Stunning Ceilings from the Wonders of Islamic Architecture



Note of the Editor:  This article was first composed by Cem Nizamoglu for 1001 Inventions website and now updated for Muslim Heritage website.


Islamic architecture encompasses a wide range of both secular and religious styles from the early period of Islam to the present day, influencing the design and construction of buildings and structures in Islamic culture and beyond. The principal Islamic architectural types are the Mosque, the Tomb, the Palace, the Fort, the School, and urban buildings. For all these types of constructions, Islamic architecture developed a rich vocabulary that was also used for buildings of lesser importance such as public baths, fountains and domestic architecture.(*)

These numerous structures: mosques, palaces, mausoleums and shrines all around the world have breathtaking ceilings. Each has a design and a story of its own. Most of them are distinctive and unique in respect to their architecture and they all hold outstanding features. Thus it will not be fair to come up with a list of examples. However, to introduce some of these marvellous monuments, we have chosen ceilings that we found spellbinding. We have arranged them in alphabetical order according to the modern-day country they reside in:

Discover ceilings from buildings inspired by Islamic architecture where looking up is a spellbinding experience! Each has a design and a story of its own. Most of them are distinctive and unique for their architecture and hold outstanding features:


Egypt: Masjid al-Sultan Barquq, Cairo

(Photo by Abdelrahman Assem)

On the internet, it is mostly shared as Al Soltan Qalawoon Mosque(*) but some Egyptians claim this is Sultan Barquq Mosque and Madrasa (*).

Opened in 1386. Architect’s name is Shihab al-Din Ahmad ibn Muhammad al Tuluni. The architectural style is Bahri Mamluk. The Madrasa-Khanqah of Sultan Barquq lies in El Muiz Li Din Allah Street next to the Mosque and Madrasa of Kamil Ayyub and the Madrasa of El Nasir. This complex was consisting of a Khanqah or hospice for the Sufi students, a Madrasa or a school that was a place for worship and study of Quran and prophetic instructions, and a mausoleum standing in one of the corners of the Madrasa. It was established by Sultan Barquq who was the first Bahri Mamluk to ascend the throne of Egypt in 1382 and the husband of the widow of Sultan Shaban. The historians expound that he managed to assume power after killing many people and plotting against others. After holding power he worked hard to defend his throne and protect it from the plots of the Syrian Mamluk Emirs. (*)

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India: The Taj Mahal, Agra

(Photo by Eburgh)

Opened in 1648, Architects’ names are Ustad Ahmad Lahouri and Ustad Isa. Architectural styles are Mughal Persian. The Taj Mahal is a white marble mausoleum located on the southern bank of the Yamuna River in the Indian city of Agra. It was commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his favorite wife of three, Mumtaz Mahal.(*)



Iran: Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, Isfahan

(Photo by Phillip Maiwald)

Opened in1619. Architects’ names are Bahāʾ al-dīn al-ʿĀmilī and Ustad Mohammad Reza Isfahani. The architectural style is Isfahani. Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque is one of the architectural masterpieces of Safavid Iranian architecture, standing on the eastern side of Naghsh-i Jahan Square, Isfahan, Iran. Construction of the mosque started in 1603 and was finished in 1619. It was built by the chief architect Shaykh Bahai, during the reign of Shah Abbas I of the Safavid dynasty. (*)

Read More: – Sheikh-Lotfallah-Mosque.pdf
Also see the story about Nasir al-Mulk Mosque in Shiraz, Iran


Iraq: Jalil Khayat Mosque, Erbil (Arbil) 

(Photo by Karam)

Opened in 2007. Built by Jalil Hayat. Architectural styles are Egyptian and Ottoman. Jalil Khayat mosque, which resembles in style the Muhammad Ali mosque in Cairo and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, was inaugurated in Erbil on January 19, 2007, after being under construction for many years. Jalil Khayat, one of the better-known, wealthier people in Erbil, had the mosque built. His sons proudly took over the project after Khayat passed away in 2005. Haji Dara, one of Khayat’s sons, expressed happiness that they could complete this “charity project” and witness the first Mawlood in their new mosque.

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Jordan: Jabal al-Qal’a (Amman Citadel), Amman

(Photo by Erik Coenjaerts)

The Hill of the Citadel (Jabal al-Qal’a) in the middle of Amman was occupied as early as the Neolithic period, and fortified during the Bronze Age (1800 BC). The ruins on the hill today are Roman through early Islamic. The name “Amman” comes from “Rabbath Ammon,” or “Great City of the Ammonites,” who settled in the region sometime after 1200 BC. The Bible records that King David captured the city in the early 10th century BC; Uriah the Hittite, husband of King David’s paramour Bathsheba, was killed here after the king ordered him to the front line of battle.

In ancient times, Amman with its surrounding region was successively ruled by the then-superpowers of the Middle East: Assyria (8th century BC), Babylonia (6th century), the Ptolemies, the Seleucids (third century BC), Rome (1st century BC), and the Umayyads (7th century AD). Renamed “Philadelphia” after himself by Ptolemy II Philadelphus, the city was incorporated into Pompey the Great’s province of Syria, and later into the province of Arabia created by Trajan (106 AD). As the southernmost city of the Decapolis, Philadelphia prospered during Imperial times due to its advantageous location alongside Trajan’s new trade and administrative road, the Via Nova Traiana.

When Transjordan passed into Arab rule in the 7th century AD, its Umayyad rulers restored the city’s original name of Amman. Neglected under the Abbasids and abandoned by the Mamlukes, the city’s fortunes did not revive until the late 19th century, under the Ottoman empire. Amman became the capital of the Emirate of Transjordan in 1921, and the newly-created Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in 1947. Greater Amman (the core city plus suburbs) today remains by far the most important urban area in Jordan, containing over half of the country’s population of about 3 million out of 5 million people.

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Morocco: Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca

(Photo – possibly – by Souad El-Ouafi)

Opened in 1993, the historical context of the mosque began with the death of King Mohammed V in 1961. King Hassan II had requested for the best of the country’s artisans to come forward and submit plans for a mausoleum to honor the departed king; it should “reflect the fervor and veneration with which this illustrious man was regarded.” In 1980, during his birthday celebrations, Hassan II had made his ambitions very clear for creating a single landmark monument in Casablanca by stating:

“I wish Casablanca to be endowed with a large, fine building of which it can be proud until the end of time … I want to build this mosque on the water, because God’s throne is on the water. Therefore, the faithful who go there to pray, to praise the creator on firm soil, can contemplate God’s sky and ocean.”

The building was commissioned by King Hassan II to be the most ambitious structure ever built in Morocco. It was designed by the French architect Michel Pinseau who had lived in Morocco and was constructed by the civil engineering group Bouygues.

Work commenced on July 12, 1986, and was conducted over seven years. Construction was scheduled to be completed in 1989 ready for Hassan II’s 60th birthday. During the most intense period of construction, 1400 men worked during the day and another 1100 during the night. 10,000 artists and craftsmen participated in building and beautifying the mosque.[2] However, the building was not completed on schedule which delayed inauguration. The formal inauguration was subsequently chosen to be the 11th Rabi’ al-Awwal of the year 1414 of the Hijra, corresponding to 30 August 1993, which also marked the eve of the anniversary of Prophet Muhammad’s birth. It was dedicated to the Sovereign of Morocco.(*)



Oman: Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, Muskat, Matrah

(Photo by Werner_B)

Opened 2011, Qaboos bin Said al Said, Sultan of Oman, directed that his country should have a Grand Mosque in 1992. A competition for its design took place in 1993 and after a site was chosen at Bausher construction commenced in December 1994. Building work, which was undertaken by Carillion Alawi LLC, took six years and seven months.(*)

Close to the road leading to the heart of the capital Muscat stands the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Wilayat (district) Bawshar, like a radiant lighthouse attracting its visitors to interact with the spirit of Islam as a religion, science, and civilisation. This mosque highlights its role as a scientific and intellectual source of knowledge across the Islamic world… The dome is made up of spherical triangles within a structure of sides and marble columns, crossed with pointed arches and decorated with porcelain panels. Timber panels stretch in a fashion that reflects the architectural development of Omani ceilings.(*)



Pakistan: Wazir Khan Mosque, Lahore

(Photo by Salman Arif)

Opened in 1642.  Restored by Muhammad Wali Ullah Khan. Architectural styles are Indo-Islamic and Mughal. The Wazir Khan Mosque in Lahore, Pakistan, is famous for its extensive faience tile work. It has been described as ‘a mole on the cheek of Lahore’. The mosque was built during the reign of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. The construction started in 1634 and lasted for 7 years. The mosque was named after Hakim Shaikh Ilm-ud-din Ansari, widely known as Wazir (translated from Farsi – minister) Khan, who was the governor of Lahore and the initiator of the mosque’s construction. (*)

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Palestine: Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem

Opened in 691.  Architects’ names are Raja ibn Haywah and Yazid Ibn Salam. Architectural styles are Islamic and  Byzantine. The Dome of the Rock (Arabic: قبة الصخرة‎, translit.: Qubbat Al-Sakhrah, Hebrew: כיפת הסלע‎, translit.: Kipat Hasela) is a shrine located on the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem. It was initially completed in 691 CE at the order of Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik during the Second Fitna. The Dome of the Rock is now one of the oldest works of Islamic architecture. It has been called “Jerusalem’s most recognizable landmark”. Its architecture and mosaics were patterned after nearby Byzantine churches and palaces. The octagonal plan of the structure may also have been influenced by the Byzantine Chapel of St Mary (also known as Kathisma and al-Qadismu) built between 451 and 458 on the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The site’s significance stems from religious traditions regarding the rock, known as the Foundation Stone, at its heart, which bears great significance for Jews and Muslims.(*)



Spain: Alhambra Palace, Granada 

The above photo shows the Honey Comb Dome in Hall of the Abencerages. One cannot discuss Muslim Spain without referring to the famous Al-Hambra Palace in Granada. Its origins are still under debate as most scholars dated it to 13th century Granada, but some indications suggest it was first built in the 11th century – a significant time for both Muslim and European architecture. (Also “the first historical documents known about the Alhambra date from the 9th century and they refer to Sawwar ben Hamdun who, in the year 889, had to seek refuge in the Alcazaba, a fortress, and had to repair it due to the civil rights that were destroying the Caliphate of Cordoba, to which Granada then belonged…”*). The palace complex briefly consists of a series of apartments, halls, and courts organised in a delightful interconnected setting of hierarchy. The palace is an architectural masterpiece in every term. The successions of spaces are clearly defined by boundaries and each space contains identical features enhancing its identity as well as its function.

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Turkey: Selimiye Mosque, Edirne

(Photo by

Opened in 1574.  The architect’s name was was Mimar Sinan. Architectural styles are Islamic and Byzantine. The Selimiye Mosque is an Ottoman imperial mosque, which is located in the city of Edirne, Turkey. The mosque was commissioned by Sultan Selim II and was built by architect Mimar Sinan between 1569 and 1575. The interior of the mosque received great recognitions from its clean, spare lines in the structure itself. With the monumental exteriors proclaiming the wealth and power of the Ottoman Empire, the plain symmetrical interiors reminded the sultans should always provide a humble and faithful heart to connect and communicate with God. To enter, it was to forget the power, determination, wealth and technical mastery of the Ottoman Empire. Lights have seeped through a multitude of tiny windows, and the interchanging of the weak light and dark was interpreted as the insignificance of humans. The Selimiye did not only amaze the public with the extravagant symmetrical exterior, but it had also astonished the people with the plain symmetrical interior for it had summarized all Ottoman architectural thinking in one simple pure form. (*)



UAE: Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi

(Photo by Habib Q

Opened in 2007, Architect’s name is Yusef Abdelki. The architectural style is both Mughal and Moorish. Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is located in Abu Dhabi, the capital city of the United Arab Emirates and is considered to be one of the key mosques for worship in the country but is also the number one mosque destination for tourists to the country. It boasts Mughal and Moorish architectural styles.



Uzbekistan: Bahaud-Din Naqshband Mausoleum, Bukhara

(Photo by Zak Whiteman)

Opened in 1544. Built by Khan Abd al-Aziz. Architectural styles are Islamic and Ottoman. “Baha-ud-Din Naqshband Bukhari (1318–1389) was the founder of what would become one of the largest and most influential Sufi Muslim orders, the Naqshbandi.”(*)  “Memorial complex of Bahauddin Naqshbandi is located 12 kilometers from Bukhara. Once it was the place of settlement of Kasri Arifon, which was famous for its pagan customs and holidays.”(*) Memorial complex Bahauddin Naqshbandi is a rectangular courtyard where the tomb of Sheikh Bukhari. The modern aivan with wooden columns is decored the central courtyard and near built the great building Khanaka. Later here was formed a vast necropolis – the tomb of Bukhara emirs. Decorated mosques Muzaffarkhan and Hakim Kushbegi are struck by its beauty, which formed the courtyard with a creek around the mausoleum. At the beginning of our century, the Memorial complex Bahauddin Naqshbandi was restored. The arches in national style, blue domes, different gates, and columns were built here. One of the most beautiful of the architectural ensemble of Bukhara, the complex Bahauddin Naqshbandi meets pilgrims with silence and solitude…(*)

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Few Manuscripts and Printing examples from Muslim Civilisations

From Manuscripts and printing in the spread of Muslim science by Geoffrey Roper


Libraries of the Muslim World (859-2000)


“I cannot live without books” –  Thomas Jefferson

Public Libraries were first introduced by the Greeks.

Libraries are considered teacher of the teachers. The word Library is derived from the Latin word liber, meaning book, whereas bibliotheca is a Greek word for library used in German and Romance languages.

The Muslim World acquired the art of paper making in the[1] eight century in Persia, ultimately Muslims brought papermaking to India and Europe. Public libraries appeared in Baghdad, Cairo, and Cordoba where books were made of paper. As the graven images were forbidden, calligraphy became one of the elegant aspects of Islamic books.

Public Libraries in the Muslim world were known by various names like Bayt al-Hikmah, Khizanat al-Hikmah, or Dar al-Hikmah, or Dar al- ‘ilm, Dar al-KutubKhizanat al-Kutub and Bayt al-Kutub, kitab-khana (Iran), kutuphane (Turkey). There were madrassa libraries, public and private libraries,[2] Palace libraries, Imperial libraries, and libraries attached to hospitals.

First Arab library was founded by Umayyad Caliph Muawiyah ibn abi Sufiyan (602-680) in Damascus.[3] Much of the book industry revolved around the mosque. Most of the small libraries were part of the mosques, whose primary purpose was copying of books from Greek, Pahlavi, Syriac and Sanskrit into Arabic. Lectures, debates and discussions on a wide range of religious, scientific and philosophical issues of the day were debated at mosques, which also served as courts. According to 14th century legendary traveller Ibn Battuta (1368), the Damascus booksellers market was close to the Great Umayyad mosque; in addition to books, the merchants there sold all the tools of the literary trade, from reed pens, inks, leather, hard paper, glue, to fine paper.  Traditionally Muslims bequeathed their book collections to the mosques. [4]

There were three great libraries in the Muslim World: the Abbasid library ‘House of Wisdom’ in Baghdad, the library of Fatimid Caliphs in Cairo and library of Spanish Umayyad Caliphs in Cordoba.

ConstitutionsFigure 1. There are 62 countries in the Muslim World, population 1.6 billion, around 2000 libraries.

Since the 9th century, many more libraries housed books of exact sciences. Some of these libraries were privately owned, while others were established by Caliphs, Emirs (governors), Sultans and Viziers. For instance, in Abbasid Mosul there existed a large library called Khizanat al-Kutub. Similarly, a wealthy textile trader, Ali b. Muhammad al-Bazzaz (942), was said to have possessed a Bayt al-‘ilm (library; lit. house of science or knowledge).

