Astronomical observatories in Islamic civilization


painting of Islamic astronomical observatory

The most important characteristic of Islamic scientific contributions is that they pursue the path of experimentation, and observation is a means of developing and advancing knowledge.

Therefore, the Arabs and Muslims were keen to develop the necessary machines to achieve the best and most accurate observations, in parallel, they expanded the construction of astronomical observatories and their interest in them, they exerted their utmost efforts to search for the astronomical heritage of the ancients in previous civilizations, translate it, study it, scrutinize it, add to it, and practically apply it.

The contributions of Muslim astronomers were based on inventing, developing and manufacturing astronomical instruments, and writing books and letters explaining the use of these astronomical instruments.

Between the 8th and 15th centuries Islamic astronomers produced a wealth of sophisticated astronomical work. Largely through the Ptolemaic framework, they improved and refined the Ptolemaic system, compiled better tables and devised instruments that improved their ability to make observations. The extensive contributions of Islamic astronomy also exposed some weaknesses in the Ptolemaic and Aristotelian systems.

 Reasons for interest in astronomical observatories

The religious reason comes to the fore, as three of the five obligations of Islam require attention to the establishment of observatories, the daily prayer times which are determined according to the apparent movement of the sun, Ramadan fasting and the performance of the Hajj (pilgrimage)  rituals, the beginnings of which are determined according to the phases of the moon and the beginnings of the Hijri months, and the emergence of what is called the science of meeqat.

Astronomy helped determine the direction of the direction of prayer in every corner of the Islamic State, east and west, north and south of the Kaaba.

Islam also calls for contemplating the creation of the heavens and the earth in many Qur’anic verses, and whoever does this by contemplating, thinking, studying, learning, and research will have a reward from God, just as he who performs worship ceremonies.

Muslim astronomers studied various astronomical phenomena such as lunar eclipses and solar eclipses, and determined lines of longitude and latitude.

The positions of the stars were also taken advantage of in various Arab travels by land and sea.

Astronomical observatories

One of the results of interest in astronomy and its sciences was the expansion of the establishment of astronomical observatories throughout the Islamic world, which took many names stemming from Arab, Persian, or even Indian origins.

Astronomical observatories are scientific institutions specializing in studies (astronomy). Observatories carry out precise measurements and provide information about the movement of the planets, which scientists collect in organized tables, one of which is called the Zij or the law. We find the word (Zij) in Al-Battani’s book, which the Europeans paid attention to and translated into Latin. The word (law) in this sense is also known by Al-Biruni in his book: Al-Qanun Al-Masudi.

A description of the construction of astronomical observatories has come down to us, the working site in the observatory was a large, dark base with a small hole in the ceiling, the drawn scales allowed measuring the height of the sun.

These observatories use multiple observational instruments, and there is information about instruments similar to what was known to the Greeks, in a way that facilitated comparisons with the observations obtained from them.

There is information about machines that appear to be the work of China and the Far East, such as observing tubes whose existence has been proven in China since the sixth century AD and were known to observatories in the Islamic civilization, and it seems that the Muslims obtained them from the Chinese civilization.

These astronomical measurements were made according to a scientific plan, dividing the solar year into specific time periods, the number of which was usually twenty-eight movements, this division enabled scientists to accurately compare information about the planets. In this context, we find - for example - the phases of the moon, and we find recording information about the other fixed planets night after night from the beginning of the lunar month until its end.

These measurements accurately recorded the sequence of the appearance of some planets on the horizon day by day, and also recorded the movement of the sun, recording and measurements were the basis for extracting scientific laws.

Individual observatories

Early scientists were establishing their own individual observatories, and then observatories began to be established as scientific institutions for scientific astronomical studies.

A large number of scholars of the third century AH/ninth AD are attributed to numerous observations made by the Banu Musa, who tried to complete all Greek astronomy books by obtaining their manuscripts from the Byzantines.

The locations of these observations were between Nishapur in the east and Damascus in the west, and the goal was to make an “examined Zij” that represents a reconsideration of the laws circulating among scholars and those narrated from the Greeks.


