Sometime in the ninth century, the renowned scholar of Islamic law and traditions Ahmad bin Hanbal traveled to Mecca where he met a Damascene mystic named Ahmad bin Abi al-Hawari. For Muslim scholars, a pilgrimage to Mecca was always as much about intellectual exchange with coreligionists from other parts of the world as it was about the sacred rites, so Ibn Hanbal took the opportunity to make a particular request of his new conversation partner: “Ahmad, tell me something you heard from your teacher, Abu Sulayman al-Darani.” Ibn Abi al-Hawari took the entreaty seriously, asking Ibn Hanbal to glorify God before obliging: “I heard Abu Sulayman say that when souls commit themselves to abandoning sin, they roam freely in the heavens and return to the servant of God with new wisdoms, the knower being entirely unaware that he was being guided to them.” Ibn Hanbal was so taken by this insight that he had to stand up and sit down three times before he could say a word. When he did speak, his words bore the mark of the impression it had made on him: “I have not heard in all of Islam a story I love more than this.” He then narrated a tradition (hadith) from the Prophet Muhammad, “He who acts upon what he knows, God bequeaths him knowledge of what he does not know,” adding, “You have spoken the truth. And so has your shaykh.”1 Ibn Hanbal was amazed not only by the way a mystic’s experience confirmed a received tradition, but also by the lesson of the hadith itself: the intimate connection that obtains between knowledge (‘ilm) and a certain kind of pious action (‘amal), a connection that is modeled in the narrative itself through the preparatory exercise of remembering the glory of God. In this and later invocations of this hadith, the canvas on which action takes place is always the soul, and its site of aspiration always the other world, the afterlife.

By the end of the nineteenth century, in the hands of the remarkable Muslim reformist Rashid Rida, this same tradition came to mean something else altogether. In the opening pages of the first issue of his influential journal, The Lighthouse, Rida explains the background against which he has decided to put pen to paper: humanity has entered a new epoch, one in which the world has been replaced by quite another, and nature has submitted to the will of man. Through his industry, man has come to know the farthest reaches of the universe, bringing the heavens to his perception while he is ensconced comfortably on the ground. “Take heed,” Rida warns the Muslim Easterner drowning in his slumber, “this age is an age of knowledge (‘ilm) and action (‘amal). Those who know and act will be masters, and those who remain ignorant and lazy will perish.” Whereas “the natural sciences of your predecessors” were a confused mass of contradictory opinions, true knowledge in this age is that on which action can be based. Knowledge supports activity, and activity advances knowledge. It is this cycle of productive industry that Rida has in mind when he invokes Ibn Hanbal’s hadith, “a principle established in the East, though Westerners have been guided to benefit from its universality”: when one is industrious based on what scientific knowledge he already has, God’s law is that that activity begets further knowledge.2

The Lighthouse and the Observatory’s learned account of nineteenth-century Egyptian astronomy’s imbrications with religion, empire, and the social realities and textual traditions they reside in draws so thoroughly on such a wide range of literatures that any simple characterization of it is bound to be an unjust one. But one way to read the book is by reference to its broad historical arc, its tracing of the complex record of departures and continuities that bring us to the unparalleled dominance of Rida’s conception. Daniel Stolz starts not with Ibn Hanbal, but rather the Egyptian-Ottoman-Islamic tradition of scholarly astronomy that both laid the groundwork for this modern conception and acted as its foil. Intellectual historians have often observed the changing signification of ‘ilm in this period—from a broad encompassing term for knowledge of many sorts to one which was identified primarily with science.3 But the valence of ‘amal also changed—intimately linked to science, but also to national, imperial, and civilizational projects of belonging and conquest. ‘Ilm-as-science, that is, was about mastery of the world, not mastery of the self.

What is curious about Rida’s place in this story is that the older understanding of the hadith is not unknown to him. In autobiographical remarks, he recalls his own manner of study: “I strove to purify my heart and my soul, so as to be prepared to receive divinely inspired knowledge (al-‘ilm al-ilhami) . . . And I heard from the person best acquainted with me that I have been given my lot of it.” Too modest to make the claim himself, he has an itinerant ascetic who regularly visited town testify on his behalf. “Shaykh ‘Abd al-Baqi al-Afghani said, ‘The knowledge of Sayyid Rashid is granted directly by God (laduni). I am away from him for a year, and [return to] find him with knowledge impossible to acquire except after many long years [of study].’”4

