Seeing History Through Manuscripts

February 4, 2013—Although commentary and criticism can become the bulk of academic life, Associate Professor Emma Gannagé works to let manuscripts speak for themselves.

A professor in the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies, Gannagé’s research and teaching focus on Classical Arabic philosophy. “In working on the medieval transmission of Greek philosophy into Arabic, my work has focused on the transmission of ideas across time and culture,” she said. Understanding this transmission of knowledge involves two steps: the translation from Greek into Arabic and “the transformation of concepts through reception.”

Gannagé has studied how Arab philosophers received the ideas of Aristotle and others, and what happened after that transfer of information. “What the Arabs did was not just receiving and transmitting. There was a creative work, which is very interesting,” she continued. Arab philosophers raised new philosophical issues and questions as they learned “how to adapt [Greek philosophy], justify it, and make sense of it within Islamic civilization.”

During her research, Gannagé recovered extant fragments of Greek philosopher Alexander of Aphrodisias’ commentary on Aristotle’s On Generation and Corruption. Alexander’s commentary was thought to be lost in both Greek and Arabic. She uncovered portions of the text in Arabic in a 10th-century alchemical treatise by Jābir ibn Hayyān. “The textual important of these recovered fragments for the history of philosophy cannot be overstated,” she explained.

“At the same time, their textual situation—within a technical treatise on alchemy—casts bright light onto the workings of the alchemists’ research and their exposure to Greek science and philosophy,” she said.

This process of working directly with manuscripts led Gannagé to her current area of research, “the relationship between medicine and philosophy in the Arabo-Islamic tradition.” In the Middle Ages, medicine was subordinate to the science of physics and based on the four humors, blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm. Gannagé is exploring the work of Ya‘qūb b. Ishāq al-Isrā’īlī al-Mahallī—a Jewish physician who lived in Cairo and Damascus at the turn of the 13th century—and “the emergence of a theoretical medical epistemology.”

“Ya‘qūb b. Ishāq’s corpus reveals a deliberate project of theorization—one that jeopardizes the radical separation, which has been often highlighted in the case of Arabic medicine, between medicine as a practical art and medical theory,” she explained.

Gannagé finds studying such manuscripts to be humbling and sometimes difficult. “This kind of work brings with it humbling reminders about the necessity to revisit our preconceptions and received forms of knowledge,” she said. “You really learn how to let the text speak and not you. The text always has much more to say than you do.”

As a professor, Gannagé introduces primary sources to students in both her undergraduate and graduate courses. “Even in a survey course like Introduction to Islamic Civilization, in each class we have a primary source to discuss,” she said. Gannagé explains what has been written about the source and then lets students read for themselves. “It gives them a first-hand insight into the culture.”

Not only does Gannagé enjoy working with manuscripts, she sees the immediate need for formal, published editions in her field. “With time I came to understand that my interest in textual construction and analysis stemmed from a profound sense of urgency driven by the realization that much, if not most, of the materials related to Islamic philosophy and science still lurks in manuscript form in libraries all over the world,” she explained.

Those manuscripts may just seem like writings and commentaries on philosophy, physics, medicine, and alchemy, but to Gannagé they form the history of Islamic philosophy and science.

“When edited and published, those manuscripts will certainly force us to rewrite the history of Islamic civilization and thus arrive at a completely different picture from the one we have now.”

—Elizabeth Wilson