Romance and Reason: Islamic Transformations of the Classical Past

This article first appeared in ISAW Newsletter 20 (Winter 2018).

Romance and Reason: Islamic Transformations of the Classical Past (February 14 – May 13, 2018) brings together an exceptional group of rare manuscripts that testify to the fertile relationship between medieval Islam and the classical world. With material ranging from lavishly illuminated romances, to eye-opening medical and scientific treatises, the exhibition provides an engrossing visual record of how, over the course of centuries, Islamic scholars, scientists, doctors, artists, and others transformed Ancient Greek material for their own day. Organized by ISAW in partnership with the National Library of Israel, Romance and Reason has been curated by Roberta Casagrande-Kim, Research Associate, ISAW; Samuel Thrope, Selector, and Raquel Ukeles Curator, National Library of Israel. Jennifer Y. Chi was curatorial and design manager for the project. ISAW Director Alexander Jones notes, “The history of human culture is as much a story of intellectual and cultural exchange and absorption as it is one of conflict and conquest. There can hardly be a better example of this than the story told by the manuscripts in Romance and Reason. With works from the 11th through 18th centuries, created in Iran, Afghanistan, India, and Turkey these provide a compelling portrait of the flourishing of learning and art in the Islamic world. ISAW is delighted to have assembled this superb collection of manuscripts, and is deeply grateful to the international lenders to this exhibition.

A manuscript page: at top, two large red outlined circles contain patterns of small gold dots; in a second row, red-outlined squares contain patterns of gold dots, each pattern covered by a blue-gray bird. The top two rows of figures are labeled in Arabic script in red ink. A block of Arabic script in black ink appears at the bottom. Book on the Shapes of the Fixed Stars (Kitab suwar alkawakib al-thabita). The Constellation of Corvus the Raven (detail). Author: ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn ‘Umar Sufi (903–986); Language: Arabic. Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper, folio: H. 20 cm; W. 14.6 cm. Iran, 16th century. Brooklyn Museum, Designated Purchase Fund: 74.23. Photo: Brooklyn Museum.

The Story of Alexander

No single figure from Greco-Roman antiquity was more lauded by or deeply absorbed into Islamic tradition than that of Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE), or Iskandar. Romance and Reason will present approximately thirty illuminated versions of the earliest-known Persian accounts of the life of Iskandar: the Shahnama, or Book of Kings, an epic poem written by Firdausī between 977 and 1010 CE, and the Khamsa, or Five Poems, by Nizami, dating from the late 12th century CE. With a variety of often lavish, exquisitely executed illuminations, the manuscripts here were created over the course of five centuries. Together, they will portray the evolution of Iskandar’s character and identity, showing him as warrior, king, seeker of truth, and more—reflecting growth and change in the Islamic world and the increasingly integral role that Iskandar played in its founding story. A 17th-century version of the Khamsa in the exhibition includes an illustration of Alexander attending the death of his half-brother Dara, King of Persia. It depicts the moment when Dara passes the throne on to Iskandar— who is half Greek and half Persian by birth—legitimizing Iskandar’s claim to the Persian throne. This is one of the most commonly illustrated scenes in epic stories of Iskandar, shedding light on an event that ensured his full absorption into the narrative of Persian history. The high artistic quality of this illumination, including the gold background and intricate floral motifs framing the folios, suggests that the manuscript may have been commissioned by the court or an especially affluent buyer.

Another version of the Khamsa, this one from the 16th century, shows Iskandar the warrior, depicted battling the Russians. (The Khamsa includes nine chapters dedicated to Iskandar’s Russian campaign.) Galloping toward the enemy, one of whom he has speared, he is represented as a proper Persian king, with an early Mughal-style helmet, long and highly embroidered embroidered tunic over trousers, embellished quiver, and an equally precious harness for his mount. In the background, the two armies watch each other and the duel below.

One of the Iskandar folios in Romance and Reason comes from a manuscript known as the Great Mongol Shahnamah, the most luxurious, ambitious, and artistically complex 14th-century version of this text. One of the two pages on view here, titled Iskandar Builds a Rampart, shows Iskandar as protector. It tells the story of how, facing pleas for protection from invasion by the so-called savages from the land of Gog and Magog, he gathers artisans from across the globe to construct two massive walls to prevent the invasion. He is seen here—complete with a halo—entering on horseback from the left as he and his retinue watch the artisans at work.

