Islamic Science and the Renaissance: Paving the Way for Modern Astronomy and Physics

Islamic Science and the Renaissance: Paving the Way for Modern Astronomy and Physics

Bahram Nadimi

I have previously written several blogs on Islamic science and how it not only fostered the right conditions, but provided a firm foundation for the emergence of the European renaissance. I decided to dig a little deeper, to see if there was clear, concrete evidence for Islamic science paving the way for the emergence of—in this case—modern astronomy and physics, during the renaissance.

I took an astronomy class at a nearby community college to supplement my knowledge and to see if there was any mention of the supposed contributions of Muslims to the advancement of astronomy. When I had a conversation with the instructor of this class; it was telling when he said while interested in the subject, he did not know enough about the history of Islamic contributions to astronomy to include them in the syllabus.

The Ptolemaic Universe and Copernicus

For a thousand years, the western view of the universe was shaped by Ptolemy, who lived about five centuries after Aristotle, and who advocated the idea that the earth was stationary, and that all the heavenly bodies, including the sun, revolved around it.

It wasn’t until the early 16th century that Copernicus—a Polish cleric—upended the scientific world by publishing his book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) laying out the heliocentric theory that sun was at the center of the universe and that the planets revolved around it.

 

Ptolemaic Universe
Copernicus and his the heliocentric theory

 

However when one studies popular text books in the West on this subject, no mention is made on how Copernicus came up with his ideas and not much is said about time period between the 2nd and 15th centuries regarding advances in astronomy. As an example, in the text book for my class, ‘Stars and Galaxies’ [3], in Chapter 4, ‘The Origin of Modern Astronomy’ there is almost no mention of the contributions of Muslim astronomers, which gives the impression that astronomy before Copernicus was ancient and not scientific, but rather crude and mystical, and that only after Copernicus did astronomy became a precise science.  At the end of this chapter it states: “the scientific revolution began when Copernicus made humanity part of the universe…”.  My subsequent research has made me believe that this type of accepted analysis is not only incomplete but in many ways incorrect.

Let’s delve into the meat of this subject.

Astronomy, Islam and the Qur’an

For most civilizations during their golden age, the science of astronomy provided the means for the study of the heavens, and the Islamic civilization was no exception; astronomy was of great interest to the Islamic scientists, scholars and the Caliphs that also led to the development of other sciences.

For Muslims, there was also a practical benefit of fulfilling their sacred obligation of prayer and fasting as stated in their holy book, the Qur’an, which involved knowing the exact times for these duties as well as the exact location of the House of Abraham in Mecca, also known as the “Qibla”.  The end result was that they brought standards of accuracy and precision in astronomy unheard of before: their sun dial was accurate within minutes, their calculated size of earth was within one percent and the trigonometry tables were accurate to three decimal places [5].

The Qur’an also provided tantalizing clues for the Muslims as to the nature of the heavens; here are some examples from the Qur’an:

“The sun moves in a fixed place and each star moves in its own heaven (Surih 36:37)”

“It is He Who created the night and the day, and the sun and the moon. All (the celestial bodies) swim along, each in its rounded course” (21:33).

“It is not permitted for the sun to catch up to the moon, nor can the night outstrip the day. Each just swims along in its own orbit” (36:40).

“He created the heavens and the earth in true proportions. He makes the night overlap the day, and the day overlap the night. He has subjected the sun and the moon to His law; each one follows a course for a time appointed…” (39:5).

“The sun and the moon follow courses exactly computed” (55:5).

While some in the West thought of the earth as a flat object at the center of universe, the Muslims took earth’s sphericity for granted [4].   But ironically, even many Muslims of that time tried to explain away what the Quran said regarding the earth moving around the sun, since it was contrary to the accepted norm—the Ptolemaic system [1].

Nikolaj Kopernik

Copernicus and the Islamic connection

The view of the modern academic world regarding Islamic influence on Copernicus was constricted, and confined to a few references by him from Islamic authors whose work was translated into Latin. One of the Muslim astronomers that Copernicus quoted, including his precise astronomical data, was Al-Battani who was born in the 9th century around Turkey. He was a Muslim astronomer, astrologer, and mathematician. He introduced a number of trigonometric relations in his Kitāb az-Zīj  and he famously determined the solar year as being 365 days, 5 hours, 46 minutes and 24 seconds. Al-Battānī figured out that our solar system was moving through space, significantly improved upon Ptolemy’s theories, and discovered that the direction of the Sun’s apogee, as recorded by Ptolemy, was changing [6]. Actually, many astronomers of that time documented the elliptical nature of planetary orbits, hinting that the earth may be rotating around the sun [2].

