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Mon 11 December 2017

Why is the Universe expanding?
The importance and role of astronomy in Islam
The Universe in the light of the Qur'an
Discoveries of Muslim scholars
Space news

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  "Consider the sun and its radiant brightness and the moon as it reflects the sun!" <Qur'an-Shams 91:1>

"Consider the heavens and that which comes in the night"
<Qur'an-Tariq 86:1>

"Consider the night as it veils (the earth) in darkness"
<Qur'an-Lail 92:1>

"Consider those (stars) that rise only to set"
<Qur'an-Nazi'at 79:1>

A portrait of Muhammed Targai Ulugh Beg

The Holy Qur'an has many Suras beginning with astronomical references. It would seem natural that astronomy should receive its impetus first and foremost from Muslim scholars. And so it was in the early years of Islam. Sadly, this trend has suffered a serious decline in the last few centuries, and the last of the great Muslim astronomers was Muhammed Targai Ulugh Beg (1393 - 1449 C.E).

  • Mathematics and physics

Contributions to astronomy by Muslim scholars will naturally include contributions to mathematics and physics that are indispensable tools for the study of astronomy. If the tradition of seeking knowledge as Islam emphasizes had continued, astronomy would have continued to flourish among Muslim scholars.The Muslim world would have been centuries ahead of in science and research. Greek works were translated by Muslim scholars in Arabic and they also added encyclopaedias of their own. When Europe emerged from the "Dark Ages", Arabic works and the Arabic translations of Greek works were translated to Latin and Spanish.
Star names were not translated but transliterated so that to date many stars names are Arabic in origin. Look through any catalogue of stars, and one is immediately struck by the numerous names that appear to be Arabic in origin such as Aldabaran and Deneb. In an astronomical catalogue of almost 250 stars, over 140 of them had names that were Arabic in origin. Many new stars were discovered by Muslims. The book on stars of 'Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi was in fact translated into Spanish by Alfonso X el Sabio.

The Muslims carried out many observations that were contained in astronomical tables called Zij. One of the most keen observers was al-Battani. The zij of al-Ma'mun observed in Baghdad, the Hakimite zij of Cairo, the Toledan Tables of al-Zarqali and his associates, the el-Khanid zij of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi observed in Maraghah, and the zij of Ulugh-Beg from Samarqand are among the most famous Islamic astronomical tables. These tables had significant influence upon western astronomy up to the time of astronomer Tycho Brahe. In astronomy the Muslims integrated the astronomical traditions of the Indians, Persians, the ancient Near East and especially the Greeks from the 8th century onward. The Almagest of Ptolemy, the name of which is Arabic in origin, was thoroughly studied and its planetary theory criticized by several astronomers of both the eastern and western lands of Islam. A major critique of the theory was developed by Nasir al-Din al-Tusi and his students especially Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi, in the 13th century. In the field of mathematics, Muslims began by integrating Greek and Indian mathematics. The first great Muslim mathematician, al-Khwarazmi, who lived in the 9th century, wrote a treatise on arithmetic that brought the Arabic numerals to the West. He is also the author of the first book on algebra.

A portrait of Al-Khwarizmi
The term algebra itself comes from the first part of the name of the book of Al-Khwarizmi, entitled Kirah al-jabr wa'l-muqabalah. Abu Kamil al-Shuja' discussed algebraic equations with five unknowns.  

The science was further developed by such figures as al-Karaji until it reached its peak with Khayyam who classified by kind and class algebraic equations up to the third degree. The brothers Banu Musa who lived in the ninth century may be said to be the first outstanding Muslims in the field of geometry while their contemporary Thabit ibn Qurrah helped lay foundations of integral calculus. Muslims scholars also developed trigonometry that was established as a distinct branch of mathematics by Al-Biruni. Calculus, trigonometry and geometry are the cornerstones of solving problems in astronomy. Other Muslim mathematicians such as Khayyam and Al-Tusi examined Euclidean geometry that is the geometry of flat surfaces. The Muslim mathematicians, especially Al-Battani, Abu'l-Wafa', Ibn Yunus and Ibn al-Haytham, also developed spherical astronomy. Euclidean and spherical geometry are particularly useful in studying the overall geometry of the Universe in the study of cosmology.

A portrait of Avicenna (Ibn Sina)
The works of Ibn Sina, Abu'l-Barakat al-Baghdadi, Ibn Bajjah and others led to the development of the idea of impetus and momentum, principles in physics that are applied to motion of bodies in astronomy.

  • Optics

Another area that is important in astronomy is optics. It is very relevant in the development of tools for observation like telescopes that employ lenses or mirrors.

A portrait of Ibn Al-Haytham

Ibn Al-Haytham (the Latin Alhazen) who lived in the eleventh century was one of the greatest student of optics between Ptolemy and Witelo. Ibn al-Haytham's main work on optics, the Kitab al-manazir, was also well known in the West as Thesaurus opticus. Ibn al-Haytham studied the property of lenses, discovered the camera obscura, explained correctly the process of vision, studied the structure of the eye, and explained for the first time why the sun and the moon appear larger on the horizon. Very simply put, it is because the thicker layer of atmosphere at the horizon acts as magnifying lens compared to overhead. His interest in optics was carried out two centuries later by Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi and Kamal Al-Din Al-Farisi. It was Qutb al-Din who gave the first correct explanation of the formation of the rainbow.

The Holy Qur'an is full of gems of expositions in astronomy. That in itself should be an inspiration to Muslim scholars to continue in the present day the pursuit of knowledge in the sciences. Like in the days of yore, we should strive to develop a culture that is scientifically rich in the understanding of natural phenomena by "men of understanding".

  • Observatory

An observatory was built in Istanbul in the 16th century. In 1571 in Istanbul, Taqi al-Din Mohammed ibn Ma'ruf, author of several books on astronomy was appointed head-astronomer of the Ottoman Empire and immediately proposed construction of an observatory. He wanted to begin updating the old astronomical tables describing the motion of the planets, the sun and the moon. In 1577 the observatory is finally built

Taqi al-Din's observatory consisted of two magnificent buildings, perched high on a hill overlooking the European section of Istanbul and offering an unobstructed view of the night sky. Much like a modern institution, the main building was reserved for the library and the living quarters of the technical staff, while the smaller building housed an impressive collection of instruments built by Taqi al-Din himself - including a giant armillary sphere and a mechanical clock for measuring the position and speed of the planets.

For a short period Sokullu prevailed and Taqi al-Din plunged into astronomy at a feverish pace for two years. But then Sokullu was killed and in 1580 a wrecking squad from the Marine Ordinance Division appeared on the premises, and its commander, citing the misfortunes that had befallen the Ottomans since the apparition of the comet, gave orders to level the buildings.


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