Arabic Star Names: A Treasure of Knowledge Shared by the World

by Zakri Abdul Hamid Published on: 24th November 2007

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Many of the prominent stars known today are of Arabic origin as they bear names given to them during the golden age of Islamic astronomy. A major contribution in this field is that of al-Sufi (10th century). Presenting shortly the historical context of the old nomenclature of Arabic star names, the article contains also a list of 165 stars known by Arabic names.


The origin of star names

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Figure 1: The constellation Centaurus
from al-Sufi’s book. (Source).

Regardless of origin, almost all star names belong to old traditions. They are a part of the collective cultural heritage of humanity. Modern astronomers study many stars too faint to see without a telescope, and these are so numerous they are known only by catalogue numbers and coordinates. As a result, official star names are essentially limited to the old names, and typically only bright stars have names.

The majority of stars names are related to their constellation, e.g., the star Deneb means “tail” and labels that part of Cygnus the Swan. Others describe the star itself, such as Sirius, which translates literally as “scorching,” apt enough for the brightest star in the sky. Quite a lot of prominent stars bear Arabic names, in which al corresponds to the article “the” and often appears in front, e.g., Algol, “The Ghoul.” Its inclusion has become somewhat arbitrary over time. Hence, several star names of Arabic origin are given elsewhere with or without the al- prefix. Most other names of stars inherited from the past have Greek, Latin or Chinese labels.

History of Arabic Star Names

Ptolemy, the Greek astronomer who lived and worked around 100-178 CE in Alexandria, Egypt, collected ancient Greek descriptions of 1,022 stars in his famous book The Great System of Astronomy, popularised under its shortened Arabic title, the Almagest. Ptolemy’s catalogue of stars arranged into 48 constellations, with estimates of their brightness, based largely on the observations of the Greek earlier astronomers, such as Hipparchus.

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Figure 2: The depiction of Orion, as seen from Earth (left) and a mirror-image, from a 13th-century copy of al-Sufi’s Book of the Fixed Stars. In this version, Orion’s shield has become a long sleeve, typical of Islamic dress. (Source).

Ptolemy’s book was translated twice into Arabic in the 9th century and became famous. Many of the Arabic-language star descriptions in the Almagest came to be used widely as names for stars. The leading expert on star names in Islamic astronomy, the German historian Paul Kunitzsch, has identified two traditions of star names in Muslim heritage. The first is the traditional star folklore of the Muslim peoples which he has named “indigenous-Arabic”, the second being the scientific Islamic Arabic tradition, which he designates “scientific-Arabic”.

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Figure 3: Depiction of star patterns for the Celestial Twins of the constellation Gemini in al-Sufi’s catalogue of stars. (Source).

When the Arabic texts were translated into Latin beginning from the 12th century, the Arabic tradition of star names was passed down to the Latin world. However, this happened often in a highly corrupted form that either changed the meaning, or in extreme cases gave birth to words with no meaning at all. Other names were mistakenly transferred from one star to another, so that a name might even refer to a different constellation (Greek or Arabic) rather than to the one of the star’s actual residence.

Nevertheless, even with these shortcomings, the majority of star names adopted since the Renaissance are Arabic in origin. In 1603, German astronomer Johann Bayer (1572-1625) instituted a system of assigning Greek letters to stars (Bayer designation), consisting of a lowercase Greek letter followed by the genitive name of the constellation. The letters are usually assigned to the stars in the order of their brightness within a given constellation. For instance, the brightest star in a constellation “Alpha” was rendered as “the second Beta,” and so on. To the Greek letter name is appended the Latin possessive form of the constellation name. Thus the brightest star in Lyra, Vega (an Arabic proper name), becomes Alpha of Lyra or Alpha Lyrae (where “Lyrae” means “of Lyra”).

