Astronomy in Islamic Civilization
Like other scholars, who dealt with the history of science, Kevin Krisciunas could hardly fail to notice the generalised black-out imposed on Muslim astronomy. His opening statement of chapter two went as follows:
"It is a common misconception that astronomical research fell into a dazed slumber following Ptolemy (the Greek scientist who lived long before Islam), not to reawaken until the time of Copernicus. I have briefly sketched in the previous chapter the efforts on the part of various Greeks in preserving their astronomical science. These efforts continued up to the time of the conquest of Egypt by the Arabs, who were not the book burning fanatics that some have made them out to be. Those who think that these Arabs made no contributions of their own have not investigated the subject."
Kruisciunas then points that during the Middle Ages the principal astronomers were Moslems, Jews, and some Christians, and what they had in common was that they wrote in Arabic. "This was the principal language of astronomy of the ninth through the eleventh centuries, just as English is today".
Obscuring Muslim astronomy is common to the treatment of all Muslim sciences as expertly pursued by a number of historians, some "illustrious" and others less so. This obscuring of the Muslim achievements is, of course, today, complemented with a blowing out of proportion of anything negative about the Muslims, or distorting facts against them, something that can be observed all the time around us.
Obscuring Muslim Science
In the field of history of science, as a whole, many instances regarding such obscuring can be seen. Here, one in the field of mathematics as pointed by the authors of the Mac Tutor site at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, who state:
"There is a widely held view that, after a brilliant period for mathematics when the Greeks laid the foundations for modern mathematics, there was a period of stagnation before the Europeans took over where the Greeks left off at the beginning of the sixteenth century. The common perception of the period of 1000 years or so between the ancient Greeks and the European Renaissance is that little happened in the world of mathematics except that some Arabic translations of Greek texts were made which preserved the Greek learning so that it was available to the Europeans at the beginning of the sixteenth century."
The authors pursue, stating:
"That such views should be generally held is of no surprise. Many leading historians of mathematics have contributed to the perception by either omitting any mention of Arabic/Islamic mathematics in the historical development of the subject or with statements such as that made by Duhem that: "Arabic science only reproduced the teachings received from Greek science."
Recent research, however, the authors add, is painting a very different picture of the debt that we owe to Arabic/Islamic mathematics, recognising that modern mathematics is closer to Muslim mathematics than the Greek, and as they also put it:
"Certainly many of the ideas which were previously thought to have been brilliant new conceptions due to European mathematicians of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are now known to have been developed by Arabic/Islamic mathematicians around four centuries earlier."
The Blanket over Muslim Astronomy
In the particular field of astronomy so many examples of distortions can be cited. Thus, the two guiding lights of Western historians of astronomy, Neugebauer and Delambre, both find nothing to report about Islamic astronomy. It is as if it never existed, and no Muslim ever looked at the sky, or measured whatsoever. For Duhem, the inspiration for all scholars wishing and willing to find only doom, gloom, and chaos with Islam, things went as follows:
"The revelations of Greek thought on the nature of the exterior world ended with the 'Almagest,' (by Ptolemy) which appeared about A.D. 145, and then began the decline of ancient learning. Those of its works that escaped the fires kindled by Mohammedan warriors were subjected to the barren interpretations of Mussulman commentors and, like parched seed, awaited the time when Latin Christianity would furnish a favourable soil in which they could once more flourish and bring forth fruit."
If Duhem is to be followed, the Muslims are responsible for one thing, and for its total opposite, both at once. Indeed, according to him the Muslims were fanatic, rampaging hordes, burners of Greek science, and also pale imitators, copiers of the Greeks. They cannot be both, though. How can you copy a book that you have burnt; or convey a science that you have destroyed on first contact? Incidentally, both these conflicting opinions can be found not just with Duhem, but also with his crowd of followers, who pursue the same aberrations of history. More recent amongst these is another Frenchman, J.P. Verdet, who in a History of astronomy, manages to jump from Ptolemy to Copernicus, skipping nearly 1500 years, as if in his whole lifetime, and a scholar with access to tens of libraries, he never came across one single work dealing with Muslim astronomy.
Browsing through our modern means of communication, the web, also gives an early impression that the Muslims never looked at the sky, or put a pen on anything approaching that science called astronomy.
