The history of Islam with astronomy
The golden age of Islam saw astronomy flourish. Here’s a look at a handful of pioneering Muslim astronomers whose names are written in the stars.
Images recently released by NASA, taken by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), left Earth mesmerized.
The drama of the cosmos was captured in vivid technicolor and it’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. It’s surreal to think that we’re looking at ancient galleries, some of which are over 13 billion years old.
Stephan’s Quintet image allows us to glimpse how galaxies interact and merge with each other. It almost seems like the twinkling galaxies are locked in a sensual dance.
Most viewers were mesmerized by the image of a Southern Ring Nebula where star death was captured in all its blazing glory. But we hate to tell you – the fiery image comes from a not-so-sensual source; the gas and dust released by the dying stars created the fantastic hues and patterns.
“How do we measure the radius of the Earth when the instruments are missing? You are climbing a hill! This is what astronomer Al Biruni did at the time”
These ethereal snapshots have been brought to us by the technological marvel, JWST, which has been in the making for 30 years and has produced some of the sharpest images of space to date.
But long before these close-ups were all the rage, the night sky was still capturing our collective imagination. It has always been a place of beauty and mystery, of hope and darkness, which has inspired artists and scientists.
It’s no wonder that the field of astronomy dates back to the 1st millennium BC. Ancient science has crossed borders. Each culture, with its particular knowledge base and religious practices, has added to the understanding of our universe.
While the Greeks were among the first to officially record their discoveries, they were closely followed by Islamic astronomers. If you try to gauge the extent of the latter’s contributions to astronomy, it’s written in the stars. Literally.
About two-thirds of the stars – which are referred to by their names rather than numbers – have Arabic namesas noted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.
For example, Aldebaran comes from ‘al dabaran’, which translates to follower, since this star is close to the Pleiades star cluster.
We dove into history, all the way back to the Islamic Golden Age, where history began to learn more about the stars and the astronomers behind the names:
Astronomy and the Abbasids:
The Islamic Golden Age spread between the 8th and 14th centuries CE.
It was a time when science, technology, arts and cultures flourished, due to the impetus given to scholarly pursuits by the Abbasid Caliphate.
“Since time immemorial, Muslims had informally studied the stars. One had to understand the night sky to find one’s way through the deserts; one also had to look skyward to know the direction of Mecca and the time exact prayer”
Astronomy was not new to the Empire. Since time immemorial, Muslims have studied the stars informally. You had to understand the night sky to find your way through the deserts; it was also necessary to look towards the sky to know the direction of Mecca and the exact hour of the prayer. Under Abbasid patronage, scientific research was encouraged and the field expanded by leaps and bounds.
This period coincided with the Dark Ages in Europe and Muslim scholars came to the fore. Many of their names remain etched in the sky along with celestial bodies named after them.
Here are some important names:
Al Battani: An ancient lunar impact crater, Albategnius, is named after the anglicized version of its name. Al Battani was a Mesopotamian-Arab mathematician and astronomer (858-929 CE) who belonged to the ancient Sabian sect, a star-worshipping religious sect from Harran.
Some scholars claim that while his ancestors were Sabian, he himself was a Muslim, given his name: AbūʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad ibn Jābir ibn Sinān al-Raqqī al-Ḥarrānī aṣ-Ṣābiʾal-Battānī.
His heritage led him naturally to the stars. His father was a maker of scientific instruments which further fueled his interest in astronomy.
Like other astronomers of his time, he was influenced by Ptolemy. But his inquisitive mind meant he improved Ptolemy’s astronomical calculations by replacing geometric methods with trigonometry.
“Muhammed Al Fazari is credited with building the first astrolabe in the Islamic world, dating back to the 8th century”
His best known work is Kitab al-Zij which earned the recognition of many medieval scholars, including Copernicus.
‘Kitab’, when translated from Arabic, means book; “Zij” in Persian refers to an astronomical book which contains tables and calculations of the positions and movements of the sun, stars and planets.