It was in the 1950s that, due to a series of discoveries, Copernicus’s use of an important mathematical concept in his book was shown to be derived from the work of a Persian scholar, Al-Tusi[9]. This is called the Tusi couple.  The Tusi couple challenges Ptolemy, and replaces a sphere rotating around an arbitrary point in space with two nested circles rotating around each other in such a way to eliminate Ptolemy’s equant.  This mathematical system in its entirety found its way to Copernicus’s book 300 years later.

Below is a snapshot of Al-Tusi’s theory side by side Copernicus’s book outlining the same theory.  The similarity is stunning.

The Al-Tusi couple

 

Below is a visual description of the ‘Tusi Couple’.

 

Visual Description of the ‘Tusi Couple’

For a more in-depth analysis refer to a paper titled: Coprenicus and his Islamic Predecessors: Some Historical Remarks [9] or Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance[11].

The story of Al-Tusi does not end there. The Maragheh observatory in North West of Iran, considered to be the largest and most prestigious observatories of its time, was built under his directorship for the purpose of establishing accurate astronomical tables.

Other Islamic scholars

Omar Khayyam—who is best known for his poetry and algebra—established a calendar that calculated the Persian New Year to unheard of accuracy that errs one day in 5000 years.

Yet another outstanding Persian scholar was Al-Biruni, he was well versed in physics, mathematics, astronomy, and natural sciences, and also distinguished himself as a historian, chronologist and linguist. Quoting Wikipedia [7]:

“In his description of Sijzi’s astrolabe he hints at contemporary debates over the movement of the earth. He carried on a lengthy correspondence and sometimes heated debate with Ibn Sina, in which Biruni repeatedly attacks Aristotle’s celestial physics: he argues by simple experiment that vacuum must exist; he is “amazed” by the weakness of Aristotle’s argument against elliptical orbits on the basis that they would create vacuum;[21] he attacks the immutability of the celestial spheres;[22] and so on…

In his major extant astronomical work, the Mas’ud Canon, he regards heliocentric and geocentric hypotheses as mathematically equivalent but heliocentrism as physically impossible, yet approves of the theory that the earth rotates on its axis.[23] He utilizes his observational data to disprove Ptolemy’s immobile solar apogee. More recently, Biruni’s eclipse data was used by Dunthorne in 1749 to help determine the acceleration of the moon and his observational data has entered the larger astronomical historical record and is still used today in geophysics and astronomy.”

Al-Khwarizm, al-Farghani, Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi, al-Zarkali and Ibn Yunus were also some of the great minds of Islamic science and astronomy[10].

Conclusion

The above facts are just the tip of the iceberg, and yet is compelling evidence of the outstanding contribution of the Islamic scholars in the field of astronomy.

It is clear that the Muslims did a lot more than the popular belief that they just translated works of the Greek philosophers to Latin.  They found serious flaws on and improved on Ptolemy’s theory on planetary motion and developed theories consistent with the laws of physics.  This was made possible by creation and use of new mathematics, algebra and trigonometry.  They developed new and advanced – or perfected existing –  astronomical instruments, including the astrolabe and the sextant, thus setting the standard for the critically needed precise measurements of latitude and longitude, time, and location of the stars and planets, which were used by the Western scholars centuries later. These instruments and measurements, as well as the development of the magnetic needle, were also important tools for significantly advancing navigation techniques on land and sea.

Regarding observatories Dr. Ajram in his wonderful book ‘the Miracle of Islamic Science’ states [8]:

“The concept of observatory as a scientific institution was an Islamic invention…How, then, can Isaac Asimov, with good conscience, claim that the first ‘scientific’ observatories were built in the 16th through 17th century in Europe?”

Having researched to some degree the influence of Islam on modern Western civilization (even though I am not a Muslim), I was not surprised that there was little mention in my astronomy class and the recommended textbook regarding the above mentioned facts. I find this unfortunate.  With the emergence of search engines and the web, massive amount of information is at our fingertips; what students and seekers need are proper insights and ideas for research. I highly recommend watching this outstanding  BBC documentary on Islamic Astronomy [5].

