This article is the second and final part of a series that seeks to portray a different, more positive side to Islam. The topic under consideration is the place of Astronomy in Islam.
Man has for millennia looked up to the sky and wondered at its vastness and the objects therein. We have tried to uncover its mysteries and understand our lives on earth through understanding of the sky. The study of outer space has had a central place in Islam since inception. Astronomy had both practical and spiritual use among adherents of the Islamic faith and this ensured the science thrived in the Muslim world.
With a large population of Muslims living in deserts, knowledge of the stars proved key in navigating through an otherwise featureless desert night. Spiritually, astronomy was used for time keeping and determination of the direction of Mecca where Muslims face while praying. The need to accurately tell the time of prayer across different time zones in the vast Islamic empires ensured Mosques employed ‘time keepers’ who were well versed in astronomy. The Islamic faith also uses the lunar calendar where the first of the month is marked by the appearance of the new moon. Key religious dates such as the start of fasting and the period for the annual pilgrimage were based on the sighting of the moon and corresponding dates thus underscoring the need for accuracy in astronomical study.
The Quran is also full of astronomical references ranging from explanation on basics such as the shift between day and night to more complex matter such as the creation of the universe. In total, there are 40 astronomical references in the Quran. The Bedouin tribes of pre-Islamic Arabia had a rich astronomical tradition and revelation was sent down to speak to their appreciation of this branch of science.
You will be surprised to learn the extent to which the Quran talks of key astronomical events and facts that man is still trying to figure out. Some of the most significant astronomical discoveries of the last century were clearly outlined in the Holy Book some 1400 years ago. For instance, the continued expansion of the universe on which the Big Bang Theory is premised is spelt out clearly in the Quran as follows:
“And the universe, we constructed with power and skill and verily we are expanding it.” Quran (51:47)
This fact is widely accepted in scientific circles today but that has not always been the case. Up to 1929, the Universe was considered to be static and constant in nature. It was only after Edwin Hubble (after whom the Hubble Telescope is named) discovered that galaxies were constantly moving away from each other that a paradigm shift occurred discarding the previously held notion on the state of the Universe. Albert Einstein had earlier theorized that the Universe was expanding but nullified the theory to avoid conflict with the prevalent ‘static universe model’.
This discovery of the Universe expanding was quite significant and has been described by Stephen Hawking as “one of the great intellectual revolutions of the 20th Century”. Hawking, he who famously rants against Islam at every given opportunity would be dismayed to find out that this fact was stated in the Quran 1300 years before discovery by man.
That the universe is expanding means that at one point, it was rather small and compact. At this point, all matter in the Universe was contained in a single mass (nebula) before the expansion. This point is generally considered the beginning of the Universe and is the basis of the widely accepted ‘Big Bang Theory’ that scientists have used to explain the origin of our Universe. Further expansion and the production of Hydrogen and Helium later led to the formation of galaxies with stars, moons and planets including the Milky Way where planet Earth is located. What man considers a theory that explains the beginning of the Universe has been ordained as a fact by the Almighty in the Quran.
It is worth noting that there is a difference between heaven (Samaai or Samawat in plural) and paradise (Jannah) in the Quran. Heaven is used to refer to the cosmic space, planets, billions of stars, galaxies, the sky and the seemingly endless expanse of the universe and everything within it. Paradise on the other hand refers to the abode in the afterlife of those who do good deeds while on earth.
Having said that, Quran 21:30 states as follows:
“Do not the Unbelievers see that the heavens and the earth were joined together (as one unit of creation), before we clove them asunder? We made from water every living thing. Will they not then believe?” Quran 21:30
The description of the heavens and the earth as having been joined before being separated is what is today considered as the Big Bang Theory. It makes sense that the Lord having created the Universe would know how it all began. Interestingly, the seemingly irreconcilable differences between religion and Science can be seen in a new light where the two reinforce each other by putting forward the same explanation on how the Universe began.
The next significant astronomical reference in the Quran is that of Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. Being the brightest star meant that Sirius had a very important place in navigation and religion in civilizations throughout human history. The star was used by ancient Egyptians to calculate their calendar while the inhabitants of Ceos in the Aegean sea would offer sacrifices to Sirius to bring cooling breezes during the summer. Ancient Romans celebrated the helical setting of Sirius – the disappearance of the star from visibility when it rises just before sunrise ensuring it is not visible throughout the day due to the light of the sun – in late April by offering sacrifices. In the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism, Sirius was known as Tishtrya and was considered the rain god.
