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Stars & the Art of Astronomy in Islamic History

Over two thirds of prominent stars known today in the night sky have Arabic names. This is due to the "stellar" navigational skills of Muslim astronomers 1000 years ago, during the Golden Age of Islam.

Beautiful work by Neslihan Gülbahar Ekinci


Regardless of origin, almost all star names belong to old traditions. Kept alive for centuries by mariners, explorers & other stargazers, the Arabic star names are a living testimony to the Golden Age of Arab–Islamic astronomy. More than 200 stars names are derived from Arabic.

From the 9th to the 15th century, scientists working in the Arabic language, in a region stretching from Islamic Spain across North Africa & the Middle East to India, dominated worldwide scientific endeavor. Astronomy was one of the greatest of these pursuits.

In the 10th century, the Muslim Persian astronomer ‘Abd al-Raḥmān al- Ṣūfī wrote a text called ‘The Book of Fixed Stars.’ Beautiful drawings of the constellations Pegasus & Taurus by ‘Abd al-Raḥmān al- Ṣūfī in ‘The Book of Fixed Stars.’

‘Abd al-Raḥmān al- Ṣūfī translated the work of Ptolemy into Arabic - whose book the ‘Almagest’, written almost 1000 years earlier, is still the foundation on which our system of constellations rests 10th century Arabic translation of Ptolemy's "Almagest".

Constellation of Orion in a Latin translation of al-Ṣūfī's (fl. 10thC) Catalog of the Fixed Stars (copy from Bologna, 1250-1275)

The constellation of Corvus the Raven, a folio from The Book of Fixed Stars by al-Sufi (903-986 CE) from Brooklyn Museum.

The celestial globe & the astrolabe, a two-dimensional representation of the sky, were among the most widespread of scientific instruments in the Islamic world, from Muslim Andalusia to Mughal India. They were favored for both their artistic and their symbolic value.

In the 10th century, Al-Sufi estimated that there were around a thousand possible applications for an astrolabe, ranging from the position of the stars or the direction of Mecca to the height of a building. Astrolabe, from Spain, Toledo, 14th century Aga Khan Museum.

Astrolabes are complex devices which use several moving parts to turn raw data provided by the user into practical information –they were the computers of their time, used to solve problems relating to the position of the sun, stars, planets & timekeeping Astrolabe, History of Science Museum.

Mariam Al Astrulabi was born in 950 AD in Aleppo, Syria. She is credited {for developing the first 'complex' astrolabe, with her invention akin to a GPS navigation tool for the stars. This astrolabe relates to a group of six Western Islamic astrolabes from 1060, Royal Museum Greenwich.

The astrolabe is thought to have originated in Ancient Greece. While the origin may have been Greek, it is generally agreed that the design was perfected in the Islamic world – the name Astrolabe comes from the Arabic version of the Greek term ‘Star holder’ Science Museum Group.

An astrolabe is made up of 4 main pieces: – the mater or base plate – the rete shows the fixed stars, the ecliptic & certain naked eye stars – the plates, each of which is made for a different latitude – the alidade or rule with sights used for making observations. History of Science Museum Oxford.

An indication we find on many Islamic astrolabes, which gives them a religious dimension is the inscriptions. On many Islamic astrolabes we find passages from the Quran, dedications, religious verses & of course the date given according to the Hijra calendar Khalili Collection.

Celestial globes show the positions of the stars in the sky. They omit the Sun, Moon & planets because the positions of these bodies vary relative to those of the stars, but the ecliptic, along which the Sun moves, is indicated, from Khalili Collection.

To explain this difference between a constellation as seen from the Earth & as seen on a celestial globe in ‘The Book of Fixed Stars’ Abd al-Raḥmān al- Ṣūfī drew two pictures for each constellation Celestial Globe, 1630 CE American History Museum.

Celestial Globe, Iran (764 AH / 1362–3) Engraved with 48 constellations, History of Science Museum.

Celestial globes are more than astronomical tools & teaching instruments. The technical skill and artistry used to engrave the stars & zodiac signs mean they stand as artworks in their own right Celestial Globe, 3rd oldest surviving in the world, 1144-1145, Iran, Louvre Museum.

Here are a few of the brightest stars in the sky with Arabic names: Betelgeuse – إبط الجوزاء Betelgeuse, translates as "the armpit of Orion" or "hand of Orion." It comes from the Arabic name ‘Ibṭ ul-Jawzā’.

Rigil Kentaurus – رجل القنطورس Rigil Kentaurus, derives from ‘Rijl ul-Qanṭūris. Translated, this would be Foot of the Centaur.

Deneb – ذنب الدجاجة Deneb is a shortened version of ‘Dhanab ud-Dajājah‘, meaning tail of the hen.

Alnitak – النطاق Having the meaning of the girdle, this star is named Alnitak, originating from the Arabic word ‘an-Niṭāq’.

Fomalhaut – فم الحوت This star was given the name ‘Fum al-Hul’ in Arabic, meaning mouth of the Whale. It is known as the star Fomalhaut.

Algol – رأس الغول Ancient astrologers thought Algol was the most dangerous star in the heavens. It's name comes from the Arabic 'ra's al-ghūl', meaning 'head of the demon', due to its position as the eye in the severed head of Medusa in the constellation Perseus.

Today, Islamic artists continue to be inspired by the stars as a gateway to the heavens & creation of the universe.

Work by contemporary calligraphy artist Hatem Arafa with a verse of Surah Al Baqarah from the Holy Qur’an.


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