Avicenna and al-Bīrūnī (05_2023)

The Philosophical Correspondence Between Avicenna and al-Bīrūnī: Interview with Paul Hullmeine

by Sarah Virgi

May 2023 – For centuries before the electronic mail and the internet came about, philosophers exchanged letters. In fact, some of the most important claims and arguments made by authors such as Leibniz, Descartes, and Kant, for instance, were written as part of a correspondence with other thinkers. Since his undergraduate studies, Paul Hullmeine has become interested in the correspondence between two premodern thinkers in the Islamic world: Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā, d. 1037) and al-Bīrūnī (d. after 1050). This year, he has started a new post-doctoral research project funded by the DFG (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft), which aims at exploring the various philosophical and scientific aspects of this correspondence. Moreover, the project will also establish a new Arabic text and an English translation of the letters written by Avicenna and al-Bīrūnī, which can be used to teach in class and, according to Hullmeine, would serve as a good introductory text to Aristotelian natural philosophy.

The exchange between the two thinkers, as Hullmeine explains in this interview, focuses primarily on general questions in Aristotelian physics and on cosmology in particular. This is especially interesting because most of al-Bīrūnī’s philosophical views “are scattered throughout his various mathematical works,” while in these letters, he deals with problems in natural philosophy. With regards to Avicenna, Hullmeine notes that studying this exchange will be helpful in determining the extent to which al-Bīrūnī influenced his later works on natural philosophy. But besides from these more specific points, he adds, this interaction – including even the ad hominem attacks that thinkers sometimes launched at each other – can give us a great insight into the ways in which scientific and philosophical ideas came to develop in the premodern period and how philosophers perceived themselves and others in their intellectual milieu.

About Paul Hullmeine

Paul Hullmeine is a post-doctoral researcher at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München and the principal investigator of the DFG-funded project “The Philosophical Correspondence between Avicenna and al-Bīrūnī” (since 2023). He wrote his doctoral thesis (2022) entitled “Ptolemaic Astronomy in the Cosmological Debates in Classical Arabic Thought” within the project “Ptolemaeus Arabus et Latinus,” funded by the Bavarian Academy of Sciences in Munich. Before coming to Munich, Hullmeine studied in Berlin, Cairo, and London. His research interests are in premodern history of philosophy and science in Antiquity and in the Islamic world, especially in the field of natural philosophy, astronomy, and cosmology.

The Interview

You were recently awarded a DFG grant to work on a research project on the correspondence between two philosophers in the Islamic world, Avicenna and al-Bīrūnī. Can you tell us a little more about what the project focuses on? Which aspects and topics of this correspondence are you interested in, and why?

My project has, on the one hand, a very narrow focus on this exchange of letters that you mentioned, namely between Ibn Sīnā, or Avicenna, and the famous mathematician al-Bīrūnī. This story began roughly 1000 AD, when al-Bīrūnī sent two sets of questions to the young Avicenna, ten explicitly on specific arguments from Aristotle’s On the Heavens, and eight more general questions on Aristotelian physics. The amazing thing about this exchange is that we not only have the questions and the replies, but in total four stages: al-Bīrūnī’s questions, Avicenna’s replies, further ripostes by al-Bīrūnī, and finally, Avicenna delegates the task to answer again to his pupil al-Maʿṣūmī. This is super interesting because we get the chance to better understand how premodern philosophers were keeping in contact, trying to convince each other through direct exchange of arguments or doubts.

The work on this text forms the first and, as I said, rather narrow focus of my project: establishing a new Arabic text of this exchange based on a large number of manuscripts, translating it entirely into English and discussing its philosophical arguments. On the other hand, however, this project has far-reaching branches. In order to understand the arguments at stake here, one needs to consider the wider reception of Aristotelian natural philosophy. All three interlocutors refer to Aristotle’s late ancient commentators, and there are contemporary debates making their way into the exchange, as well. Thus, I try to offer an overview of roughly 1300 years of Aristotelian natural philosophy and cosmology.

What brought you to this topic? Al-Bīrūnī is still a rather unknown figure in the history of philosophy in the Islamic world. What sparked your interest in this author?

It was exactly this correspondence that made me familiar with al-Bīrūnī. I read it as an undergrad in Berlin in a seminar directed by Prof Strohmaier and was directly captured. The amazing, though often frustrating thing about studying al-Bīrūnī’s philosophical views is that they are scattered throughout his various mathematical works. For example, when you start reading his work on geodesy – i.e., a work that is supposedly quite boring for historians of philosophy – you suddenly come across a passage on the eternity of the world! This is probably the main reason why his philosophical positions are largely unstudied. The correspondence with Avicenna stands out in that respect, as it is the only treatise by al-Bīrūnī that is devoted not to one of the mathematical sciences but to natural philosophy. However, al-Bīrūnī does not make it so easy for us: it is still hard to distillate his own philosophical convictions from his questions. This is, at least in my view, the fascinating thing about al-Bīrūnī: you really have to dig and dig in order to come closer to something you can call his philosophical convictions. It’s sometimes frustrating but then quite rewarding in the end.