Al-Sufi’s Book of the Fixed Stars

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Figure 4: Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, Tarcama-i Kitab-i Suvaru’l-kevâkib, Süleymaniye Library, MS Ayasofya 2595, fol. 25b-26a. Figure of Cassiopeia, dhât al-kursî (the seated one). The constellation, composed of 13 stars, represents the figure of a woman seated on a cushioned chair. The largest of the stars, in the cushion upon which one of Cassiopeia’s elbows rests, is called al-kaff al-khadib (written al-hadîb), maning “the hand of the dyed one”.

One of those who left an indelib`le influence on the Arabic observation and study of stars is the astronomer Abu al-Husayn ‘Abd Al-Rahman al-Sufi (903-986), known also by his Latinized name of Azophi, who systematically revised Ptolemy’s catalogue of stars. Al-Sufi produced a revised and updated version of Ptolemy’s Almagest in a major book called Kitab suwar al-kawakib (The Book of Fixed Stars), completed around 964 CE. Built on the basis of the Greek astronomical heritage, the work of al- Sufi contained a listing of the Arabs’ own star names, magnitudes determined by al-Sufi himself, and two drawings of each constellation, one as it is seen in the sky and one reversed right to left as it would appear on a celestial globe. The oldest surviving copy was produced by his son around 1010 CE and is preserved in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (MS Marsh 144).

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Figure 5: Depiction of star patterns for the Celestial Twins (Jawza) of the constellation Gemini in Nasir al-Din al-Tusi’s Tarcama-i Kitab-i Suvaru’l-kevâkib, Süleymaniye Library, MS Ayasofya 2595, fol. 51b.

According to Paul Kunitzsch, the German authority on Arabic star names, local tradition of the peoples of Islamic lands in the Arabian Peninsula and in the Middle East had their own names for various bright stars such as Aldebaran, and they commonly regarded single stars as representing animals or people. For example, the stars we know as Alpha and Beta Ophiuchi were regarded by them as a shepherd and his dog, while neighbouring stars made up the outlines of a field with sheep. Some of the Arabic names were already so many centuries old that their meanings were lost even to al-Sufi and his contemporaries, and they remain unknown today. Other star names used by al-Sufi and his compatriots were direct translations of Ptolemy’s descriptions. For example, the star name Fomalhaut comes from the Arabic meaning “mouth of the southern fish”, which is where Ptolemy had described it in the Almagest.

Al-Sufi did his own brightness and magnitude estimates which frequently deviated from those in Ptolemy’s work. He identified the Large Magellanic Cloud, which is visible from Yemen, though not from Isfahan in the centre of Iran where he worked; it was not seen by Europeans until Magellan’s voyage in the 16th century. He also did the earliest recorded observation of the Andromeda Galaxy, which he described as a “small cloud”. He observed that the ecliptic plane is inclined with respect to the celestial equator and more accurately calculated the length of the tropical year. He observed and described the stars, their positions, their magnitudes and their colour, setting out his results constellation by constellation. His famous Book of Fixed Stars was translated into Latin and had a major influence in Europe since the 13th century, both by its textual descriptions and pictures.

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Figure 6: Depiction of star patterns fort he Pegasus (al-Faras al-a’zam) constellations from Nasir al-Din al-Tusi’s Tarcama-i Kitab-i Suvaru’l-kevâkib, Süleymaniye Library, MS Ayasofya 2595, fol. 37a.

List of star names having Arabic origin

In the following, we present a list of Arabic Star Names. This list does not contain all documented star names in the Arabic nomenclature. Note also that some stars may have more than one Arabic name (such as: Gamma Gem, Eta UMa, Beta Cet, Lambda Ori, Alpha Psc, Beta Ori ), and that some star names may be composites of Arabic and Latin words (such as: Alula Australis (Xi UMa). Some of the above names are still used in the sky atlases, while others are rarely used, and others disappeared from astronomical atlases.

