Abd Al-Rahman Al-Sufi & The Book of Fixed Stars

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Gemini constellation in Persian astronomer Abd Al-Rahman Al Sufi's book. Image: New York Public Library www.nypl.org
Al-Sufi's work began from a simple act that was enshrined in Bedouin folk tradition - gazing at the stars in the night.

It was over a thousand years ago that mankind first acknowledged their nearest galactic neighbour – the Andromeda Galaxy. At 2.5 million light years from earth, it is the closest galaxy to our own in the universe. And while the noted Greek astronomer Ptolemy noted it as a haze, it was Abd Al-Rahman Al-Sufi who first distinctly recorded in his Kitāb Ṣuwar al-Kawākib al-Thābitah or ‘Book of Fixed Stars’ in 964 A.D.

Al-Sufi called it ‘little cloud’ (alternatively translated as ‘a small cloudy patch’) and provided a representative image of it – a girl standing in front of a fish, representing Andromeda’s placement in front of the Arabian constellation of the Big Fish.

The work of astronomers like Al-Sufi presents an interesting historical parallel for this period. The great scientific tradition of European scientists like Ptolemy was in a period of decline; Europe was experiencing what was later called its ‘Dark Ages’. But it was in this period that the light of human knowledge shined brightest in the Middle East. The Arabs and Persians were in the midst of their golden age – and their work resulted in much of what we encompass in modern size – from our numerals to algebra and even computing.

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Crab constellation in Abd-Al-Rahman Al-Sufi’s Book of Fixed Stars

Al-Sufi’s work began from a simple act that was enshrined in Bedouin folk tradition – gazing at the stars in the night. It was not curiosity alone that made them learn the positions of the stars, but survival. In the vast and empty desert, the stars can be your best guide. The advent of Islam to the Arabian peninsula created a new necessity for human invention – all Muslims had to be able to accurately face the direction of Mecca during their prayers.

This spouted a tradition of blending local and global knowledge. Arab and Persian philosophers and scientists set to work translating Sanskrit, Pahlavi and Greek texts into Arabic. Al-Sufi was among these, working under the patronage of the Buyid Sultan Adud al-Dawla. The Book of Fixed Stars is dedicated to Al-Dawla.

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Azophi, the Bull constellation in Abd Al-Rahman_Al Sufi’s Book of Fixed Stars

Al-Sufi wrote in Arabic, and provided a healthy inquiry and correction of Ptolemy’s map of the constellation. His labours were crucial for the study of astronomy. His book of fixed stars was an attempt to relocate the celestial bodies recorded by Ptolemy eight hundred years prior. From his observatory in Shiraz (modern-day Iran), he mapped and superimposed the celestial bodies – blending Arabian lore into the Greek observations. He also worked from the city of Isfahan.

Despite his immense body of work, Al-Sufi was unknown in Europe until much later. For long, the ‘discovery’ of Andromeda was attributed to Simon Marius in the 17th century. But by the 19th century, his work was being translated into languages across the world – with the notable exception of English. This led Ihsan Hafez of James Cook University to undertake a Ph.D. thesis and English translation for the first time in 2012. The last translation of Al-Sufi’s work was in French in 1874.

You can read Ihsan’s translation and thesis here.

Legacy

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Kitab suwar al-kawakib al-tabita. Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Golden age of astronomy under Islamic rule lasted until the 1500s. But much of modern astronomy, math, and science was built upon the foundation set by early Arab and Persian scholars.

The realisation that Andromeda was a galaxy much like our own took place only in the 1920s. Then, it was part of the ‘Great Debate‘; with many astronomers believing that the Milky Way encompassed the entire universe. It was in 1925 that the astronomer concluded that Andromeda was too far away to be a part of our galaxy. By the end of the decade, he had concluded that the universe was indeed expanding.

Andromeda is visible with the naked eye, but only in places with little light pollution. It appears as a haze – were it brighter, it would take up a much larger space in the sky than the moon. It is incredible that early astronomers were able to decipher so much about the universe with their bare eyes.

Many homages have been paid to Al-Sufi. Perhaps most poignant was the poetry of his son, Abu Ali Husayn, who wrote the short verse text ‘Poem on the stars’. Many copies were made of this work, which included beautiful illustrations personifying the constellations.

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The Great Bear as depicted in Al Sufi’s c. 964 Book of Fixed Stars. The familiar seven stars of the ” Big Dipper,” recorded by Ptolemy, are visible in the rump and tail, but notice they occur as a mirror-image of what we actually see because Al Sufi provided two images of each constellation, one as we see it in the night sky and one as seen here on a celestial globe. The image is from the c.1009 copy in the Bodleian Library, the oldest copy extant.

In modern times, a crater on the moon was named after Al-Sufi; his name latinized to Azophi. On December 7, 2016, the Google Doodle paid homage to Al-Sufi on his 1136th birth anniversary, recognising his work for ‘fact-checking’ Ptolemy’s observations.

The idea of visiting Andromeda would have been unthinkable to ancient astronomers. Even today, it is improbable – as the laws of physics prohibit travel faster than the speed of light, effectively imposing a universal speed limit. But we may not need to go to Andromeda – when Andromeda is coming to us. It is estimated that within four billion years, Andromeda will collide with the Milky Way.

The ability of ancient astronomers to derive accurate observations of the celestial bodies just by gazing at the sky is incredible. But the findings of modern-day telescopes are even more dazzling when you consider the field of view they work with. This gif shows the proportion of the night sky possible to be zoomed into by the Hubble Telescope. It is based on this photo from 2004, showcasing the Hubble’s “Deep Field“.

Some things about mankind – the act of endlessly staring at the night sky – will never change.

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