- Book Notes
Astronomy and Astrology in the Islamic World by Stephen P. Blake, 2016. (The New Edinburgh Islamic Surveys, ed. Caroline Hillenbrand.) Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 184 pp., ills., £24.99. isbn: 978-0-74864-909-9 (pbk).
This volume traces the history and development of Islamic astronomy and astrology from Egypt to Andalūs, and observatories from Istanbul to Shahjahānābād. It provides unparalleled information on the Marā-ghah observatory, the most advanced scientific institution in the Eurasian world two centuries before the Renaissance in Europe. Rather than attempting to provide a complete guide to astronomy and astrology of the Muslim world covering a thousand years, or trying to summarise all the achievements of astronomers in the Muslim world, Stephen Blake instead offers a detailed yet readable account of personalities and locations linked to the use and development of algebra, the Arabic numeral system, trigonometry, and the astronomical charts known as the zīj which contain parameters to calculate the movement and position of the sun, moon, stars, and planets. The book sheds light on famous and illustrious astronomers such as Ṭūsī, Bīrūnī, and Ulugh Beg as well as many relatively unknown figures in Europe, Africa, Asia Minor, and the Indian Subcontinent who took part in the development of the science and at times pseudoscience of this highly important field. This volume is an impressive attempt to review the transmission of astronomical and astrological knowledge within the Islamic Empire that ultimately led to the heliocentric breakthroughs of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It is an engaging read which provides access to this specialized field without burdening the reader with extensive technical information or substantial references to specific astronomical or astrological issues. It also avoids the practical aspects of astronomy and astrology in the Islamic world and methods of using the zījs in calculating astronomical calendars and eclipse periods or astrological ascendant and houses. It nicely complements Stephen Blake’s earlier [End Page 119] book, Time in Early Modern Islam: Calendar, Ceremony, and Chronology in the Safavid, Mughal, and Ottoman Empires (2013).
The Islamic College, London
An Eleventh-Century Egyptian Guide to the Universe: The Book of Curiosities, ed. and trans. by Yossef Rapoport and Emilie Savage-Smith, 2014. (Islamic Philosophy, Theology and Science Texts and Studies, vol. 87.) Leiden & Boston: Brill, ills., maps, xii + 698 pp., €227.00. isbn: 978-9-00425-699-6 (e-book).
An Eleventh-Century Egyptian Guide to the Universe is a translation and Arabic-English critical edition of Gharā͗ib al-Funūn wa Mulaḥ al-͑Uyūn (The Book of Curiosities of the Sciences and Marvels for the Eyes), introduced as ‘an anonymous work compiled in Egypt between ad 1020 and 1050’. It is one of the most meticulously researched, well-prepared, and – frankly – beautiful books that I have encountered in years. With its picturesque diagrams, careful illustrations, and coloured facsimiles of various manuscripts, it is truly a marvel for the eyes. Given its size, it boasts both quality and quantity – a rare feat in today’s world in light of the pressure to churn out publications.
The text of the Guide to the Universe itself hearkens back to an era when the heavens were relevant to people, far-off lands were still shrouded in mystery, and the unknown fired the imaginations of even the learned. It is divided into two ‘books’: the heavens and the earth. The first ‘book’, on the heavens, covers astronomy and astrology; here, the translators have made painstaking efforts to identify the modern names of the stars and constellations being discussed. This makes it a valuable reference book. The second ‘book’, on the earth, discusses topics such as cultures, geography, and history. It reflects some of what was known about the world, and a great deal more about how the world was perceived from the vantage point of Egypt. For instance, the people of Alexandria are – of course – culturally and intellectually superior, and ‘possess knowledge of the universe and inquire into the natural sciences’ (432) due to their healthy natural environment. The further off places are, however, the more fanciful the descriptions become; for instance, in [End Page...