A Kingly look at Islamic Astronomy
All societies have star lore, using the movements of stars and other celestial phenomena to tell time and direction. The formal science of astronomy, with roots in ancient Mesopotamia and Greece, evolved in the east before it reached Europe. Europe’s exposure came primarily from Arabic sources, which themselves were aware of earlier traditions. There is a rich collection of texts available on Islamic Astronomy, from simple observation tables to major mathematical models.
One of the major scholars of the history of Islamic astronomy is Professor David A. King, who until recently directed the Institüt für Geschichte der Naturwissenschaften in Frankfurt. Since 1972 he has written about almost every aspect of astronomy in the Islamic world, including articles on medieval European astronomy and mathematics. He also has composed the largest inventory of astrolabes in the world. It is hard to describe a magnum opus for his work, since there are several. One would be his magisterial World-Maps for Finding the Direction and Distance to Mecca: Innovation and Tradition in Islamic Science (Brill, 1999), which explains how Muslims over the centuries determined the direction of the qibla (direction to Mecca) from everywhere Islam had reached. Do not let the fact that Amazon offers this out-of-print 638 page book for $2,796 frighten you, as all of Dr. King’s works are now available online.
I suspect that King’s favorite work would be his two volume Synchrony With the Heavens: Studies in Astronomical Timekeeping And Instrumentation in Medieval Islamic Civilization (Brill, 2005). As the publisher notes:
“This is the first investigation of one of the main interests of astronomy in Islamic civilization, namely, timekeeping by the sun and stars and the regulation of the astronomically-defined times of Muslim prayer. The study is based on over 500 medieval astronomical manuscripts first identified by the author, now preserved in libraries all over the world and originally from the entire Islamic world from the Maghrib to Central Asia and the Yemen. The materials presented provide new insights into the early development of the prayer ritual in Islam.
They also call into question the popular notion that religion could not inspire serious scientific activity. Only one of the hundreds of astronomical tables discussed here was known in medieval Europe, which is one reason why the entire corpus has remained unknown until the present. This second volume deals with astronomical instruments for timekeeping and other computing devices.”
I first met David when he was teaching at NYU in New York. I had recently returned from fieldwork in Yemen, where I had photographed a 14th century Yemeni manuscript that had quite a few astronomical tables in it. David shared with me his recent bibliography of Yemeni astronomical manuscripts. He also provided me with a copy of the late 13th century Yemeni astronomical text, al-Tabṣira fī ‘ilm al-nujūm, the almanac chapter of which became my first book, Medieval Agriculture and Islamic Science: The Almanac of a Yemeni Sultan (University of Washington Press, 1994), also out of print but a bargain on Amazon for only $25.
In 1983 I received an ARCE (American Research Center in Egypt) grant to study manuscripts in Cairo’s Dār al-Kutub. David had just finished compiling a major bibliography of the scientific texts there and was well liked at the national library. I arrived with a letter from David for the director, who kindly met me right away. There were at least three manuscripts I wanted to have copies of and I had heard stories about how difficult getting microfilm copies could be, so I came prepared. When the conversation turned to “ayyu khidma” (anything I can do your you), I asked for the three manuscripts and had them in a couple of days. My colleagues at ARCE were full of envy.
Recently Professor King gave a fascinating lecture at the al-Furqān Foundation in London that sums up the field of Islamic Astronomy better than anywhere else. This is now available on Youtube.