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Islam’s Contribution to Today’s World of Astronomy

Author: Alia Sabahat Chaudhary

Editor: Hira Islam

Muslims have been observing the skies for a long time, and their motivation stemmed from their need to determine the exact times for their prayers, which are dependent on the movement of the sun and the moon. Additionally, the Muslim calendar follows the Lunar year, with the beginning of each month being marked by the sighting of the crescent moon. The lunar calendar enhanced their need to observe space and eventually led to great astronomical discoveries on their part. Due to this strong motivation, Muslims have been observing the skies for many centuries. Many believe that astronomy was brought back to life after the Greeks by Nicolaus Copernicus, the 15th-century Polish astronomer famous for introducing the sun-centred theory of the solar system. However, many historians now believe that it is not a coincidence that Copernicus’s models of the planetary theory are mathematically identical to those prepared by Ibn al-Shatir more than a century before him.

Additionally, it is known that Copernicus relied heavily on the comprehensive astronomical treatise by AI-Battani, the Sabian Tables, which included star catalogues and planetary tables. The mathematical devices discovered by Muslims before Coperni­cus referred to in modern terms as linkages of constant length vectors rotating at constant angular velocities, are precisely the same as those used by Copernicus. The only but important difference between the two was that while Copernicus’s Earth made orbits around the Sun, the Muslims’ Earth was stationary. Moreover, Copernicus also used instru­ments that were particular to astronomy in the East, like the parallactic ruler, which had previously only been used in Samarkand and Maragha observatories.

Other than providing history with many great astrologists, Muslims also created enormous observatories. Though Muslims were not the first to observe the astronomical world, they were pioneers in observing outer space with massive instruments found in these observatories. Though there have been many observatories built within Muslim history but the ones made by Caliph Al-Ma’mun, who ruled from Baghdad from 813 to 833, are fascinating. Not only did Al-Ma’mun build the first observa­tory in Islam, but he also arguably built the first observatory in world history. Al-Ma’mun was an enlightened leader who played a significant part in setting up the House of Wisdom, one of the most outstanding intellectual academies in history. His earliest space observatories were built in the Al-Shamsiyah quarter of Baghdad and on Mount Qasioun at Damascus. In these observatories, astronomers observed the sun, the moon, the planets, and fixed stars. The results of the work done here were presented in a book called the Mumtahan Zi, or Verified Tables, whose author is said to have been Ibn Abi Mansour.

Alfonso X, a Spanish king of the second half of the 13th cen­tury, tried to carry on the Islamic tradition of building observato­ries in western Europe, but he failed. Perhaps, that was because astrology was frowned upon by the Church, and its usefulness was heavily questioned. Four centuries later, however, the situa­tion gradually changed, and knowl­edge of astronomy gained depth and breadth, with Europe absorbing all that had gone on in the Islamic world. TheMuslims exchange of knowledge occured to such a degree that the instruments used by the famous 16th-century observational astronomer Tycho Brahe were very similar to those used earlier by Muslim astronomers. His famous mural quadrant was like those developed in eastern Islam. 

Figure 1- This 15th-century Persian manuscript of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi’s observatory at Maragha depicts astronomers at work teaching astronomy, including how to use an astrolabe. The instrument hangs on the observatory’s wall.

What muslims truly pioneered was building massive astronomical instruments with such accuracy that it leaves one appalled. An instrument of particular interest is the astrolabe. The astrolabe is described by Dr. Harold Wil­liams, an American astrophysicist, as “the most important astronomical calculating device before the invention of digital computers and the most important astronomical observational device before the invention of the telescope.” The earliest origins of the astrolabe are unknown. However, it is known that Theon of Alexandria wrote on the astrolabe in the fourth century C.E., and the earliest preserved Greek treatise on the sub­ject is from the sixth century. The origin of the word “astrolabe” is in the Arabic word asturlab, which is said to be a transliteration of a Greek word. Whatever its origins, the instrument was fully developed, and its uses were fully exploited by Mus­lim astronomers. They needed to deter­mine prayer times and the direction of Mecca. In the Islamic world, astrolabes remained popu­lar until 1800. 

Regarding the physical appearance of the instrument, astrolabes were two-dimensional models of the heavens, showing how the sky looked at a specific place at a given time. It was done by drawing the sky on the face of the astrolabe and marking it so that positions in the sky were easy to find. Some astrolabes were small, palm-size, and portable; others were huge, with diameters of a few meters. Astrolabes were indeed the astronomical and analog com­puters of their time. Not only could they solving problems relating to the position of celestial bodies, like the sun and stars, and time, they could also take altitude measurements of the sun; could tell the time during the day or night; or find the time of a celestial event such as sunrise, sunset, or culmination of a star. These calculations were made possible by the use of ingenious tables printed on the back of the astrolabe. These tables contained information about curves for time conversions, a calendar for converting the day of the month to the sun’s position on the ecliptic, trigonometric scales, and a graduation of 360 degrees.

Figure 2- A working astrolabe, created by Mohamed Zakariya. The creation of this almost magical device requires a wealth of knowledge. Using ancient techniques, such an astrolabe can take three to six months to complete; it requires extensive geometrical calcula

In the Holy Quran, Allah describes the astronomical world and its movements as signs for a people of understanding. For instance, in chapter 2 verse 164, Allah states, “Verily, in the creation of the heavens and of the earth, and the succession of night and day: and in the ships that speed through the sea with what is useful to man: and in the waters which God sends down from the sky, giv­ing life thereby to the earth after it had been life­ less, and causing all manner of living creatures to multiply thereon: and in the change of the winds, and the clouds that run their appointed courses between sky and earth: [in all this] there are mes­sages indeed for people who use their reason.” Astronomical phenomena are frequently cited in the Quran and often referred to for their use to humanity as in timekeeping and navigation. The Quran talks about precise orbits and courses, thus passing on the message behind these phenomena lies a coherent system that people are invited to explore. The holy injuctions provided another motivation behind why early Muslims scholars and even Muslims today, are so interested in astrological and scientific phenomena in general. As science advances, more truths of the Holy Quran are proved, and more verses of the Holy Quran are explained. Though the contributions of Muslims to the world of modern astrology are often overlooked, they exist and are very hard to deny. This article only presented a snippet of these contributions. 


Al-Hassani, T. S. (2012). 1001 Inventions: The enduring legacy of muslim civilization. National Geographic. 

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