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Mariam Al-Astrolabiya Al-Ijliya is one of the greatest women who lived in the 10th century (944 – 967) who lived in the Syrian town of Allepo (Salim, 2010). Salim (2010) accurately notes that her father was an apprentice who specialized in making astrolabes for Isterlabi in Baghdad. Islam (2011) argues that depute much not being known about Mariam’s early years of life including whether she was married or raised a family, she is well-known for the design of astrolabes.
As an apprentice working for the design of the astrolabes, her father decided to take her to his place of work to get trained on the science and art of designing and making astrolabes. A discourse of the contributions made by Islam (2011) shows that once she started her training, she worked as a good and keen student who afterward started to design and make improved astrolabes. Islam (2011) notes that Mariam earned her fame while working as an employee of the ruler of the city of Aleppo, Sayf Al Dawla, by making intricate innovations of hand-crafted designs of the Astrolabes.
Little information exists about Mariam and her family, but research studies point out that her father was from a region in Saudi Arabia known as Nejd. Salim (2010) argues that the tribe to which the family belonged to was known as Banu Bakr, which was part of the larger group of large Rabi’ah branch of Adnanite tribes. A critical analysis of the family to which Mariam belonged shows that it consisted of astronomical instrument makers and engineers.
Besides, Salim (2010) argues that for a father to take her daughter to work as an apprentice was unheard of in his time, an act which shows that the girl was articulate and had excellent talent and skill in the area of designing the astrolabe. In addition, her father might have been a man of great courage and well ahead of his time because women by then were segregated and assigned specific tasks to perform in society. It is worth noting that the Abbasid period was characterized by the growth and development of higher education. However, it was characteristic of the period that higher education was carried to the individual because it had not been institutionalized as such. This exemplifies the need for Mariam’s father to take her for training in his place of work.
A discourse by Salim (2010) on the use of astrolabes shows that the instrument was widely used to predict the positions of the stars, planets, and the sun among other celestial bodies. According to Faruqi (2006), much of the time, the tool was used by Muslims to accurately determine the direction of qibla one was required to take in order to fulfill the requirement of a payer while facing Mecca. Salim (2010) notes that the astrolabe could be used to accurately determine the time an season of prayer in relation to the position and movement of the sun.
The Subject of Astronomy and Astrolabes
An investigative argument by Afridi (2013) shows that astronomy was one of the most important subjects of investigation and discovery that many scientists embarked on in the lifetime of Mariam Al-Astrolabiya Al-Ijliya, a period referred to as in the Abbasid. According to Islam (2011), much of the work in astronomy was done using the astrolabe to accurately predict and measure the direction and movement of the sun, planets, and other heavenly bodies.
Faruqi (2006) notes that different scientists used the astrolabe were an important tool that was used to improve the geometrical models that were developed by Ptolemy. Accurate predictions of directions were important because misdirection or going in the wrong direction could be the cause of death. This is evident in the way the Muslims lived in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula. It was vital for anybody navigating to remain on course by staying in tune with the cycles and phenomena of the universe with the help of a precision instrument, the astrolabe (Afridi, 2013).
It is important to note that the first Muslin to be involved in studying planetary science was al-Masudi, who linked the movement of the stars and other celestial bodies with the Islamic calendar. The link between the Islamic calendar and the astrolabe started to become more evident and clear.
It is important to note that the first astrolabe was not built by Mariam, but by the Muslim mathematician Ibrahim al-Fazari. His discovery consists of a discourse of the design and structure of the astrolabe (Afridi, 2013). The details of the use of different components such as the armillary sphere, which shows the relationship and movement of heavenly bodies was recorded. Here, it was possible to use the crude form of the astrolabe to make tables that were in accordance with the Islamic calendar.
The tables could be improved on further improvement of the design. Contributions to the accuracy of the instrument were made by Muhammad ibn Ibrahim in 796 or 806 to the science of the stars because of his excellent skills and knowledge in astronomy. Here, the astrolabe was being developed as an emerging concept that could be taken to greater heights by other subsequent researchers.
Further contributions to the development of astronomy and precise tools to determine the positions of the stars and the planets were developed by other renowned people in Islamic science such as Muhammad al-Fazari and Yaqub ibn Tariq in 796 (Afridi, 2013). It is imperative to note that Indian astronomy was introduced to the Muslim world by Ibn Tariq based on Greek books. It is important to note that the development of astronomy occurred in successive periods with different contributions from different sources. Among the scholars who did profound work were Habash al-Hasib al-Marwazi and Ahmad ibn ‘Abdallah (Afridi, 2013).
It is important to note that Sind-hind was the basis upon which al-Khwarizmi relied on to develop astronomical calculations that were part of the Muslim seasons. However, the most outstanding astronomer was Habash al-Hasib who developed the “Ma’munic” for accurate determination of celestial distances. Besides that, it was possible to calculate the distance between Baghdad and Makkah using the method known as “the straight arrow” that was developed by Habash al-Hasib who was also the first to determine the exact appearance of the moon. The details on how to do the calculations are in the Kitab alarm w-al-a bad.
Notable developments in astronomy happened in the 9th century under renowned scientists and astronomers such as Abu’l-Abbas al-Fadl ibn Hatim al-Nairizi (892-902). The results of the works by Al-Nairizi are found in a book known as atmospheric phenomena. The book detailed the nature and description of the spherical astrolabe. The accuracy of the spherical astrolabe and the advantages of the device over similar devices are detailed in the book. Another great mathematician and physicist who made significant contributions to astronomy and the design and development of the astrolabe are Thabit ibn Qurrah (836–901) (Afridi, 2013).
