Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
QUEST FOR KNOWLEDGE IN ANCIENT IRAN
from Persian: Faramarz Amjadi
Zarathushtra's Gathas has influenced the quest for knowledge and science in Iran during
her entire history. Gathas is the "philosophy of life". One of
Gathas' versus says: "where there is knowledge, there can be no
Let's find out what the status of science was in ancient Iran. There are
many scholars who ask whether scientists of "Farabi" and
"Abu Ali Sina's" caliber ever lived in pre-Islamic Iran. If
yes, what has happened to their books? Professor Fazlollah Reza, has
written in an article that - he does not find an Iranian equivalent of
"Oghlidous" or "Apollonius" in geometry. He even
doubts the existence of science and technology in ancient Iran. I am going
to have a brief review of Iranian ancient history to show the extent of
Iranian pre-Islamic knowledge and to talk about Iranian scientists of that
I can proudly claim that we Iranians have used the solar calendar ever
since we reckoned the need to keep track of our days. While even today
there are many communities that use a lunar calendar despite the fact that
urban and agricultural societies need a solar calendar to be able to
function scientifically. Even Umar Khayam has cited that he has used
ancient sources for designing his "Jalali Calendar". Which is a
more accurate solar calendar than the "Gregory Calendar" which
was designed 200 years after the "Jalali Calendar". The
"Gregory Calendar" is the basis of today's Christian calendar
and its margin of error is 3 days every ten thousand years. The margin of
error for Khayam's "Jalali Calendar is two days every ten thousand
years. Although Khayam has not specifically named his sources he has
mentioned that his calendar has the same base as the missing Sasanian's
calendar "Zeeg e Shahriar" (meaning King's Chart). In the post-Sasanian literature, there is one other reference to
Shahriar". "Abu Rayhan-e Biruni" in his "Aasaar ul-Baghieh" quotes two sentences from it. Therefore, "Zeeg e
Shahriar" existed at that time and was available to "Biruni"
from which he has quoted, but it is missing now.
Here is why these sources vanished. When Arab's invaded Iran, they
massacred Iranians and confiscated their belongings. All Iranian cities
were looted repeatedly. To explain the extent of devastation; I will
mention what happened to two Iranian cities.
The first city was "Sistan" and the story is from "Taarikh
e Sistan" (meaning History of Sistan, the author is unknown, it was
written in the year 400 of Islamic Lunar calendar). In an open field in
front of the city's gates bodies of the dead was piled up like a hill. The
commander of the conquering Arab army climbed to the top of this hill and
ordered the leader of the city to come forward. An elderly man in a white
dress showed up, he looked at Arab commander standing on the dead bodies
and shouted at the commander "By God I have finally seen Satan".
In the same book it says that despite the sorrow and anguish in the city,
a traveller passing by, invited the inhabitants to rejoice because it was
"Nourooz" (Iranian new-year).
"Kharazm" was another city conquered by the Arabs. On the second
day of his victory, "Ghotaibeh" the Arab commander addressed the
population in an open field asking them to present 4000 educated people
from among themselves. Then he ordered them to form 4 groups of 1000 each
and line up on each side of where he was standing and then beheaded all of
them. (Many years later Gengiz Khan and Timur Khan requested the same
formation but banished the educated people). He banned people from
speaking Farsi ordering his soldiers to cut off the tongue of anyone who
dared to speak Farsi. That is how people of "Kharazm" stopped
speaking Farsi and forgot their own mother tongue after a few years. That
is why today there is no trace of the "Kharazmi" dialect except
for a few words. That is how the popular "Kharazmi" dialect
vanished. That is why in Arabic Iranian people are called "Ajam",
meaning mute. These massacres were one of the reasons that Iranian books
and resources vanished.
"Taaher e Zolyaminain" was an Iranian commander who helped the
"Abbaasian's" dynasty in taking power. He sent his nephew to
rule "Kerman" and collect "Jaazieh" (poll-tax), that
every non-Muslim citizen must pay to the Muslim rule. This nephew
ordered people to bring their ancient books as "Jaazieh". People
were warned of severe retribution; they had to present books to the tax
collector. So from their collection of books they tried to save at most
their religious book "Avesta". Instead they sacrificed
mathematics and philosophy books to save their lives and the lives of
their children. That is how our scientific resources were destroyed.
