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A Life Dedicated To Science: Prof. Dr. Fuat Sezgin


                                                                                        “Scholars are lights that guide others to the right path."  Hadith


Prof. Dr. Mehmet Fuat Sezgin, a world-known science historian who brought unknown facts about Islamic civilization to light, and is also known as the explorer of the lost golden age, was born in Bitlis, Kızıl Mescit on 24 October, 1924. His father was Mirza Mehmet Efendi, and his mother was Cemile Hanim. His family was originally Schirvan in Siirt, and his ancestors served to Ottoman Empire as Beys of Schirvan for centuries.


Fuat Sezgin went to elementary school in Dogubeyazit in 1936, but after his father´s death he moved to Bitlis where he finished boarding secondary school in 1939 and then moved to Erzurum where he finished boarding science high school in 1942.


He came to Istanbul in 1943 with the thought of studying maths and being an engineer. On the advice of his friend, he attended a seminar at the Oriental Studies Institute in Istanbul University given by German orientalist Hellmut Ritter (1892-1971), one of the best known in his field. He was really impressed by the seminar; therefore, giving up the idea of being an engineer he decided to be his disciple. Neither Helmut Ritter´s discipline nor difficulities of the field could dissuade him his certain decision. He went to the Oriental Research Institute to enroll on the courses in no time and he started to study Arabic and Persian Philology on the Istanbul University, Faculty of Arts. Meanwhile he took the exemption exam for French courses and, he was exempted them.


In 1943, one of my relatives took me to the faculty of arts, whereas I was chasing to be an engineer. There was a great German scholar back then who knows Arabic quite well. My friend said to me that he wanted to take me to his seminar, and I said ‘let´s go’ thus I went to the seminar. That day that great scholar, so to speak, fascinated me. I didn´t want to be an engineer or something anymore. All I want was being his disciple. Enrolment date was expired even so I went to the dean. When I was in the dean´s office, that great scholar, who was a really big man, came in to the office by chance.


He stopped, and waited for our conversation with the dean ended. The dean said: ‘Oh, Mr. Ritter, I was just talking to someone who wants to be your student. He looked at me and said: ‘I think he was in my seminar yesterday’. He was a tough man, only a few people would go to his seminars and most of the students would run away them. I remember mostly attending alone to these seminars.


He said, ‘Let´s have a few words with you. What you are seeking for is something really hard. You need to learn Arabic. You know what, I am a tough teacher, and my students run away me all the time.’ And I said: ‘Yes, I know it, they have already told me about that, but still I want to get involved in this danger.’ He smiled and said: ‘OK’. This was when I became his student. After two weeks, when I went to his seminar I was just 3 minutes late, he took out his golden watch his pocket and said ‘You are 3 minutes late, this must not happen again.’ That day, I did not only said ‘Okay’ to him, but also I am extra careful about not to be late on my rendezvous, since then.


I was fortunate to be a student of such a great teacher. For some reason I was fascinated by this man, and I started to feel like he transfers all the knowledge of wise people before him. I did not take notes back then. He would say and I would write what he told me into my mind. Believe me; I still carry most of them in my mind. He was so different; he is most likely the greatest among European Orientalists. I was impressed by him so much that I cannot express it in words well.


In Istanbul University, there was no such department as Science History in my schooldays. My teacher told me not to leave Maths, to attend Maths classes at faculty of science, and to learn it well. He also explained that many great Muslim mathematicians were raised in our civilization, such as Harizmî, Ebu’l-Vefa Buzcanî, İbn Heysem, and Birunî, which I have never heard any of them before. I was literally horrified. When he saw my reaction he added that these names and even more were really great scholars like many other contemporary European scholars, actually they were even much better many aspects. I decided to study Science History at that moment.


“Ritter’s words played a big part in keeping me studying History of Islamic Science. For this reason, I studied day and night abandoning the entire world altogether.”