A final note: I felt proud when I found out that Persia (or Iran) was a hotbed for astronomers of that time, and many of the scholars mentioned are Persian, my nationality. [Update:  I shared the documentary links with the instructor of my class and he told me today that he is already aware that the textbook overlooks contributions from Islamic scholars and  has been working on adding Islamic contributions to astronomy in his lectures]

====================== References ========================

[1]Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 23

[2] The miracle of Islamic science, Dr K Ajram p. 56-57

[3] Stars and Galaxies, Seeds & Backman,  8th edition

[4] The miracle of Islamic science, Dr K Ajram p. 46

[5] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3LjdnKE_i9E

[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mu%E1%B8%A5ammad_ibn_J%C4%81bir_al-%E1%B8%A4arr%C4%81n%C4%AB_al-Batt%C4%81n%C4%AB

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al-biruni

[8] The miracle of Islamic science, Dr K Ajram p. 49-51

[9] http://adsabs.harvard.edu/full/2007HisSc..45…65R

[10] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-T5yxZWXzs

[11] Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance by George Saliba

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15 thoughts on “Islamic Science and the Renaissance: Paving the Way for Modern Astronomy and Physics

  1. Bahram,

    Thanks for this article. I know the feeling of having middle-eastern science, math and philosophy as being practically irrelevant to western history growing up (such as how the Greeks were the total opposites of the Persians when it came intellectual matters.) I think the ancients had a lot of wisdom and intuition, and that human civilizations are much older and new much more than we often can appreciate.

    – Hamid Y. Javanbakht

    1. Hi Hamid,

      I grew up among western-trained mathematicians and physicists who knew that modern mathematics was built on Islamic mathematical foundations; and that modern physics – especially cosmology and optics – was also built that way. Indeed, my parents generation of professors and academics knew fully well that it was the Latin translations of Islamic texts held in European libraries that were the starting point of the scientific revolution.

      The same goes for the philosophical component of modern European thought. They mainly all knew that it was Islamic philosophy – often described by Islamic philosophers as “comments” on Aristotle – that was the major driver behind the emergence of powerful European philosophical perspectives 700 years ago.

      I didn’t understand how it important that was until I lived in Japan for ten years and came to realize that Japanese thinking and philosophy – while in many ways highly original – was originated in Chinese sources. This brought home to me how significant it was that European philosophy and science were in main derived from Islamic sources, a major difference being that the Japanese were more than willing to acknowledge their sources, whereas Europeans have become increasingly reluctant to do so.

      I have a theory – and I think there is plentiful evidence for it – that the roots of the conflict between science and religion in the west are that science is of Islamic origins and therefore “un-Christian” to the older European way of thinking. In other words, science was Islamic and therefore suspect and Christianity was European and not suspect (not true, of course, but that is how people tended to think). The conflict of science and religion, according to my theory, was inherent in the geo- and religious politics of the times as modern science and philosophy began to evolve from Islamic origins to form a European set of understandings.

      Stephen

      1. For your information, the Church had Aristotle’s work and Church fathers wrote commentaries on it and Catholics studied it! Muslim commentaries, which came centuries after the Church fathers wrote commentaries and came parallelly to when Catholics studied it. Islamic philosophy had NO impact on European philosophy!!! Greek philosophy had an impact on European philosophy and on Islamic philosophy. European science was NOT derived from Islamic sources but from Greek texts and Arabic translations of Greek texts. Muslims took other people’s work and MOST of them claimed that they came to scientific conclusions. Shame on you for accusing Europeans of deriving European philosophy from Islamic philosophy and European science from Muslim science.

        Examples of what Muslims plagiarized:

        Omar Khayyam a Persian polymath (d. 1048-1131) as well as al-Biruni (d. 973-1048) came to the conclusion that the earth was rotating on its axis

        Najm al-Dīn al-Qazwīnī al-Kātibī (d. 1277), in his Hikmat al-’Ain, wrote an argument for a heliocentric model, but later abandoned the model.

        Sources from which Muslims plagiarized:

        In 499 CE, the Indian astronomer Aryabhata wrote that the spherical earth rotates about its axis daily.

        Hipparchus(c. 190 – c. 120 BCE) is thought to be the first to calculate a heliocentric system, but he abandoned his work because the calculations showed the orbits were not perfectly circular as believed to be mandatory by the science of the time.

        “Indeed, my parents generation of professors and academics knew fully well that it was the Latin translations of Islamic texts held in European libraries that were the starting point of the scientific revolution.”

        Latin translations of Islamic texts, which were translations of Greek texts!!! There were a few Latin translations of Islamic texts, which were thought to be Islamic knowledge BUT they turned out to be translations of Indian texts.