In addition, Thabit ibn Qurrah was the first person to discover and publish some work on the oscillatory motion of the equinoxes. The work was further developed by Thabit who made significant contributions in the area of astronomical mathematics. Besides, Thabit is the first person to verify the works of Ptolemy. His works were concentrated in the area of mathematics and geometrical algebra. Among the developments that were initiated by Thabit include the use of integral calculus and numbers, spherical geometry, and non-Euclidean geometry.
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The application of conic sections was the invention of Thabit besides studying and inventing the application of parabolic and elliptic geometry to trace the elliptical nature of the movement of planets around the sun. The work of Thabit adds value to the outstanding achievements in astronomy made by Abu Abdallah Muhammad ibn Jabir ibn Sinan al-Battani who incorporated the works of Ptolemy into calculating the obliquity of the elliptic movements of the planets. The details are revealed in the Kitab al-Zij al-Sa’bai, which shows how to calculate the lunar and solar eclipses as well as the sighting of the new moon.
The other scientists who made outstanding contributions in the field of astronomy include Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi (903-986) who wrote an exceptional astronomical encyclopedia on magnum opus on stellar astronomy (Afridi, 2013). The book was an improvement of the discoveries made by Ptolemy. Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi used information from Arab sailors in the Malay Archipelago to identify the southern group of stars known as the ‘white bull’ which is known as the Nubecula. The discovery made Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi make corrections of other discoveries that were made before his time.
Astronomy and Religion
It is important to note that astronomy was seen as a science that had close connections with the Islamic religion of the early scholars (Afridi, 2013). Much of the interest by the Islamic scholars came as a result of the study of the findings by Ptolemy’s al-majesty (Afridi, 2013). Here, the science was given a further boost by the second Abbasid caliph who had invited Indians and other people from different parts of the world to investigate and research different areas of science and medicine. Much of the work was based on the books written by Greeks on various subjects on astronomy.
Afridi (2013) shows evidence which points out that the astrolabe made by Mariam could be used to precisely establish the mathematical positions of the stars and other celestial objects despite her not having a class in mathematics. In linking mathematics with fine craftsmanship coupled with excellent metallurgical knowledge, she demonstrated her skills and high level of intellect, which was evidence of her contributions to modern astronomy and to the Islamic religion as well. It is imperative to note that the astrolabe was invented by the Greeks who used it to measure the latitude.
However, upon further refining by the Muslims, the instrument became more beautiful, accurate, and elegant (Afridi, 2013). Upon a detailed examination of the instrument, one is able to note that an astrolabe incorporates a complex gearing mechanism that allows it to be moved in different directions to accurately determine the position of a celestial body. The work of Mariam shows that several improvements were made to increase the accuracy of the instrument (Afridi, 2013).
For instance, Mariam invented the equatorial which was further improved by Abū Ishāq Ibrāhīm al-Zarqālī. The instrument has some unique characteristics which enable the user to track the movement of the sun and the stars from any place in the world. In addition, the instrument incorporates a calculator that enables the user to calculate the phases of the moon and the time of the year. The uniqueness of the astrolabe is that it can be used in conjunction with a mechanical clock that can accurately measure the time to the hour. It has been argued that the clock marked the beginning of the ith programmable computer.
Studies by Faruqi (2006) and Islam (2011) showed the other contribution that resulted from the use of the astrolabe, which was designed by Mariam, was the flexibility of the device to accommodate mural sextants and quadrants that showed the positions of the celestial bodies. According to Afridi (2013), the improvements made it possible for time to be measured accurately up to the second on the arc of the astrolabe. Further improvements by people like f Al-Haytham made it possible for the instrument to be used to measure the days of the year.
It is imperative to note that different concepts were developed and incorporated into the design of the astrolabe. Among the concepts was to calculate the celestial distances accurately followed by the Persians. According to Islam (2011), the idea was to use tables to calculate the positions of the heavenly bodies. Besides, Islam (2011) notes that trigonometric ratios could be used to calculate the perimeter of the earth, the distance between the moon and the earth, and other distances between celestial bodies. It was possible to determine the diameter of the moon which was placed at 6,500 miles. On the other hand, a similar concept was used to calculate the exact appearance of the new moon.
Another area that Mariam made significant contributions include the study of astrology. The connection between events on earth and the heavenly bodies as well as the ability to calculate their positions ad understand how the celestial bodies move could be established by using instruments such as the astrolabe. This made astrology to be seen as one critical component of astronomy (Afridi, 2013). Despite some sections of the scientists who existed in Mariam’s tine, other scholars and religious practitioners strongly opposed the connection between astrology and astronomy labeling it as unreligious and opposed to God.
In conclusion, Mariam was one of the greatest women who contributed to the field of astronomy during the Abbasid period when most scientists made significant contributions to the same field. Her family was composed of members who were well skilled in the fields of engineering and the design of astronomical instruments. She is considered to be one of the greatest scientists of her time who remains a role model to this day. She exemplifies the significance of seeking for knowledge even among women.
Afridi, M. A. (2013). “Contribution of Muslim Scientists to the World: An Overview of Some Selected Fields”. Revelation and Science, 3(01).
Faruqi, Y. M. (2006). “Contributions of Islamic Scholars to the Scientific Enterprise”. International Education Journal, 7(4), 391-399.
Islam, A. (2011). “The Contribution of Muslims to Science During the Middle Abbasid Period (750-945)”. Revelation and science, 1(01).
Salim, T. S. (2010). “Al-Hassani, Women’s Contribution to Classical Islamic Civilization: Sciences”. Medicine and politics. 1(1).