Science: Islam & Space
- Islam & Space
Issue 80 May 2011
Astronomical advancements aren’t always about rocket ships and gravity boots. Ali Khimji looks at Islam’s contribution to the field.
In March this year, the moon reached its closest point to Earth for over two decades. However, with government cuts on space programmes, it seems that we are drifting further away from physically exploring the boundaries of our solar system. Last year, President Obama cut NASA’s Constellation programme, which was planning to re-launch moon missions by 2020, and put humans on Mars by the middle of the century. After nearly 30 years in service, the Space Shuttle programme is nearing retirement. The shuttle Discovery landed on Earth for the last time on 9th March, and in its 26 years of service, it has spent 365 days in space and logged up nearly 240 million km.
Although we may not be venturing out there, that has not held back further discoveries from the ground. Astronomers discovered a planetary system known as Kepler-11 consisting of six planets orbiting a Sun-like star, which is more than 2,000 light years away from Earth. NASA’s Cassini probe detected oxygen in the atmosphere of Rhea, Saturn’s icy moon. This is the first time that oxygen has been found in another environment outside our own.
So, what has Islam contributed to the field of astronomy? Before Islam, Christians and Jews used a 19-year Metonic cycle, which consisted of 12 years of 12 lunar months and seven years of 13 months. The fundamentals of Islam dictated that Muslims should pursue study in the field of astronomy, and this was not down to just rituals. The Qur’an insists that we observe, reason and contemplate to reach conclusions, which was in contrast to the Ancient Greeks who believed reason alone was the key to understanding nature, showing a distrust of the senses. But this was the foundation that 700 years of pre-Islamic astronomical study was built upon.
The Qur’an states that there are to be 12 months in a year (9:36), so the Metonic cycle was ruled out. As the Islamic calendar was also lunar, Muslims had to develop ways of sighting the new moon. Furthermore, prayers were to be performed five times a day, so Muslims had to be aware of the time, and be able to determine the direction of the Ka’ba in Makkah.
As with the other scientific developments, the Muslim world took advantage of its proximity to the ancient learning centres. During the 9th century, much of the Ancient Greek, Sanskrit, and Middle Persian texts were translated into Arabic, so the Muslims were also able to take the best practices from each understanding of astronomy.
Ptolemy’s Almagest was the main text that was used for astronomy at that time. Throughout the 9th, 10th and into the 11th century, the Ptolemaic system was accepted and adjusted based on empirical research. However, it proposed that the Earth did not move and was the centre of the universe. Many of the contemporary Arab astronomers took this as a given notion, as no other alternative model was proposed at the time.
Another contributing factor to the extensive astronomic research was supported by the Abbasid caliph Ma’mun al-Rashid. He brought together Muslim scholars to create an intellectual academy in Baghdad, known as The House of Wisdom.
The first major piece of work in the field of observational astronomy was Zij al-Sindh by al-Khwarizmi in 830 CE. It contained tables for movements of the sun, the moon, and the five planets known at the time. During this time, Habash al-Hasib al-Marwazi compiled The Book of Bodies and Distances based on his observations at the Al-Shammisiyyah observatory in Baghdad. He estimated the Moon’s diameter to be 1,886 miles and its distance from the Earth as 215,209 miles, which are very close to the currently accepted values of 2,156 miles diameter and 238,857 miles distance, respectively.
Following this, al-Farghani and al-Battani also contributed to the Ptolemaic model based on further astronomical findings. Another significant piece of work was The Book of Fixed Stars by al-Sufi, which provided positions, magnitudes, brightness and colour for each constellation. Al-Khujandi also calculated the axial tilt of Earth to be 23.53°, which is very close to the accepted value of 23.44°.
Findings were not only limited to observations, as the eldest Banu Musa brother, Ja’far Muhammed ibn Musa ibn Shakir, did some work in the field of astrophysics. He put forward the hypothesis that the celestial spheres, which were the planets, sun and moon, were subject to exactly the same laws of physics as Earth.
Al-Haytham used this to write his On the Light of the Moon at the start of the 11th century. This was the first successful attempt at combining mathematical astronomy with physics, with the inclusion of experimental methods. He also went on to state that the celestial spheres did not consist of solid matter and that the heavens were less dense than air.
