A couple of weeks ago, I blogged (in anticipation) about a conference that was going to take place in Abu Dhabi in the field often referred to as “Islamic Astronomy”. This phrase itself may be awkward, if not controversial and objectionable; indeed, how could anyone define an “Islamic” astronomy, could there be a Jewish astronomy, a Buddhist astronomy, etc.? Well, the phrase may be awkward, but I did not invent it; it has been used by some of the world’s foremost (non-Muslim) experts, e.g. Owen Gingerich (who wrote an article with that very title in Scientific American in 1986) and David King (who has published several works with that title or something very close, e.g. “Mathematical Islamic Astronomy”). It is simply a short phrase by which experts refer to one of two intertwined fields: (a) the astronomy that was developed during Islam’s “golden age”; (b) the applications of Astronomy to Islamic areas, such as prayer and fasting times.
Anyway, the conference in Abu Dhabi took place with about 200 participants from 26 countries, not counting 20 Muslim scholars (jurists) and some media reporters (including Al-Jazeera TV, which recorded a few of the talks for later broadcast). As I noted in my preliminary blog piece, although Muslim astronomers who contribute to this field have often had encounters with Islamic scholars, this was the first time that the latter were invited to such a conference as a large group, representing Saudi Arabia (at least 4 Sunni and 1 Shii scholars), Oman, UAE, Egypt, Libya, Turkey, UK, USA, Belgium, Holland, Germany, and Sweden… None of them were speakers, although they insisted on giving talks, complaining that just listening and asking questions or making short comments did not put them as equals with the astronomers. The organizers (me among them, at least on the science side) refused this, insisting that this was an Astronomy conference, with papers refereed by a scientific committee made entirely of astronomers (fifteen experts from 11 countries, including two non-Muslims from the UK and the USA), and that full rigor and scientific integrity had to be maintained.
The solution we found to this (diplomatic) conundrum was to hold two side meetings between a dozen astronomers and a dozen Islamic scholars. This too was a first, and a “Memorandum of Understanding” was reached at the end. The scholars wanted to establish a number of “certainties”: they repeatedly asked whether our calculations – and which ones – could be taken as absolutely certain, so as to base Islamic decisions (when to start and end fasting, for instance) upon them. The astronomers, without being so explicit, wanted to establish themselves as the body who speaks on such matters; in other words, we wanted to impart on the jurists the idea that scientific topics must be the exclusive province of scientists, and theologians and jurists must abide by those conclusions and not step in front and start making proclamations. We ended up reaching a reasonable agreement, one which the astronomers considered to be a huge quantum leap, considering the Islamic scholars’ past reluctance to give any ground on such topics. The document, which is being translated, will be widely distributed (the media will surely find it very interesting!) and posted around. I will let you know when that happens – hopefully very soon.
OK, so what topics were addressed and which ones saw some interesting contributions and discussions? The issue of the Islamic calendar has now stepped to the front, I am happy to note. Why (am I happy)? Because for the first time in decades, if not centuries, there is now a wide realization that constructing and implementing a calendar for all Islamic events, whether religious or social, is the one way to avoid the chaos that we continue to witness whenever an occasion like the start of Ramadan comes up. And Muslim astronomers have really made significant progress on this, both on the science itself and on raising everyone’s understanding and awareness of its significance. In some future piece, I will explain the status of this topic.
Another issue saw some significant astronomical propositions, that of the prayer times at high latitudes, where the Islamic “canonical” rules for determining prayer times (ones that apply in moderate latitudes) do not work. This is a rather timely and urgent issue now, both because Muslim communities in high-latitude regions like Canada, UK, and Scandinavia have become very large, and because Ramadan is gradually shifting and will soon be taking place in June and July when the problem is most acute.
Finally, for the first time in such a conference, a session was devoted to Islam, Astronomy, and Environment, and it met with high interest, which was somewhat surprising to the organizers. This is a welcome development, and it has been concluded that the Environment is now an important topic for Muslims, and future conferences will feature it more prominently. And last but not least, half a dozen papers revolved around Education (and Astronomy and Islam), with one (female) presenter showing the results of a survey among students and graduates on their knowledge/ignorance of basic astronomical concepts, particularly what relates to the Moon and the Sun and their daily and monthly motions/variations. The results were, not surprisingly, depressing, but they served to underscore the need for everyone to work harder on that front. It was also decide to enlarge the scope of such a survey to as many countries and institutions (schools, mosques, work places, etc.).
To summarize: A really good conference in practically every way, with progress on many issues and fronts, particularly the thorny one of the relation and turf battle between the astronomers and the Islamic scholars.