A life devoted to history of Islamic science: Abdelhamid I. Sabra
One of the most eminent historians of Islamic science in the last fifty years, Abdelhamid I. Sabra, passed away on December 18, 2013, in Lexington, Massachusetts after a long illness. He has raised many students, and left hundreds of articles, books, editions and translations in various topics of Islamic and early modern European science, that have had a great impact on the field.
Sabra was born in the city of Tanta in Egypt in 1924. He studied philosophy at the Alexandria University. He was awarded a scholarship by the Egyptian government and was sent to the London School of Economics, where he got his PhD in philosophy of science in 1955, under the supervision of Karl Popper, one of the most influential philosophers of science in the twentieth century. His dissertation was then published under the title, Theories of Light from Descartes to Newton by the Cambridge University Press, which is still appreciated by scholars in the field. After his graduation, he taught at the philosophy department of the Alexandria University until 1962, the year in which he joined the Warburg Institute in England. Later, he was invited to be part of the history of science department at Harvard University in 1972, where he taught until his retirement in 1996. In 2005, he was awarded the George Sarton Medal, one of the most prestigious awards in the field of history of science, for lifetime achievement, by the History of Science Society. He also was awarded a prize by the Kuwait Science Foundation.
Abdelhamid Sabra started his scholarly life with early modern science, publishing his first article on optics in seventeenth century Europe. However, he is best known with his work on the exact sciences in medieval Islam, the most important of which is, doubtlessly, on Islamic optics. For instance, Sabra prepared a critical edition of Ibn al- Haytham's monumental work, Kitāb al- Manāẓir (Book of Optics), provided an English translation and commentary.
Professor Sabra's contribution to the field of history of science occurred not only with his critical editions and translations of significant scientific texts produced throughout Islamic history, but also with theories and new approaches he proposed, which have provided scholars in history of Islamic science with facing and questioning orientalist and Eurocentric reading of Islamic intellectual history. For example, his article entitled "The Appropriation and Subsequent Naturalization of Greek Science in Medieval Islam: A Preliminary Statement" that was published in 1987 in the journal of History of Science, successfully challenges the theories of Pierre Duhem, arguing that Islamic cultures did not passively transfer ancient Greek science, but "appropriated" and "naturalized" it. This theory had such a huge impact on the literature that it became well known as "Sabra thesis."
Especially in his late academic life, Professor Sabra focused on history of kalām (Islamic theology). He published several articles unfolding the nature and significance of the physical theory of kalām tradition, namely atomism. What Sabra convincingly shows in his well known article, " Kalām Atomism as an Alternative Philosophy to Hellenizing Falsafa" is that Islamic theology tradition flourished as an alternative philosophical way against the Aristotelian tradition in Islamic land. It is with his and his students' work that Islamic theology tradition gained much more attention.
Summarily, Abdelhamid Sabra's work has been always insightful not only in Islamic science, but Islamic intellectual history in general. This field is much more exciting to work thanks to him and his students. As saying in his speech before accepting the George Sarton Medal, he preferred to be "enthusiast," rather than to be "professional" in his academic life. With no doubt, his scholarship and enthusiasm will remain inspiring to those interested in science and philosophy in Islamic history.
* I am grateful to Sally P. and F. Jamil Ragep for sharing Sabra's photo with me.
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