Quran: “And He [God] it is Who hath set for you the stars that ye may guide your course by them amid the darkness…”

And He [God] it is Who hath set for you the stars that ye may guide your course by them amid the darkness of the land and the sea. We have detailed Our revelations for a people who have knowledge.”
Quran 6:97 (Translation by Pickthall)

Photo: Fritz Benedict and David Chappell , Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics
Photo: Fritz Benedict and David Chappell , Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics

During the Middle Ages, leaps in scientific knowledge were made in the Islamic civilisations which  contributed to scientific exploration during the renaissance in Europe. The Islamic empire did not only preserve ancient Greek scientific knowledge, it expanded upon it and integrated it with Persian and Indian philosophies. Astronomy flourished throughout the Muslim world from the ninth to the sixteenth centuries, from Arab states through Persia into Central Asia.

The development of astronomical sciences and the increase in the precision of astronomy instruments evolved with religious institutions of learning. Observatories, one of the contributions of Islamic civilisations, were established to further develop the knowledge of astronomy.

A 16th-century depiction of astronomers at the Galata observatory in Istanbul.Image: Istanbul University Library
A 16th-century depiction of astronomers at the Galata observatory in Istanbul. Istanbul University Library

The first observatory was established by Caliph al-Mamun in Baghdad in the eighth century, where they tested Ptolemy’s theories noted in his work Almagest, subsequently compiling revised tables. Other renowned observatories include the famous Maragha of the thirteenth century and Ulugh Beg’s in Samarkand in the fifteenth century. Measuring instruments were revised and sometimes larger ones were built to increase the accuracy of measurements.

Among the early mathematicians and astronomers was al-Battani, known by his Latin name Albategnius (ca. 858-929), who made critical arguments on Ptolemy’s earth-centred planetary motions. In his work, al-Battani mentioned that he observed a solar and a lunar eclipse while in Antioch on January 23 and August 2, 901, respectively.A lunar crater is named after al-Battani.

The constellations Andromeda and Pisces, folio from al-Sufi's book, ca. 1450 Iran. Aga Khan Museum
The constellations Andromeda and Pisces, folio from al-Sufi’s book, ca. 1450 Iran. Aga Khan Museum

The astronomer ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn ‘Umar al-Sufi (903-986), commonly known as al-Sufi and in Europe by his Latin name Azophi, worked in Isfahan (Iran) and in Baghdad (Iraq). Al-Sufi’s most famous work, Kitab suwar al-kawakib(Book of the Constellations of the Fixed Stars), published around 964, spurred further work on astronomy and exercised a huge influence on the development of science in Europe.

Ibn al-Haytham (965 -1040) also made critical arguments on Ptolomey’s observations, initiating research that eventually resulted in the helio-centric model of planetary motion. The Fatimid Caliph-Imam al-Hakim made use of al-Haytham’s knowledge on astronomy to calculate the amount of water in the Nile for agricultural purposes.2

The influence of Arabic astronomy survives in terminology such as nadir, zenith, azimuth, among several others. A large number of the star names we use today can be traced to the star catalogue of al-Sufi.

Sources:
1 Al- Battan, Encycplodia.com (accessed April 2016)
2 Markus Hattstein, “Science in Islam,” Islam Art and Architecture Edited by Markus Hattstein and Peter Delius, Konemann
Robert Lebling, “Arabic in the Sky,” Aramco World (accessed April 2016)
The Constellations, World Digital Library (accessed April 2016)

Compiled by Nimira Dewji

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