of human history are frequently "ethnicized" in retrospect, sometimes even centuries after their deaths. Such monopolizations often serve the construction of a country's own national identity. A good example of this is Copernicus, who has been seized from both the German and Polish sides, which automatically raises the question of whether it is at all important whether Copernicus was a Pole or a German. Through such co-option, cultures and knowledge are separated from each other, being devalued or upgraded, as is deemed necessary.
Are there geographical and national boundaries to cultures and knowledge? Are there rifts between the cultures, and do they really develop independently? A look at two historical characters, Dante and Al-Fargani, might provide us with an answer to these questions.
Dante Alighieri is one of the most important European poets of the Middle Ages. His works, especially his most famous and the most controversial one, the Divine Comedy (Divina Commedia), have been interpreted by countless scholars and translated into many other languages. The Divine Comedy is considered one of the greatest works in world literature, and since it was written in Italian, which was rather unusual for that time, it is held as a monument of poetry in the Italian language. Some of his other influential works are The Banquet (Il Convivio) and Three Books on the Monarchy (Monarchia), which influence artists to this day.
But Dante did not only influence others; he himself was influenced, too. He drew inspiration from his teacher and friend, Brunetto Lattini, but also from Islamic science and culture.
At the time, Muslim philosophers and scientists were leaders in many disciplines, including astronomy, geography, mathematics, and philosophy. Their knowledge influenced various scientific disciplines, and European literature and art. Mystical and poetic ideas spread from the Islamic world, via Spain, to southern France and Italy. The love poetry that developed there, for example, also affected the minnesong in Germany, and helped it to flourish as troubadour poetry. Many metaphors of Islamic mysticism are found in Dante's works, especially in his Vita Nova. These metaphors include the search for the right way, love, ineffable beauty and its revelation, and more.
Perhaps the most striking influence the Islamic sciences lent Dante can be seen in his intellectual (the philosophy of Averroes and Avicenna) and scientific store of knowledge, while the astronomical and geographical knowledge that pervades his works draws particular attention to a scientist by the name of Al-Fargani.
Little is known about the life of Al-Fargani, who was also called Alfraganus. It is said that he was born in the Ferghana Valley in Central Asia. He lived and worked in the era of the Abbasid caliph Al-Ma'mun (813-833), in Baghdad, which was the cultural center of his time. Al-Fargani was an engineer and astronomer, but also dealt with geography and mathematics. His major work, Elements of Astronomy, was a foundational work for astronomers in the Orient and Occident up to the 17th century. Most astronomers, especially in the 13th and 14th centuries, drew on the work.
The Elements of Astronomy were translated into Latin several times (the first in 1134), but also into Italian; the work enjoyed great popularity. The third translation into Latin, by Jacob Christmann, was entitled Mııhammedis Alfragani Arabis Chronologia et Astronomica Elementa, and was printed between 1590 and 1618 in Frankfurt. Previously, the priest Hermann of Reichenau (or Hermanus Contractus, 1013-1054), had already translated the book directly from Arabic into German. In his work, De Mensura Astrolabii, he included the seven climates of Al-Fargani.
The Elements of Astronomy consists of thirty chapters. They are considered as a summary of Ptolemy's Almagest. But similar to other works of Muslim scholars, such as Al-Battani's Manual of Astronomy, it was far more than a mere adaptation. The Elements of Astronomy included significant corrections and new information that updated Ptolemy's Almagest to the scientific understandings of Al-Fargani's time. While Ptolemy addressed only the distance from the Earth to the Moon, and the size of both, in Al-Fargani's work, the distances and sizes of other planets are analyzed as well. His calculations enjoyed broad acceptance in astronomical circles, all the way up to Copernicus (1473-1543).
Al-Fargani's work was a major impetus for the study of astronomy and mathematical geography in Europe. In chapters eight and nine, mathematics and geographical topics were discussed. In chapter eight, the author described, for example, the calculation of the circumference of the Earth, which he had carried out by order of al-Ma'mun. His calculation differs from our current knowledge by only 2%.
In the same chapter, he also divided the world into seven climates - or, he divided the part of the world known or populated at the time (the Ecumenism) according to the length of days across seven degrees of latitude. The term "climate" was not understood meteorologically, but geographically. In Chapter nine, different countries, with a total of 150 cities, were assigned to the seven climates.
