Islam, Astronomy, and Arabic Print: A collection showcase at Middle Temple Library

This exhibition was born out of an idea to showcase some of Middle Temple Library’s lesser-known printed and manuscript codices that embody the presence of the Arabic and Islamic worlds across Europe between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries. It tells the story of the emergence of Arabic print culture that flourished in the printing houses of London and Oxford nearly a century after Gutenberg’s revolutionary press. It goes onto explore the interest in the Quran across major European cities during this epoch of wider fascination into Islamic scholarship. And ends by looking at the impact of Islamic astronomy on writers and thinking in England during a period of dramatic growth in scientific and religious understanding of the universe.

‘ſpeciall VVords of the Eastern Tongues’: Arabic print in Renaissance London

Printing and the printing of books across Europe has a well-established history. Less known, however, is the growth of Arabic printing in England, whose own story has its roots in the publishing houses of sixteenth-century London and at the University of Oxford. On display we have a collection of books that highlight the development of Arabic moveable type in and around London between 1524 and 1648.

1524: VVakefield and early Arabic type

While there exists no specific date as to when Arabic printing took seed in England, the publication of Robert Wakefield’s Oratio de laudibus & vtilitate trium linguarum marked an important moment in this story. Printed in 1524 by Wynkyn de Worde of Fleet Street, Wakefield’s title – a Latin treatise on the merits of Arabic, Aramaic, and Hebrew – is considered the first work in England to contain the presence of Arabic type.

The Arabic characters that appear towards the end of the book demonstrates the early, frustrated relationship between the infancy of moveable type in Europe – which, in 1524, had been introduced only 74-years prior with the establishment of Gutenberg’s press – and the calligraphic complexity and artistry of Arabic script. The few Arabic characters that are included in the book are misshapen and lack the necessary cursive nature of elegant, flowing writing.

1592: A dream in Venice, Paris, London

First published in Venice in 1499, Francesco Colonna’s poem tells the story of the dream of Poliphilo, whose unrequited love for the beautiful Polia causes him unrelenting insomnia. When he finally falls asleep, he seemingly awakes in a darkened wood where his adventure begins. Arguably one of the most beautiful books of the Venetian Renaissance, it has also been deemed unreadable. The narrative is composed in Latinate Italian (Italian syntax with a Latin vocabulary).

It is believed to have been the first book, published in Europe, to contain Arabic print. Middle Temple Library holds within its collection a 1561 edition, translated from Italian into French. There exist noticeable differences between the Arabic script incorporated into both the first and Paris editions. The first image displayed includes Greek and Arabic, which roughly translates to ‘Labour and Industry’. The artistry of both designs is also apparent: the 1499 edition is far simpler than its French counterpart, where the border around both inscriptions is heavily patterned with coiling leaves and intricate lattice work.

The second woodcut illustration in the Paris edition appears far more detailed than those in the original – the rocks include depth and shading, and the Arabic inscription above the doors is more cursive in quality and more faithful to the flowing nature of the script. The inscription – carved into the rocks in Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic – translates to: “gloria dei; mater amoris; gloria mundi” (the glory of God; mother of love; glory of the world). The French edition of 1561 at Middle Temple Library is an item that embodies a profusion of cultures and languages, merging East and West. Published in France, based on a story published in Venice, retold from stories of the Classical world, incorporating Latin, Hebrew, Greek, Arabic, and, in 1592, English.

1614 and 1635: John Selden, the Inns of Court, and Arabic type

The early modern jurist and scholar of England’s ancient laws, John Selden (1584-1654), is a towering figure in the cobbled history of the Inns of Court. A member of Inner of Temple, called in 1612, outside his legal career, Selden was an avid bibliophile who amassed a great number of books in Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin. He was contemporaries with similarly well-connected collectors of books and manuscripts such as Sir Robert Cotton, whose own library was one of the founding collections of the British Museum Library (now the British Library headquartered at St Pancras).

In 1614, Selden’s Titles of Honor – a monumental work devoted to peerage law, heraldry, and genealogy – was published. It included several Turkish and Arabic words, which are indexed at the end of the book in a section titled ‘the more special vvords of the Eastern Tongues, to our purpose herein interpreted’.

