Arab Astronomy and Greek Sources

An article for Deskarati by Alan Mason –

Medieval manuscript by Qotbeddin Shirazi depicting an epicyclic planetary model.

1. GEOGRAPHICAL RANGE Islamic astronomy or Arabic astronomy comprises the astronomical developments made in the Islamic world, particularly during the Islamic Golden Age (8th–15th centuries), and mostly written in the Arabic language. These developments mostly took place in the Middle East, Central Asia,  Al-Andalus, (now the province of Andalusia or Muslim Spain in those days) and North Africa, and later in the Far East and India.

2. INCLUSION OF FOREIGN SOURCES It closely parallels the genesis of other Islamic sciences in its assimilation of foreign material and the amalgamation of the disparate elements of that material to create a science with Islamic characteristics. These included Sassanid, (Persian), Hellenistic (Ancient Greek) and Indian works in particular, which were translated and built upon. In turn, Islamic astronomy later had a significant influence on Indian, Byzantine (Christian Greek) and European astronomy.

3. ARABIC STAR NAMES A significant number of stars in the sky, such as Aldebaran and Altair, and astronomical terms such as alhidade, azimuth, and almucantar, are still referred to by their Arabic names. A large corpus of literature from Islamic astronomy remains today, numbering approximately 10,000 manuscripts scattered throughout the world, many of which have not been read or catalogued. Even so, a reasonably accurate picture of Islamic activity in the field of astronomy can be reconstructed.


Pre-Islamic Arabs had no scientific astronomy. Their knowledge of stars was only empirical, limited to what they observed regarding the rising and setting of stars. The rise of Islam provoked increased Arab thought in this field.Science historian Donald. R. Hillhas divided Islamic Astronomy into the four following distinct time periods in its history.


Zīj al-Sindhind

The period of assimilation and syncretisation of earlier Hellenistic,(Ancient Greek), Indian, and Sassanid (Persian) astronomy.During this period many Indian and Persian texts were translated into Arabic. The most notable of the texts was Zij al-Sindhind, translated by Muhammad ibn Ibrahim al-Fazari and Yaqub ibn Tariq in 777. Sources indicate that the text was translated after, in 770, an Indian astronomer visited the court of Caliph Al-Mansur. Another text translated was the Zij al-Shah, a collection of astronomical tables compiled in Persia over two centuries.Fragments of text during this period indicate that Arabs adopted the sine function (inherited from India) in place of the chords of arc used in Greek trignometry.


This period of vigorous investigation, in which the superiority of the Ptolemaic system of astronomy was accepted and significant contributions made to it. Astronomical research was greatly supported by the Abbasid caliph al-Mamun. Baghdad and Damascus became the centers of such activity. The caliphs not only supported this work financially, but endowed the work with formal prestige.The first major Muslim work of astronomy was Zij al-Sindh by al-Khwarizimi in 830. The work contains tables for the movements of the sun, the moon and the five planets known at the time. The work is significant as it introduced Ptolemaic concepts into Islamic sciences.This work also marks the turning point in Islamic astronomy. Hitherto, Muslim astronomers had adopted a primarily research approach to the field, translating works of others and learning already discovered knowledge. Al-Khwarizmi’s work marked the beginning of non-traditional methods of study and calculations.In 850, al-Farghani wrote Kitab fi Jawani(meaning “A compendium of the science of stars”). The book primarily gave a summary of Ptolemic cosmography. However, it also corrected Ptolemy based on findings of earlier Arab astronomers. Al-Farghani gave revised values for the obliquity of the ecliptic, the precessional movement of the apogees of the sun and the moon, and the circumference of the earth. The books was widely circulated through the Muslim world, and even translated into Latin.


The period when a distinctive Islamic system of astronomy flourished. The period began as the Muslim astronomers began questioning the framework of the Ptolemaic system of astronomy. These criticisms, however, remained within the geocentric framework and followed Ptolemy’s astronomical paradigm; one historian described their work as “a reformist project intended to consolidate Ptolemaic astronomy by bringing it into line with its own principles.”In 1070, Abu Ubayd al-Juzjani published the Tarik al-Aflak. In his work, he indicated the so-called “equant” problem of the Ptolemic model. Al-Juzjani even proposed a solution for the problem. In al-Andalus, (Andalusian Spain) the anonymous work al-Istidrak ala Batlamyus (meaning “Recapitulation regarding Ptolemy”), included a list of objections to the Ptolemic astronomy.The most important work, however, was Al-Shuku ala Batlamyus (meaning “Doubts on Ptolemy”). In this, the author summed up the inconsistencies of the Ptolemic models. Many astronomers took up the challenge posed in this work, namely to develop alternate models that evaded such errors. The most important of these astronomers include: Muayyad al-Din Urdi (circa 1266), Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (1201-74), Qutb al-Din al Shirazi (circa 1311), Sadr al-Sharia al-Bukhari (circa 1347), Ibn al-Shatir (circa 1375), and Ala al-Qushji (circa 1474).


The period of stagnation, when the traditional system of astronomy continued to be practised with enthusiasm, but with rapidly decreasing innovation of any major significance.A large corpus of literature from Islamic astronomy remains today, numbering around some 10,000 manuscript volumes scattered throughout the world. Much of this has not even been catalogued. Even so, a reasonably accurate picture of Islamic activity in the field of astronomy can be reconstructed.