No.Proper NameArabic NameMeaningStar
01AcamarAkhir an-NahrEnd of the riverTheta Eri
02AchernarAkhir an-NahrEnd of the riverAlpha Eri
03AcrabAl-‘AqrabThe scorpionBeta Sco
04AcubensAz-ZubanaThe clawAlpha Cnc
05AdhaferaAd-DafirahThe curlZeta Leo
06AdharaAl-‘AdharaThe maidensEpsilon CMa
07Ain‘Ain“Eye” of the BullEpsilon Tau
08AlbaliAl-Bali’The swallowerEpsilon Aqr
09AlchibahAl-Khiba’The tentAlpha Crv
10AldebaranAd-Dabaran“Follower” of the PleiadesAlpha Tau
11AlderaminAdh-Dhira’ al-Yamin ?The right forearm ?Alpha Cep
12AlfirkAl-FirqThe flockBeta Cep
13AlgediAl-JadyThe goatAlpha Cap
14AlgenibAl-JanbThe flankGamma Peg
15AlgiebaAl-Jabhah“The forehead” of the lionGamma Leo
16AlgebarAl-JabbarThe giantBeta Ori
17AlgolAl-GhulThe ghoulBeta Per
18AlgorabAl-GhurabThe ravenDelta Crv
19AlhenaAl-Han’ahThe brand-markGamma Gem
20AliothAl-JawnThe black horseEpsilon UMa
21AlkaidAl-Qa’id“Leader” of the mourning maidensEta UMa
22AlkesAl-Ka’sThe cupAlpha Crt
23Almak‘Anaq al-ArdEarth-kidGamma And
24AlmeisanAl-MaisanThe shining oneGamma Gem
25AlnairAn-NayyirThe bright oneAlpha Gru
26AlnairAn-NayyirThe bright oneZeta Cen
27AlnilamAn-NidhamThe string of pearlsEpsilon Ori
28AlnitakAn-NitaqThe beltZeta Ori
29AlphardAl-FardThe solitary oneAlpha Hya
30AlpheccaAl-Fakkah“The broken” ring of starsAlpha CrB
31AlpheratzSurrat al-FarasNavel of the steedAlpha And
32AlsafiAl-Athafi“The tripods” for cooking onSigma Dra
33AlsuhailSuhailUn-translatedLambda Vel
34AltairAt-Ta’ir“The flying” eagleAlpha Aql
35AltaisAt-TinninThe great serpentDelta Dra
36AlterfAt-Tarf“The glance” of the lionLambda Leo
37AludraAl-‘UdhrahThe maidenheadEta CMa
38Alula AustralisAl-Qafzah al-UlaThe southern one of “the first leap”Xi UMa
39Alula BorealisAl-Qafzah al-UlaThe northern one of “the first leap”Nu UMa
40AlyaAl-AlyahThe fatty tail of a sheepTheta Ser
41Angetenar‘Arjat an-NahrCurve of the riverTau2 Eri
42AnkaaAl-‘Anka’PhoenixAlpha Phe
43ArkabAl-‘UrqubThe heel-tendonBeta Sgr
44ArnebAl-ArnabThe hareAlpha Lep
45ArrakisAr-RaqisThe dancerMu Dra
46AtikAl-‘Atiq“The shoulder” of the PleiadesOmicron Per
47AuvaAl-‘Awwa’The barkerDelta Vir
48AzhaAl-UdhiThe hatching-placeEta Eri
49BahamAl-BihamThe livestockTheta Peg
50Baten KaitosBatn QaytusBelly of CetusZeta Cet
51BeidAl-BaidThe eggsOmicron1 Eri
52BenetnashBanat Na’shDaughters of the bierEta UMa
53BetelgeuseYad al-Jauza’Hand of OrionAlpha Ori
54BoteinAl-ButainThe little bellyDelta Ari
55CaphAl-Kaff“The palm” of the PleiadesBeta Cas
56CelbalraiKalb ar-Ra’iThe shepherd’s dogBeta Oph