From the middle of the 11th century, a distinct form of Islamic astronomy began to emerge. It was built upon the Hay’a tradition, which sought to harmonise the mathematical and physical principles of the universe. Al-Haytham wrote Doubts on Ptolemy which criticised the geocentric model on empirical, observational and experimental grounds. Finally in 1038, he put together the first non-Ptolemaic model configuration in The Model of the Motions.
Al-Biruni began to analyse the Indian planetary theories too. Some of them proposed that the Earth rotated on its axis, and al-Biruni stated that this would not invalidate his astronomical calculations, as the data is independent of theory. He launched his extensive astronomical encyclopaedia in 1031, known as Canon Mas’udicus, which introduced the mathematical technique of analysing the acceleration of the movement of planets.
Further advances were made in the 1300s and 1400s, stemming from the Maragheh observatory in Iran. There was the Maragha Revolution, which was also known as The Scientific Revolution before the Renaissance. The astronomers realised that astronomy should aim to describe the behaviour of physical bodies in mathematical language, and should not remain a mathematical hypothesis.
The work at the observatory began with Urdi developing a non-Ptolemaic model, the Urdi lemma. This was followed by al-Tusi who proposed the Tusi-couple as an equivalent to the equants in Ptolemy’s model. Two astronomers, Shirazi and al-Katibi discussed the idea of heliocentricity, where the sun is the centre of our solar system, but nothing came to fruition from it.
It was not until the 14th century that Ibn al-Shatir incorporated Urdi’s lemma and the Tusi-couple to develop a model that was based on empirical observations. His work influenced Nicolas Copernicus to create the heliocentric model that we know today.
It is said that during the Renaissance, Regiomontanus, a German mathematician and astronomer, would look to his Muslim books as sources of information. Many Arabic texts were translated into Latin so that they could be used by European scientists in their studies. In Spain in particular, Gerard of Cremona translated 87 books from Arabic to Latin, which included al-Farghani’s On Elements of Astronomy on the Celestial Motions, and the works of al-Haytham.
There is another individual, whose contribution must be mentioned in the field of astronomy: Ali Qushji. Under the influence of such thinkers as Ghazali, Qushji rejected Aristotelian interference in astronomy, and identified the subject as a purely empirical and mathematical science. The Aristotelian notion had decreed that the Earth was a stationary object, and as previously discussed, this restricted the innovation that astronomy was in desperate need of. Through the observation of comets, Qushji found evidence for a rotating Earth and concluded that the moving Earth theory is just as likely as the stationary Earth theory. Qushji’s views were remarkably similar to those of Copernicus, but it is unlikely that his work influenced Copernicus. Both used al-Tusi’s work as a basis for their own, and were able to reach the same conclusions.
Following this, it appears that the study of astronomy was limited to observational. In 1577, Taqi al-Din built an observatory in Istanbul, and produced astronomical tables that were more accurate than some of his contemporaries in the West, such as Brahe and Copernicus. It was also here that Taqi al-Din was able to develop a collection of astronomical instruments, such as a giant armillary sphere and an accurate mechanical astronomical clock. Unfortunately, his observatory was destroyed in 1580, which some say was due to the rise of a clerical faction opposed to the study of science.
Despite more study of observational astronomy in the Mughal Empire, European astronomy had already taken its prominence in the field following the Copernican Revolution. Whilst it is tragic that Muslims did not contribute any further to the subject, we must recognise the significance of the initial forays into astronomy.
Religion and Science
1/14/2011 - Science Religious - Article Ref: IC1101-4429
By: Yusuf Khan
With a little interest I viewed a video of a somewhat celebrated atheist discussing his visit to a Muslim school in the UK.
During his trip, he claims to have noticed students quoting verses from the Qur'an which, he says, were scientifically inaccurate.
The verses which spoke of two bodies of water that don't mix were clearly misunderstood, and thus misinterpreted.
Therefore they were obviously 'scientifically incorrect' to the atheist since he didn't understand them properly in the first place.
Be that as the case may be, it is important to understand that the Muslim does not use science to qualify the Qur'an.
