Early Islamic scientists were skilled astronomers

Calculation of solar and lunar eclipses, from: The Wonders of Creation, by al-Qazwini, Arabic manuscript, 14th century

Islamic science was in its  prime between the 9th  and the 13th centuries. A striking feature is the universal knowledge of Islamic scientists. The thinkers of this early period were almost all trained physicians and recognized medical authorities. They were also skilled astronomers, and developed complex philosophical systems based on the natural sciences, but they also tried to reconcile and interrelate religion and science, not a contradiction in terms of the Islamic concept of reason. Islamic science’s interest in astronomy was derived from the traditions inherited from old oriental religious communities, such as the Parsees of Persia, and in particular the Sabaeans of ancient Mesopotamia, whose centre was in the north of Iraq and who were largely absorbed into the Islamic empires in the 11th century.

Under Greek influence, Islamic scientists developed a concept of the divine architect of the universe as a great mathematician and geometrician who kept everything in order by the operation of precisely calculable laws. Astronomy and astrology were closely connected in this system of thought. All the important philosophers, and many rulers, took an interest in astronomy, calculated the courses of the stars and the dimensions of the earth, forecast the weather, and predicted the state of the water supply – calculations that served very practical purposes.

The Fatimid Caliph-Imam al-Hakim, for instance, made use of the knowledge of the astronomer and physicist Ibn al-Haitham or Alhazen (965-after1040), who was required to calculate the amount of water in the Nile for agricultural purposes. Alhazen is regarded as the greatest physicist of the Middle Ages, and was outstanding for his work on optics, in which he described refraction of light in calculating the earth’s distance from the stars.

Al-Biruni (973-1048) drew up precise measurements of the earth, constructed a globe, and made remarkable progress in the understanding of the rotation of the earth and the force of gravity. The phenomena of solar and lunar eclipses could be very precisely calculated at this time. Many astronomical charts, once the property of rulers well versed in astronomy, have been preserved.

Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, one of the most famous mathematicians and astronomers of his time, created the most modern observatories of his time in Maragha, Iran. The observatory attracted astronomers from China, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, who produced astronomical tables, the ‘Ilkhanid Tables’. These tables were later brought to Muslim Andalusia and through the Jewish professor Abraham Zacuto, to Lisbon to the court of King John II of Portugal. Based on these tables, Zacuto made an astrolabe, which measured the angles of the stars and the sun and which Vasco da Gama carried with him on his flagship during his first voyage around Cape of Good Hope to India in 1497. It was the knowledge of a Muslim scholar who had resided at Alamut that helped the Europeans find the sea route to India.

Science in Islam,” by Markus Hattstein
Heinz Halm, The Fatimids and their Traditions of Learning, I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd, 2001

Research by Nimira Dewji



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