57ChortAl-KharatThe ribTheta Leo
58CursaAl-KursiThe chairBeta Eri
59DabihSa’d adh-dhabihThe lucky star of “the slaughterer”Beta Cap
60DenebDhanab ad-DajajahTail of the henAlpha Cyg
61DenebDhanab ad-DulfinTail of the DolphinEpsilon Del
62Deneb AlgediDhanab al-JadyTail of the goatDelta Cap
63Deneb KaitosDhanab QaytusTail of CetusBeta Cet
64DenebolaDhanab al-AsadTail of the lionBeta Leo
65DiphdaAd-Difdi’The frogBeta Cet
67DschubbaAl-Jabhah“The forehead” of the scorpionDelta Sco
68DubheAd-DubbThe bearAlpha UMa
69DzibanAdh-Dhi’banThe two wolvesPsi Dra
70EdasichAdh-DhikhThe hyenaIota Dra
71El NathAn-NathThe buttingBeta Tau
72EltaninAt-TinninThe great serpentGamma Dra
73EnifAl-AnfThe noseEpsilon Peg
74ErraiAr-Ra’iThe shepherdGamma Cep
75FomalhautFam al-HutMouth of the fishAlpha PsA
76FurudAl-Furud“Individual” starsZeta CMa
77GienahAl-JanahThe wingGamma Crv
78GienahAl-JanahThe wingEpsilon Cyg
79GomeisaAl-Ghumaisa’The bleary-eyed oneBeta CMi
80HadarHadarUn-translatedBeta Cen
81HamalAl-HamalThe ramAlpha Ari
82HekaAl-Haq’ahThe white spotLambda Ori
83HomamSa’d al-humamThe lucky star of “the high-minded man”Zeta Peg
84IzarAl-IzarThe loin-clothEpsilon Boo
85JabbahAl-Jabhah“The forehead” of the scorpionNu Sco
86KaffaljidhmaAl-Kaff al-Jadhma’The cut-short handGamma Cet
87Kaus AustralisAl-QausThe southern one of “the bow”Epsilon Sgr
88Kaus BorealisAl-QausThe northern one of “the bow”Lambda Sgr
89Kaus MediaAl-QausThe middle one of “the bow”Delta Sgr
90KeidAl-QaidThe broken egg-shellsOmicron2 Eri
91KitalphaQit’at al-FarasPart of the horseAlpha Equ
92KokabAl-KaukabThe starBeta UMi
93KurhahAl-Qurhah“The blaze” on a horse’s browXi Cep
94LesathAl-Las’ahThe stingUpsilon Sco
95MaasymAl-Mi’samThe wristLambda Her
96MaazAl-Ma’zThe he-goatEpsilon Aur
97MarfikAl-MirfaqThe elbowLambda Oph
98MarkabMankib al-Faras“The shoulder” of the horseAlpha Peg
99MatarSa’d MatarThe lucky star of “the rain”Eta Peg
100MebsutaAl-Mabsutah“The outstretched” pawEpsilon Gem
101MegrezAl-Maghriz“The insertion-point” of the Bear’s tailDelta UMa
102MeissaAl-MaisanThe shining oneLambda Ori
103MekbudaAl-Maqbudah“The pulled-in” pawZeta Gem
104MenkalinanMankib Dhi-al-‘InanShoulder of the rein-holderBeta Aur
105MenkarAl-MinkharThe nostrilAlpha Cet
106MenkibAl-Mankib“The shoulder” of the PleiadesXi Per
107MerakAl-MaraqqThe loinsBeta UMa
108MintakaAl-MintaqahThe beltDelta Ori
109MirakAl-Mi’zarThe loin-clothBeta And
110MirfakAl-Mirfaq“The elbow” of the PleiadesAlpha Per
111MizarAl-MaraqqThe loinsZeta UMa
112MothallahAl-MuthallathThe triangleAlpha Tri