Rather it is the Qur'an that is held as the gold standard and is used to qualify the world around him: astronomy, biology, chemistry, even finance and economics.
Using science to qualify scripture is by origin a European-American practice where, as the New World was discovered, great effort was made to separate religion from state.
Emigrants from the Old World had seen it all: women being burnt alive accused of witchcraft and blasphemy, the Church imposing their Earth-centric view of the universe on everyone, and the persecution of people like Galileo for daring to prove a different solar system.
It was no secret that science and Christianity were at odds. But that was Europe.
In the Muslim world there was no conflict between science and religion. Neither the books of Islam nor the teachings of its scholars contradicted invention and technology.
As more and more discoveries in science came to light, Qur'anic evidence seemed to support and strengthen them.
The Muslim experience with science was one of perfect harmony, and diametrically opposed to that of Christendom's.
This congruence, which unlike Europe could find no divide between science and religion, is one reason why there are substantially fewer atheists among educated intellectuals in the Muslim world than there are in Christian nations.
Yusuf Khan resides in the Washington DC area and writes for the Examiner. He speaks frequently at various Islamic centers.
The Muslim Art of Science
By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD
Published: May 20, 2011
In the thousand years between the decline of Rome and the springtime of the Renaissance, science and other branches of learning took a holiday throughout Europe. It was a benighted time in the history most of us raced through in school, skipping lightly through Charlemagne and Richard the Lion-Hearted, the Norman Conquest and the Crusades, and arriving none too soon at the time of Leonardo and Michelangelo, Columbus and da Gama, Erasmus and Luther.
Ignored for the most part in Eurocentric accounts is the parallel culture that rose in the Middle East with the swift spread of Islam after the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632. Lands from Spain to Persia and beyond fell to the Muslim sword, and in time some ambitious rulers made their palaces sanctuaries of learning, the think tanks of their day, where astronomers, mathematicians, physicians and philosophers were allowed to venture beyond the received word and to practice science as an empirical inquiry.
Jim al-Khalili, an Iraqi-born physicist who has lived in Britain since 1979, has taken on the task of elevating this neglected period to its rightful place in history. His new book, “The House of Wisdom,” reflects a depth of research, an ability to tell a fascinating story well and fair-mindedness where minds too often are closed.
Al-Khalili positions himself with care, more or less above the clash of civilizations but with unconcealed pride in his roots. He is the son of a British mother and a Shiite Muslim father of Persian descent, and was educated in England. As a self-described atheist, he declares up front, “My interest in Islam is cultural rather than spiritual.” He prefers the more neutral term “Arabic science” to “Arab science.” Some of the notable scientists were Christians, Jews and Persians, after all, and they had in common Arabic as the lingua franca. He also reminds readers that in early Islam there was no bitter conflict between religion and science and that the Koran encouraged the close study of all God’s works.
In this spirit, the author retrieves for us several dozen all but forgotten men of science and philosophy to correct the negative stereotype of Islam “that contrasts with our Western secular, rational, tolerant and enlightened society.” A thousand years ago, he emphasizes, “the roles were reversed.”
Though Arabic science was productive for more than 500 years, its golden age spanned the 9th and 11th centuries. At the head of the author’s list of geniuses are Abu Ali al-Hassan ibn al-Haytham, Abu Rayhan Muhammad al-Biruni and Abu Ali al-Hussein ibn Sina, better known in the West as Avicenna. He ranks Ibn al-Haytham the greatest physicist between Archimedes and Newton, and Ibn Sina the “colossus of philosophy between Aristotle and Descartes.” Ibn Sina also wrote extensively on Greek, Persian and Indian medicine, conducted his own research on contagious diseases and anatomy, and was well ahead of his time with the insight that light is composed of particles, which Newton later described and Einstein proved. Al-Biruni contributed significant advances in calculus and trigonometry and boldly criticized Aristotle for relying on pure thought and reasoning, which often led to mistakes, instead of careful observation and experimentation, an early
appreciation of the modern scientific method.