Another example is the city of "Kazeroun" the birthplace of
"Salman e Parsi". The Prophet Mohammed promised "Salman"
that his city and its citizens will have immunity in a war and will be
spared. Yet, the newly converted conqueror of "Kazeroun" ordered
to behead one thousand non-Muslims everyday. What do you think was the
population of Kazeroun that every day a thousand were beheaded? That is
how along with its population Iranian books and references also vanished.
After the third Islamic century, traces of the remaining Iranian books
were found in the greater "Khorasaan" area, which was less
affected by the Arab domination. From that time on, the Iranians started
to revive their ancient knowledge. Very many of the great Iranian
scientists and philosophers such as "Abou Reyhan e Beerooni",
"Abou Ali Sina", "Khayam", "Khaajeh Naseereddin e
Toosi", "Aboulvafaa ye Boozjaani", and others who were born
in "Khorasaan" after the third century were instrumental in the
"Aboulvafa ye Boozjaani" was a top mathematician and was born in
"Boozjaan - Khorasaan" some 1100 years ago. He learnt the basic
sciences from his uncles, became famous, and later on moved to "Baghdaad".
"Boozjaan was ruined and now on its place the city of "Tourbat e
Jaam" is built. I visited "Tourbat e Jaam" last year. Its
population is poor and uneducated. Did "Aboulvafaa's" uncles
teach him Greek sciences? No, they used their Iranian resources. Iranians
were tormented but they treasured their culture generation after
"Maahaani" is another example of Iranian scientists. He was born
in "Maahaan", which is a township close to "Kerman",
some 110 years ago. He got his education in "Maahaan", became
famous, and was summoned to "Baghdaad". "Fazl e Neirizi"
who is from "Neiriz ? Fars" is another example. He was another
great mathematician who was taken to "Baghdad".
These all indicate that Iranians treasured their culture within their
families for along time. I believe that people like "Abou Reyhan"
and "Ebn e Sina" and others tried hard to adopt Islam with
philosophy. But "Mohammed e Ghazaali" stopped them. "Ghazaali",
himself a scientist, reasoned that learning mathematics is wrong. He
justifiably argued that one who learns mathematics or philosophy will
discover a world based on reasoning and logic. Such a person may think
that religion's pillars are placed on the same base. With no logic and
reasoning in religion, the pupil becomes infidel. "Gazaali"
concluded that mathematics and philosophy should be banned.
lets talk about the books and references, which could lead us to the
extent of science in pre-Islamic Iran. "Plutarch", a Roman
historian (or a fellow traveller) who became a Roman army commander,
happened to pass through "Hamedaan" which was called "Hekmataaneh",
in 700 BCE. In "Hekmataaneh", he came across a school
(university). The Head of the faculty was called "Siineh" who
had one hundred students. In the faculty they learned astronomy, medicine,
philosophy and mathematics. Very many of the world greatest scholars and
physicians visited him at the university. "Plutarch" mentioned
of similar schools in all Iranian cities. If science did not prevail in
ancient Iran, then what were these people studying? What happened to that
"Plotinus", a Greek historian who visited Iran in 100 BCE,
wrote, "When I was in Iran, they were measuring the radius of the
Earth and its curvature". Other references to the spherical shape of
the Earth can be found in "Yasht's" especially in "Aabaan
Yasht". To measure the Earth's radius you have to be familiar with
astronomy and mathematics. This was when the Greek still assumed that
Earth was a flat land surrounded by water. "Homer" in his epic
"Iliad" expressed the following vision of the Earth: "My
lover's home is in the centre of Athena, Athena is in the centre of
Greece, and Greece is in the centre of the world. Therefore, all planets,
stars, and the sky move around my lover's home". Certainly it is a
romantic expression of love, but not a very scientific view.
Comparing "Homer's" "Iliad" with the more ancient
"Gathas" shows the level of knowledge that prevailed in ancient
Let's go back to "Siineh". He became a legend after his death.