Some twenty-one years after the publication of Titles of Honor, Selden’s Mare Clausum was published. Its thesis supported the legal doctrine of a country’s ownership and dominion of the waters contiguous to its coastline. Middle Temple Library owns a 1635 edition, published in London, which uses a combination of Hebraic script and blackletter Gothic.

In 1636, a new edition was published in Leiden – Lvgdvni Batavorvm – which, as an established centre of printing in its own right, had begun experimenting with Arabic metal type.

Both the Titles and the 1636 Leiden edition of Mare include typeset Arabic characters that are somewhat disjointed and contain a number of large gaps where the printer has attempted to provide enough room to fit the Arabic script neatly alongside the Latin print.

1642: The first printed Arabic book in England

Having published two titles containing Arabic script, John Selden went on to publish a fourth, after De iure naturali & gentium, titled Eutychii Aegyptii, which consisted of Arabic text with juxtaposed Latin translation of a portion of the church history of Sa’id ibn Batriq (one of the first Christian Egyptian writers to use the Arabic language. His writings include the chronicle Nazm al-Jauhar (“Row of Jewels”), also known by its Latin title Eutychii Annales (“The Annals of Eutychius”)).

Its Arabic content was much more substantial than the previous items, and is, therefore, considered in many scholarly circles the first Arabic book printed in England.

1648: Post-English Civil War and the boom in Arabic printing

Despite the initial issues in 1639, both in terms of printing technicality as well as the outbreak of the English Civil War in the 1640s, which had an adverse effect on learned activity in English universities, these problems began to improve from 1648 onwards. Arabic printing efforts were being propelled by the likes of John Greaves (1602-1652) and Edward Pococke (1604-1691). The latter was better known as a scholar; the former took the lead in the matter of Arabic printing.

John Greaves, Savillian Professor of Astronomy at the University of Oxford, borrowed the university’s matrices, originally procured by Oxford’s William Laud from the Leiden-based printed, Arent an Hoogenacker, and volunteered to have their defects – as explored above in the writings of Wakefield and Selden – remedied. In doing so, Greaves went on to publish a text of the writings of Persian astronomer, Mīrzā Muhammad Tāraghay bin Shāhrukh (known also as Ulugh Beg, 1394-1449): The Canicularia.

Reading the stars: English printing and Persian astronomy

Ulugh Beg was an astronomer, scientist, and ruler who established the famous observatory in Samarkand in the 15th century. His writings were read by John Greaves who went on to publish them in the Canicularia, printed in Latin with a significant amount of Greek and occasional phrases in Arabic and Hebrew. It is probably the first Arabic-script printing in Oxford, and the first Persian text to be printed in England.

What is the Quran?

Muslims believe that the Quran is the word of God revealed to Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century through Angel Gabriel, during Ramadan. It was revealed gradually, over twenty three years, to give people time to contemplate the verses and get to know who God really is through His words. The Arabic word for God is Allah. In Islam, it is considered the last scripture to be revealed by God, and Muhammad is believed to be the last prophet sent by God, from a long line of prophets from Adam to Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus, amongst many others. It is believed that the Quran confirms the same monotheistic message from previous scriptures: to believe in one God and follow the guidance from the prophets.

As Muhammad was illiterate, Muslims consider the Quran to be a miracle of God. The Quran is considered as guidance to the whole of mankind and a book of wisdom and knowledge. Muhammad spent his lifetime teaching people about the explanation of verses in the Quran and how to develop a relationship with God. He has been described as ‘a walking Quran’ as he lived his life according to Quranic principles. Since the time of Muhammad, there has been a long tradition of Islamic scholarship. Early Islamic scholars studied every aspect of the Quran in depth, ranging from religious aspects such as Islamic law and societal conduct to the mathematical, scientific and astronomical concepts mentioned within the Quran. Of the exhibits featured some are European translations of the Quran written during the medieval and renaissance period to present day.

European Translations of the Quran

During the medieval period, there was a growing interest in translating the Quran in Europe for various reasons. Islamic empires at the time were far-reaching across the globe and were having an impact on Europe, having reached Andalusia in Spain and Sicily. Under the patronage of archbishops, translators were initially commissioned to translate the Quran with the intention to convert Muslims to Christianity.

