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Islam and the Classical Heritage

August 25, 2018–January 27, 2019

 Legion of Honor

Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

Logan Gallery of Illustrated Books



From the story of Alexander the Great — known as Iskandar in the Islamic tradition — to the insights of the Greek sciences, this exhibition of manuscripts drawn from the National Library of Israel’s special collection explores the transformation of the classical past into the Islamic world. Representing heroes such as Alexander and other historic notables, including Aristotle and the second-century CE scientist Ptolemy, it features works created in Iran, India, Turkey, Spain, and Italy from the fourteenth through nineteenth centuries.


The story of Islam’s interest in the classical cultural heritage begins with an unprecedented translation movement after the Abbasid dynasty’s victory over the earlier Umayyad caliphate in 750. Under the Abbasids (750–1258), many classical Greek sources—on medicine, mathematics, astronomy, astrology, and philosophy, as well as tales and popular literature—were rendered into Arabic. Through their intellectual efforts, scientists and scholars in the Islamic world created a culture that was free to challenge as well as elaborate on the ancient sources. Subsequent Islamic scholars corrected, synthesized, and commented on earlier works that, in turn, served to bring the classical heritage into Hebrew, Latin, and then modern European languages.


Islam and the Classical Heritage brings a larger awareness to how Islamic authors, philosophers, and scientists spread and transformed classical knowledge. It reveals the prominence of science in Islamic culture and society. It illustrates, for example, how mathematicians of the Islamic world first introduced the concept of algebra (al-jabr), which greatly enhanced the study of arithmetic. The installation includes a commentary on the works of al-Khwarizmi (780–850), which drew from earlier Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, Indian, and Chinese mathematics.


The catalyst for the formation of this special collection was the scholar and manuscript collector Abraham Shalom Yahuda, who in 1924 donated the vast majority of the Islamic manuscripts now in the collection of the NLI. One manuscript  in the exhibition that represents its exceptional Judaica collection is a fourteenth-century compendium of Hebrew translations of the Arabic versions of several Aristotelian treatises and commentary. Hebrew translations like this served as the source for many of the first Latin renderings of classical Greek texts in late medieval Europe.


Islam and the Classical Heritage is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in collaboration with the National Library of Israel.





Khamsa, Nushabah shows Iskandar his portrait, Nizami Ganjavi (1141–1209); Copyist: Unknown; Language: Persian

Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paper, Kashmir, 1798, Ms. Yah. Ar. 1019


In this tale of Iskandar’s visit to the realm of Queen Nushabah, he is recognized under his disguise by the queen, who shows him a portrait of himself. Nushabah, on the right, knees while Iskandar is seated on a raised couch and holds the painting. Ten female courtiers are in attendance. In the background, an open doorway gives access to a garden.


Nizami locates the imaginary kingdom of Barda near Ganja, his hometown, in what is now Azerbaijan. The queen’s name, Nushabah, or “Water of Life,” is a clear nod to Iskandar’s quest for immortality, and she is presented in the story as the embodiment of the ideal sovereign, a noble character possessing khirad, inborn wisdom.




Revision of “The Book of Optics for Those Possessing Sight and Insight” by Ibn al-Haytham (965–1040) (Tanqih al-manazir li-dhawi al-absar wa-l-basa᾿ir), Diagram of the eyes, Kamal al-Din al-Farisi (1260–ca. 1320); Copyist: Abd al-Rahman ibn, Ali ibn Mu'ayyad; Language: Persian, Ink on paper, Ottoman Turkey, 1511, Ms. Yah. Ar. 384


Al-Farisi, a scientist and leading thinker of the fourteenth century, was an intellectual heir of Nasir al-Din Tusi. Farisi's most important work is an expansive revision of Ibn al-Haytham's magisterial work on optics, including new theories on the rainbow and the camera obscura. The Tanqih particularly focused on the study of reflection and refraction, a field that indirectly benefited new research on the theory of sight and, consequently, ophthalmology. While this treatise is not devoted to ophthalmology per se, al-Farisi dedicates a section to the description of the anatomy and physiology of the eye. This illustration shows a schematic drawing of how light enters and is refracted in the eye.