For more than 60 years, the Turkish science historian searched libraries around the world, creating a comprehensive bibliography of almost every known text on Muslim-Arabic sciences, most of which is borrowed and yet overlooked by the West.

Fuat Sezgin visited libraries around the world to study almost every aspect of Arabic literature and in the process he collected thousands of books, some of them rare manuscripts.
Fuat Sezgin visited libraries around the world to study almost every aspect of Arabic literature and in the process he collected thousands of books, some of them rare manuscripts. (AA)

Diophantus, the famous Greek mathematician, has long been a mystery to researchers. Little is known about his life and there is still debate over whether he lived in 150 BC or 364 AD. 

What is known for sure is that he wrote the magnum opus Arithmetica, a book that for centuries was a necessary read for anyone interested in number theory and algebra. 

However, seven of the book’s 13 chapters were thought to have been lost in the upheavals of the Middle Ages, when Muslims and Christians fought bloody battles. 

Then in 1968, Fuat Sezgin, a science historian, made an interesting discovery while studying old manuscripts in the Astan Quds library in Mashhad, Iran.

Tucked among bundles of decaying papers was an Arabic translation of Diophantus' book written by Qusta ibn Luqqa, a Christian polymath who flourished in 9th-century Baghdad, by then the centre of the Islamic empire. 

It was a monumental find that helped give valuable insight into the workings of Diophantus. 

“The part (Sezgin found) shows us that the work of Diophant was indeed a book from which the ancient student could learn algebraic methods of solving,” Jacques Sesiano, who wrote a thesis on the discovered chapters in 1975, told TRT World.

“And this may explain why no work of Diophant’s predecessors have survived.”

Sezgin was inspired by the work of German historian Hellmut Ritter who took the young Turkish student under his wings and trained him in the rigorous orientalist ways of research.
Sezgin was inspired by the work of German historian Hellmut Ritter who took the young Turkish student under his wings and trained him in the rigorous orientalist ways of research. (Getty Images)

Sezgin, one of the most prolific Islamic science historians of our times, passed away in June at the age of 92. For more than 60 years, he explored libraries in Turkey, Iran, Egypt, India and many other countries, immersing himself in papers written by little-known authors. 

In the process, he collected what is today regarded as the most comprehensive bibliography of Arabic literature, covering subjects ranging from Quranic sciences, religious dogma, zoology and alchemy, to astronomy and astrology. 

His achievements in the field of science history are so numerous - from his research on the cartographer Piri Reis to supervising construction of astrolabes from the 10th Century - that many of his contemporaries don’t even know about the discovery of Diophantus papers. 

“If you hear of any writer, or any book or ancient work written in Arabic, and you want to find out anything about it, the first thing you do is go to Fuat Sezgin’s book,” says Peter Starr, a professor of Islamic history at the Fuat Sezgin Institute in Istanbul. 

For Sezgin, his lifelong endeavor to piece together the history of Islamic science began with a chance meeting.

The expulsion

In 1943, Hellmut Ritter, a German professor of Arabic literature, was delivering a lecture at Istanbul University’s Institute of Oriental Studies. Among the audience was 19-year-old Sezgin, who had come to the city from his hometown of Bitlis in Turkey’s east, with hopes of becoming a mathematician. 

Young Sezgin wanted to become mathematician but changed his mind after attending Ritter’s lecture.
Young Sezgin wanted to become mathematician but changed his mind after attending Ritter’s lecture. (Courtesy of Hilal Sezgin / TRTWorld)

Sezgin was born in 1924, a year after the Ottomans were unceremoniously driven out of Istanbul and Kemal Ataturk had declared Turkey a republic. 

“Meeting Ritter was a life-changing experience for him,” says Musa Serdar Celebi, who had known Sezgin since the 1980s. 

“Ritter was very demanding. He made Sezgin study the works of Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari and Ghazali. He made his young disciple study more than 15 hours a day.”

Ritter had lived in Istanbul for many years. Istanbul’s ancient libraries had a treasure-trove of manuscripts which hadn’t been studied properly. 

He was among the few European scholars who ascribed to the view that Muslim scientists had not been given their due place in history.

That thinking had an intense impact on Sezgin, who would eventually become a lifelong admirer of German orientalist tradition, which encouraged deep research. 

“It was like a big, big puzzle for him. You know like an archeologist who’s onto something and then he gets really excited about it and wants to find it all,” Hilal Sezgin, his daughter, a journalist and well-known author in her own right, told TRT World. 

