Prayer on the Rooftops (1865), Jean-Léon Gérôme [Public Domain]
In one of his portraits of Khedivial Cairo, Prayer on the Rooftops (1865), the French academic painter Jean-Léon Gérôme testified to the intimate relationship between certain Islamic rites and specific celestial phenomena. The painting depicts men assembled at sunset (maghrib). They align themselves to face the same direction, presumably toward Mecca. In a minaret, a muezzin issues the call to prayer. Beyond the dome of a second minaret, the crescent of a new moon hangs just above the glow of twilight. A new month, perhaps Ramadan, has begun. It is surely one of the more evocative European depictions of Islam in the nineteenth century.

The painting is too good to be true. As the historian of Islam and science David A. King observed, Gérôme’s work performs a sleight-of-hand. The buildings in the painting have prominent ventilator shafts, a classic feature of the Fatimid and Mamluk city’s architecture. But these shafts typically faced the wind from the northeast. Given how the men are standing with respect to the ventilator shafts, they cannot be facing Mecca. They are praying toward St. Petersburg.

Gérôme, it seems, (mis)positioned his subjects so that he could paint them with the new moon in the background. To show us the synchrony, on this occasion, of sunset prayer with the onset of the new month, the painter disrupted the relationships between celestial motion and pious devotion he meant to illustrate. Gérôme could capture the synchrony—twilight, prayer, a new month—or he could depict the perspective of the worshippers, but he could not do both.

Historians take for granted that our analytical perspective should be informed by the perspectives of the people we study. We try to paint the moon where people saw it. But what about things, like Gérôme’s moon, we cannot see from the perspective of our subjects?

Gérôme’s conundrum came to mind as I noticed a productive contrast between Marwa Elshakry’s and Junaid Quadri’s incisive commentaries on The Lighthouse and the Observatory. By pulling at different threads of the book’s argument, Elshakry and Quadri expose a basic tension between the book’s emphasis on the emergence of new Islamic practices and debates in the early twentieth century, and the book’s insistence on tracing this radical moment to the oft-invisible work of people who did not see themselves as radicals at all. Rather than try to resolve this tension, I will take Elshakry’s and Quadri’s remarks as inspiration to clarify a few of its implications.

Quadri’s eloquent commentary underscores the depth of the fissure between the knowledge long cultivated by Muslim scholars (ulama), on the one hand, and the new sciences that were increasingly promoted by the late Ottoman state, on the other. As Quadri observes, the astronomy of ulama was “a way of being in the world” that differed from modern science not only in the details of practice, but in what and how it tried to know. Organized around the virtues and epistemologies of Islamic scholarly culture, this was knowledge (‘ilm) whose ultimate object was to subordinate the human self to its creator, rather than to command nature as a resource. It follows that the triumph of scientific modernity represented a fundamental break with the Ottoman-Islamic past.

In Elshakry’s thoughtful discussion, however, a contrasting theme comes to the fore. Elshakry acknowledges the many ways in which Egyptian ulama practiced the celestial sciences with premises, purposes, and techniques that differed from their French counterparts. Her focus, nevertheless, draws our attention to facts that suggest commonality and continuity. Ulama, while continuing to practice their scholarly astronomy, also served as crucial translators and teachers of the new science. It was ulama who facilitated, even promoted, Ottoman Egypt’s adaptation of mechanical timekeeping, to cite a key example. These ulama recognized in European astronomy a largely familiar set of questions and methods, whose differences from their own they confidently assimilated or (as in the case of heliocentrism) just as easily disregarded. Far from an encounter with “another science,” this was a meeting of mutually intelligible traditions.

As Elshakry rightly notes, the fact that many ulama saw the new sciences as, in fact, not terribly new or significant, invites historiographic revision on several fronts. In the book, I frame this reconsideration mainly in terms of Islamic intellectual history:

The historiography of nineteenth-century Islamic thought . . . is too often organized around the notion of encounter with Europe. Whether the protagonists are advocates or critics of assimilating European ideas and culture, this encounter remains at the heart of the story. Muhammad al- Khudari’s silence [on heliocentricity] makes sense only within a different narrative, a narrative in which Europe is present but, for important purposes, irrelevant.