Although Turkey had not participated in World War II, it had been under influence of the war. When universities in Turkey had been suspended academic activities in 1943 as a result of the political conditions of the period, Ritter advised his students to learn Arabic in this long term. At that time Fuat Sezgin decided to compare commentary of the Quran by Islamic scholar Cerîr et-Taberi with the books which contains the Turkish translation. In order to understand the commentary which was written in a difficult language he studied Arabic during this time. After six months he could easily read the Arabic of Quranic commentary by Taberî. When Hellmut Ritter put the Ihyâ-u Ulûm-id-Din by Islamic thinker Ebû Hamid el Gazzâlî in front of Fuat Sezgin for him to read, he was very pleased that his student could easily achieve it. He suggested him, who has great talent in language learning, to learn a new language every year starting five languages at the same time. Sezgin continued to work hard until his old age.


In 1945, his third year at University, he applied for licence[1] on Arabic Philology with a thesis, and licence on Old Turkish Literature, New Turkish Literature and French Literature without a thesis.


When Hellmut Ritter saw Fuat Sezgin’s determination on his studies and his commitment to himself, he began to examine the manuscripts and researches on History of Islamic Science, which could be found at the libraries, together with him.   As a result of these examinations Fuat Sezgin had the opportunity to better identify the deficiencies on History of Islamic Science field. After reading Carl Brockelmann’s book written in this field, Geschichte der Arabischen Literatur (History of Arabic Literature), he realized some of the shortcomings of this work and he concluded that they should be completed. As a matter of fact, Ritter also thought that he was right. When he was still a student he started to collect resources about his research topics.


Fuat Sezgin graduated Istanbul University, Faculty of Arts, Arabic and Persian Philology department. He also completed his undergraduate thesis entitled Development of science of al-Badii and the catalogue of manuscripts of Badiîyyat in Istanbul. This thesis focused on the evolution of elocution, which is a branch of literature, in the classical Islamic civilization. He continued his scientific studies under the supervision of Helmut Ritter, by applying to doctorate program in October 1947. His doctoral thesis was on the Quranic commentary titled Majaz Al-Quran by Ebû Ubeyde Ma’mer ibn el-Musennâ et-Teymî, a scholar of Arabic language and scientific interpretation of the Quran. The subject of this thesis is about figurative expressions in the Quran which were used beyond the real meaning. He completed and submitted his PhD thesis in 1950. During these years Fuat Sezgin worked as a clerk at Istanbul University library.


He left Istanbul University in 1950, where he completed his studies on Arabic and Persian Philology, continued his Phd studies and worked after his graduation in 1947, to be an assistant at the Faculty of Theology in Ankara University. He was one of the first assistants of the Chair of Dogmatic Sciences by Prof. Muhammet Tayyip Okiç (Basic Islamic Science department) in Ankara University, where he worked between 1950 -1953. During this time he did his military service as a reserve officer. When he was an assistant he had been in Cairo for a while to publish Majaz Al-Qur’ân which he studied in his Phd. Fuat Sezgin resigned his position in Ankara University in order to return to Istanbul University where he spent many years.


On February 28 1953 he started working as an assistant at the chair of General Turkish History where Zeki Veli Togan was the chairman. While Fuat Sezgin was working on his research for his doctoral thesis, he realized that some parts of hadith book by Bukhari were taken Majaz Al-Qur’ân. Bukhari’s use of written sources proved that the theses of some academicians and some hadith scholars claiming that hadith scholars solely used oral traditions were wrong.


While he was working as an assistant, he had been busy with collecting materials for his thesis of associate professorship about “Written Sources of Bukhari’s the book of commentary” too. He made the catalogue records of the books in the library of Islamic Studies Institute. He supported the publication of the Journal of Islamic Studies and wrote articles for this journal.


Fuat Sezgin, assistant of General Turkish History department, finished his habilitation thesis in 1953-1954 academic years, and also completed foreign language phase of his associate professorship exam. In 1956, he published his associate professorship thesis titled Researches on the sources of Bukhari.


He was awarded a scholarship by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, which was centered in Germany and supporting scientists around the world. He had been in Germany between 1957-1958 in order to carry out scientific studies and improve his German.


After he saw his name on a list of the names of academicians who were expelled universities by the government which came to power through military coup in Turkey in 1960, he was forced to continue his work outside Turkey.


