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.

Premodern Astronomy

Most research on Islamic astronomy by 20th-century scholars has focused on the premodern period. A major preoccupation has been to show the creativity and originality of medieval astronomers. In other words, historians have demonstrated that medieval Muslims did more than simply preserve ancient Greek knowledge. They have explained how Muslims translated and, over time, came to doubt Ptolemy’s planetary model. These doubts and the construction of new mathematical devices then also influenced Copernicus and the European Renaissance in general (Feldhay and Ragep, 2017, Ragep 2007, Saliba 2007). Much historical research has focused on the lands between Egypt and Iran and the periods between the 9th and the 14th centuries. Nevertheless, an increasing number of studies have also been dedicated to the Arabian Peninsula (Schmidl 2007), India (Pingree 1987), and the Maghreb, as well as the time after 1400 (Brentjes 2008). Many studies were first published as separate articles in Centaurus, Isis, and the Journal for the History of Astronomy. Subsequently, these articles were reprinted in major books (e.g., Kennedy 1998, Saliba 1994).

Editions and Translations

Editors and translators have been especially interested in the works of Ptolemy’s Muslim successors and critics, notably Ibn al-Haytham and Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (Dallal 1995, Ibn al-Haytham 1971, Langermann 1990, Ragep 1993, Voss 1985). Their texts were widely circulated in manuscripts and reached Europe (Ibn Nahmias 2016) as well as India (Kusuba and Pingree 2002). Nevertheless, despite many decades of efforts, numerous other Muslim astronomical works still remain to be edited and translated.

Tables

One of the most important genres of astronomical literature in the Islamic world before the advent of computers was the zij. This type of handbook provides tables of values for determining the position of the moon, planets, the sun, and other stars in the sky. Leading scholars in the history of Islamic astronomy have dedicated themselves to surveying this massive genre and analyzing influential individual zijes (Van Dalen 2014; Kennedy 1956; King, et al. 2001; King 2004; Samsó 1998).

Instruments

Alongside observatories and manuscripts, some of the most important material remains of premodern Islamic astronomy have been its instruments. Of artistic as well as scientific value, many of them have been preserved in museums around the world. Notable collections include the following: Aga Khan Museum, Canada; British Museum; History of Science Museum, United Kingdom; Metropolitan Museum of Art, United States; Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia; Museum of Islamic Art, Qatar; Royal Museums Greenwich, United Kingdom; and the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization, United Arab Emirates. The Istanbul Museum of the History of Science and Technology in Islam also displays many modern replicas. Scholars and publics have been especially attracted to astrolabes (see, e.g., King 2005), elaborate inclinometers for determining the altitude above the horizon of a celestial body. These instruments have become iconic of Islamic civilization itself. Yet they were also used by many non-Muslim astronomers and navigators (Gingerich 1987; Rodríguez-Arribas, et al. 2019; Sarma 2011).

Modern Astronomy

In recent decades, more and more historians have become interested in the history of modern astronomy in the Muslim world. One of the focuses has been the introduction of the heliocentric model. Another preoccupation has been the establishment of observatories equipped with telescopes and the creation of a modern astronomical profession (Crozet 1995, Crozet 2008, Tully and Sadsaoud 2003). A third focus has been on the attempts to standardize time. Scholars have been especially interested in the social and political implications of scientific work (Schiavon 2010, Stolz 2018). This has included questions about the relationship between science and religion (Guessoum 2011).

  • Crozet, Pascal. “La trajectoire d’un scientifique égyptien au XIXe siècle: Mahmûd al-Falakî (1815–1885).” In Entre réforme sociale et mouvement national: Identité et modernisation en Égypte (1882–1962). Edited by Alain Roussillon, 285–309. Recherches et témoignages. Cairo: CEDEJ, 1995.

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    Sketches the career of one of the first modern professional astronomers in Egypt.

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  • Crozet, Pascal. Les sciences modernes en Égypte: Transfert et appropriation, 1805–1902. Paris: Geuthner, 2008.

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    Focuses on the teaching of the mathematical sciences in 19th-century Egypt, with special emphasis to textbooks and their authors.

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  • Guessoum, Nidhal. Islam’s Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science. London: I. B. Tauris, 2011.

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    Includes chapters on cosmology and the anthropic principle—the view that the universe was made for humans.

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  • Schiavon, Martina. “Geodesy and Map-Making in France and Algeria: Contests and Collaborations between Army Officers and Observatory Scientists.” In The Heavens on Earth: Observatories and Astronomy in Nineteenth-Century Science and Culture. Edited by David Aubin, Charlotte Bigg, and H. Otto Sibum, 199–224. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

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    Discusses the use of astronomy for military purposes in the French empire.

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  • Stolz, Daniel A. The Lighthouse and the Observatory: Islam, Science, and Empire in Late Ottoman Egypt. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

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    A major work that analyzes the relationship between modern astronomy and Islamic publishing in the context of Egyptian, Ottoman, and British imperialisms.

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  • Tully, Françoise Le Guet, and Hamid Sadsaoud. “La création de l’observatoire d’Alger.” La Revue du Musée des arts et métiers 38 (June 2003): 26–35.

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    Discusses the establishment of the Algiers Observatory in 1876.

