“All Beneficial Knowledge is Revealed”:

The Rational Sciences in the Maghrib in the age of al-Yūsī (d. 1102/1691)

in Islamic Law and Society
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The intellectual history of the Muslim world during the post-formative period is poorly understood compared to the centuries in which the initial development of the principal Islamic intellectual traditions occurred. This article examines the legal status of the natural sciences in the thought of the Moroccan scholar al-Ḥasan al-Yūsī (d. 1102/1691) and his contemporaries, both in terms of the categorization of knowledge and in terms of developments in conceptions of causality in post-formative Ashʿarī theology. In the latter respect, al-Yūsī’s writings on causality are compared to those of his contemporary in Damascus, ʿAbd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī, with attention to the broader historiographic perils in comparing intellectual developments in the Early Modern period to those occurring in Europe. By placing al-Yūsī’s views in intellectual context, I seek to demonstrate how a more productive history of the natural sciences in the post-formative Muslim world might be written.

“All Beneficial Knowledge is Revealed”:

The Rational Sciences in the Maghrib in the age of al-Yūsī (d. 1102/1691)

in Islamic Law and Society




See Toby E. HuffIntellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution: A Global Perspective (New York: Cambridge University Press2011) 134 142 and compare with Dan Diner Lost in the Sacred: Why the Muslim World Stood Still (Princeton: Princeton University Press 2009). Both Huff and Diner argue that the post-formative period of Muslim intellectual history was broadly characterized by stasis and in doing so they echo the views of many Orientalists of the twentieth century. See Zachary Lockman Contending Visions of the Middle East (2nd edition) (New York: Cambridge University Press 2010) 104-112 but also W. Montgomery Watt Islamic Philosophy and Theology (New Brunswick: Aldine Transaction 2009 [1962]) part four of which is entitled: “The Period of Darkness: 1250-1900.”


See for example George SalibaIslamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance (Boston: MIT Press2007).


See Kapil RajRelocating Modern Science: Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in South Asia and Europe 1650-1900 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan2007) which can be productively read with Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi Refashioning Iran: Orientalism Occidentalism and Historiography (New York: Palgrave MacMillan 2001). For a valuable examination of the role of trade and commerce in producing knowledge of the natural world see Harold Cook Matters of Exchange: Commerce Medicine and Science in the Dutch Golden Age (New Haven: Yale University Press 2007).


See Samer AkkachʿAbd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī: Islam and the Enlightenment (Oxford: Oneworld2007).


See Jacques BerqueAl-Youssi: Problèmes de la culture marocaine au XVIIème siècle (Paris: Mouton & Co.1958); Clifford Geertz Islam Observed (Chicago: Chicago University Press 1971) 29-35; ʿAbd al-Kabīr al-ʿAlawī al-Madgharī al-Faqīh Abū ʿAlī al-Yūsī (Rabat: Wizārat al-awqāf wa’l-shuʾūn al-islāmiyya 1989); Henry Munson Jr. Religion and Power in Morocco (New Haven Yale University Press 1993) 1-34; Kenneth Honerkamp “al-Ḥasan ibn Masʿūd al-Yūsī” in Essays in Arabic Literary Biography 1350-1850 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag 2009) 410-19. Munson provides a close reading of al-Yūsi’s letter to Moulay Ismāʿīl in Religion and Power in Morocco 27-31.


See especially Khaled El-Rouayheb“Sunni Muslim Scholars on the Status of Logic, 1500-1800,” Islamic Law and Society 11 (2004) 213-32and idem “Was there a Revival of Logical Studies in Eighteenth-Century Egypt?” Die Welt des Islams 45 (2005) 1-19.


See Justin Stearns“Writing the History of the Natural Sciences in the Pre-modern Muslim world: Historiography, Religion, and the Importance of the Early Modern Period,” History Compassv. 9 (2011) 923-51.


See al-YūsīFahrasat al-Yūsī (Casablanca: Dār al-Furqān2004) 121-3 126 139.


Al-Yūsīal-Qānūn (Rabat: Maṭbaʿat Shālat al-Ribāṭ1998) 146. Al-Yūsī defines philosophical knowledge as follows: “We say that knowledge is either desired for itself or for other than itself. The first of these is first philosophy (al-falsafa al-ʿūlā) the aim of which is the perfection of the rational animal and to attain the true meanings of things through exertion. It is either theoretical or practical. The first is either absolute and abstract (mujarrad ʿan al-mādda muṭlaqan) and it is knowledge of the divine (al-ʿilm al-ilahī) or it is only in the mind and this is mathematical knowledge (al-ʿilm al-riyāḍī ) or it is bound to matter and this is natural science (al-ʿilm al-ṭabiʿī). The second is related to a person’s self … and is called the politics of the self and ethics …” (Ibid.146). Only after completing a final draft of this article did I find a reference in a review article by Michael Brett to Jacques Berque’s discussion of this passage of al-Qānūn in his L’intérieur du Maghreb XVe-XIXe siècle (Paris: Gallimard 1978) 366-7. I hope to include Berque’s observations more fully in future work on al-Yūsī. See Michael Brett “Jacques Berque and the history of the Maghreb” The Maghreb Review 4 (1979) 140-8 here at 143.


