From: Thomas Hockey et al. (eds.). The Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers, Springer Reference. New York: Springer, 2007, pp. 9-10

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Abū al‐alt: Umayya ibn ʿAbd al‐ʿAzīz ibn Abī al‐alt al‐Dānī al‐Andalusī

Mercè Comes

Alternate name


BornDenia, (Spain), circa 1068

DiedBejaïa, (Algeria), 23 October 1134

Abū al‐alt was an accomplished, though not innovative, astronomer whose most important works dealt with instruments. These were read both in the Islamic world and in Europe. He may further be considered a polymath, having also written works in medicine, philosophy, music, history, and literature.

Abū al‐alt's father died while he was still a child. In Denia he studied under al‐Waqqashī (1017/8–1095/6), a well‐known poet, mathematician, historian, philosopher, grammarian, lexicographer, jurist, and traditionalist, who had emigrated from Toledo. Later, it seems that Abū al‐alt also studied in Seville before leaving al‐Andalus for Alexandria and Cairo.

Abū al‐alt arrived in Alexandria, accompanied by his mother, in 1096, during the reign of the Fatimid ruler al‐Mustaʿlī ibn al‐Mustanir, in the epoch of the powerful minister al‐Afal ibn Amīr al‐Juyūsh Shāhanshāh. Al‐Afal accepted Abū al‐alt in his court immediately because of their common interest in astronomy. Around 1106/1107, Abū al‐alt fell into disgrace and was imprisoned, apparently due to an incident that was recorded by Ibn Abī Uaybiʿa. The story goes that a ship with a cargo of copper sank near the port of Alexandria. Abū al‐alt persuaded al‐Afal that he would be able to refloat the ship; he devoted a great deal of effort and money to this objective and the ship was eventually hoisted by using intertwined silk ropes. Unfortunately, however, the ropes broke as soon as the ship started to emerge from the water; the ship sank again and nothing could be done to recover it. Al‐Afal was furious and sent Abū al‐alt to jail, where he remained in prison for 3 years and 1 month between 1107/1108 and 1111/1112. According to other versions, however, his disgrace was because of the fall of his friend and patron Mukhtār Tāj al‐Maʿālī. In any case, during his stay in the jail Abū al‐alt devoted himself to his writings and a great deal of his work dates from this time, mainly because he was confined to the building of the library.

On his release, Abū al‐alt left Egypt and, according to some sources, went to Mahdiyya, capital of the Zīrids, on his way back to al‐Andalus. He arrived in Mahdiyya in the year 1112/1113 and was welcomed by the educated king Yayā ibn Tamīm al‐anhājī. He settled in Mahdiyya, as a panegyrist and chronicler of the court. He devoted himself to music and pharmacopoeia, and in that city his son ʿAbd al‐ʿAzīz was born. During his stay in Tunis, Abū al‐alt traveled to the Sicilian court of Palermo on several occasions, apparently in his role as a physician, under the patronage of the Norman king Roger. He died, probably of dropsy, in Bejaïa on 23 October 1134. He was buried in the Ribā of Monastir (present‐day Tunisia).

Abū al‐alt's works on astronomy, mathematics, music, and optics were quoted by several Hebrew authors such as Samuel of Marseille and Profiat Duran (15th century). Part of his scientific work was translated into Latin and into Hebrew. Thanks to these translations made in the Iberian Peninsula and in southern France, he became well known in Europe. Abū al‐alt appears to have composed an encyclopedic work on the scientific disciplines of the quadrivium, to which some of his known treatises on these sciences would have belonged. This work was divided in four sections devoted to geometry, astronomy, arithmetic, and music, following Aristotle's well‐known scheme that was also used by most medieval Arabic and Hebrew authors. The title of this work, only known in its Hebrew translation, is Sefer ba Haspaqah (probably Kitāb al‐kāfī fī al‐ʿulūm in Arabic). Several Arabic sources consider him an excellent lute player and credit him with the introduction of Andalusī music to Tunis, which eventually led to the development of the Tunisian mālūf. Abū al‐alt was also a well‐known poet and a prolific writer on history, medicine, and philosophy.