However, this attitude gradually changed over time due to a rise in Orientalist scholarship (the study of Asian and Middle Eastern regions) in Europe. Islamic and European scholars began to share their knowledge on various disciplines, ranging from science and mathematics to Quranic knowledge and Arabic language. As a result, European translations of the Quran improved in their accuracy. However, a truly accurate translation of the Quran is not possible without years of Islamic scholarship and deep understanding of Islam, otherwise translations are prone to errors, alterations and misunderstandings regarding context.

The following examples are some European translations of the Quran written during the medieval and renaissance period to present day.

L'alcorano di Macometto, nel qual si contiene la dottrina, la vita, i costumi, et le leggi sue. Tradotto nuovamente dall'arabo in lingua italiana [1547, Italian translation] The Alcoran of Macometto : which contains his doctrine, life, customs and laws

Giovanni Battista Castrodardo wrote the first Italian translation of the Quran in 1547 at the request of Andrea Arrivabene. It was based on a Latin version by English astronomer and priest, Robert Ketton, from 1143. A portion of the book describes the history of Islam and Islamic culture with an attempt to provide knowledge to Europeans regarding this new religion. However, in the wake of the crusades, many negative stereotypes and offensive imagery about Muhammad and Islam prevailed in Europe. As a result of this polemic attitude towards Islam, this version contains inaccuracies, alterations, additional text and Christian criticism relating to Islamic doctrine. Despite this, it was widely translated across Europe. This version is not based on the Quran and is, instead, now regarded as a historical book that reflects the general attitude, in Europe, towards Islam during the renaissance period. This book was part of the original collection donated to the Inn by Robert Ashley in 1642.

The Koran, commonly called the Alcoran of Mohammed, translated into English immediately from the original Arabic; with explanatory notes, taken from the most approved commentators [1734]

George Sale was a lawyer and a member of the Inner Temple. He was also a member of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. His interest in religion led him to write an English translation of the Quran in 1734, which was based on a Latin translation by Ludovico Maracci of 1698. Although it was not the first Quran to be translated into the English language, it was more accurate than previous versions and was widely used in Europe. Previously, Qurans had been translated in Europe for political reasons. However, as an Orientalist scholar, Sale had knowledge of the Arabic language and an interest in learning about Islam from authentic sources. He also wanted to translate a version of the Quran which was free from earlier Christian criticism relating to Islamic doctrine. To assist him in this endeavour he consulted Ottoman sources of the Islamic sciences of Tafsir (explanation of Quran) and Hadith (a collection of sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) to provide accuracy. Sale was keen that the text was read in conjunction with the commentary for a better understanding of the Quran. It includes a lengthy preliminary discourse and commentary from Islamic Tafsir and Hadith scholars explaining the verses and context of revelation of verses. For this reason, it was widely accepted by Muslims and non-Muslims.

Click to see a digitised version

Historia Iosephi patriarchae, ex Alcorano, Arabicè. Cum triplici versione Latina, & scholijs Thomae Erpenii, cujus & alphabetum Arabicum praemittitur [MT Library collection – 1617, Qur'an Latin & Arabic] The history of the patriarch Joseph, from the Koran, in Arabic. With a triple Latin version, and the scholias of Thomas Erpenius, whose Arabic alphabet is prefaced

This book is a Latin translation of Surah Yusuf (Chapter Joseph) from the Quran, translated by Dutch scholar Thomas Erpenius in 1617. In Islam, Joseph is revered as a prophet and a descendant of Abraham (Ibrahim). Unlike other chapters in the Quran, this chapter contains a complete story. This is considered the best of stories.

This version contains Latin and word for word Arabic translation. Towards the 17th century, there was a significant development in Arabic studies in Europe and improvement in understanding of Arabic grammar similar to early Islamic Arabic language scholars. Thomas Erpenius was a scholar in Arabic studies and had previously written a book on Arabic grammar in 1613 with use of scientific Arabic grammatical tables for verb conjugations. Although Erpenius rose to the linguistic challenge of attempting to create a literal translation of the Quran, he did not make references to authentic Islamic sources of Tafsir and Hadith, to provide further explanation and understanding of verses. This book was part of the original collection donated to the Inn by Robert Ashley.