Thus at http://w3.restena.lu/al/pub/indivs/wagnjean/astronomy.htm medieval what one finds is that Greek astronomy was transmitted to the Arabs; and although "compiling new star catalogs, and developing tables of planetary motion, the Arabs made few useful contributions;" and that the Arabic translations of Ptolemy" Almagest filtered into Europe. And that was it. On this last point, anybody without sufficient knowledge would believe that Ptolemy's Almagest was the only work translated from Arabic into Latin. The Almagest was, indeed, one of hundreds of translations from Arabic into Latin by Christian scholars assisted by Jews.
Amongst such translations that led to the awakening of Europe from its dark slumber were the astronomical works of Al-Khwarizmi, Al-Battani, Al-Fargani, Mash'Allah, Al-Zarqali, Al-Bitruji, Jabir Ibn Aflah, and so on. Moving further on the web, reveals other sites such as http://dmoz.org/Science/Astronomy/History. Nothing surprising here either. Out of the so many astronomical topics listed not a single reference to Muslim astronomy. Another site http://homepages.tcp.co.uk/~carling/astrhis.html, and nothing, again. The author just jumps from Ptolemy to Copernicus, skipping those 1500 years. One would search in vain for a paragraph on the Muslims, or the Chinese (the greatest scientists of all times, and the other major victims of historical distortions) but nothing. The author, however, laments the burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno for adopting Copernican beliefs that were viewed with hostility by the Church.
Also on the web is the site of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) at: http://www.astro.unibonn.de/~pbrosche/iaucomm41. The union was founded in 1919 with the aim of "promoting the science of astronomy through international cooperation." Commission 41 of the a union and devoted to the History of Astronomy was created at the 1948 General Assembly, with Otto Neugebauer as its first President. From a look at the activities of the organisation, the conferences it held, and also the membership of the current officers (years: 2000-3), nothing could be found regarding Islamic astronomy.
The Real Story
Yet, against what has just preceded, reality in relation to astronomy is considerably different. It will be impossible to go through even a summarised version of Muslim achievements here. The briefest of mentions will be made of different aspects of the science, some of which will hopefully be developed at a future stage. It also belongs to Muslims and others with minimal honest intentions to go through the abundant, old reference material, of primary and secondary sort, now being eagerly buried, and give a much truer picture of the Muslim contribution to this science, a reality that some try to hide for eternity.
Sources for writing on Muslim astronomy exist in large abundance in German in particular, the work of Germans and also of others who expressed themselves in German. Heinrich Suter, for one, has numbered over 500 Muslim astronomers and mathematicians, giving for each of these the titles of their works that are known, and their still extant manuscripts. Since Suter more have been added by Brockelmann and Sezgin (all in German). George Sarton in his voluminous Introduction to the History of Science (already referred to abundantly) gives a very thorough picture, too, of the vast array of Muslim works in astronomy as in other sciences. Sedillot (in French) and Nalino (in Italian) have delivered plenty good information in the same field, too. Closer to us, David King, Julio Samso, George Saliba, E.S. Kennedy, W. Hartner and A.I. Sabra have added more regular contributions, King, in particular, providing a gigantic contribution to the subject. Other scholars have given very good summaries of Muslim astronomy, first amongst whom being Baron Carra de Vaux and Aldo Mieli, scholars of great repute from earlier in the century, Aldo Mieli founding one of the two greatest reviews on the history of science ARCHEION, (the other being ISIS by George Sarton.) Incidentally, both De Vaux and Mieli are being pushed into oblivion by second or third rate modern scholars who today fill departments of history of science. Before leaving the subject on contributions, Rashed, again, managed in volume one of his Encyclopaedia of Arabic science to gather a number of excellent contributions to this science, on top of providing an extensive bibliography at the end, very useful for whomsoever wishes to go deeper into the matter.
Before addressing other aspects of astronomy, and first and foremost, to the many pseudo historians who keep stating and re-stating that Muslim astronomers merely copied their Greek predecessors, no better evidence to the contrary than the many articles by George Saliba, following Sedillot, much earlier, dealing with the corrections made by Muslim astronomers to Greek astronomy. And for Braudel, Ptolemy's errors were too glaring to escape Muslim scholars, who were better equipped with precision instruments.
