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The Manuscript of al-Malik al-Afdalal-'Abbâs b. 'Alî b. Dâ'ûd b. Yûsuf b.'Umar b. 'Alî ibn Rasûl; A Medieval Anthology from theYemen, edited with an introduction by Daniel Martin Varisco andG. Rex Smith, Aris & Phillips Ltd, Warminster, Wiltshire, U.K.,for the E.J.W. Gibb Memorial Trust, 1998. 27 + 542 pp.

Reviewed by David A. King
Institute for the History of Science
Johann Wolfgang Goethe University
Frankfurt am Main, Germany

The Rasulid Sultan al-Afḍal (d. 1377) was a cultured man, interested in many aspects of the world around him and its history. He is known to have compiled a dozen or so works, mainly on history but also on agriculture, medicine, astronomy and magic, only half of which are known to have survived. By way of compensation for historians of the Yemen, there has been preserved for us an anthology by an unidentified copyist (possibly one of his recent ancestors?) dealing with all manner of subjects, which was once inhis possession, for it includes notes in his own hand written the year before he died.


No amount of praise is adequate for the copyist and for al-Afdal; for its present owner, who had the foresight to make it available for a facsimile edition; and the two editors, who recognized its potential value for future research. Inspired and encouraged by the late Professor Robert Bertram Serjeant, to whose memory the volume is dedicated, the last two mentioned valiantly acquired photographs of the whole manuscript with over 540 pages, and ordered them in an entirely sensible fashion, now paginated. They also included a brief introduction to the Rasulids, on whom Rex Smith is the expert outside the Yemeni world, and to al-Afdal, as well as providing a most useful table of contents for the manuscript in 15 pages. Their goal was achieved in making this remarkable historical document available to a wider public.

It is almost five years since that facsimile of al-Afḍal's Anthology was published. How dare a reviewer delay so long to write a review of a pair of colleagues and friends? The reason is simple: what Dan Varisco hoped I would produce was a detailed overview of the extensive sections of the anthology dealing with astronomy, astronomical instruments and astrology. This, alas,is still not forthcoming. Rather, what I shall do is simply to repeat the gist of what I wrote some 20 years ago on the astronomical content of this manuscript, adding a few bibliographical references to point to some more recent research on Yemeni astronomy in general, that is, not just on this manuscript. It would be inappropriate not to mention various studies of other parts of al-Afḍal's Anthology that have appeared since the publication of the facsimile: these include The King's Dictionary. The Rasulid Hexaglot: Fourteenth Century Vocabularies in Arabic, Persian, Turkic, Greek, Armenian and Mongol (Leiden: Brill, 2000), edited by Peter B. Golden; and D.M. Varisco's, "Agriculture in Rasulid Zabid." (Journal of Semitic Studies, Supplement 14. Studies on Arabia in Honour of ProfessorG. Rex Smith, edited by J. F. Healey and V. Porter, 323-351,Oxford:Oxford University Press, 2002.)

My first encounter with al-Afḍal's manuscript was in 1970-71 at the American University of Beirut, where I had the pleasure of studying Ancient South Arabian with Professor Mahmoud Ghul. I was conducting research for my doctoral dissertation on the works of the Fatimid astronomer Ibn Yūnus and happened to mention to Prof. Ghul that I had found that some of the Egyptian scholar's works had been known in the Yemen, whereupon he allowed me to make a copy of his microfilm of al-Afḍal's Anthology. It was thus as a result of his kindness that I was able to include an overview of the astronomical contents in my book on Yemeni astronomy that was published some 10 years later (Mathematical Astronomy in theMedieval Yemen, 1983, hereafter abbreviated MAY). I also analysed some of the tables in that manuscript that related to timekeeping, but only now, 30 years later, are those descriptions finally being published (Studies in Astronomical Timekeeping in Medieval Islam, in press, hereafter SATMI).