Click to see a digitised version

The Majestic Quran translated by Dr Musharraf Hussain Al Azhari, OBE [2020]

This recent English translation of the Quran by Islamic scholar, Dr Musharraf Hussain, explains the verses in simple, clear English with context and commentary to enhance understanding. It also includes sub-headings, themes and lessons that can be learnt from the chapters to promote contemplation over the verses and foster a connection with God. Dr Musharraf Hussain is an Islamic scholar who has studied the Quran for most of his life and has studied the Islamic sciences including, Tafsir and Hadith at the renowned Al-Akzar University in Egypt. This Quran can be found on the 3rd floor in Middle Temple’s new multi-faith room.

Here, Dr Musharraf Hussain, explains the context of the revelation of chapter Yusuf (Joseph) and compares it to the version in the Bible. He describes the prophetic dream Joseph has regarding eleven stars and the sun and the moon. This dream is also mentioned in the Bible and the Torah. We also learn about Joseph’s upright characteristics and the moral lessons that can be derived from this chapter. It is easy to understand and an accessible translation of the Quran.

Next, we will look at the significance of references to celestial bodies in the Quran and how these verses would have influenced the works of early Islamic scientists, mathematicians and astronomers.

Click to see a preview of Surah Yusuf

Quranic Verses relating to Science and Astronomy

There are many verses in the Quran that talk about the wonders of the universe and encourage the reader to look up to the skies and contemplate their existence within this universe. These include verses about the orbits of the celestial bodies, the sun, the moon, the stars, the darkness of space, the creation of time and the creation of night and day. Early Islamic scientists and astronomers would have been influenced by these verses, as the Quran is considered a source of knowledge for mankind. There are many references, in the Quran, to scientific and mathematical concepts and how they interrelate to acknowledging the existence of God.

With the next few examples, we look at the verses that relate to celestial bodies to understand how they would have shaped the practice of astronomy in the early Islamic period.

Surah Mulk: The Sovereignty

The word Mulk ٱلْمُلْك from the name of the chapter means, ‘sovereignty’ or ‘dominion’ and refers to the sovereignty or ownership that God has over everything that exists within the universe. By reading the chapter, readers can learn about the power and control that God has over their lives and over everything in the universe. The attributes of God are described in the verses for the reader to become knowledgeable about their Creator. Early Islamic scientists and astronomers would have been striving to learn more about their Creator by discovering more about the skies above them.

Surah Mulk Verse 3 – Do you see any flaws?

الَّذِي خَلَقَ سَبْعَ سَمَاوَاتٍ طِبَاقًا مَّا تَرَى فِي خَلْقِ الرَّحْمَنِ مِن تَفَاوُتٍ فَارْجِعِ الْبَصَرَ هَلْ تَرَى مِن فُطُور

Allazee khalaqa sab'a samaawaatin tibaaqam maa taraa fee khalqir rahmaani min tafaawut farji'il basara hal taraa min futoor

[And] Who created seven heavens in layers. You do not see in the creation of the Most Merciful any inconsistency. So return [your] vision [to the sky]; do you see any breaks?

Surah Mulk Verse 4 – Look up again

ثُمَّ ارْجِعِ الْبَصَرَ كَرَّتَيْنِ يَنْقَلِبْ إِلَيْكَ الْبَصَرُ خَاسِئًا وَهُوَ حَسِير

Summar ji'il basara karrataini yanqalib ilaikal basaru khaasi'anw wa huwa haseer

Then return [your] vision twice again. Your vision will return to you humbled while it is fatigued.

Surah Mulk Verses 3 and 4: Perfection of the Universe

The two verses from Surah (chapter) Mulk, above, describe the perfection of the design of the universe by God and challenges the reader to notice any flaws in its creation. The words ‘heavens’ and ‘skies’ are used to refer to space and the celestial bodies contained within.

The verses explain that your eyes will become fatigued from trying to detect any flaws in the universe, as the universe has been designed with precise systems. These verses are meant to encourage the reader to investigate their surroundings, including the sky above them and ponder deeply over them. They would have inspired stargazing in conjunction with contemplation, for early Islamic astronomers.

Contemplating the verses of Quran is considered a form of worship as it necessitates remembering God. In Islam, it is believed that hearts find contentment in the remembrance of God. Being a monotheistic religion, having a relationship with God is the true essence of Islam.

By noticing the perfection of the universe, Muslims believe this alludes to the perfection of the One who created the universe, as everything has been created in exact measure with no faults. Looking at and understanding the enormity of the universe is also humbling.

