Islam’s Compatibility with Science – By Robert Morrison

Robert Morrison on David A. King’s Islamic Astronomy and Geography

islamic astronomy and geography
David A. King, Islamic Astronomy and Geography, Ashgate Publishing, 2012, 420pp., $190.00

Islam’s compatibility with science remains a prominent topic in public discourse. In a presentation on The Science Network, Neil DeGrasse Tyson pinpointed the career of the reformer Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111 CE) as the point when and reason why science in Islamic societies began to decline. But in the past few decades, there has been a marked re-assessment of Ghazali’s career, culminating in Frank Griffel’s argument that Ghazali actually accepted versions of scientific causal explanations. And in the past several decades, a great deal of scholarship has appeared that has shown directly that Islam, whether before Ghazali’s lifetime or afterwards, was not at all inimical to science. The articles collected in this volume come from a scholar, David King, whose entire career has been devoted to showing the productive relationship between Islam and science.

Science in Islamic societies began and developed not in spite of Islam, but along with Islam. The general essay (“Islamic Astronomy”) in this volume helps show how the rise of Islamic astronomy was linked not to a passive “download” of information from ancient Greece, Persia, and India, but to how, by the rise of the Abbasid Caliphate in 750, interest in astronomy and astrology helped initiate the Translation Movement, an enterprise in which astronomical texts first from Sanskrit and Persian, and then from Greek, were translated into Arabic. Science served the nascent empire’s purposes, whether calendar calculations, determining prayer times, taxation, or political legitimacy. In addition, the Qur’an contains plentiful references to the natural world, including the heavens, and discussions of the natural world played a role in Islamic thought, even before the Translation Movement.

Scholars have shown that Islam’s general opposition to astrological forecasting forced scientists to re-think the relationship between theoretical and mathematical astronomy on the one hand and their application to astrological forecasting on the other. A formal disciplinary distinction between astronomy and astrology was the result, and such a distinction facilitated advances in theoretical astronomy that coincided with the incorporation of astronomy into traditions of Islamic scholarship. Conversely, the prestige of astronomy occasioned transformations in kalam (Islam’s tradition of philosophical theology) and the result was the integration of astronomy and other sciences into traditions of religious scholarship.

These developments led to the innovative models devised by the astronomers connected to the Maragha Observatory near Tabriz under the Ilkhanids, descendants of Genghis Khan, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. There are extensive similarities between the astronomy in the tradition of the Maragha Observatory and Copernicus’s (d. 1543) De Revolutionibus and recent research, appearing after the publication of this book, has suggested a network of Jewish scholars as one route by which these theories might have traveled. Theoretical astronomy in Islamic societies continued to innovate into the sixteenth century, so while the story of the connection with the Renaissance is fascinating and compelling, Islamic astronomy was a product of Islamic societies and continued after the European Renaissance.

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The preceding developments in theoretical astronomy fit popular definitions of scientific progress. In that light, the signal contributions of King’s career are showing that texts on timekeeping and astronomical instruments were also areas of real intellectual creativity, even if they do not fit stereotypical narratives of progress, and that timekeeping and instrumentation were areas in which science could and did serve Islam. As most astronomy occurred on this less explicitly theoretical level, King has demonstrated that intellectual vitality was the rule, not the exception.

For example, science served Islam with mathematical geography’s role in computations of the qibla, the direction of prayer, the direction in which mosques should be oriented. The principle of the mathematical solution to the qibla problem is akin to that of determining a great circle route, a great circle being the shortest distance between two points on a sphere. This is why airplanes do not take what would seem to be the shortest route based on a two-dimensional map. Thus, while Mecca is at a lower latitude than Miami, the qibla in North America is roughly Northeast. King provides just enough mathematical detail to convince the reader that the qibla problem was not trivial. King also provides an overview of some fascinating Safavid (i.e., after 1500) world maps that contained graphical solutions for the direction of Mecca that he examined at much greater length in his 1999 book, World-Maps for Finding the Direction and Distance to Mecca.