Al-Yūsīal-Qānūn155. Strikingly al-Yūsī permits the study of magic (siḥr) though solely for the purpose of recognizing it and knowing how to protect oneself from it (Ibid. 161 cp. Fahrasat al-Yūsī 76). For earlier divisions of the sciences that al-Yūsī may well have been drawing on (although without acknowledgement) see Ibn Khaldun The Muqaddimah 3 vols. Franz Rosenthal trans. (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1958) v. 2 436 Aḥmad b. Muṣṭafā Tāshkubrīzādah Miftāḥ al-saʿāda wa misbāḥ al-siyāda fi mawḍūʿāt al-ʿulūm 4 vols (Cairo: Dār al-Kutub al-Ḥadītha 1968) 1: 371-5 and Ibn al-Akfānī Irshād al-qāṣid ilā asnā al-maqāṣid fī anwāʿ al-ʿulūm (Cairo: Dār al-Fikr al-ʿArabī 1990) 190. Contrast these with al-Farabi’s much earlier Iḥsāʾ al-ʿUlūm (Beirut: Dār wa Maktabat al-Hilāl 1996) 67-74. For overviews of the categorizations of the sciences in Islamicate thought see the sources given in Stearns “Writing the History of the Natural Sciences in the pre-modern Muslim world” 30-1. A useful discussion of al-sīmiyāʾ can be found in Pierre Lory La Science des Lettres en Islam (Paris: Éditions Dervy 2004) 37-44 but cp. Ibn Khaldun The Muqaddimahv. 3 171-227.






Al-Yūsīal-Qānūn177.See also al-Yūsī Fahrasat al-Yūsī 76.


See Khaled El-Rouayhab“Sunni Muslim Scholars on the Status of Logic 1500-1800” 223-4. Compare with al-Yūsī Ḥawāshī al-Yūsī ʿalā sharḥ kubrā al-Sanūsī 2 vols. (Casablanca: Maṭbaʿat Dār al-Furqān 2008/2012) v. 1 279-85.


See al-YūsīḤawāshī al-Yūsī ʿalā sharḥ kubrā al-Sanūsīv. 2 380.


See al-YūsīḤawāshī al-Yūsī ʿalā sharḥ kubrā al-Sanūsīv. 2 380-81.


See Sonja Brentjes“Courtly Patronage of the Ancient Sciences in Post-Classical Islamic Societies,” Al-Qantara 29 (2008) 403-36; eadem “Reflections on the Role of the Exact Sciences in Islamic Culture and Education between the Twelfth and the Fifteenth Centuries” 15-33 in Mohammed Abattouy (ed.) Études d’Histoire des Sciences Arabes (Casablanca: Fondation du Roi Abdul-Aziz 2007); eadem “Orthodoxy” Ancient Sciences Power and the Madrasa (“college”) in Ayyubid and early Mamluk Damascus (Berlin: Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte Preprint no. 77 1997).


Al-ḤudaygīṬabaqāt al-Ḥudaygīv. 1 307-09. On al-Rudānī see especially ʿAbdallāh b. Muḥammad al-ʿAyyāshī Riḥlat al-ʿAyyāshī 1661-1663 ed. Saʿīd al-Faḍlī and Sulaymān al-Qarshī 2 vols. (Abu Dhabi: Dār al-suwayd l’l-nashr wa’l-tawzīʿa) 2: 43-60. The treatise on the astrolabe he constructed was translated by Charles Pellat “L’astrolabe sphérique d’ar-Rūdānī” Bulletin d’études orientales 28 (1975) 83-165.


Tim Winter“Introduction,” in The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theologyed. Tim Winter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press2008) 1-18here at 5. See however Delfina Serrano “Later Ashʿarism in the Islamic West” in S. Schmidtke (ed.) Oxford Handbook of Islamic Theology (forthcoming). I am grateful to the author for sharing an advance copy of this chapter with me.


See Daniel GimaretThéories de l’acte humain en théologie musulmane (Paris: J. Vrin1980) 234. An exception to the trend of neglecting the importance of al-Sanūsī is Joseph P. Kenny “Muslim Theology as presented by M. b. Yūsuf as-Sanūsī especially in his Al-ʿAqīda al-wusṭā” Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh PhD Thesis 1970. See also the forthcoming chapter of Delfina Serrano cited above on later developments in Ashʿarism for a more developed contextualization of al-Sanūsī.