Sezgin’s career was almost cut short on May 27, 1960, when the Turkish military overthrew the then government of the Democratic Party. Civil servants, doctors and teachers were fired overnight for even a slight connection with political parties.

Sezgin’s brother was a leader of the party, making him an obvious target. He was forced out of his position. That experience left him disillusioned about his country and later in life he would often remark that one of the most fortunate things to happen was “my expulsion.”

Fuat Sezgin with his daughter, Hilal, and wife Ursula, who as a fellow historian worked closely with him over the years.
Fuat Sezgin with his daughter, Hilal, and wife Ursula, who as a fellow historian worked closely with him over the years. (Courtesy of Hilal Sezgin / TRTWorld)

He followed his mentor, Ritter, to Germany and joined Frankfurt University.

By the 1970s, Sezgin was regarded as an authority in his field, his findings and research regularly featuring in leading journals. 

“The great increase during the last 20 years in our information about the manuscript materials in all areas of Arabic studies is due principally to the work of Fuat Sezgin," wrote Gerald. J. Toomer, a professor of history at Brown University, in the 1980s.

What renaissance? 

Soon after Sezgin started his research, he realised that most European and American scholars had deliberately ignored the contributions of Islamic-Arabic science to the world.

For them, the world had plunged into literary ignorance for more than a thousand years after the decline of the Roman Empire in the fifth century. 

But with the spread of Islam in the 7th Century, laboratories and schools sprouted up in Baghdad, Tehran and elsewhere. Muslims were continuously studying, experimenting and devising new tools and philosophies for humanity’s progress. 

“What he said often was that there’s no such thing as renaissance,” says Starr. 

“The word renaissance means rebirth, which implies the Europeans were trying to bring back the science of classical Greeks. But science never died. Arabs inherited the finest achievements of Greek science, developed on it and passed it on.”

A replica of a 10th century astrolabe that Sezgin helped design is among dozens of instruments on display at the Istanbul Museum of History of Science and Technology in Islam.
A replica of a 10th century astrolabe that Sezgin helped design is among dozens of instruments on display at the Istanbul Museum of History of Science and Technology in Islam. (TRTWorld)

A great part of Sezgin’s work focused on one of the most flourishing periods in Muslim history. In the 8th Century, Al-Ma’mun of the Abbasid Dynasty had taken over as the caliph. 

Under his rule, his capital Baghdad, turned into a sanctuary for Muslims, Christians and Jews to study different disciplines. 

It also ushered in a translation movement, when Greek books by Plato, Aristotle, Ptolemy, Euclid, and others were translated into Arabic.

Muslim scholars progressively added to knowledge acquired by ancient thinkers, leaving a lasting impact on the generations that followed. Jabir ibn Hayyan, an alchemist, introduced the term ‘alkali’ to our vocabulary. Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi wrote the major work Kitab al-jebr - ensuring the term Algebra was forever associated with him. 

That era also saw Arab explorers heading out to sea, measuring distances, discovering new routes to Africa and Asia and mapping the topography. 

Here again, the Europeans are credited for much of the cartographic work, instead of their Muslim predecessors. 

Sezgin spent considerable effort to piece together the map commissioned by Caliph Al Ma’mun.
Sezgin spent considerable effort to piece together the map commissioned by Caliph Al Ma’mun. (TRTWorld)

In the early 1980s, Sezgin found a copy of a map which Al-Ma’mun had commissioned geographers to draw. 

Besides giving a much better shape of the earth, the map rectified a mistake Ptolemy had made centuries before: it correctly showed that the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic are not mere inland seas. 

“Sezgin’s important contribution was that it showed the contribution of Muslims in geography and cartography. He basically overcame the Renaissance model, which marginalised 800 years of Muslim contribution,” Dr. Detlev Quintern, a history professor at the Fuat Sezgin Foundation, told TRT World. 

Another thing that preoccupied Sezgin for many years was his effort to reproduce models of Muslim inventions. 

At Frankfurt University, he spent years overseeing the design and construction of astrolabes, water pumping systems and laboratory instruments once used by Muslim engineers and surgeons. 

The instruments are still on display in a museum at the university. 

A lot of that work was supervised by Ayman Naffai, an Egyptian civil engineer, who started building the instruments for Sezgin in 1991. 

“He was very demanding and thorough in what he wanted. We made machines with everything - wood, silver, gold and copper. And we scudded in producing exact replicas.”

It was Al Ma’mun’s map in the spherical shape of a globe that turned out to be the most challenging.

“That’s the globe at the entrance of the museum in Istanbul. It’s all copper, hand-made. Took us six months to make the structure and even more to get the 3D map right,” says Naffai.

