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Islamic Astronomy and Astronomers in the Middle Ages

Updated on August 4, 2014
Depiction of astronomers at work in the observatorium of Taqi al-Din. Though it was painted after the height of the Islamic empire, it is an example of Islamic patronage of astronomy.
Depiction of astronomers at work in the observatorium of Taqi al-Din. Though it was painted after the height of the Islamic empire, it is an example of Islamic patronage of astronomy.

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.

Alfonso X, "The Wise", and his court.
Alfonso X, "The Wise", and his court.

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.

Illustration from al-Biruni's work, showing the phases of the moon. The sun shines from the right, and the moon rotates in and out of the Earth's shadow. Modern students of astronomy find similar illustrations in their textbooks.
Illustration from al-Biruni's work, showing the phases of the moon. The sun shines from the right, and the moon rotates in and out of the Earth's shadow. Modern students of astronomy find similar illustrations in their textbooks.
A spherical astrolabe, made of brass/
A spherical astrolabe, made of brass/
Brass astrolabe of North African origin, dated 1309/10 AD
Brass astrolabe of North African origin, dated 1309/10 AD

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.

The well-known constellation Orion.
The well-known constellation Orion.

All photos taken from Wikipedia commons.

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    • stephaniedas profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Das 

      6 years ago from Miami, US

      I completely agree, wd curry. Our media is definitely biased, and our education system completely leaves out scientific discovery from cultures other than the Greeks and Romans and other Europeans.

      I am always impressed when i learn that ancient people made such great discoveries. Thanks for your input!

    • WD Curry 111 profile image

      WD Curry 111 

      6 years ago from Space Coast

      Great job in a short synopsis. We tend forget sources of knowledge with our western civ. focus. Our movies depict Persians as barbaric, while they advanced religion, science, etc. far beyond where they found it. Perhaps it was due to their accepting nature that they got from Zoroaster. Very impressive.

    • stephaniedas profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Das 

      7 years ago from Miami, US

      Yes, I agree with you. We can look at the wisdom of the past for answers. Thankyou for your kind words, Dinesh.

      -Steph

    • VENZKHVAM profile image

      VENZKHVAM 

      7 years ago from Milk way galaxy, trying to find a more adventurous place in another galaxy with my great followers

      Dear stephaniedas,

      THE ASTROLABE IS REALLY CUTE TO SEE.

      RELIGIONS WHERE ALWAYS AN OPPORTUNITY TO dwell into various way of understanding the secrets of life. especially Hindus, Arabs and many others who had predicted certain things in the past is the discoveries done by our scientist in today's date.

      I enjoyed reading.Thanks for sharing with us.

      I had voted this up and interesting

      with warm regards

      Dinesh Nair.

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