By the 10th century, there was a proliferation of libraries and schools, which had been founded in Basra, Isfahan, Nishapur, Rayy, Damascus and Cairo. Some of the books in similar libraries were listed by Ibn al-Nadim in his bibliographical compilation Kitab al-Fihrist and in Ibn al-Qifti’s biographies of scientists and philosophers, Ta’rikh al-Hukama’, Ibn Abi Usaybiyah’s ‘Uyun al-Anba’ fi-Tabaqat al-Atibba’ and, for Muslim Spain, by Ibn Juljul’s Tabaqat al-Atibba’ wa’l-Hukama’. These works provide biographical and bibliographical information about Muslim scientists and philosophers of all ethnic backgrounds up to the 13th century. Modern historians and bibliographers of Islamic science, including George Sarton (d1956), Carl Brockelmann and Fuat Sezgin, have identified and described manuscripts and printed books on the history of Islamic science. [5]

  1. Al-Qarawiyyan, one of the oldest libraries in the world

The al-Qarawiyyan library was established in 859, in Fez, Morocco, by Fatima El-Fihriya, daughter of a rich immigrant from modern-day Tunisia. Considered to be the oldest library in Africa, the Al-Qarawiyyan also holds the distinction of being the world’s oldest working library, that is, it has been in continuous use since its establishment. El-Fihriya (d880 فاطمة الفهرية) was well-educated; a scholar and devout Muslim woman who decided to dedicate her rich inheritance to the advancement of religious and science education. She established an educational Centre and a library, holding ancient manuscripts in theology, law, astronomy, & grammar that date as far back as the 7th century. [5]

Most notables are Ibn-Khaldun’s 14th century “Muqadimmah”, a 9th century Quran written in Kufic calligraphy, and a manuscript on the Maliki School of Islamic jurisprudence by Spanish jurist and philosopher Ibn Rushd (1198). The Al-Qarawiyyan complex enlarged over the centuries today includes a mosque, library, and a university. According to UNESCO, this is the oldest operational educational institution in the world, with a high-profile role call of alumni.

Mystic poet and philosopher Ibn Al Arabi (1165-1240) studied there in the 12th century, historian and economist Ibn Khaldun attended in the 14th century, while in medieval times, Al-Qarawiyyin played a leading role in the transfer of knowledge between Muslims and Europeans. Over the centuries the building had fallen into disrepair and environmental factors ravaged its contents but the historical manuscripts always remained accessible to the scholars and academics.

Recently, the Moroccan government commissioned a Moroccan-born Canadian architect Prof. Aziza Chaouni, to renovate and rehabilitate the library to its original splendor. Dr. Chaouni who teaches at the University of Toronto, undertook the delicate and ambitious task of restoring the main features of the building such as the courtyard fountains, intricate tile work, and a 12th century cupola, to look as close to original as possible.

The library has been working on digitization of ancient manuscripts to make them available to the world and about 20 percent of them are now available in electronic format. The restored library, which took nearly four years to complete and is climate-controlled for the preservation of manuscripts, re-opened for public in May, 2016. [6]

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  1. Baytul Hikma (House of Wisdom) Baghdad

“The House of Wisdom was founded by Caliph Harun al-Rashid (ruled786–809) and culminated under his son Caliph al-Mamun (r 813–833), who is credited with its formal institution. Al-Mamun is also credited with bringing many well-known scholars to share information, ideas, and culture in the House of Wisdom. Based in Baghdad from the 9th to 13th centuries, besides Muslim scholars, Hindu, Jewish & Christian scholars were allowed to study here. They translated books into Arabic and preserved them, scholars at House of Wisdom made many remarkable original contributions in diverse fields.


Figure 2.

Baytul Hikma consisted of a library, translation bureau, observatories, reading rooms, living quarters for scientists & administration buildings. One of the scholars employed here was Elan al-Sha’oobi, under his supervision ancient manuscripts were copied. Abu Sahal and Abu al-Fazal bin Naubakht were delegated with the task of expanding the library. The influential minister Yahya bin Khalid Barmaki invited Hindu scholars and had Sanskrit books translated into Arabic. Because Yahya Barmaki was Iranian, he had many Persian books translated into Arabic by Abu Sahal and Abul-Fazal. When Haroon al-Rashid received books from his adventures in Rome and Amudiyya, he instructed physician Yohanna ma-Sawiyya to translate these Greek works into Arabic.

Baytul al-Hikma had in its treasures works on almost every subject and in every language. Haroon al-Rashid sent envoys to various countries to procure books.[7] Besides rare manuscripts in Arabic, he acquired manuscripts in Sanskrit, Zend-Avista, Persian, Syriac and Coptic languages by paying top price for each book.

Attached to the library was the translation bureau where famous scholars and eminent translators rendered books into Arabic. There were Hindu, Christian, Jewish and Parsi scholars who were equally deemed estimable. They were paid handsome salaries. Ibn al-Nadeem (990) in his famous Kitab al-Fihrist (Index of books up to 987) and Ottoman scholar Haji Khalifa (Kâtip Çelebi 1657) in his Kasha al-Zanoon have listed all the books that were translated here. copy of Fihrist at Queen’s U. Kingston Canada

After the demise of Caliph Harun al-Rashid (809), his successor Mamun al-Rashid (833) purchased rare manuscripts for the library such as Poems from pre-Islamic era, and eulogies, government documents, letters and agreements between states. For instance there was a loan payment agreement signed by Abdul Muttalib bin Hashim (578), grandfather of Prophet Muhammad (saw). Caliph Mamun requested the ruler of Sicily to send all those books that were locked up in an abandoned house on the Island and no one had access to it. Upon receipt of the books, Mamoon gave this treasure to Sahal bin Haroon for translation as he was director of the library at the time. When Mamoon prevailed in the war against the Byzantines, he stipulated in the peace treaties that certain Greek manuscripts be sent to Baghdad. For this purpose mathematician and translator al-Hajjaj Ibn Yusuf ibn Matar (833) was nominated to bring this treasure to Baghdad for Bayt al-Hikma. (Fihrist Muhammad ibn Ishaq al-Nadim)

Note: Statute of Haroon al-Rashid, 5th Abbasid Caliph was destroyed by ISIL/al-Nusra in 2013 located in al-Rashid Park, city of Raqqa.

Staff of Bayt al-Hikma, included a director, scribes, translators, astronomers, scientists and book binders. Ibn abi al-Hareesh was famous book binder here. People belonging to different faiths like Parsi, Christian, Jews and Hindus were employed here, of which Hunayn ibn Ishaq, Hakim Royani, Yohanna ma-Sawiyya, Qusta ibn Luqa, Sahal bin Haroon and abu Jaafar bin Adi, Musa al-Khawrizmi, al-Fadl ibn Nawbakht, Mashallah are most celebrated.  Instruction here included theology, algebra, geometry, physics, biology, medicine, & logic.

Figure 3. – Kitab al-Fihrist online

Figure 4. Reading room of the world’s oldest library – Al-Qarawiyyin is home to approximately 4,000 manuscripts, NPR reports. There are 9th-century Qurans written in Kufic calligraphy and the oldest known accounts of the life of the prophet Muhammed. (s.a.w.). Ibn Khaldun’s original Muqaddiman from 14th century is store here also. The most treasured work of the library is the original 9th-century Quran. El-Fihriya attended the university she helped to found. The library still has her original diploma: a wooden board.

Figure 5. Modern day Baytul Hikma, Baghdad

  1. Haroon al-Rashid’s vizier, Yahya ibn Khalid Barmaki (806) had a vast personal library which was adorned with Greek, Coptic, Sanskrit and Farsi volumes. There were 3 copies of each book. When a new book came out, it was first showed to Yahya Barmaki as he was the only one who would pay one thousand dirhams for any new book. Under his influence, the Caliph invited to Baghdad many Buddhists scholars from India, who prepared Kitab al-Budd, biography of Buddha. The philosopher of the Arabs, and the first Muslim scholar to reconcile faith and reason, Yaqub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi (866) had a rich personal library which was confiscated by jealous Banu Musa brothers; it was restored to him subsequently.
  2. Caliph Mutwakkil‘s (822-861) boon companion Fatah ibn Khaqan (861) established a library in Baghdad whose director (sahib khazanatul kutub) was famous scientist Ali ibn Yahya Munajjam. Khaqan was an avid reader and “the greatest bibliophile of his day”. [8] Ali ibn Yahya had his personal library, so he transferred many of his books to Ibn Khaqan library. Many scholars penned books especially for the library, one of whom was prose writer & zoologist Abu Usman ibn Jahiz (869). Doors of this library were open to all. It was pillaged by soldiers of Tughral Beg Saljooki (d1063).
  3. Ali ibn Yahya Munajjam (888) was director of Ibn Khaqan Library. His personal library in Baghdad was called Khizanatul Kutub. People from foreign countries came to see this library, stayed there and benefitted. All expenses were born by Ali Ibn Yahya. It is said that greatest astrologer of Abbasid court Abu Ma’shar al-Falki (886) while going for Hajj from Khurasan especially stopped over in Baghdad to visit this unique library.

Figure 6. Page from a manuscript of the Algebra (Maqālah fi al-jabr wa-‘l muqābalah) of ‘Umar Al-Khayyām (1048-1131). Manuscript on paper, 56 leaves, 13th century. Columbia University Libraries, Smith Oriental MS 45.

  1. Library of Ishaq Mosuli (850) was an accomplished musician and a master of Hadith and grammar. His library in Baghdad housed incomparable books on grammar. Abul Abbas So’alab saw 1000 epistles in the library which had been studied by Mosuli.
  2. Vizier Sabur bin Ardsher (991) established in 894 in Karkh district of Baghdad a library which was called Dar’ul Ilm. Jurji Zaidan says there were ten thousand titles in this library. Every author donated a copy of his book. The library housed 100 hand written copies of the Glorious Quran by famous copyists Khattat Banu Maqla. Leading scholars, philosophers and intellectual of Baghdad gathered here to debate and discuss. Renowned blind writer, philosopher and poet from Aleppo, Abul A’la al-Ma’arri (1057) made use of this library, in fact when he visited Baghdad he spent most of his time here. (Biography of al-Ma’arri, page 34) [9]
  3. Muhammad bin Hussain al-Baghdadi’s library housed rare manuscripts and documents. No one had access to it except few scholars. Ibn Nadim writes that he got permission from the owner with great difficulty. Ibn Nadim has given details of this library in his celebrated book al-Fihrist.

There were numerous libraries in monasteries and colleges of Baghdad. One of the colleges-Madrassa was Nizamiyya, its owner scholar and vizier of Seljuq Empire, Nizam al-Mulk Tusi (1092) had deposited here his valuable collection. The director of this library was Allama Abu Zakaria Tabrizi.

  1. Library of Mustansariyya madrasah was founded by 36th Abbasid Caliph al-Mustansir Bi’llah (1242) in 1227 on the left bank of Tigris River. Upon completion its opening ceremony took place with much fanfare. Leading scholars and jurists were appointed to give lectures. All the books from the royal library were loaded on 130 camels, and deposited in the magnificent library. There were 80,000 rare and valuable manuscripts, one of which was handwritten copy of Tarikh-e-Baghdad wa-Madinatul Islam (24 volumes, 7831 biographies, including titles of books and names of authors) by Abi Bakr al-Khatib al-Baghdadi (1071). Building was renovated in 1961.

Figure 7. Madrassa Mustanariyya, main entrance, Baghdad

The library survived the Mongol incursion. It was merged with that of Nizamiyah Madrasah in 1393, although this collection was subsequently dispersed or disappeared. After the Ottomans captured Baghdad in 1534 A.D., books from the palaces and libraries were taken as the spoils of war to become an important part of the royal library in Istanbul, and Al-Mustansiriyah was closed. .. The Mustansriya Madrasah is still functioning in a new building, and is now part of the Al-Mustansiriya University (Wikipedia)



  1. Libraries of Cairo Fatimid Caliphs (909-1171) were patrons of scholars and bibliophiles. Caliph Abu Mansur nizar al-Aziz Bi’llah (955-996) was himself a scholar, wrote poetry, copied books and established a library in his palace in Cairo Khazai’n al-Qasoor, consisting of 40 rooms full of books on jurisprudence, grammar, literature, science of Hadith, history, astronomy, and chemistry. There were 200,000 volumes, of which 6000 were on mathematics and astronomy. There were 30 copies of Khalil ibn Ahmad Nahvi’s “Kitab al-Ain”, one volume hand- written by the author. There were 1200 copies of Tarikh-e-Tabari, and 2400 copies of The Glorious Quran. Some books had binding of gold, with silver paintings. There were 2 globes, one made of silver which costed 3000 dinars and another made by Greek astronomer Ptolemy. The doors were open 24 hours for students. After the death of al-Aziz Bi’llah (r975-996), the collection was transferred to his successor al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah’s (996-1021) library.

Figure 8. Quran manuscript possibly from Fatimid royal library

Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah established a library in Cairo Darul Hikma (hall of science and wisdom), its objective was to propagate the Shi’i faith. Renowned scholars, jurists, and physicians took part in its inauguration. Patrons were allowed to not only read books but copy them also if needed. Pen, ink, paper was provided for this purpose. Many physicians, jurists, logicians, astronomers and mathematicians were employed here full time. Once Hakim bi-Amr Allah invited these scholars for a debate, after which everyone was given large sums of money. He had several houses and shops under ‘waqf’ – endowment – so as to look after the expenses of the library. It is estimated there were 100,000 volumes.

Jami’ah al-Azhar was founded in 970 during the time of Caliph Muizz al-din Allah (r953-975). Its library housed more than two hundred thousand volumes. Students from Turkey, Zanzibar, India and Afghanistan would travel to Cairo to study at world’s oldest degree granting University. Students received free housing, uniforms and no fee. There was no other library as al-Azhar in the entire Muslim world.

All the old schools and libraries in Egypt were destroyed except this one. During the time of al-Mustansir bi-Allah (r1021-1036) Turkish soldiers plundered the library, hundreds of books were thrown mercilessly in the river Nile, or burnt. Those that were saved, they formed heap in open space which afterwards was called Tilal al-Kutub (heap of books). Despite this hundreds of books from caliphal libraries survived so much so that Sultan Salah al-Din ibn Ayub (1193) bestowed on his secretary and counselor al-Qadi al-Fadil 120,000 manuscripts for his madrasah Qaf. [10]


Figure 9. al-Azhar library

“Although Al-Azhar University was founded in 1961, its library was established in 1005 by the ruling Fatimids; almost 600 before Oxford’s Bodleian Library and 440 years before the Vatican Library were established, respectively. By some counts, its collection includes 9,062 books and 595,668 manuscripts, dating to at least the 8th century”.

Mahmudiyya library of Cairo housed hundreds of rare items. Although it had a collection of 4000 volumes, but many were handwritten by the authors. Several prominent scholars were directors of this library, one of whom was Shaykh al-Islam Hafiz ibn Hajar al-Asqalani (r.a. d1449) who prepared two catalogues of this library. One catalogue was alphabetical and the other one according to subject matter. Library was part of madrasah Mahmudiyya which was founded by an Egyptian statesman Jamal al-Din Mahmud, a close advisor of Sultan Malik al-Zahir Sayf al-din Barquq (r1382-1399).

Egypt National Library (Dar al-Kutub al-Misriyya) has 3 million printed books, 80,000 manuscripts, great quantity of papyri and coins. It was founded in 1870 and in 2002 was joined by Alexandria library as Egyptian National Library. [11]

  1. Libraries of Iran

Adud al-Daula (r949-982) was emir of Buyid dynasty (934-1062) who at his height of power ruled an empire stretching from Makran as far as to Yemen and the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The Friday sermon (khutba) was read in his name in Baghdad. He is widely regarded as the greatest monarch of the dynasty. The monarch is credited with sponsoring and patronizing scientific projects during his time. An observatory was built by his orders in Isphahan where astronomer Abd al-Rahman Sufi (903-986) worked. He built a famous public hospital known as the Al-‘Adudi Hospital.

In Shiraz he established a glorious library with books written from the beginnings of Islam to his time. It was located inside the royal palace. There were a large number of tall book shelves; the wood was painted with gold color. There was separate room for each branch of knowledge. The library was looked after by a treasurer, and a director. Only reputable scholars had access to the library.

Figure 10. The Abdus Salam Library at the Sharif University of Technology, Tehran, Iran 2012, named after Prof. Dr. Abdus Salam (1926-1996) Muslim World’s first Nobel Laureate in physics 1979.

  1. Library of Abu’l-Fadl ibn al-‘Amid (970) was also in the city of Shiraz. Its director was Ibn Miskawayh (932-1030) who was chancery official of theBuyid era, philosopherand historian from Rey, Iran. He worked as a secretary and librarian for a number of viziers, including ‘Adud al-Dawla.

One of the secretaries of Adud al-Daula was abul Qasim Isma’el (Sahib ibn al-Abad) who had a stupendous library. He was not only interested in collecting books, but he was accompanied by poets, writers, & debaters. In his youth he was a companion of Abul Fadl ibn al-Amid, therefore he was called Sahib. After the death of ibn al-Amid (970) he was appointed minister of state. When Samanid ruler Nuh ibn Mansur offered him ministerial post, he excused himself by saying that my library is so big, that it could not be loaded on to 400 camels.

