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Astronomy: A Lost Tradition Of Islamic World

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In the emerging world with the advent of technology, it is extremely easy to prove and provide an account for the universal phenomena those are beyond our reach. ‘Astronomy’, the scientific study of celestial bodies is one of them. Human race possesses an era of ancestors who were able to unveil the secret of stars with a pair of naked eyes and a bunch of calculations. If we trace the roots of these scientific revolutions, a crucial part of it lies in the region of West Asia. Since the beginning of the golden age of Islam in the 8th century and establishment of the House of Baghdad, science and technology holds an inevitable role in the evolution of the Arab world. These scientists later became a greater influence for the astronomers of the renaissance age such as Copernicus.

The west Asian astronomy played a huge role in the revival of Byzantine and European astronomy by complementing their loss of knowledge in the early medieval period. The astronomical developments which were risen in the Islamic world can be called as an amalgamation of science with Arabic characters. Primarily, under the early caliphate, the scattered inventions and works of India, Sassanid and Greek were mustered together and written in Arabic language which later transformed as the foundation for the astronomical researches. The major contributions and history of Islamic astronomy can be divided into four different time periods. The pre-Islamic Arabs, early Islam, Golden age and the later period.

The pre-Islamic Arabs used to believe in empirical methods. They relied on the rising and setting of the sun and some stars to bolster their study. This particular method of study called ‘Anwa’ later influenced the determination of prayer timings with the help of added mathematical calculations. The evolving astronomy of the early Islamic period gave importance to the translation of scripts and the authenticity of the characters used. One of the prominent pieces transcribed during that era was Zij al-Sindhind of Indian origin in 770 by Muhammed Ibn Ibrahim al-Fazari and Yaqub Ibn Tariq. Varied traces of Persian literature were also found then. The golden age was yet another fascinating period for the Islamic world as a whole. A tremendous growth in pursuit for intellect was found. It led to the establishment of The House of Baghdad by Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mun in the early 9th century. The concept of Ptolemaic system was introduced into Islamic sciences with tables to track the movements of the five planets found at that period, the sun and the moon. The works of the scientists Al-Khwarizmi and Al-Farghani, two major Islamic astronomers shook up the then existing understanding of the universe by giving oblique importance to the circumference and geographical aspects of the celestial bodies. The evidences were seen in Kitab fi Jawami (Compendium of the science of stars). Later the calculations of the angle of earth’s precession by an Egyptian astronomer Ibn Yunus became the milestone in the discoveries of Copernicus and the heliocentric theory. During the period of 1025 – 1028, Ibn al-Haytham proposed the physical sustainability of a geocentric theory through his work Al-Shukuk ala Batlamyus (Doubts on Ptolemy). Towards the end of 13th century, it was a Persian scientist, Nasir al-Din al-Tulsi who became popular for creating innovative mathematic models and tables of planetary motion to support the science of stars. He invented the earliest form of compass called Tusi-couple with a circle rotating within a bigger circular object to enhance the ease of navigation purposes. A set of instruments to support the celestial observations were also used during all these time periods like sundials, quadrants, equatoriums, armillary spheres, astrolabes etc… thus the findings of Islamic astrology played a huge role in influencing the astronomical sciences around the globe including China and Korea which later adopted those technologies.

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The cosmos availed their position not only in the literature and technology, but also the evolution of the culture and art of West Asia. The trader community called Bedouins had the sense of astronomy embedded in their lives. They considered it more like the truth of universe directing them towards their destiny more than a science supported by mathematical models. The traders who were accustomed to travel at night, constantly relied on the wide blue skies and the sparkles of stars, from predicting the weather to understanding the time zones. After these common people who used cosmos as their map, many of the stars were given Arabic names such as Aldibaran, Altair, Deneb etc… Their ample worship for the sky can also be justified through their religious script, the holy Qur’an, where they consider the cosmos as Allah’s carrier of life to the earth. Moreover, the science of astronomy has also become an invincible factor in the Islamic culture through engravings in architecture, pottery etc…

Even though West Asia has a legacy of astronomers, somewhere along the 1500s, they lost the tradition of star gazing. This was an edge for the western world who envied the technology and scientific capabilities of the Arab region. When the Europeans colonised the Islamic nations in the 19th century, they ignited the spark of astronomy again in the veins of Arabs, but took away the interests and inventions when they returned. This could be considered as an action to devaluate the scientific development of West Asia and to foster westernisation. The region which once held the maximum geographical as well as technological capabilities to encompass the study of constellations, now has only two operational moderate telescopes in the entire Arab world- One in Algeria and another in Egypt.

While taking a glimpse at the history, the questions are many. How and where did West Asia, the region as a whole, lost its identity of astronomical history? Did the western notion invade the stars of Arab countries as well? These questions need to be addressed in a collective manner. As any other science, the phenomena of universe should also be observed, studied and propagated among the ignited minds of the world. Thus, the maximum potential should be utilised, which demands for a renaissance of Arab astronomy where most of the cosmic inventions were born. The time is right to seek for a lost tradition. Quotting a famous verse from the Qur’an- The sky is the world between heaven and earth, there are signs for people who use their intellect.

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Astronomy: A Lost Tradition Of Islamic World. (2022, February 24). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 2, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/astronomy-a-lost-tradition-of-islamic-world/
“Astronomy: A Lost Tradition Of Islamic World.” Edubirdie, 24 Feb. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/astronomy-a-lost-tradition-of-islamic-world/
Astronomy: A Lost Tradition Of Islamic World. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/astronomy-a-lost-tradition-of-islamic-world/> [Accessed 2 Mar. 2024].
Astronomy: A Lost Tradition Of Islamic World [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Feb 24 [cited 2024 Mar 2]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/astronomy-a-lost-tradition-of-islamic-world/
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