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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.