Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Situating the Natural Sciences in Early Modern Morocco

Justin K. Stearns

During the socially and politically turbulent seventeenth century, Moroccan scholars studied the natural and mathematical sciences throughout a network of rural and urban institutions of learning that were closely associated with Sufi orders, the Maliki school of jurisprudence, and the Ash‘ari creed of theology. Their study of these sciences resulted in their writing works in astronomy, alchemy, medicine, astrology, and letter magic, but it was also reflected in the legal opinions (fatawa) they composed, their theological meditations on the nature of causality, and their scholarly auto-biographies. How do we tell their story?

While there is a general scholarly and popular appreciation of the importance of the very period Muslim scholarship in the natural sciences that took place during the ‘Abbasid caliphate (750-1258) and which, in translation, had a major impact on Medieval and Early Modern European scholarship, this focus on a Golden Age is both unnuanced and leads quickly to a narrative of civilizational decline or stasis following the ‘Abbasids. In Revealed Sciences, I set out to narrate the importance of the natural sciences in one corner of the Early Modern Muslim world, and in doing so I first lay out the emergence of the decline narrative in the nineteenth century and why it was adopted by both European and Middle Eastern scholars (hint: it has something to do with colonialism). But the book’s focus is on using Morocco under the Arab Sa‘di (1529-1651) and ‘Alawite dynasties (1664-present) — and especially the almost two thirds of the seventeenth century of contentious politics that bridged the period between these two families’ rule, and which is elided by their official dates — and the largely rural Sufi lodges in which mostly Amazigh (Berber) scholars taught, studied, and wrote works in Arabic. How did these scholars categorize knowledge? Here, the polymath al-Hasan al-Yusi (d. 1691) plays an important role, for it is his claim that all knowledge that benefits the Muslim community is revealed that gives the book its title, and it is his defense for the study of the natural sciences (up to and including magic) that challenges previous depictions of these sciences being related to ancillary or marginal roles. Another scholar, and a teacher of al-Yusi at the Dila’ lodge in the Middle Atlas, Abu Sa‘id al-Mirghiti (d. 1678), exemplifies in his weaving of the sciences of lettrism and alchemy into his autobiography, the importance of the occult at the center of much Moroccan engagement with the natural sciences at the time. In addition to further close readings, and an extended examination of the natural sciences in Islamic legal debates, the book looks quantitively at the natural sciences in the bio-biographical works on this period.

In returning to the question of how to tell this story, Revealed Sciences proposes that teleological narratives of the rise of modern science have impeded our ability to understand the quality of engagement of Muslim scholars with the natural sciences and the inadequacy of the science-religion binary in explaining these sciences centrality. Above all, though, I argue in the book that to fully dispel the narrative that the Early Modern Muslim world was characterized by intellectual stasis, historians of Islamicate societies need to pursue further case studies of specific regions and periods to uncover the role played by the natural and the rational sciences.

Revealed Sciences By Justin K. Stearns
Revealed Sciences By Justin K. Stearns

About The Author

Justin K. Stearns

Justin K. Stearns is Associate Professor of Arab Crossroad Studies at New York University Abu Dhabi, where his research interests focus on the intersection of law, science, and the...

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