Ptolemy of Alexandria mapped the stars in his legendary Almagest in which he used Sirius as the location for the globe’s central meridian. The Almagest, a 2nd century mathematical and astronomical treatise that mapped motions of stars and planets is considered one of the most influential scientific texts of all time and was in use for more than 1000 years. Basically, Sirius held great significance throughout human history but as will be seen, such relevance pales in comparison to its true scientific and miraculous significance.
The star Sirius is mentioned once in the Quran in ‘The Star Chapter’ (Surah Najm – Chapter 53 ) in verse 49. The fact that the star is mentioned in verse 49 is particularly noteworthy. While studying the movement of Sirius, scientists noticed the movement of the star was irregular relative to other stars. Upon further study with the aid of powerful telescopes, they deduced that Sirius is actually a double star. These set of stars were named Sirius A and Sirius B. The larger of the two stars is Sirius A, the brightest star while Sirius B can only be seen with the aid of a telescope.
The Sirius double stars orbit in elipses around a common axis forming bow-like shapes as they orbit around the axis. The orbital period of Sirius A and B about their common center of gravity is approximately 49.9 years. The point requiring attention here is the double-bow shaped orbits of the two stars about their common axis and the duration it takes for the two stars to orbit around the axis. This scientific fact which was established in the last few decades was indicated in the Quran 1,400 years ago. A reading of verses 49 and 9 are together reveals the peculiar movement of Sirius and the orbital period as proved by science.
Verse 49 of Surah Najm reads:
…”it is He who is the Lord of Sirius” (Quran chapter 53 verse 49)
While Verse 9 of the same chapter reads:
…”He was two bow-lengths away or even closer” (Quran chapter 53 verse 9)
The ‘double-bow’ description and the fact that the two verses are numbered 49 and 9, the same period it takes to complete movement about the orbit cannot be coincidental. Such knowledge whose clues were provided to humans centuries ago has only become clear to us in the last few decades. This leaves you wondering what else has been revealed to us in clues that we are yet to figure out. It also proves that our knowledge as a species is quite limited relative to divine knowledge.
Muslim scientists from the Islamic Golden age also made significant contributions to the study of Astronomy. They mainly worked from observatories which were funded by the rulers of the day. As with other fields of knowledge, the scientists translated and studied existing astronomical works from the Indians, Persians and Greeks, adding their own findings to these earlier works. Ptolemy’s works proved an especially important starting point for the Muslim scientists. Ibn Al Haitham (Al-Hazen) studied and critiqued Ptolemy, publishing a treatise titled ‘Doubts about Ptolemy’ which raised questions about Ptolemaic belief on eccentric motion of planets. Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and Nasr din al-Tusi took such critique further to the extent that Ptolemy’s model on the movement of planets was completely revised to produce a more accurate model.
Such gradual chipping away at Ptolemy’s model and the vast literature that arose out of centuries of astronomical study in Islamic empires paved the way for future significant discoveries by figures no less than Kepler and Copernicus. Historians hold that Copernicus’ discovery of the Heliocentric (sun at the center) nature of the solar system was set in motion but the earlier works of al-Tusi and Ibn Shatir. It is even suggested that illustrations in Copernicus’ works matched those in literature by al-Tusi while Copernicus himself is known to have acquired data during his study from the works of al-Battani and al-Bitruji, two famous Muslim astronomers.
Unintended consequences of astronomical study include the introduction and adoption of Indian numerals into the Arabic world (and later Europe and the whole world) by Al-Khwarizmi when studying Brahmagupta’s works. Al-Tusi was also able to establish trigonometry as a separate branch of Maths independent of geometry which significantly simplified the calculation of distances and directions in the heavens.
The legacy of Islamic influence on astronomy can be seen in the naming of the stars. Up to 200 stars have names that are Arabic in nature including well-known stars such as Aldebaran, Betelgeuse, Deneb and Rigel. This link shows some of the stars with Arabic-origin names.
In concluding, Astronomy as with many other fields of Science holds a special place in Islam, a religion that elevates knowledge and learning. Significant astronomical events are described in detail centuries ahead of their discovery by man. What the study of Astronomy does to a reflective mind is appreciation of the might of God and realization of how tiny we are in the grand scheme of things. I’ll finish with another verse of the Quran which implores us to use our intellect and gain an understanding not only of our world but the signs of the existence of the supernatural.
“In the creation of the heavens and earth, and the alternation of the night and day, and the ships which sail the seas to people’s benefit, and the water which Allah sends down from the sky — by which He brings the earth to life when it was dead and scatters about in it creatures of every kind — and the varying direction of the winds, and the clouds subservient between heaven and earth, there are signs for people who use their intellect.” (2:164)
(Images c/o islam.about.com and Google Doodle)