Science, Faith, and the Heavens: Astronomy in the Islamic World

By Adler Planetarium

More than 1200 years ago, astronomy gained a prominent place in the Islamic world, which stretched from the Iberian Peninsula to the Indian subcontinent. In this exhibit we highlight important contributions of astronomers and instrument makers from the Islamic world, while also highlighting current scholars and educators who study, cultivate, and share this important legacy. 

Soltan-Mohammad, Eid Al-Fitr (1527) by Soltan-MohammadAdler Planetarium

Following the Moon

This 16th-century illustration represents the celebration of the eid al-fitr, which marks the end of the fasting month, Ramadan. The religious practices of Muslims are regulated by the Hijrī calendar, a lunar calendar beginning with the migration of the prophet of Islam from Mecca to Medina in 622 AD. Since a lunar year is just 354 days long, constant calculations and observations are essential for determining important religious dates within Islam. Nowadays, Muslims combine traditional naked-eye observations of the crescent of the Moon, which signals the beginning and end of Ramadan, with nanosecond-precision level calculations made by astrophysicists.

Astrolabe-Quadrant: Eastern by UnidentifiedOriginal Source: https://adler-ais.axiellhosting.com/Details/collect/1837

Time, Faith, and the Sun

For Muslims, determining the times of the five daily prayers requires observations and calculations related to the daily apparent motion of the Sun. These could be carried out in a relatively easier manner by using instruments such as the portable quadrant shown here. It was likely made in the 19th century in the Ottoman realm, which extended over the Balkans, Anatolia, the western part of the Middle East, Egypt, Algeria, and Tunisia. The basic design of this quadrant emerged in Northeast Africa between the 13th and the 15th centuries. Ottoman timekeepers continued to produce and use similar instruments well into the 20th century. 

Qibla Indicator, Eastern by UnidentifiedOriginal Source: https://adler-ais.axiellhosting.com/Details/collect/217

Finding the Qibla

This instrument is a qibla indicator from 19th-century Iran. The qibla is the direction to Mecca, which Muslims must face when performing their five daily prayers, wherever they are in the world. Finding the qibla requires an advanced knowledge of spherical trigonometry, but a qibla finder makes that operation easier. In this example, the lid contains a circular list of places with their respective qibla directions, called a gazetteer. After consulting the gazetteer, the desired direction could be found by using the instrument’s compass. Nowadays, Muslims use mobile apps that show a virtual compass and the direction to Mecca, in the manner of the old qibla indicators, but in digital format.

Book of the Constellations (Kitāb al-Suwar al-Kawākib) by ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-ṢūfīAdler Planetarium

Heavenly Accuracy

Astronomers in the Islamic world preserved and developed the knowledge of stars and constellations received from Mesopotamia and Ancient Greece, and many of the star names still used today are of Arabic origin. A fundamental work in this regard is the "Book of the Constellations" (Kitāb al-Suwar al-Kawākib), compiled by the 10th century Persian astronomer ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Ṣūfī. These pages from a manuscript of his "Book…" show the constellation of Leo the Lion and a table with the positions and brightnesses of its stars. al-Ṣūfī carried out meticulous observations in order to make these tables as accurate as possible. The endless pursuit of accuracy was seen as a key to the advancement of science in the Islamic world.

Globe: Celestial, Eastern (1650) by UnidentifiedOriginal Source: https://adler-ais.axiellhosting.com/Details/collect/740

Touching the Stars

This celestial globe was likely made in Lahore (now in Pakistan) in the 17th century. It is formed by a hollow, seamless brass sphere on which figures representing 48 classical constellations are engraved, with more than a thousand stars marked by silver inlays. Celestial globes are instruments for observation, calculation, and demonstration that simulate the apparent motion of the sky, literally allowing their users to touch the stars. This example is also a remarkable combination of art and science. The constellation figures and other details denote the combined influence of Arab, Persian, and Indian culture in the Mughal empire, which extended from Central Asia through the Indian subcontinent between the 16th century and the 19th century.