Before mathematical methods of qibla computation emerged in the ninth century, there had been alternatives. Most of these alternatives appeared in the hadith (reports of Muhammad’s words) literature; King has focused on how non-technical solutions survived even after more precise methods appeared. Understanding the interaction of the technical with the non-technical methods has the potential to inform scholarship on how buildings were aligned. In “Aspects of Fatimid Astronomy,” King found that the orientations of the ventilators on the roofs of buildings in medieval Cairo were oriented according to a table ascribed to Ibn Yunus (d. 1009), the subject of his 1972 dissertation. He in addition found that while the outsides of Mamluk religious buildings were aligned with the qibla of Muhammad’s companions, the insides were aligned with the qibla computed by the astronomers.

Another area in which science served Islam was in timekeeping. King has studied numerous astronomical handbooks that included tables that answered the complex question of the visibility of the lunar crescent (i.e., the new moon) as well as the more straightforward matter of the times of the five daily prayers at different latitudes. Determining lunar crescent visibility was important for calculating the lunar calendar, but the determination was complex because it depended on a number of variables, including the moon’s position, the angular separation between the moon and sun, and the relative setting times of the sun and moon. Calculating prayer times was more straightforward but still required the creation of a trigonometry designed for spherical (i.e., not planar) surfaces.

Astronomical instruments were representations of the heavens as much as they were tools. If one thinks of the night sky as a sphere, the purpose of these instruments was to find the position of a celestial object on that sphere according to a coordinate system. An armillary sphere reproduced the heavenly sphere in three dimensions; astrolabes and equatoria (rarer in the Islamic world) projected the three-dimensional heavenly sphere into two dimensions. On the backs of astrolabes, one can often find quadrants that provide graphical solutions, which functioned in a manner akin to slide rules, for trigonometric functions. Sample instruments, such as “an astrolabe made by a Jew, engraved by a Christian, and finished by a Muslim,” which features inscriptions in Hebrew, Latin, and Arabic, have fascinating stories behind them. The Muslim engraver who finished the astrolabe, known only as Mas‘ud, who remained in Christian Spain after the Reconquista, escaped from Christian Spain, where the astrolabe was made, to Algeria.

Phases of the Moon, al-Biruni (973-1048) – Image via Wikimedia Commons
Phases of the Moon, al-Biruni (973-1048) – Image via Wikimedia Commons

When explaining Islam’s compatibility with science, another important question is: Which Islam in which Islamic society? Just as Christianity has changed over time and varied geographically, so have Islam and scientific enterprises within Islamic societies. Because practical astronomy was so widespread, King’s research on instrumentation affords a window onto these differences. He, followed by his student François Charette, uncovered the depth of scientific culture under the Mamluks. The Mamluks were a dynasty of former slaves who ruled Syria and Egypt between 1250 and 1517. Not only was Ibn al-Shatir — the fourteenth century Damascene astronomer upon whom Copernicus may have depended — a muwaqqit (mosque/madrasa timekeeper) in Mamluk Damascus, Najm al-Din al-Misri’s creativity emerged through the production of timekeeping tables with several hundred thousand entries and the invention of instruments that could solve similar problems graphically. Charette’s excellent book on Najm al-Din, completed after King’s 1998 article (“Mamluk Astronomy and the institution of the muwaqqit”) has shown that the instruments Najm al-Din described did not do anything that earlier instruments could not, meaning that instrument production had an abstract, intellectual side. The fact that the Mamluks instituted the office of the muwaqqit was itself a structural innovation applying the fruits of Islamic astronomy to a religious matter.

Likewise, King’s work has brought distinct dimensions of Andalusian practical astronomy to light. For example, while most astrolabes required the insertion of a plate for a given latitude, it was only in Andalusia that universal astrolabes, which could function at any latitude, emerged. There was, too, an interesting conversation between mathematical astronomy and the folk tradition. Another fascinating contribution of King’s study of Andalusian astronomy is his description of the astronomical handbook with tables of the Tunisian Ibn Ishaq (fl. 1193-1222). One of the observers cited was William II of Sicily (d. 1189). As it is often easier to learn about the details of pre-modern Islamic science than the broader context, King’s research into regional, practical astronomies lends insight into the culture of science in Islamic societies.

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