“The new way in my life”


Fuat Sezgin had to say goodbye to his beloved homeland. He was so sad to leave his homeland but he was very determined on his step for the sake of science.


“It was at the end of 1960, one day I went out my house, I was going to the institute. The children who sell newspapers on the street were running and shouting ‘Extra! Extra! Read all about it! 147 university professors were expelled the university!’ I bought the newspaper and saw my name among them. I put the newspaper in my bag, I went to the library of Suleymaniye instead of the institute, and I started to read. My students and my assistants had searched for me everywhere when they could not find me at the university, and finally they found me at the library. Actually I was not expecting such thing, but I saw the reality of Turkey’s atmosphere was changed as well. Sometimes I wanted to go out but I could not go out on my own. I loved my country a lot and I wanted to do a lot of things for my country. I have established an institute which was running smoothly. I brought everything I learnt in Europe where I had gone as a guest associate professor. I have accepted this reality. I went to Suleymaniye, and wrote a few short letters to my friends who live in Germany and United States. ‘From this day on, I am a person who was expelled the university; I would like to work with you if you have a suitable position for me there.’  After that I received answers three universities, Frankfurt University, Berkeley University in California, and Yale University. I thought over my situation, I have not finish the working on my book, History of Islamic Science, yet. So I did not want to go far Istanbul, the east, Egypt and Iran. I had a lot of things to do here in the east. Finally, I decided on Frankfurt University, where the one and only Science History Institute of the world exists. The director of the institute was my close friend. Gradually I went there completing all my works here.


The day before I left, I went to the Galata Bridge near Karaköy, turning my face to Anatolian side and leaning on the bars, I started to think deeply for half an hour about how I can live all my life apart my beloved Istanbul, and I was asking myself the reasons of the events in my country which turned the country upside down. Since 47 years, whenever I visit Istanbul, I still remember that 30-minute-thought, which I spent in the north corner of the bridge, with tearful eyes.


I set off with a suitcase, which had some clothes and slips of some important manuscripts, about 20-25 thousand of them, then went away. I had a weird and childish fear inside me. But actually I had no fault. I was on my way to an unknown world; I did not know how the things will turn out.


There, the director of the institute would go to Cairo for six months to study, so they wanted me to give lectures instead of him in this time period. But the thing is, they did not tell me that I would work there just for six months in first place.  If they did, I would consider whether going to Germany or the United States one more time. Fortunately, they did not.


The man who sent me the invitation, Professor Hartner, was a really virtuous man. We were close friends. Anyway, I went there and started giving lectures. In the fourth month, my friend Willy Hartner called me and said: ‘Let’s have a coffee together’. When I went there he said: ‘We invited you here for six months, so what are you planning to do?’ I answered: ‘I did not know that’ The man who went to Cairo was my friend too. Before he left for Cairo, he had stipulated that ‘Sezgin could only stay here for six months.’ And in order to help me they accepted his condition. Hartner explained this circumstance to me in a hurry and said ashamedly: ‘Would you like to go to the United States? It is impossible for you to stay in Frankfurt anymore. Unfortunately we made a mistake, but it was for your sake.’


I listened what he said calmly. I became a new person after that revolution in Turkey. I started to tell Willy Hartner what that new person is: ‘Do not worry; I have always planned my life. I said myself that I am going to finish high school or university; I am going to be an associate professor at that age, and I have been able to do all of that. When I saw that I succeeded all I want, I have been pampered. After that a military coup has occurred in Turkey. Just like a net on a fish, I was in that net. Then I realized that there is a limit on my will as a simple human being. After that incident, I came to a decision that I will not think about the seventh week if I am guaranteed a six-week-future in my life. Now, I have two more months ahead of me. I have saved money. I was thinking about that.’ He was surprised. He looked at me, stood up and embraced me saying ‘I am an atheist, I do not believe in God. But you cannot know how much I envy people who believe like you.’ Afterwards he had worked on it; I do not know who he had contacted.


The city of Marburg was there. The head of the Hitites department of the university there came to me and said: ‘We have established a new Chair of Oriental studies and there is no one who can give lectures here, would you take these courses?’ and I accepted it. All this happened in less than six weeks.