The king of Mahdiyya was particularly interested in the study of medicinal plants and was keen to discover an elixir able to transmute copper into gold and tin into silver. With this aim in mind he founded a school of alchemy, where Abū al‐alt taught.

Abū al‐alt's most important works on astronomy are: (1) Risāla fī al‐ʿamal bi‐ʾl‐asurlāb (On the construction and use of the astrolabe); (2) ifat ʿamal afīa jāmiʿa taqawwama bi‐hā jamīʿ al‐kawākib al‐sabʿa (Description of the construction and Use of a Single Plate with which the totality of the motions of the seven planets can be calculated). In this work, he describes the last, and least interesting, of the three known Andalusian equatoria, which may have been the link with the eastern Islamic instruments of this kind; however, it does seem that Abū Jaʿfar al‐Khāzin had already described an equatorium in 10th‐century Khurāsān; (3) Kitāb al‐wajīz fī ʿilm al‐hayʾa (Brief treatise on cosmology); (4) a compendium of astronomy that was strongly criticized by Abū ʿAbd Allāh of Aleppo, one of the most important astronomers of the court of al‐Afal; (5) Ajwiba ʿan masāʾil suʾila ʿan‐ha fa‐ajāba or Ajwiba ʿan masāʾil fī al‐kawn wa‐ʾl‐abīʿa wa‐ʾl‐isāb (Solution to the questions posed, or answer to questions on cosmology, physics, and arithmetic); and, according to Ibn Khaldūn, an Iqtiār (Summary) of Ptolemy's Almagest.

Selected References

Comes, Mercè (1991). Ecuatorios andalusíes: Ibn al‐Samḥ, al‐Zarqālluh y Abū‐l‐Ṣalt. Barcelona: Universidad de Barcelona. Instituto de Cooperación Con el mundo ārabe.

——— (2000).“Umayya b. ʿAbd al‐ʿAzīz, Abu ʾl‐Ṣalt al‐Dānī al‐Ishbīlī.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam. 2nd ed. Vol. 10, pp. 836–837. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

——— (2002). “Ibn Abī l‐Ṣalt al‐Dānī, Umayya.” In Enciclopedia de al‐Andalus. Diccionario de autores y obras andalusíes. Vol. 1, pp. 373–380 (no. 204). Granada. (Contains an extensive bibliography). El Legado andalsí.

Kennedy, E. S. (1970). “The Equatorium of Abū al‐Ṣalt.” Physis 12: 73–81. Reprinted in. E. S. Kennedy, et al. (1983). Studies in the Islamic Exact Sciences, edited by David A. King and Mary Helen Kennedy, pp. 481–489. Beirut: American University of Beirut.

Lamrabet, Driss (1994). Introduction à l'histoire des mathématiques maghrébines. Rabat: Driss Lambrabet, p. 54.

Lévy, Tony (1996). “L'histoire des nombres amiables: Le témoignage des textes hébreux médiévaux.Arabic Sciences and Philosophy 6: 63–87.

Millás Vallicrosa, José María (1931). Assaig d'història de les idees físiques i matemàtiques a la Catalunya medieval. Barcelona pp. 75–81. Institutció Patxot. Esludie Universitáns catalans. (Reprinted in Edicione cientifipue cetalene. Barcelona, 1983.)

Premare, A. L. (1964–1966). “Un Andalou en Egypte à la fin du XIe siècle.” Mélanges de l'Institut dominicaine des études orientales du Caire: 179–208.

Samsó, Julio (1992). Las ciencias de los antiguos en al‐Andalus. Madrid: Mapfre, pp. 310–317.

Sánchez Pérez, José Augusto (1921). Biografias de matematicos árabes que florecieron en España. Madrid: Impr. de E. Maestre, pp. 130–132.

Suter, Heinrich (1900). “Die Mathematiker und Astronomen der Araber und ihre Werke.” Abhandlungen zur Geschichte der mathematischen Wissenschaften 10: 115.