Known as the “conqueror of a missing treasure,” Sezgin was inspired by Helmut Ritter, a renowned 20th century German scholar of oriental studies and someone who used to teach courses on Islamic sciences and orientalism at İstanbul University.
Ritter inspired Sezgin to begin his search for the Islamic scholars’ contributions to modern science. Sezgin defines the moment he met with Ritter as “the time when I was born again.” He said Ritter told him to read at least 17 hours a day if he wanted to become a real scholar.
During one of Ritter’s courses, Sezgin asked him whether or not there was an important Islamic mathematician and was surprised by his answer: “There are as many mathematicians in the Islamic world as there are great figures in Greece and Europe,” Ritter said. The reason why Sezgin was astonished by Ritter’s answer was due to the fact that one of his teachers at primary school told him that Muslims scholars used to believe that the earth was located on the horn of an ox.
Sezgin said it was following the statements by Professor Ritter that he started to take notice of the fact that the Islamic world had made significant contributions to the history of general sciences and decided to search for what those contributions were.
“From that day on, I decided to learn about the contributions of the Islamic world to science and to make a contribution to science myself if possible. Despite my young age, I assumed the responsibility of writing the ‘History of Islamic Sciences.’ I worked day and night on that book,” Sezgin said.
Sezgin decided to first address the question of “when Islamic narration began and from which period on it is possible to talk about written Islamic documents.” After graduating from the faculty of literature of İstanbul University in 1947, Sezgin received his Ph.D. in 1954 for his work on Arab language and literature. In 1954 he became an associate professor with his work titled “Buhari’nin Kaynakları” (Sources of Bukhari).
Bukhari refers to Muhammad al-Bukhari, a Sunni Islamic scholar from Persia who authored the Hadith collection titled “Sahih al-Bukhari.” In his book, Sezgin claims that Bukhari relied on written sources for the Hadith, and not oral sources as is widely believed.
During his years as a student, Sezgin also read Carl Brockelmann’s five-volume “History of Arab Literature,” which was written based on manuscripts in Europe and İstanbul. Sezgin found out that this book, which details chronological information about manuscripts and gives tips to researchers on how to access these manuscripts, did not include information about many Muslim authors. Brockelmann, who used to come to İstanbul occasionally for a one-month’s stay, did not have sufficient time before his death to expand his body of work. Upon noticing that most of the written Islamic sources were not included in Brockelmann’s work, Sezgin decided to complete his work, which would mean examining hundred of thousands of works, something that would last for decades.
Sezgin was not the only person who wanted to complete Brockelmann’s work, as a group of European scholars made a similar attempt in the 1950s under the leadership of the Brill Publishing House, which published German translations of Arabic works. This group of scholars was able to complete Brockelmann’s work thanks to financial support from UNESCO.
Sezgin travelled to Germany for several times during 1957 and 1958, where he worked at University of Bonn. The scholar improved his German to the extent that he began offering his courses in German. Although he was asked to stay at the university, Sezgin declined the offer and returned to Turkey, where he established the Islamic Sciences Research Institute with Zeki Velidi Togan, a Turkish historian.
The May 27, 1960 military coup was a turning point in Sezgin’s life. He said that even though two of his brothers were jailed in the aftermath of the coup, he tried to continue his studies but was shocked by the news of the removal of 147 professors from the university.
“As I was going to the institute one morning, I was shocked to hear a boy selling newspapers telling me about the removal of 147 professors from the university. I was either the 40th or 50th among the professors who were removed. I did not want to leave my country, but when I was removed from the university, I saw that I had no other choice. I went to the Süleymaniye Library and wrote letters to my friends, two Americans and the former rector of Frankfurt University, asking them whether they could find me a place to continue my studies as I had been expelled from the university. I received positive responses from all three of them within a month. I chose to work in Frankfurt. On the evening of my departure from Turkey, I went to the Karaköy side of the Galata Bridge. I watched Üsküdar for about 15 or 20 minutes. It was a beautiful night, but I had to wipe my tears. I was not angry but sad,” he said.
Sezgin began offering courses at the University of Frankfurt as a visiting professor in 1961, where he was very well liked by his students due to his disciplined work ethic and character.
In 1967, the first volume of Sezgin’s “Islam’s Golden Age of Science,” which was an expansion of Brockelmann’s work, was published, receiving widespread acclaim in academic circles.
Visiting more than 60 countries, Sezgin examined works in the fields of physics, chemistry, biology, animal breeding, veterinary medicine, agriculture, medicine, astronomy and geography for the “History of Islamic Sciences,” and brought these works, which were kept on the dusty shelves of the libraries of many countries, to light so that they could be accessed by researchers.
The number of volumes of his study reached 15 over the years.
Sezgin founded a unique museum in 1983, bringing together more than 800 replicas of historical scientific instruments, tools and maps, mostly belonging to the golden age of Islamic science. A similar museum was opened in 2008 in İstanbul.
The 87-year-old Sezgin still works 14 hours a day. He plans to publish the 16th and 17th volumes of his study of Islamic sciences next year, which will deal with “literary sciences in the Arabic language.”
Due to his contribution to science in Europe, Sezgin has been awarded the Great Medal for Distinguished Service of the Federal Republic of Germany Although he has been living abroad away for roughly a half century, he is still a Turkish citizen and declined offers from Germany to be granted German citizenship.