Astronomy is known as the `Queen of the Sciences,' and the Islamic contribution to astronomy in the first millennium since the Prophet Muhammad was immense, just as it was to other branches of science such as mathematics, medicine, chemistry and geography. Ptolemy's Almagest was translated into Arabic at the Caliphal `House of Wisdom' in Baghdad, thus preserving the astronomical knowledge of antiquity.
Astronomy was especially studied by Muslims because of key measurements that are determined according to astronomical phenomena: the qibla (direction of Mecca) from anywhere within the huge empire of Islam, the timings of the daily prayers and the lunar months, determined by the sighting of the new crescent. Muslim astronomers established the first modern-style observatories and developed or invented astronomical instruments such as astrolabes and sextants. The work of al-Battani, Ibn al-Shatir and al-Tusi was to have an important influence on Copernicus.
Against the background of this rich heritage of Islamic astronomy, The Royal Observatory, Greenwich, in collaboration with the Muslim Council of Britain, invited members of the Muslim community to `An Evening with the Stars' on Friday 5th March, as part of its community outreach programme. Thirty-two guests attended, including astronomers, schoolchildren, teachers, lecturers, businessmen, medical doctors, imams, community workers, journalists and other professionals.
The event began with a tour of the night sky in the Observatory planetarium, conducted by Anton Lamplew, one of the Observatory's astronomers. The tour included references to Sirius, the majestic star mentioned by name in the Qur'an, and the Pleiades, the beautiful star-cluster mentioned by the Prophet Muhammad in a famous saying about one of his disciples. Of interest to the audience also was the fact that most of the bright stars in the sky have names of Arabic origin (an obvious indication of the legacy of Muslim astronomers): Aldebaran in Taurus; Dubhe, Alkaid and Alioth in the Great Bear; Betelgeuse, Rigel and Saiph in Orion; the `summer triangle' consisting of Deneb, Vega and Altair.
After the planetarium show, the participants were taken inside the main dome of the Observatory that houses its 28-inch optical refracting telescope, the largest of its kind in the United Kingdom. The telescope was built in the 1890s, and its mounting dates from the 1850s. Due to the overcast sky, the planned observation of Saturn could not take place. However, the audience was treated to rare high-quality footage of Jupiter, Saturn and the moon, taken from the same telescope in the previous few weeks, with commentary by Dr. Robert Massey, a leading UK astronomer based at Greenwich.
The Observatory's extensive Islamic collection, that includes antique astrolabes, qibla indicators, sextants and globes, is due to go on display at the National Maritime Museum from the end of April. The Muslim Council of Britain plans to continue its co-operation with the Royal Observatory and National Maritime Museum in their work with different communities, including faith-based ones. Please contact the MCB office if you would like more information about future events and activities.
Dr Usama Hasan