[Editor’s Note: This is the 11th in a series of blogs that examine how education developed throughout history until the present. Links to previous blogs are included at the bottom of the post.]
Around the 6th century CE, Europe entered the Dark Ages, which lasted from around 500 until about 1300. During this time, intellectual thought was not only discouraged, but also forcibly suppressed, as it was seen to conflict with the Church’s religious doctrine. Writing became scarce, and research and observations stagnated.
At the same time, the Islamic empire, stretching from Moorish Spain to Egypt and even China, was entering their “Golden Age,” a time of great intellectual thought and artistic and scientific endeavor. The Arabs made major scientific contributions, especially in chemistry, botany, physics, mineralogy, and mathematics. This was no surprise, as many Muslim thinkers regarded scientific truths as tools to access religious truth. Ironically, it was Islamic scholars who preserved much of the knowledge of the ancient Greeks that the Christian world had turned its back on.
Of particular interest to Islamic scholars was astronomy, but the only astronomical textbook available was Ptolemy’s Almagest, written around 100 CE in Greece. When, seven hundred years following its publication, the book was finally translated into Arabic, scientists quickly absorbed and built upon this fundamental work. Their extensive contributions exposed some weaknesses in the Ptolemaic and Aristotelian systems and laid the groundwork for new models and theories that would come during the European Renaissance. The following are a few of the many contributions Islamic scientists made to astronomy.
al-Farghani, known in the west as Alfraganus, wrote Elements of Astronomy on the Celestial Motions around 833. This textbook provided a mostly non-mathematical presentation of the Almagest, updated with revised values from previous Islamic astronomers. The work circulated widely throughout the empire and was finally translated into Latin during the 12th century, becoming the primary resource European scholars used to study Ptolemaic astronomy.
The work of Ibn al-Hatheym, Doubts on Ptolemy, went far beyond merely translating and transmitting knowledge. The author developed an extensive critique of Ptolmey’s work, and turned the mathematical models into a physical representation of how objects moved in the heavens.
In The Book of the Fixed Stars, written around 964, al-Sufi combined Ptolemy’s work of mapping constellations with Arabic astronomical traditions. The book contains extensive illustrations of how each constellation appears looking up from Earth, as well as how it would appear if you looked from outside the sphere of the fixed stars, as the heavens were believed to be.
In Egypt, astronomer Ibn Yunus found errors in Ptolemy’s calculations of the movements of the planets and their eccentricities. Ptolemy wanted to understand how these bodies orbited in the sky, including how the Earth moved within the sphere. He calculated the sky from the Earth would wobble, or “precess,” by an amount that varied 1 degree every 100 years.
While he didn’t understand it was Earth itself that was wobbling, and while he firmly believed the Earth was at the center of the universe, Ibn Yunus determined that the precession varied, in fact, 1 degree every 70 years. This discovery eventually led to the heliocentric model proposed by Copernicus in the 16th century, who built on this body of work.
The new math required for such precise astronomical work was also advanced in large part by Islamic scholars. They developed both spherical trigonometry and algebra, two forms fundamental to precise calculations of the stars.
As Europe languished in the dark, Muslims stood witness to astronomical history. SN 1054 is a supernova (a star that explodes at the end of its natural life) that gave rise to what we know as the Crab Nebula. We know precisely the time it exploded and for how long it was visible: July 4, 1054 until about April 6, 1056. We know this because astronomers in the Islamic empire, as well as China, made careful note of their observations of this new light in the sky, which was visible even during the day.
Two more contributions, both by the same man, stand out. Ibn al-Haytham was one of Islam’s most famous astronomers and scientific thinkers. He’s also known as “the father of optics” because he was the first person to understand how we perceive light. Light travels in a straight line into our eyes but not out, but for hundreds of years Ptolemy and other natural philosophers believed our eyes emitted light, like some kind of an interior flashlight. al-Haytham’s work helped develop the camera obscura and eventually helped develop the telescope.
But perhaps the most significant contribution Ibn al-Haytham made to science was his methodical way of conducting experiments. He commented that, “The duty of the man who investigates the writings of scientists, if learning the truth is his goal, is to make himself an enemy of all that he reads, and … attack it from every side. He should also suspect himself as he performs his critical examination of it, so that he may avoid falling into either prejudice or leniency.”
To test a theory, he repeatedly ran his experiments, changing variables and noting any difference in the outcome. This grew into the scientific method, the foundation for science as we know it today — formulate a hypothesis, test it repeatedly, and measure if the outcome supports the hypothesis being tested.
Islamic scholarship changed dramatically around the 13th century, eliminating science and scientific pursuits, but while it lasted, the Golden Age gave the world an unprecedented leap forward in scientific thought.
Next week: The Renaissance
To read part 1: Introduction, click here.
To read part 2: Purpose of education, click here.
To read part 3: Prehistory to pre-industrial, click here.
To read part 4: Mesopotamia and the Sumerians, click here.
To read part 5: Ancient Egypt, click here.
To read part 6: Ancient Greece and Rome, click here.
To read part 7: The Greek philosophers, click here.
To read part 8: China, click here.
To read part 9: The Olmecs and the Maya, click here.
To read part 10: The Islamic World: Basics, click here.
 Stirone, Shannon. (February 14, 2017). “How Islamic Scholarship Birthed Modern Astronomy.” Astronomy.com. Retrieved from https://astronomy.com/news/2017/02/muslim-contributions-to-astronomy.
 na. (nd). “Astronomical Innovation in the Islamic World.” Library of Congress. Retrieved from https://www.loc.gov/collections/finding-our-place-in-the-cosmos-with-carl-sagan/articles-and-essays/modeling-the-cosmos/astronomical-innovation-in-the-islamic-world.
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