Finally, in a folio from another 16th-century Shahnamah, Iskandar confronts his death. Titled In Babylon Iskandar Sees the Stillborn Baby, Omen of His Death, this tells the story of the last of several omens of his early death that Iskandar has experienced. It is the capstone to the Shahnamah’s romance of Iskandar, which began with his stream of conquests and ends with his self-recognition. The scene is in Babylon, where a monstrous birth—a stillborn child with the head of a lion and the hoofs and tail of an ox—has taken place. The child, who is shown alive in this image, is presented to the King, in the company of two court scholars who interpret the prophecy. Iskandar, who understands that this means that his time has come, is shown in a gesture of reflection and mourning.

Medicine, Mathematics, and Science

The second section of Romance and Reason is devoted to Islamic developments in medicine, mathematics, astrology, and astronomy, with manuscripts that illustrate the ways in which physicians, mathematicians, scientists, and others in the Muslim world changed and elaborated on their classical predecessors, transforming works of the past into materials of use in their own place and time.

Highlights of the exhibition’s especially rich assortment of medical materials include four 12th-century manuscripts, all by different artists, illustrating vignettes from the five-volume De materia medica, written in the 1st century CE by the Greek physician Dioscorides Pedanius, as well as one of the most important medical works written by an Islamic scholar: The Canon of Medicine, by Persian physician, astronomer, and thinker Avicenna. This remained a major textbook until the nineteenth century, as important to the Islamic world as Hippocrates was to the Greeks.

Among the most stunning medical depictions in the exhibition is “The Human Female Body Showing a Fetus in the Womb and Other Organs,” a page from a 14th-century, five-volume treatise on surgery by Mansur ibn Ilyas of Shiraz. While ibn Ilyas’s work was influenced by the anatomical studies of the Greek physician Galen, as well as by Aristotle’s embryological theory, the diagrams in his treatise were derived from Western Medieval works. It is possible that this depiction—in which the fetus appears remarkably accurate—was ibn Ilyas’s invention. He may have reused his diagram of the venous system, shown nearby, removing its labels and adding a uterus with a fetus in a breech position.

Mathematics is an especially fertile field of Islamic accomplishment. Indeed, by absorbing, expanding, synthesizing, and refining Greek geometry, and combining Euclidean geometry with other methods of solving numerical problems, Islamic mathematicians invented a new field of mathematical research—algebra (al-jabr). Romance and Reason includes a focused group of important mathematical manuscripts, including two commentaries on the 13th-century Book of the Fundamental Theorems of Geometry, by Shams al-Din Samarqandi, and the monumental Key to Computation, in which mathematician Al-Kashi set out to apply computation to mathematical, astronomical, and physical measurements, providing invaluable contributions to the study of specific weights of metals, gems, and other substances.

While astrology is not considered a true science today, in the ancient world it was a subject of study by physicians, mathematicians, scientists, philosophers, and other scholars. Islamic astrology continued and refined earlier methods— Babylonian, Iranian, Indian, and Greek—of determining the influence of the heavenly bodies on human events. This section of Romance and Reason contains an 18th-century copy of an 11th-century commentary on Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos, a fundamental text on the philosophy and practice of astrology, as well as four versions of a 13th-century encyclopedia titled Marvels of Things Created and Miraculous Aspects of Things Existing, turned to pages that focus on astrological symbols, including images of the constellations and planets of the northern and southern hemispheres, as well as a number of zodiac signs. A later (19th-century) version, created in India, has exceptionally beautiful illustrations.

The Classical astronomy that was absorbed into Islamic civilization included aspects of Greek, Babylonian, and Indian science. As with other branches of knowledge, Islamic scholars developed and transformed the practice and literature of astronomy to suit the needs of their own science and society. The exhibition demonstrates this with a page from the early 13th-century The Compendium on Astronomy, by Mahmud al-Jaghmani, which illustrates a method for determining the direction of Mecca from any location, clearly of critical importance to Muslims. Other manuscripts here include an 18th-century commentary on al-Jaghmani’s Compendium, and a 16th-century version of the 10th-century Book on the Shapes of the Fixed Stars, by Abd al-Rahman ibn Umar Sufi ), in which the author describes the classical system of constellations according to both the ancient Greek and Islamic classifications, and more.

This exhibition and its accompanying catalogue were made possible by generous support from the Selz Foundation, the David Berg Foundation, Barbro and Bernard Osher, and the Leon Levy Foundation. Additional funding was provided by the Persepolis Foundation, Hicham and Dina Aboutaam, and an anonymous foundation.