According to Edward Moore the geographic and cosmographic information found in Dante's Divine Comedy, and in many of his other works, particularly Il Convivio, show that he was unmistakably influenced by Al-Fargani. Professor Fuat Sezgin points out that Al-Fargani's seven climates are presented in Dante's work as well.
In the second volume of his Il Convivio, Dante mentioned, quite explicitly, Al-Fargani's astronomical work, On the Orders of the Stars, as a source. And he stated: "[...] Mercury is the smallest star in the sky because the extent of its diameter is not more than 232 miles, according to Alfraganus. He declares that it corresponds to the twenty-eighth part of the diameter of the earth that is 6500 miles."
Even in Dante's Monarchia, information can be found which refers to Al-Fargani. There he wrote, "The Scythians, who live beyond the seven climates, have to suffer a wide differential between day and night and are being harassed by an almost unbearable cold. So they need other rules than the Garamantes, who live below the equator where daylight lasts as long as the darkness of the night, and refuse to clothe themselves because of excess heat in the air."
In the same book he mentioned the seven climates, all located in the northern part of the planet. The inhabited part of the earth extended from the Scythians (a people of the Arctic Circle) to the Garamantes (a people at the equator). This division of the earth was accompanied by the indications or calculations of coordinates. The latitude and longitude of the climates made it possible to locate countries and cities.
In the Christian Middle Ages, the Church had drawn a picture of Islam, which was spread to legitimize the Crusades. Dante's attitude toward Islam reveals that he was a typical representative of his time. But despite all the explicit rejection, Islamic science and philosophy were implicitly adopted in the West during that time. Dante, in this respect, resorted mainly to Latin translations and other scholars. Their knowledge flowed into his works. Besides Muslim scholars, such as Al-Fargani, Averroes, Avicenna, Albumasar, and Al-Ghazali, whom he mentioned by name in his Il Convivio, he also referred to Al-Hazen's theory of sight, though without naming his source. Apparently, this information stemmed from a work translated into Latin (which was released under the title Perspectiva) or from certain passages from a commentary on Aristotle, titled De Sensu et Sensato, by the German Bishop Albertus Magnus (ca. 1200-1280), who was also affected by Al-Hazen. Albertus Magnus studied different sciences, including Islamic philosophy. He, incidentally, was also a teacher of Thomas Aquinas.
Looking further back, the Greek scientists of antiquity were, in turn, influenced by the "East." Before Socrates, no philosopher who had not spent at least fifteen years studying in the East had not been accepted as a sage or scholar (Bulac 2005, 11). The Almagest of Ptolemy, who lived and worked in Alexandria, Egypt, was based on the works of the Phoenician, Marinos of Tyre. Muslim scholars adopted this ancient knowledge and developed it further in the light of Islam. Appropriation of their knowledge in Europe was one of the crucial factors that paved the way for the Renaissance.
All this proves that there are no geographical or national boundaries for knowledge and culture, and it proves that the transfer and exchange of such things have taken place, and still takes place, even when it would seem unlikely that such transference would occur, as during the Crusades, when the "other" was portrayed as a demon. It is important to realize that culture and knowledge are subject to permanent exchange. This exchange has gone on since the first days of mankind and it will not end. Cultures do not develop independently of each other, in a vacuum. All attempts to bolster one's own culture through the demonization of another culture are, in the end, nothing but political constructs that try to ignore and cover up all cultural overlaps and similarities. Cultural differences should be viewed as treasures to be shared. Al-Fargani or Dante lived in different eras and in different places. However, they are connected by cultural and scientific bonds. Both are part of the common heritage of mankind.
- Bulac, Ali. 2005. Bilgi Neyi Bilmektir? Istanbul.
- Glunk, Fritz R. 2003. Dante, Munich.
- Honigmann, Ernst. 1929. Die sieben Klimata: Eine Untersuchung zur Geschichte der Geographie und Astrologie im Altertum und Mittelalter, Heidelberg.
- Moore, Edward. 1968. Studies in Dante, miscellaneous essays. Oxford
- Sezgin, Fuat. 2003. Wissenschaft und Technik im Islam, Band 1, Frankfurt a. M.
- Unat, Yavuz (N.N); Fergânî'nin "Astronominin Özeti ve Göğün Hareketlerinin Esasları" Adlı Astronomi Eseri, on: http://126.96.36.199/humanity.ankara.edu.tr/unat/yu/f.pdf