Please click on this link for Audio and Tafsir (explanation of verses) of Surah Mulk

Surah Yasin: Heart of the Quran

Surah Yasin, which is considered the heart of the Quran, contains verses that describe how the universe works and the function of the celestial bodies. According to Islam, the heavens and earth and everything in the universe were created for man to worship God. Therefore, everything in the universe has a function to facilitate worshipping God.

Surah Yasin Verse 37 – Darkness of space

وَءَايَةٞ لَّهُمُ ٱلَّيۡلُ نَسۡلَخُ مِنۡهُ ٱلنَّهَارَ فَإِذَا هُم مُّظۡلِمُون

Wa Aayatul lahumul lailu naslakhu minhun nahaara fa-izaa hum muzlimoon

And a Sign for them is the Night. We remove from it [the light of] day so, they are [left] in darkness.

Scholars of Quran have stated that, this verse talks about the fact that the default position of the universe is to be in darkness. The alternation of night and day has been created by God to serve mankind. The reader is encouraged to reflect on their life without the existence of daylight. For Muslims, it invokes a feeling of gratitude towards their Creator for sustaining them through various systems in the universe such as the existence of the sun. In another verse, the sun is described as a lamp giving light.

Phases of the moon

Surah Yasin Verse 39 – Phases of the moon

وَٱلۡقَمَرَ قَدَّرۡنَٰهُ مَنَازِلَ حَتَّىٰ عَادَ كَٱلۡعُرۡجُونِ ٱلۡقَدِيم

Walqamara qaddarnaahu manaazila hattaa 'aada kal'ur joonil qadeem

And the moon - We have determined for it phases, until it returns [appearing] like the old date stalk.

This verse mentions the phases of the moon. The word kal'ur joonil qadeem كَٱلۡعُرۡجُون ٱلۡقَدِيم means, ‘like the old date stalk’. The image of an old, withered date stalk resembles the shape of the new crescent moon. This is an important verse as Islam is based on a lunar calendar. The phases of the moon denotes time. Each month starts on the sighting of the new moon. Therefore, the start and end dates of Ramadan are determined by moon sightings. These verses would have inspired early mathematicians and astronomers to develop tools to calculate the moon sightings and to become precise in their calculations. Calculations are important in the Quran and Islam. Ramadan normally consists of 30 days and there are 30 parts of the Quran, which Muslims try to complete at least once during Ramadan.

Surah Yasin Verse 40 – Orbits of Celestial Bodies.

لَا ٱلشَّمۡسُ يَنۢبَغِي لَهَآ أَن تُدۡرِكَ ٱلۡقَمَرَ وَلَا ٱلَّيۡلُ سَابِقُ ٱلنَّهَارِۚ وَكُلّٞ فِي فَلَكٖ يَسۡبَحُون

Lash shamsu yambaghee lahaaa an tudrikal qamara walal lailu saabiqun nahaar; wa kullun fee falaki yasbahoon

It is not allowable for the sun to reach the moon, nor does the night overtake the day, but each, in an orbit, is swimming.

This verse mentions the existence of orbits in the universe and the function of the orbits of the sun and the moon to create time and day and night. They are in a perfect system never colliding. In the tafsir of Ibn Kathir, he explains that the word, ‘swimming’ is used to describe the movement of celestial bodies, i.e., it is as if they are floating in orbit.

It was not known at the time, that the sun has its own gradual orbit around the galaxy, which takes 230 million years. This was only discovered relatively recently in the early 20th century.

Click for Audio and Tafsir (explanation of verses) of Surah Yasin

Surah Rahman: Favours from Your Lord

Surah Rahman discusses the favours or blessings that God bestows on mankind, out of His mercy. Being merciful is one of His attributes. From His great favours, are the favours of the functions of the celestial bodies.

Surah Rahman Verse 5 – Calculated Orbits

ٱلشَّمْسُ وَٱلْقَمَرُ بِحُسْبَان

Ashshamsu walqamaru bihusbaan

The sun and the moon [move] by precise calculation.

The sun and moon move in harmony as everything in the universe is made in exact proportions and working together according to precise calculations. Verses such as this one highlights the importance of using mathematics, calculations and the laws of physics when observing the universe.