So I started to believe that my new way in my life was right. In 1965, I studied on another associate professorship. After that I was entitled as Professor of  Science History.”


Fuat Sezgin got married with Dr. Ursula Hanim in 1966, that he always mentioned this by saying “Probably one of the most important events of my life, a fortunate coincidence”. Their daughter, Hilal Sezgin, was born in 1970.


“I met with my wife in the fourth month of my trip to Germany. She was a young German woman who converted to Islam before we met. She was studying Geography and Political science, and then she left and studied oriental studies, Arabic, Persian, Turkish etc. If it was not for her, it would be hard. I had faith. I had an absolute faith in Allah. And I also had a virtuous wife who supports and believes in me achieving my goals.  I started writing my book in the fourth month of my trip. While I was writing my book she was reviewing it. My German was not good so she was correcting my writings before we sent it to printing press. She was so precious to me!”


Fuat Sezgin continued his researches and works in Frankfurt University. The focus on his scientific works here was History of Arab-Islamic Sciences. He wrote his second doctoral thesis[2] about Jabir ibn Hayyân in 1965 at Institut für Geschichte der Naturwissenschaften in Frankfurt University, and after a year he received the title of professor.


As a result of his researches, Fuat Sezgin, who has started to collect materials to develop Geschichte der Arabischen Literatur by Carl Brockelmann since his school days, published the first volume of the History of Arab-Islamic Sciences (Geschichte des Arabischen Schrifttums) which is the most comprehensive work in its field since the beginning of science. Some of the topics in various volumes of this comprehensive work consisting of 17 volumes are; the sciences of the Quran, history of hadith, history of fiqh (Islamic law), kalâm (the science of scholastic theology), sufism, poetry, medicine, pharmacology, zoology, veterinary, alchemy, chemistry, botany, agriculture, astronomy, astrology, meteorology and related fields, mathematical geography and cartography.


A committee of more than ten academics different countries, who were interested in improving Carl Brockelmann’s Geschichte der Arabischen Literatur, appreciated the GAS and decided to leave improvement of Brockelmann’s work to Sezgin. When Fuat Sezgin sent a copy of the first volume to Ritter, who was in Istanbul at that time, to learn his opinions as an expert, the experienced orientalist congratulated his student by saying “no one has ever written such a work before and no one can ever do it now onward.”


In 1982, Fuat Sezgin, who received the King Faisal Prize for Islamic Sciences in 1978, founded Institute of History of Arab-Islamic Sciences (Institut für Geschichte der Arabisch-Islamischen Wissenschaften), which was affiliated to Johann Wolfgang Goethe University.            


In 1900, in order to introduce the scientific instruments in Islam to people the German physicist Eilhard Wiedemann modelled the instruments which were in the history of Islamic science books according to the originals. Until 1928, in almost 30 years of his life, he managed to make only five of them. Prof. Dr. Fuat Sezgin started to work thinking “Can I make 30 instruments? Can I fill a room even it is not a museum?” He has achieved a success far beyond his imagination modelling more than 700 instruments in the Museum of Islamic History in Frankfurt. In the same building, there was the Library of History of Sciences that contains 45000 volumes of books which he collected with a great care and effort all over the world throughout his life.


“In 1982, I founded an institute under Frankfurt University. It was an assertive institute. I had two goals; firstly I had to expand the boundaries of the researches and studies of the history of Islamic sciences. Secondly, I thought that revision of the wrongly stated verdicts and not well known aspects of muslims in the history of general sciences would be carried out by a big mass. I established the institute with these two goals. As we think the projects developed slowly. One of these projects was the idea of creating a museum that contains the example of the tools which Islamic scholars have made in that 800-year-old creativity era. Today we were able to model 800 of those tools in our institute. This was a stage that I could not imagine. I thank Allah for reaching this state.”