See Ibn Khaldūnal-Muqaddimahv. 3 52. See also Stearns Infectious Ideas 124 and Robert Wisnovsky “Philosophy and theology: Islam” in R. Pasnau ed. The Cambridge History of Medieval Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2010) 698-706


See especially Robert Wisnovsky“One Aspect of the Avicennian Turn in Sunni Theology,” Arabic Sciences and Philosophy 14 (2004) 65-100; Ayman Shihadeh “From al-Ghazālī to al-Rāzī: 6th/12th Century Developments in Muslim Philosophical Theology” Arabic Sciences and Philosophy 15 (2005) 141-79; Frank Griffel “Al-Ġazālī’s Concept of Prophecy: The Introduction of Avicennian Psychology into Aš‘arite Theology” Arabic Sciences and Philosophy 14 (2004) 141-79.


Wisnovsky“One Aspect of the Avicennian Turn” 100.


See GriffelAl-Ghazālī’s Philosophical Theology236-41. For an overview of the debate on al-Ghazālī and causality as well as a brief overview of the role of causality see the literature cited in Stearns Infectious Ideas 180-2. Griffel had already observed that our perception of the lack of influence of al-Ghazālī’s understanding of causality on his contemporaries may have much to do with many of the relevant sources remaining unedited or lost. See Griffel’s review of Rudolph and Perler’s Occasionalismus in ZDMG 152 (2002) 405-08.


AkkachLetters of a Sufi Scholar73. Al-Nābulusī identifies the passage as coming from the 292nd chapter of the Futuḥāt.


See Ibid.85-86. The example given here is that of Q41:11.


See Ibid.100. This metaphor is confusing for it assumes that the lord’s men do not themselves have free will and are not responsible for their actions. Al-Sanūsī uses a similar metaphor when trying to explain causality. See Stearns Infectious Ideas 128-29 and Barry Kogan’s discussion of al-Ghazālī use of a a metaphor of this kind (Kogan Averroes and the Metaphysics of Causation90).


AkkachʿAbd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī88.


Al-YūsīMashrab al-ʿāmm wa’l-khāṣṣ1: 434. I am grateful to the first anonymous reviewer for his suggestions on how to translate this passage. In passing it is worth noting that al-Yūsī expressly rejects emanationism as it violates God’s status as the only necessary existent and the active creator of everything (See al-Yūsī al-Qānūn 147).


Al-YūsīMashrab al-ʿāmm wa’l-khāṣṣ1: 448-9. Compare with Ibid. 1: 463-4.


See Al-YūsīMashrab al-ʿāmm wa’l-khāṣṣv. 2 97-99.




See Aḥmad ZarrūqSharḥ Ḥikam Ibn ʿAṭāʾallāh (Cairo: Dār al-Shaʿb1969) 469. The quote from Zarrūq referred to the following passage presumably describing the spiritual state of the masses who fail to recognize God being the only Actor (in Victor Danner’s English translation): “He sees generosity as coming from mankind and does not contemplate it as coming from the Lord of the Universe either out of conviction in which case his associationism is evident or else out of dependence in which case his associationism is hidden.” (Ibn ʿAṭaʾāllah The Book of Wisdom/Khwaja Abdullah Ansari Intimate Conversations [trans. Victor Danner and Wheeler M. Thackston] (New York: Paulist Press 1978) 114). Compare with the French translation in Paul Nwyia Ibn ʿAṭaʾAllāh (m. 709/1309) et la naissance de la confrerie šāḏilite (Beirut: Dar El-Machreq 1971) 196-97. The Ḥikam was frequently commented on but Zarrūq’s reference to ḥikma (wisdom) in his commentary on this verse is not paralleled in Ibn ʿAbbād al-Rūndī’s (d. 792/1390) earlier gloss (Ibn ʿAbbād al-Rūndī Ghayth al-mawāhib al-ʿalīya fī sharḥ al-ḥikam al-aṭʿiyya 2 vols. (Cairo: Dār al-Kutub al-Ḥadītha 1970) 2: 208 though it is given extensive discussion in the century after al-Yūsī by Aḥmad Ibn ʿAjība (d. 1224/1809) in his Iqāẓ al-himam fī sharḥ al-ḥikam maʿ al-futuḥāt al-ilāhiyya fī sharḥ al-mabāḥith al-aṣliyya (S.l. Dar al-Fikr N.D.) 385-9. For al-Yūsī’s familiarity with Zarrūq’s commentary see al-Yūsī Fahrasat al-Yūsī 140. I am grateful to Khaled El-Rouayheb for suggesting that I look at the commentaries on the work of Ibn ʿAṭāʾallāh.

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