113MuphridAl-MufridThe solitary oneEta Boo
114MurzimAl-MurzimThe roarerBeta CMa
115NashiraSa’d NashirahThe lucky star of Nashirah (un-translated)Gamma Cap
116NekkarAl-BaqqarThe cattlemanBeta Boo
117NaslAn-NaslThe arrowheadGamma Sgr
118NihalAn-NihalThe camels quenching their thirstBeta Lep
119NusakanAn-NasaqanThe two seriesBeta CrB
120OkdaAl-‘UqdahThe knotAlpha Psc
121PhactAl-FakhitahThe doveAlpha Col
123PhadAl-FakhidhThe thighGamma UMa
124PherkadAl-FarqadThe calfGamma UMi
125RasalasedRa’s al-AsadHead of the lionMu Leo
126RasalgethiRa’s al-JathiHead of the kneeling oneAlpha Her
127RasalhagueRa’s al-Hawwa’Head of the snake-manAlpha Oph
128RastabanRa’s ath-Thu’banHead of the snakeBeta Dra
129RigelAr-RijlThe footBeta Ori
130RigilkentRijl QanturusFoot of the centaurAlpha Cen
131RishaAr-Risha’The ropeAlpha Psc
132RukbahAr-RukbahThe kneeDelta Cas
133RukbatAr-RukbahThe kneeAlpha Sgr
134SabikAs-SabiqThe precedingEta Oph
135SadachbiaSa’d al-AkhbiyahLucky star of the tentsGamma Aqr
136SadalbariSa’d al-Bari’Lucky star of the excellent oneMu Peg
137SadalmelikSa’d al-MalikLucky star of the kingAlpha Aqr
138SadalsuudSa’d as-Su’udLuck of lucksBeta Aqr
139SadrAs-SadrThe breastGamma Cyg
140SaiphAs-SaifThe swordKappa Ori
141ScheatAs-SaqThe legBeta Peg
142ShaulaAsh-ShaulahThe raised tail of the scorpionLambda Sco
143ShedirAs-SadrThe breastAlpha Cas
144SheratanAsh-SharatanThe two signsBeta Ari
145SirrahSurrat al-FarasNavel of the steedAlpha And
146SkatAs-SaqThe legDelta Aqr
147SulafatAs-SulahfahThe tortoiseGamma Lyr
148Tania AustralisAth-ThaniyahThe southern one of “the second” leapMu UMa
149Tania BorealisAth-ThaniyahThe northern one of “the second” leapLambda UMa
150Talitha AustralisAth-ThalithahThe southern one of “the third” leapKappa UMa
151Talitha BorealisAth-ThalithahThe northern one of “the third” leapIota UMa
152TarfAt-Tarf“The glance” of the lionBeta Cnc
153ThubanAth-Thu’banThe snakeAlpha Dra
154Unukalhai‘Unuq al-HayyahNeck of the snakeAlpha Ser
155VegaAl-Waqi’“The stooping” eagleAlpha Lyr
156WasatWasat as-Sama’“Middle” of the skyDelta Gem
157WaznAl-WaznThe weightBeta Col
158WezenAl-WaznThe weightDelta CMa
159Yed PriorAl-YadThe preceding one of “the hand”Delta Oph
160Yed PosteriorAl-YadThe succeeding one of “the hand”Epsilon Oph
161ZaniahAz-ZawiyahThe angleEpsilon Vir
162ZauracAz-ZawraqThe boatGamma Eri
163ZavijavaZawiyat al-‘Awwa’Angle of the barkerBeta Vir
164ZubenelgenubiAz-Zuban al-JanubiThe southern clawAlpha Lib
165ZubeneshamaliAz-Zuban ash-ShamaliThe northern clawBeta Lib

