Sat 30 Jan 2010
from Ibn Balkhi’s manuscript on astronomy, 850 CE
It was He that gave the sun his brightness and the moon her light, ordaining her phases that you may learn to compute the seasons and the years. He created them only to manifest the truth. He makes plain His revelation to men of understanding. Yûnus 10:9 (Dawood 1968:64)
When the Quran was revealed in seventh century Arabia as the basis for Islam, references were made to the sun, moon and stars as evidence of the creative power and practical foresight of God. The idea that God, or a particular god or goddess, had created the visible heavens was not unique. Creating stories about astronomical phenomena is as old as the first civilizations that appeared in the ancient Near East. Some of these survived, in highly edited variants, in the scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. As Muslim science evolved, a variety of religious and scientific knowledge from classical Greek texts, as well as Zoroastrian and Hindu sources, was encountered. While the influence of these classical and textual traditions on Islamic astronomy has been the focus of much previous study on the history of Islamic science, little attention has been paid to the oral folk traditions of peoples who embraced Islam. How ordinary Muslims viewed the same heavens visible to educated scientist or illiterate shepherd is the subject of this chapter. For practical reasons the focus here will be on the Middle East, especially the textual information on the pre-Islamic Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula and contemporary tribal groups in the region.
What is Islamic Folk Astronomy?
It is unfortunate that many times the idea of “folk astronomy” is understood mainly by what it is not. Astronomy as the formal “science” of the heavens is usually studied according to what historical texts record about astronomical phenomena. The “birth” of astronomy is said to begin with the earliest surviving documentation of observations, including Babylonians, ancient Egypt, Greece, India and China. What hundreds of earlier generations of ancestors in the genus Homo thought or said about stars is obviously not recorded. Similarly, how everyday people viewed the heavens throughout the historic civilizations and through the present is largely undocumented. It is ignored and usually dismissed as unscientific superstition.
A standard treatment of the history of Islamic astronomy would cover theories about the celestial sphere, solar and lunar theory, measurement of star movements, planetary theory, the extensive range of documentation and instruments. This formal astronomy assumes an evolving scientific tradition through translation and borrowing of ideas as well as the occasional brilliant astronomer who could initiate a paradigm shift.
All of this would seem to be as far removed from the ordinary person of any period in the Islamic era as quantum mechanics is to the man on the street today. But it is hard to imagine any individual or cultural tradition without ideas and stories about the same basic subject matter of sun, moon, stars, planets, eclipses, weather and the like. The Arabs of Muhammad’s day held theories about the stars, as we know both from the early Islamic texts which condemned some of these beliefs and from the surviving pre-Islamic poetry. As Islam spread across North Africa to southern Spain and across the Arabian Peninsula to Iraq, Iran, Central Asia, India and beyond, it was received by hundreds of different ethnic groups with an extraordinary variety of both formal knowledge and oral folklore on astronomy. The fact that so little survives about these folk traditions does not mean that they were unimportant or lacked influence on the evolving “scientific” traditions.
Just because we do not have many texts to study does not mean that we can never know anything about what ordinary people thought. Archaeo-astronomical study in this century has established that much can be learned about the astronomy of ancient civilizations from monuments and artifacts without resorting to texts. Ethnographic accounts of so-called “primitive” people show that there can be very sophisticated knowledge of the heavens even when people are not aware of modern science. A fundamental problem faced by those who collect oral folklore is knowing how authentic and how representative the information is. One can easily sympathize with the traveler Jennings-Bramley (1906:27) among the Sinai Bedouin: “I have inquired whether they had any legends or beliefs connected with the stars and planets, and was told one very clever man, a Terâbîn, could tell me much, for he made them up himself.” How many people need to share a belief before we can consider it an authentic cultural tradition?
Far from delimiting Islamic folk astronomy to what we think we cannot know, it is important to examine comparative information from non-textual as well as textual sources in order to better understand the practical and esoteric views of ordinary Muslims from the seventh century to the present and from Arabia to the farthest reaches from the sacred geographical focal point of Mecca in modern Saudi Arabia. Folk astronomy in Islam is whatever Muslims thought about the heavens that the Quran indicates were created by God as a sign for anyone willing to understand. The Quran and traditions attributed to Muhammad did not outline a detailed formal astronomy; nor were Muslims required to abandon all the ideas they already held about the subject. It was assumed that knowledge of the heavens was as old as mankind itself. Some thought Adam named the stars (al-Mâwardî 1981:43); others that astrology was founded by the early antidiluvian Enoch (al-Damîrî 1906:25).
Previous study of the folk astronomy of Islam has been fragmented. No systematic survey of the subject has yet been attempted. The most obvious place to begin is with the information about astronomy in the Quran and the traditions, since these are the central texts shared by all Muslims. Fortunately, several Muslim scholars have written treatises on what the Quran says about astronomy. Some, such as Ibn Qutayba (died 276/889) and al-Marzûqî (died 453/1061), provide information about the folk astronomy of the time. Specific information is available on the sun, moon, stars, planets, seasonal phenomena related to assumed astronomical influence, time reckoning and calendars, and navigation on land and sea. Islamic ritual needed astronomy for determining the prayer times, the start of the fasting month of Ramadan, and the orientation of Mecca for determining the qibla. Indeed, it appears that early beliefs about Mecca as the spiritual center of Islam involved continuation of a pre-Islamic Arab Arab cosmology centering on this spot. No survey of Islamic folk astronomy would be complete without consideration of what we generally call “astrology” or the assumed occult influence of astronomical phenomena on the individual and society. This is all the more relevant in that early Muslim scholars condemned many uses of astrology and divination yet at the same time certain forms of astrology, such as horoscopes, were accepted both at the local level and by political leaders.
Al-Damîrî, Muhammad ibn ‘Isâ. Ad-Damîrî’s Hayât al-Hayawân (A Zoological lexicon). Two volumes. Translated by A. S. G. Jayakar. London: Luzac and Company, 1906-06.
Dawood, N. J. (Translator) The Koran. Baltimore: Penguin, 1968.
Jennings-Bramley,W. E. “The Bedouin of the Sinaitic Peninsula.” Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement, p. 27, 1906.
al-Marzûqî, Abü ‘Alî. Kitâb al-Azmina wa-al-amkina. Two volumes. Hyderabad: Matba‘at Majlis Dâ’irat al-Ma‘ârif al-‘Uthmânîya, 1914.
al-Marzûqî, Abû ‘Alî. Kitâb al-Azmina wa-al-amkina. Two volumes. Doha, 1388/1968.
Excerpt from Daniel Martin Varisco. Islamic Folk Astronomy, In The History of Non-Western Astronomy. Astronomy Across Cultures, pp. 615-650. Edited by Helaine Selin. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000.
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