The word "Sinaa" is a derivative of "Siineh" and means
"the unconditional physician". "Siineh" has the same
roots as "Shahnameh's" legendary bird "Simoorgh"
(meaning the healing physician). "Ebn e Sinaa" means son of
"Sinaa". Historians gave Arabic names to five generations of his
ancestors and then called his sixth generation "Pour Sina". I
believe that is not true. "Ebn e Sinaa" means son of a physician
and my understanding is that he is a descendant of the 700 BCE "Siineh"
and was born in a physician family. In those days it was customary to call
someone who spent his time wandering on the oceans, son of the ocean. By
the same token, he was called "Ebn e Sinaa". What I cannot
understand is his other name: "Abou Ali Sinaa" (meaning - Sinaa
father of Ali). He never had an offspring!
"Phisaghorous", (Pythogarus) the Greek philosopher and
mathematician, is another example. His biography says that he spent 20
years in Iran and "Babylon" (which was a part of the ancient
Iranian Empire) and learnt the knowledge of the "Moughan"
(Magi). His philosophy of light was under the influence of Iranians who
believed in spherical Earth rotating around the central Sun. However,
there is no mention of the originators of these thoughts.
ancient Iran there was a great philosopher named "Estaans e Raazi".
He was from "Ray" and his nickname was "Mass e Moughan"
meaning head or leader of Moughan. He was also referred to as the "Zartosht"
of his time. During the reign of "Khashayarsha" he migrated to
Egypt, which was part of the Iranian Empire, and settled in the
"Memphis Temple". He had few pupils among them "Dimocrit"
or "Zimeghraatis". "Dimocrit" is the founder of atomic
philosophy and particles science. He learnt it from his teacher.
There is an ancient Greek thesis from somebody named "Paapoos"
He cited "Estaans" the Moughan as a naturalist philosopher
believing in "self management and self-recycling power of nature
provided that humans do not destroy it". This philosophy is still
valid and we have to take care of our environment. In his thesis, "Paapoos"
also referred to "Estans's" philosophy of particles. This is the
same philosophy that "Dimocrit" ("Estaans's" student)
registered. Now, did we have no "Oghlydous"? Did we have no
philosopher? It may surprise you to learn that "Oghlydous" was
an Iranian who was born in Asia Minor and migrated to "Eskandarieh"
(Alexandrian) to work and never lived in Greece.
Another example in geometry is the famous "Phisaghorous" (Pythogarus)
theory on right angle triangles. Today, it is a known fact that the theory
did not belong to "Phisaghorous" and was named after him later.
Towards the end of "Ghajaar" era, French archaeologists found
some documents in "Elaam" and later on published them in France.
Among them were 17 cases of the right-angle triangles with different
dimensions and calculations similar to those of "Phisaghorous".
Apparently, they were looking for a single solution and it is possible
that they found it.
Having mentioned all these facts, I think there is a misunderstanding of
the "history of science". History of science does not include
only abstract sciences. Neither it includes only applied sciences. It has
evolved through successive stages of both abstract and applied science.
Let's elaborate. Before the Greek era, from the beginning of civilisation
till 600 BCE, when humans had significant advancements, everything was
applied science initiated by needs. Enhancement of astronomy and
mathematics was to find practical solutions to daily chores. This type of
applied science was not error free. For example in ancient Egypt, in the
pre-Aryan Elaam, and in Babylon there was a mathematical way to calculate
the area of a rectangle. They would take half of the length of two similar
sides and multiply it by the half of the length of the other two sides.
This method is only applicable to rectangles and squares but does not
apply to other geometric shapes. They used this analysis to divide their
land for irrigation. Since most agricultural lands were almost
rectangular, the error was insignificant. However, such inaccuracies
motivated some of them and our Elaamies mastered geometry before
In the pre-Greek era, applied sciences in physics, chemistry, mathematics
and even philosophy were more common. As they observed inaccuracies and
errors, they paid more attention to the abstract sciences. The era of
abstract sciences lasted 1000 years, 600 years in Greece and 400 in
Eskandarieh. This era is known as Greek era but in reality all nations
contributed to abstract sciences. The abstract era had its own
difficulties and abstract sciences were not able to address it. The Greek
did not have a numeric system. They used alphabets for numbers. "Araashmidous"
the greatest mathematician of ancient Greece, wrote a book to represent a
big number, and called it his masterpiece. However, thousands of years
before the Greek, Elaamians had a numeric system similar to what we have
today. For example to represent 185, the Greek starting from the right,
first put 100, then 80, and then 5. (5,80,100) In Elaamian system each
figure had its own meaning in its own place meaning that for 555 each 5
had its own weight. First 5 represented 5, second represented 50 and third
one signified 500.