Al Battani’s greatest contributions as recorded in his Zij are: he cataloged a staggering 489 stars at a time when instruments for viewing the sky were rare and rudimentary; his determination of the solar year at 365 days, 5 hours, 46 minutes and 2 seconds, is very close to the calculation as it is accepted today; he showed the world that the farthest distance of the sun from the Earth is variable and therefore annular solar eclipses are possible, just like total eclipses.
It is therefore not surprising that Al Battani is often referred to as the “Ptolemy of the Arabs”.
If you think you’ve heard his name, it may be because the astronomer has entered pop culture: a ship in Star Trek: Voyager is named USS Al Battani.
Mariam Al Astrolabbiya: There are several overlooked women in astronomy. These pioneering women made significant contributions to the understanding of our universe, and yet, sadly, their names have been erased from the pages of history.
One such fascinating and inspiring figure is Mariam Al ljliyy, better known as Mariam al Astrolabbiya, who lived in Aleppo in the 10th century. We know so little about her that even her first name is controversial.
According to Ibn Al-Nadim, a 10th century biographer and historian, Mariam was born to an astronomer. His father Kusayar Al Jili (also registered as Al ljliyy) was an expert geographer, mathematician and astronomer. Their family name is often replaced by their profession.
The father-daughter duo have mastered the art of making astrolabes. If you’re wondering what an astrolabe is, consider it one of the first GPS systems – sophisticated technology wrapped in sheer beauty.
These intricately hand-held and hand-held devices literally put the model of the universe in your hands. Hold it in a particular direction, turn the dials, and it could reveal everything from the time of day to the location of celestial bodies to the direction of Mecca. It was this latter use that greatly popularized the astrolabe in the region.
The instrument had been around for quite some time, having been invented in Hellenistic times. But it was the medieval Islamic world that further improved the technology behind the instrument and made it accessible to more people.
Eighth-century mathematician and astronomer Muhammad Al Fazari is credited with building the first astrolabe in the Islamic world.
Mariam Al Astrolabbiya was one of the few women of her time to have learned the art and science behind this intricate instrument. She first learned the trade from her father and later was also trained by Nastulus, who is considered to be the maker of one of the oldest surviving astrolabes.
Mariam’s expertise soon saw her employed by the first emir of Aleppo, Sayf al-Dawla. Although forgotten for many years, Mariam’s legacy has recently been honored. His contribution to the field was recognized in 1990, giving his name to the main-belt asteroid, 7060 Al ljliyy.
Al Biruni: The asteroid 9936 Al Biruni, as well as a lunar crater, bear the name of this mathematical genius. Al Biruni was born in Uzbekistan in the 10th century. Very little is known about his heritage. But there are many records of his work; the scholar wrote some 146 titles during his lifetime, half of which were devoted to astronomy and mathematics. How do we know? He indexed most of his work himself!
His greatest contribution was to measure the radius of the Earth, which was almost right. Measuring the Earth was not an easy task. So he started by measuring the height of a hill that falls today in the Punjab province of Pakistan.
He chose this hill because of its unique topography and location. He then climbed the hill to measure the horizon. Using trigonometry and algebra, it came to a value of 3928.77 miles, which is slightly lower than the currently accepted value of 3847.80 miles.
Caliph Al Mamun: Although he is not an astronomer, the Caliph has an “Almanon” crater named in his honor. For it was under his patronage that astronomy as a field developed in his Empire.
In the 9th century, Caliph Al Mamun gave a boost to the House of Wisdom, an academy where the greatest minds in science and the arts could gather, debate and push the boundaries of knowledge.
Simple translations were not enough. The researchers wanted to test the hypothesis for themselves. Along the way, many Muslim astronomers corrected and improvised on Ptolemy’s work.
Al Mamun also has the merit of having built the first observatory in the Muslim world which was installed in Baghdad. He did not stop there, since he created another observatory in Damascus.
There are many other respected astronomers, scholars and patrons, too many to list. Some names have been lost over time.
Today man has gone from gazing at the stars to reaching for them. There have been several Arab and Muslim astronauts, starting with Sultan bin Salman Al Saud, a Saudi prince, who is also the first Arab and the very first Muslim in space. The newest Arab in the space is the Emirati Hazza Al Mansouri. And the list continues…
The author writes under a pseudonym for reasons of confidentiality