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Islamic contributions to astronomy and navigation

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An overview of the profound contributions to astronomy and navigation by early Muslim astronomers and scientists.

 

The wonder and glory of the starry skies impressed the scholars of Muslim civilisation – but they also looked for order and logic in what they saw. Historians who track the development of astronomy from antiquity to the Renaissance sometimes refer to the time from the eighth through the 14th centuries as the Islamic period. During that interval most astronomical activity took place in the Middle East, North Africa and Moorish Spain. While Europe languished in the Dark Ages, the torch of ancient scholarship had passed into Muslim hands. Islamic scholars kept it alight, and from them it passed to Renaissance Europe. Two circumstances fostered the growth of astronomy in Islamic lands. One was geographic proximity to the world of ancient learning, coupled with a tolerance for scholars of other creeds. In the ninth century most of the Greek scientific texts were translated into Arabic, including Ptolemy’s Syntaxis, the apex of ancient astronomy. It was through these translations that the Greek works later became known in medieval Europe. (Indeed, the Syntaxis is still known primarily by its Arabic name, Almagest, meaning “the greatest.”)

The second impetus came from Islamic religious observances, which presented a host of problems in mathematical astronomy, mostly related to timekeeping. In solving these problems the Islamic scholars went far beyond the Greek mathematical methods. These developments, notably in the field of trigonometry, provided the essential tools for the creation of Western Renaissance astronomy. The traces of medieval Islamic astronomy are conspicuous even today. When an astronomer refers to the zenith, to azimuth or to algebra, or when he mentions the stars in the Summer Triangle–Vega, Altair, Deneb–he is using words of Arabic origin. Yet although the story of how Greek astronomy passed to the Arabsis comparatively well known, the history of its transformation by Islamic scholars and subsequent retransmission to the Latin West is only now being written. Thousands of manuscripts remain unexamined. Nevertheless, it is possible to offer at least a fragmentary sketch of the process.

Did you know

  • That the need to predict the phases of the Moon for Ramadan and other religious festivals led to great steps forward in astronomy?
  • That astrolabes and other instruments developed by astronomers were also crucial in land navigation and telling the time?
  • That the first large-scale observatory in the Muslim world was that built by Sultan Malikshah in Isfahan in the late 11th century?
  • That the 16th-century astronomer Taqi al-Din installed huge versions of star-gazing tools like quadrants and sextants, to increase the accuracy of measurements made in his observatory?

 

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