Babylonians were using a numeric system at the same time. They even
discovered zero. In those days and even till some time after that, the
Greek did not have any progress in calculation and mathematics. They had
nothing to offer in Algebra, math, and trigonometry. Instead, they used
geometry. For instance, we know that 52 = 25 or 53 = 125. The Greek would
use the rectangle of 3 and 5 to simply multiply 3 by 5. They used geometry
to solve everything. When they faced practical obstacles in their
calculations, then they revisited the era of applied science and tried to
use the ancient methods.
Now, lets look at an Iranian example. "Khaarazmi ye Majoosi" was
an Iranian scientist who lived in 3rd Islamic century. The fact that he
was called "Majoosi" indicates that either him or his ancestors
was Zarathushties. Interesting enough they not only gave him a Arabic name
but renamed a few generations of his ancestors with Arabic names. When
someone converted to Islam, they even named his long dead ancestors with
Arabic names. "Khaarazmi" is the first person that wrote an
algebra book and called it "Algebr olmoghabeleh". His book had
two parts. The first part was purely abstract where he explained how to
solve equations. In the second part he talks about problems such as
dividing an inheritance or applying a will. The Islamic administration
encountered this sort of problems, which required equation-solving skills,
causing confusion among religious leaders. For instance he cited the case
of a dead head of family who had willed to pass a certain portion of his
inheritance to each living family members and set another portion aside
for charity. "Khaarazmi" wrote that in order to divide the
inheritance as per the will, a second-degree equation must be solved.
"Aboul Vafa ye Boozjaani" who was living around the same time as
"Khaarazmi" is another example. He almost discovered the entire
trigonometry and even spherical trigonometry. Then Europeans continued his
work, which was not limited to trigonometry. Then there was "Jamsheed
e Kaashaani" who calculated Sinus of three degrees (Sin 3). He then
applied a third degree equation to calculate Sin 1. He solved the equation
from both the algebraic and geometric perspectives. I will not go into the
mathematical details of his work. Two or three centuries later an Italian
named "Kaardan" copied from the work of one of his countrymen
who had reproduced "Kaashaani's" achievements using a third
degree equation and took all the credit for himself. Today, the formula is
known as "Kaardan's Formula" and is taught in all schools and
universities. No one refers to "Jamsheed e Kaashaani" who
formulated it over 200 years before "Kaardan".
In our books it is recorded that the word for Sinus of an angle was first
transferred from Iran to Europe. Sinus is a French word. The Iranian
equivalent of it was "Jaib" which is the same as word "gareebaan".
"Jaib" in Pahlavi language is "Jeip" meaning measuring
column (deerak). It is not known why the Pahlavi word "Jeip" is
converted to "Jaib" and later to Sinus, but it seems that in
ancient Iran they used this column and its shadow for problem solving.
To conclude, philosophy of mathematics and astronomy moved from applied
science to abstract at times and switched back at other times. From the
16th century onward abstract sciences became dominant again till mid 20th
century when applied sciences prevailed. Meaning that capitalism will not
pursue a non-applicable endeavour.
truth is that there were both scientists and scientific books in ancient
Iran. Many volumes of such books were looted, many others, were burnt.
Even we burnt many of our books out of fear. From the 7th century onward
we can find many reference books in math and astronomy that are said to
have been translated from Greek to Arabic. These have been valuable
resources for scientists. It is now clear that all these books were
translated from "Pahlavi" and "Seryani" to Arabic.
There were no direct translations from Greek to Arabic. "Seryani"
was an Iranian language and was used in Iran.
is the Light on the Path to Future"
British Institute of Persian Studies