Islamic Studies History of Astronomy and Space Science in the Islamic World
by
Jörg Matthias Determann
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0267

Introduction

Throughout Islamic history, important rituals have been tightly connected to the movement of celestial bodies. Daily prayers have been aligned with the place of the sun in the sky. Finding the direction of Mecca has required many believers to look at the stars or, more recently, connect to a satellite. The beginnings of months, including Ramadan, have depended on the visibility of the moon. Astronomy has thus had a central place in Islamic culture. Astronomers have contributed to the construction and running of mosques, taught in madrasas, and advised rulers. In addition, they have also contributed to global science through planetary models and calculation. In the centuries after the Arab conquests, Muslim scholars translated and built on earlier learning in the areas that Islam reached. They thus also served as a bridge between the geocentric model of Ptolemy and the heliocentrism of Nicolaus Copernicus in Europe. In modern and contemporary times, the legacy of such medieval achievements has formed a valuable resource for countering racism and Islamophobia. For all of these reasons, the history of astronomy in the Muslim world has attracted much attention, arguably even more than botany or zoology, for instance. With few exceptions, most historians have specialized either in the medieval or the modern period. This has to do in part with the huge differences in cosmologies and technologies between the 12th and the 20th centuries. Another reason for this temporal specialization has been differences in source material: manuscripts versus typed and printed materials. The study of modern astroculture, including science fiction, also requires methods of analysis from outside of the history of mathematical astronomy, such as art and literary criticism. However, some scholars arguably neglected the modern period due to the belief that the greatest flourishing of Islam and its science occurred during the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, we also have some works that cover scientific developments over different periods.

General Overviews

A comprehensive account of all of Muslim astronomy, from the 7th to the 21st centuries, is still missing. However, historians (Dallal 2010, Hill 1994, İhsanoğlu 1997, King 2000, Morrison 2011, Sabra 1998, Sayılı 1988, Sezgin 1978), astrophysicists (Meziane and Guessoum 2009), and philosophers (Nasr 2001) have created valuable overviews of major patterns and problems in Islamic astronomy. While most works tend to focus on the premodern period, problems relating to rituals remain pertinent until the present.

  • Dallal, Ahmad. Islam, Science, and the Challenge of History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010.

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    A wide-ranging survey of the culture of science, including astronomy, in Muslim societies.

  • Hill, Donald R. Islamic Science and Engineering. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1994.

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    Introduces Muslim achievements in the physical sciences, including astronomy, mathematics, and chemistry, as well as in technology, such as clocks and fountains, between 750 and 1500.

  • İhsanoğlu, Ekmeleddin. Osmanli Astronomi Literatürü Tarihi. Istanbul: İslâm Tarih, Sanat ve Kültür Araştırma Merkezi, 1997.

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    Surveys astronomical works by Ottoman authors from the 15th to the 20th centuries.

  • King, David A. “Mathematical Astronomy in Islamic Civilisation.” In Astronomy across Cultures: The History of Non-Western Astronomy. Edited by Helaine Selin, 585–613. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2000.

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    Provides an overview of theoretical astronomy, applications for rituals, and instruments.

  • Meziane, Karim, and Nidhal Guessoum. “The Determination of Islamic Fasting and Prayer Times at High-Latitude Locations: Historical Review and New Astronomical Solutions.” Archaeoastronomy 22 (2009): 96–111.

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    Discusses the application of astronomy for major Islamic rituals.

  • Morrison, Robert G. “Islamic Astronomy.” In The Cambridge History of Science. Edited by David C. Lindberg and Michael H. Shank, 2:109–138. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

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    A broad overview of concerns and applications, including timekeeping, astrology, and planetary theories.

  • Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Science and Civilization in Islam. Chicago: ABC International Group, 2001.

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    Presents astronomy and cosmology as part of broader discussion of Islamic civilization.

  • Sabra, A. I. “Configuring the Universe: Aporetic, Problem Solving, and Kinematic Modeling as Themes of Arabic Astronomy.” Perspectives on Science 6.3 (1998): 288–330.

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    Offers a theoretical and philosophical dissection of the Arabic astronomical enterprise.

  • Sayılı, Aydın. The Observatory in Islam and Its Place in the General History of the Observatory. 2d ed. Ankara, Turkey: Türk Tarih Kurumu Basımevi, 1988.

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    Provides an overview of one the main sites of astronomy over the course of history.

  • Sezgin, Fuat. Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums. Vol. 6. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1978.

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    A biographical and bibliographical survey of Arabic astronomy until the 11th century.

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