Islam in science and history

Astronomy in medieval Islam


Pre-Islamic Arabs had no scientific astronomy. Their knowledge of stars was only empirical, limited to what they observed regarding the rising and setting of stars. The rise of Islam provoked increased Arab thought in this field.

Science historian Donald. R. Hill has divided Islamic Astronomy into the four following distinct time periods in its history.


The period of assimilation and syncretisation of earlier HellenisticIndian, and Sassanid astronomy.
During this period many Indian and Persian texts were translated into Arabic. The most notable of the texts was Zij al-Sindhind, translated by Muhammad ibn Ibrahim al-Fazari and Yaqub ibn Tariq in 777. Sources indicate that the text was translated after, in 770, an Indian astronomer visited the court of Caliph Al-Mansur. Another text translated was the Zij al-Shah, a collection of astronomical tables compiled in Persia over two centuries.
Fragments of text during this period indicate that Arabs adopted the sine function (inherited from India) in place of the chords of arc used in Greek trignometry.


The Tusi-couple is a mathematical device invented by Nasir al-Din al-Tusi in which a smallcircle rotates inside a larger circle twice thediameter of the smaller circle. Rotations of the circles cause a point on the circumference of the smaller circle to oscillate back and forth in linear motion along a diameter of the larger circle.
This period of vigorous investigation, in which the superiority of the Ptolemaic system of astronomy was accepted and significant contributions made to it. Astronomical research was greatly supported by the Abbasid caliph al-MamunBaghdad and Damascus became the centers of such activity. The caliphs not only supported this work financially, but endowed the work with formal prestige.
The first major Muslim work of astronomy was Zij al-Sindh by al-Khwarizimi in 830. The work contains tables for the movements of the sun, the moon and the five planets known at the time. The work is significant as it introduced Ptolemaic concepts into Islamic sciences. This work also marks the turning point in Islamic astronomy. Hitherto, Muslim astronomers had adopted a primarily research approach to the field, translating works of others and learning already discovered knowledge. Al-Khwarizmi's work marked the beginning of nontraditional methods of study and calculations.
In 850, al-Farghani wrote Kitab fi Jawani (meaning "A compendium of the science of stars"). The book primarily gave a summary of Ptolemic cosmography. However, it also corrected Ptolemy based on findings of earlier Arab astronomers. Al-Farghani gave revised values for the obliquity of the ecliptic, the precessional movement of the apogees of the sun and the moon, and the circumference of the earth. The book was widely circulated through the Muslim world, and even translated into Latin.


An illustration from al-Biruni's astronomical works, explains the different phases of the moon.
The period when a distinctive Islamic system of astronomy flourished. The period began as the Muslim astronomers began questioning the framework of thePtolemaic system of astronomy. These criticisms, however, remained within the geocentric framework and followed Ptolemy's astronomical paradigm; one historian described their work as "a reformist project intended to consolidate Ptolemaic astronomy by bringing it into line with its own principles.
In 1070, Abu Ubayd al-Juzjani published the Tarik al-Aflak. In his work, he indicated the so-called "equant" problem of the Ptolemic model. Al-Juzjani even proposed a solution for the problem. In al-Andalus, the anonymous work al-Istidrak ala Batlamyus (meaning "Recapitulation regarding Ptolemy"), included a list of objections to the Ptolemic astronomy.
The most important work, however, was Al-Shuku ala Batlamyus (meaning "Doubts on Ptolemy"). In this, the author summed up the inconsistencies of the Ptolemic models. Many astronomers took up the challenge posed in this work, namely to develop alternate models that evaded such errors. The most important of these astronomers include: Muayyad al-Din Urdi (circa 1266), Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (1201–74), Qutb al-Din al Shirazi (circa 1311), Sadr al-Sharia al-Bukhari (circa 1347), Ibn al-Shatir (circa 1375), and Ala al-Qushji (circa 1474).


The period of stagnation, when the traditional system of astronomy continued to be practised with enthusiasm, but with rapidly decreasing innovation of any major significance.
A large corpus of literature from Islamic astronomy remains today, numbering around some 10,000 manuscript volumes scattered throughout the world. Much of this has not even been catalogued. Even so, a reasonably accurate picture of Islamic activity in the field of astronomy can be reconstructed.


