The Arabs and the Advancement of Astrolabes


One of the Arab scientists’ major contributions was in astrolabes. Astrolabes were primarily invented by the ancient Greeks in 225 BCE by Apollonius based on the theories and the findings of Hipparchus. The main uses of astrolabes were to tell time during day or night, to identify the time of sunrise and sunset, and the length of the day, and to locate celestial objects in the sky. These uses were essential for astronomers, astrologers, and of course navigators.

The astrolabe was considered a highly valuable tool in Islamic civilization because of its ability to astrologically determine prayer times and find the Qibla, which is the direction of the city of Mecca, not to mention its uses in navigation and travelling for trade or war. Arabs upgraded astrolabes and innovated their usages in the different aspects of life.

During the Islamic era, three new types of astrolabes were invented: the linear, the universal, and the geared astrolabes. In the 8th century, the famous Arab scientist and mathematician Muhammad ibn Ibrahim al-Fazari was the first Arab to construct an astrolabe. The Arab astronomer Al-Battani (Albatenius), on the other hand, was the first scientist to establish the mathematical background of the astrolabes.

In the 10th century, the Arab scientist Abd Al-Rahman Al-Sufi wrote a distinguished work of 386 chapters on astrolabes; he described 1000 uses for them in life, as well as solving astronomical problems. In the 11th century, the Andalusian astronomer, Al-Zarqali, reinvented the universal astrolabe after the previous works of Habash Al-Hasib and Al-Shakkaz. Unlike the previous models, this tool could be used all over the Earth and did not depend on the user’s altitude.

Arab women too played their role in this influence. In the 12th century, a famous woman in Aleppo from a family of engineers and scientists, Mariam Al-Ijliya (Al-Astrolabya), was constructing astrolabes. She made remarkable improvements to the tool.

Arabs introduced the astrolabe to the European continent through Andalusia in the 11th century. The tool carried the knowledge of Muslim scientists and greatly affected astronomy studies in Medieval Europe, contributing to modern scientific progress.

It is hard not to acknowledge the role of this instrument in our life. Even if it is not widely used nowadays, it played a major role in the past and its influence continues to date. Modern techniques as GPS, space science, and navigation equipment are based on astrolabe theories. This is to remind ourselves while travelling or using our modern devices that our Arab ancestors played a major role to make this happen.

Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Countries by Helaine Selin
A Fresh Look at Islam in a Multi-Faith World: a philosophy for success through education by  Matthew L.N. Wilkinson
The Esoteric Codex: Medieval Astrologers by Hipolito Buchmann
Geometry: Our Cultural Heritage by  Audun Holme

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