  1. Library of Tus – Tus is one of the oldest cities of Iran. It has produced great men like Niazm al-Mulk, Naseer al-Din Tusi and poet laureate Firdausi. The library of Tus was founded by Nizam al-Mulk, founder of madrasah Nizamiyah Baghdad.
  2. Mashhad library was attached to the mausoleum of Hazrat Ali Ibn Musa al-Raza, the 8th Shia Imam (818). The library was established around 974. There are books on Quran, Hadith, philosophy, logic and jurisprudence. The catalogue of the library is “fihrist kutub khana Astana Quds Rizvi”, in several volumes. Currently TheCentral Library of Astan Quds Razaviis a large library in MashhadIran. It holds over 1.1 million volumes. It is an international center for Islamic research, containing numerous manuscripts and rare works of antiquity of Islamic history. Ali ibn Simjour endowed in 974 AD the oldest Quran to the Holy Shrine of Imam Reza (AS). (Wikipedia)
  3. Library of Shiraz

“Islamic libraries were”, says Stuart Murray, “rich in diversity, allowing scholars from other lands to share the facilities. These libraries were known for their attractiveness and comfort, many adorned with the classic Islamic dome, some surrounded by walkways and landscaped by ponds. Among the most legendary library was that of Persian city of Shiraz, where there were more than 300 hundred chambers furnished with plush carpets. The library had thorough catalogs to help in locating texts, which were kept in the storage chambers and organized according to every branch of learning. “[12]

  1. Libraries of Syria

In all the major cities of Syria like Damascus, Aleppo and Tripoli there were libraries. Damascus was center of Islamic learning for many centuries. Umayyad princes Khalid ibn Yazid (704), and Caliphs Abdul al-Malik bin Marwan (705), Hazrat Umar ibn Abd al- Aziz (720), established libraries here. Khalid was a book collector; he facilitated translations into Arabic of the existing Greek literature on alchemy. The Library of Ğāmi’ Banī ‘Umayya al-Kabīr – Umayyad Mosque housed rare & precious manuscripts, as well as a rich collection of documents. This mosque was founded by Caliph Walid I (715) at an immense cost.  Mashaf-e-Osmani (copy of the Quran prepared by Hazrat Osman (r.a) was stored in this library for a long time. Ibn Batuta had seen copy of this Quran which was sent by Hazrat Osman (r.a.) to people of Syria.

Figure 11. Courtyard of Umayyad Mosque Damascus

During the 16th century there were 30 madrasas and 20 libraries in Damascus. Ibn Jubayr Andulasi (1217) says in his Rihla – (travelogue) that of all the madrasas Nur al-Din Zangi madrasah was the most elegant and awe-inspiring. Besides religious studies, physics, mathematics, astronomy and literature was taught. There were 4 medical schools and one engineering school. Each school had its own library.

  1. Library of Tripoli (Lebanon)

During the rule of Shia family of Banu Ammar (Emirs of Tripoli -theoretically vassals of the Fatimid caliphs in Cairo), Tripoli was a major center of learning. The city became a lighthouse of learning, knowledge and literature. The city developed during the rule of Hasan bin Ammar, he founded a school with a stupendous library attached to it. By virtue of this library knowledge spread throughout the city, the city was called Dar al-Ilm. The library employed 180 copyists, of whom 30 copied books day and night. Emissaries were sent to other cities to buy books. It is estimated that there were 130,000 volumes, 50,000 copies of the Glorious Quran, and 20,000 commentaries of the Quran. When crusaders captured Tripoli, this library was plundered and burnt.

  1. Library of Aleppo

Aleppo’s main attraction for a long times was its glorious libraries. It is said Prophet Abraham lived here, had a herd of goats whose milk he used to go to people free. Milking in Arabic is Halab, that is how the city got its name Halab (Aleppo). Different families ruled over the city, one of which was Banu Hamdan whose ruler Saif al-Daula founded a library in the city. Saif al-Dawla was interested in literature; therefore most of the books in the library were on literature. One of the royal scientists of Saif al-Dawla was philosopher, and mathematician Abu Nasr Muhammad ibn Farabi (872-950). Director of this library was eminent poet Muhammad ibn Hashem and his brother. (Maqalat-e-Shibli, Volume 6, page 161)


Figure 12. The Travels of ibn Jubayr 1184

Besides public or private libraries there were 80 libraries attached to educational institutions. Ibn Jubayr (1217) says in his famous travelogue (Rihla) that the library of Madrasah Khalifa was elegant and glorious, just like the grand mosque of Halab. There were grape vines in all the surroundings of the school; vines were so much laden with grapes that students could easily pick grapes. One of the rare books in the library was Mujammal al-Lugha ley ibn-al-faris. This rare manuscript was copied by Ibn Maymoon al-Baghdadi (546ah), from Baghdad the manuscript arrived in Aleppo.

  1. Libraries of Samarqand and Bukhara

Samarqand (Uzbekistan) occupies a special place in the history of book collection, dissemination and conservation. Paper mill was established in this city in 751. Later on paper was produced in Baghdad in 793 and Cairo 900. Introduction of paper made it possible to produce books easily, and it was a major factor in the spread of knowledge to far off places. Hulagu Khan (1218-65) established an observatory in Maragheh (Azerbaijan) in 1259 at the behest of his science adviser Khawaja Nasir al-Din Tusi (1274). Hülegü obtained a first-rate library and staffed his institution with notable Muslim and Chinese scholars. Funded by an endowment, research continued at the institution for at least 25 years after al-Ṭūsī’s death. All those books that were saved during the sack of Baghdad (1258) were moved to Samarqand.

Bukhara and Samarkand were the two cultural centers of Samanid Empire (819-999). The city has long been a center of trade, scholarship, culture, and religion. Muhammad al-Bukhari (870), author of Hadith collection Sahih al-Bukhari, was born in this city. Bukhara was home to Prince of Physicians Shaikh Abu Ali Ibn Sena (980-1037).

Figure 13. A splendid view of Bukhara

Samanid ruler, Sultan of Bukhara Emir Nuh ibn Mansur (r976-997) had founded a fabulous library here. Prince of Physicians Ibn Sena (1037) gained much of his knowledge here. It is stated in Ibn Khallikan’s biographical dictionary:

Abu Ali … frequented his library, which was of incomparable richness, as it contained not only all the celebrated works which are found in the hand of the public, but others not to be met anywhere else and of which not only the titles but the contents were unknown. Here Abu Ali discovered treatise on the sciences of the ancients, and other subjects, the essence of which he extracted, and with the greater part of which sciences he became acquainted. It happened some time afterwards that this library was consumed by fire, and Abu Ali remained the sole depository of the knowledge which it contained. Some persons even said that it was he who set fire to the library.” ( ibn khallikan biographical dictionary)

“In Bukhara there was a public library”, states Ehsan Masood,

“where scholars could simply drop in ask the librarian to get them a particular book from the library stacks off to the sides of the main hall, and then sit down to make notes. [13]

  1. Library of Ghazni (Afghanistan)

During the reign of Sultan Mahmud (r.998-1030) Ghazni’s library was considered one of the best in the world. Sultan Mahmud turned the city of Ghazna into a wealthy capital of an extensive empire by ransacking the riches from wealthy India. Though Mahmud waged ruthless campaigns and terrorized the people who came in his way in India, he patronized scholars, intellectuals, and scientists like al-Biruni and philosopher al-Farabi. An ardent patron of the arts, Mahmud attracted poets from all parts of Central Asia. Among these were Uzari, Asadi Tusi, & Unsuri.  The distinguished poet Ferdowsi (1020), presented the epic poem Shahnameh (book of Kings) to him. It consisted of 60,000 verses, and it took him 27 years to compose it. Two historians Utabi and Bayhaqi were also his royal historians. Though he loved money passionately, he also spent it lavishly. A library, a museum, and a university were endowed at Ghazni.[14] Read more at

  1. Libraries of Islamic Spain

After the establishment of Islamic rule in Spain, Cordoba became the jewel of the Caliphate. The city was 24 miles long and 10 miles wide. Its population was one million. There were 380 mosques, 800   madrasahs and numerous personal and 70 public libraries. It was the center of learning and intellectual life, it was known as city of bibliophiles; people who love books. The people of Cordoba also collected books for their homes.  Those who owned personal libraries were regarded as important figures in Cordovan society. Books were stored in sandalwood cabinets; with a list showing books in each cabinet. Leather was used for book binding; some books had silver or gold lettering. One of its most famous buildings was the Cordoba Mosque. This building housed the largest university in Europe [15]at the time with over four thousand students. In the Dar al-Kitabat there was a flock of scribes engaged in copying books, and an equal number of bookbinders. Librarian was given a salary. There was a market where only books were sold.

Lubna of Cordoba (984) was director of Cordoba library with 400,000 volumes, its catalogue was in 44 registers with 20 sheets each. It was in the palace of Cordoba, managed by eunuch Bakiya. Lubna was responsible to reproduce, write and translate new volumes. She was also palace secretary of Caliph Abd al-Rahman III (961) and his son al-Hakam (976). According to Arab chronicles at the time of al-Hakam II, there could be in some areas of Cordoba more than 170 women copying books, which not only gives the idea of culture, but also the place of women in the reign of enlightened Caliph. [16]


Figure 14. Ibn Rushd (1198), polymath from Islamic Spain holding a book. This statute is in the Jewish quarter of Cordova, which the author visited in 2000.

Dutch Arabic scholar Rheinhart Dozy (1883) opines that every person in Islamic Spain could read and write, while in Europe only priests and some aristocrats knew how to read and write. Rest were all illiterates. [17] According to Jurgi Zaidan there were 137 madrasahs and 70 libraries in Granada. Historian Maqqari said “people of Andalus have excelled in having libraries. There are many wealthy who are illiterate but are proud to have libraries in their houses.”

Caliph Al-Hakam II (A.D. 961-976) library was the most celebrated.

Not only did he patronize scholars”, says Phillip Hitti, “but he was a scholar in his own right. … he is credited with having founding 27 free schools in his capital, endowing chairs in the university started by Abd al-Rahman I in conjunction with the mosque, and enriching it with a library unequaled in content. … in quest of manuscripts his agents ransacked the bookshops of Egypt, Syria and Iraq… The Caliph maintained a private collection in the palace and left in his own hands marginal notes on some of its contents.” [18]

 Books written in Persia were dedicated to him. A descendant of Ummayad Caliph Abul Faraj al-Isfahani was sent one thousand dinar for his book Kitab al-Aghani. Library clerks, many of them women, carefully hand-copied the books while calligraphers and bookbinders created beautiful text and cover designs.  Al-Hakam’s library was said to have contained more than 400,000 books, whose titles filled a 44-volume catalog.   There were universities in major cities Cordoba, Seville, Toledo and Granada equipped with vast libraries. The prestige of the royal library led to a spirit of competition between the viziers, deputies, each wishing to attract scholars and rarest library talents. When al-Hakam was pressured by the local clergy to forbid the wine drinking, however, he was reminded by his chief treasurer that it was largely the sin tax on wine which was paying for a new wing of Cordoba library.

As one historian observes:

Andalusia was, above all, famous as a land of scholars, libraries, book lovers and collectors…in Cordoba books were more eagerly sought than beautiful concubines or jewels…the city’s glory was the Great Library established by al-Hakam II…ultimately it contained four hundred thousand volumes…on the opening page of each book was written the name, date, place of birth and ancestry of the author, together with titles of his works, Forty eight volumes of catalogue incessantly amended, listed and described all titles and contained instructions on where a particular work could befound” Richard Erdoes, 1000AD Berkley, Seastone 1998, pp60-61

The Maliki Judge (Qazi) of Cordoba Abu al-Mu’tarrif ibn Futays Abd al-Rahman (1011) was a great collector books, had six copyists working for him. He never lent a work but would get it copied and make a gift of it. His library had so many valuable works that when it was auctioned, it fetched 40,000 dinars. A poor teacher of Cordoba Allama Muhammad ibn Hazm had his personal library open to the public. He penned several books one of which was Maratab al-Ijm’a, a handwritten manuscript is in Khuda Baksch Library, Rampur, India. There were many women scholars, like daughter of Prince Ahmad. She was an outstanding poet, & a   fine orator. There were women who had forsaken marriage, and dedicated their lives to book-hunting; they were employed by royal libraries in this age.

Libraries of Islamic Spain brought about resurgence in European thought and sciences. “

Over a period of roughly a hundred years (1150-1250) all of Aristotle’s writings were translated and introduced to the West, accompanied by a formidable number of Arabic commentaries… this amounted to a vast new library. The work of assimilating and mastering it occupied the best minds of Christendom and profoundly altered the spiritual and intellectual life of the West… such masterful Arabic commentaries as Avicenna and Averroes- who emphasized the unreligious and unspiritual character of the philosopher’s thought – precipitated a grave crisis for the intellectual leaders of the West. … harmonizing all of it with the Christian faith constituted a tremendous task … it inaugurated a period of unparalleled intellectual activity that reached its climax in the 13th century, especially in Paris and Oxford.” Thomas Bokenkotter, A Concise History of the Catholic Church  NY: Doubleday, 1979, 172-173

Figure 15. Ibn Sina encyclopedic book Al Qanun Fi Al-Tibb (The Canon of Medicine) was translated into Latin at the end of the 12th century CE, and became a reference source for medical studies in the universities of Europe for 500 years.

  1. Library of El Escorial, Spain

The largest collection of Islamic hand written manuscripts is in El Escorial Palace Library, 45 km from Madrid. The Escorial was founded by King Phillip II in 1563 both to serve as a palace and a monastery. A room on the upper floor contains books banned by the Inquisition which had burned 70,000 volumes. This remnant includes more than 1,800 Arabic titles acquired by the expulsion of Muslim form Spain. [19]

  1. Libraries of Sultanate of Delhi (1206-1526)

Before the advent of Mughal period Razia Sultan (r1236-1240) was the ruler of Sultanate of Delhi. In fact she was the first female ruler of India. Razia was a major matron of learning, establishing schools and libraries across northern India. She was conferred the title of Aalem Nawazpatron of scholars by leading religious scholar of the time Maulana Minhaj-e-Siraj Juzjani, author of 23 volume elaborate Islamic history book Tabaqat-e-Nasiri completed in 1260.

During the 13th and 14th centuries all the ruling princes of the time had their own private collections and it was common for them to spend time every day in their personal libraries. No separate building was earmarked for the library; it used to be an integral part of the palace, though it was sometimes attached to the mosque. [20] Founder of Khilji dynasty Sultan Jalal al-Din Khilji (1296) established the Imperial library in Delhi and appointed eminent mystic & scholar Amir Khusraw (1325) as the librarian. The office of the librarian carried much prestige and its occupant was considered a valuable officer. Sufi saint Nizam al-Din Awliya (1325) established a library in his khanqah in Delhi by raising public donations[21]. It was a public library with a large quantity of manuscripts.

  1. Libraries of Mughal India

The Mughal rulers were fond of books and used to take pride in collecting rare manuscripts for their personal libraries.

First library in Mughal India (1526-1857) was founded by King Zaheer al-Din Babur (1483-1531). Although a successful military leader, he was a bibliophile as well. Babur established the Imperial library in his palace in Delhi, which would be supported & enlarged by subsequent emperors. When he invaded India, he brought with him rare volumes some of which were works of painting. His homeland Uzbekistan was home to a galaxy of scholars and intellectuals. Cities like Samarkand, Farkhana, Khurasan & Herat were great centers of learning and knowledge that attracted scholars from far off places. Many famous scholars occupied his royal court. Himself a scholar, he was an expert calligrapher. Whether he was on an expedition, or at home in Dehli, a major portion of library travelled with him.  The Mughals stocked their libraries with Persian books on language, literature, and science.

In January 1526 Babur’s army defeated Ghazi Khan Army in Lahore. In the war booty Babur received lot of valuable things from Ghazi khan’s fort, but the best of all were the precious books some of which he sent to Kabul. Babur’s library contained two types of books, the one he brought with him to India, and others he received during the capture of various India cities.

Babur’s son Emperor Mirza Nasir ud-din Baig Humayun ruled India only one year 1555-56. He had a lifelong passion for collecting fine books. He was interested in astronomy. Inside the Old Fort in Delhi there was a notable building Sher Mandal, on the second floor was Humayun’s personal library with stone shelving, which was his observatory as well. It is one of the first observatories of Delhi. Sher Mandal, a two-storied, octagonal tower, is associated with the death of Humayun as he was watching Venus in the sky; he missed his step on the steep stairs, fell headlong and died in 1556.

Emperor Jalal al-Din Akbar (1543-1605) consolidated the imperial library founded by his grandfather. It consisted of manuscripts written and engraved by skillful penmen. From his Persian mother, he inherited his princely manners, his love of literature and the arts, and a Persian delight in philosophical discussion. He created a separate department for libraries; acquisition, processing, storage, and retrieval were organized on new lines. He established a new library for education of all women in Fatehpur Sikri. The Imperial Library was located in the big hall of the Agra fort.