One of the few widely familiar names cited by al-Khalili makes a mere cameo appearance. Omar Khayyam, better known as a poet and the author of “The Rubaiyat,” was also a brilliant mathematician who wrote a treatise on algebra in which he complained of society’s hindrances to scientific investigation, for its confusing “the true with the false” and not using what it knew of the sciences “except for base and material purposes.” Sounds familiar.
bu Jafar Abdullah al-Mamun, caliph of Bagdad in the early 9th century, was indispensable to this intellectual flowering. The city was only four decades old but had already become the largest in the world. In this vibrant setting, al-Mamun established an institute, the House of Wisdom, the likes of which had not been seen since the great library at Alexandria. The author compares Baghdad in those days to Renaissance Florence or Athens in the age of Pericles.
At first, the caliph followed his great-grandfather’s practice of pushing his savants for Arabic translations of Greek books in the country’s possession, a legacy of Hellenistic rule for several centuries after the conquests of Alexander the Great. Over the next two centuries, more works of Aristotle, Pythagoras, Archimedes and Hippocrates, as well as Persian and Indian thinkers, were rendered into Arabic. It became a lucrative business, abetted by advances in papermaking learned from captive Chinese soldiers. Other wealthy patrons, not only the caliph, supported the translation movement, al-Khalili points out, “in part for the practical benefits it brought them in finance, agriculture, engineering projects and medicine, and in part because this patronage quickly turned into a de rigueur cultural activity that defined their standing in society.” A modern budget proposal from a science-funding agency could not have put it better.
The upshot was, while the Greek works in particular were disappearing in Europe, they were being preserved in Arabic to be retranslated later into Latin for a rebirth of “lost” knowledge. This is one half of the point the author makes frequently in the text and, in boldface, as the book’s subtitle.
The other half is that contrary to some doubters, the Arab interest in learning extended well beyond translations: thinkers working alone or in observatories and houses of wisdom were conducting original research during “the world’s most impressive period of scholarship and learning since ancient Greece.” Accordingly, al-Khalili writes that al-Mamun stands as “the greatest patron of science in the cavalcade of Islamic rulers.”
Sometimes al-Khalili, like a lawyer who suspects a jury of unyielding skepticism, strains to give stature to the leading lights of Arabic science in the Middle Ages. But modern historians of science agree that more attention should be given to the Arab contribution to the preservation and expansion of knowledge at this critical period, and the author has done so in considerable detail and with rising passion.
But that was then, and al-Khalili is obligated to end on an inescapable but deflating note: science today is in a chronic state of neglect in the Arab world and the broader Islamic culture of more than one billion people. Al-Khalili spreads the blame widely, citing inadequate financing for research and education, sclerotic bureaucracies, religious conservatism, even an ingrained fear of science. The Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam, perhaps the greatest Muslim scientist of the last century, won a Nobel Prize in 1979 and did what he could to promote a scientific renaissance among his people, without success. “Of all civilizations on this planet, science is weakest in the lands of Islam,” Salam said in despair. “The dangers of this weakness cannot be overemphasized since the honorable survival of a society depends directly on its science and technology in the condition of the present age.”
By recounting Arabic science’s luminous past, al-Khalili says, he hopes to instill a sense of pride that will “propel the importance of scientific enquiry back to where it belongs: at the very heart of what defines a civilized and enlightened society.”
John Noble Wilford, a former senior correspondent for The Times, is the author of several books on science and history.
USA/Islam: America Fetes Muslim Civilization
BY IINA – MAY 28, 2011
WASHINGTON, 25 Jumada 2/May 28 (IINA)-In a fresh outreach bid by the Obama administration to the Muslim world, US Secretary of State has launched an exhibition on achievements of the Muslim civilization through ages.
The 1001 Inventions “honors the remarkable accomplishments of Muslims throughout history,” Clinton said in her pre-recorded message posted on the State Department’s website.
The exhibition, which has attracted more than one million over the past year, is set to open Friday, May 27, at the California Science Center in Los Angeles for a seven-month run.
Clinton said the exhibition is aiming at “celebrating a millennium of science and innovation in the Muslim world.”
The “Muslim world has a proud history of innovators,” Clinton said, citing the achievements of prominent Muslim figures like Fatima Al-Fihri who founded the world’s first modern university in the ninth century.
