Two additional basins for bloodletting and what can we know about al-Jazari’s education?


Al-Jazari described four basins for measuring the amount of blood during bloodletting. I already covered two of them: The basin of the monk was explained here with some background on the history of bloodletting, and I explained The Basin of the Two Scribes here with a discussion on the uniqueness of al-Jazari in comparison to other tools for bloodletting. The remaining two: The Basin of the  Reckoner (الحسيب -alhasib) and the Basin of the Castle are almost identical in their mechanism to those explained. The main difference is how the cumulative amount of blood is displayed. This made my mind wander further, and this time what can we know about al-Jazari ‘s education?

The Basin of the Reckoner, dispersed manuscript, 1315, the Museum of Fine Art, Boston.

What do we know about al-Jazari’s education?

We don’t know anything about al-Jazari’s education apart from what he himself wrote in the introduction:

“I have studied the books of the earlier [scholars] and the works of the later [craftsmen] –masters of ingenious devices with movements like pneumatic [movements], and water machines for the constant and solar hours, and the transfer by bodies of bodies from their natural positions. I have contemplated in isolation and in company the implications of proofs. I considered the treatment of this craft for a period of time and I progressed, by practicing it, from the stage of book learning to that of witnessing, and I have taken the view on this matter of some of the ancients and those more recent [scholars]. I was fervently attached to the pursuit of this subtle science and persisted in the endeavor to arrive at the truth. The eyes of opinion looked to me distinguish myself in this beloved science. Types of [machines] of great importance came to my notice, offering possibilities for types of marvelous control”

Beyond these lines, we have no information about his education or teachers. However, he was an avid reader who read quite a bit. I wrote about the library of al-Jazari here. His mathematical knowledge, at least according to the book, is limited. I wrote about it here. He is a diverse craftsman in a way that is almost impossible today; he was designing in metal, wood, and paper pulp. He worked with a large number of metals: iron, bronze, copper, brass, silver, and gold. He worked in a wide range of techniques: soldering, casting and hammering and produced himself pipes and gears. In fact, other than the raw materials, he does everything himself. The Makers movement, which is an umbrella term for independent inventors, designers, and tinkerers who preferred to be makers instead of consumers, could use al-Jazari as a role model.

What do we know about medieval education?

From the 8th century AD, elementary schools became generally adopted between the ages of six and ten. The classes were sometimes held in a shop or private houses, but more often in a mosque or building connected to it. The base for learning was the Quran. The pupil copied a passage of the  Quran on his board, and only after he had memorized it, moved to the next passage. We should remember that Muslims believe that the Quran was orally revealed by God to the final Prophet, Muhammad, and not only the Quran is the basis of the religion of Islam, but also a guideline for worship, the book of laws and an instruction book for the proper behavior. It was relatively common to see a procession in honor a ten years old child as a reward for studying the entire Quran by heart.

In addition to the Quran, the students learned the Five Pillars of Islam, including the ritual washing and the prayer. The non-religious teaching elements included verses of poetry as a model for writing and something about numbers and calculations. The schools were intended for all, and initially, no payment was collected for religious reasons. Over the years, it has changed, and the schools have received gifts, food, and money. At the end of the Umayyad Caliphate ((اَلْخِلافَةُ ٱلأُمَوِيَّة‎ in the 9th century, there is evidence of a school that contained 3000 pupils, it is clear that such an organization cannot operate without resources. Al-Jazari likely studied at this kind of school.

When the student completed the four compulsory years, he could go on for another three more years in which he studied grammar, rhetoric, and literature as well as the history of Islam. There are no references to literature or history in Al-Jazari’s book, and it is difficult to know if he continued his studies beyond the first four years. I didn’t find a medieval painting, but the contemporary photograph of Muslim pupils who are memorizing the Quran is probably quite similar to the 12th century:

Muslim students study the Quran in the mosque in India

After the four years of compulsory education, most of the students worked with their parents in the fields or were sent to work with a master craftsman as an apprentice. The work as an apprentice was conducted in small workshops of the bazaars(بازار). The bazaar is a network of narrow streets,  wide enough for a loaded donkey to pass through, usually covered with a wooden roof or some shaded areas, in which the workshops simultaneously created and sold their merchandise. The workshops were organized by guilds. Bernard Lewis, the historian who specialized in oriental studies, wrote the most authoritative work on Muslim guilds. He claimed that “guilds are one of the most interesting and characteristic phenomena of medieval Muslim civilization.” They are not merely equivalent of the European guilds, but so important was the guild in Muslim life, that in many cases the very topography of the Muslim city was determined by the needs of the guilds. From Morocco to Java, with surprising uniformity, the Muslim town rose around three or four central points, always the same. The first fixed point is the exchange. Around it is the toll-gatherer, the local mint (where there is one), the auction market, and the Muhtasib, or inspector of markets. The second center is the Qaisaria, a strong, closed-in building where foreign goods and valuables are stored. The third is the thread-market (Suq al Ghazl), where the women come to sell their own handiwork. And here, too, are the commodities women are likely to buy- butchers, bakers, etc. The fourth center is the university, usually attached to a mosque. Around these four centers are distributed the guildsmen; each guild in its own market.

At the head of the guild is the Sheikh. He is elected by the master craftsmen. Once selected, he was the unchallenged ruler of the guild, combining the functions of CEO, Treasurer, responsible for the taxes for the authorities responsible for the festivities and the concern for the sick and the poor. After him in hierarchy came elders among the master craftsmen, and next come the master craftsmen, the main body of the guild and finally the apprentices. The rank of a journeyman, skilled workers that have completed official apprenticeship qualification but may not yet work as self-employed master craftsmen so essential to European guilds, almost did not exist.

The apprentice (Mubtadi – مبتدئ) was taught by the master’s decision, for an unspecified period of time and without a specific curriculum. Some sources mention 1001 days that sound more like a ceremonial period than a three-year training. As the Apprentice training began at age 11, it was unlikely that they become independent craftsman at the age of 14. In most cases, the apprentice had to demonstrate his ability by producing a particularly complex piece of art (in Lewis’s words “masterpiece”), and then the master decided that the apprentice period was completed. The apprentice did not usually get paid during the apprenticeship, but the master did take care of their needs. Al-Jazari, unfortunately, does not write anything about this period of his life. I am pretty sure he went apprenticeship, and I would be very interested to know how was the experience.

It is impossible to talk about vocational education in Israel without entering a minefield. For many years, the youth of Edot HaMizrach (descendants of Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa ) were sent to vocational education( welding, metalworking, or barbershop training) regardless of their qualification. Only a highly detached consultant could send the deceased Ronit Matalon [an Israeli writer], with her amazing Hebrew to vocational education, and there are certainly many more examples.

However, the combination of vocational schools and apprentice training has many advantages. Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, as well as other countries have been demonstrating for years how vocational education can produce master craftsman that can not be replaced. I went to a traditional high school, and from there to the university and never, not even in Santa Clara or Portland, I didn’t feel that my education was short in comparison to the finest engineers in the world. Even so,  sometimes I want to go back and be the apprentice of al-Jazari and learn by doing and watching the very best.


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