Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Sonja Brentjes on Epistles 1 and 2 of the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ edition and translation

Guest post from Sonja Brentjes

A few weeks ago I posted a couple of reviews of recent volumes published from the Brethren of Purity’s epistles series. In part of it, I made a number of blunders which Sonja Brentjes pointed out and suggested I should correct. It's a pleasure to have her as a guest on my blog. To do that, here is her review of the volume on epistles 1 and 2.

Epistles of the Brethren of Purity. On Arithmetic and Geometry. An Arabic Critical Edition and English Translation of EPISTLES 1 & 2, Edited and Translated by Nader El-Bizri, with a Foreword. Oxford: Oxford University Press in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2012.

This book is part of the larger project to produce a critical edition of the 52 epistles composed presumably in the 10th century (one dating proposal considers also the first half of the 11th century) by a group of men, called the Brethren of Purity, who lived probably in Basra, may have been of Persian origin and may have adhered to Shiʿi or more specifically Ismaili beliefs (such an adherence is claimed by both the Imami Shiʿa and the Ismailis as the second institutional publisher of the series indicates, but doubted by some academics). The book’s editor and translator, Nader el-Bizri, is also the current chief editor of the entire project.

The present book contains the first two of the 52 epistles treating number theory according to Nikomachos of Gerasa (2nd c) and elementary Euclidean geometry combined with geometrical knowledge of the craftsmen in Arabic and an English translation. Before the translation is the Foreword, mentioned on the book cover, an introduction and a so-called technical introduction. After the English translation follows an appendix to the second epistle, a selected biography, a subject index and a geographical index of places. Before the Arabic edition come an Arabic appendix and two indices (subject matter, names).

There are three previous translations of the first epistle (two in German (Dieterici 1868, reprint 1969, Brentjes 1984) and one in English (Goldstein 1964)) and one German translation of the second (Dieterici 1865 (vol. III), reprint 1969) as well as several editions of the entire corpus (Bombay 1887-89,  Cairo 1374/1928, Beirut 1957,  Beirut-Paris 1995) and partial editions. None of the editions is considered to be a critical one. Hence the effort of the Institute of Ismaili Studies to prepare such a critical edition. Here begin, however, the problems. Not only is there today widespread doubt in general that something like an urtext can indeed be reconstructed for any text and author, there is also serious doubt that such a project is possible at all in particular for the epistles of the Brethren as Paul E. Walker explained in his talk at this year’s meeting of the American Oriental Society in Portland, March 15-18 (What was the original form of the Rasā᾿il Ikhwān al-afā᾿?). In his abstracts, he states the following:” A recent project undertaken by the Institute of Ismaili Studies and a team of scholars aims to produce a critical edition of this text. However work so far has revealed major problems with establishing the exact nature of the original work. The oldest and best manuscripts do not agree. Information in the existing Bombay-Cairo- Beirut edition suggests strongly that that version is itself Fatimid (or based on a Fatimid era copy). It thus may predate all of the known mss. Wide discrepancies among these textual sources indicate surely that there never was a single version of the Epistles, but instead a jumble of alternates with various additions and alterations perhaps contributed by early editors and copyists, even by the Ikhwān themselves.“ (, p. 51)

El-Bizri was aware of the difficulties presented by the different textual versions, but chose the oldest complete manuscript (MS Istanbul, Süleymaniye, Atif Efendi 1681 (dated 578h, i.e. 1182) as his basis for the edition and translation, which he altered at times by adding marginalia or passages from six other manuscripts and one printed edition (Beirut 1957). The problem with his approach is that he admits clearly that none of the other six manuscripts nor the text of the Beirut edition have the text of Atif Efendi 1681 as their archetype. He concludes that no stemma can be established (pp. 58f). In relationship to the two epistles published in this book, this evaluation applies, according to el-Bizri, in particular to the second one on geometry. Moreover, el-Bizri states clearly that Atif Efendi 1681 itself does not always offer the most reliable text (p. 51). These comments support Walker’s stance that a critical edition of the epistles is impossible. In regard to the two epistles presented in this book, el-Bizri emphasizes that the difficulties and differences concern in particular the part on geometry (p. 59). Hence, any reader of the work should be aware that what s/he will be reading is just one among several possible variants of the second epistle.