Rida’s scientistic-civilizational reading of the hadith resonates instead with Stolz’s viceregal astronomers who put their scientific knowledge at the service of the Egyptian khedival state during a key phase of its development. Stolz shows convincingly how, in their effort to “enter the scientific concert of Europe,” state astronomers “remapped space and time” to support Egypt’s ambitions to “position itself as an empire akin to and in concert with European counterparts.” This raises the question of why someone like Rida—trained extensively in the religious sciences, having imbibed the tradition’s deepest insights, and an avowed enthusiast of the very book in which the great Muslim intellectual al-Ghazali cites the hadith on its older understanding—would come to see the hadith in this new manner, and indeed use that interpretation as a frame for the intellectual project that best represented his life’s work.

Important to Stolz’s narrative is the argument that religious reformists like Rida made use of modern sciences like astronomy for their own purposes, chiefly the achievement of a unified global Muslim community. But Rida’s introduction to The Lighthouse suggests that the logic of modern science—positioned as the intellectual accompaniment to technology, industry, and civilization—worked on these agents as much as they worked with it. Here it seems to come laden with commitments, tied to a particularly modern sort of politics. That is to say, the “odd but convenient alliance” between state astronomers and religious reformists may reflect a deeper shared ground that accompanies the dominance of modern science—a reorientation of man’s place in the world and a new conceptualization of his responsibility toward it.

One of the many virtues of Stolz’s account is that it reminds us of another way of doing science, a scholarly astronomy rendered “an object of historical memory” (thanks, in part, in a case of historical irony, to the very participation of those scholarly astronomers themselves). This enterprise flourished not in lighthouses nor observatories, but in family homes, suggesting a scale commensurate with its ambitions when compared to the grand designs of state astronomy. It displayed not the confidence of a nation- or empire-building project, but rather held that astronomical knowledge is often probabilistic and contingent, based on reasoned judgement rather than certainty. It concerned itself with the regulated development and careful assessment of an inherited textual tradition and its economy of certainty and error, not the interested re-ordering of old terrain via astronomical maps nor the recasting of history. Scholarly astronomy was perhaps a more modest knowing, but also bespoke a more provisional way of being in the world. As exemplified by the complicated but intimate relationship between astronomy and astrology, the older tradition was not primarily about the mastery of, but the encounter with, the sometimes capricious forces of the world.

Can we also, then, imagine doing science in this register, as an exercise in self-transformation? Because it derives “many of its conventions, and much of its significance, from a broader training in Islamic discursive traditions,” might it also be Islamic in a deeper and more fundamental way? In his reading of the opening pages of the work that represents this older astronomy, Stolz gives us reason to think this might be the case. Muhammad al-Khudari, the deaf shaykh, still at the beginning of his inquiry and challenged by the difficulty of the material, dreamt one night that he was drinking from the water of knowledge that gushed forth from between the fingers of the Prophet. The influential commentary he ended up producing was a direct result of this gift of knowledge. Pierre Hadot has suggested that engaging in philosophical discourse was always understood in antiquity as a spiritual exercise, “intended to produce an effect, to create a habitus within the soul, or to provoke a transformation of the self.” In this case, the desired end for al-Khudari is not confidence in the precision of his calculations, but the bafflement and humility that contemplating the heavens ought to compel. By analogy to episodes from the life of the Prophet in which the same miracle enabled a community without water to purify themselves before prayer, Stolz reads al-Khudari as understanding his scientific work to be an act of devotion made possible by his overcoming a lack of information, just as the early Muslim community was able to pray by overcoming a lack of water. We might say, though, along with Ibn Hanbal, that these sorts of encounters were not specific to astronomy, but fit into a larger vision of knowledge in which cultivating a sense of deficiency before the divine was a key commitment of Islamic intellectual culture more broadly, and a gateway to further learning.

  1. Abu Nu‘aym al-Isfahani, Hilyat al-Awliya’ wa Tabaqat al-Asfiya’ (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1996), 14-15.

  2. Majallat al-Manar, vol. 1, no. 1

  3. See Marwa Elshakry, “Knowledge is Motion: The Cultural Politics of Modern Science Translations in Arabic,” Isis 9, no. 4 (December 2008), 705-708; Indira Falk Gesink, Islamic Reform and Conservatism: Al-Azhar and the Evolution of Modern Sunni Islam (I.B. Tauris, 2010).

  4. Al-Manar wa’l-Azhar (Cairo: Matba‘at al-Manar, 1353H[1934]), 143