Medieval manuscript by Qotbeddin Shirazidepicting an epicyclic planetary model.
The first systematic observations in Islam are reported to have taken place under the patronage of al-Mamun. Here, and in many other private observatories fromDamascus to Baghdadmeridian degrees were measured, solar parameters were established, and detailed observations of the SunMoon, and planets were undertaken.
In the 10th century, the Buwayhid dynasty encouraged the undertaking of extensive works in Astronomy, such as the construction of a large scale instrument with which observations were made in the year 950. We know of this by recordings made in the zij of astronomers such as Ibn al-Alam. The great astronomer Abd Al-Rahman Al Sufiwas patronised by prince Adud o-dowleh, who systematically revised Ptolemy's catalogue of starsSharaf al-Daula also established a similar observatory in Baghdad. And reports by Ibn Yunus and al-Zarqall in Toledo and Cordoba indicate the use of sophisticated instruments for their time.
It was Malik Shah I who established the first large observatory, probably in Isfahan. It was here where Omar Khayyám with many other collaborators constructed a zij and formulated the Persian Solar Calendar a.k.a. the jalali calendar. A modern version of this calendar is still in official use in Iran today.
The most influential observatory was however founded by Hulegu Khan during the 13th century. Here, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi supervised its technical construction at Maragha. The facility contained resting quarters for Hulagu Khan, as well as a library and mosque. Some of the top astronomers of the day gathered there, and from their collaboration resulted important modifications to the Ptolemaic system over a period of 50 years.
In 1420, prince Ulugh Beg, himself an astronomer and mathematician, founded another large observatory in Samarkand, the remains of which were excavated in 1908 by Russian teams.
And finally, Taqi al-Din Muhammad ibn Ma'ruf founded a large observatory in Istanbul in 1577, which was on the same scale as those in Maragha and Samarkand. The observatory was short-lived however, as opponents of the observatory and prognostication from the heavens prevailed and the observatory was destroyed in 1580.Other sources give the "rise of a clerical faction," which opposed or at least was indifferent to science, and specifically to "the recommendation of the Chief Mufti" of the Ottomans, as the explanation for the destruction of the observatory.


Work in the observatorium ofTaqi al-Din.
Our knowledge of the instruments used by Muslim astronomers primarily comes from two sources. First the remaining instruments in private and museum collections today, and second the treatises and manuscripts preserved from the Middle Ages.
Muslims made many improvements to instruments already in use before their time, such as adding new scales or details. Their contributions to astronomical instrumentation are abundant.

Celestial globes and armillary spheres

Celestial globes were used primarily for solving problems in celestial astronomy. Today, 126 such instruments remain worldwide, the oldest from the 11th century. The altitude of the sun, or the Right Ascension and Declination of stars could be calculated with these by inputting the location of the observer on the [meridian ring] of the globe.
An armillary sphere had similar applications. No early Islamic armillary spheres survive, but several treatises on “the instrument with the rings” were written. In this context there is also an Islamic development, the spherical astrolabe, of which only one complete instrument, from the 14th century, has survived.


Brass astrolabes were developed in much of the Islamic world, chiefly as an aid to finding the qibla. The earliest known example is dated 315 (in the Islamic calendar, corresponding to 927-8). The first person credited for building the Astrolabe in the Islamic world is reportedly Fazari (Richard Nelson Frye: Golden Age of Persia. p163). He only improved it though, the Greeks had already invented astrolabes to chart the stars. The Arabs then took it during the Abbasid Dynasty and perfected it to be used to find the beginning of Ramadan, the hours of prayer, and the direction of Mecca.
The instruments were used to read the rise of the time of rise of the Sun and fixed stars. al-Zarqall of Andalusia constructed one such instrument in which, unlike its predecessors, did not depend on the latitude of the observer, and could be used anywhere. This instrument became known in Europe as the Saphea.


Muslims made several important improvements to the theory and construction of sundials, which they inherited from their Indian and Greek predecessors. Khwarizmi made tables for these instruments which considerably shortened the time needed to make specific calculations.
Sundials were frequently placed on mosques to determine the time of prayer. One of the most striking examples was built in the 14th century by the muwaqqit(timekeeper) of the Umayyid Mosque in Damascusibn al-Shatir.


Ibn al-Shatir's model for the appearances of Mercury, showing the multiplication ofepicycles using the Tusi-couple, thus eliminating the Ptolemaic eccentrics andequant.
Several forms of quadrants were invented by Muslims. Among them was the sine quadrant used for astronomical calculations and various forms of the horary quadrant, used to determine time (especially the times of prayer) by observations of the Sun or stars. A center of the development of quadrants was ninth-century Baghdad.


The Equatorium is an Islamic invention from Al-Andalus. The earliest known was probably made around 1015. It is a mechanical device for finding the positions of theMoonSun, and planets, without calculation using a geometrical model to represent the celestial body's mean and anomalistic position.

Muslim astronomers

Famous Muslim astronomy books

  • al-Khwarizmi (c. 830), Zij al-Sindhind.
  • al-Farghani (d. c. 850), Kitab fi Jawami Ilm al-Nujum.

List of Muslim scientists

Astronomers and astrophysicists

Chemists and alchemists

Economists and social scientists

Geographers and earth scientists


Biologists, neuroscientists, and psychologists

Physicians and surgeons

Physicists and engineers

Political scientists

Physicists and engineers