Beyond this matter of principle, the Arabic texts and their English translations suffer under severe shortcomings that reflect el-Bizri’s lack of experience in history of mathematics in Antiquity and Islamicate societies, as a translator of a technical text and as an editor. Moreover, he misunderstood or misinterpreted more than once Arabic passages and mathematical statements. Since these shortcomings permeate the entire book, the space provided for the review does not suffice for presenting a list of all these different kinds of mistakes. They are particularly frequent in the chapter on number theory, where almost every other page contains several of them. Some of the problems become already visible in the introductions. There, el-Bizri relies primarily on a few works of the historian of mathematics in Islamicate societies Roshdi Rashed, whose historiographical positions and modernizing transformations of medieval mathematics are not shared by many colleagues in the field. Due to his unfamiliarity with the subject matter and the historiographical issues at stake, el-Bizri’s summary even trivializes Rashed’s judgments.

The Arabic text and its English translation are marred by numerous kinds of mistakes and wrong decisions, the English translation more so than the Arabic edition. They show el-Bizri’s severe lack of expertise as editor, translator and historian of mathematics. The available space for reviewing does not allow me to give a survey of these mistakes with examples. Thus I decided to describe them in a general manner without specific examples.

1.            Mistakes in the Arabic texts

The mistakes in the Arabic texts result primarily from the editorial position taken by el-Bizri and the unclear procedures he followed. They encompass questionable decisions concerning the inclusion of marginalia and alternative readings, decisions to preserve clearly wrong sequences of textual passages, omissions of most likely original passages and the occasional modernizing changes of the medieval text. In addition, there are several typing and vocalization errors.

2.           Mistakes in the English translation

The mistakes in the English translation in contrast are manifold. They concern wrong decisions in regard to mathematical terminology, the lack of understanding of medieval technical language as well as historical changes in grammar or semantic, the omission of parts of the Arabic text, which indicate shortcomings in proofreading, and the replacement of medieval numerical notations by modern forms. The desire to produce a flowing english text has misled the translator to disregard issues of content.

a.           Mathematical terminology, misunderstood medieval technical language and historical changes of language

The content of the two epistles is elementary and well known through English translations of its Greek fundaments in Euclid’s Elements and Nicomachus’ Introduction to Arithmetic. As in the case with decisions on editorial issues, el-Bizri chose different approaches when translating. In a number of cases he translated, correctly so, literally, while in other cases, where such a literal rendering would have suited the text and its sources equally well, he replaced the terms by unusual expressions that have no background in the sources nor in modern mathematical language.

The opposite variant of inappropriate decision when translating can also be found, namely when translating one of two related Arabic technical terms not literally, but according to its mathematical meaning and contemporary naming, but the second, in contrast, in a literal manner, which does not make sense mathematically.

The third case, more often appearing than the two previous ones, is the wrong translation, either literal or interpretively, of a mathematical term.

b.          Omissions and additions

Several omissions of passages extant in the Arabic edition document in the English translation highlight the lack of care when proofreading. The continued additions to the translation, clearly marked by square brackets, of elementary mathematical explanations, elementary textual content already provided by the text itself in earlier passages and undisputed, well-established Arabic mathematical terms with their Greek, incorrectly transliterated equivalents are as a rule superfluous, at times false and should be placed in those cases, where they are valid, in the footnotes or be discussed in a commentary.

c.           Problems in regard to content

This lack of expertise comes also to the fore in el-Bizri’s problems with comprehending the language of the two epistles and its transformation into a modernized English text. A continuously occurring issue is the interpretation of expressions standing for finite or infinite repetitition of procedures. Phrases like bāligha mā bāligha do not indicate infinite, but finite repetitions. Expressions like ilā lā nihāya, however, mark clearly infinity. In some cases like the summation of series the confusion between these two types of expressions yields wrong mathematical statements in the English text.  In addition to such mistakes that probably result from applying modern understandings to medieval concepts substantial mistranslations of longer passages also occur.

3.           Mathematical mistakes

Some of the mathematical mistakes are the result of wrong translating decisions, while others stem from a desire to adapt medieval statement to forms taught in secondary schools today. This kind of modification illustrates el-Bizri’s unfamiliarity with standards in history of mathematics and the widely agreed upon rule that translations should preserve the kind and level of mathematical knowledge and practice of the original and avoid transforming them into something that belongs to a different period and different mathematical culture. Finally there are several elementary technical mistakes in the translation of the mathematical content.

4.           Historical mistakes and omissions

These items consist of incomplete or false historical information provided by the editor.

Numerous of el-Bizri’s mistakes could have been avoided, if he had checked the English translation of Nikomachos’ Introduction to Arithmetic and the German and English translations of the two epistles presented in this book. The problems with the editorial decisions as well as the inappropriate additions to the translated text could have been avoided in most cases, if he had consulted contemporary editions and translations of Arabic or Latin mathematical and philosophical texts by other colleagues.

Sonja Brentjes
MPIWG, Berlin

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