The volumes in his library numbered 24,000 costing Rupees 6,463,731 or valued at $3,500,000. A translation bureau called Maktab Khana was established in the Diwan Khana of Fatehpur Sikri. Every author was obligated to send a copy of his book to the royal library. Many a works he received during his expeditions, i.e. after the conquest of Gujrat he received all the books belonging to Etimad Khan Gujrati. Some were donated to royal library, and some were gifted to his Navaratnas (9 Jewels) i.e. Allama Abdul Qadir Badau’ni received Mishkat al-Anwar of Ghazali. Akbar took over all of 4,600 books from the library of Shaikh Abul Faiz Faizi, eminent Persian poet & scholar.[22] These books were on medicine, music, astrology, astronomy, mathematics, tafsir, hadith and fiqah. The Jesuits brought European books or books received from western traders were added to the Imperial library.

Figure 16. Sher Mandal, which housed Humayun’s library, and was one of the first observatories of Delhi.

Akbar’s court was included many scholars and talented artists. He fostered a lively literary culture and encouraged translations of all kinds. Massive numbers of classics were rendered into Sanskrit and Hindi. Also, religious literature was translated into Persian from other languages like Chaghatai Turkish, Sanskrit and Arabic. Akbar’s school of translation made a lasting impact on Indian cultural life.

Akbar formed a department for cataloging the library’s 24,000 titles. He did much of the work himself, classifying the books under three main groupings. Bookbinding became a high art, producing beautifully decorated covers. He also established a library exclusively for women. Despite his passion for libraries and education he could not read nor write. [23] He would listen daily to the perusal of books by paid readers. His evenings were spent listening to experts on scientific and literary matters.

Once Prince Saleem (Emperor Jehangir d1627) once went to historian Abu al-Fazl Allami’s house and noticed 40 scribes copying Glorious Quran and its commentary. Akbar was fond of painting; there were top class painters in his court. At his behest 12 volumes of Dastan Ameer Hamza were presented to Akbar, consisting of 1400 illustrations. Similarly Changez Nama, Zafar Nama, Iqbal nama, Razm Nama, Ramayan, Kaleela wa dimna and Ayyra Danish were illustrated at an astronomical cost. There was in his library an illustrated copy of “Tarikh Khandan Taimuriya”with 112 illustrations. This is now in Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Library, Patna, India. The chief librarian was Emperor Akbar’s poet laureate Allama Fayzi and Abdul Qadir Bada’uni. Hundreds of madrasah were founded during Akbar reign which needed books. There were 225 courtiers in his royal court; each one had his own personal library.

Emperor Mirza Noor al-Din Jehangir (1569-1627) was educated in mathematics, science and language. He was an illustrious writer who wrote his autobiography in Persian Tuzke Jehangeri (Jahanirnama) giving details about the history of his reign, including his reflections on art, politics, and his family. He collected art for the library. He continued the tradition of his father in expanding madrasahs and libraries. He passed a law that if a rich man dies without heirs, his wealth should be donated to monasteries and madrasahs. His library contained 60,000 works; its chief librarian was Maktoob Khan. Shaikh Abd al-Haq Muhaddith lived during his reign who authored 100 books on various subjects. Allama Shibli Noamani says that Jehangir’s opinion about a book was diligent and authoritative (Ijtehad).  He personally used to instruct his librarians how to catalog the books.

Emperor Mirza Shahab al-din Baig Khurram Shah-jahan (1666) rule was the golden period of Mughal architecture, as well as learning and scholarship. The size of the imperial library grew further. Like his forefathers he patronized scholars. He had gathered a large number of calligraphers at his court. His royal library was decorated with twenty-four thousand finest volumes on mathematics, geography, astrology, medicine, politics, logic, history and agriculture. Lahore, Delhi, Jaunpur, Ahmadabad were major centers of learning. During Shah-Jahan’s rule many scholars had their own personal libraries. For instance library of Mulla Abdul Hakim Sialkoti was famous for its rare volumes.

Aurangzeb Alamgir (1618-1707) preferred the company of scholars and intellectuals. He developed love for books from a young age. His imperial library was a treasure house of Islamic law theology, and jurisprudence. He constituted a board of 50 distinguished religious scholars to formulate a compendium of edicts (fatawa) according Hanafi fiqh. Reference books were provided to them from Imperial library. It was completed in 8 years at a cost of 200,000 rupees. Fatawa Alamgiri was published from Cairo in six volumes, each volume 500 pages. Some of the books are still available in the Sho’aba Habib Ganj- personal library of Maulana Habib al-Rahman Sherwani, AMU, Aligarh. Aurabzeb was an outstanding writer and an excellent calligrapher. He was a Hafiz (memorizer) of the Quran and used to calligraphy the Noble Quran in his free time. His personal letters are a unique form of biography. Sialkot was the hub of paper industry, there was huge library in the city.

Muhammad Taher writes:

“imperial library was greatly improved by the last great Mughal Muhiyaddin Aurangzeb Alamgir. Apart from other languages he knew Hindustani too well and popular sayings in that language in history. Aurangzeb patronized Hindi poets; … hence the imperial library must have had a variety much larger than that of Akbar in major languages of the east and the west. He patronized Hindu scholars of Persian literature. … Which library other than the Imperial library these scholars had access to, if they were really patronized by the emperor of Mughal India. The library added its collection and became the basis for the emperor literary activities.

Fataw’ay Alamgiri the greatest digest of Muslim law in India was compiled by board of eminent jurists under his personal supervision. This compilation would have required accumulation of various books relating to law in the primary Islamic languages. In Deccan trips the Mughal armies could find the library of Mahmud Gawan. This was transferred to Delhi and added to imperial collection on the order of Aurangzeb. His reading tastes were a replica of his own ancestors, and it is reported that his reading hour started at 2 pm every day. … The Nazims of the Imperial library who have been mentioned in history included Muhammad Saleh ibn Isa Khan, Syed Ali Tabrizi, and the muhtamims are named as Muhammad Mansur, Syed Ali al-Hussaini, and Kabir Khan.” [24]

In the Mughal household there were female poets, bibliophiles, & authors like Gul Badan Begum (1603), Salim Sultana Begum   (1612) Maham Anang  (1562), Nur Jehan Begum (1645), Mumtaz Mahal (1631). A book by daughter of Babur ‘ s daughter Princess Gul Badan Begum, who wrote poetry in Persian and Turkish.

Figure 17. above: Islamic calligraphy specimen

  1. Library of Zayb al Nisa / Abd al-Rahim Khane Khana

 Mughal princesses were also deeply engrossed in book reading and collection. Aurangzeb eldest daughter Zaib al-Nisa’s (1638-1702) was trained in the serious study of religious doctrine. She was known as an excellent scholar in several academic areas and as a literary figure and patron of some renown. She sang well and composed songs and planted many of the gardens of her day. Her royal court was an academy (Bait al-Uloom) where scholars in every subject were busy composing and compiling books. Books were dedicated to her. She had a large collection in her library.  Her Diwan-e-Makhfi contained four hundred and twenty-one ghazals and penned the following books: Monis-ul-Roh, Zeb-ul Monsha’at and Zeb-ul-Tafasir. (Wikipedia) – Ziad, Zeenut (2002). The Magnificent Mughals. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195794441.

The Mughal era saw an increase in the number of libraries developed by the nobles/elites. Each wished to beat out the other in the building of the library and in increasing the size of its collection. In Delhi Abd al-Rahim Khan-e- Khanan was raised in the household of Emperor Akbar. He was conversant in 5 languages including Portuguese. He developed a fabulous library. He had the privilege of having access to large collections in and outside the kingdom. His collection was used by many scholars and learned men. This bibliophile excelled in patronage of literature. Books from his library have been preserved in Raza Library Rampur, Khuda Bakhsh Library& Asiatic Society Library Calcutta. Mir Baqi was Nazim (director) of his library, and Kitabdar (librarian) was Maulana Ibrahim Naqqash. Library had 95 men on its staff. Muhammad Ameen Naqqash, a book-binder from Mashhad, Iran was a regular on its staff, and was employed on a salary of Rs. 500/- per month. Shuja of Shiraz was one of the scribes (katib) in 1590. Mulla Muhammad Hussain was an expert book-binder at the library.

Similarly Nawab Ibrahim Khan, an influential noble of Delhi, had a rich library. Each book had the seal of library owner. Shaikh Faizi, a Persian scholar had a rich collection on medicine, poetry and philosophy. Khushro (1622) son of Emperor Jehangir regularly purchased books. Dara Shikoh (1659) paintings album is in India Office Library, London. As an erudite scholar, he had a huge collection of notable works. An example of his penmanship is his translations of 50 Upanishads from Sanskrit to Persian. The library established by Dara Shikoh in 1643 still exists on the grounds of Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha UniversityKashmiri Gateand Delhi. [25]

The scholars of Lucknow, Daryaabad, Murshidabad and Bilgram had large personal libraries. People donated their books to the mosques, whereby places of worship became public libraries.

Personnel of the Imperial library included Nazim, Muhtamim, Sahhaf, Warraq, Jildsaz, Naqqash, Khushnavis, Muqabila Navis, Mussahih (proofreader), Katib (scribe)

  1. Library of Tipu Sultan (1752-1799) Ruler of Kingdom of Mysore, India

Tiger of Mysore had the gift of judging everyone’s talent. He founded a school for liberal education, with a library on a wide array of subjects. There were books brought from Bijapur, Golconda, chittur, Savanur, Kadapa as well as from the Maharajah of Mysore. All of Sultan volumes were bound in leather. There was training college for military officers, with a large library. The college in Sarangapatam Jamee al-Umoor had in its collection volumes on religion, politics and other subjects. In his personal library there were two thousand volumes, some he had authored himself or purchased from Europe. On 29 December 1786 he received a book from Europe containing information on thermometer. He instructed that this should be translated into Persian and presented to him. After reading a book he would stamp the book, so many were thus stamped. Each book was stamped Sultanat-e- Khudadad (Government given by Allah), or with his name Tipu Sultan. His collection had rare copy of the Quran calligraphed by Emperor Aurangzeb, later found its place in British Royal Library in Windsor Castle UK. Upon his defeat in 1799, about two thousand books, some having binding of jewels, were recovered by the English. In 1838 these books were shipped to England.

Library of state of Rampur, India

During the rule of Mohammed Saeed Khan (1840-55) royal library was called Kutub Khana Riyasat-e-Rampur. Nawab Hamid Ali Khan had the library staff compile a list of Arabic and Persian books and manuscripts in 1928. Famous scholars like Ameer Minai, Hakeem Ajmal Khan, Imtiaz Ali Khan Arshi were its chief librarians. Library had in its collection 9347 books in 1889, 24,117 in 1927, and currently 55,000 of which 15,000 are rare manuscripts. (Taher, page 85)

  1. Libraries of Ottoman Empire 1299-1922

Ottomans ruled over Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus, Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. New mosques, colleges and libraries were established in the 17th century. Book collection grew by leaps and bounds, mainly on account of waqf – endowments for public good. Libraries had salaried staff. In 1678 a library was established in Istanbul in a dedicated building. Topkapi Palace had built up the largest collection of Arabic manuscripts.

“There are about 14,000 manuscripts in the library. There are close to 18,000 miniatures, most of which are in the Treasury Library, which exhibit the characteristics of the various schools and styles, spread over a broad geography, of Islamic representational art. Albums and books of miniatures representing the finest work of Arabic, Seljuk, Mongol (Ilkhanid), Timurid, Uzbek, Karakoyunlu and Akkoyunlu Turkmen, Safavid, Mamluk and Ottoman palace calligraphers make up the most valuable section of the palace library. With miniatures in some 600 albums and books on science, history, religion and literature, the Topkapi Palace Museum Library has one of the richest collections in the world. The palace collection of illuminated manuscripts produced for prominent patrons of art throughout the Islamic world during its history through gifts, plunders and purchases, was further enriched by works produced by palace artists, not to mention all the Ottoman sultans who devoted to the art of the book.”  [26]

  1. National Library of Pakistan

Library was officially inaugurated in its new building in 1993. It is a depository library, is responsible for the collection, preservation and dissemination of national literary heritage. The collection includes 130,000 volumes, 1000 magazines, and newspapers. A significant part of the collection is made up of manuscripts and rare books. One of the departments is Model Children’s Library with 9000 books in English and Urdu, including titles in Braille. The library has space for a million volumes, and its reading facilities accommodate 500 patrons. There is an auditorium for seminars
workshops and conferences, including for training of librarians. [27]  Major portion of NLP’s vast collection includes publications about Pakistan, its people and culture, and books written by Pakistanis living at home and abroad.

Quaid-e-Azam University Library – The Central Library of QAU is named Dr. Raziuddin Siddiqui Memorial Library to recognize services of the first Vice Chancellor of Quaid-e-Azam University. In addition to a large multidisciplinary collection with over 230,000 books and audio visual material and 35,000 volumes of research journals, the library is a depository for United Nations Publications for many decades. There are eight seminar libraries in various departments with excellent collection and services. [28]

Punjab Public Library -A librarian from New York Asa Dickinson founded the Punjab Library Association in 1915. The training program developed at Punjab was the formal library school in The East. [29] One of Dickinson’s students Khalifa Muhammad Asadullah (1890-1949) was the first qualified librarian of Government College Lahore. Later he rose to become librarian of National Librarian of India.

Punjab library has many sections: technical, acquisition, circulation, reference, Baitul Quran section, children section, oriental, computer section and e-library. Baitu al-Quran section was established in 1968, it has in its treasures several manuscripts of the Holy Quran, some dating back to 500 years. The section houses copies of handwritten and printed Holy Qurans collected from all over Pakistan, e.g., the photocopies of the Quran remained under recitation of Hazrat Usman Ghani, Imam Jaffer Sadiq, Maulana Rome, Tipu Sultan and a hand written Quran by Emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir.

Figure 18. Punjab Public Library, Lahore, Pakistan

  1. Bibliotheque de l’institut Islamique (Islamic Institute Library) Dakar, Senegal

Figure 19. Library of the Institut islamique

Created in 1964 and situated in the enceinte of the Grand Mosque, the Institut islamique is a public institution under the direction of the Senegalese Minister of Education, dedicated to Islamic research and teaching. The library of the Institute, named for prince Naef Ben Abdelaziz Al-Saoud was opened 9 October 2004. [30]

McGill Islamic Studies Library, Montreal

The Islamic Studies library was founded, along with the Institute of Islamic Studies by Prof. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, in 1952. The library has grown from a modest departmental collection to a very well regarded library of over 100,000 volumes covering the whole of Islamic civilization. This sizable and rich collection is quite unique in Canada. [31] The Islamic Studies collection can be divided into three major categories: printed, manuscript and audio-visual materials in European and Islamic languages.

Through the Islamic Heritage Project (IHP), Harvard University has cataloged, conserved, and digitized hundreds of Islamic manuscripts, maps, and published texts from Harvard’s renowned library and museum collections. These rare—and frequently unique—materials are now freely available to Internet users worldwide. IHP is made possible with the generous support of Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal. Under manuscripts one can read entire manuscripts on 17 topics like biography, astronomy, mathematics, logic, philosophy, poetry.

  1. Mama Haidara Commemorative Library, Timbuktu, Mali

Timbuktu was a sprawling city with buildings in elegant shapes and arches. The Grand Mosque of cut stone and mortar had its own library. Timbuktu collections included manuscripts about art, medicine, philosophy, and science, as well as priceless copies of the Quran. The number of manuscripts in the collections has been estimated as high as 700,000.

The majority of manuscripts were written in Arabic, but many were also in local languages. The dates of the manuscripts ranged between the late 13th and the early 20th centuries. Their subject matter ranged from scholarly works to short letters. The manuscripts were passed down in Timbuktu families and were mostly in poor condition. Most of the manuscripts remain unstudied and un-catalogued, and their total number is unknown, amenable only to rough estimates.

Figure 20. The ancient city of Chinguetti, in the west-African nation of Mauritania, is home to around 6,000 ancient manuscripts

A selection of about 160 manuscripts from the Mamma Haidara Library in Timbuktu and the Ahmed Baba collection were digitized by the Tombouctou Manuscripts Project in the 2000s. With the demise of Arabic education in Mali under French colonial rule, appreciation for the medieval manuscripts declined in Timbuktu, and many were sold off. [32] Time magazine related the account of an Imam who picked up four of them for $50 each. In October 2008 one of the households was flooded, destroying 700 manuscripts. Islamic University in Fez, Morocco contained one of the largest and most valuable Quran collections of the day. [33] Timbuktu’s profit from book trade was lower to trade in gold and salt.

