Black Hole in the Astronomy Exhibit

Letter to The Huntington Library by a Muslim High School Student

Posted: 16 Safar 1422, 10 May 2001

Robert Allen Skotheim
The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
1151 Oxford Road
San Marino, CA 91108

Subject: Astronomy Exhibit

Dear Sir:

I recently visited the “Star Struck” exhibit in the MaryLou and George Boone Gallery thinking it would be very educational and well researched. As the title, “Star Struck: One Thousand Years of the Art and Science of Astronomy” suggested, I was expecting it to really showcase the progress in astronomy during the past one thousand years and to enrich my knowledge in astronomy.

However, I was soon to realize that my expectations were not to be fulfilled. The exhibit only covered part of the time period (though it even had mention of Ptolemy, it suddenly skipped centuries) and did not accurately cover the 1000 years it claimed to be covering. There was a big Black Hole in this astronomy exhibit: there was no mention of the great contributions of Muslim astronomers.

As I entered the exhibit, the first things on display were some books regarding Ptolemy. The placard above the books read, “…Further refined by Arab astronomers after Ptolemy’s death, his system was discovered by European astronomers in the 12th century. Not satisfied with a mere mathematical model, later astronomers began discussing how Ptolemy’s system could be described in physical terms that led to notions of crystalline spheres holding the planets and stars in their journeys around the earth.” This was the only place where Muslims were mentioned.

Muslim astronomers did not just “refine” Ptolemy’s system. Will Durant mentions in his book, The Age of Faith, the writings of two Spanish Muslim astronomers as “paving the way” for Copernicus by “destructively criticizing the theory…through which Ptolemy sought to explain the path and motions of the stars.” Muslims criticized his theory, rejected it, and developed new models.

“The fact is, the observatory as a scientific institution is entirely an Islamic invention. Those in Baghdad, Cairo, Cordova, Toledo, and Samarkand were renowned. The Baghdad School of Astronomy dates back to 8th century C.E.”

Ja’far as-Sadiq of Muslim Persia rejected the Grecian suggestion that the earth was the center of the solar system. Additionally, he promulgated the concept of the earth’s rotating about itself hundreds of years before such an idea was even dreamed of in the West.

Also, in the 13th century, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi and his colleagues, at the Maragha Institute, produced models of planetary motion that were consistent with the laws of physics. The “Tusi Couple” was a model of planetary motion named after him. Recently, historians have noted a striking similarity between at-Tusi’s earlier models and the later models of Copernicus.

This was not the only Muslim contribution to astronomy.

Al-Biruni knew that the earth rotates about its own axis, 600 years prior to Galileo. He also propounded the astronomical milestone that various climatic and astronomical data can be explained by the earth rotating about its axis and yearly around the sun. He was so fully aware of the orbital nature of the earth around the sun that he, for the first time in history, produced a scientific explanation for the existence of lands “where the sun never sets,” i.e. the North and South Poles.

During the 9th and 10th centuries, astronomical observatories sprung up in all of the centers of Muslim learning. Dr. K. Ajram writes in his book, The Miracle of Islamic Science, “The fact is, the observatory as a scientific institution is entirely an Islamic invention. Those in Baghdad, Cairo, Cordova, Toledo, and Samarkand were renowned. The Baghdad School of Astronomy dates back to 8th century C.E.” The exhibit could have at least contained mention of these great observatories, what to say of diagrams or replicas of them.

Though bias and prejudice against Muslim contributions to science is rampant, it is time to change this.

Within these observatories did take place the work of observation, research, and discovery. The distance between the earth and moon as well as that between the earth and sun was measured. Sunspots and eclipses were studied. Stars, stellar masses, and planetary motions were analyzed. The positions of starts were mapped and charted; improvements were made upon the Greek efforts. The appearance of comets and other unusual celestial phenomena was evaluated and observations were recorded. Nebulae were discovered.

Muslims mastered the art and science of the production of astronomical instruments: astrolabes, quadrants, sextants, and armillaries of various types. The astrolabe of Ibn Yunus was made of solid copper and was over a meter in diameter. Ronan notes that in the Samarkand Observatory, a sextant exists whose diameter is over 130 feet, making it the largest instrument of its kind in the world. The margin of error of this instrument is incredibly small--- just 4 arc-seconds! How sad that none of these instruments or their replicas were on display in this exhibit.