Click for Audio and Tafsir (explanation of verses) of Surah Rahman

Surah Baqarah Verse 187 – Breaking of dawn

وَكُلُوا۟ وَٱشْرَبُوا۟ حَتَّىٰ يَتَبَيَّنَ لَكُمُ ٱلْخَيْطُ ٱلْأَبْيَضُ مِنَ ٱلْخَيْطِ ٱلْأَسْوَدِ مِنَ ٱلْفَجْرِ ۖ ثُمَّ أَتِمُّوا۟ ٱلصِّيَامَ إِلَى ٱلَّيْل

Wa kuloo washraboo hattaa yatabaiyana lakumul khaitul abyadu minal khaitil aswadi minal fajri summa atimmus Siyaama ilal layl;

And eat and drink, until the white thread of dawn appear to you distinct from its black thread [of night]. Then complete your fast until the sunset.

This extract from verse 187 of Surah Baqarah talks about how to know when dawn is breaking. This knowledge is important to Muslims as the morning prayer time, Fajr, starts at dawn break. It is also when fasts begin in Ramadan, as Muslims fast from dawn to sunset.

The words khaitul abyadu ٱلْخَيْطُ ٱلْأَبْيَض means, ‘the white thread’ and refers to the white line of light that can be seen across the horizon at the time when dawn breaks in the morning. This is a line that is distinct from the blackness of the night sky. These verses and the knowledge of the movements of the sun are beneficial in calculating the five daily prayer times.

Click for Audio and Tafsir (explanation of verses) of Surah Baqarah

Surah Al-An'am verse 97 – Stars as a guide

وَهُوَ الَّذِي جَعَلَ لَكُمُ النُّجُومَ لِتَهْتَدُوا بِهَا فِي ظُلُمَاتِ الْبَرِّ وَالْبَحْرِ ۗ قَدْ فَصَّلْنَا الْآيَاتِ لِقَوْمٍ يَعْلَمُون

Wa Huwal lazee ja'ala lakumun nujooma litahtadoo bihaa fee zulumaatil barri walbahr; qad fassalnal Aayaati liqawminy ya'lamoon

And it is He who placed for you the stars that you may guided by them through the darknesses of the land and sea. We have detailed the signs for people who know.

This verse explains that God created the stars for the benefit of mankind, by providing light and a source of navigation through knowledge of mapping the stars. As the Quran was revealed in Arabia, desert Arabs had a tradition of observing the night sky and using the stars for navigation. Looking up at the sky to the stars has always been a source of awe and wonderment for mankind. For Muslims, the stars are also a sign of the greatness, power, and beauty of God as the constellations are a beautiful part of His creation.

Please click on link below for Audio and Tafsir (explanation of verses) of Surah Anam

Golden Age of Islamic Scientific Scholarship

The age of Islamic scholarship began with the revelation of the Quran in the 7th century and continues to this day. The golden age of Islamic scientific scholarship spanned from the 7th century to the renaissance period. Islamic empires dominated much of the world during this period, and Islamic centres of learning were created in major cities across the globe including, Baghdad, Cordoba, Constantinople, Fez, Tripoli, Cairo and Timbuktu, which was closed off to Europeans until the 19th century. Some of these centres of learning saw Muslim and non-Muslim scholars studying together, particularly in Andalusia, Spain.

Various institutions were created under Islamic rule including, universities, schools, the first public library, public hospitals and observatories for astronomical research as oppose to private use only. Islamic rulers and wealthy patrons funded astronomical research. This period saw the start of a scientific approach to observing the universe and many new instruments were created for precisely calculating the position of the celestial bodies.

Although many Arabic manuscripts were lost and destroyed during the Crusades, a number of them found their way to Europe, possibly through the Silk Road, and were translated into Latin and European languages to preserve knowledge. The following exhibits look at the work of these great Islamic scholars and how they contributed to the advancement of astronomy with the introduction of advanced mathematics, algebra, trigonometry and geometry.

Fatima al-Fihri: World’s First University

Women played a vital role during the Islamic Golden Age. In 859, Fatima al-Fihri, founded the World’s first university to grant degrees. Scholars from across the globe travelled to Fez, Morocco, to study religion, philosophy, medicine, astronomy, mathematics, languages and natural sciences at the University of al-Qarawiyyin. They included European philosophers and orientalists who sought access to precious Arabic manuscripts. The university still exists today. Within the university, is one of the world’s oldest libraries containing over 4,000 manuscripts.

Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi: Book of Fixed Stars

In the 10th century, in the year 964, Iranian astronomer, Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi, wrote The Book of Fixed Stars, which describes 48 constellations. He was known as Azophi in Europe. The book contains star charts and longitude and latitude coordinates. He worked on correcting the earlier astronomical works, ‘The Almagest’ by the Greek scholar, Ptolemy, which was written in the 2nd century. The Almagest had been the most influential astronomical work available at the time. Al-Sufi’s monumental book aided Islamic astronomers in having precise calculations for navigating the stars.

14th Century Astronomical Calendar

Astronomiae liber sive calendariumn [1390 – 1415]

This 14th century astronomical calendar is written in Latin and German. It is dated around 1390 to 1415. Although it is not from an Islamic source, this calendar is a reflection of the different astronomical theories circulating in Europe at the time. It contains a mixture of information from astrolabes and astronomical tables to constellations and astrology.

Mariam al-Astrulabi: Astrolabe

Islamic scholars created numerous tools to work out prayer timings and to map the stars. One of these tools was the astrolabe. Although the exact origin of the astrolabe is unknown, it is believed that it was originally Invented by Greek astronomers and later adapted by many Islamic scholars for the purpose of calculating prayer times and determining the direction of the qibla in Mecca.

One famous scholar was Mariam al-ljliya, also known as Mariam al-Astrulabi, who was a Syrian Astrolabe maker. She was skilled in craftsmanship and had advanced knowledge of mathematics, which she utilised to create accurate instruments. She was recognised in her time, in the 10th century, for her contributions to astrolabe making and as a result was employed at the court of Aleppo by the ruler, Sayf Al Dawla.

Al-Qabisi: Treatise on the Judgment of the Stars

Alcabitii ad magisterium iudiciorum astrorum Isagoge: / commentario Ioannis Saxonii declarata [1521]

As Islamic scholars were polymaths, they studied several subjects at once. Some early astronomers studied the medieval discipline of astrology alongside astronomy to try to understand the celestial bodies. One such astronomer was Al-Qabisi, who wrote several influential works on astronomy, astrology and maths during the 10th century. He was known in the Latin World as, Alcabitius. This treatise on the Judgment of the Stars was translated into Latin and other European languages from the 12th century onwards. In 1521, John of Saxony, a Parisian astronomer, wrote commentary about Al-Qabisi. As well as astrology, this treatise also refers to detailed astronomical tables for computing the position of celestial bodies. Al-Qabisi’s other works include a book about arithmetic and works on solving astronomical tables. His works greatly contributed to furthering the understanding of astronomy in Europe.

Astrology not permitted in Islam

Astrology was a pre-Islamic practice that was prevalent in Arabia and in other territories across the Islamic World. Astrology can also be found in ancient Greek, Indian and Chinese astronomy works, which were later translated and used by early Islamic astronomers as the building blocks for developing the field of astronomy. For these reasons, some early Islamic scholars, when observing the skies and stars, studied astrology in conjunction with astronomy.

However, astrology is not permitted in Islam, as it is believed that only God has knowledge of future events. Believing that humans can predict the future would be denying the omnipotent power of God.

Following the decline of the use of court astrologers in the Islamic World, Islamic astronomical works focused on the scientific and mathematical aspects of astronomy, rather than mixing the two concepts of astrology with astronomy. In 1580, an observatory in Constantinople, in the Ottoman Empire, was destroyed as it was constructed for the practice of astrology rather than astronomy. Due to this clear distinction, the field of astronomy developed significantly with the aid of Islamic advances in precise mathematics and scientific tools and instruments.

Ibn al-Haytham: Scientific Method

Ibn al-Haytham, who lived in Cairo in the 10th century, was known in Europe as Alhazen and was famous for his pioneering scientific approach to astronomy. He developed the scientific approach of using hypothesis with mathematics and experiments to gather scientific evidence for his astronomical works. He is also known as the father of optics for his enormous contribution to the field of light rays. He wrote several astronomical works, including works on the Milky Way which had great influence on European scholars.

Nasir al-Din al-Tusi: Tusi Couple

Nasir al-Din al-Tusi was a 13th century brilliant mathematician and scientist who developed the theory of Haya, the mathematics of the celestial and terrestrial spheres. He most famously developed the Tusi Couple, which was a mathematical planetary model to determine the motion of celestial bodies. He also created accurate tables of planetary motion. His work has been praised for its precise mathematical theories and use of trigonometry and geometry. His influence can later be seen in the later works of renaissance astronomers, such as Copernicus.

