Numbering The Stars: Remembering the Contributions of Medieval Muslim Astronomers And Catalogers

This week over at the Forbes blog, I discuss the International Astronomical Union (IAU)‘s publication of an official catalog of 227 star names. The list was published this week in order to further standardize how we reference stars and constellations, since each one has had numerous monikers in Greek, Roman, Chinese, Arabic and many other languages over the many millenia that people have been studying the stars.

Although I laud the IAU’s attempt to streamline naming, I was dismayed to see that in the section of the website recounting the history of cataloguing of the stars, the association begins with the western astronomers that worked during the European Renaissance. By crediting Johann Bayer’Uranometria atlas of 1603 as the first such popular catalog of stars, they in fact omit the great contributions of ancient astronomers and Muslim celestial cataloguers in particular. I attempt to remedy that by recounting a short history of Muslim mathematicians and astronomers (as well as a few forgotten medieval women).

I am also posting a list of digital resources and manuscripts below that I consulted for this article, so that you too can investigate the myriad contributions of Muslim scientists via the manuscripts themselves:

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Ursa major (الدب الأكبر) as viewed on a celestial globe (upper) and as viewed in the sky (lower) (Or 5323, f.8v). Image via the British Library and is in the Public Domain.
  1. Library of Congress, “Astronomical Innovation in the Islamic World”
  2. Marika Sardar, “Astronomy and Astrology in the Medieval Islamic World
  3. Abd-al-Rahman al-Sufi, “Tables from the Book of the constellations of the fixed stars (Kitab suwar al-kawakib) in a Latin translation,” via the British Library
  4. Ursula Sims-Williams, “Arabic scientific manuscripts go live in Qatar Digital Library,” Asian and African Studies Blog, via the British Library.
  5. The J. Paul Getty Museum, “Astronomical and Medical Miscellany: Toledan Constellation Tables; De Dispositione Aeris; De Prognosticationibus Egritudinem; etc., English, late 14th century, shortly after 1386Ms. Ludwig XII 7
  6. Elly Decker, Illustrating the Phaenomena: Celestial cartography in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
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I am grateful for the help given to me by the University of Iowa’s Special Collections librarians. Map librarian Paula Balkenende pulled a number of celestial maps for me and then gave me a special look at Lanciani’s Forma Urbis Romae–just for kicks. 

 

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