“Science, Nature and Beauty: Harmony and Cosmological Perspectives in Islamic Science” is an exhibit which showcases over 90 manuscripts, instruments and objects focused on the Islamic sciences broadly conceived, many of which have never been on display before since they entered our collections in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the Columbia University Libraries, some one hundred years ago.
This exhibit is a collective curatorial effort that has involved students, faculty members, librarians and library staff working hand-in-hand over fourteen months: from its inception, this exhibit has been conceived as a dynamic, collaborative engagement with our Muslim World Manuscript collections, and as an opportunity to use exhibits in our Libraries as a critical pedagogical tool, one that is grounded in an intellectual discipline and a subject, beyond mere “show and tell” visual exhibits. It was also actively conceived with the intention to support a well-rounded liberal arts education for our students and to further their success. We conceived this exhibit as a learning, collaborative journey, one that we hoped would involve many voices and players, diverse and different, but always united through a great scholarly companionship, a suhba (companionship) of scholars in search of the joy of learning.
Several additional considerations also played a role in motivating us to put up this exhibit: one impetus came from the realization that even a cursory look at CUL’s collection of Islamic manuscripts and the Smith/Plimpton collection of scientific instruments reveals a few important facts. First, we were struck by the depth of collecting around Islamic science in our Muslim World Manuscript (MWM) collection at RBML. The foundational role of the MWM collection in the formation of RBML is rarely acknowledged, and the Smith Plimpton collections, which formed the core of the current Rare Book and Manuscript Library (founded in 1934) with unmatched strength in the history of Islamic science, have yet to be recognized and put in dialogue with the rest of the RBML collections. The items in the collection demanded to be seen, engaged with, researched and appreciated: an exhibit focusing on Islamic science clearly constituted a great opportunity for scholarly learning and for active engagement with our collections, and for illuminating barely visible or suppressed chronological lineages and networks of scholarship, dialogue and exchanges not only in the history of science but also in the history of our own Library collections.
Second, these collections clearly challenge the traditional narrative of Islamic science as squeezed between mere transmission (of the Greco-Hellenistic heritage) and translation (into the European Renaissance). The items exhibited here contribute to an understanding of Islamic science as a robust, diverse and lively scholarly endeavor that touched on many aspects of the Muslim world, and as a central and non-reducible component of larger and non-linear histories, cultures and traditions of the arts and sciences. The conclusion we drew was that such an exhibit would constitute a wonderful opportunity to address those silences and gaps; to enrich the history of science from a non-Western standpoint.
Our curatorial team consisted of the following members: Kaoukab Chebaro (Global Studies, Columbia University Libraries), Olivia Clemens (PhD candidate, Art history Department), Aneka Kazlyna (graduate student, MESAAS), Arwa Palanpurwala (Islamic Studies MA Student, Middle East Institute- GSAS, ), Prof. Tunç Şen (History Department), Prof. Marwa Elshakry (History Department), Prof. Avinoam Shalem (Reggio professor, Art History Department), Julia Tomasson (graduate student, History Department), Yusuf Umrethwala (Islamic Studies MA Student, Middle East Institute-GSAS).
