Islamic Astronomy and Astronomers in the Middle Ages
During the height of the Islamic empire, leaps in scientific knowledge were made, which later contributed to scientific exploration during the renaissance in Europe.
Among these sciences, astronomy was of the most beloved of the Arabs, as expressed by Albategnius, who said that the study of the stars came immediately after religion because it recognized the oneness of Allah and the highest divine wisdom . The Islamic empire did not only preserve ancient Greek astronomical knowledge, it expanded upon it and integrated it with Persian and Indian philosophies. The Moorish king Alfonso X of Castile made calculations of the length of the year, the size of the earth, and the shape of the moon’s orbit. These calculations and those made by other astronomers made more precise numbers out of the ancient Greek ones, and also led to the development of a sun-centered theory of the solar system during the renaissance.
Carrying Astonomy into Islam
Before being unified by Mohammed in the 7th century, the Arabs were many desert-dwelling tribes who had used the stars, sun, and moon for centuries to navigate between oasis's, much as the Polynesians used the stars to navigate the ocean. The imagined star patterns kept folklore alive and were also used to anticipate rain, the fertility of animals, and cast astrological predictions of natural events, plant and animal growth, and even human behavior.
Many Muslims, including Mohammed, did not support the occult arts of astronomy and astrology, as they seemed to deny monotheism, but one of the most famous Islamic astronomers, al-Biruni, practiced astrology and gave instructions for making predictions. He believed that humans could detect cosmic influence and that each star and planet gave off "celestial rays" that caused us humans to vibrate along with them.
How Religion Encouraged Invention
A natural interest in numbers and a need to regulate a life of daily worship necessitated the invention of instruments like the lenseless telescope, and improvement on Greek inventions, such as the spherical astrolabe. The Arabs gave the world a number system that included zero, and named many of our constellations and stars. Orion, for example, used to be called al-jabbar, which later became our word for algebra.
The Islamic tradition held that the holy mosque was the center of everything. Astronomers were assigned the task of determining how to build the mosque so that it faced Mecca, a tradition taken from the ancient Jewish practice of facing Jerusalem during prayer. Old priests didn’t always accept the new astronomical methods, as they were based on ideas of Greek polytheists. The older folk practice of finding the direction of Mecca was a set of instructions such as:
“Stand with the stars of the Plough behind your right ear when the lunar mansion Han’a is directly back of you, the Pole Star on your right shoulder, the East wind blowing at your left shoulder and the West wind at your right cheek”
This form required knowledge of the natural world, but not of math or science, a notion that was changed during the period of Islamic empire.
The Lunar Calendar
The Islamic calendar was created according to moon. It has 12 lunar months, the days of which were declared by recording the first sighting of the moon at dusk. Another way of telling time, which was derived from India, was the use of lunar mansions, a series of constellations that crossed the sky along the moon’s path.
The Islamic Legacy was Carried into Western Thought
The Islamic empire had profound influence on the scientific steps forward for centuries after its downfall. It provided the Western world with more accurate time-keeping and the first accurate criticisms of ancient Greek models of the universe, such as Ptolemy’s eath-centered theory.
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