Dr. Roshdi Rashed is one of the world’s great philosophers and science historians. He worked as a professor in the universities of Paris, Berlin and Tokyo. He has received many international accolades and prizes.
Rashed was born in Cairo and settled in Paris. Between his study of philosophy at Cairo University and teaching the history of science in the world’s universities, his is a fantastic story of one of the grandest Egyptian intellects in modern history.
I’ve read books by Rashed, watched a number of his televised interviews and heard about him in several countries, from Germany to Japan. I looked forward to the honour of meeting him; to hear and learn.
I was able to obtain the world renowned Egyptian philosopher’s phone number in France. I phoned him and was happy that I met him in the past few days in Paris. His wife was very generous, humble, and friendly. We had coffee and French desserts and then took photos to document the visit.
I found the philosopher in his office as I’d seen him on screen; exquisite, refined and profoundly knowledgeable; the scholar and the human being at the same time. Magnificent book shelves covered all the walls, an antique desk full of manuscripts and a seat for one guest, for being gravely serious doesn’t permit many visits or redundant talk.
I gave the big philosopher a copy of my book ‘Jihad against Jihad,’ and he was generous enough to give me his solemn book ‘Between Philosophy and Mathematics,’ then he was extra generous by talking about the facets of science history and the philosophy of civilisation.
Rashed has undertaken the biggest scholarly endeavor, which is to investigate and expound the history of science in the Arab and Islamic civilisation. He authored a number of unprecedented works; some were investigative, some were authorship and others were the supervision of encyclopaedias in French and German.
The essence of the intellectual project of the science historian Rashed is philosophy and mathematics. He saw that studying the history of the science of the Arabs and Muslims is the necessary point of departure in order to regain the “Scientific Spring” of our civilisation.
Rashed sees that the Arab civilisation was not only a civilisation of Islamic jurisprudence and poetry, but also the civilisation of science and technology. In Cairo, there was the House of Science, which was like a great academy, for it included a huge library and eminent scientists and was always full of sophisticated scientific meetings and forums. There was also the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. It was a giant research center in which the famous scientist Hassan Ibn Al-Haytham used to work.
This was almost an “Arab Modern Age,” and those who advocate today to modernise the Arab World are not calling for something totally new, but for a modernity that had been present and glorious one day then lost the way.
Translation in the Arab civilisation – according to Rashed – wasn’t for boasting or filling the caliphs’ cabinets or showing off libraries, but it was there to meet real research and scientific need.
Before Al-Khawarizmi there was no Algebra. Had it not been for the Egyptian Algebraist Abu-Kamel, who was one of the great scientists in Egypt in the age of Ahmed ibn Tulun, Algebra wouldn’t have developed in Italy. Half of Rene Descartes’ book Algebraic Geometry was redundant of what had already been done by Omar Al-Khayyam, who was the first in this scientific field. Sharaf Al-Din Al-Tusi, who was discovered by Rashed, exceeded Omar Al-Khayyam and reached analytical geometry and discovered notions that had not been reached except in the 17th century.
The Arab civilisation discovered symbols that contributed in developing mathematics. Before this discovery, dozens of pages were needed in order to solve one equation.
Religion – in Rashed’s opinion – wasn’t the reason behind the backwardness of the Arabs, but it was an essential motivation for achieving progress and excellence. Even Ibn Taymiyyah didn’t dare attack science and didn’t come near the natural sciences. He also did not criticise scientists. His criticism was focused on philosophers and the essence of the battle was the philosophers’ notion about the eternity of the world. From the philosophical point of view, Ibn Taymiyyah was profound, but unfortunately nothing has remained but heresies, myths, and conflict.
Reading the intellectual project of the philosopher and science historian Rashed is of unalloyed joy and limitless benefit. The philosopher excelled outside the limelight. There were no newspapers running articles or cameras following. He has also worked outside the Arab financing system; no millions, no billions, no hundreds of employees or thousands workers. He has become a refined institution. An institution that relied on the biggest capital throughout history: the capital of the intellect.
The philosopher told me that he owns a huge library and that the volume of manuscripts and books stored on a microfilm is the largest of its kind. He expressed his desire to donate it to Egypt. I told him that I would consult Cairo University and Alexandria University and also the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. He has generously accepted to donate it to any academic centre in Egypt so as to be available to the future generations of scholars and researchers in Egypt and the world.
Rashed stopped me before leaving his office in that Parisian elegant quarter and said to me: “Is it reasonable that there is no street named after…?”
I expected that he would say “Roshdi Rashed,” but to my surprise he said: “the great Egyptian scientist Abu-Kamel,” that Egyptian giant from whom modern Europe learned.
How I wish that the scientific and intellectual institutions in our country take the initiative to honour this great mind. Honouring him would be honouring ourselves, and respecting his project is respecting our output and our symbols. It is imperative that we reach out to shake hands with those who give us glory and honour. We shouldn’t turn our faces away or cast stones at our sons.