The Late Professor Abdelhamid I. Sabra: An Obituary

Abdelhamid Ibrahim Sabra, Professor Emeritus of the History of Arabic Science at Harvard University, passed away on December 18 in Lexington, Massachusetts. Born in 1924 in the Egyptian city of Tanta, he won a scholarship to study philosophy at the nascent Alexandria University. In 1950, the Egyptian government sent him to study at the London School of Economics, where he pursued a doctorate in Philosophy of Science under the supervision of Karl Popper. His dissertation was later published by the Cambridge University Press under the title Theories of Light from Descartes To Newton.

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Abdelhamid Ibrahim Sabra, Professor Emeritus of the History of Arabic Science at Harvard University, passed away on December 18 in Lexington, Massachusetts. Born in 1924 in the Egyptian city of Tanta, he won a scholarship to study philosophy at the nascent Alexandria University. In 1950, the Egyptian government sent him to study at the London School of Economics, where he pursued a doctorate in Philosophy of Science under the supervision of Karl Popper. His dissertation was later published by the Cambridge University Press under the title Theories of Light from Descartes To Newton.

 
Figure 1. Abdelhamid I. Sabra (1924 - 2013). (Source).
Figure 3. Title page of Sabra’s edition of Kitāb al-Manāẓir by Ibn al-Haytham (Kuwait 1983-2002, 5 vols.)

In England, he met a fellow student, Nancy Sutton, whom he married in 1955, before returning to Egypt to teach at Alexandria University. In 1962, they decided to leave Egypt and Sabra took up a position at the Warburg Institute in London. In 1972, Sabra joined the History of Science Department at Harvard. He taught there until his retirement in 1996, serving one term as department chair. Although he never lost his interest in Early Modern science, Sabra is best known for his contributions to the study of medieval Arabic science. In particular, he was interested in optics and in the work of Ibn al-Haytham, whom he regarded as the greatest scientific thinker of the Arabic scientific tradition. He carried on a long and very arduous work for the critical edition of most of Ibn al-Haytham's opus magnum book of optics Kitab al-Manazir, and provided an English translation and commentary.

Towards the end of his career, he focused on the physical theory of Islamic theology (`Ilm al-Kalam), which he regarded as an alternative to the Aristotelian tradition that informed so much pre-modern scientific thinking. In 2005, he was awarded the George Sarton Medal for lifetime achievement by the History of Science Society. He was also awarded a prize by the Kuwait Science Foundation.


Figure 2. Professor Sabra receives 2005 Sarton Medal (second from right), with other honorees. (Source).

Professor Sabra's contribution to the field of history of science occurred not only with his critical editions and translations of significant scientific texts produced throughout Islamic history, but also with theories and new approaches he proposed, which have provided scholars in history of Islamic science with facing and questioning orientalist and Eurocentric reading of Islamic intellectual history. For example, his article entitled "The Appropriation and Subsequent Naturalization of Greek Science in Medieval Islam: A Preliminary Statement" that was published in 1987 in the journal History of Science, successfully challenges the theories of Pierre Duhem, arguing that Islamic cultures did not just passively transfer ancient Greek science, but "appropriated" and "naturalized" it. This theory had such a huge impact on the literature that it became well known as "the Sabra thesis."

Abdelhamid Sabra's work has always been insightful not only in Islamic science, but Islamic intellectual history in general. The research in the history of Islamic science is nowadays much more exciting to investigate thanks to him and his students. In his speech presented during the ceremony organised to grant him the George Sarton Medal, he said that, in his academic life, he preferred to be an "enthusiast,"  than a "professional." With no doubt, Professor Abdelhamid Sabra’s scholarship and enthusiasm will remain inspiring to those interested in science and philosophy in Islamic history.

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