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Detail from Thomas Erpenius, Rudimenta Linguae Arabicae, 1638 (larger version). Erpenius was professor of Arabic at Leiden and was the first to publish a detailed Arabic grammar for European readers.
Some of the early Royal Society Fellows were also leading Arabists. They were not only interested in what Arabic sources could tell them about science – they also wanted to bring literary and philosophical works to western audiences. Several Arabic grammars and dictionaries were published in this period and were read and used by Fellows.
Arabic studies in England had been promoted by Archbishop Laud, who founded an Arabic professorship at Oxford in 1636. English people studied eastern languages for a variety of reasons: to enable merchants to communicate with traders from the Arab world; to read early Biblical texts; and to learn about Arabic literature and culture. Edmond Halley was so keen to read mathematical works in Arabic that he ‘deciphered’ the language as though it were a code, using only a few pages of translated text as a guide.
Robert Boyle, a fragment of ‘The Aspireing Naturalist’ (larger version). Boyle seems to have written part of a ‘philosophical romance’ based on the Hayy Ibn Yazqan story.
In 1671 Edward Pococke junior published a translation of the Arabic work Hayy Ibn Yaqzan by Ibn Tufail. The short novel describes the story of Hayy, a boy raised by animals on a desert island, who comes to an understanding of the world entirely through his own reasoning. The book caused an immediate stir in the western world. It was reviewed in the Philosophical Transactions, Robert Boyle wrote a similar story in English, and the ideas influenced John Locke, one of England's most important philosophers.
Detail from Ibn al-Haytham, Book of Optics, Latin translation, 1572 (larger version). The book is now a thousand years old. It revolutionized optics and had great impact on science in Europe, being cited by Roger Bacon and Johannes Kepler, among others.
Some mathematicians, including John Wallis, learned Arabic in order to translate the works of Greek mathematicians that only survived in Arabic. But these Arabic books were more than just translations: they were commentaries full of queries and solutions. Edmund Halley translated two Arabic mathematics books. John Pell translated the [Greek geometer Apollonius from an Arabic manuscript] after a heated debate with the Arabist Hugo Grotius, who asked Pell to leave the fame of translating such a work to him and went to great lengths to prevent Pell publishing his translation.
Letter about the Alhazen problem, Philosophical Transactions, 1673 (larger version). The French mathematician Rene de Sluse and the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens wrote to Oldenburg their ‘second thoughts on the problem of Alhazen’.
The tenth century polymath Ibn al-Haytham, known in the west as Alhazen, was known as ‘The Physicist’ and ‘Ptolemy the Second’ in Europe. He is recognized as a pioneer of scientific method for his development of an experimental method of scientific testing to verify hypotheses. He left behind the notorious Alhazen problem (only solved in 1997): "Given a light source and a spherical mirror, find the point on the mirror where the light will be reflected to the eye of an observer."
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