Ahmad Baba Institute, Timbuktu was established in 1970, named after 16th century influential scholar who wrote 40 works in Arabic. There are around 30,000 manuscripts which are being studied and catalogued. In 2013 ISIL recruits set the library on fire and more than 20,000 manuscripts were burnt. [34]

  1. Khuda Baksch Oriental Library, Rampur India

This library was founded in 1891 by Maulvi Muhammad Baksch of Bihar, his son Khan Bahadur  Khuda Baksch (d1908) inherited 1400 manuscripts. Khuda Baksch scoured every nook and corner of India to add more books to the library. His agents in the Middle East searched the book markets of Cairo, Damascus, Beirut, and Tehran for 18 years. Many wealthy people of Patna donated books for this library in 1904. Work on the cataloguing of books lasted from 1904 to partition of India in 1947. In 1950 complete catalogue was published in 22 volumes. There are more than 340 rare manuscripts, including Timur Nama, containing 112 paintings. [35], Shah Nama, Diwan-e-Hafiz, Safinat-ul-Auliya. There is a page of Noble Quran written on deer skin. There are over 250,000 books in the library.

Virtual Libraries

With the dawn of computers, virtual libraries have become prevalent in the Muslim World. A virtual library is a collection of resources available on one or more computer systems. User does not know where resources are located – virtual. In a digital library[36] a person has access to catalogs to find library materials. There are website where readers can read books in pdf format online in their homes. i.e.,,, People who travel long distances listen to audio books in their cars. In short book format has changed, but man’s love for books has not diminished in any way.


  1. Mohamed Taher & D.G. Davis Junior, Librarianship and Library Science in India: India 1994 … –
  2. Mohamed Makki Sibai, Mosque Libraries, a Historical Study, Mannsell, 1987 -174 pages,
  3. Stuart Murray, The Library an Illustrious History, American Library Association, Chicago 2009
  4. Leila Avrin, Scribes, scripts and books, Chicago, American Library Association, 1991 pages 208-210
  5. Banks, Medieval Manuscript Bookmaking, Meutchen, Scarecrow, 1989, 45
  6. Dr. Mohamed Taher, the Book in the Islamic Civilization.
  7. M. Lesley Wilkins (1994), “Islamic Libraries to 1920”,Encyclopedia of Library History, New York: Garland
    ISBN 978-0-8240-5787-9
  8. Olga Pinto: `The Libraries of the Arabs during the time of the Abbasids,’ inIslamic Culture 3(1929), pp. 211-43.
    As well in Pakistan Library Review 2(1-2):46 March 1959 Translation by F. Krenkow
    (I could not find this article on internet.)
  9. Fred Lerner, Library through the Ages, New York, 1999
  10. R.K. Bhatt, History and development of libraries in India, Mittal Publications, New Delhi, 1995
  11. Z. Virk, 111 Muslim Scientists, past and present Urdu, Nia Zamana Publications, Lahore 2014
  12. Ehsan Masood, Science and Islam, a history, London, 2009, page 53
  13. J.L. Breggren, Episodes in the Mathematics of Medieval Islam, 1986, NY
  14. Mohammad Makki Sibai, Mosque Libraries: a historical study, NY 1987. Ph.D. dissertation Indiana U. 1984


[1] Stuart Murray, The Library – an Illustrated History, American Library Association, Chicago, 2009

[2] Shi’i scholar Jarudi Zaydi (944) wanted to move his library, it amounted to 600 loads, cost 100 dinars. Quoted in Medieval Islamic Civilization, An Encyclopedia, Editor Josef W. Meri, Rutledge, London, 2006, volume 1, page 453!/download/fyXEdg5ku4e/iXe183nhp7dc4v4r   pdf file

[3] Caliph Muawiyah (ra) had a personal collection (bayt al-hikmah) that was enlarged by his successors throughout the Umayyad period.… This first major library outside of a mosque was known to include works on astrology, medicine, chemistry, military science, and various practical arts and applied sciences in addition to religion (Wikipedia)

[4] Mosque of Imam Abu Hanifa (767) in Baghdad had a large library. Exegete Al-Zamakhshari (1143) bequeathed his private collection to the mosque. Historian al-Waqidi (822) left 600 bookcases, Imam Ibn Hanbal (855) library amounted to 12 ½ camel loads.


[6] Contributed by Mrs. Asma Khan, Karachi University Library Science Alumni Association, Canada, online magazine Jan-Jun 2015.

[7] J.L. Berggren, Episodes in the Mathematics of Medieval Islam, 1986, NY, page 4 & 23. There are large collections of Arabic manuscripts at Berlin, Dublin, Leiden, Escorial, London, Oxford, Paris that were procured through purchase, gift, theft, spoils of wars and copying.

[8] Hugh Kennedy, When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World, Da Capo Press, Cambridge, MA 2004, p 252

[9] Quoted by Shafiq Qaisar (1939-1979) Rabwah, Kutub Khanay, Amritsar, India, 2009, p214

[10] Hitti, Capital Cities of Arab Islam, page 124

[11] International Encyclopedia of Information and Library Science, page 421

[12] Stuart Murray, The Libraries, page 56

[13] Ehsan Masood, Science and Islam, a history, London, 2009, page 53

[14] When Mahmud invaded Rayy he had some of the books owned by Sahib ibn al-Abad (995) sent to Ghazna & some burnt. Sahib’s library contained 400 camel loads. Mahmud also plundered all the treasures of Buyid Sultan Majd –al-Daula including 50 loads of books.

[15] At Canterbury (UK) the library, built over the Prior’s Chapel, was 60x 22 feet. In 1508 a number of books were sent to be bound or repaired, that it contained sixteen bookcases, each of which had four shelves, meaning it had 2000 books.

[16] Z. Virk, (Link)

[17] Muhammad Shafiq Qaisar, Kutub Khanay Urdu, Amritsar 2008, page 246

[18] P.K. Hitti, Capital Cities of Arab Islam, Minneapolis, 1973, page 154

[19] Stuart Murray, The Library, page 86. (I visited Escorial in 2000 during my visit to Spain. Pantheon was impressive.)

[20] Dr. Ramesh Kumar Bhatt, History and development of libraries in India, New Delhi, 1995, page 29

[21] I had the pleasure of visiting & praying at the dargah Nizam al-Din Awliya and Amir Khusrow in Nov 2013

[22] Azad Bilgrami, Tarikh-e- Hindustan, Vol. 5, 1918, Aligarh, page 994,

[23] Stuart P. Murray, The Libraries, page 104

[24] Mohamed Taher, Librarianship and library science in India, Delhi 1994, page 94



[27] Stuart Murray, Chicago, 2009, page 280-281, I studied it in Franklin Public Library, Franklin, WI, 027.009.M984 July 29, 2016

[28] This information was extracted from Karachi University Library Science Alumni Association online magazine, Editor M.H. Shahid. Jan-June 2015, brief description of other libraries in Rawalpindi-Islamabad is given as well.

[29] Stuart Murray, Library an illustrated history, page 210  – circulation in US public libraries was 2.46 billion in 2010




[33] Stuart Murray, The Library, 2009, page 100

[34] Zahida Hina, Urdu column daily Express Lahore, July 31, 2016. Zahida has detailed a list of libraries that were destroyed from 1901-2014 during the wars and regional conflicts.

[35] M. Shafique Qaisar Rabwah, Kutub Khanay Urdu, India, 2009, pages 310/311

[36] ‘World Digital Library’ has been in operation since 2005 by UNESCO, its aim is to make available on the Internet, free of charge and in multilingual format, significant primary materials from cultures around the world, including manuscripts, maps, rare books, musical score. As of 2015, it lists more than 12,000 items from nearly 200 countries, dating back to 8,000BCE.

Humoral Pathology


Dioscorides’ Materia Medica lists the humoral qualities of drugs

Dioscorides’ Materia Medica lists the humoral qualities of drugs. Or. 3366, f. 89r (Source)

In turn, the mixture of the humours produces the uniform parts of the body (al-ʾaǧzāʾ al-mutašābiha), such as bones, nerves, muscles or veins. In its normal state, blood is red in colour, has no unpleasant smell, and is sweet to the taste. It is produced in the liver. Phlegm is a whitish discharge that is produced in the liver or in the stomach. The two biles were more hypothetical substances, and generated many disputes about their nature and functions. Yellow bile was generally understood as a foam produced during the formation of blood. It is bright red in colour and is light and pungent. Finally, black bile in its normal state is a sediment of blood, and is refined and bright. Health is understood as a balanced state between the four humours. Disease, on the other hand, can in most cases be explained by the excess of one or several humours, or by the corruption of one or several humours.

Arab physicians inherited the theoretical frame-work of humoral pathology from the Greeks, and especially from Hippocrates’ On the Nature of Man and Galen’s commentary. But they refined this theory in various ways, and also challenged it to a point. Modifications included the potential transformations of the humours into one another as well as the introduction of additional faculties to certain humours. Attempts to challenge humoral pathology remained marginal: for most Arabo-Islamic physicians, humoral pathology should be accepted as a given principle (Gutas 2003, 151). Nonethelesss, these attempts constituted breaches within the overall philosophical framework underlying Islamic medicine…

The Four Humours

Opening page of Ibn al-Tilmīdh’s Treatise on Bloodletting

Opening page of Ibn al-Tilmīdh’s Treatise on Bloodletting. Arundel Or. 10, f. 109v (Source)

According to the prevalent theory of humoral pathology, health results from a balance of the four humours, each of which has two of the four primary qualities, cold or warm, and dry or moist. Yet, there are also contributing factors outside the human body, or, to put it in contemporaneous terms, ‘outside human nature’. These contributing factors are called the six non-naturals (al-ashyāʾ ghayr al-ṭabīʿīya); they are:

1) the ambient air, that is, the environment;
2) food and drink, the things ingested;
3) sleeping and waking;
4) exercise and rest;
5) retention and evacuation, that is, urine, stool, constipation, but also sexual intercourse; and
6) the mental state, such as joy, sadness, fear, elation, apprehension and so on, often influenced by personal interactions.

The mental states, in particular, were the focus of many physicians’ attention. In the case of certain diseases, music, conversation, and light entertainment could be prescribed. Take melancholy as an example. This disease, caused by an excess of black bile and characterised by despondency, fear and delusions, reacted also to mental stimuli. Avicenna, for instance, recommended listing to music, pleasant conversations with friends, and intercourse with slave girls. In this, he followed a long tradition, going back to the Greek medic Rufus of Ephesus (fl. ca. D 100), who advocated a similar course of action.

1001 Cures

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Atlas of Africa (Source)


Images were taken from Song of Suwari: Ode to West African Scholars by Natty Mark Samuels

White Supremacism and Islamic Astronomy in History of Astronomy Texts from the Eighteenth Century to the Present Day


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Note of the Editor: This article was originally published as: Joe Lockard, “White Supremacism and Islamic Astronomy in History of Astronomy Texts from the Eighteenth Century to the Present Day”, Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, 21(1), 29-38 (2018). We are grateful to the author and the editor for allowing us to republish the article on


1.  Arabic Astronomy In Eighteenth And Nineteenth-Century European Thought


(Figure 1.  Adam Smith (1723-1790) and Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) Source: Ibn Khaldun and Adam Smith: Contributions to Theory of Division of Labor and Modern Economic Thought by James R. Bartkus)

The disappearance of astronomical knowledge from Europe, its preservation in Arabic and Persian-speaking domains, and the eventual recovery of Ptolemaic science through re-translated manuscripts are standard points of contemporary scientific history (Pingree, 1973). In British and American histories of astronomy published from the eighteenth century forward, this story often remains obscure. When the English cleric and antiquarian George Costard (1710 ‒1782) published A Letter to Martin Folkes in 1746, he derived a historical line for astronomical knowledge that included Egyptians, Babylonians, Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans, with the Greeks being most important. More recent science conducted in Arab lands remained unmentioned and absent. Costard, one of the earlier English language writers on astronomical history, spoke for an older non-observational school where the Bible remained a crucial text for astronomy and where scientific evidence of the Earth’s age was rejected. Costard’s combination of biblicism and Hellenophilia (Pingree, 1992) could not stand up against the flow of atlases, codices and scientific manuscripts of every sort flowing into European libraries from Asia, Africa, and the Americas as a result of colonial empire-building. The noted Scottish scholar Adam Smith (1723-1790) wrote from this newer school of Enlightenment fostered empirical thought. In his lengthy philosophical inquiry and scientific survey “The History of Astronomy”, apparently completed prior to 1758 (Ross, 1995: 100) and only published posthumously, Smith (1795: 68) recited received opinion. He stated that Arabs bowed to the superiority of Greek philosophers…

…above the rude essays which their own nation had yet had time to produce and which were such, we may suppose, as arise every wherein the first infancy of science, necessarily determined them to embrace their systems, particularly that of Astronomy: neither were they ever afterwards able to throw off their authority.

Arabs were, according to Smith (1795: 69), “… too much enslaved to those [Greek] systems, to dare to depart from them …” Like nearly all European intellectuals of this period, Smith offered these suppositions despite having no personal acquaintance with the Arabic language and its literature. Rather than the empiricism that Smith professed as a method, his words represented the transmission of received opinion through the prism of European cultural superiority.

Linguistic incapacity similarly characterized the well-known French astronomer-revolutionary Jean Sylvain Bailly (1736-1793) in his frequently-cited 1787 Traité de l’Astronomie Indienne et Orientale that explored Asian astronomy. To adequately address the topics covered in his treatise, knowledge of Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, Chinese, Cambodian and Vietnamese would have been necessary. However, Bailly had no command of any of these languages. Instead, he relied on second-hand European reports, particularly those of the famous Italian founding-Director of Paris Observatory Giovanni Domenico Cassini (1625-1712)—who also spoke no Asian language. Unfamiliarity with non-European languages remained the norm among Western historians of astronomy until after WWII.

By the late eighteenth century, intellectual tides were shifting away from religious astronomy, although astronomical texts continued to exercise magnetic effect over theologians seeking biblical proofs. Yet this more extensive understanding of astronomical history had a limited effect. A more modem text such as History of Astronomy by R.W. Rothman (1829: 32-35) provides a brief history of Arab astronomy in an appreciative and objective fashion. although he acknowledges passing over much history. Meanwhile, in his Mahometanism Unveiled, which was generally dedicated to a condemnation of Islam as heresy, the British cleric Reverend Charles Forster (1787-1871) nonetheless took time to review at length—and praise—Islamic sciences. In terms of astronomy, Forster (1829: 267) wrote:

The progress made by the Saracens, in their scientific researches, is to be measured, not so much by the amount of their actual discoveries, as by the surprising reach of their conjectural anticipations, while criticizing the now-exploded systems of the ancients.

Forster, an Orientalist (and grandfather of novelist E.M. Forster), had dubious competence in Semitic languages—he claimed to read Egyptian hieroglyphs in Hebrew characters—and none at all in astronomy.

In 1852 the Scottish astronomer Robert Grant (1814-1892) published his influential volume, History of Physical Astronomy from the Earliest Ages to the Middle of Nineteenth Century, but despite its comprehensive title this book largely ignores Chinese, Persian and Arab astronomy prior to Newton.

This contrasts with the extensive treatment that Paris Observatory Director Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre (1749-1822) provided on Arab and Asian astronomy in his magisterial Histoire de l’Astronomie du Moyen Age. where he wisely began the discussion with the following disclaimer:

“We have very imperfect knowledge of the astronomical works composed by the Arabs.” (Delambre, 1819:1; our English translation).

This point is important. Throughout much of the twentieth century, histories of astronomy failed to heed Delambre’s caution. Islamic astronomy generally received an exceedingly brief mention in basic astronomy texts, and not much more in longer treatments of the history of astronomy. In Seeds’ Foundations of Astronomy, for example, we read:

“For 1000 years Arab astronomers studied and preserved Ptolemy’s work, but they made no significant improvement in his theory.” (Seeds, 1990: 70).

Since archeoastronomy and Greek astronomy receive much more attention from Seeds, his college-level readers might conclude from this one-paragraph reference that Islamic astronomy was negligible, deserving mention only for its alleged storehouse function.’ Rarely does one encounter one thousand years of intellectual history so blithely dismissed.

Seeds’ version does not differ greatly from a lengthy chain of Western representations of this branch of Arab culture, as they seldom venture beyond a summary account of the Almagest. Although the transmission history of the Almagest via Arabic was well-known (Haskins, 1924: 103 — 110), nineteenth-century popular texts tended to reduce coverage to a dismissive minimum. For example, an 1873 high-school book boiled it down to a single sentence:

During the Dark Ages, astronomy was cultivated chiefly by the Arabians, who made no advance as regards theory, but were diligent observers, and devised some improvements in instruments and methods of calculation. (Lockyer, 1873: 17)

Such views are the residua of a long tradition that apprehended exact sciences as incompatible with fundamental elements of a historic ‘Oriental’ character. In History of Astronomy, the British academic and astronomical historian Arthur Berry (1862-1929) states:

… a remarkable development of science had taken place in the East during the 7th century. The descendants of the wild Arabs who had carried the banner of Mahomet … soon began to feel the civilizing influence of the civilization of the peoples whom they had subjugated. (Berry, 1898: 76).

