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Islamic scientist at work ( Kemal/Abode Stock)

The Golden Age Of Islamic Astronomers

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Astronomical understanding, accurate calendars and knowledge of exact geographic latitudes and longitudes were essential for all Islamic cities and towns. This body of astronomical knowledge was not accumulated for abstract scientific advancement but mainly for religious obligations. Three of the Five Pillars of Islam require astronomically precise information: to determine accurate hours for the call to prayer, the time of sunrise and sunset for fasting during Ramadan, and for tracking the phases of the moon that marked the start of a new lunar month. The exact directions were necessary especially for the Hajj, the journey to Mecca for every able Muslim. The extended journeys through desert sands by long-stretching caravans that transported precious cloth, carpets and exotic spices also required knowledge of the star positions and their annual cycles.

A Hajj certificate dated 602 AH /1205 AD (Mustafa-trit20/CC BY-SA 4.0)

A Hajj certificate dated 602 AH /1205 AD (Mustafa-trit20/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Arabic astronomers were continually active in studying the phenomena of the heavens and in improving and refining their instruments. Just as Christian communities required accurate astronomical records for determining religious holidays, for orienting churches toward the east and for determining proper times for the monastic daily prayer, similar needs confronted the Muslim communities.

Astronomical knowledge was essential for mosques be oriented toward the Ka’aba, the sacred shrine within the holiest city. Determining a precise alignment between a mosque and Mecca required the development of mathematical and spherical geography and accurate calculations of latitude and longitude which was difficult until modern times. The qibla problem (the holy niche directed toward Mecca) had to be addressed every time a new mosque was built anywhere in the wide-spread Islamic world. Many mosques engaged a full-time astronomer, called a muqqawit, to keep their lunar calendars accurate. They had to have methods for recording eclipses, comets and stellar positions. All of these essential activities motivated increasingly sophisticated and advanced astronomical studies and observations.

Miniature of Islamic Astronomer (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Miniature of Islamic Astronomer (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Establishing Islamic Arabic Science Centers

Science arose in Arabic-speaking countries shortly after Islam was established. From the ninth to the 15th century, Islamic scientists working in the Arabic language, in a region stretching from Islamic Spain across North Africa and the Middle East to India, were dominant in worldwide scientific endeavors. Leaders of the early Islamic empire, inspired by the Qur’an’s dictum to study all of God’s works, appointed scholars to collect Persian, Sanskrit and especially Greek texts in order to translate them into Arabic for study and application.


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Dr Marion Dolan received her PhD from the University of Pittsburgh, majoring in Medieval manuscripts, minoring in Medieval architecture and history of astronomy. She is the author of several books including Astronomical Knowledge Transmission Through Illustrated Aratea Manuscripts and Decoding Astronomy in Art and Architecture.

Top Image: Islamic scientist at work ( Kemal/Abode Stock)

By: Dr Marion Dolan



Dr Marion Dolan is retired from the University of Pittsburgh where she was an adjunct professor in the history of art and architecture and lectured for the Osher Lifelong Learning program at Carnegie-Mellon University for many years. She published a... Read More
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