The Many Faces of a Muhandis

I always understood the Arabic word هندسة (handasa) to mean ‘geometry’, because I first came across it in an Al-Biruni text where he more or less defines it as such:

Al-Biruni defines al-handasaAl-handasah: Geometry is the science of dimensions and their relations to each other and the knowledge of the properties of the forms and figures found in solids. By it the science of numbers is transferred from the particular to the universal, and astronomy removed from conjecture and opinion to a basis of truth. (trans. R. Ramsay Wright)

Now while Wright renders handasa as “geometry” – and Al-Biruni’s definition certainly matches up with how we define the English word – if you look up handasa in an Arabic-English dictionary, it is rendered as “engineering”. And if you look up the Arabic for “geometry”, you get علم الهندسة (ilm al-handasa, “the science/knowledge of handasa“).)

What inspired this little investigation was a recent reminder that the Arabic word for engineer is مهندس (muhandis)/ fem. مهندسة (muhandisa), which is an agentive form based on the same root as handasa (teaching : teacher :: handasa : muhandis). Which implies that one could also render muhandis as “geometrician” – a master of geometrical knowledge rather than one who puts that knowledge into practice. (According to Merriam-Webster, the word “geometrician” – along with synonyms “geometer” and “geometrist” – actually exist in English, and the first two were in use in the 15th century.)

The fact remains that while fluency in geometry remains necessary for most (non-computer) engineering, English has kept the mathematical knowledge conceptually separate from the ability to apply it. Etymologically, “geometry” is about measuring the world while “engineering” is about ingenious uses of knowledge. Even then, “engineering” only covers certain uses. Artists are not considered engineers – even if their work makes considerable and/or inventive use of geometry (or any other kind of mathematics) – unless they have, in addition to their artwork, demonstrated a use of mathematics for non-aesthetic functions. (We don’t consider Da Vinci an engineer for his innovations in rendering light and perspective in painting, but for his schematics of flying machines and tank prototypes.)

This goes to show that engineering is not the only application implied by geometry. Which brings me to wonder: if geometry is “the science of handasa” – the “theory behind it” or the “knowledge that informs it” – then what, exactly, is handasa? I think it is (or at least was) more than what is encompassed by the modern English definition of “engineering”. Especially when you consider that Islamic art is so heavily centred on geometry. Perhaps it has something to do with why aesthetics were given considerable weight in the design of Islamicate astrolabes, well past the point that is necessary for carrying out the calculation functions.

I don’t have enough sensitivity to the language to speak for modern Arabic thought, and in any case I’m certain that recent developments (advances in science and technology, Western cultural influences, etc) have had an effect on how people think of these concepts and use these words. But there are implications that, historically, engineering and art (or at least some things that we would call “art” but not consider “engineering”) were indeed considered different shades of the same idea. I’m not sure how far into the Islamicate world this extended, but I think a case for it could be made in Persia (where Al-Biruni was from, even though he wrote in Arabic).

Persian literature abounds with examples. Consider this description by 12th century Nizami) in his Khosrow and Shirin:
[…] the painter recalled one Farhad, a youth of great skill and cleverness, who had studied with Shapur in China, under the same drawing master [as himself]. Now Farhad had mastered the works of Euclid on geometry and the treatise of Ptolemy on the stars, but his accomplishments in engineering and sculpture were even greater. So deftly did he carve as to make even the most obdurate stone sing with joy as he chipped it with his chisel.

This is not even a direct translation, but an abridged adaptation of the original text. I expect the original goes into greater detail, something like these lines of the 14th-century poet Jami (describing a similar character in his Yusuf and Zulaykha):

From his hand’s every finger, a hundred arts and more!
Accomplished in every architect’s rule,
A guide in astronomy’s laws
His figuration made easy the Almagest’s toil
And his doubt might cause Euclid to fear;
If his grip lacked a compass,
He traced his work with two fingers;
When he wished a line’s mark, of a sudden,
From his innermost nature, drew he straight – and without ruled paper!
He might leap as far as the satin-dark arch
And fix corbelations upon Saturn’s own vault!
When his hand took a turn to the chisel,
The very stone turned softer than rawest wet brick;
When he set his mind on to design,
Lovely traces in thousands sprang up there in tendrils

(trans. Michael Barry, from Figural Art in Medieval Islam)

Both of these characters are described primarily as skilled artists and astronomers, with an emphasis on the wondrous beauty of their work – yet within their respective stories, their role is to accomplish feats of engineering: the latter designs a fantastical palace, while Farhad devises a road through a mountain and (pictured below) a plumbing system to supply a palace with milk.
Khosrow inspects Farhad's milk plumbing system(image from Wikipedia)

So what did it really mean to be a muhandis back then? And what does all of this tell us about the significance of and relationships between geometry, art, and engineering in that world?

Mathematical Relationships

Diagram from Al-Biruni manuscript.
Al-Biruni (10th/11th century) illustrates diameters and radii, chords and sagittas.

The fact that my work on astrolabes emphasises their artistic, symbolic, spiritual and sociopolitical aspects leads some people to assume that I have little regard for the mathematics, astronomy, geography and engineering behind them. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Even as I am interested in astrolabes as art, to properly explore this requires me to learn how astrolabes work. I have found, for instance, that the significance of some astrolabe decoration pertains to the role of particular components in carrying out the scientific functions. Also, a great part of the beauty of astrolabes lies in the elegant solution they offer to the problem of representing the universe (a) in a portable device, (b) in such a way that mathematical relationships between the celestial bodies represented are preserved accurately.

Right now I am working my way through a manuscript of Al-Biruni – two-thirds of which is straight-up mathematics and astronomy – and so far astrolabes aren’t even on my mind as I read. I’m just enjoying the revisitation of geometry (which comprises the first major section of the book); it’s fascinating to see how the presentation of concepts is so different from how I learned it at school. I’m even learning some things I was never taught before. And I’m really looking forward to how he presents astronomy later on!

It says something about how we categorise and value things, that my interest in the artistic and symbolic should imply a disinterest in maths and science. It speaks to the way that modern culture has set up art, science and spirituality in opposition to each other. But this opposition wasn’t always the case – and my interest in astrolabes, especially as they were conceived in the premodern Islamic world, is precisely because they demonstrate that these things can work together. With beautiful results.