Beyond an ill-informed and reductionist understanding of Arab history and its formative forces, we read here the exclusive consignment of ‘civilization’ and its attributes to more sedentary societies. In such accounts, the study of astronomy marks a transition from brutishness to a higher civilizational stage. In Elements of Astronomy, Alfred Picquot writes of the Arab tribes:

At first rude and illiterate, despising every book but the Koran, and impelled by the irresistible enthusiasm of fanatic zeal, they rushed on like a destructive torrent, carrying along with them a desolation and ruin … But no sooner did they enjoy the sweets of peace, amidst the repose of conquest, than they bent their ardent minds upon scientific pursuits and devoted themselves particularly to the study of astronomy. (Picquot, 1828: x).

In this historiography, the impulses that drove conquest were turned to the observation and measurement of celestial bodies. Similar praise of astronomy as representing evidence of civilization accomplishment can be found in antebellum United States astronomy instruction books that commended Egyptian, Chaldean and Arab astronomy (e.g.see Vose, 1832: 2-3; Olmsted, 1952: 1-2), although without displaying distinct knowledge of the particular accomplishments.

For such nineteenth-century writers, astronomy constituted a measure of human intelligence and its development represented a generational emergence into civil maturity and learning. As Berry (1898: 82) notes in a gratuitous adjectival opinion:

Ulugh Begh (born 1394), a grandson of the savage Tartar Tamerlane, developed a personal interest in astronomy and built about 1430 an observatory in Samarcand where he worked with assistants.

The scientific product of recently-settled wildmen and grandchildren of savages was, as might be anticipated, of negligible character. Berry (ibid.) concludes:

No great original idea can be attributed to any of the Arab or other astronomers whose work we have sketched. They had, however, a remarkable aptitude for absorbing foreign ideas and carrying them slightly further.

This historical account reserves originality to the deduction of primary physical principles in the mode of Newton or Kepler, failing to appreciate the range of creativity and observational prowess embodied in other than European traditions. From Adam Smith’s dismissal of ‘rude’ Arab knowledge to Berry’s contempt for a ‘savage’ and unoriginal culture, we can trace a century and a half of Western ignorance of Islamic scientific achievement.

Figure 2. The Samarkand Observatory, Uzbekistan (Source: Ulugh Beg)

2. Racism in Transit: The Twentieth-Century

By the twentieth century, racial ideas had become commonplace in descriptions of medieval Arab and Persian progress in astronomy. William Walter Bryant (1865-1923), a staff member at the Greenwich Observatory, displayed a similar penchant for sweeping cultural generalizations. In his History of Astronomy, Bryant (1907: 26) wrote:

The Arabs excelled in methodical accuracy. We owe them an immense debt for the introduction of the decimal notation, instead of the cumbersome numerical systems of the Greeks and Romans, though even this system they adopted from India. But like other Oriental nations they failed in the direction of speculative philosophy, and devoted their analysis rather to astrology than to astronomy.

Bryant extols Arab astronomy’s accuracy while backhanding it as methodical. as if there were a contradiction. He then attributes Arab civilization with the mathematical genius to create the decimal system, only to slap it for intellectual plagiarism. Finally, he dismisses a collectivized ‘Oriental’ world for a supposed preference for anti-empirical speculation and predilection for fortunetelling. Yet the Arab world accepted the doctrine of a spherical world for most of a millennium before European mapmakers came to the same conclusion and ceased drawing sea monsters at the edge of a flat world. Caliph al-Mamun in eighth-century Syria produced better estimates of the Earth’s equatorial circumference than did Christopher Columbus. Saliba (1979) makes a contested claim that the school of astronomers at the famed Maragha Observatory (est. 1259) was developing non-Ptolemaic astronomical models by the thirteenth century. Whatever the merits of this claim, Islamic astronomy and its observatories, although still not helio-centric, had left pre-Copernican Europe well in arrears (Starr, 2013: 9, 461-463). Late twentieth and twenty-first-century historians of astronomy have debated for decades whether Copernicus derived his discoveries from Greek translations of Arabic texts from the Maragha school (see Saliba, 1994; Swerdlow and Neugebauer 1984).3

Bryant’s early-twentieth-century scientific historiography resonated with the white supremacist racialism of Houston Chamberlain, Lothrop Stoddard and others on both sides of the Atlantic. In his masterwork on racialism. Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, first published in German in 1899, British-born Chamberlain (1855-1927) repeatedly attacks the notion of Arab contribution to scientific progress and in a splenetic footnote asserts “This whole Arabian science and philosophy was nothing but a wretched translation of Hellenic thought and knowledge” (1911: 399). The American Stoddard (1883-1950), writing a decade after Chamberlain, contrasts an alleged Arab cultural decrepitude, lethargy, and ignorance with a progressive Western civilization that grasped the talisman of science, and strode into the light of modem times.” (Stoddard, 1921: 22). Both Chamberlain and Stoddard attributed irrationalism to the Oriental ‘race-soul’ that prevented genuine scientific progress, and supposedly limited Arabs and other non-whites to an imitative use of Western science and technology. These formulations provided a basis for dividing the world between white intellectualism that shaped modernity and a ‘colored world’ that provided labor but constituted anti-modernism.

Such claims presented historiographic problems: how could the centuries-long predominance of sciences in the Arab world be explained? The Swiss-American scholar Florian Cajori (1859-1930) earlier grappled with this conundrum in his 1893 History of Mathematics, a foundational text in the field. He complimented Arab mathematicians and astronomers for their efforts but claimed that the Persian astronomer Abfi al-Wafa Bartijani was “… an important exception to the unprogressive spirit of Arabic scientists …” (Cajori, 1893: 110) and that there was no “… the important principle of mathematics brought forth by the Arabic mind: (Cajori, 1893: 116). Further, “The Arabic mind did not possess that penetrative insight and invention by which the mathematicians in Europe afterwards revolutionised the science.” (Cajori, 1893: 117). So, according to Cajori, who in later life was to hold a Mathematics Chair at the University of California-Berkeley, “… The Semitic race was, during the Dark Ages, the custodian of the Aryan intellectual possessions.” (ibid.). Thus, a white supremacist history of science could understand Islamic astronomy and mathematics as having provided a temporary home to Aryan scientific knowledge during an eclipse of the white race-soul. In the writing of the Royal Greenwich Observatory astronomer Wafter William Bryant (1865-1923) we can locate an early recitation of this `preservation thesis,’ that is, a claim that the historic role of Arab and Islamic civilization had been to store and imitate Western scientific knowledge. Any improvement was merely iterative. Bryant (1907: 27) claimed that

… the Arabs for many centuries kept the flame of astronomy alive, and by steady improvement in accurate observation, increased the value of each successive set of tables and constants.

Perhaps Bryant had learned the lessons of Arab imitation a little too well, for turning to the earlier 1905 work of his famed Danish-born colleague, John Louis Emil Dreyer (1852-1926), long-time Director of Armagh Observatory, one finds remarkably similar language. Dreyer (1905: 249) wrote

Though Europe owes a debt of gratitude to the Arabs for keeping alive the flame of science for many centuries and for taking observations, some of which are still of value, it cannot be denied that they left astronomy pretty much as they found it.

The point to note here is not so much the borrowed language but rather the formation of a prevailing orthodoxy in science historiography, one where the transmission of Eurocentric and dismissive assessments relies upon an enduring human faculty for uncritical and unevidenced re-statement. By contrast, the work of Arab astronomers in reworking and overhauling the Ptolemaic inheritance appears positively advanced in its insistence on empirical evidence. This is a variation of Hellenophilia that Pingree (1992: 555) identifies as “… the false claim that medieval Islam only preserved Greek science and transmitted it as Muslims had received it to the eager West.” In fact, as Pingree points out, Arab scientists heavily transformed Greek mathematical and astronomical knowledge and made them Islamic sciences before Europe rediscovered Greek thought. In the early twentieth century, the typical treatment of this transformation and transferral appears in the one paragraph that the British astronomer-engineer George Forbes (1849-1936) devotes to Arab and Persian astronomy in History of Astronomy (see Forbes, 1909: 19).

Dreyer was substantially more expert and scholarly in his knowledge of Arab astronomy than Bryant and other Edwardian writers, recognizing a wide diversity of historic Arab Astronomers and opinion instead of treating them as an undistinguished whole. The chapter on ‘Oriental Astronomers’ is much more comprehensive and informative than that found in other general astronomy history texts of the period or since. David King, an outstanding contemporary historian of astronomy, suggests that there has never been a more developed successor to this work and that its cumulative effects have verged into the pernicious:

As a branch of the history of astronomy in general, Islamic astronomy has not yet gained its rightful place. Historians of astronomy still tend to see the Muslim astronomers as preservers and transmitters of classical astronomy to Europe. In fact, in the literature on the history of science (as distinct from Islamic studies), there has been no improvement yet in the chapter ‘Oriental Astronomers’ in J.L.E. Dreyer’s history of astronomy first published about 1900. (King, 1986: 4).

In short, by 1986, despite the passage of nearly a century of radical scientific advance, no more accurate general history of Arab astronomy had been achieved than was developed in the waning years of the Victorian era. Michael Seeds’ assessment of Arab astronomy, which appears in equivalent university texts, is a leftover cultural artifact of Victorianism rather than a validated historic scientific determination.

In fact, the vast bulk of topical evidence remains unexamined. As King (1974: 38) stated near the beginning of his labors in the field,

The manuscript libraries of the Near East, Europe, and North America, contain thousands of Islamic astronomical manuscripts, the contents of which demand a complete reappraisal of the Muslim achievement in the exact sciences.

Most of these manuscripts consist of works that were not transmitted to Europe and represent astronomical research activity from the period 750-1500 Common Era. Some of the classes of tables they represent include trigonometric tables concerning the solar arc; spherical astronomical tables; tables for Muslim prayer times according to solar longitude: tables displaying the azimuth of Mecca by latitude and longitude; tables for marking sundials, astrolabes and quadrants and planetary equation tables (King, 1974: 41-50). Evaluation of this material requires a combination of astronomical, mathematical and language skills that is in scarce supply, a situation that goes far towards explaining the dearth of research in the field.

Unsubstantiated interpretations surrounding this lacuna in science history continued through much of the twentieth century. Dreyer operated within the context of the massive European development of academic orientalism distinguished by its colonialist discourse and prejudiced cultural epistemologies. It supplied the authority to substantiate stereotypical characterizations of mentality, cultural contributions, originality or its absence, and other ‘oriental’ phenomena.

The heavy presence of that discourse appears in the History of Astronomy by the Dutch Marxist astronomer Antonia Pannekoek (1873-1960). Pannekoek (1961: 170) concludes an appreciative chapter-long survey of ‘Arabian Astronomy with an observation that

The importance of Arabian astronomy lay in the fact that it preserved the science of antiquity in translations, commentaries, interpretations and new observations and handed it down to the Christian world.

The reason for the decline of Arab science, according to Pannekoek (ibid), was that An impulse towards continual progress was lacking: minds were dominated by a quiet fatalism.” One catches here an inflection of Marxist teleology applied to astronomy, for Pannekoek was as well-known a left Marxist theorist as an astronomer (see Tai, 2017). Yet if impulses towards progress were substantially lacking, then the evolution of a millennial tradition of increasingly refined astronomical observation would be at complete variance with such an alleged cultural incapacity. Imputing fatalism to non-European societies incorporates the same perceptions that sought to justify European colonial rule as a means of progress. The terms of Pannekoek’s analysis depict Arab astronomy as the servant of the Christian world rather than, more plausibly, as a ‘European’ (noting that Greek astronomy was pan-Mediterranean more than the late-constructed Europeanization of Greece) foundation for a flowering of Arab culture. Such terms underline how Pannekoek’s account consumes and retransmits cultural and historical stereotypes.

Such attitudes can lead to contradictions from one paragraph to the next, or even within a single sentence, as an author attempts to accomplish a simultaneous representation of great achievement and lack of scientific consequence. In his History of Astronomy, the well-known Italian astronomer Giorgio Abetti (1882-1982) presents one such contradicted, near-nonsensical example: Ulugh Begh published a star catalog where

…for the first time the stellar coordinates, celestial latitude, and longitude were given not only in degrees but also in minutes.

Although no important discoveries were made in the East, the accumulation of observations was sizeable and important, as was the development of mathematical methods and the invention of our present system of counting, which greatly simplified the arithmetic. (Abetti, 1952: 51). 

Abetti literally trips over his own historiographic feet, caught between opposing denotations of importance. Grant’s History of Physical Astronomy, written a century earlier, has much the same representational problem despite its attempted objective tone:

The Arabian astronomers do not appear to have effected any essential improvements in the methods of observation. Their instruments. however, were generally larger and better constructed than those of the Greek astronomers, and they appear to have taken greater precaution to ensure the accuracy of their results. (Grant, 1852: 441).

More important than the contradictions found in such histories is the point that such problems arise in the context of a narrative of cultural deficiency and decline.

Ideas of scientific stasis or incremental improvement upon European sources, common fare in nineteenth-century European histories of astronomy, retained authority. For example, in Elements of the History of Philosophy and Science … the British cleric, the Reverend Thomas Morell (1703-1784), states:

From the time of Ptolemy, who may be considered as the last of the ancient astronomers, this sublime science, so far from having advanced in any part of Europe or Asia, evidently retrograded and almost disappeared, till nearly the close of the eighth century, when a partial revival of literature and science in general, but especially of astronomy, took place under the auspices of several of the Saracenic Kaliphs (Morell, 1827: 254).

Morell, who provides an otherwise positive treatment of the work of Islamic astronomy, frames it as a descendant of European science whereas it was in fact largely independent. Even in an appreciative and relatively deep treatment of Islamic astronomy, Historical Account of the Progress of Astronomy by the British astronomer John Narrien (1782-1860), we encounter condescending lines such as

… like children who destroy the things they possess and then weep over their loss, the Arabs came to seek the light of knowledge at Alexandria, where they had endeavored to extinguish it; and removed the ashes which remained, that they might collect what the fire and their barbarism had spared. (Narrien, 1833: 294).

Narrien addresses ‘the Arabs’, treated as a socially unified group, as the destroyers of knowledge whose modest contribution lay in its reconstruction under the patronage of the caliphate.

By contrast, the latter decades of the twentieth century witnessed erosion in the prevalence of dismissive or culturally condescending Victorian approaches to Arab astronomy. The post-war period saw the publication by the American scholar Edward Stewart Kennedy (1912-2009) of his important catalog of Islamic astronomy manuscripts (Kennedy, 1956). By the 1970,, researchers with a substantive record in the field still constituted a small group counted on one or two hands at most. In a 1980 review of the state of research, David King described a situation of a substantial supply of Arabic and Persian-language astronomical manuscripts, limited access to original sources, and a minute number of researchers with the necessary scientific and linguistic qualifications to Interpret them and advance research. King, Julio Samsó and fellow scholars have made substantial historiographic progress since then, aided in part by the emergence of a number of universities in Europe, North America and Australia that have attracted graduate students, and history of astronomy conferences solely about, or including dedicated sessions on, Islamic and/or Arab astronomy. As a result, the last three decades have witnessed an increasing number of scholarly publications on aspects of Arabic astronomy by astronomers from nations such as Australia. China, England, Germany, India, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Lebanon, Malaysia, South Korea, South Africa, Spain, and the United States.

Meanwhile, general historians of astronomy, aware of emergent specialist scholarship on Islamic, Asian, African, and New World astronomy have become far more judicious in their descriptions. For example, O’Neil’s Early Astronomy from Babylonia to Copernicus (1986) recognizes and delineates the ethnic, religious, and geographic diversity of Arab astronomy: presents a chronological overview of developments; and eschews value judgments concerning the scientific culture and racial proclivities of Arabs. O’Neil wisely qualified his non-specialist knowledge with the observation

It seems to me that there may be a great deal of Arabic astronomical material which has not been located, or if located not adequately interpreted: these are only hunches based on the remarks of the scholars looking into these matters. (O’Neil, 1986: 119).

A sense of empirical caution prevails in such disclaimers.

More recently, popular works such as Brief Introduction to the Astronomy of the Middle East by the well-known British astronomical historian John Steele (2008) have sought to draw together the specialist knowledge published over recent decades. Meanwhile, in his Solar System Maps from Antiquity to the Space Age the American scholar Nick Kanas provides extensive coverage of non-European astronomy (Kanas, 2014: 39-86). A major survey such as John North’s brilliant Cosmos (2008) provides an integrated narrative of astronomy’s development in Asia, North Africa, and Europe. Some writers have reversed historical emphasis entirely, attributing European progress largely to the inspiration of Arab and Persian astronomers. Henri Hugonnard-Roche (1996: 284) adopts this view where he writes: .

