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Introduction

The works of art featured in this unit were created with a practical purpose in mind. Together, they highlight achievements in three of the most developed scientific disciplines in the Islamic world: astronomy, astrology, and medicine.

Scientists in the Islamic world drew on Greco-Roman, Indian, Persian, Egyptian, and Chinese traditions to formulate many of the principles that today are recognized as the foundation of modern science. One of the Islamic world's most significant contributions to modern science was the translation of mathematical, medical, and astronomical texts from their original languages into Arabic. These texts, along with many other Greek and Roman writings, had long been forgotten in the West, and their translation into Arabic ensured their survival and transmission across the globe and through the centuries.

The Islamic scientific community was united by the Arabic language, but was religiously, ethnically, and geographically diverse. It included Muslims, Christians, Jews, Arabs, Persians, Indians, Turks, and Berbers. The so-called golden age of Islamic science (from the eighth to the fifteenth century) took place in regions and centers throughout the Islamic world, such as al-Andalus in Spain, the Near East, Central and West Asia, Ottoman Turkey, and India.

The impact of Arab math and science on Western civilization is evident in the scientific and mathematical language we use today. Many scientific words in English derive from Arabic: alchemy, algebra, alkaline, antimony, chemistry, elixir, zero, alcohol, algorithm, almanac, azimuth, cipher, sine, zenith. In addition, many stars discovered by Arab astronomers still bear Arabic names. For instance, the star that comprises the tail of the constellation Cygnus is called Deneb, the Arabic word for tail.


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Stefan Heidemann: Science, astronomy, came into the Arabic language in the late eighth and ninth century. And I say "language" because all the texts were already there, but written in Persian or in Greek. The people who commissioned these translations were interested especially in astronomy. And also, science is required for determining the prayer times.

Marika Sardar: Several of the most prominent astronomers of this time were also interested in astrology—that is, the effect the stars could have on human lives. So these two practices, though today we see them as quite separate, were in fact followed and practiced by the same types of people in the past. This interest in heavenly bodies, stars, and constellations translated into the arts in the decoration of certain objects with signs of the zodiac and other astrological symbols. When they appeared on objects, we think that they had a talismanic power, that they protected the owner. Or in some cases, on objects made for powerful rulers, that they were meant to reflect his realms and the extent of his power.

Stefan Heidemann: Even cities were planned after the consultation of an astrologer.

Planispheric astrolabe

The lesson plan related to Science and the Art of the Islamic World features a planispheric astrolabe.