Al-Battani constructed a variety of innovative astronomical instruments, including novel types of amillary spheres, and a massive quadrant. Al-Battani was among the first astronomers to clearly document the fact that the orbits of the planets changed in diameter, that is they were not perfect circles. Further, he developed astoundingly precise methods for calculating motions and orbits of planets. Surprisingly, there is no mention of him in your exhibit.

In the 12th century, al-Idrisi constructed a mapped globe as well as a disc-shaped map of the then-known world for Sicily’s King Roger II. Both were made of solid silver. Al-Idrisi was such a great cartographer that Sedillot said of his maps, “For 350 years, European cartographers did nothing but copy…(them)…with negligible variations.”

Muslims also named several prominent stars, and many of these remain in our current vocabulary. Some include: Achernar (from Akhir al-Nahr), Acrab (Aqrab (Scorpion)), Altair (Nasr al-Tair), Aldebaran (ad-Dabaran), Daneb (Dhanab al-Dujajah), Denebola (Dhanab al-Asad), Fomal Haut (Famm al-Hut), and Aega (Nasr al-Waqi).

To totally wipe out the contributions of these scientists would be the greatest injustice. Robert Briffault writes in The Making of Humanity, “What we call science arose in Europe as a result of new spirit of enquiry, of new methods of experiment, observation, measurement, of the development of mathematics, in a form unknown to the Greeks. That spirit and those methods were introduced into the European world by the Arabs. It is highly probable that but for the Arabs, modern European civilization would never have arisen at all; it is absolutely certain that but for them, it would not have assumed that character which has enabled it to transcend all previous phases of evolution.”

It is shameful that an exhibit by such a prestigious institution such as The Huntington does not do justice to these illustrious scientists of the Middle Ages, the scientists whose works influenced European scientists and eventually brought about the Renaissance and the questioning of the prevalent idea of the earth and solar system in Europe. There is absolutely no display of their manuscripts, writings, instruments, observatories, nor is there any mention of them.

Though bias and prejudice against Muslim contributions to science is rampant, it is time to change this. The exhibit can be vastly improved and enriched with the mention of Muslim contributions. A beautiful statement in the exhibit said, “We cannot hope to understand the universe unless we actively search out and describe all the objects that exist within it.” The same applies to history. We cannot hope to understand history of science unless we actively search out and describe all the people who made the contributions to science and are a part of its history.


Muneeb Baig


Response from Huntington

12 May 2001

Hi Muneeb,

Thank-you for your note, which has been directed to me (I'm the curator of the exhibit). I'm sorry you were disappointed by the items not included in the show. You're absolutely right; upon reflection I would've been more accurate and inclusive to have considerably more about the vitally important contributions of Arabic astronomy, and I regret not including more. My personal apologies about this. I did the show in eight months as well as wrote the catalog during the same time -- a job that normally takes at least two years. Inevitably, important aspects got omitted (you'll see almost no mention of the vitally important contributions of the Mayans, the Druids, the Aztecs, the Babylonians or the Greeks as well). Loans from other institutions are very time-consuming, and I didn't have time to approach very many other institutions to ask to borrow manuscripts. We also barely had enough money to fund the exhibit (you probably noticed no school tours, no radio or TV publicity, or any of the other things we couldn't afford to fund.) The Huntington may look like a wealthy place due to its spectacular grounds and beautiful holdings, but no one wants to give money to put up an exhibit that's not permanent, and as a result, being short on funds means being short on resources. It's also primarily because of these constraints-- money and time -- that you didn't see things like astrolabes, quadrants, and other tools, as well as because of the fact that we're a library – we collect books and manuscripts -- and not a museum.

It also wasn't my task to make the show exhaustive, nor inclusive. Libraries have to necessarily exhibit the items that they have, and we have very little material to display that relates to Arabic astronomy. We're a library that has historically collected the works of dead white men, primarily British and American-related. That was a reflection of the era in which Henry Huntington lived and collected. We've tried hard to rectify that in recent years, but still only have a relatively small number of items outside of those parameters. And thus exhibits tend to revolve around the materials we hold. And as I noted, borrowing materials takes time and money we didn't have. Still, I could've worked more mention of Arabic contributions into the show.

If you'd purchased the catalog you'd have found a bit more discussion of Arabic astronomy (although not much more); I did make mention of Al-Battani, the zijes produced by Islamic astronomers, and other aspects.

In any case -- thanks very much for your comments.

Best wishes,

Dan Lewis, Ph.D.
Curator of the History of Science & Technology & Institutional Archivist