.. the contribution of Arab science was essential to the birth and subsequent development of astronomy in the Latin West. Prior to this contribution, there was indeed no astronomy of any advanced level in these countries. What was understood as astronomy was scarcely more than a collection of imprecise cosmological ideas …

Such a shift in narrative perspective emphasizes how dramatically the historiographic field has changed. In terms of introductory astronomy texts for classrooms, these generally have moved away from attempts at cultural history and periodization. There is a much stricter focus on the science at hand than in astronomy texts of a century and more past.

3. Conclusion

While racial characterizations of astronomical progress largely have disappeared from overt view, the question arises of whether they now lie implicit in marginalized and nominally color-blind treatments of Arab and other astronomies. An astronomy textbook that skips from Ptolemy to Copernicus, Newton, Kepler, and Herschel still misses major bodies of astronomical research—Chinese, Indian, and Mayan, for example—and eliminates non-Western societies and their knowledge from the discussion. To use the contemporary scientific utility as a sole criterion for inclusion on grounds of immediate relevance repeats the dominance of Western scientific paradigms. For example, Hague and Sharma (2016) have described the resulting Eurocentric biases and exclusion of Indian astronomical history from contemporary university syllabi and textbooks.

To summarize the argument made here: for nineteenth-century European scientific historians, the achievement of Islamic astronomy derived principally from the recognition of the greatness of Greek thought and its translation since Arab culture, to their minds, remained insufficient to support real scientific achievement. White racial supremacism was either overt or covert in terms of the historical argument that negated Islamic astronomy. Early- to mid-twentieth-century histories of astronomy provided little more than retrograde repetitions of their eighteenth and nine-teenth-century predecessors in their treatment of these topics. Such slow or absent progress in the historiography of astronomy contrasts markedly with the astonishing development in astronomy itself. Problems of detail, care and caution remain in some classroom texts due to their failure to address Arabic, Persian, Chinese, Indian, African, New World, Australian, Pacific island, and other bodies of astronomical knowledge.

Historical and cultural inclusiveness represents only one element of pedagogy for public astronomy. The American scholar Professor George Saliba argues persuasively that the framing of astronomy’s history through cultural separation and periodization instead of commonalities has been part of the problem. He questions how

… we are to distinguish what was Arabic in the science of the European Renaissance or what was Greek in Arabic science. When there are such intimate connections between scientific traditions it becomes almost meaningless to speak of a Greek. Arabic or European science as if each had a character of its own. (Saliba, 2002: 367).

A practical conclusion becomes that we can teach popular astronomy better as an endeavor pursued by a wide range of human cultures engaged in empirical observations of the skies.

4. Notes

1. Rainy ‘s work on Asian astronomy remained a heavily-cited reference source throughout the following century: see, for example. Lalande (1792:134-138); Blot, 1862: 170-172; Moigno (1877: 1528-1531). On the other hand, Jean Baptiste Joseph Delambre (1817: 400-441), the most authoritative French astronomer of his day, spent considerable effort challenging Bailly.

2. Foundations of Astronomy, one of the most successful and long-lived college-level introductory astronomy texts in the United States, is now in 13th edition (2015) edited by Seeds and Dana Backman. The 1990 edition’s characterization of Arab astronomy has disappeared but reference to non-European astronomy is even less than nearly three decades ago.

3. For a general survey of this question, see Freely, 2011: 162-180; Steele, 2008: 135-138.

5. Acknowledgments

The author wishes to thank Professors Raza Ansari, Jarita Holbrook, Laura Kay, Wayne Orchiston and John Steele for their useful suggestions and comments. Nonetheless, all errors remain those of the author.

6. References

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Berry, A., 1898. A Short History of Astronomy. London, John Murray.

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Blake, S.P., 2016. Astronomy and Astrology in the Islamic World. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.

Bryant. W., 1907. A History of Astronomy. London. Methuen.

Cajori. F., 1893. A History of Mathematics. New York. Macmillan.

Chamberlain, H.S., 1911. The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century. Volume 1. London. Bodley Head.

Costard. G., 1746. A Letter to Martin Folkes, Esq., President of the Royal Society. Concerning the Rise and Progress of Astronomy among the Antients. London, llive.

Delambre, J.B.J., 1817. Histoire de l’Astronomie Ancienne. Volume 1. Paris, Courcier (in French).

Delambre. J.B.J., 1819. Histoire de l’Astronomie du Moyen Age. Paris. Courcier (in French).

Dreyer. J.L.E., 1953. A History of Astronomy from Thales to Kepler. Second Edition. New York, Dover [originally published as History of the Planetary Systems from Thales to Kepler. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1905].

Freely, J., 2011. Light from the East: How the Science of Islam Helped to Shape the Modern World. London, Tauris.

Forbes, G., 1909. History of Astronomy. London, Watts, and Co.

Forster, C., 1829. Mahometanism Unveiled: An Inquiry, in which that Archheresy, its Diffusion and Continuance, are Examined on a New Principle, Tending to Confirm the Evidences, and Aid the Propagation, of the Christian Faith. Volume 2. London, J. Cochran.

Gibbs. S., and Saliba, G., 1984. Planispheric Astrolabes from the National Museum of American History. Washington (DC), Smithsonian Institution Press.

Grant, R., 1852. History of Physical Astronomy from the Earliest Ages to the Middle of Nineteenth Century. London, Robert Baldwin.

Haskins, 1924. Studies in the History of Medieval Science. Cambridge (Mass.), Harvard University Press.

Hague, S., and Deva, S., 2016. Indian astronomy: the missing link in the Eurocentric history of astronomy. Cultural Studies of Science Education, 11, 515-526.

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Ilyas, M., 1988. Astronomy of Islamic Times for the Twenty-First Century. London. Mansell.

Kanas, N., 2014. Solar System Maps from Antiquity to the Space Age. New York, Springer.

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King. D., 1980. The exact sciences in Medieval Islam: some remarks on the present state of research. Middle East Studies Association Bulletin, 14, 10-26.

King. D., 1986. Islamic Mathematical Astronomy. London. Variorum Reprints.

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Saliba, G., 1979. The first non-Ptolemaic astronomy at the Maraghah School. Isis, 70, 571‒ 576.

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Steele, J.M., 2008. A Brief Introduction to the Astronomy of the Middle East. London, Saqi.

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Swerdlow, N.M., and Neugebauer, O., 1984. Mathematical Astronomy in Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus. Berlin, Springer.

Tai, C., 2017. Left radicalism and the Milky Way: connecting the scientific and socialist virtues of Anton Pannekock. Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences, 47, 200 ‒ 254.

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Dr. Joe Lockard is an Associate Professor of English at Arizona State University in Tempe. Arizona. He specializes in nineteenth-century American literature. with particular focus on issues of race and slavery. His research and teaching also deal with prison literature: for the past decade, he has led a weekly poetry workshop in Florence State Prison. He recently published co-edited volumes of critical studies on Native American writer Louis Owens (University of New Mexico Press), writing pedagogies in prisons (Syracuse University Press), and has a forthcoming co-edited volume on STEM education in US prisons (SUNY Press). (Image Source)

Science In India During The Muslim Rule


Islamic World welcomed Christians and Jewish students equally with Muslims, not only that, but entertained them at the Government expense and that hundreds of Christian students from South of Europe and the countries of the East took advantage of that chance to escape from ecclesiastical leading strings; we can easily perceive what a debt of gratitude modern European progress owes to Islam, while it owes nothing whatsoever to the Christian Church, which persecuted, tortured, even burnt the learned.” Marmaduke Pickthall, The Cultural Side of Islam, Lahore, 1969, p 76

The scientific cooperation between India and the Arabs dates back to the time of the Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad when a number of books on astronomy, mathematics, and medicine were translated from Sanskrit into Arabic. From then on the ancient scientific knowledge of India continued to influence Muslim scientists. Arab interest in Hindu sciences was parallel to their interest in Greek learning.

When Sind was under the dominion of Caliph al-Mansur (753-774), there appeared before him a scholar who had come from India. He was skilled in the calculus of the stars known as Sindhind (i.e. Siddhanta), and possessed methods for solving equations founded on the kardagas (i.e. sines) calculated for every half degree, also methods for computing eclipses and other things. Al-Mansur ordered the book Brahma-siddantha in which all this contained to be translated into Arabic, and that work should be prepared from it which might serve as a foundation for computing the motions of the planets. This was done by Ibrahim al-Fazari (d770) and Yaqub Ibn Tariq (d796) in cooperation with Hindu pundits in 750 and the book was called Al-Zīj ‛alā Sinī al-‛Arab, or Sindhand al-Kabir. (1) In fact, the Hindu scholars had brought two books with them.

This Siddhanta translation was possibly the vehicle by means of which the Indian numerals were transmitted from India to Baghdad. With the help of these Hindu Pundits, Al-Fazari translated Brahmagupta’s other book Khandakhadyaka and gave it the Arabic name of Arkand. Both works were extensively used and exercised great influence on the development of astronomy in the Islamic world. It was on this occasion that the Arabs first became acquainted with the Hindu system of astronomy. They learned astronomy from Brahmagupta (d.668) earlier than Alexandrian scientist Ptolemy.

The Greek and Sanskrit texts on mathematics and astronomy were used by Muslim scientists as a bedrock to develop new fields. Hindu mathematics left a more lasting impression on the Arab sciences. What we call today Arabic numerals, were, in fact, Indian numbers. The Arabic word for numbers is Hindsah, which means from India. This way of writing numbers, including the way to write a ‘zero’, was very exciting to mathematicians. Arab scientists in Iraq, especially Muhammd ibn Musa al-Khawrizmi (d.840) used the new numbers to develop algebra around 830. The English word algorithm is derived from his name. Some mathematical and astronomical terms were borrowed from Sanskrit. Ethical writings of Chankya (Shanaq) and works on logic and magic were translated as catalogued by ibn Nadim in his 10th century Kitab al-Fihrist. Ibn al-Muqaffa translated Pancatantra into Arabic as Kalila wa Dimna. The fascinating story of Sindbad was partly of Indian origin. Parts of Mahabharata were rendered into Arabic by Ali Jabali, c.1026. (2)

A large number of Sanskrit medical, pharmacological and toxicological texts were translated into Arabic under the patronage of Khalid Barmaki, the vizier of Caliph Al-Mansur. Indian medical knowledge was given a further boost under Caliph Harun al Rashid (786-809) who ordered the translation of Susrata Samhita into Arabic. For over five hundred years Muslim & other writers continued to apply to their works on arithmetic the Indian name. Prime Minister Yahya bin Khalid Barmaki deputed ambassadors to India to invite distinguished scholars, physicians, & philosophers to Baghdad. In appointing translators, the Caliph made no distinction of creed or color.

The Muslims were very keen on informing themselves of the customs, sciences, and religions of the people whom they came into contact with. Yaqoob Kindi’s (873) account of India was based on the evidence of the envoys sent to India to procure medicines and to report on Indian religions. Ali Ibn Hyusayn Masudi (956) visited India and wrote about Hindu beliefs, their history from legends, and complimented them on their achievements in their sciences as the ‘cleverest among the dark people’. Baghdad’s bookseller Ibn al-Nadim, al-Biruni, al-Ashari, Shahrastani and many other notable writers devoted chapters in their books to Indian religions and sciences. Al-Nubakhti’s Kitab al-ara-I wal adnya-i-Madhahib al-Hind mentioned by Masudi was perhaps the earliest study of Hindu sects. Sulayman the merchant visited India about 851 and praised Hindi’s proficiency in medicine, astronomy, and philosophy. Contact with Hindu sciences came to an end when the political grip of Baghdad on Sind was loosened.

During the Mughal rule of India, science & technology developed mainly due to the interests of Emperors and Sultans, particularly in astronomy, agriculture, engineering, architecture, and medicine. A number of encyclopedias and dictionaries were penned. Initially, dictionaries were needed as new ideas were being developed as a result of interaction between Sanskrit and other languages. During the later period of Mughal rule, new ideas were accepted from European science and technology.

In sciences the Hindus had developed elaborate systems in mathematics, astronomy, and medicine; the Muslims were obliged to Hindus and Greeks for these departments of knowledge. In due time Muslims built up original structures of their own scientific systems. When Muslims arrived in India they brought their own knowledge which was not inferior to Hindus. The Hindus did not disdain to incorporate what they found new. Thus the Hindus astronomers took from the Muslims a number of technical terms, the Muslim calculation of longitudes and latitudes, and various other items of the calendar, Zij. (3)


Abu Rehan al-Biruni (d.1053) was the first scientist of Islam who made a deep study of Hindu sciences. He was the first scholar to study India and the Hindu scientific literature. He has been described as the founder of Indology. He studied Sanskrit diligently and was so proficient in it that he could translate into, as well as from Sanskrit.

Hindu scholars gave him the title of Vidya-sagar (ocean of knowledge).

Until the 10th century, history most often meant political and military history, but this was not so with him. In his Kitab fi Tahqiq ma li’l-Hind (Researches on India), he described India‘s cultural, scientific, social and religious history. Due to military incursions of King Mahmud of Ghazna in India, Hindu scholars had moved to remote religious centers. In this charged atmosphere Biruni imposed upon himself the strict discipline of scientific objectivity. He tried to explain Hindu doctrines without any bias, avoiding any kind of polemics.

Biruni’s approach to Hindu sciences was comparative, making analogies between Greek and Hindu civilizations. His comparison of two civilizations led him to the conclusion that Hindus could not bring sciences to classical perfection, and that scientific theories of the Hindus “are in a state of utter confusion, devoid of any logical order, and in the last instance always mixed up with the silly notions of the crowd”. (Kitab al-Hind)

Biruni regarded the essence of the Hindu religion as a form of monotheism, idol worship as ignorant passions of the people. He was the first to introduce the study of Bhagavad Gita to the Muslim world, and the first Muslim to study the Puranas and to translate Patanjali and Samkhya into Arabic. In considerable detail, he outlined the principles of Hindu astronomy, geography, mathematics and medicine. (4)

Biruni translated a Sanskrit book Batakal, as Bátanjal. From this work, he extracted a great deal which he made use of in his magnum opus Qánún Mas’údi, a 1500 page work on mathematics, geometry, and astronomy. All that the sages of India have said about numbers, ages, and eras (tawáríkh), has been exactly given by Abú Rehan in his translation of the Bátakal. (5)

Sultans of Delhi

Jalal al-Din Khilji (d.1296) is the first Muslim sultan of Delhi to have showed some intellectual curiosity for Hindu learning and Sanskrit studies. Sultan Muhammad bin Tughlaq (1351) was a great scholar versed in logic, Greek philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, and physical sciences. He had knowledge of medicine and was skillful in dialectics. He also was an expert calligrapher. He enjoyed the society of Hindu yogis and extended his patronage to Jain divines. Zia al-Din Nakhsabi’s adaptation of 52 short stories from Sanskrit into Persian in 1330 entitled Tuti Nama (Book of Parrot) is the outstanding achievement of Tughlaq’s reign in this field.

The Sultans of Delhi were very much interested in mechanical machines like pulleys and piers. In the book Sirat Feroz Shahi (1370) 13 such instruments were listed which were used in transporting stones and heavy building materials. A manuscript of Sirat is preserved at Bankipur library. During the rule of Sultan Nasir Shah (1500-11) a scholar by the name of Muhammad ibn Daud translated many Arabic books into Persian which was then the official language of the state.

Sultan Firoz Shah Tughlaq (1388) allowed more than a third of a million pounds (36 lacs) to learned men and pious endowments. (6) A number of Madrassas were opened to encourage literacy. He set up hospitals for free treatment of the poor and encouraged physicians in the development of Unani medicine. He commissioned translations of medical works from Sanskrit. He ordered a work on Hindu astronomy and astrology to be translated into Persian under the name of Dalaile Firoz Shahi. Works on music and wrestling were also translated. Ziya al-Din Barani (1357), wrote a chronological history of Tughlaq’s rule, entitled Tarikh-i-Firoz Shahi. Genuine interest and patronage of Sanskrit learning began with Sultan Zain al-Abidin of Kashmir (1420-1470) who commissioned the translations of Mahabharta and Raja-tarangini into Kashmiri language, which was the first indication of Muslim interest in the pre-Muslim Hindu history of India.

