Golden birds and beasts, musical fountains, and robotic servants astound and terrify guests. Brass horsemen, gilded buglers and papier-mâché drummers mark the passage of time. Statues of departed lovers sigh, kiss and pledge their love. Golden archers and copper knights warn against danger and safeguard borders. Mechanical monkeys, camouflaged in badger pelts, ape human behaviour in the midst of a lush estate. Corpses, perfectly preserved by human art, challenge the limits of life. Brazen heads reveal the future, and a revolving palace mimics the revolution of the spheres. Medieval robots, both actual and fictional, take many forms.
— E.R. Truitt, Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature and Art
Though Truitt’s book is chiefly devoted to European automata as they appeared in fact and fantasy, their parallels can easily be found in the medieval Islamic world. Automata occupy an uncanny space between the worlds of the trivial and the ultimately profound. In Melvil Dewey’s Decimal Classification and Relativ [sic] Index for Libraries (Boston, 1894), the subject is registered under two decimal headings: 791 ‘Public Entertainment’ (which also includes such topics as ‘Panorama, Circus, Menagerie and Summer Resort’), and 127 ‘Unconsciousness. Automata’. This ambiguous status was also the case in the Islamic world where automata might serve to entertain, or, on the other hand, present a metaphysical challenge and even deadly menace to those who encountered them. But the simulation of human life by ingenious mechanical devices posed special problems for Muslim thinkers. In part this was because there was a body of hadith which appeared to proscribe any representations of the human figure. A partial exception was widely allowed by Muslim scholars for dolls with which girls might be allowed to play. Even in this case there were and are stricter Muslims who do not allow dolls unless their woolly heads have no facial features, and there are stricter Muslims yet who forbid dolls altogether.
Statues of human figures were also problematic. Medieval Muslims dwelt among the statuary of antiquity and, of course, far more of it survived on open display in the cities and the countryside than does now. It was rare for these statues to be evaluated according to aesthetic criteria and the twelfth-century physician ‘Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi was most unusual in his appreciation of figurative art. During his travels in Egypt, recorded in Al-Ifada wa-al-I ‘tibar (Book of Instruction and Admonition) he remarked on ‘nicety of proportion in the head of the Sphinx’, as well as its handsome face and graceful mouth. Similarly, the surviving pharaonic statuary at ‘Ayn Shams, ‘frightful and colossal figures’, were praised by him for their just proportions, as were those he found in the ruins of Memphis. The doctor in him was particularly struck by the accuracy of their anatomical proportions. The ruined monuments and broken statuary were ‘admonitions of futurity, by calling the attention to the lot reserved for things of this world’.
But ‘Abd al-Latif, to whom we shall return, was practically alone in his aesthetic judgements. It was rare for other writers to apply the adjective jamil (beautiful) to statues, for that word was more usually used for fine-looking camels and horses. Instead they were more likely to use the word ‘ajib (marvellous) and in some contexts this ‘marvellous’ might have undertones of the ‘supernatural’. The medieval city of Seljuq Konya was defended not only by the thickness of its walls, but also by the variety of classical sculptures attached to those walls. In the words of Scott Redford: ‘Classical spolia included a colossal headless statue of Hercules placed next to one gate, as well as many funerary reliefs and carved sarcophagus panels.’ In such a manner the ruined fragments of pre-Islamic antiquity served talismanic and apotropaic purposes.