Monday, November 15, 2010

Islamic Science gems at Sharjah Book Fair

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah
Sharjah (my hometown here in the Emirates) holds an annual book fair around this time of the year. We are told it’s the second largest of the Arab world, behind Cairo’s. The 29th edition, which lasted 12 days, took place two weeks ago. The organizers have just released some figures: 500,000 people visited the fair and bought books for some $ 36 million, which means that on average each visitor spent about $72. All of these figures are pretty impressive, especially when one knows that the population of Sharjah numbers around 500,000 (including kids, elderly, and many illiterate people); in fact we know that a substantial fraction of the visitors come from neighboring countries (Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, and Qatar). To tell you the extent to which this fair has become important, I will just mention two participants that had big booths: the cultural branch of the US Embassy (with lots of books in Arabic on the American history, political system, and culture) and, for the first time probably in the whole region, the Church of Scientology (of L. Ron Hubbard) – no comment!
The Sharjah Book Fair has also gradually turned into a more general cultural fair, with many book signings, interviews, poetry recitals, lectures, and debates organized throughout the event. Indeed, the director of the fair said that this year, in addition to 60 signings for authors who launched their book titles, 233 cultural events were organized. The officials are promising an even bigger show next year, with a greater presence and display of audio books, e-books, and the like.
This year I was delighted to find several Islamic Science gems, among a number of books I bought in Arabic and English (I spent about $200, so you can tell the fair was pretty good). Indeed, the Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, which is based in London and produces quality works of Islamic Heritage (in Science and other fields), participated for the first time. I had heard of the Foundation, seen its founder and sponsor, Sheikh Zaki Yamani (a former Saudi minister of oil who loves culture) on TV, but I really had not known about the gems it is producing and selling at very subsidized prices.
Two of those gems are works by David A. King and Roshdi Rashed, two of the top world scholars in Islamic Science. King, a German, is Professor of the History of Science at the University of Frankfurt; Rashed, an Egyptian, is a researcher (at the highest rank) in the French CNRS (national research network). Both have received numerous awards, including the UNESCO’s Gold Medal in 1999 and the King Faisal International Prize in 2007 for Rashed. King has specialized in Astronomy, and Rashed in Mathematics, particularly Geometry, but also in Optics and some incursions into Astronomy – all in the Islamic Civilization.

I was thus astonished to find such books as King’s “World-Maps for Finding the Direction and Distance to Mecca”, an impressive volume of more than 1000 pages, with numerous drawings and maps, for sale for some $30 (obviously subsidized). And barely had I lifted my eyes from this volume that I caught sight of Rashed’s “Geometry and Dioptrics in Classical Islam”, also a hardcover volume of over 1000 pages, which the Foundation was selling for $30. (Dioptrics, by the way, is the study of the refraction of light, especially by lenses, something that was revolutionized by Ibn al-Haytham, one of the greatest scientists of the Islamic Civilization.)

My surprises were not yet over. The two guys working at the booth turned out to be Algerians; they work full time for the Foundation in London. They then told me that if I was interested, they could reserve a 5-volume set that was part of an incoming shipment; they said they didn’t think it would be sold and were going to offer it to one of the officials, but if I wanted it, they would keep it for me. The set in question was a staggering work by Roshdi Rashed, “Les mathématiques infinitésimales du IXe au XIe siècle, so I quickly jumped on the offer, and I went back a week later to pick up the five weighty volumes, for which I paid a little more than $100.

The only regret I must voice is that none of those big volumes is, ironically, available in Arabic. The only Arabic-language book on the subject I found at the booth was “Science in Islam and Classical Modernity” (also by R. Rashed!), which I picked up for $3, but it’s really just a booklet of 75 pages, it wouldn’t even qualify as a summary of those imposing tomes. Perhaps it’s not so ironic that such books are produced by a German and an Arab who has lived and worked in France for decades, nor should one be surprised to see the books edited and published in the London – even when they are sponsored by Arabs, that is done in the west…
Now, I won’t have time to read any of those big volumes any time soon, but I’m sure there will be occasions in the near future when I will be drawn to consult parts of them for specific examples needed for an article or a lecture or an exchange I will be having with someone (oftentimes I encounter people who either dismiss the Islamic Civilization’s contributions too easily or exaggerate them a bit too much). It just warmed my heart to see the unbelievable scholarship of these specialists, the amount of meticulous work they have been putting into their projects, the wealth of information they have put together and published for our enrichment and pleasure, and the attention given to these work by the Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, which is here duly acknowledged and thanked.
Eid Mubarak to all.


Anonymous said...

I wish I live in or around Sharjah. :)

I am browsing the website of this book fair. I want to know more about the publishers. From their list, its impossible to make out how big or how small a publisher is. Do you have any idea who and who are leading publishers of books in English? Perhaps the one with the bggest stall is also the biggets publisher?

Nidhal Guessoum said...


You don't have to live in Sharjah, you can just visit sometimes, preferably around the time of the book fair, especially since the weather gets nice(r) then. And remember that Sharjah is really strong on culture, with almost 20 museums and such...

As to publishers, it really depends a lot on what one is interested in and in which language. Non-Arabic books are best obtained through Amazon (or such online booksellers). For Arabic-language books, the story is more complex; I may discuss it sometime...

Anonymous said...

Thanks Nidhal.
Eid Mubarak to you too. :)