        By the way, Muslims had Syrian Christians, Arab Christians, Jews, Indians, and many others translate for them. Also, Muslims had non-Muslims do other jobs.

        Get a PROPER education!

  2. Thanks Hamid and Stephen

    Had fun writing this blog

    Also excellent insights Stephen. Please write a blog on this, it will be a hit.

  3. Copernicus is a bit overrated. First of all, there wasn’t a scientific revolution, the science in the early modern period is just a continuation of the science in the Middle Ages. Second, his ideas weren’t that original. Nicolas Oresme and Nicolas of Cusa had already explained why if the earth moved we can’t feel it.

    1. Omar Khayyam a Persian polymath (1048-1131) as well as al-Biruni (973-1048) had already come to the conclusion that the earth was rotating on its axis

      1. Among the ancient Greeks, several of the Pythagorean school believed in the rotation of the earth rather than the apparent diurnal rotation of the heavens. The first was Philolaus (470-385 BCE) though his system was complicated, including a counter-earth rotating daily about a central fire. A more conventional picture was that supported by Hicetas, Heraclides and Ecphantus in the fourth century BCE who assumed that the earth rotated but did not suggest that the earth revolved about the sun. In 499 CE, the Indian astronomer Aryabhata wrote that the spherical earth rotates about its axis daily, and that the apparent movement of the stars is a relative motion caused by the rotation of the earth. However, Aristotle in the fourth century criticized the ideas of Philolaus as being based on theory rather than observation. In the middle ages, Thomas Aquinas accepted Aristotle’s view and so, reluctantly, did John Buridan and Nicole Oresme in the fourteenth century. Not until Nicolaus Copernicus in 1543 adopted a heliocentric world system did the earth’s rotation begin to be established. Copernicus pointed out that if the movement of the earth is violent, then the movement of the stars must be very much more so. He acknowledged the contribution of the Pythagoreans and pointed to examples of relative motion. For Copernicus this was the first step in establishing the simpler pattern of planets circling a central sun.

    2. Alejandro Rodríguez,

      WRONG. Copernicus was the person who formulated the heliocentric model of the universe which placed the Sun at the center and NOT the Earth.

      Al-Battani MOSTLY refined other peoples work and BARELY made any independent contributions.

      IF Al-Battani was an actual astronomer and did NOT mostly refine other people’s work, then he would have came to the conclusion that all planets orbit the Sun because Hipparchus(c. 190 – c. 120 BC) is thought to be the first to calculate a heliocentric system, but he abandoned his work because the calculations showed the orbits were not perfectly circular as believed to be mandatory by the science of the time. As an astronomer of antiquity his influence, supported by Aristotle, held sway for nearly 2000 years, until the heliocentric model of Copernicus.

      Najm al-Dīn al-Qazwīnī al-Kātibī (d. 1277), in his Hikmat al-‘Ain, wrote an argument for a heliocentric model, but later abandoned the model. (sounds like plagiarism of Hipparchus’s work and no actual intellectuality to independently carry out the work).

      MANY Arabs took the work of others and most presented it as having been done independently. SOME Arabs refined other people’s work and most presented it as having been done independently. VERY FEW Arabs made ACTUAL contributions!

      Get a PROPER education!

      1. Margarita, I’m sorry but the idea that the “Arabs” did not contribute significantly to scientific knowledge has been discredited by historians and scientific scholars alike. Just the fact that the primary texts used in European universities for centuries in several fields were the work of Arab natural philosophers argues against that polarized point of view.

        All scholarship is cumulative. All of it builds upon the work of previous scholars, but credit needs to be given where credit is due for connecting the dots in such a way that new ideas, concepts, and processes emerge. The Islamic scholars—of whatever ethnicity—contributed greatly to our understanding of mathematics, medicine, astronomy and other sciences.

        If you sincerely are devoted to a proper education, please refer to some of the more detailed articles on this blog or avail yourself of some of the more recent scholarship on the subject. I highly recommend Galileo Goes to Jail, a collection of essays about different “myths” that have arisen around the relationship between religion and science as well as the contributions of Islamic scholars to our body of scientific knowledge. There are several essays in the book that shed much needed light on the bias that Islamic scholars “only” collected and minimally refined the knowledge of previous scholars.

        I have to say, though, that even if all they did was to save that knowledge from destruction by the ravages of the Crusades and other calamity, then they have done mankind a tremendous service—wouldn’t you agree?