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Heliocentrism

Medieval Muslim astronomers themselves developed mathematical models that later formed essential components of Nicolaus Copernicus’s work. Nevertheless, it took centuries for heliocentrism to spread from major Christian to Muslim centers of learning in the Ottoman Empire (Ben-Zaken 2004), Iran (Arjomand 1997), and India (Ansari 2002). This process happened through diplomatic exchange, colonial and missionary enterprises, and individual travel. Key sites included Aligarh in India, Beirut (Saliba 1992), Cairo, Istanbul, London, and Paris. The new planetary model was at times harmonized with existing religious traditions, but at others it provoked heated debates.

  • Ansari, S. M. Razaullah. “European Astronomy in Indo-Persian Writings.” In History of Oriental Astronomy. Edited by S. M. Razaullah Ansari, 133–144. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2002.

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    Discusses texts by Mir Muhammad Husayn and Mirza Abu Taleb, two scholars from 18th-century India who traveled to Europe.

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  • Arjomand, Kamran. “The Emergence of Scientific Modernity in Iran: Controversies Surrounding Astrology and Modern Astronomy in the Mid-Nineteenth Century.” Iranian Studies 30.1–2 (1997): 5–24.

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    Discusses a conflict between new astronomical knowledge and traditional Islamic cosmology.

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  • Ben-Zaken, Avner. “The Heavens of the Sky and the Heavens of the Heart: The Ottoman Cultural Context for the Introduction of Post-Copernican Astronomy.” British Journal for the History of Science 37.1 (2004): 1–28.

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    Contextualizes the translation of Noël Duret’s New Richelian Ephemerides from French into Arabic in the 17th-century Ottoman Empire.

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  • Saliba, George. “Copernican Astronomy in the Arab East: Theories of the Earth’s Motion in the Nineteenth Century.” In Transfer of Modern Science and Technology to the Muslim World. Edited by Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, 145–155. Istanbul: Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture, 1992.

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    Traces debates about modern astronomy in Arabic periodicals published in Beirut.

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The Transformation of Time

Although time is central to history, it was long taken for granted. However, in recent years more and more historians have studied time as a subject in itself. They have investigated local practices of timekeeping and their transformation (Barak 2013, Stolz 2015, Wishnitzer 2015). This change happened under the influence of new technologies as well as the integration of Muslim lands into global empires and economies (Ogle 2015).

Space Exploration

For most of history, Muslims have only looked at celestial bodies and calculated their positions at a distance. Ascending to the heavens was the preserve of prophets like Muhammad. However, after the launch of Sputnik in 1957, space travel became a possibility and aspiration for many. Newly independent Muslim-majority countries developed programs to launch rockets (Tarikhi 2015), satellites (Ziadat 1988), and humans (Al Saud, et al. 2011; Fischer 2010; Zook 2010). Such programs were not just scientific and technical, but also political endeavors (Harding 2013). Muslim elites justified investments in big science with military and economic arguments. Moreover, despite all the differences in technology, they framed the conquest of space as a continuation of earlier Muslim achievements in astronomy (Determann 2018).

Launch Vehicles

Perhaps all Muslim-majority countries acquired rockets and missiles during the 20th century. However, a few stand out by not just importing foreign technology, but also by seeking to build a strong domestic military industry. Egypt (Sirrs 2006), Iran (Nemets and Kurz 2009), Iraq, and Libya (Pirard 1997) at times pursued very ambitious programs to develop rockets capable of reaching outer space. This happened especially when their leaders felt threatened by Israel and the United States and did not enjoy enough protection through another alliance. As space rockets could be used to hit targets on earth with explosives, their production was the subject of espionage and sabotage. As a result, while using space programs for propaganda purposes, governments kept many details secret. This meant that many scholars only gained a partial view of them. One exception is Iraq, whose missile programs came under intense scrutiny by United Nations inspectors after the Gulf War of 1991 (United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission 2007). Another well-documented, but mostly civilian effort was the Lebanese Rocket Society during the 1960s (Chad 2013).

Life in Outer Space

As Muslims have conquered the new realm of outer space, they have raised new questions about life. One set of questions has concerned Islamic rituals (Fischer 2008, Lewis 2013). How does one worship in a state of weightlessness? Does an astronaut need to fast when a mission takes place during Ramadan? Another set of questions has been about the implications of contact with extraterrestrial intelligence (al-Yasin 2009, Iqbal 2018, Weintraub 2014): What would it mean for Muslims to discover advanced creatures who are not the sons of Adam?

Astroculture

Very few Muslims have actually traveled into space. However, the culture of space exploration encompassed large sections of Muslim societies beginning in the 1950s. Numerous writers and visual artists, including the prominent Egyptian playwright Tawfiq al-Hakim, envisioned futures for humanity outside Earth. While some of these visions were secular, others were explicitly Islamic utopias (Szyska 1995). In a few cases, Muslims even founded new religious movements that combined Islamic elements with the belief in flying saucers (Curtis 2016, Nuruddin 2006). Scholars of art and literature have increasingly turned their attention to Arab and Muslim futurisms (Hochberg 2018, Grandjean 2018, Muller 2017, Rani 2015, Rauh 2019).

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