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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Rediscovering Zakariyya Qazwini’s world of wonder

Travis Zadeh rediscovers Zakariyya Qazwini, a mediaeval Persian scholar who unveiled the cosmic order in his remarkable compendium.

For centuries, Zakariyya Qazwini’s magnum opus, “The Wonders of Things Created and Rarities of Matters Existent,” has captivated readers, taking them on a journey into the mysteries and complexities of the world. However, this remarkable work, which combines natural history and cosmology, gradually became relegated to the realm of mediaeval ignorance. In his new book, “Wonders and Rarities: The Marvellous Book That Travelled the World and Mapped the Cosmos,” Yale scholar Travis Zadeh aims to restore Qazwini’s rightful place as an important thinker who helped people better understand the world. 

Escaping Mongol Invasions

Zakariyya Qazwini’s life is a tale of resilience in the face of adversity. Fleeing the Mongol invasions that ravaged his hometown, Qazwini sought refuge after witnessing the destruction of Qazvin. Despite these tumultuous times, he immersed himself in the teachings of renowned scholars, eventually settling in Iraq. It was there that he penned his seminal work, a response to a world upended by chaos and destruction.

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Drawing Inspiration from Nature

Qazwini’s intellectual journey was shaped by a vast array of sources, including Aristotle and Avicenna. He found solace and stability in the natural world, recognizing divine design and order amidst the turmoil. While his lavishly illuminated manuscripts showcase captivating paintings of angels and mythical creatures, Qazwini also celebrated the wonders present in everyday life. From beehives to horses, his focus extended to the ordinary, inviting readers to marvel at the intricate beauty of the world surrounding them.

Between Wonder and Rarity

Qazwini carefully distinguished between “wonder” and “rarity” in his work. “Rarity” encompassed both the miraculous and the infrequent, including rare creatures and celestial phenomena such as shooting stars. Meanwhile, “wonder” extended to the common yet extraordinary aspects of existence, challenging readers to regain the awe and amazement of their childhood. With theological underpinnings, Qazwini conveyed that the world’s beauty emanates from its Creator, encouraging us to uncover and appreciate it.

Influence on Western Readers

While Qazwini’s work took centuries to reach the Western world, it found resonance across Eurasia, drawing from Greek and Roman sources. European scholars, familiar with Arabic translations of influential figures like Avicenna, embraced Qazwini’s insights during the Renaissance and Age of Discovery. Regarded as the “Pliny of the East,” his encyclopaedic approach to natural history provided valuable information about plants, animals, and the stars. However, with the rise of Orientalism and European colonialism, his work was misconstrued as primitive and superstitious.

Rediscovering Qazwini’s Brilliance

Travis Zadeh’s book aims to dispel these misconceptions and highlight the profound intellectual contributions made by thinkers like Qazwini. Far from a mere hodgepodge of superstitions, Qazwini’s work intertwined with the scientific knowledge of his time. Zadeh reveals the interconnectedness between Qazwini’s worldview and the leading scientific authorities of the era. Through strange tales and scientific explanations, Qazwini offered a deeper understanding of the world and our place within it.

A Call for Curiosity and Wonder

Zadeh’s book invites readers to explore the dynamic nature of learning in Qazwini’s time. It challenges our preconceived notions and urges us to contemplate alternative perspectives on cosmology and our role in the grand scheme of things. By shedding light on the contributions of Arabic and Persian scholars, such as Qazwini, to human history and curiosity, Zadeh inspires us to appreciate diverse intellectual traditions.

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Zakariyya Qazwini’s work, once considered a relic of mediaeval ignorance, has been rediscovered as a testament to the intricate beauty and cosmic order of the world. Travis Zadeh’s book sheds light on Qazwini’s remarkable life and the timeless wisdom encapsulated in his writings. As he delves into this fascinating journey, he reminds the readers of the importance of wonder and curiosity in shaping understanding of the universe. Qazwini’s legacy serves as a testament to the enduring power of knowledge and the perpetual quest for truth.