If the book performs the sometimes awkward task of identifying “present absences,” it is to counteract the historiographic currents that have largely assumed the impact of European sciences on late Ottoman society. Instead, I try to see from the perspective of learned elites who yawned at Copernicus, for example, or who thought, at most, that new techniques for predicting celestial motion could be integrated into Arabic astronomical handbooks with a few tweaks. Instead of “modern science” as a revolutionary force that blew open the doors of a hermetic Islamic intellectual culture, we see the production of modern science in Egypt through a thousand small and selective acts. Some of these acts unfolded, as we have long known, in new institutions like the press and the state’s military schools. But many of them took place in manuscripts, and in the informal circles of Azharite scholars.

To frame this argument more explicitly, as Elshakry calls for, in terms of a global history of the “scientific revolution,” it is worth recalling that phrase’s conceptual history. As Elshakry remarks, the phrase itself appears to have been coined by Alexandre Koyré as late as the 1930s. However, the modern sense of “revolution” on which the phrase draws can be traced further, to a complex reformulation of science and politics in late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe. The classical meaning of “revolution” had been cyclical, as in Copernicus’s Revolutions of the celestial orbs. As Enlightenment thinkers came to see progress as a series of breaks with the past, however, political “revolution” began to denote a rupture or leap along a timeline: an understanding of progress that quickly appeared in natural philosophy as well. Thus, the Encyclopédie cast Isaac Newton at the center of a revolution, and ambitious practitioners like Antoine Lavoisier (and later Charles Darwin) began to predict the revolutionary effects of their own work.

To be sure, the concept of “revolution” as a rupture (rather than a return) in science or politics was far from unknown in late Ottoman society. It was a core idea of the positivists who, in the name of “union and progress,” helped overthrow the empire’s political order in 1908. Given the case at hand, however, their interpretation of science appears both highly contingent and deeply ironic. Even as the Young Turks insisted that modern science demanded a radical break with expired forms of knowledge, quite a few of the fruits of the “’scientific revolution” were quietly reassembled by scholars who denied the very notion that knowledge could be revolutionary.

Quadri’s analysis poses a problematic that is almost the converse of Elshakry’s. Elshakry questions what remains of the “scientific revolution” when it can be understood in terms of deep continuity with Ottoman-Islamic scholarly culture. But Quadri asks: Given the radically different orientations of scholarly and modern science, how do we explain the apparent ease with which traditionally educated scholars adopted a modern scientific outlook? How, to follow Quadri’s example, can we account for Rashid Rida’s ability to take a classic hadith, in which knowledge is a unilateral gift from God to the humble, and interpret it as a mandate for industrious inquiry?

Like several of the authors in this forum, I am interested in understanding science and Islam in terms of virtues, drawing on Alasdair MacIntyre’s sense of an intellectual tradition as “part of the elaboration of a mode of social and moral life.” My book treats precision, for example, as a virtue at the core of diverse practices such as land surveying and prayer. But this analysis could go further. Any number of virtues associated with the modern, natural sciences—rigor, self-denial, perseverance—had close relatives in Islamic scholarly culture.

Perhaps we can draw inspiration here from studies of science and Christianity, which (at least since John Hedley Brooke) have stepped away from a focus on science and religion as sets of beliefs about the world, and turned instead to questions such as how credibility is achieved, what it means to be a knowledgeable person, and why a knowledgeable life is worth pursuing. These are among the “valence values,” to borrow Matthew Stanley’s term, which circulate across various sorts of inquiry, self-discipline, and knowledge-production. On this view, we can understand how a new “religious” hermeneutics took shape alongside new sciences, yet with no great perception of rupture. Rashid Rida read the hadith in a way that broke with a millennium of interpretation, but a dynamic understanding of the physical world remained, as ever, part of the “elaboration of a mode of social and moral life.”