Annotated Resources:

Gibson, Steven, “Star Names”. Online here (accessed October 2007).

Gingerich, Owen, “Zoomorphic Astrolabes and the Introduction of Arabic Star Names into Europe”, in From Deferent to Equant. A Volume of Studies on the History of Science in the Ancient and Medieval Near East in Honour of E.S. Kennedy. Edited by David A. King and George Saliba. New York: New York Academy of Science, 1987, pp. 89-104.

Harper, David, and Stockman, Lynne Marie, “(Un)Common Star Names”: link (dated: 1995-2007).

Hinckley Allen, Richard, Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning. Dover reprint, 1963; revised edition (first edition in 1899).

Ibn al-Salah, Ahmad ibn Muhammad, Zur Kritik der Koordinatenüberlieferung im Sternkatalog des Almagest. Arabic text, German translation and introduction by Paul Kunitzsch. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1975.

International Astronomical Union, IAU, “Buying Star Names”. Online here (accessed October 2007).

International Astronomical Union, IAU Commission 5, “Star names: history”, by Marion Schmitz, Chair of IAU Working Group on Designations. Online here (posted 21 September 2004)).

Jordanian Astronomical Society, The “Arabic star names”. Online here.

Kunitzsch, Paul, Arabische Sternnamen in Europa. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1959.

Kunitzsch, Paul, “On the Medieval Arabic Knowledge of the Star Alpha Eridiani.” Journal for the History of Aarabic Science vol. 1 (1977): pp. 263-267.

Kunitzsch, Paul, “Der Sternhimmel in den ‘Dichterischen Vergleichen der Andalus-Araber’.” Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft vol. 128 (1978): pp. 238-251.

Kunitzsch, Paul, Über eine anwa’-Tradition mit bisher unbekannten Sternnamen. München: Verlag der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1983.

Kunitzsch, Paul, Claudius Ptolemus. Der Sternkatalog des Almagest: Die arabisch-mittelalterliche Tradition. Vol. I: Die arabischen Übersetzungen. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1986 (edition and German translation of two Arabic versions of the stars catalogue included in Books VII and VIII of the Almagest).

Kunitsch, Paul, “Star Catalogues and Star Tables in Medieval Oriental and European Astronomy.” Indian Journal of History of Science vol. 21 (1986): pp. 113-122.

Kunitzsch, Paul, “The Astronomer Abu ‘l-Husayn al-Sufi and his Book on the Constellations.” Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Arabisch-Islamisch Wissenschaften vol. 3 (1986): pp. 56-81.

Kunitzsch, Paul, The Arabs and the Stars. Texts and Traditions on the Fixed Stars and their Influence in Medieval Europe. London: Variorum Reprints, 1989.

Kunitzsch, Paul, “Abd al-Malik Ibn Habib’s Book on the Stars.” Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Arabisch-Islamisch Wissenschaften vol. 9 (1994): pp. 161-194.

Kunitzsch, Paul, Stars and Numbers: Astronomy and Mathematics in the Medieval Arab and Western Worlds. Variorum Collected Studies. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004.

Kunitzsch, Paul and Smart, Tim, Short Guide to Modern Star Names and Their Derivations. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1986.

Sufi, al-, Abu al-Husayn ‘Abd al-Rahman b. ‘Umar, Kitab suwar al-kawakib al-thamaniya wa-‘l-arba’in (Book of the images of the forty-eight stars). Beirut: Daar al-Afaq al jadida, 1981.

Sufi, al-, Abu al-Husayn ‘Abd al-Rahman b. ‘Umar, Description des étoiles fixes: Suwar al-kawakib. Traduction de Hans Carl Frederik Christian Schjellerup. Edité par Fuat Sezgin. Frankfurt: IGAIW, 1986.

Thompson, Gary D., “An Annotated Bibliography of Studies of Occidental Constellations and Star Names to the Classical Period”. “Arabic”. Online here (2001-2007).

SIMBAD Astronomical Database [SIMBAD = Set of Identifications, Measurements, and Bibliography for Astronomical Data, operated at CDS, Strasbourg, France]: (SIMBAD is used by professional astronomers for information on stars, such as position, brightness, etc.)

Wikipedia, “List of Arabic star names”. Online here) (accessed October 2007). Presents a huge collection in which the names are given even in Arabic script.

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