November Researcher of the Month – Dr. F. Jamil Ragep

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Meet Dr. F. Jamil Ragep, Richmond Visiting Professor at Williams College, Canada Research Chair  in the History of Science in Islamic Societies, and co-Director of the McGill Centre for Islam and Science.

You can find out more about Dr. Ragep’s work and research interests on his webpage.

1. What is your current place of research?

I am currently (Fall 2017) the Richmond Visiting Professor at Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts. In January, I return to McGill University, where I am Canada Research Chair in the History of Science in Islamic Societies and co-Director of the McGill Centre for Islam and Science.

2. Could you give us some details about your education background?

I received a BA (Anthropology) and MA (Near Eastern Studies) from the University of Michigan in 1972 and 1973, respectively. I then went on to receive my PhD in History of Science from Harvard University in 1982.

3. What projects are you currently working on and what are some projects you’ve worked on in the past?

Currently I have several projects. One is a collaborative international database project called the Islamic Scientific Manuscripts Initiative (ISMI), whose ambitious goal is to catalogue all Islamic texts and manuscript witnesses dealing with the mathematical sciences (that include mathematics as well as astronomy, optics, music, mechanics, and related disciplines). Another involves the study of a certain genre of Islamic astronomical literature called hay’a. In the past, I examined these texts inasmuch as they often contained alternative planetary models that were meant to replace those of Ptolemy, which were criticized by Islamic astronomers and philosophers for their violations of accepted physical principles. More recently, I have become interested in what this widely read and disseminated astronomical genre indicates about the acceptance of a scientific cosmology in premodern Islamic societies. I have also been working on the transmission of knowledge between cultures, in particular the influence of Islamic astronomy on early modern European astronomy, especially that of Copernicus.

4. What’s one thing you particularly enjoy about working in your field?

The thing I’ve most enjoyed about working on science in Islam is that it has given me the opportunity to study manuscripts in libraries throughout the world. It is exciting to open up a codex that may not have been read for centuries and discover all sorts of interesting things.

5. How do you relate your work to the broader topic of ‘cosmopolitanism and the local’?

My research on science in premodern Islam has, in general, focused on particular texts that were created in specific places and times. In that sense, they are “local” with respect to their own individual contexts. Nevertheless, the content (and conversations occurring) within these works are also part of traditions, some stretching back centuries with origins in other cultural regions. In that sense, they are “cosmopolitan”; in the words of the Iranian polymath Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi (d. 1311) referring to astronomy: “…it is not a science that changes with a change of religions, or varies over time and place…”. In addition to studying the ancient scientific traditions that informed science in Islam, I have also done research on the transmission of Islamic science to other cultures. Consequently, I have argued that just as premodern Islam was open to appropriating other scientific cultures, we should consider the idea that early modern European science was the product of multiple cultures and not simply a “western” phenomenon.

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