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Islam and Astronomy


Islam and Astronomy-A Special Relationship!


Islam and Astronomy-A Special Relationship!

Astronomy received special treatment from the Muslim scientists during
the golden era of Islamic Science and civilisation


By Dr Syed Abdul Zahir

Astronomy is the queen of science and it has attracted human interest from the earliest times. It is rather a broad area encompassing physics, celestial mechanics and mathematics. It has application in navigation, surveying, solar energy ballistics and rocket launching. However it is the calendar, the matter of law to keep track of time and the record of the past events, as well as planning for future events, which is most intimately connected with Dynamical Astronomy.

Astronomy presented a special challenge to the Muslims. It was absolutely necessary to master and further develop the field to meet the daily needs of the faithful by determining the time, direction and calendrical dates, which demanded extensive involvement in calestial mechanics, optical and atmospheric physics and spherical Geometry. Muslims set themselves first to master what was known and then to develop the scientific field extensively, indeed they dominated it for a continuous period of some 700 years. The new faith, barely 100 years old lost no time and started scientific investigation in the earnest in 750 A D. It soon left the older faith, Christianity far behind.

Our Prophet (Pbuh) was a unlettered man, but he had the highest respect for knowledge. ‘The ink of the scholar is more holy than the blood of the martyr’ runs one Hadith, and another, ‘he who leaves home in search of knowledge walks in the path of Allah’. A third one is, ‘Knowledge’ is our friend in the desert, our society in solitude, our companion when bereft of friends, it guides us to happiness, it sustains us in misery, it serves us an armour against enemies.’ It is also said, ‘seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave’. In the light of such encouragement, Muslims devoted themselves, to study and teaching with marked success. And through the middle ages, the Muslims were far ahead of the Christians and even left behind almost all other civilizations including the Hindus and the Chinese. The Queen of Science has a very special relationship with Islam. The Cosmological aspect appears in many verses in the Quran. For example, “And He it is who hath set for you the star (al-Najm), that you may guide your course by them amid the darkness of the land and the sea-(Chapter 5:98). It is not for the Sun to overtake the moon, nor for the night to overstrip the day, they float each in an orbit.” (Chapter 26:39).

Indeed, perhaps no other community interacts with and depends upon Astronomy to such an extent, for both civil and religious purposes as the Muslims do. It is not surprising then that Astronomy received such special treatment from the Muslim scientist and the Islamic state during The GOLDEN ERA OF ISLAMIC SCIENCE AND CIVILIZATION, when learning and advancement of Astronomy was considered a high priority and FARIDE KIFAYA(Collective Duty). A few of the Top Scientists were Yaqub-Ibn-Tariq, Al Battani, Al-Khwarizmi, Alfarghani, Al Sufi, Al and Biruni, Al Tussi, Omar Khayyam.l.

George Sartan in his monumental, five volumes of History of Science chose to divide his story of achievement in the Sciences into ages each lasting half a century. With each half century he associates one central figure:

Age of 

Plato

 450 - 400 B C

Aristotole

 400 - 350 B C

Erchid

 350 - 300 B C

Jabir

 750 - 800 A D

Khwarizam

 800 - 850 A D

Abul Wafa

 950 -1000 A D

Razi

 850 - 900 A D

Biruni And Avicenna

 1000 -1050 A D

Masudi

 900-950 AD

Archimidis

 300 - 250 B C

Aryabhat

 500 - 550 A D

Hsian Tsang

 600 - 650 A D

Iching

 650 - 700 A D

Khayyam

 1050 – 1100 A D

Thus we find that the entire period between 750 to 1100 A D is the unbroken succession for a period of 350 years, a scene in the hands of Muslims (and Muslim only) – Arabs, Turks, Afghans, Persians etc. Only after 1100 A D, the first western names appear. The background to such a remarkable achievement was a determined,sustained, motivated and systematic effort, initiated by the by the Umayyids (at Damascus), but specially developed under the Abbasids, who built Baghdad ( 762 A D).

The impetus and motivation for the individual Muslim came directly from the religious injunctions in the Quran and the Prophet’s sayings concerning the importance of learning, inquiry, exploration and knowledge. “Are those who have knowledge and those who have no knowledge alike. Only the men of understanding are mindful (39:9)’. Irrespective of what happened in the political arena, the Caliphs, especially the Abbasids (754 A D) one after the other and without fail maintained the high level of patronage of science and astronomy, which had been established at the very beginning. This was particularly enhanced by Al-Manser, Harun Al-Rasheed and Al-Mamun (813 – 833 A D).

After the intensive development for 500 years came the SACK OF BAGHDAD in the mid 13th Century ( 1258 A D) at the hands of Halagu Khan (Tartars), an event which spelled one of the major disasters for the development of science, not just for the Muslims but for the whole world. But for the Muslims, science was never again able to regain its position despite several serious, attempts made in other parts of the Islamic Empire. The gradual drop in scientific activity after the SACK OF BAGHDAD is shown here in the Table below, which also shows the previous growth of Astronomy at the hands of Muslims:

A) Number of Writers of Original Books of Astronomy:

Century
 Muslims
 Christians
 Jews
7th
 0
 1
 0 
8th
 5
 0
 0
9th
 15
 0
 1
10th
 20
 1
 0
11th
 21
 0
 0
12th
 18
 0
 1
13th
 16
 2
 0
14th
 19
 1
 1
15th
 6
 0
 0
 20(95%)  5(3%)  3(2%)

B) Astronomy and Mathematical Book Written in Arabic (750 – 1450 )

Century Muslims Non-Muslims Total
7th  0 1 1
8th 11 0 11
9th 331 1 332
10th 56 2 58
11th 184 0 484
12th 112 34 146
13th   229 4 233
14th 79 2   81
15th 41 0 41
1048(96%)  43(4%)          1086

During the SACK OF BAGHDAD in 1258 A D, only one in every 1000 books escaped destruction.

My personal view is that after the SACK OF BAGHDAD, Prof. Dr. Mohammed Ilyas of International Islamic Calendar, Program Malaysia has resurrected Astronomy since the last 25 years from where it was left centuries back and to same extent by the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) USA.

Courtesy: Prof. Dr. Mohammad Ilyas – Astronomy of Islamic Time for the 21st Century ( 1989).

Dr. Syed Abdul Zahir, is member, I I C P, Malaysia & is an Islamic Astronomer.

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