When Islam Looked To The Sky

Robert Morrison reviews David King’s Islamic Astronomy and Geography, a collection of scholarly essays that shows “the productive relationship between Islam and science”:

Science in Islamic societies began and developed not in spite of Islam, but along with Islam. The general essay (“Islamic Astronomy”) in this volume helps show how the dish_Astronomes rise of Islamic astronomy was linked not to a passive “download” of information from ancient Greece, Persia, and India, but to how, by the rise of the Abbasid Caliphate in 750, interest in astronomy and astrology helped initiate the Translation Movement, an enterprise in which astronomical texts first from Sanskrit and Persian, and then from Greek, were translated into Arabic. Science served the nascent empire’s purposes, whether calendar calculations, determining prayer times, taxation, or political legitimacy. …

Scholars have shown that Islam’s general opposition to astrological forecasting forced scientists to re-think the relationship between theoretical and mathematical astronomy on the one hand and their application to astrological forecasting on the other. A formal disciplinary distinction between astronomy and astrology was the result, and such a distinction facilitated advances in theoretical astronomy that coincided with the incorporation of astronomy into traditions of Islamic scholarship. Conversely, the prestige of astronomy occasioned transformations in kalam (Islam’s tradition of philosophical theology) and the result was the integration of astronomy and other sciences into traditions of religious scholarship.

(Image: Ottoman miniature from 17th century, depicting the study of the moon and stars, via Wikimedia Commons)