Muslim Observatories

Abd Al-Rahman Al Sufi

1. DAMASCUS AND BAGHDAD The first systematic observations in Islam are reported to have taken place under the patronage of al-Mamun. Here, and in many other private observatories from Damascus to Baghdad, meridian degrees were measured, solar parameters were established, and detailed observations of the Sun, Moon, and planets were undertaken.In the 10th century, the Buwayhid dynasty encouraged the undertaking of extensive works in Astronomy, such as the construction of a large scale instrument with which observations were made in the year 950. We know of this by recordings made in the zij of astronomers such as Ibn al-Alam. The great astronomer Abd Al-Rahman Al Sufi was patronised by prince Adud o-dowleh, who systematically revised Ptolemy’s catalogue of stars. Sharaf al-Daula also established a similar observatory in Baghdad. And reports by Ibn Yunus and al-Zarqall in Toledo and Cordoba indicate the use of sophisticated instruments for their time.

2. ISFAHAN It was Malik Shah I who established the first large observatory, probably in Isfahan. It was here where Omar Khayyám with many other collaborators constructed a zij and formulated the Persian Solar Calendar a.k.a. the jalali calendar. A modern version of this calendar is still in official use in Iran today.

3. MARAGHA The most influential observatory was however founded by Hulegu Khan during the 13th century. Here, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi supervised its technical construction at Maragha. The facility contained resting quarters for Hulagu Khan, as well as a library and mosque. Some of the top astronomers of the day gathered there, and from their collaboration resulted important modifications to the Ptolemaic system over a period of 50 years.

4. SAMARKHAND In 1420, prince Ulugh Beg, himself an astronomer and mathematician, founded another large observatory in Samarkand, the remains of which were excavated in 1908 by Russian teams.

5. ISTANBUL And finally, Taqi al-din bin Ma’ruf founded a large observatory in Istanbul in 1575, which was on the same scale as those in Maragha and Samarkand.  MODERN ARAB ASTRONOMYIn modern times, Turkey has many well equipped observatories, while Jordan , Palestine, Lebanon, UAE, Tunisia, and other Arab states are also active as well. Iran has modern facilities at Shiraz University and Tabriz University. In Dec 2005, Physics Today reported of Iranian plans to construct a “world class” facility with a 2.0 m telescope observatory in the near future.


Our knowledge of the instruments used by Muslim astronomers primarily comes from two sources. First the remaining instruments in private and museum collections today, and second the treatises and manuscripts preserved from the middle ages.Muslims made many improvements to instruments already in use before their time, such as adding new scales or details. Their contributions to astronomical instrumentation are abundant.

1. Celestial globes and armillary spheres

Celestial globes were used primarily for solving problems in celestial astronomy. Today, 126 such instruments remain worldwide, the oldest from the 11th century. The altitude of the sun, or the Right Ascension and Declination of stars could be calculated with these by inputting the location of the observer on the meridian ring of the globe.An armillary sphere had similar applications. No early Islamic armillary spheres survive, but several treatises on “the instrument with the rings” were written. In this context there is also an Islamic development, the spherical astrolabe, of which only one complete instrument, from the 14th century, has survived.

2. Astrolabes

An 18th century Persian Astrolabe, kept at The Whipple Museum of the History of Science in Cambridge, England.Brass astrolabes were developed in much of the Islamic world, chiefly as an aid to finding the qibla. (The compass bearing of Mecca to which prayers were directed.  In the mosque the mihrab or niche is used to guide worshippers)The earliest known example is dated 315 (in the Islamic calendar, corresponding to 927-8). The first person credited for building the Astrolabe in the Islamic world is reportedly Fazari (Richard Nelson Frye: Golden Age of Persia. p163).He only improved it though, the Greeks had already invented astrolabes to chart the stars. The Arabs then took it during the Abbasid Dynasty and perfected it to be used to find the beginning of Ramadan, the hours of prayer, and the direction of Mecca.The instruments were used to read the rise of the time of rise of the Sun and fixed stars. al-Zarqall of Andalusia constructed one such instrument in which, unlike its predecessors, did not depend on the latitude of the observer, and could be used anywhere. This instrument became known in Europe as the Saphaea.

3. Sundials

Muslims made several important improvements to the theory and construction of sundials, which they inherited from their Indian and Greek predecessors. Khwarizmi made tables for these instruments which considerably shortened the time needed to make specific calculations.Sundials were frequently placed on mosques to determine the time of prayer. One of the most striking examples was built in the 14th century by the muwaqqit (timekeeper) of the Umayyid Mosque in Damascus, ibn al-Shatir.

4. Quadrants

Several forms of quadrants were invented by Muslims. Among them was the sine quadrant used for astronomical calculations and various forms of the horary quadrant, used to determine time (especially the times of prayer) by observations of the Sun or stars. A center of the development of quadrants was ninth-century Baghdad.

5. Equatorium

The Equatorium is an Islamic invention from Al-Andalus. The earliest known was probably made around 1015. It is a mechanical device for finding the positions of the Moon, Sun, and planets, without calculation using a geometrical model to represent the celestial body’s mean and anomalistic position.

(The text of this is taken from wikipedia, with the references and various details removed.  Extra paragraphing and numeration has been used, and a few words of explanation in brackets to clarify some technical terms.)

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2 Responses to Arab Astronomy and Greek Sources

  1. Fine says:

    Astronomy is a great subject . The Arabs studied astronomy well . It is a pity that those early studies did not continue to present day

  2. Pingback: Arab Astronomy and Greek Sources | LANDLOOPER

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