Prof. Dr. Fuat Sezgin decided to establish a similar museum of History of Islamic Science in Germany in his homeland, Istanbul. His aim was to make Turks to see these extraordinary achievements of their civilizations and contributions of Muslim scholars to the history of science in a more concrete way. He returned to Turkey, and began preparations for the museum. As a result of his efforts for his own nation, in his country, the opening ceremony of the Museum of Islamic Science and Technology, which Fuat Sezgin has dreamed of for so many years, was held on May 25, 2008, by the Prime Minister of the period Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The museum, which is in Gulhane Park in Istanbul, contains about 700 works. These museums, founded in the field of history of Islamic science, offer a great novelty in its field, presenting the evolution of inventions and discoveries of the history of science in various disciplines, and discoveries and inventions of Muslim scientists that had been gifted to humanity for centuries.


To introduce the instruments in the museum, there is a five-volume-of catalogue work titled Science and Technology in Islam. Such a comprehensive and holistic work as a museum catalogue has been written for the first time ever. It has been published in four different languages, Turkish, English, German and French.


Fuat Sezgin mentions about the Museum of Islamic Science and Technology which he founded in Istanbul:


“First of all, I praise Allah for everything. This opening phase of our museum took place, and humanity especially our nation has acquired such a museum in an international city like Istanbul.  With the opening of this museum in Istanbul, I strongly believe that the wrong views and ignorance of the Turks against their own civilization will change. This is my first goal. Beyond that, Istanbul is a city which is visited by millions of tourists all around the world. Millions of tourist will be able to see how high the Islamic civilization is, what a great place in the history of science has through this museum. As you know, the works in this museum come as a copy of the works in the museum that I started to work on in Frankfurt University 26 years ago. A few of the tools we show here are the models of the instruments that here and there. But 95% of them have not come up to date and were lost, and only their descriptions have been found in the books. I did not know that when I started to bring them out 25 years ago. When I first start doing this, I thought that I could only bring to light 5-10 of the tools. Over time, things got better. And the number of the tools we uncovered has reached up to 800 and even more. This was an unreachable dream for me. In recent years, I wanted to bring copy of these instruments to Turkey. But how could I do that? With a great gratitude, I would like to say that this building which I saw by chance with a friend in Gulhane Park convinced me that my dream could actually come true. Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality Mayor Kadir Topbaş came and visited me, and said he would give us this building. Then we started to fulfil the requirements of this work. Let me tell you that the Turkish government especially the Prime Minister (Recep Tayyip Erdoğan) showed us great facilities to make this place a museum. Most of the instruments were given by our institute, and 20% of them were state funding. There were also some expenses for repairing the building. Turkish state has generously taken care of them. Thank Allah the opening was held on May 24 and attracted great attention by people. I see that it is a place now where Turks and foreign tourists often visit. I am very happy and I thank Allah for that.


To support the activities of the museum, The Prof. Dr. Fuat Sezgin Research Foundation for the History of Science and Technology in Islam was founded in 2010. By the leadership of Fuat Sezgin, Science History department was opened at Fatih Sultan Mehmet University in 2013 which provides education for both undergraduate and graduate students. The last great service to Turkey that he did was establishing Prof. Dr. Fuat Sezgin and Dr. Ursula Sezgin History of Sciences Library. During all his studies, Dr Ursula Sezgin has always given her husband full support. There are 23000 books in the library which established in 2017 in Gulhane Park. Fuat Sezgin, who closely followed cataloguing of the books in the library, would often visit the students of Science History. Emphasizing the importance of the catalogued books he would advise that he handed down the field of history of Islamic Science to his students, and remind them that they should work with determination. Even in the last days of his life, he could not stay away the history of Islamic science and his books.


“Death of a scholar is the death of the world”


Prof. Dr. Mehmet Fuat Sezgin passed away on June 30, 2018 in Istanbul where he spent his last years and continued his studies. Working hard and pushing the boundaries of human power he devoted his life to science and left many precious works and thoughts behind him. Prof. Dr. Fuat Sezgin was an exceptional person who has been followed by many scientists and academicians working on the history of Islamic science and thought, and has an important place in his field.


“May Fuat Sezgin’s soul be blessed, and the pray of the science community will be an offering and witness of his contribution to the science.”


[1] At that time, in addition to under graduate education, one could take various certificates by applying licence programs and could write theses for mastering on a field.


[2] For giving lectures in the History of Natural Sciences at Frankfurt University, Fuat Sezgin has done a habilitation.