883-1590: the publishing history of Kitāb fī Jawāmiʿ ʿIlm al-Nujūm in the West

After Christmann’s translation in 1590, the best-known edition to be published was Jacob Golius’ in 1669, printed in Amsterdam. He published the Arabic text together with his own Latin translation under the title Muhammedos Fil. Ketiri Ferganesis, Qui vulgo al-Fraganus dicitur, Elementa Astronomica, Arabice & Latine. Cum notis ad res exoticas sive Orientales, qua in iis occurunt.

1590: Al-Farghānī, Jacob Christmann, and translating the stars

Abū al-ʿAbbās Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad ibn Kathīr al-Farghānī (800-870) was a significant figure among early medieval astronomers and mathematicians. His works played a major role in transmitting Islamic scientific knowledge to the West.* Seven works by al-Farghānī survive, which include his most notable: Jawāmi 'ilm al-nujūm wa-usūl al-harakāt al-samāwiyya (Compendium of Astronomy and the Principles of Celestial Motions). As already established, al-Farghānī’s dates are not entirely clear, but it has been suggested by scholars like Abdukhalimov (1999) that the Compendium was written between 833 and 861.

Bahrom Abdukhalimov acknowledges that: “although Al-Farghānī is well known in the history of medieval science, the available information on his life and scientific activitiy is very limited and often contradictory; even his fill name and dates of birth and death are uncertain” (1999, ‘Ahmad al-Farghānī and his “Compendium of Astronomy”’ in Journal of Islamic Studies. Vol. 10, No. 2.)

The Compendium is a short introduction course in astronomy based on Ptolemy’s Almagest, comprising about seventy pages and thirty chapters. It describes the main facets of astronomy: the heavens, the planets, the stars, the sun, the moon, and the earth, including their movements. He also provides a list of well-known lands and cities. His aim was to present his work in a simple style without complicated mathematical calculations.

The Compendium remained one of the most influential and widely-used astronomical works in the Islamic world and Europe during the Middle Ages. The number of translations that followed during the 1100s to the late-17th century is testament to this.

Manicules and markings: English readers of Arabic writings

Middle Temple Library’s copy of Muhamedis Alfragani Arabis Chronologica et astronomica elementa, contains contemporary marginalia in the form of manicules and bracket marks. William H. Sherman posits that: ‘[Manicules derive] from the Latin manicula, simply meaning “little hand,” and that really captures what it is without getting into the messy business of what it does.’

With regards to the latter, two questions immediately arise: what function do they serve? And, who drew them in? Both questions are not easily answered. The function of the manicle present in books across the early modern period is a multiplicitous one: from marking noteworthy sentences to highlighting problematic passages, it gives scholars today an insight into the minds, reading habits, and early modern readers’ interaction with books. As to who drew them in the astronomica elementa, we are not entirely sure as no name or signature is present.

1652: Astronomica quædam ex traditione Shah Cholgii Persæ

John Greave’s publication of Ulugh Beg’s Carinacula marked a cornerstone moment in Arabic printing in Oxford. In 1652, he went on to translate and publish Maḥmūd Shāh Khuljī’s treatise on the planets under the title of Astronomica quædam ex traditione Shah Cholgii Persæ. Unlike Christmann’s translation of Al-Farghānī’s Compendium, which favoured simplicity of thought over scientific technicality, Greave’s translation of Shāh Khuljī’s Astronomica provided readers with a visual exploration of the planets and heavens.

Charting the universe

The opening pages show a diagram of the shape of Saturn's sphere on a flat surface (page 36), within the context of Centrum Mundi – the centre of the world. Page 35 is the original Persian language it was written in. Unlike the beginners’ course-like design of Al-Farghānī’s Compendium, Shāh Khuljī’s study is scientifically rigorous to its core: throughout its pages are diagrams of planets and the moon.

The impact on wider Europe of works like those by Shāh Khuljī and Al-Farghānī demonstrate the signifiance of their place in the history of astronomical science. Their writings, which underwent multiple translations and editions – to the extent that the demand for more sophisticated moveable Arabic type to uphold the integrity of the original script – continued right up the 18th century.