Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Lots of Islamic Folk Astronomy at Tabsir

If you are interested in good scholarly articles focusing on Islam and the culture, politics, and society of the Middle East, check out Tabsir.net.

As for science & religion are concerned, here is an excellent series of articles on Islamic Folk Astronomy at Tabsir. These are written by our friend in the Department of Anthropology at Hofstra University, Daniel Martin Varisco:

When the Quran was revealed in seventh century Arabia as the basis for Islam, references were made to the sun, moon and stars as evidence of the creative power and practical foresight of God. The idea that God, or a particular god or goddess, had created the visible heavens was not unique. Creating stories about astronomical phenomena is as old as the first civilizations that appeared in the ancient Near East. Some of these survived, in highly edited variants, in the scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. As Muslim science evolved, a variety of religious and scientific knowledge from classical Greek texts, as well as Zoroastrian and Hindu sources, was encountered. While the influence of these classical and textual traditions on Islamic astronomy has been the focus of much previous study on the history of Islamic science, little attention has been paid to the oral folk traditions of peoples who embraced Islam. How ordinary Muslims viewed the same heavens visible to educated scientist or illiterate shepherd is the subject of this chapter. For practical reasons the focus here will be on the Middle East, especially the textual information on the pre-Islamic Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula and contemporary tribal groups in the region. More here
Our understanding of how ordinary Arabs at the beginning of Islam measured time is complicated by references in the texts that refer both to formal astronomical reckonings, which were not necessarily widely known or used, with folk knowledge. Ibn Qutayba (1956:1-3) states that the traditional Bedouin Arabs of the peninsula did not divide up the year according to the formal four-season model of the astronomers, but rather from what they knew locally about the timing of hot and cold weather, and the presence and disappearance of plants and pasture. Thus, he notes, they began their year with the autumn rain called rabı‘, followed by a sequence of recognized rain periods. Other Arabs were said to separate the year into two parts: shitâ’, which is male because of the rain in it, and sayf, which is female because of the pasture. The clear message is that telling time seasonally was adapted to local contexts and reflected a symbolism of natural fertility. A major problem in reconstructing such local seasonal systems with any degree of specificity is that the terms used may refer to different times or seasons from one system to another. Added to this is the general lack of information as to which tribe or group used a particular seasonal reckoning system. More here
Astronomy was relevant to Muslims in large part because of several of the ritual duties proscribed in the Quran and Islamic tradition. The three most important of these are determining the beginning of the fasting month of Ramadân, reckoning the times for the five daily prayers, and determining the proper direction of the qibla or sacred direction toward Mecca. While Muslim astronomers later worked out mathematical solutions to some of these problems, correct timing and orientation could be achieved by those untrained in astronomy and with virtually no computation skills beyond simple arithmetic (King 1985:194). More here
The most famous star in Islamic folklore is undoubtedly the Pleiades. Commentators regard the reference in surah al-Najm (#53) of the Quran as the Pleiades; in fact the Arabs often referred to the Pleiades simply as al-najm (the star par excellence), a usage parallel to that in Sumero-Akkadian (Hartner 1965:8). In a well-known tradition, Muhammad links the early summer heliacal rising of the Pleiades with the beginning of the heat, crop pests and illnesses. In another tradition, more political than weather-related, Muhammad is supposed to have told his uncle Abbas (for whom the Abbasid caliphate was later named) that kings would come from his descendants equal to twice the number of stars in the Pleiades. This would imply that Muhammad thought there were 13 stars in the asterism, since the Abbasid caliphs numbered twenty-six (Ibn Mâjid in Tibbetts 1981:84). More here
One of the indigenous calendars from the Arabian Peninsula is based on the monthly conjunction of the Pleiades with the moon. The moon conjuncts with the Pleiades about once every 27 1/3 days. This conjunction was visible monthly from autumn through spring and occurred about the same time each year; thus it coincided with the main parts of the pastoral cycle on much of the Arabian Peninsula. According to Abû Laylî (in al-Marzûqî 1914:2:199), these conjunctions began at the time of the autumn wasmı rain. This observation is still found among contemporary Sinai Bedouins (Bailey 1974:588). Ibn Qutayba (1956:87) noted that when the moon conjuncts with the Pleiades on the fifth day of the lunar month, winter goes away. The new moon coincides with the Pleiades during the month of Nîsân or April during the naw’ of simâk. This was considered to be one of the most fortunate star movements in the sky, perhaps because of its unique annual character. Shortly thereafter the Pleiades disappears from view at the start of the heat. More here.
This series of Folk Astronomy articles are excerpted from Daniel Martin Varisco, Islamic Folk Astronomy, in The History of Non-Western Astronomy: Astronomy Across Cultures, pp. 615-650. Edited by Helaine Selin. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000.


Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

Hmm, as far a local lore here in Turkey goes, the Istanbul Observatory occasionally surfaces as an example of a missed opportunity.

Salman Hameed said...


Too bad astrology doesn't work - otherwise the observatory would have been saved :)

By the way, I will be in Istanbul for a meeting next week. Probably there is nothing to see of the observatory, otherwise I could have checked it out.

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

Hah no, there's nothing left to see. Ottomans (and in many ways the present gov't) can be very thorough with such things. I don't don't know if it is true, but it is said that they used naval artillery to get rid of the observatory. OTOH, there's no shortage of things to check out in Istanbul.

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