Abu'l-Abbas Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Kathir al-Farghani, born in Farghana,
Transoxiana, was one of the most distinguished astronomers in the service of
al-Mamun and his successors. He wrote "Elements of Astronomy" (Kitab fi
al-Harakat al-Samawiya wa Jawami Ilm al-Nujum i.e. the book on celestial
motion and thorough science of the stars), which was translated into Latin in
the 12th century and exerted great influence upon European astronomy before
Regiomontanus. He accepted Ptolemy's theory and value of the precession, but
thought that it affected not only the stars but also the planets. He determined
the diameter of the earth to be 6,500 miles, and. found the greatest distances
and also the diameters of the planets.
Al-Farghani's activities extended to engineering. According to Ibn Tughri
Birdi, he supervised the construction of the Great Nilometer at al-Fustat (old
Cairo). It was completed in 861, the year in which the Caliph al-Mutawakkil, who
ordered the construction, died. But engineering was not al-Farghani's forte, as
transpires from the following story narrated by Ibn Abi Usaybi'a.
Al-Mutawakkil had entrusted the two sons of Musa ibn Shakir, Muhammad and
Ahmad, with supervising the digging of a canal named al-Ja'fari. They delegated
the work to Al-Farghani, thus deliberately ignoring a better engineer, Sind ibn
Ali, whom, out of professional jealousy, they had caused to be sent to Baghdad,
away from al-Mutawakkil's court in Samarra. The canal was to run through the new
city, al-Ja'fariyya, which al-Mutawakkil had built near Samarra on the Tigris
and named after himself. Al-Farghani committed a grave error, making the
beginning of the canal deeper than the rest, so that not enough water would run
through the length of the canal except when the Tigris was high. News of this
angered the Caliph, and the two brothers were saved from severe punishment only
by the gracious willingness of Sind ibn Ali to vouch for the correctness of
al-Farghani's calculations, thus risking his own welfare and possibly his life.
As had been correctly predicted by astrologers, however, al-Mutawakkil was
murdered shortly before the error became apparent. The explanation given for
Al-Farghani's mistake is that being a theoretician rather than a practical
engineer, he never successfully completed a construction.
The Fihrist of Ibn al-Nadim, written in 987, ascribes only two works
to Al-Farghani: (1) "The Book of Chapters, a summary of the Almagest" (Kitab
al-Fusul, Ikhtiyar al-Majisti) and (2) "Book on the Construction of
Sun-dials" (Kitab 'Amal al-Rukhamat).
The Jawami, or 'The Elements' as we shall call it, was Al- Farghani's
best-known and most influential work. Abd al-Aziz al-Qabisi (d. 967) wrote a
commentary on it, which is preserved in the Istanbul manuscript, Aya Sofya 4832,
fols. 97v-114v. Two Latin translations followed in the 12th century. Jacob
Anatoli produced a Hebrew translation of the book that served as a basis for a
third Latin version, appearing in 1590, whereas Jacob Golius published a new
Latin text together with the Arabic original in 1669. The influence of 'The
Elements' on mediaeval Europe is clearly vindicated by the presence of
innumerable Latin manuscripts in European libraries.
References to it in mediaeval writers are many, and there is no doubt that it
was greatly responsible for spreading knowledge of Ptolemaic astronomy, at least
until this role was taken over by Sacrobosco's Sphere. But even then,
'The Elements' of Al-Farghani continued to be used, and Sacrobosco's
Sphere was evidently indebted to it. It was from 'The Elements' (in
Gherard's translation) that Dante derived the astronomical knowledge displayed
in the 'Vita nuova' and in the 'Convivio'.