This astronomical compendium, in the Aga Khan Museum’s collection, dated 19th century Iran, contains miniature astronomical instruments in a small gold-enamelled box that would have been hung from a chain or held in a pocket; it holds a universal sun dial and a compass. The box reflects the Qajar court’s (ruled Persia 1779-1925) taste for luxury objects and their interest in scientific knowledge and trade with Europe.
The development of astronomical sciences and the increase in the precision of astronomical instruments were part of a traditional approach to practical science that evolved in close relationship with religious institutions of learning. The predominant function of astronomical knowledge in Muslim civilizations was to determine prayer times as well as the direction of prayer (qibla).
The rapid expansion of the Islamic empire resulted in contact with civilizations that had been established for a very long time. The new Muslim rulers came into contact with people who had relatively sophisticated ideas about medicine, astrology, astronomy, mathematics, and theology. Motivated by the central message of the Qur’an to pursue knowledge, as well as the Prophetic Tradition to seek knowledge, the rulers incorporated some of the material into their own, resulting in a rich collaboration of cultures which produced great scientific and philosophical traditions.
A vast movement of translation and innovative development took place between the eighth and ninth centuries where scientists from various religious and ethnic backgrounds worked together to achieve scientific advancements. Translation academies employed scholars to translate manuscripts from Greek and other languages into Arabic. Great scientific work took place first in the Middle East and subsequently, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, in Spain. Islamic Spain, or Andalusia, “had a reputation for several hundred years of being the real high point of philosophical, scientific, technical and mathematical knowledge.”*
During the Fatimid period (909-1171), a variety of academic institutions were established in Cairo, their capital; these included the Al-Azhar university founded by the Fatimid Caliph-Imam al-Mui’izz in 972 as well as the Dar al-Ilm founded by Imam al-Hakim in 1005. The Ismailis of the the Alamut period (1090-1256) continued their literary activities. The astronomical knowledge of a one-time resident of Alamut, Nasir al-Din Tusi – who founded a modern observatory of his time – enabled the production of the sophisticated astrolabe that “helped the Europeans find the sea route to India and usher in the dawn of a new era in world history.”**
*Oliver Leaman, “Scientific and Philosophical Enquiry: Achievments and Reactions in Muslim History.” Intellectual Traditions in Islam, Edited by Farhad Daftary, I.B. Taurus, London, 2000
**Heinz Halm, The Fatimids and their Traditions of Learning, I.B. Taurus & Co. in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, 1997.
“Luxury Objects,” Pattern and Light Aga Khan Museum, Skira Rizzoli Oublications Inc., New York, 2014
Research by Nimira Dewji