To have a very thorough picture of the contribution of various ethnic groups to astronomy in general, the Chinese, above all, no better work than Sarton, of course, but also the more recent excellent work by Hetherington: A chronicle of pre-Telescopic astronomy. In it the author surveys each and every single achievement in the science, and every event of importance, year by year, from the very ancient times until our times; Hetherington, to his credit, not leaving the thousand years from 500 to 1500 blank as is customary with others. Observation of the sky and observatories in Muslim times have been expertly dealt with by Sayili, following Sedillot, just cited. Kruiscinas, too, gave ample account of Islamic observations. Hartner, for his part, corrects Neugebauer's remark that colossal observational instruments stood only at the end of the Muslim civilisation (14th-15th century). These were already in use as early as Al-Mamun's reign (9th century) and remained in use throughout the centuries. Hartner also notes that it was only in the seventeenth century, thanks to Brahe, that high standards of Islamic observation were reached again by the Europeans. On the specific point of instruments for observation it is useful to mention one amongst many contributions by R.P. Lorch on Jabir ibn Aflah and the Torquetom.
In nautical astronomy, and to correct the erroneous views so abundant in the field, no better source than Steinschneider, a source suffering constant attempts by modern writers to erase it. Joaquim Bensaude has kept Steinschneider alive, just for himself to be blotted out as well. Duhem, again, holds that the use of the baculus was introduced among the Portuguese navigators by the German scientist Behaim towards the end of the fifteenth century, whilst Bensaude (just cited) had demonstrated that the baculus was known in Portugal long before the time of Behaim. Dreyer also raises one of the so many contradictions proper to Duhem, that he (Duhem) quotes this book (Bensaude's) in a footnote without noticing that it demolishes what he had just stated in the text. Also contrary to assertions made by Duhem, that some revival was begun in France, the studies of Bensaude have shown that "the scientific light spread by the Arabs in spain and Portugal had never been put out," which amongst others impact considerably on navigation to the Indies and the New World. Another contribution of interest to this very subject is by Howse, and can be found in the Journal of Renaissance and Modern Studies.
The astrolabe is described as "the most important astronomical calculating device before the invention of digital computers and was the most important astronomical observational device before the invention of the telescope." Its uses are varied, and not just in astronomy, but also in surveying and navigation. In astronomy, it was used to calculate the altitude and azimuth (an Arab term) of the sun, the moon, stars and planets. It was also used to measure distances and heights.Of all the works on the astrolabe, by far the best is by A.L. Mayer on Islamic astrolabists and their works. It describes and gives all names of those who made astrolabes through the ages of Islamic history, their places of birth and work, dates, and also the whereabouts of such astrolabes throughout the museums of the world and various international collections. Bibliographies about such makers and their works are also added, a very
thorough work, indeed.
The Globe Earth
A point of crucial importance is raised by Dreyer on a matter which is possibly the most blacked out of all, and that is the spherical shape of the earth, a notion which until the modern times led its authors to burning at the stake. In the world of Islam, Dreyer, however, holds, there was no such hostility to science, and there exists no record of any Muslim being persecuted for stating that the earth was a sphere that was capable of being inhabited all over; and that it was also very small compared to the size of the universe.
In view of the so many sources just cited, the fact that books such as Verdet's in the 1990s, and the various http://www still ignore the Muslim contribution to astronomy is beyond the credible. It just serves to show the darker side of "scholarship" meant to be universal and devoid of prejudice. Hartner had already noticed this a while back; stating that in the writing of history:
"Our time witnesses a most unfortunate tendency to write prententious 'syntheses' on the basis of either of a wholly unsufficient factual knowledge or of preconceived theories-religious, philosophic, sociological maintained only by twisting and suppressing facts at the author's pleasure."
On the same matter, T.F. Tout has recognised that:
"Our (Western-European-British) civilisation is not merely national but world-wide, and that neither Great Britain, nor even Greater Britain, can be understood, unless we know something about our neighbours and associates, our enemies even more than our friends".
"It is from the Middle Ages that our civilisation proceeds. If we could understand modern civilisation, we cannot make a fresh start a hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago."
And he concludes:
"Europe did not go to sleep in the Middle Ages, and then woke up, open her eyes, and see light at some date, previously marked out as 1453, 1492, or 1494 by eminent authorities. In the long story of European evolution the Middle Ages form an integral part, and unless you make allowance for them, you see modern history all askew. The men of the Renaissance, like the men of the Age of Reason, despised and ignored the Middle Ages. It is painful to find that there are still people who believe that you can hop straight from the Periclean or the Augustan ages to the times of the Medici and Louis XIV... It is good to begin at the beginning, but we must on no account stop at an arbitrary time, jump over hundreds of years, and then start afresh."
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