Joan Vernet (1923-2011) and the Light of the East and West

Miquel Forcada

Department of Semitic Philology, Barcelona University

On 23rd July 2011, Joan Vernet, the most important Spanish Arab expert of the 20th century, died in Barcelona. From a very young age, his interest in reading and mathematics awakened in him an unusual passion for the Arab world, which continued to grow in the devastating panorama of university education in Franco’s Spain. He soon became a prestigious expert of international renown who, anticipating the 21st century, advocated the multidisciplinary approach above specialisation and was interested in both arts and sciences. In his teaching and research career he wrote more than 300 books which are still a reference in their field today, and he produced important translations, such as those of the Koran and A Thousand and One Nights. For all these reasons, Joan Vernet will be remembered as one of the main promoters of Arab-Islamic civilisation in three of its most important ambits: science, literature and religion.

On 23rd July, an unexpected turn of fate, in which Joan Vernet Ginés probably believed as a great admirer of Islam and astrology (despite his positivism as a scientist), took from us one of the best Arab scholars and science historians of the 20th century. To achieve this status, Joan Vernet followed a very hard path with uncommon tenacity, intelligence and a spirit of sacrifice. Vernet belongs to a generation that did not go to war but suffered all its consequences in his early youth during the worst post-war years. An academic par excellence, he completed his secondary school studies and began a degree in humanities amidst great hardships, alternating university with all kinds of sporadic jobs far from academia, such as coal stevedore in the port. However, neither the economic difficulties nor the demoralising intellectual atmosphere of the Barcelona of the time made him give up, as his vocation was firmly rooted. Since his childhood, Joan Vernet had shown a similar skill in sciences and humanities, as well as an unusual interest in history and astronomy, subjects that had filled many hours of forced reclusion due to a chronic bronchitis that he would bear throughout his life. Therefore, it is not surprising that during his adolescence in the midst of the Spanish Civil War he spent time by himself learning to decipher cuneiform Sumerian and Acadian signs while attending private seminars on astronomy and mathematics with a good teacher from his secondary school, Mr Febrer, who excelled in his field along with Joan Orús, who would become Chair at the Barcelona University. The reader will have already guessed that what most characterised Vernet’s scientific spirit was his boundless fondness for deciphering seemingly incomprehensible texts, regardless of the language in which they were written.

His interest in history led him to choose a degree in humanities. During the first years he discovered Arabic, which he learnt and, most significantly, began to love, under the guidance of Professor Ramon Mallofré, who was not the only good teacher he found in that Faculty of Humanities so badly ravaged by Franco’s regime. Among the few figures who remained after 1939 was Josep Maria Millàs Vallicrosa, who not only had established himself as one of the great European Hebrew scholars of the pre-war period but had been a pioneer in a fairly unknown field of study: the history of Arab astronomy. Vernet ended his degree in Semitic languages brilliantly and, when he was about to continue his training in Germany further exploring Middle Eastern languages, Professor Millàs became aware of his outstanding disciple’s extraordinary knowledge (for a graduate in humanities, and notable for a specialised scholar) of astronomy and mathematics. Millàs interpreted their coinciding knowledge as a fortunate planetary conjunction, at a time when he was fighting to produce one of the most important books on the history of Arab astronomy, Estudios sobre Azarquiel [Studies on Arzachel], and was looking for someone to help him and continue his research into Arabic and Hebrew scientific texts. Needless to say, Vernet saw it as a favourable turn of fate. Millàs was still unaware that Vernet had studied, along with modern astronomy, medieval and modern astrology, which would only have reaffirmed his conviction about the appropriateness of his student, as in the Middle Ages both disciplines were two sides of the same coin.

Before entering the university, in the academic year 1967-1968, Vernet worked as a teacher at the Ksar el-Kebir secondary school, in Morocco. This is how he learnt firsthand about the picturesque, militarised and decadent final years of Spanish colonialism in Morocco. He took the opportunity to get to know in depth the reality surrounding him but also, as an innate historian and with that 19th century pioneering spirit that a scholar in the 1940s could still possess, to let that reality speak to him of its past and teach him more than any library. He not only achieved an acceptable command of the Arabic dialect of the area but also improved his command of classical Arabic with a local teacher who welcomed him as another of his disciples. Moreover, an old man who kept 17th century astronomy instruments at his home explained him in Arabic what, at that time, was the living history of science.