  4. Bahram dear…
    It is a very specified topic of an article that I was interested to understand things you mentioned in, and so helped me to learn new thing today as it is way far from my educational and occupational field of experience.
    There is no doubt that each religion comes, brings new concept and new understanding of science and technology, and so each generation builds on the previous experiences and continue from where they stooped and so this is the way all sciences grow and develop….
    Baring in mind that Islamic religion emphasized a lot on the importance of education and science, as the first versus in the holy Quraan was: ” Read the name of your Lord who created…”.
    Thank you for your nice topic
    Randa

    1. Thanks for your comments

      Yes every new religion advances science and civilization and builds the foundation for the next generation of advancements in a continuous fashion

      1. Religion is the reason that many of the most brilliant minds in any culture felt they were mandated to do science. I would argue that in the scriptures of most faiths—most certainly in the Bible, the Qur’an and the Bahá’í Writings—there are passages that encourage if not openly mandate study of the physical universe as well as study of the spiritual landscape within each of us.

        Biblically, as early as the Book of Genesis, the idea is floated that we are the creature with the capacity and the mandate to name things—to delve into them, discover their reality, and understand them. The Bahá’í Writings make this even clearer:

        “The virtues of humanity are many but science is the most noble of them all. The distinction which man enjoys above and beyond the station of the animal is due to this paramount virtue. It is a bestowal of God; it is not material, it is divine. Science is an effulgence of the Sun of Reality, the power of investigating and discovering the verities of the universe, the means by which man finds a pathway to God.” —Abdu’l-Bahá, Foundations of World Unity, p. 112

        This is reminiscent of a statement by Physicist William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin: “Do not be afraid of being free thinkers. If you think strongly enough you will be forced by science to the belief in God, which is the foundation of all Religion. You will find science not antagonistic, but helpful to Religion.”

        The Bahá’í Writings are eloquent about both the critical importance of science and the need for it to be accessible to all.

        “Scientific knowledge is the highest attainment upon the human plane, for science is the discoverer of realities. It is of two kinds: material and spiritual. Material science is the investigation of natural phenomena; divine science is the discovery and realization of spiritual verities. The world of humanity must acquire both. A bird has two wings; it cannot fly with one. Material and spiritual science are the two wings of human uplift and attainment. Both are necessary…” — Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 138 (23 May 1912, Cambridge, MA)

        Abdu’l-Bahá goes further and states that: “Religion and science are the two wings upon which man’s intelligence can soar into the heights, with which the human soul can progress. It is not possible to fly with one wing alone! Should a man try to fly with the wing of religion alone he would quickly fall into the quagmire of superstition, whilst on the other hand, with the wing of science alone he would also make no progress, but fall into the despairing slough of materialism.” — — Abdu’l-Bahá from a talk given at Rue Camoens, November 12, 1911

        or, as Albert Einstein put it: “Science without religion Is lame; religion without science Is blind.”

  5. Agh…another Muslim trying to claim that Muslims made outstanding contributions to science.

    First of all, Islam has NOTHING to do with the contributions of Arabs, Persians, Egyptians, and etc because it was a SECULAR mater. Secondly, Arabs simply refined the science which existed before Islam! Thirdly, Syrian Christians, Jews, and Indians translated into Arabic the works that existed before Islam and NOT Arabs.

    Get a PROPER education!!!

    1. Hi Margarita

      Thanks for your comments. First of all i am not a Muslim and I am considered a heretic and if I go back to Iran likely will be harnessed and probably put in prison.

      You have a point that divorcing religion from science has benifits and to some extent can free scientific thinking..The purpose of this website is to find common ground between science and religion they are two wings of a bird, if one wing is weak then the bird cannot fly.

      The reason the west has now primacy (and will have for a very long time) over East regarding science and technology is because they were pragmatic and doers, and did not care where knowledge came from used whatever was of benefit.

      See other post I did:

      http://www.commongroundgroup.net/2010/10/12/islamic-science-and-the-renaissance-part-2/

      I so admire the qualities and potential of the West, when a teenager my wish was to reside in America and my wish did come true.

      Margarita: this is about giving credit where its due, not about defending anything or any body. As I stated in this blog, I find it strange that no credit is giving to the contributions of some of the great minds of civilization from the middle east.

      I read this paragraph in a book that that summarizes how I feel:

      “One of the strangest dramas of history is that at the very moment when Europe, prodded by contacts with the Islamic culture in Sicily and Spain and by the Crusades, began to recover from its prolonged descent toward darkness, Islam entered a decline that was to carry it down into the very fog of obscurantism from which it had helped to rescue Europe”

      Hope this helps

      Bahram

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