We met fortnightly for the better part of the year to go through the many items that our team of students, fellows, librarians and faculty researched, wrote about and presented during our collective discussions. The result is ten windows organized under the following themes and titles: Window I: Knowledge and Practice (co-curated by Prof. Tunç Şen, Prof. Marwa Elshakry and Kaoukab Chebaro); Window II: Cosmographies and Wonders of the World (co-curated by Yusuf Umrethwala and Kaoukab Chebaro; Window III: Keeping Time: in Synchrony with the Heavens ((co-curated by Yusuf Umrethwala and Kaoukab Chebaro); Window IV: Teaching, Pedagogy and Adab (curated by Kaoukab Chebaro); Window V: Euclid (curated by Julia Tomasson); Window VI: Islamic Astronomy and Astrology (curated by Aneka Kazlyna); Window VII: Mathematical Sciences (Co-curated by Julia and Aneka); Window VIII: the Occult Sciences (curated by Tunç Şen with support from Kaoukab Chebaro); Window IX: Beyond Illustration: Adab and Ways of Seeing (co-curated by Kaoukab Chebaro, Arwa Palanpurwala and Olivia Clemens, with advice from Prof. Avinoam Shalem) ; Window X: Beyond the Text: Calligraphy as a contrapuntal, devotional and scientific art (co-curated by Kaoukab Chebaro, Arwa Palanpurwala and Olivia Clemens, with advice from Prof. Avinoam Shalem), and Window XI, where we lay out our collaborative curatorial approach, and share testimonies from the various exhibit team members (curators, as well as conservators, designers, faculty, students) who share their thoughts and experiences with mounting the exhibit.
Of their experiences of the exhibit, some student curators said the following:
Aneka Kazlyna (graduate student, MESAAS): “This exhibit has been one of the most formative experiences of my graduate education. I learned hands-on skills with manuscripts and printed editions that I could not attain in classes alone. I formed beautiful friendships by working on this exhibit and got to know everyone who cares deeply about Islamic manuscripts and scientific knowledge across intellectual traditions.”
Yusuf Umrethwala (Islamic Studies MA Student, Middle East Institute-GSAS):”This exhibit presented a great learning experience for me, and it was very gratifying to be a part of a team of inspiring colleagues and professors. The major takeaway from the exhibit was learning the art of receiving and giving feedback.”
Arwa Palanpurwala (Islamic Studies MA Student, Middle East Institute-GSAS): “This exhibit proved to be one of my favorite experiences at Columbia. Not only was I part of a phenomenal team, but I was also critically engaging with the manuscripts themselves and had access to layers of history that the manuscripts carried in their pages. Engaging with manuscripts and material culture so directly was a transformative educational experience. It gave me the opportunity to think about many of my own preconceptions and those of contemporary perspectives on Islamic intellectual history in a critical manner. I came away with some eye opening conversations, made friends, and built wonderful memories which really enriched my experience both as a student at Columbia but also as an exhibit viewer, more broadly. I’ll take some of the lessons learned here to every exhibition I will visit from now on!”
We hope that this exhibit embodies and exemplifies the pedagogical power of our archival collections at the Libraries, and the promise of the collaborative curatorial model we have put in place and experimented with. We are confident there are many lessons learned there and areas of growth which are worthy of further exploration as we seek to further activate our archival collections, and to unleash their critical pedagogical power.
We also hope that this exhibit will provide its audience with a historical view of scientific practice within Islamic societies as fundamentally a matter of contemplation, harmony and attunement with the universe, rather than of control and power over nature and resources. The view of Islamic societies that emerges is of a society permeated by science at every level: science ends up informing everything from daily calendars and prayer times calculated across multiple latitudes, intricate knowledge of the skies and the planets, architecture and grand monuments laid to precise mathematical and exquisite geometric patterns of arabesques and mosaics, to pocket astrolabes that help navigate the world. A scholar of Islamic science once jokingly said to me that the astrolabe, popularized by Islamic scientists on unprecedented scales, is the ancient equivalent of the smartphone! Perhaps this exhibit will help to reveal the truth of this remark.
This exhibit is open to all: visitors and members of the public, please be aware of the University COVID compliance requirements, and be prepared to show government-issued ID at the Library Information Office in order to enter Butler Library. The hours for the Library Information Office can be found here, and for the Rare Book and Manuscript Library here.
A series of panels and talks related to the exhibit and to the Muslim World Manuscript collection on display will be announced shortly: it will include panels from students and faculty who were part of the curatorial team, as well as conservateurs who worked on the manuscripts, and other students and scholars interested in our Muslim World Manuscript collections. Please stay tuned.