Islamic Astronomy – The History and Importance of Arabic Astronomy

This article gives a brief overview of Islamic astronomy, also called Arabic astronomy. The pre-Islamic Arabs had no knowledge of astronomy as a science and relied on their empirical knowledge of stars. A great deal of importance is given to the genesis and development of Islamic astronomy, however, in the history of astronomical sciences/disciplines, particularly to its developments from the 8th to the 14th centuries. Places like the Middle East, North Africa and then Moorish Spain are said to have made a great deal of progress in astronomy during this period, while Europe was groping its way through the Dark Ages.

Early Influences

It’s also known as Arabic astronomy due to its script, Islamic astronomy was influenced by and assimilated and amalgamated several foreign elements, notably Sassanid, Hellenistic and Indian, to enhance its development. The Indian influence on Arabic astronomy can be seen in translation and/or adaptation of Sanskrit works. Texts like the Zij al- Sindhind, for instance, was inspired by the Surya Siddhanta and philosophers like Muhammad al-Fazari and Yaqub ibn Tariq translated the works of Brahmagupta in 777, after an Indian astronomer is said to have visited the court of Caliph Al-Mansur. The translation of Zij al-Shah, a collection of astronomical tables compiled over two centuries in Persia shows the strong Persian influence on Islamic astronomy.

Development of Mathematics

Seeing the importance of mathematics in astronomy, it is hardly surprising that the spread of Arabic astronomy was rivaled only by the focus on mathematics. Apart from its proximity to the ancient centers of civilization, Arabic astronomy was prompted to look to other cultural influences due to a host of problems posited by their religious observances, mostly related to timekeeping. Therefore, it’s not surprising that Ptolemy’s Almagest was a landmark achievement in Islamic astronomy, with its focus on Assyrian, Greek, Persian and Roman chronological tables for timekeeping with reference to astronomical events. It incorporates the knowledge of astronomy and geometry in one text, much like Euclid’s Elements and demonstrates the extent of Arabian astronomy at the time and is still referred to for its discussion on astrology. It came to be known as The Greatest Astronomer or the “Al-megiste”. Besides these, textual evidence shows that Arabian astronomy and mathematics were influenced by Indian methods and replaced the Hellenic chords of arc by the sine function. Yet another Indian influence was the use of the approximation technique for timekeeping.

The Legacy

Islam has made considerable contributions to the fields of mathematics and astronomy in the form of discoveries like the Equatorium or the analog computer, planisphere, mechanical lunisolar calendar computer, spherical astrolabe, Plate of Conjunctions, armillary sphere, compass dial, mural instruments, cartographic qibla instruments etc. Though not all of them survive, these discoveries aided the development of astronomy and traces of Arabic astronomy can still be seen in our use of astronomical terms like the Alhidade, Azimuth, Almucantar, the stars of the Summer Triangle- the Vega, Altair and the Deneb, which are still recognized by their Arabic names.

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