His interest in history led him to choose a degree in humanities. During the first years he discovered Arabic, which he learnt and began to love

Back in Barcelona, under the guidance of Millàs he began his lecturing and research career preparing a doctoral thesis which would become one of his early important studies, Contribución al estudio de la labor astronómica de Ibn al-Banna’ [Contribution to the Understanding of the Astronomy Studies of Ibn al-Banna”,1952]. In 1954, he obtained the Chair of Arabic at Barcelona University and established himself as one of the major figures in Arabic and Islamic studies in Spain. This period saw his best scientific contributions as a result of long years of research and study of the past sources and bibliography, mainly at the Library of Catalonia and the Library of the Ateneu Barcelonès. Specifically, the other key of Vernet’s scientific work was his voracious appetite for reading together with a keen memory and analytical acuity of similar proportions. These, moreover, gave him access to a flow of information that escaped others, and which was carefully arranged in thousands of files which filled hundreds of shoe boxes. This is how Vernet compiled what is probably his most important work, La cultura hispanoárabe en Oriente y Occidente [Hispanic-Arabic Culture in the East and West, 1979], translated into several languages and later republished under the title Lo que Europa debe al islam de España [What Europe Owes to the Islam of Spain, 1999], still an essential book for those wishing to understand the scale of the universal Arabic-Islamic legacy and its mark on us. Moreover, the aforementioned skills allowed him to establish unthinkable connections that nobody else managed to see: the existence of Arabic cartography in the Early Middle Ages, the influence of Arabic cartography in European cartography, the possible relation between the astronomy research sponsored by Alfonso X in Castile and that promoted by Hulagu Khan in Maragha (currently Azerbaijan) or Lope de Vega’s inspiration of in a Russian embassy to write El gran duque de Moscovia [The Grand Duke of Muscovy] and many others. Vernet’s most outstanding contributions in this respect can be found in two collections of articles that are among his most important works: Estudios sobre historia de la ciencia medieval [Studies on the History of Medieval Science, 1979] and De Abd al-Rahman I a Isabel II [From Abd al-Rahman I to Isabel II, 1989]. This was the time of his international recognition, which took on diverse forms. Firstly, his stay in Germany, where he attended the lectures of Otto Spies and gained the recognition and friendship of some of the most important German Arabic scholars of his generation, such as Rudolph Sellheim. Secondly, the international publication of many of his works (we can cite, among others, his contributions to two essential works of reference such as Encyclopédie de l’Islam [“Encyclopaedia of Islam”] and Dictionary of Scientific Biography). Thirdly, the organisation of the 9th International Congress of History of Science along with Josep Maria Millàs. In fact, this event was just another stage in the process of internationalisation of Millàs’ and Vernet’s research. The former had established, long before the Spanish Civil War, solid links of cooperation and respect with George Sarton, one of the main creators of the modern discipline of history of science and, soon after, one of the founders of the Académie Internationale d’Histoire des Sciences, based in Paris. The congress, which given the constraints of the time had to be held both in Madrid and Barcelona, was a success in the barren panorama of university under Franco’s regime and one of its first “green shoots”. This caused Vernet his first heart attack and, from that time, and also thanks to the wide dissemination of his studies, he became increasingly more recognised. Thus, he became a member of the aforementioned Académie Internationale and of the Reial Acadèmia de les Bones Lletres de Barcelona, the Institut d’Estudis Catalans, the Real Academia de la Historia in Madrid and the Reial Acadèmia de Ciències i Arts de Barcelona, member of the Real Academia de Ciencias de Madrid and the Baghdad Academy, honourable member of the Royal Asiatic Society, first holder of the Chair of the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris and, for a long time, Spanish representative in the International Academic Union. He even received serious and repeated offers to join the University of California, which he declined.