What bothers him now is that there’s not much interest in Muslim inventions. 

“With Sezgin, this yearning to preserve our history might end forever, there’s no one after him to continue with that kind of work.”

According to many of his colleagues and friends, Sezgin worked for 15 hours every day for most of his adult life.
According to many of his colleagues and friends, Sezgin worked for 15 hours every day for most of his adult life. (Courtesy of Hilal Sezgin / TRTWorld)

For many years, and to some extent still today, Sezgin was mainly known in academic circles. 

That’s largely because most of his books and papers were only ever published in German and hardly any of it was translated into English. 

A rarity is the five-volume catalogue of instruments, which are placed in the Frankfurt and Istanbul museums of Arabic-Islamic science history.

In 2008, Professor Sreeramula Rejeswara Sarma, a science historian with expertise in ancient Indian languages, and his wife Doctor Renate Sarma, published Sezgin’s translated catalogue. 

“His books are not very well known because he published just a few copies, maybe in the hundreds. Also his books are mostly in German. But people who work on the subject would all know him,” Sreeramula told TRT World. 

They had become friends in 1996 when Sreeramula came across the replicas of the instruments that Sezgin had commissioned. 

“The last time we met was in March 2016. Even at such an advanced age he would climb 90 steps to his office. I know because I counted them,” said the 79-year-old professor. 

“As usual, he did the old world courtesy - he came up to the wardrobe, gave me my overcoat and helped my wife wear hers. He then waved us off.”

Lost and found in time 

He fell for the trick every time. Often during dinners, Sezgin’s wife and daughter would indulge in smalltalk, which was nothing more than gibberish. And then suddenly one of them would ask the professor to tell what was being discussed. 

“Ahhhh…ahhhh…my father would struggle and you could see he was trying to activate his short-term memory,” says Hilal, his daughter. 

“Really, in his mind he was in the 11th Century or something.”

Sezgin might have devoted his life to Islamic-Arabic science history - even his wife Ursula is a fellow historian - but he always found a way to do small things around the house. 

“My earliest memory of him when I was three or four years old and he was putting together my bed. He asked me to go and play in another room so he can finish the work.”

Not surprisingly for the man who spent so much time reading ancient volumes, Sezgin also knew how to bind old books. 

The Sezgin family visited Turkey almost every year. Hilal says she remembers staying at her aunt’s place in Yesilkoy, close to the shores of the Sea of Marmara.

“He taught me how to swim. But very often he would just drift to a library at Topkapi or somewhere else and we’d pick him up on our way back,” says Hilal. 

Even though he spent most of his professional career in Germany, Sezgin’s fame slowly grew in his home country as his articles and books began to be translated into Turkish. 

However, it wasn’t until the mid-2000s that he met Turkish officials who wanted him to open a research institute in Istanbul. 

Top Turkish leadership including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attended Sezgin’s funeral.
Top Turkish leadership including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attended Sezgin’s funeral. (AP)

“He met Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was prime minister at the time, and that changed a lot of things,” says Celebi, who was crucial in arranging that meeting.

The reception that Sezgin received in Turkey afterwards was unprecedented for an academic. The government allotted space for a museum and a university in the grounds of Istanbul’s famous Gulhane Park. 

Over the years at Frankfurt University, Sezgin had built a personal library of thousands of books, some of them rare manuscripts that he had found himself. 

A few years back when he tried to move his personal collection to Istanbul, Frankfurt University filed a case against him. 

That was the lowest point in his decades-long association with Germany. Authorities even barred him from going to his office. 

Many of his German colleagues turned against him. David King, a renowned historian, and others who had known him for years refused to be interviewed for this story. 

“Those books belonged to my parents. Frankfurt University accused them of stealing those books but police found those allegations baseless after a three-month long investigation,” says Hilal. 

The experience didn’t influence Sezgin’s admiration for the German and European historians - something that’s evident at Istanbul’s Museum for History of Science and Technology in Islam. 

The entrance of the Museum starts with a mural of Johann Wolfgang Goethe, followed by the likes of Joseph Ernest Renan and Eduard Sachau. 

And so after years of work in other countries, when it came to his final resting place, Sezgin was buried in the grounds of Topkapi Palace, under the shadow of the institute bearing his name. 

Fuat Sezgin’s last resting place is on the grounds of the Topkapi Palace, a privilege only accorded to him by the Turkish government.
Fuat Sezgin’s last resting place is on the grounds of the Topkapi Palace, a privilege only accorded to him by the Turkish government. (TRTWorld)
Source: TRT World