Horoscopion Apiani generale dignoscendis horis cvivscvmque generis aptissimum : nunc ab illo primum & inuentum & aeditum. (1533) by Peter ApianOriginal Source: https://adler-ais.axiellhosting.com/Details/fullCatalogue/7612

A Glimpse of Arab Constellations

In the “Book of Fixed Stars” al-Ṣūfī mentions some traditional Arab constellations. Following al-Ṣūfī, the 16th-century German cartographer Peter Apian included a few in this star map. The four female figures at the center represent the Daughters of the Great Bear (corresponding to the classical Little Bear). Immediately to the left sit the Shepherd, the Dog, and the Sheep. Below the Daughters are the Five Dromedaries, and to their left, a ring of feathers that Apianus labelled as the Two Wings (possibly a misinterpretation, since that does not to appear in al-Ṣūfī  work). 

Astrolabe: Eastern (1130) by Badr ibn`AbdallahOriginal Source: https://adler-ais.axiellhosting.com/Details/collect/462

Mirrors of the Universe

The instrument shown here is an astrolabe made by Badr ibn ʿAbd Allāh in 1130-31 AD for Abū al-Qāsim Maḥmūd ibn Muḥammad ibn Malikshāh, the sultan of Iraqi Seljuks. Astrolabes are instruments for observation and calculation, and models of the Universe as it was understood in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. For that reason, they were referred to in the Islamic world as “Mirrors of the Universe”. Astrolabes were used for a variety of functions, including: to find the time of the day; to calculate the time of sunrise and sunset and the length of the day or night for a given date; to measure the height of buildings and other landmarks, or the depth of wells; and to carry out a variety of calculations. 

Astrolabe: Eastern by UnidentifiedOriginal Source: https://adler-ais.axiellhosting.com/Details/collect/448

Pushing the Limits

The astrolabe has its roots in Ancient Greece. In the Islamic world, it came to symbolize the advancement of the mathematical sciences, including astronomy, geometry, and trigonometry. Between the 9th and the 13th centuries several scholars played with astrolabe design, seeking to push the limits of what could be observed, measured, and calculated. An example of that creative process is the universal astrolabe shown here, which was probably made in Muslim Spain or North Africa in the 13th century. It is called ‘universal’ because it could be used anywhere in the world. Astrolabes come in varied forms and designs, but this type is almost exclusive to the Islamic West.

Astrolabe: Eastern (1601) by `Isa ibn AllahdadOriginal Source: https://adler-ais.axiellhosting.com/Details/collect/1371

Science, Art, and Craftsmanship

Fine astronomical instruments were valued not only by astronomers, but by all those who could afford them. As a consequence, astrolabes evolved into highly decorated pieces. One particular workshop based in Lahore, run by four generations of the same family during the 17th century, excelled in combining scientific rigor, artistry, and craftsmanship. The image shows a rete from an astrolabe made in 1601 by a member of that family, ʿIsā ibn Allāhdād. The rete is the celestial map in an astrolabe. The curved pointers protruding from the strapwork indicate the positions of selected stars in the sky. The inner, off-centered circle represents the apparent annual path of the sun in the celestial sphere. It was mainly in the rete that instrument makers showcased their technical and artistic skills.

ZijesOriginal Source: https://adler-ais.axiellhosting.com/Details/archive/110006142

Shared Knowledge About a Common Sky 

Astronomers in the Islamic world conducted long-term observations in order to produce zījes. A zīj is an astronomical handbook with instructions and tables for creating calendars and calculating the positions of celestial objects as accurately as possible. The table shown here is included in a zij manuscript and provides elements for finding the beginning of the daily afternoon prayer. Zijes and timekeeping tables were highly valued in the Islamic world and beyond. Many Arabic and Persian works of this kind were translated into European languages from the 13th century through the 19th century. Astronomy in the Islamic world was not just a matter of providing for religious and social needs and of attaining ever-greater precision, but also of connecting varied peoples and cultures in the human endeavor to understand the sky that we all share. Today these connections remain vital. People all over the world continue to study and retain this heritage.

Dr. Pouyan RezvaniAdler Planetarium

Connecting Cultures: Dr. Pouyan Rezvani

Dr. Pouyan Rezvani is an Iranian postdoctoral researcher at the Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften in Munich, Germany, with a particular interest in the history of astronomical instruments in medieval Islam. Dr. Rezvani has analyzed and translated two previously unpublished astrolabe texts by the prominent astronomer Abū al-Rayḥān al-Bīrūnī (973 – c. 1050 AD), and in the course of research on unusual astrolabes, he carried out the first reconstruction of a crescent-shaped astrolabe made by Abū Saʿīd al-Sijzī in the 10th century AD. Dr. Rezvani was led into this field of study by “the collaboration of scholars with different languages, religions, and cultural backgrounds in the Islamic world, and their remarkable achievements in the history of science”. He says “studying the history of science shows how science connected different cultures to each other during centuries. Interestingly, even now ‘the history of science’ as an academic discipline brings together scholars from different countries.”