Overviews of the two traditions of Islamic astronomy, the first as practiced by the astronomers of medieval Islam and the second, non-mathematical folk astronomy, as practiced by the legal scholars, are to be found in King, "Islamic Astronomy", and Varisco, "Islamic Folk Astronomy" in The History of Non-Western Astronomy: Astronomy Across Cultures, edited by Helaine Selin (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000). Recently, not least to provide the article "ZĪDJ" in the new edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam (EI2), I have,together with Julio Samsó, prepared an overview of Islamic tables and astronomical handbooks, including the most important Yemeni examples. This research is being continued by Benno van Dalen; for further information see his "Website".

I concluded my first description 20 years ago with words that are still valid:


"A more detailed description of the contents of this manuscript would obviously be worthwhile, but the need for investigations of the works of al-Marrākushī, the Egyptian Mustalaḥ Zīj, and the Yemeni Muẓaffarī and Mukhtār Zījes, is more urgent."

In my 1983 book, I identified two Yemeni ephemerides (taqwīm, pl. taqāwīm) for the years 727 H [= 1326/27] and 808 H [= 1405/06], unique of their genre (MAY, nos. 11 and 22). We have only fragments of similar works preserved in a citation by al-Bīrūnī and leaves from the Cairo Geniza.

  • A detailed investigation of these ephemerides is in preparation as a doctoral thesis by Michael Hofelich of Frankfurt: see already his article "TAKWīM" in EI2.

I also pointed to the importance of certain early Yemeni works on folk astronomy for our understanding of aspects of Islamic ritual. We note the following more recent and other imminent publications:

  • An analysis of the Yemeni materials on timekeeping by arithmetical and other simple shadow-schemes: see King, "Shadow-Schemes."

  • The agricultural almanac of al-Afḍal has been published with a detailed commentary: see Varisco, Yemeni Almanac.

  • A study of a text by the mid-13th-century scholar Muhammad ibn Abī Bakr al-Fārisī of Aden (MAY, no. 6.1) on the astronomical orientation of the Ka'ba: see now King with Gerald Hawkins, repr. in King, Studies, C-XII).

  • The materials on sacred geography; the notion of the world divided into sectors about the Ka'ba at the centre; in Yemeni sources, in particular a reconstruction of three schemes proposed by the Yemeni faqīh, Muhammad ibn Surāqa, ca. 1000 (see MAY, p. 21); have been analysed together with similar materials from other regions. See King, Sacred Geography, as yet unpublished, with a summary in the article "MAKKA. iv. As centre of the world" in EI2, repr. in King, Studies, C-X.

  • A detailed study of the materials relating to the prayer-times and the qibla in the treatises on folk astronomy of Ibn Raḥīq (Mecca, 11th (?) century), al-Aṣbahī (Janad, 13th century) and al-Fārisī (Aden, 13th century) (MAY, nos. 2.1, 5.1 and 6.1) has been virtually completed. See Schmidl, Thesis, and also eadem, "Qibla und Winde".

Some non-Yemeni materials on mathematical astronomy preserved in Yemeni sources have also been studied:

  • A list of 13 observations made in Qūs and Alexandria reported in the zīj of the 13th-century Yemeni astronomer Muḥammad ibn Abī Bakr al-Kawāshī (MAY, no. 7): see now King with Owen Gingerich, repr. in King, Studies, A-VII.

  • The mathematical structure and the mode of compilation of a highly-sophisticated lunar table has been explained with the help of another table preserved in the Anthology and a remark by al-Afḍal on its provenance (see King, Studies, A-V).

Considerable research has been conducted in recent years on astronomical instrumentation (see King, "Instrument Website"). In particular, progress has been made on the history of astronomical instrumentation in the Yemen. One astrolabe made by the Sultan al-Ashraf (MAY, no. 8) in 690 H [= 1291] has been preserved for us and is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Also, his treatise on the construction of astrolabes, sundials, and the magnetic compass has been studied further.

