Engineering and Astronomy During the Islamic Empire

A time of great prosperity, the Islamic Golden Age was an era of innovation at its finest. Not only were advancements in art, architecture, medicine, and mathematics prominent, but entire civilizations were improved by the conquest of lands by the Arabs. Significant areas of study such as engineering and astronomy thrived at the hands of Islamic scholars. Fueled by the desire for knowledge, these scholars were the first to use ancient works to extend and invent some of the most remarkable creations up to date.

The field of engineering was especially important since it paved the road to modern civilizations around the world. The Arabs were responsible for developing two types of mechanical inventions: those for practical use and those for pleasure. Practical use items included mills, war machines, water rising devices, and one of the most significant: underground water channels. These “qanats” were widespread and used for passing information and knowledge to Europe. Muslim creations such as paper, the silk loom, astrolabes, compasses, waterwheels, windmills, and crops like cotton, rice and coffee were sent directly to Europe through these channels. The latter category consisted of self-trimming lamps, multi-fluid dispensers, calculating devices, and water clocks.

Besides these significant contributions were many small yet useful inventions as well. The Arabs were responsible for the first mechanical alarm clock. Developed by Taqi al-Din in the 16th century, it was able to make a sound at a specific time by a peg placed on the dial wheel, producing a ringing sound at the time specified. Another timeless invention includes the compass dial, developed by Ibn al-Shatir in the 13th century. It was a combination of a magnetic compass and a sundial, for finding the times of Salaat Prayers.

In optics, the first description of a magnifying glass was seen in The Book of Optics (1021) by Ibn al-Haytham. Because of this breakthrough research, Europe was able to make later advancements in telescopic technology.

The thirst for information was so abundant during the golden age, that Islamic Scholars were able to achieve knowledge far beyond the earth itself. Astronomy, the study of stars and planets, was a unique interest for Muslim scientists of the time. Major contributions to astronomical studies were mainly from Muslims during the middle ages. The entire Islamic Empire was dependent on Astronomy for means of prayer timings and directional guidance. Even the Qur’an states, “Allah has appointed for you the stars that by them you might be guided in the shadows of land and sea.” One way astronomy benefited the Empire was with the Islamic calendar. Unlike the solar-based Gregorian calendar, the Islamic calendar is based on moon cycles. It has 12 months which alternate between 29 and 30 days, but since it is lunar rather than solar, it falls 11 days behind the Gregorian calendar each year. Invented in 638 by the order of caliph Umar, it started from year one with the Hijra, Prophet Muhammad’s (SAW) migration to Medina. Hence, every date after July 16, 622 is marked A.H., or after the Hijra.

Modern information of the instruments developed by Muslim astronomers mainly comes from manuscripts preserved from that time. Muslims also progressed many instruments already in use prior to their time by adding new details and conceiving more advanced versions. Most were designed for Islamic purposes such as finding the Qibla (direction of Mecca) or the times of Salaat prayers.

One of the most essential and significant contributions to astronomy is the astrolabe, an invention used to locate the positions of stars in the sky. Used frequently by astronomers, the “mathematical jewels” were leveled metal disks with degrees marked around the border, with a pivot and indicator attached to the middle. Not only were they useful for star positions, but also for determining the movements of planets. Astrolabes most accurately calculated the circumference of the Earth, being only 4% off. Other types of more powerful and effective astrolabes were invented soon after. The earliest example of the Brass astrolabe dates at 315 AB and credited to Farzabi. The Brass astrolabe was developed during the Abbasid Caliphate and was perfected for determining the beginning of Ramadan. Mechanical astrolabes with gears were then invented and perfected by Ibn Samh. An astrolabe with eight gear-wheels was constructed by Abu Rayhan al-Biruni in 996, and was considered as the predecessor of mechanical clocks, which were also developed by Muslim engineers.

Astrolabes were widely used and considered as key contributions by the Islamic world, but Muslim astronomers didn’t stop there! In the 15th century, Al-Kashi created a planetary computer which he considered the “Plate of Zones.” It could not only solve planetary problems, but also predicted the longitudinal and latitudinal true positions of the Sun, Moon, and planets, along with the ecliptic of the Sun. Another one of the most important inventions in 16th century practical astronomy was the observational clock by Taqi al-Din which was a mechanical clock that showed not only dials for hours and minutes, but also seconds. This was the first clock to do so, and was used for measuring the right ascension of the stars.

Even more outstanding, Al-Jazari invented the largest astronomical clock, called the “castle clock.” This displayed the path of the Sun across the sky, along with solar and lunar orbits. Interestingly, the pointer of the clock passed across the top of an entrance and caused automatic doors to open every hour. Other very major developments include the earliest star chart, or planisphere, the equatorium (an analog computer used to find positions of the planets without using a geometric model), and even the first Almanac! The word “almanac” itself is Arabic, and it is an astronomical table which gives exact positions of celestial bodies, differing from astronomical tables support by Ptolemy’s Almagest. The earliest known is the Almanac of Azaqueil by Abu Ishaq Ibrahim al Zarqali from the year 1087. Several types of sundials were also developed and modified by Muslim astronomers. In fact, Muslim engineers and astronomers first wrote the instructions on building horizontal, vertical, and polar sundials.

After so much significant discovery of the stars, constellations, celestial bodies, mechanical devices, and ingenious ways of engineering, it is necessary to give the Islamic Empire credit for our knowledge of everything existing around us today. Due to the efforts of the Muslim scholars of the time, the world was able to advance in technology, sciences, and engineering in ways never even imagined before. Let us explore and spread the teachings and discoveries that so dramatically changed the world as we know it today.