Staring at the heavens: Astronomy in medieval Islam

What lies beyond what is known? Who is responsible for the majesty of the stars? Since the revelation of Islam, the night sky has offered philosophers and theologians alike a window into understanding God, heaven, and our unique journey to salvation.

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“To the medieval Muslim astronomers and scientists, the heavens provided a heady language of admiration and thoughtful reflection. Numerous verses in the Quran, the earliest surviving text from early Islam, instruct believers to ponder over the signs of God scattered all over the heavens”

Few today would disagree that there is something mystifying and humbling about the heavens and the starry night sky.

Like us, our ancient predecessors found much delight in their nocturnal sky gazing. But for ancient religionists and scientists, there was more to it than sheer curiosity and admiration.

NGC 3324 in the Carina nebula [photo credit: Nasa/Getty Images]
NGC 3324 in the Carina nebula [photo credit: Nasa/Getty Images]

To stare at the heavens was to communicate with the gods and reach into the realm of metaphysics. The practice belonged to astrology and good-natured magic.

We are told as much in the ancient Greek novel Aethiopica by Heliodorus. When the Egyptian priest admonishes the young Theagenes, he informs him that to study the heavens is to tread the path of wisdom and honesty:


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