  • A detailed description of al-Ashraf's astrolabe, also drawing on his treatise on instrumentation, has been published: see King, Studies, B-II.

  • Another Yemeni astrolabe, also of Rasulid provenance but undated and unsigned, has been identified in a collection at Harvard University. A description has been made but is not yet published.

  • Al-Ashraf's treatise also contains the earliest description of a magnetic compass bowl in which the needle floats on water or some liquid. His text, together with a contemporaneous text from Cairo on a dry compass, is now published: see Schmidl, "Compass".

In conclusion, much has been done on the history of Yemeni astronomy in the past 30 years, but not enough. There is still much more to be done, but the field is vast and the number of workers few indeed. Al-Afḍal and his modern editors have contributed substantially to our endeavours.

The following is a brief account of the astronomical contents of the Anthology [expanded from MAY,p. 37, ad al-Afḍal (no. 18)]:

  1. There are numerous passages and tables taken from the Kitāb al-Mabādi' wa-'l-ghāyāt fī 'ilm al-mīqāt, "An A to Z of Astronomical Timekeeping", by the late-13th-century Cairo astronomer Abū ‘Alī al-Marrākushī (see now my article "al-Marrākushī" in EI2). This important work is now available in facsimile edition (Frankfurt), in addition to the well-known studies of the Sédillots père et fils from the 19th century (repr. Frankfurt). It still awaits detailed study, but it has been exploited in the study of a later Egyptian work by Najm al-Dīn al-Miṣrī in Charette, Mathematical Instrumentation.

  2. There are various tables taken from the Mustalaḥ Zīj, which was the most-widely used zīj in Mamluk Cairo, but which alas does not survive in its original form (King & Samsó, "Islamic Astronomical Tables", p. 50). On one of these see further below.

  3. There are some tables taken from the extensive corpus of tables for timekeeping by the sun and the stars entitled Mir'āt al-zamān and compiled ca. 1300 for the latitude of Ta'izz by Abū 'l-‘Uqūl (MAY, no. 9). The tables in this corpus are now analysed in King, SATMI, I-2.1.2, etc., and II-12.1. Furthermore, more information on the elusive author has been discovered (see Varisco, Yemeni Almanac, p. 13): he is Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Ṭabarī, the first teacher appointed by the Sultan al-Mu'ayyad to his new madrasa in Ta'izz.

  4. Some geographical tables attributed to the late-12th-century Syrian astronomer Ibn al-Daḥḥān are all that survives from that author. See now King, SATMI, II-9.1.

  5. Some tables are attributed to Ibn al-Mushrif (MAY, no. 12), who may be identical with a 14th-century Egyptian astronomer with that name. See further King, SATMI, I-9.8, etc., and II-6.15.

  6. Some planetary tables are stated to be from the Kitāb al-Shams al-Ḥarīrī, presumably a zīj by one Shams al-Dīn al-Ḥarīrī, otherwise unknown and not yet identified.

  7. Other tables are taken from the Yemeni Muẓaffarī Zīj of al-Fārisī (see King, MAY, no. 6.3, and King & Samsó, "Islamic Astronomical Tables", p. 52).

  8. Other tables are taken from the Iranian Īlkhānī Zīj of Naṣir al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī (see King & Samsó, "Islamic Astronomical Tables", p. 46).

  9. An almanac displaying various spherical astronomical functions for each day of the solar year is introduced in the name of al-Afḍal himself but the same almanac occurs in the Berlin manuscript of the Mir'āt al-zamān of Abū 'l-‘Uqūl (see above). Information is available in Varisco, Yemeni Almanac.

  10. A short treatise of one page attributed to al-Afḍal deals with a celestial sphere that he made in 776 H [= 1374]. Alas, all other traces of this instrument have disappeared and it is not mentioned in Savage-Smith, Islamic Globes.

  11. A table displaying the solar longitude for each day of the year is stated to have been compiled by al-Afḍal in 777 H [= 1375/76].