The modality of mail correspondence between philosophers is abundant in the history of philosophy and some of the most important texts written by philosophers, such as Leibniz, Descartes, or even Kant, are actually letters that they wrote to other intellectuals. What do you think is the particularity and the interest of these texts? In the case of Avicenna and al-Bīrūnī, do you think it reveals other aspects of their thought that are not present in their other published works?

Yes, this is exactly what we get, at least for al-Bīrūnī, as just described. It really evidences al-Bīrūnī’s serious interest in cosmological and physical questions, although he did not devote a treatise exclusively devoted to such issues. In his other works, you can find him generally following the Aristotelian outlook of the world, namely with the four sublunar elements and aether rotating above in the heavens. Through these letters, we can see how he struggled with specific arguments put forward by Aristotle in On the Heavens. In the case of Avicenna, we should keep in mind that he was still quite young at the time of the correspondence, so there it will be important to see whether we can detect some influence that this exchange had on his later writings. Dag Nikolaus Hasse has already highlighted such a change of mind concerning the nature of light. This tells us quite an important story because we see Avicenna modifying his arguments in light of al-Bīrūnī’s replies.

And let’s be honest: it is often the direct confrontation between two historical figures that we readers enjoy so much. Such direct exchanges offer us insights into how debates were fought in the past, and if it gets rude, even better! But more seriously, the direct interaction of two philosophers from the premodern period tells us how arguments were exchanged and also how other scholars of that time evaluated this exchange. Even ad hominem attacks give us a better sense about the way in which they thought about their predecessors or philosophers from other traditions or schools.

Who, in your opinion, was a more assertive writer and made his point clearer in this philosophical correspondence, Avicenna or al-Bīrūnī? Why?

The short answer to that is: Avicenna. This obviously owes to the nature of the exchange. Al-Bīrūnī puts forward only questions and doubts and does not signal openly his own position. Basically, when he attacks one Aristotelian argument for the eternity of the world, we still cannot be sure whether this is supposed to be a question of the validity of this single argument or whether he wishes to attack the eternity of the world in its entirety. Avicenna, on the other hand, tries to provide specific answers and thus sets out philosophical arguments that follow for the most part Aristotelian philosophy. The same goes for his pupil al-Maʿṣūmī whom we should not forget, because he was assigned the task of replying  to al-Bīrūnī’s further ripostes.

But as always: it is a little more complicated than that. The point of al-Bīrūnī’s letter, in the first place, is to raise some serious questions on some of Aristotle’s arguments. He is definitely not the first one to raise many of these. In a way, that is a rather clear point: ‘Look, I have been reading On the Heavens and some commentaries, and I do agree with this or that doubt.’ Because we then have this second set of questions, we get a clearer picture of what is at stake here. It is not just a limited number of minor questions that Avicenna has to deal with here. Instead, three interlocutors with a very different agenda meet here. Al-Bīrūnī cannot easily be connected to a certain school, but builds upon a long history of controversial reception of Aristotle’s cosmology. And Avicenna and al-Maʿṣūmī present themselves as true Aristotelians and as the ones, who understand his works and arguments correctly. In this way, all interlocutors make their points very clear.

How do you think your translations and research on this correspondence will impact future research on these two authors and the history of philosophy and science in the Islamic world?

If you phrase your question like that, maybe what comes to my mind is that it will show that there is not always this clear distinction between the history of science and the history of philosophy. Al-Bīrūnī is a perfect example of that: the mere fact that he wrote mostly exclusively mathematical treatises does not mean that he was not an educated philosopher. This is also true for the topic that is discussed in Aristotle’s On the Heavens, namely cosmology. In premodern cosmology, we look at the cosmos both from the astronomical point of view as well as from natural philosophy.

What I really hope is that this text will get more attention and more readers! I was already saying that I got acquainted with al-Bīrūnī through this text, and actually I got into history of philosophy thanks to this text, in general. I hope that my edition and translation will be used in class. I can assure from my own experience: this is such a great introductory text. It provides you with some basics of Aristotelian natural philosophy, you can learn much about the Arabic translation movement and about the commentary tradition from Aristotle up to the Arabs. Plus, many students are already familiar with Avicenna’s name, at least through Noah Gordon’s The Physician (and Ben Kingsley’s portrayal, of course).