Islamic Scientific Manuscripts Initiative (ISMI)

Statement of Significance

This project aims to make available a vast array of information about the exact sciences in the premodern Islamic world. Through the internet, this material will be accessible without charge both to researchers and experts in the field and to the educated public worldwide. It will be an online database that contains the works of some 1,700 authors who span the entire Islamic world from Islamic Spain to India and the borders of China, beginning in the eighth century and continuing until the nineteenth. These works in astronomy, mathematics, physics, geography, mechanics, and related disciplines number in the thousands and are represented, conservatively speaking, by tens of thousands of manuscript copies spread throughout the world.

These works and authors were part of a vibrant tradition, virtually without parallel until the European Renaissance. They influenced scientific work in East Asia, India, and Byzantium and were a major source and inspiration for modern science. This tradition also provides us with a unique opportunity to understand the role of rationalism in traditional Islamic societies and the interplay of science and religion within them. But despite our knowledge of specific individuals, texts, and innovations, which has grown considerably in the past generation, we still do not know a great deal about the social foundations for this scientific work, and one finds in the literature a wide divergence of opinions. Some have maintained that this scientific activity was marginal, with little importance for the society at large, whereas others have argued that it had great importance and indeed occupied a prominent place within a number of Islamic societies. In either scenario, these matters have more than scholarly interest for our contemporary world, to wit because of the West’s current interest in the Islamic world, the Islamic world’s attempts to understand historically the dynamics of its religious and secular spheres, and, more generally, the widespread desire to comprehend science as a humanistic enterprise.

The ISMI database project has been designed to contribute to our understanding of these vital matters. Much more than a simple catalogue, it will provide the user with information on the authors, content of the texts, readership and ownership, institutional locations where the manuscripts were copied, studied, and taught, the relationship of original texts and their commentaries and supercommentaries, and other information that will help draw a picture of the social and intellectual contexts of these works. Of particular interest will be the capability of the database to allow for research into issues of the relationship of science and religion in Islam. For example, it will provide information on the teaching of the sciences and mathematics that occurred in the Islamic religious schools (madrasa's) as well as the extent to which scientific material was used by religious scholars in their writings.

In addition, the database could also be used by scholars doing research into the history of Islamic and European scientific interactions, and it will also be useful for non-professionals who wish to find out about Islamic scientists, their works, and their social milieu.

This project is a collaborative effort between members of the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, Germany, with a board of advisors and an international network of individual and institutional affiliates. Thus far the first version of the database has been designed and successfully tested, and it currently contains entries for some 1,100 authors, several hundred entries for titles and manuscripts, and supplementary material for a number of them. Funding has been secured from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Max Planck Institute, and in the coming years the project will: 1) fund staff and researchers who will collect, verify, and enter data into the database; 2) enhance and maintain the database and make it permanently available online; 3) offset travel expenses for research trips to various libraries worldwide; and, 4) fund international conferences in Berlin, Montreal, and elsewhere that would bring together curators, researchers, staff, the board of advisors, and institutional affiliates to discuss how best to implement the project.


Islamic Astronomers from the Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers (gen. ed. Thomas Hockey wih the assistance of Marvin Bolt, Katherine Bracher, Richard Jarrell, Jordan Marché, JoAnn Palmeri, F. Jamil Ragep, Virginia Trimble, and Thomas Williams). New York: Springer, 2007.
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