Beyond the history of Arabic science (and, especially, astronomy), Vernet excelled in many other fields, beginning with the history of modern science, with two outstanding books, along with a large number of articles: his Astrología y astronomía en el Renacimiento: la revolución copernicana [Astrology and Astronomy in the Renaissance: Copernican Revolution, 1974] helped us to see Copernicus as one of the last medieval astronomers, deeply influenced by Arabs; Historia de la ciencia española [History of Spanish Science, 1976] reveals that he also knew Julio Rey Pastor and Llorenç Presas as well as Al-Biruni, and even today it continues to be a work of reference on Spanish scientific activity from the 17th century onwards. In fact, enlightened and 19th century science, with its open, pioneering and interdisciplinary spirit, was an almost natural field for Vernet. And this is another feature of his scientific spirit: its multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary character. One of his great merits is to have been able to remain faithful to this ideal in the midst of the 20th century, a period in which specialists and specialities dominated, and always produce works of equal quality in any of the fields in which he worked, thereby anticipating the more open and flexible approach of the 21st century.

His profound knowledge allowed him to enter into dialogue with Muslims about their religion, thereby emphasising the points of meeting in inter-religious dialogue

For this reason, Vernet made several major contributions to Arabic literature and Islamology. In terms of Arabic literature, the unabridged translation of A Thousand and One Nights (1964) stands out, a faithful and elegant version of a classic among classics. We should also remember Literatura árabe [Arabic Literature, 1972], a tour de force in the field of synthesis, which boasts unmistakable numerous and original signs of Vernet’s personal erudition and analytical sense. In the field of Islamology, his most important contributions are his two translations of the Koran (1953 and 1963). With a methodology which, despite its age, is innovative (it was already used by the first translators of the Koran), he embedded in the divine text the words of Islamic classical commentators. The result was a faithful and enlightening text, which differed relatively little from those used by the Muslims more aware of the complexities of the Koran: an edition where the holy book is at the centre and the comments of contrasted authorities alongside it in the margins. From then, Vernet wrote several books about Mohammed and the early stages of Islam (Los orígenes del Islam [The Origins of Islam] and Mahoma [Mohammed], with relatively recent reprintings, in 2001 and 2006 respectively) and became especially interested in the Mudejar versions of the Koran. Perhaps as important as all this work was the fact that his profound knowledge of the holy text allowed him to enter into dialogue with Muslims about their religion, thereby emphasising the points of meeting in inter-religious dialogue: the figure of the hanif, who professes an Abrahamic faith. He considered himself one of them.

In the 1970s, he was a pioneer in the use of computers applied to humanities, with which he tried to improve the cataloguing and classification system of the bibliographical sources. This was one of Vernet’s main concerns: to provide knowledge of and access to the texts, aware that, for humanists, the library is their laboratory. Thus, Vernet was for us, the Westerners, one of the major researchers and promoters of Arabic-Islamic civilisation in the three most important fields of his contribution: science, literature and religion. He was also so for Arabs and Muslims in general, to whom he discovered unexplored depths of their past. Thanks to this, he achieved an almost incomparable recognition, with Catalan and Spanish distinctions such as the Monturiol Medal (1985), the Prize of the Fundació Catalana per a la Recerca, the Creu de Sant Jordi (2002) and the Ramón Menéndez Pidal Prize presented by the Spanish Ministry of Education, and international distinctions such as the Placa d’Honor d’Andorra (1985); the George Sarton Medal of the History of Science Society, United States (1991); the Koyré Medal of the Académie Internationale d’Histoire des Sciences (1995), given to Joan Vernet, Julio Samsó and their disciples; and the Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture of the United Arab Emirates (2004).

However, the most valuable awards must be sought elsewhere: in his academic career, irreproachably honest even in the difficult period experienced by universities during Franco’s regime and the Transition, tireless and intellectually rigorous; and, above all, in the human and academic generosity which made him not only a fountain of wisdom but also a spring of science, which still flows in a school that he himself built based on solid inherited foundations.