Courtly Patronage of Ancient Sciences in Post-Classical Islamic

Courtly Patronage of Ancient Sciences in Post-Classical Islamic

By Sonja Brentjes

Al-Qanṭara, Vol.29:2 (2008)

Abstract: In this paper I study evidence for courtly patronage for the ancient sciences in specific post-classical societies in the Arab and Persianate worlds. I show that there are plenty of historical sources for seriously challenging the widely held belief that courtly patronage for the ancient sciences disappeared in the post-classical period. I discuss similarities and differences between the classical and post-classical period at large and between specific post-classical dynasties in particular. I ask which disciplines courts sponsored, which products they privileged and which institutions and norms they used and mobilized for and through their patronage. I compare the relationship between patronage for scholars in two main settings —the court and the madrasa. I suggest that the proposed causal link between the disappearance or decrease of courtly patronage and the so-called decline of the ancient sciences needs to be revisited.

Introduction: Historians of science, medicine and philosophy in Islamic societies will agree without hesitation that courtly patronage was of extraordinary importance for the introduction, spread and maintenance of the ancient sciences, as well as for the many new results that scholars achieved in these fields in different Islamic societies. Despite this generally held conviction, there are no studies of the phenomenon and its various forms in specific Islamic societies. A second conviction, albeit less firmly held, is the belief that one of the major factors that led to what is usually called the decline of the ancient sciences was the disappearance of courtly patronage at some unclear point in time.  This vagueness results from disagreement about when the decline commenced, and from a lack of clear statements about when courtly patronage ended. Opinions on the matter vary greatly, some seeing the eleventh century as the starting point, others the fifteenth or sixteenth century.  Given the importance of these historiographical problems it is surprising that very little research has been done assessing the evidence for the disappearance of courtly support for all or some of the ancient sciences, and the link between this phenomenon (if it indeed can be shown to have happened) and changes in the content and innovative power of research that occurred in later Islamic societies.

In this paper I will focus on courtly patronage of the ancient sciences after 1200 in the territories between Egypt and India. I will show that courtly patronage of the ancient sciences did not disappear in this post-classical period. Several dynasties extended their support to scholars interested in a variety of ancient sciences. Such a claim finds clear substantiation in dedications and ownership marks attested in manuscripts; notes appearing in biographical dictionaries and historical chronicles about scholars at courts and their contacts with rulers, princes, emirs, viziers, other court officials and powerful women at courts; and courtly protocol and official honorific titles specified in administrative sources. The more challenging problems arise from the limitations of these materials and the need for non-trivial interpretations of the information they offer. Since courtly patronage continued after 1200 under several major and minor dynasties, the changes in scientific activities and the decrease in new results cannot be ascribed to lacking “state” support as such. The changes themselves, their character, scope, disciplinary, spatial and temporal occurrences as well as the modes in which they appear and the values they reflect, will not be discussed here. Neither will I offer suggestions about the factors contributing to such changes. All this goes far beyond the purpose and possibilities of this paper. But even more important, these issues are deeply steeped in prejudices and assumptions characteristic of scientific activities in our own days. There are no in-depth studies of specific cases that contextualize such changes in the value system of their times and places. In addition, the rigorous questioning of the assumptions underlying our judgments and of the suitability of our methods has only begun recently.

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