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The Heliocentric theory and Islam: A historical meeting

 

        Astronomy is one of the oldest sciences in history. Since the start of human civilization humans have always gazed into the heavens in wonder and amazement. All civilization had this curiosity and the Muslim world is no exception. The origin of astronomy in the Islamic world is similar to that of many other fields of science. In the early Muslim civilizations following the death of Prophet Muhhamed (PBUH), the Muslim empire was expanding at a tremendous rate across the world. As the empire expanded the need arose for public hygiene, health care, architectural skills, etc. Such needs required knowledge of basic sciences. Unlike the medieval Christians, Muslims didn’t allow their faith to prevent scientific advancement; as they saw no contradiction between religious texts and the laws governing the world. As a result, scholars turned to the texts of ancient scientists and philosophers.  

In the city of Baghdad, the House of Wisdom eventually emerged as a world renowned center for scientific inquiry. For the first time in human history, an international scientific venture was commenced when intellectuals were dispatched from Baghdad to all over the world in order to locate as many ancient writings as possible. As a result, astronomical data from all over the world was available to the Muslim scientists. Greek writings had a huge impact on the Muslim scientific thought*, thought they weren’t taken as Gospel truth. 2. Starting from the 9th century, Muslim astronomers began to reexamine and correct many of Ptolemy’s basic values. 3 There was “full recourse to a long process of   

                                                                                                                                               

*An example of this can be seen in ideas about the Earth’s shape.  Ibn Taymiyah (d. 1328), one of Islamic history’s most influential jurists, mentions that

All the Muslim [i.e. religious] scholars have agreed upon that earth and orbits are of the spherical…

 

 

questioning the very foundation of the validity of all the precepts of Greek astronomy.” 4

Some of the most notable criticisms are those directed against the geocentric theory.  While the majority of Ptolemy’s ideas, including the belief of the Earth being the center of the universe,** were eventually accepted by later astronomers, 5 many aspects of the geocentric theory were questioned. Most notable among them is the famous 14th century astronomer Ibn Shatir who, while accepting the Earth as center of the universe, developed many planetary models and mathematical methods identical to those Copernicus. 6 When one further compares the works of Ibn Shatir and some of his fellow critics of Ptolemy, one notices that they raised the same objections against Ptolemy as Copernicus had (even most of them maintained the sun orbited the earth). 7   In fact, most scholars suggest that the works of Arab astronomers played a key role in influencing Copernicus’s ideas,

leading him to develop the heliocentric theory. 10 11 12 Professor Saliba even refers to Copernicus as the “heir of Arabic astronomy”. 13

** It is important to note there appear to be a few Muslim scholars, such Al-Sijzi, who did accept the heliocentric theory. 8 Some, like Beruni, rejected it only because it posed a philosophical problem, rather…

In spite of the influence Muslim scientists had on the creation of the heliocentric theory, the belief that the Earth was the center of the solar system was the dominant view and this would not change until the 18th century.  One of first mentions of the heliocentric theory in the Muslim world is in a 17th century Ottoman translation of an astronomical table by the French astronomer Noel Duret.         

The Ottomans were initially hesitant to accept the theory, as they were reluctant to immediately accept scientific ideas from the Western world, due to their belief that Ottoman scientific knowledge was superior to that found in Europe. 14

One the first main proponents of the heliocentric theory was a theologian named Ibrahim Hakki (d. 1780) who quoted Abu Hamid al Ghazali, the renowned philosopher and theologian, to support his ideas of compatibility of science with religion.  15 While many of the common people showed religious opposition to the heliocentric theory, one would notice that there was no opposition from the theologians and religious scholars. 16 This might have been due to the fact that the lay people were following traditions of folk astronomy which had no scientific basis and may have been partially based on pre-Islamic cultural beliefs. 17 By the second half of the 18th century, the validity of

European science was acknowledged by the Ottomans, leading to widespread use of

Western astronomy. 18 With little opposition from the religiously learned, the

 

heliocentric theory gain popularity in the Ottoman Empire and the rest of the Muslim

world.  As John Brooke and Ronald Number point out…

 “There appears, for example, to have been no equivalent within Islam to the trial of Galileo in Rome when the implications of a sun centered astronomy were assessed.” 19

During Islam’s golden age, there were many scientific advances that were made, including ones made against the geocentric theory. While the Muslims might not have been the first to propose the heliocentric theory, they certainly played a key role in its history and were much more quickly to accept it from a religious perspective than Europe was.   These contributions, however, have gone unnoticed by the vast majority of modern day people. This common trend amongst most people reminds us of what the renowned scholar, William Montgamery Watt, told the world towards the close of the 20th century:

When one keeps hold of all the facets of the medieval confrontation of Christianity and Islam, it is clear that the influence of Islam on western Christendom is greater than is usually realized …[medieval Europe] belittled the influence of the Saracens and exaggerated its dependence on Greek and Roman heritage, so today an important task for us Western Europeans as we move into the era of the one world is to correct this false emphasis and to acknowledge fully our debt to the Arab and Islamic world.  20


 


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