Islamic Astropolitik
February 1, 2015 11:39 AM   Subscribe

Despite Western anxieties over Muslim conquest, traditions of Islamic astronomy and the portability of ritual space in Islam find Muslims at home among the stars.

Astrological and cosmological inquiry by medieval Muslim and Arabian scholars (that is, they wrote in Arabic) were concerned with the link that connected the earth and the night sky, and humankind’s place in it. The religious impulse to make sense of this “place” would animate scientific debates about the stars in the ninth to 14th centuries—the “golden age of Islam.” In turn, the legacy of Muslim scientists or natural philosophers of this period would inspire Islamic practice in outer space in the 21st century, with dubious results.

For centuries, the stars out in outer space provided humanity with a sense of wonder, mystery, and the divine. Through gazing upon the stars and stripping away their distant secret, a mastery of extraterrestrial worlds and dreams of conquest became inevitable. Thus in the present century, Islamic science and space exploration would together at last arrive at a spectacular conclusion: an achievement of greater proximity to the stars to better understand humankind’s place and space in the universe. Not only would Muslims arrive in outer space, but through techno-theological discourse, they would able to make space for Islam among the stars.
posted by standardasparagus (1 comment total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
So, as it happens, medieval Islamic astronomy is an area with which I am very familiar. At this very moment, I have a compendium of Arabic astrological texts open on my desk, and am watching a heated Facebook discussion about Masha'allah's real intent when he commented on the role of the malefic planets when forecasting an ill person's chances of survival. Not too long ago, a friend commented to me that she has the biggest crush on al-Biruni, one of the greatest scientists and thinkers of the medieval Islamic world. I have al Biruni's The Book of Instruction in the Elements of the Art of Astrology, which was translated into English, and its concision and elegance is a thing to behold. One gets a fabulous education in astronomy, trigonometry, and geometry as a little amuse bouche before the astrological material begins. It's an amazing work, one of many.

To put the FPP in context, the Arabic scientists of about a thousand years ago were heirs of the Hellenistic scientific tradition, and thought very highly of their Greek forebears, often to the extent of writing new treatises under the names of Greeks who had been dead for centuries. This was both for pragmatic reasons of anonymity (see the portion of the article where practicing astrology was not entirely acceptable under Islam), and as a mark of allegiance to their spiritual teachers. The impression I get from reading their works is the extreme attention to detail and an obsessive,exhaustive need to calculate everything to the smallest degree. I often wonder what would have become of the Middle East had this incredible scientific tradition been able to flourish.
posted by Atrahasis at 3:02 PM on February 1, 2015 [9 favorites]

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