Will the stars of Arab astronomy ever shine again?

Despite the illustrious astronomical past of the Arab world, the concentration of knowledge of capitalism and colonialism has left the region languishing. Barring a few spurts of innovation, there is still a long way to go to regain its rightful status.

Most of the conventional literature on the history of Islamic astronomy focuses on tracing its influence on the development of astronomy and other sciences in the West while limiting attention to the period from the 9th to the 13th centuries. century known as the Islamic Golden Age.

Despite the fact that most Islamic astronomical texts are in Arabic and originate in what is now known geographically as the “Arab” world from the Middle East to North Africa, there is a noticeable paucity of literature and the historiography linking Islamic astronomy to modern Arabic. astronomy and science.

Historically, since the 8th and 9th centuries, Arabic has served as the scientific language of Islamic civilization, just as it has served as the language for religious sciences, regardless of where these sciences were written or studied.

These same people may have used Syriac, Turkish and later Persian as their primary home languages. And yet, they mainly communicated their intellectual production – in particular its scientific part – in Arabic, like Ibn Maymun (Maimonides), who reserved Hebrew for his religious and legal works while writing the majority of his works. philosophical and medical in Arabic.

“It has always been easier to write and talk about ‘Western’ science as a contemporary monolith driving the progress of science and its implementation in the industrial world, when its Arab counterpart seems to be either non-existent, be very late in the Islamic Golden Age”

There should be a lineage that connects these works to modern Arab scientific and intellectual output, and yet there is still an absence of the modern Arab scientific subject in scholarship, the academic imagination, and pop culture.

The study of Islamic or Arabic science from an exclusively pre-modern angle and as a homogeneous whole has contributed to this absence.

It could also be related to the problematic nature of the signifier “Arab” since it is both a geographical and linguistic marker that has manifested itself throughout history in different ways – the “Arab” world is a heterogeneous construction that carries with it many identities with different legacies. and different levels of political autonomy.

It has always been easier to write and talk about “Western” science as the contemporary monolith leading the progress of science and its implementation in the industrial world, when the Arabic counterpart seems either non-existent or very late in Islam. Golden age where it ended.

Kuwaiti astrophotographers Mohammad al-Obaidi (right) and Abdullah al-Harbi track the grand conjunction between Jupiter and Saturn in al-Salmi district, a desert area 120 km west of Kuwait City [Getty Images]

In addition to these problems, it cannot be denied that the lack of research and funding in the region along with the compounded political and economic constraints on the region has put the development of these sciences on hold.

It goes without saying that under capitalism, the lack of equal distribution of resources and opportunities has placed entire nations at the mercy of science, where so-called “underdeveloped” countries are either laboratories of product experimentation, or passive consumers.

Arab scientists rarely find the resources to develop their studies and research in their own country and end up outsourcing their expertise elsewhere.

Historically, Arabic sciences were not limited by geography or language and this could extend to our view of contemporary Arabic as a subject of science.

In his diary, Arab World Science: Transnational Astronomy and Modern EgyptJörg Matthias Determann makes the argument that Arab scientists should be seen as cosmopolitan subjects working in multiple scientific and geographical fields.

He notes that Egyptian scientists since the 1960s have contributed a great deal to astronomy by being “transnational” players, collaborating with their peers around the world in research on Mars and the Moon.

Thus, the idea that the Apollo program was an “American” effort is complicated by his research. A former non-aligned country, Egyptian scientists also took part in other initiatives aimed at bridging the Cold War divide, such as the Apollo-Soyuz test project and the resumption of US-China scientific contacts in the 1970s.

Later, researchers from Egypt and other countries compared the deserts of Mars to those of North Africa and searched for water in both. As advisors to Qatar, Sudan and Egypt, they promoted technological progress throughout the Arab world and the Third World in general.

“What remains is an appropriate approach to Arab historiography that does not leave Arab scientists in a pre-modern past”

Another notable Arab astronomer is Syrian scientist Shadia Al Habbal, who completed her studies in Syria and the American University of Beirut, then earned her doctorate at the University of Cincinnati.

Shadia Al Habbal was a pioneer in her field, was appointed editor-in-chief of Geophysical Research Journal and is a member of the International Astronomical Union. His research focused on observations of eclipse polarimetry and solar magnetic fields.

Working with NASA, Habbal oversaw a team from the Hawaii Institute of Astronomy that participated in observing the solar corona during the 2006, 2008, and 2009 eclipses. She also had a significant impact on the creation of NASA’s Parker Solar Probe, which was the first spacecraft to enter the solar corona when it launched in 2018.

Despite the prolific work of other notable names such as Farouk El-Baz, Doris Daou and Saleh Ajeery, most searches that begin with the keywords “Arab Astronomy” return pre-modern examples.

In terms of institutes, the Arab Union for Astronomy and Space Sciences lists how almost every Arab country has its own observatory and institute dedicated to astronomy.

Unfortunately, in most cases, the activities of these observatories are related to the observance of the Islamic Hijri calendar. Arabic resources on the Arab Union website are limited to 40 books, mostly related to Islamic observations or ancient books that have been superseded by more contemporary knowledge.

Reliance on Western resources and information is much more prevalent, where astronomy-related news articles are all translated from foreign news sources.

Despite the fragmentation of resources on the subject, there are active projects that show promise, the Sharjah Academy for Astronomy Space and Science Technology, since its inauguration in 2015, has been actively developing astronomical sciences and supporting research in the field.

The Emirates Mars mission is a notable development in the region and other countries like Qatar are establishing more space centers dedicated to astronomy.

“Arab scientists have always been among the main missions in space”

Space has always been the domain of the world to explore power, identity and develop other sciences, from quantum physics to geology.

These recent developments are promising and put the Arab region on the global space map, despite the fact that Arab scientists have always been among the main missions in space.

What remains is an appropriate approach to Arab historiography that does not leave Arab scientists stuck in the pre-modern past.

The tools for such a historiography exist, with the works of postcolonial thinkers and historians, who distance the discourse from national essentialism and flesh out a more vibrant heterogeneous history that crosses the globe.

Dana Dawud is a multidisciplinary artist and independent researcher, her work deals with contemporary art, philosophy and Internet culture at large.

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