  12. A short treatise on the astrolabe is attributed to the Rasulid Sultan al-Mu'ayyad (MAY, no. 10); this is not known from other sources.

Bibliography and bibliographical abbreviations

al-Afdal, Anthology

= the work under "review".

Charette, François, Mathematical Instrumentation

Mathematical Instrumentation in 14th-Century Egypt and Syria, (doctoral dissertation, Frankfurt, 2002) in press with E. J. Brill of Leiden.


The Encyclopaedia of Islam, new edn., Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1960 to present.

Hofelich, Michael, Thesis

Ephemerides from Medieval Yemen, doctoral dissertation, Frankfurt University, in preparation.

King, David A.

"Instrument Website" =

"Islamic Astronomy" = ""Islamic Astronomy", in H. Selin, ed., Astrononomy across Cultures (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2000)

MAY = Mathematical Astronomy in the Medieval Yemen, Malibu, Ca.: Undena, 1983.

Sacred Geography = The Sacred Geography of Islam, to be submitted to E. J. Brill. [For a summary, see the article "MAKKA. iv. As centre of the world" in EI2.]

"Shadow-Schemes" = "A Survey of Medieval Islamic Shadow Schemes for Simple Timereckoning", Oriens 32 (1990), pp. 191-249. [A new version is in SATMI, III.]

Studies, A-C = Islamic Mathematical Astronomy, London: Variorum, 1986, 2nd rev. edn., Aldershot: Variorum, 1993 (A);


Islamic Astronomical Instruments, London: Variorum, 1987, repr. Aldershot: Variorum, 1995 (B);

Astronomy in the Service of Islam, Aldershot: Variorum, 1993 (C).

SATMI = Studies in Astronomical Timekeeping in Medieval Islam, 12 pts., Leiden: E.J. Brill, in press. [For a summary see the article "MīKāT. ii. Astronomical Aspects" in EI2.]

King & Julio Samsó, "Islamic Astronomical Tables"

= "Astronomical Handbooks and Tables from the Islamic World (750-1900): An Interim Report", Suhayl; Journal for the History of the Exact and Natural Sciences in Islamic Civilisation (Barcelona) 2 (2001), pp. 9-105. [A summary is in the article "ZīDJ" in EI2.]

Savage-Smith, Emilie, Islamic Globes

= Islamicate Celestial Globes -- Their History, Construction, and Use, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985.

Schmidl, Petra,

"Compass" = "Two Early Arabic Sources on the Magnetic Compass", Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies 1 (1996-97), pp. 81-132. [Electronic journal accessible on the Internet via]

"Qibla und Winde" = "Zur Bestimmung der Qibla mittels der Winde", in Peter Eisenhardt et al., eds., Der Weg der Wahrheit; Aufsätze zur Einheit der Wissenúschaftsúgeschichte; Festgabe zum 60. Geburtstag von Walter G. Saltzer, Hildesheim: Olms, 1999, pp. 135-146.

Thesis = Volksastronomische Abhandlungen aus dem mittelalterlichen arabisch-islamischen Kulturraum, doctoral dissertation, Frankfurt University, 2003.

Selin, H. ed., Astrononomy across Cultures

The History of Non-Western Astronomy: Astronomy Across Cultures, Helaine Selin, ed., Dordrecht, etc.: Kluwer, 2000.

van Dalen, Benno, "Website"

Varisco, Daniel M.

"Islamic Folk Astronomy" = "Islamic Folk Astronomy", in H. Selin, ed., Astronomy across Cultures, pp. 615-650.

Studies = Medieval Folk Astronomy and Agriculture in Arabia and the Yemen, (Variorum Collected Studies Series: CS585), Aldershot & Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate-Variorum, 1997.

Varisco, Yemeni Almanac

= Medieval Agriculture and Islamic Science: The Almanac of a Yemeni Sultan, Seattle, Wa.: University of Washingúton Press, 1993.

Varisco & Smith, eds., al-Afḍal's Anthology

= the work under review.

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