As for the fourth century AH/tenth century AD, several observations were made in a larger area, which also included the cities of Isfahan and Al-Ray in Iran and Cairo in Egypt, including the observations of Al-Quhi, Abu Al-Wafa Al-Buzjani, Abd al-Rahman al-Suri, and al-Khajandi, then Ibn Yunus, who completed the “Al-Zij al-Hakimi” in Cairo during the reign of al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah. 

As for Andalusia, a number of scholars were interested in meteorology, including Maslamah Al-Majriti, who reviewed the astronomical tables prepared by Muhammad bin Musa Al-Khwarizmi and translated them into Latin around the year 1120 AD, and his influence was great in the Latin West.

Government observatories

These are the observatories that Muslim rulers built from the state budget, and these are samples of them.

Maragheh Observatory (Iran)

As for the Maragheh Observatory, it was built in the 13th century, was one of the most advanced observatories of its time, and  managed by Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, a Persian scientist, philosopher, and mathematician, along with a large number of astronomers and astronomical instrument designers.

The establishment of this observatory in the year 657/1259 was financed from endowment funds, the construction of the observatory lasted four years. It consisted of a system of buildings over an area of six thousand square metres.

The observatory featured several instruments, including an enormous mural quadrant, which was used for measuring the positions of celestial objects and a specialized scientific library, containing about forty thousand books, and a foundry for making copper measuring instruments. Al-Ardi - who was in charge of the instruments - gathered the best astronomical measuring instruments of the era, developed them, and invented new ones.

The initial work plan for meteorology was for thirty years, but it was shortened to twelve years, which is the cycle of Jupiter. The most important achievement of this observatory was the Ilkhanid zij (and zij is a Persian word that points out  a table by which the path of the planets is known and from which the astronomical calendar is extracted), the observatory continued to work for about fifty years.

Its history was linked to scholars including Muhyiddin al-Maghribi and Qutb al-Din Shirazi. There were many astronomers who worked in this observatory, and there was a desire to make this observatory a global center.

Scientists from Andalusia, Egypt, and Asia Minor met there, and there were also scholars from China presenting their knowledge of the Chinese methods for calculating the holidays.

Among the most famous of these scholars is Ibn Abi Shukr al-Maghribi al-Andalusi (who died after 680 AH/1281 AD), he had lived in Egypt and then worked with Nasir al-Din al-Tusi at the observatory, Brockelmann mentioned about twenty titles in the history of Arabic literature, including: A treatise on the calendar of the people of China.

Isfahan Observatory

The Isfahan Observatory was the first observatory in Central Asia during the reign of Malikshah (564/1072-485/1092), Omar Khayyam, known to the Arabs for his quatrains and remembered in the history of science for his astronomical research, was one of his scholars.

The work in the observatory was according to a specific plan, on a scientific basis, scientists noticed that the cycle of Saturn takes thirty years, and that it is the farthest from Earth, so a thirty-year meteorological plan was drawn up and work vigorously began.

Samarkand Observatory (Uzbekistan)

Its establishment began in the year (826 AH/1420 AD - 832 AH/1428 AD) with funding from that great ruler in Central Asia the astronomer Ulugh Beg who ruled Samarkand (1409-1449 AD), and he was one of the most important rulers of the Timurid dynasty.

The establishment of the observatory was within the framework of a system of public institutions, including a khanqah, a school, a palace, a throne hall, and a large mosque whose walls and ceiling were made of cut wood, all of which were wonderful examples of Islamic architecture in Central Asia.

It was equipped with a large sextant with a radius of 40.4 meters, allowing for precise measurements of celestial positions, Ulugh Beg's observations and calculations at this observatory resulted in the compilation of the "Zij-i-Sultani," a comprehensive astronomical catalog.

As for the observatory, it was a plan drawn up by an elite group of scholars, including: Ghiyath al-Din Jamshid and Moin al-Din al-Qashani, the work was led by the astronomer Ali Qushji, and under his supervision, the astronomical tables (Zij) were drawn up in the year 841 AH/1437 AD. These tables include four sections measurements for different eras and regions, then times, then paths of the stars, then the location of fixed bodies.

These tables are the best that Islamic civilization has achieved in the field of science, within the framework of a global scientific vision by Ag Bey, who preferred sciences of global importance to national studies.



















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