She also praised 13th century mechanical engineer Al-Jazari whose theories on crank mechanisms were helpful in driving every plane, train and automobile in the world nowadays.
Clinton also cited Iraqi physician Ali Ibn Nafi who is also credited for inventing the diagram of the human circulatory system in 1242 CE and being the first to have accurately described the part of the cardiovascular system involving the heart and lungs.
Originally funded by the British government and launched in the United Kingdom in 2006, the “1001 Inventions” exhibition is on a five-year global tour, which has already taken it to London, Istanbul and New York.
The “1001 Inventions” exhibition highlights contributions by Muslim scholars to the development of astronomy, math, architecture, medicine and engineering.
It features exhibits spanning Muslin thinkers in different fields of medicine, optics, mathematics, astronomy, higher education, library science, personal hygiene and even the basics of aviation.
It also shows the works of some of history’s finest scientists and scholars who once extended from Spain to China and lightened the world from the seventh century.
For example, at the 13th-century observatory in Maragha, Iran, astrologists developed new models for understanding the universe which helped pave the way for Copernicus’ ideas of a sun-centered solar system in 1543.
Organizers say the exhibition’s new tour aims to show the world the contributions of the Golden Age of Muslim Civilizations in different fields of science.
“We’re honored that Secretary Clinton agreed to launch our exhibition here at one of the most prestigious science museums in the world,” Salim Al-Hassani, Chairman of 1001 Inventions, said in a press release.
“The goal of 1001 Inventions is to highlight the astounding contribution that Muslim civilization has made in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics and how those advances still affect our lives today.”
Hassani said the massive turnout at the exhibition reflects a growing interest in the Islamic civilization and its achievements throughout history.
“More than a million people have already visited the 1001 Inventions exhibition during the first year of its global tour and that is the greatest endorsement we could ever hope for,” he added.
The exhibition was recently awarded the “Best Touring Exhibition” of the year at the annual Museums and Heritage Excellence Awards in London, widely considered as the “Oscars” of the Museum world.
The United States is home to an estimated Muslim minority of nearly eight million.
American Imams: Islam Compatible with Biological Evolution
Islamic teachers and imams in America have begun signing an open letter declaring that there is no clash between their religious faith and the theory of biological evolution.
(Ahlul Bayt News Agency) - The Imam Letter, launched this week in the US, is the latest challenge to Creationists of the three Abrahamic religions who reject evolution in favour of Creationism.
Creationism is the religious belief that all species were created in exactly the form they appear today.
Biological evolution is a scientific theory which posits that modern species have undergone major changes over time and can be traced back to earlier species from which they descended.
Muslims, Christians, and Jews who accept the theory of biological evolution believe that God can create life in any way he wishes, and this could be through a process of change over time.
The letter reads in part: "We, the undersigned Imams of the mosques, assert that the Qur’an is the primary source of spiritual inspiration and of values for us... We believe that the timeless truths of the Qur’an may comfortably coexist with the discoveries of modern science."
Almost 13,000 Christian clergy have signed a similar letter. Another has been signed by nearly 500 Jewish rabbis. The Clergy Letter was launched in 2006 and now has 12,725 signatures, followed three years ago by the Rabbi Letter, which has 476 signatures.
Like its predecessors, the Imam Letter explains why it's OK for believers to accept biological evolution. It also calls for a ban on creationist teaching in science classes. "As imams, we urge public school boards to affirm their commitment to the teaching of the science of evolution," says the letter, written by T. O. Shanavas, a doctor in Michigan and member of the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo in Perrysburg, Ohio.
"It shows that evolution and science can transcend what some people see as quite deep religious divisions, providing a unifying factor representing common ground between them," says Michael Zimmerman of Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana, the architect of the Clergy Letter Project.
"Christians are really excited about the Muslim letter," he says. "They realise that Islam is just as fractured as Christianity, with just as many people who take their scriptures out of context to deny the truth of evolution."
Recently,an imam in London was driven out of his mosque and has suffered threats for openly declaring support for the theory of biological evolution. Likewise, in Christian communities, especially in the US, a huge number of fundamentalists continue to push for teaching of Creationism in science classes.
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