Curiosity is a feeling that propels humans to explore and learn. Throughout history, human curiosity has driven progress. The skies have always been a subject of wonder and intrigue for humanity. The science of astronomy emerged from this curiosity, becoming a field of interest since the dawn of human existence. In our series on Islamic Civilization’s Celestial Science Centers, we will delve into the development of astronomy in the Islamic world, its various periods, and the observatories where astronomical research was conducted.
We can analyze the Islamic perspective on the history and development of astronomy in four distinct phases: the pre-Islamic era, the translation period, the golden age, and the decline.
In the pre-Islamic era, people were already observing the skies extensively. During this time, we can find evidence of poetry dedicated to the study of astronomy. Many poems focused on the star known as “Süreyya” among the Arabs. Sky observations in this period allowed people to predict weather, determine direction, and mark the changing seasons. Some tribes even worshipped various stars during this era.
With the advent of Islam, scholars began conducting research on celestial objects mentioned in the Quran. The expansion of the Islamic empire allowed access to foreign sources of knowledge. Just as in other fields, Islamic scholars translated and contributed to astronomy. These translations introduced new terminology to the field. The translation of texts took place mainly in institutions like “Beytü’l Hikme.”
The Development of Astronomical Science Over Time
The formal beginning of Islamic astronomy occurred when Caliph Ma’mun ordered the translation of Brahmagupta’s mathematical astronomy book into Arabic, known as “Sindhind.” Prominent figures like Al-Fazari, Al-Majisti, and Ishaq ibn Hunayn played significant roles in translating astronomical works into Arabic during this period. Since the focus was primarily on translation, there were limited original contributions at this time. Astronomy mainly advanced through the translation of foreign sources.
During the translation period, once foreign knowledge had been absorbed and translated into Arabic, Islamic astronomy entered its golden age. Observations increased, and new tools were developed to aid astronomical observations. With the support of caliphs, observatories were established to facilitate observations. The golden age of Islamic astronomy witnessed substantial contributions. Star catalogs known as “zij” were compiled, and astrolabes were developed to enhance measurement accuracy. Many scholars dedicated themselves to advancing astronomy, including figures like Al-Khwarizmi, Al-Biruni, and Ibn al-Haytham. These scholars ushered in a new era for Islamic astronomy, developing new theories, conducting observations, and producing influential works.
Following the golden age, Islamic astronomy entered a period of decline due to various invasions and conflicts. While local astronomy research and observatories continued to exist, they never regained their previous prominence. During this era, the development of Islamic astronomy paused, but the works and writings of these scholars continued to influence the emerging field of European astronomy, as many of these texts were translated into Latin.
In summary, in this series, we will explore the history of Islamic astronomy, the institutions where these developments took place, and the instruments and research conducted in observatories. If you’re curious about the science of astronomy, stay tuned for more in our series.