Abdullah Mohamad AlkhalafAdler Planetarium

A Masterpiece of History: Abdullah Mohamad Alkhalaf

Abdullah Mohamad Alkhalaf  is a volunteer for the Multaka-Oxford project, which is jointly delivered by the Pitt Rivers Museum and the History of Science Museum in Oxford, England. The project is run in collaboration in local organizations with the aim of creating volunteer opportunities and to use museums and collections as a ‘meeting point’ (‘Multaka’ in Arabic) for bringing people together. Abdullah has been contributing as a tour guide and in assisting visitors. He finds these activities extremely important for reminding the public of the importance of Islamic culture. “I am a Muslim and this is my history and the legacy of the civilization to which I belong”, says Abdullah, who has a particular interest in astrolabes. Abdullah sees the Islamic astrolabe as “a unique piece, a masterpiece of history”, and has researched its uses among Muslims as well as the accuracy of calculations made with it.

Dr. Azucena HernandezAdler Planetarium

Time to Balance Everything: Dr. Azucena Hernández

With a degree in physics and 30 years working in telecommunications research, Dr. Azucena Hernández decided to study art history and received a PhD in that field in 2017. Since then Dr. Hernández has been researching medieval scientific instruments at the University Complutense of Madrid, Spain. Dr. Hernández studied Arabic for three years, and is committed to highlighting  the achievements in science and technology written in Arabic in al-Andalus (the Muslim-ruled area of the Iberian Peninsula lasting from the 8th to the 15th century, that covered part of what is today Portugal and Spain). According to Dr. Hernández, this provides “a good case of a brilliant but mostly unknown contribution to the development of science and technology in my country, Spain. Medieval science written in Arabic has not had as much visibility as science written in Latin or other languages and now is the time to balance everything”.

Eva HaghighiAdler Planetarium

Cultures and Individual Experiences Coming Together: Eva Haghighi

Eva Haghighi is a volunteer for the Multaka-Oxford project, and has contributed as a co-producer and researcher to exhibitions dealing with metalwork and collections from the Islamic world hosted by the History of Science Museum and Pitt Rivers Museum. “I was looking for a dynamic and creative way to further explore my Middle Eastern heritage. As I immersed myself in the history of these extraordinary objects, I was able to more truly and fully appreciate the immense contribution of Islamic culture to human civilisation”, says Eva. “In a dangerously polarised world, it is vital to explore our past and (re)discover the many ways in which we are connected. By providing a platform for audiences to rethink their relationship with other cultures, we want to encourage them to celebrate what brings us together as well as what makes each culture unique.” This has been a very rewarding experience for Eva, who adds that the “sense of coming together of cultures and individual experiences will stay with me forever”.

Convin SplettsenAdler Planetarium

Creating Shared Experiences: Convin Splettsen 

Convin Splettsen divides his time between a degree in history, history and philosophy of science, and anthropology at Goethe-University in Frankfurt, and his activity as a magician and voice actor. He came across the astrolabe while attending a course on divinatory practices (such as astrology) in medieval Arabic and Latin texts, and was immediately struck by the allure of the instrument. Convin has since been exploring the connections between scientific instruments, history of science, and historical magic books. He believes that presenting these topics in an engaging way can help connect people: “in a globalized world it is important to know about each other’s history and culture. It will create an understanding for the other and the unknown, and might take away the fear of the unknown. Voice acting and magic have really helped me understand the importance of performing and presenting as a way of creating shared experiences and connecting people.”

Mohammad Al AwadAdler Planetarium

A Dialogue of Cultures and Civilizations: Mohammad Al Awad

Mohammad Al Awad has contributed to the Oxford-Multaka project as a tour guide, producer, and curator of the photography exhibition “Syrian moonlight over Oxford skies” (History of Science Museum, Oxford, 2019). When Mohammad saw the astronomical and mathematical instruments from the Islamic world at the Museum of the History of Science, he felt compelled to expand on what he had already learned in his university studies. “This history is part of my history and identity”, says Mohammad, adding that “this culture is also part of human heritage”. Mohammad is particularly fond of celestial globes. When sharing his knowledge about these objects with museum visitors, he feels “as if I were in my country, with my students and professors at the University in Damascus (Syria)” in an exchange of knowledge where the more he listens to his audience, the more he learns himself. Mohammad sees it as part of “a dialogue of cultures and civilizations that is much needed, especially now”.

Dr. Gaye DanışanAdler Planetarium

Astronomy, Culture, and Society: Dr. Gaye Danışan

Dr. Gaye Danışan is an Assistant Professor in the Department of the History of Science, Istanbul University, Turkey. Dr. Danışan studies the history of practical applications of astronomy in the Ottoman context, namely in navigation, astrometeorology (a discipline that sought to establish connections between celestial phenomena and the weather), calendars, and the production and use of portable astronomical instruments. “This allows me to examine different perspectives from Ottoman culture and social life”, says Dr. Danışan. “There are countless manuscripts and numerous astronomical instruments awaiting to be studied and examined in Turkey. I firmly believe that this research, and interdisciplinary studies in particular, will shed light on many unanswered questions about the history of science in the Ottoman space, and also cultural history in general.”

Khadeje KarkoraAdler Planetarium

A Journey Through History: Khadeje Karkora

A passion for reading about the development of science and the role of scientists in history led Khadeje Karkora to study scientific subjects at university. Khadeje is fond of the collections and exhibits of the History of Science Museum in Oxford that evince the contributions of Islamic civilization to the sciences. As a volunteer for the Multaka-Oxford project, Khadeje is particularly interested in exploring the role of women in the development of science in the Islamic world. Khadeje’s favorite instrument is a spherical astrolabe made in the Middle East in the 15th century.  According to Khadeje, “the study of these subjects leads to the reformulation of historical narratives in a tangible and more influential way that takes the audience on a time journey through history, to navigate varied cultures across different eras.”

Dr. Taha Yasin ArslanAdler Planetarium

Revamping  Perspectives on Modern Science: Dr. Taha Yasin Arslan

Our guest curator for this exhibition, Dr. Taha Yasin Arslan is a professor at Istanbul Medeniyet University, Turkey,  and a research fellow at Oxford University, England. Dr. Arslan’s research focuses on astronomical instruments in the Islamic world, particularly the instruments from Mamluk Egypt and Syria between the 13th and the 15th centuries, as well as their reception in 15th- and 16th-century Ottoman Turkey. As part of his work, Dr. Arslan makes accurate replicas of original instruments, and hopes to eventually replicate the spherical astrolabe he is holding in the photo, which is his favorite instrument. As a lifelong astronomy enthusiast, and after studying Islamic philosophy, Dr. Arslan embarked on a journey at once intellectual and hands-on to better understand the deep connections between philosophy, culture, religion, and science and its instruments in the Islamic world. He is especially interested in how science was nurtured by Islam, conferring a dimension of accuracy on its religious practices. Dr. Arslan considers that these studies help “rethink the history of science, allowing us to revamp our perspective on modern science.”

Credits: Story

Thank you to the staff of the Adler Planetarium, Dr. Taha Yasin Arslan, and the Multaka Project at Oxford University for their assistance in creating this exhibition.

The Adler also thanks Dr. Pouyan Rezvani, Dr. Azucena Hernandez, Convin Splettsen, Dr. Gaye Danışan, Mr. Abolala Soudavar, Mohammad Al Awad, Khadeje Karkora, Eva Haghighi, and Abdullah Mohamad Alkhalaf for contributing to the creation of this exhibition and sharing their stories. A recognition and thanks to Dr. Randa Muhammed and Dr. Taha Yasin Arslan as well for their work in translating this exhibition into Arabic and Turkish.

Special thanks to our generous supporters:
Amy and Steve Louis Foundation
Roderick and Marjorie Webster Fund at The Chicago Community Trust

The Arabic translation of this exhibition can be found here: https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/science-faith-and-the-heavens-astronomy-in-the-islamic-world/iAIynKRM35tLJw?hl=ar

The Turkish translation of this exhibition can be found here: https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/science-faith-and-the-heavens-astronomy-in-the-islamic-world/iAIynKRM35tLJw?hl=tr

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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