Intellectual curiosity of Emperor Akbar

The Mughal Emperors (1526-1858) took a keen interest in the development of astronomy. They patronized astronomers in their royal courts. The works thus produced were mainly zijes (astronomical tables) and calendars. Many scientific works brought from outside of India like Bahauddin Amuli’s (1574-1621) Khulasa tul-Hasab, and Allama Tusi’s Tahrir Uqlidis and Tahrir al-Majisti. Attempts were made to write commentaries and translate these works which resulted in the intermingling of Indian mathematical tradition with Arabic & Persian did take place enriching the country.

Muslim patronage of Hindu learning reached its highest watermark in the court of Emperor Jalal al-Din Akbar (d.1605). Some of the Hindu nobles in his court wrote in Persian and Sanskrit, like Raja Manohardas and Raja Todar Mal (d.1589) who translated Bhagavata Purana into Persian. Akbar had a stupendous library composed entirely of manuscripts written and engraved by skillful penmen. The volumes in his library numbered only 24,000 but they valued at $3,500,000. A translation bureau called Maktab Khana was established in the Diwan Khana of Fatehpur Sikri. He patronized poets and learned men. He supervised the translation of Mahabharta into Persian. (7). In 1578 he ordered Abul Fazl to translate the New Testament into Persian. No copy of this translation is extant, but it appears he made the translation with the help of the Catholic Fathers. (8) The translation of Ramayana was undertaken by Abdul Qadir Badauni on the express command of Akbar in 1585 and completed in 1590. The Harivamsa Purana, a supplement to Mahabharta, was translated by eminent Persian poet Mulla Sheri.

Some Muslim nobles like Abdul Rahim Khani-i- Khana, Abul Fazl and Faizi knew some Sanskrit and translated from it. In 1584 Akbar ordered Mulla Abdul Qadir Badauni to translate from Sanskrit into Persian Singhasan Battisi, embodying the stories of Bikarmajit and the 32 statutes. A learned Brahmin was appointed to be Badauni’s collaborator to interpret Sanskrit text for him. The Persian work was entitled Nama-i- Khirad (The Wisdom Augmenting Book). Next year Akbar ordered Abul Fazl to translate from Arabic into Persian Hayatul Haiwan, the celebrated zoological dictionary, a compendium of folklore, and popular medicine, authored by Musa al-Damiri (d1406).

In the preface to his Persian translation of Mahabharata, Abul Fazl says: “Akbar initiated a policy so that in his age the pillars of the blind following were demolished and a new era of research and inquiry in religious matters commenced”. (9) Faizi paraphrased the first two puranas into Persian verse. Taj al-Ma’ali translated a Sanskrit work and called Mufarrih al-Qulub, the manuscript is at Indian Office Library, MS 3350. (10)

Father Antonio Monserrate presented to Akbar in 1580 an Atlas sent to him by Archbishop of Goa. He had written in his travelogue that he had seen Akbar working on machines and giving instructions on how to make new machines. This is how he described Emperor Akbar:

He is a great patron of learning, and always keeps around him erudite men, who are directed to discuss before him philosophy, theology, and religion, and to recount to him the history of great kings and glorious deeds of the past. He has excellent judgment and good memory and has attained to considerable knowledge of many subjects by means of constant and patient listening to such discussions. Thus he not only makes up for his ignorance of letters (for he is entirely unable either to read or write), but he has also become able clearly and lucidly to expound difficult matters. He can give his opinion on any question so shrewdly and keenly, that no one who did not know that he is illiterate would suppose him to be anything but very learned and erudite.” The Commentary of Father Monserrate, on his Journey to the Court of Akbar 1591. 

Shaikh Abu al-Faiz ibn Mubarak – nom de plume Faizi (1547-95) was a poet laureate of Emperor Akbar. At the suggestion of Akbar, Faizi translated Bhaskar Acarya’s (1114-60) Sanskrit work on mathematics Lilavati into Persian in 1587; it contained theorems of arithmetic and algebra. The translation was so popular that Ataullah Rashdi Lahori translated Bhaskar Acarya other books on algebra and measurement. Faizi, a prodigious author of 100 books, translated a few mathematical problems from Latin into Persian also.

The famous book covering the administration of Emperor Akbar, A’eenay Akbari written by Abul Fazl Allami ibn Mubarak (d.1602), described West and Central Asian astronomy. Abū al-Fażl’s greatest literary accomplishment was the monumental Akbar-nāmah in 3 volumes. Among his many works is a Persian translation of the Bible. Authors of later generations admired his style and sought to imitate it. Zije Ulugh Beg, prepared by Sultan Ulugh Beg (1393-1449) in Samarkand was translated into Sanskrit, entitled Ulakabegijica.

Emperor Humayun (1556) built a personal library & observatory in Old Fort Delhi. His court astronomer Mulla Chand produced “Tashil Mulla Chand”, which was a redaction of Zije Ulugh Beg. Jahangir and Shah Jahan had planned to build observatories but could not due to financial reasons. Farid-uddin Munajjam compiled Zij Shah Jahani, the first section dealing with various calendars and date conversion. Shah Jahan had many astronomers in his royal court like Malajit, Munisvara, Nityanand, Mulla Farid, Mulla Murshid Sherazi, and Mulla Mahmud Jaunpuri. Jaunpuri was a versatile scholar whose works Shams Bazigha and Shams Baligha throw light on medieval astronomy.



Figure 1. Humayun observatory in Delhi (Source)

Muhammad Fadil Samarkandi produced an encyclopedia Jawahir al-Uloom-i-Humayuni (1555) covering geography, hawks, mineralogy, animals, medicine, astronomy, mathematics, optics, optics, alchemy, and accountancy.

The Persian-Indo polymath, Fatehullah Sherazi (d.1582), a scientist at the court of Emperor Akbar (d.1605) reformed the Calendar. He translated three Sanskrit astronomy work into Persian. One of his inventions, a military weapon, was designed for killing infantry, an early volley gun with multiple gun barrels similar to hand cannons. Another cannon-related machine he invented which could clean sixteen gun barrels simultaneously and was operated by a cow. He also developed 17 barrelled cannon, fired with a matchlock.

Emperor Noor al-Din Salim Jahangir (d.1627) continued the patronage of translations from Sanskrit into Persian as well as of Hindu scholars who wrote on Hindu law, sciences and lexicography. Jahangir was an excellent writer and loved nature. He recorded various details of flora and fauna from all over India. He was not only curious but a scientific observer of minute details of species. A number of his observations are detailed in his autobiography Tuzk-e-Jahangiri

Fariduddin Munajjum, a court astronomer of Shah Jahan (d.1666), compiled Zije Shah Jehani. The first section of the tables dealt with various calendars, second section dealt with spherical astronomy, third section dealt with the determination of the motions of the planets and their positions in the sky. The Zij was translated into Sanskrit under the title Siddhanta-Sindhu, by Nityananda at the command of vizier Asaf Khan & completed in 1635. A copy of the manuscript at Jaipur Museum once belonged to Emperor Shah Jahan, his seal is on folio 1. The Sanskrit translations consisted of 440 pages, 11 copies of this written on ‘jahazi’ paper, 45×33 cm were distributed among the aristocrats of North India. Four copies are at Jaipur palace library. Nityananda explained the Arabic and Persian technical terms for the benefit of Hindu astronomers while giving differences between Islamic and Hindu astronomy. He devised new technical terms during the translations, which were later used in the translations Phillipe de Hire’s Latin tables into Sanskrit.

Malajeet was an astronomer at Shah Jahan’s court. He wrote Parsiprakasa (1643) which gave Arabic, Persian astronomical terms and their Sanskrit equivalents. Two Hindu scholars namely Nitya Naad, & Menisvara, used Arabic, Persian and Greek works to synthesize Islamic traditions with those of India. Mulla Mahmud Jaunpuri was a versatile scholar, an expert in mathematics and astronomy. His book Shamsay Bazegha and Shamsey Baligha bring out outstanding features of astronomy. Emperor Shah Jehan wanted to construct an observatory for Mulla Jaunpuri, but could not do so on account of financial constraints on the royal treasury. Abdur Rahman Chisti (1683) explained the Hindu theories of cosmogony in his Mira’t Makhluqat – wonders of creations.

Maharajah Sawai Jai Singh

Maharajah Sawai Jai Singh (d.1743) was an astronomer of the first order & the most enlightened king of 18th Century India. He had some Greek works on mathematics (including Euclid) translated into Sanskrit as well as more recent European works on trigonometry, logarithms and Arabic texts on astronomy. As he found the prevalent tables in use at the time defective, he decided to prepare new ones. First, he built metal instruments which, however, did not come up to his idea of accuracy. Therefore he constructed at Delhi huge masonry instruments. Subsequently, to verify the correctness of his observations, he constructed instruments of the same type in Jaipur, Mathura, Banaras and Ujjain observatories.

In his five observatories, Hindu and Muslim observers were employed and produced a set of astronomical tables called Zijey Jadid Muhammad Shahee. He was fluent in Persian and Arabic and was acquainted with Zij-i-Ulugh Beg. He incorporated in his works the latest European astronomical knowledge as is evidenced from the Zij which was based on Latin tables of Phillipe de Hire (d.1718). Zije-i-Jadid first section deals with calendars, the second deals with the determination of heavenly bodies and third covers the motions of the Sun, Moon and the rest of the planets, eclipses of the Sun & Moon, the appearance of the new Moon.

IndiaFigure 2. The author of this article visited this observatory Jantar Mantar in Delhi on March 2009 (Source)

There is evidence that Rajah used a telescope for his observations of the celestial bodies. This telescope was brought by Father Bandier who had visited Jaipur. His observations of Venus and Mercury, the rings of Saturn and Sunspots are proof that he employed a telescope. The 16th and 17th centuries saw a synthesis between Islamic astronomy and Indian astronomy, where Islamic observational techniques and instruments were combined with Hindu computational techniques. While there appears to have been little concern for theoretical astronomy, Muslim and Hindu astronomers in India continued to make advances in observational astronomy and produced nearly 100 Zij treatises.

Abdur Rahim Dahriyya suggested in his book Shigarf-e-bayan translations of European works on astronomy and mathematics. He made extensive use of European knowledge in anthropology and geography.

Jai Singh used a telescope for his observations of the stars. This telescope was brought to his court by Father Baudier. His observations of Venus, and Mercury, the satellites of Jupiter, rings of Saturn and sunspots are solid proof that he used a telescope. (Science and technology in India by A.Y. al-Hassan, page 599

Jai Singh’s Brahman tutor Samrat Jagannath, translated Allama Nasiruddin Tusi’s Tahrir al-Majisti into Sanskrit entitled Samrat Siddhanta in 1732. He also translated Tusi’s Kitab Usul al-Hindasa which was based on Euclid’s Elements. Nayansuk-hopadhaya translated Tusi’s Tahrir al-Ukar into Sanskrit entitled Ukara. A manuscript is preserved at Jaipur Museum library. Yantra-prakara was composed of Raja Jayasimha in Dehli in 1729 based on Tahrir al-Majisti, later translated into Sanskrit by Jagannath.

Descriptions of 275 astronomical manuscripts still housed in the palace library of Jaipur help clarify how Raja Jayasimha was led to rely on observations for practical astronomy and on European theories for accurate calculations of celestial phenomena.

Sarahtjagkira Virjandi is a translation into Sanskrit of Chapter 11 of Book 2 of Tusi’s Tadhkira with Birjandi’s sharah completed by Nayanasukho-padhya assisted by Muhammad Abidda, completed on December 16, 1729. It is evident that Persian polymath Nasiruddin Tusi (1201-1274) and mathematician Bahauddin Amuli (1547-1621) books were very popular in India.

Following is a list of Arabic/Persian astronomical tables at Jaipur which was translated into Sanskrit in India.

  1. Bist dar bab Usturlab by Tusi
  2. Kitab al Ukarr, translation from Greek by Qusta ibn Luqa, 9th century
  3. Risala dar Hai’ya
  4. Risala dar Usutrlab
  5. Sharah al-Tadhkira by Tusi (Resume on astronomy)
  6. Tahrir al-Majisti by Tusi (Redaction of al-Majisti)
  7. Tahrir Hisab usul al-Hindasa
  8. Tahrir al-Ukarr by Tusi
  9. Zij I Jadid by Ulugh Beg completed in 1437.
  10. Zij-e- Khaqani by Jamshed al-Kashi
  11. Zij-e-Shah Jahani

Ghulam Hussain Jaunpuri was the author of Zijey Bahadur Khani (1846) which was based on the observations made by the author himself. It also covered mathematics, trigonometry, optics, and astronomy.


Fathullah Shirazi (c. 1582), was a PersianIndian polymath and mechanical engineer who worked for Akbar. He developed a Volley gun. Considered one of the most remarkable feats in metallurgy, the seamless globe was invented in Kashmir by Ali Kashmiri ibn Luqman in 1589-90, and twenty other such globes were later produced in Lahore and Kashmir during the Mughal Empire. Before they were rediscovered in the 1980s, it was believed by modern metallurgists to be technically impossible to produce metal globes without any seams, even with modern technology. Another famous series of seamless celestial globes were produced using a lost-wax casting method in the Mughal Empire in 1659-1960 by Muhammad Salih Tahtawi (from Thatta, Sind) with Arabic and Persian inscriptions. It is considered a major feat in metallurgy. These Mughal metallurgists pioneered the method of wax casting while producing these seamless globes.

During the Mughal period, India came into contact with European science and technology. A number of Indians visited Europe and observed new researches taking place there.


Astrolabe used for astronomical observations was developed and improved upon in India. Humayun patronized astrolabe manufacturing. The astrolabe maker at his court was Allahdab Asturlabi Lahori whose sons and grandsons also made astrolabes. Lahore seemed to have been a major centre for the manufacture of astronomical instruments. Maharajh Jai Singh constructed a number of astrolabes that were made from masonry, i.e. Smarat Yantra, Jai Prakash, Ram Yantra, Misra Yantra.

A few years ago, the writer of this article visited the Adler Astronomy Museum in Chicago, located on the banks of Lake Michigan. There were 31 astrolabes on display in the Islamic astronomy section. There was a map of the Islamic world on the wall, and a list of eminent Muslim astronomers, of whom Nasir al-din Tusi was on the top of the list. One could do experiments, like finding Mecca using an astrolabe, or using an alidade on the astrolabe one can determine the degree at which a certain star is located in the sky. I saw one astrolabe which had the following inscription on it: Amal Ziauddin Muhammad ibn Mulla Humayun asturlabi Lahori 1057 AH. (i.e. 1647 ad)

The instruments and observational techniques used at the Mughal observatories were mainly derived from the Islamic tradition and the computational techniques from the Hindu tradition. In particular, one of the most remarkable astronomical instruments invented in Mughal India is the seamless celestial globe.

Spanish astronomer & instrument maker Ibrahim Al-Zarqali’s (1087) treatise on the universal astrolabe Safiha was translated into Sanskrit as Jarakali-Yantra by Nayansuk-hophadhaya and was incorporated into Jagan Nath’s Siddhanta Kaustubya around 1730.


Most of the available Sanskrit literature was translated during the Muslim rule of India, and in some instances, Muslims made significant contributions. Euclid’s Elements was translated into Arabic by Allama Nasiruddin Tusi, while Qutub al-Din Sherazi had translated it in 1311into Persian. Based on these translations, Abdul Hamid Muharrar Ghaznavi wrote Dastur al-Bab fee Ilm al-Hisab after 26 years of intensive labor.

One of the distinguished families of Punjab that made significant contributions to mathematics was Ustad Ahmad Lahori, aka Ahmad al-Mima’r, (1580-1649) the architect of Taj Mahal & Red Fort. One of his sons Ataullah Rashedi translated Bij Ganita describing the reign of Emperor Shah Jehan. (r. 1628–58) He also wrote Khulasa-e- Raaz in Persian which dealt with arithmetic, algebra, and measurement. His other book Khazinatul A’adad dealt with arithmetic, the geometry of Euclid and algebra. Another son Lutfullah Muhandis wrote Risala Khaws A’adad dealing with properties of numbers. He was also author of Sharah Khulasa al-Hisab and his Muntakhebat was a translation of Persian mathematician Bahauddin Aamili’s Khulasa tul–Hisab (the epitome of mathematics).

Imad al-Din Riyadi, the grandson of Ustad Ahmad was also a versatile scientist. He wrote a commentary on Amuli’s Khulasa tul-Hisab, entitled Hashiya bar Sharah Khulasa which consisted of a preface, ten chapters, and an appendix. Besides these, he wrote a commentary on Sharah Chaghmani entitled Hashiya bar Sharah Chaghmani. He also wrote a book on problems of spherical astronomy and geometry. On music, he authored Risala Dar Ilm Museekee which covered a wide range of topics on philosophy.

It appears that mathematics was not only associated with accountancy and revenue collection, but with astronomy and architecture as well. A number of translations were made from Persian & Arabic into Sanskrit. Maharajh Sawai Singh made major contributions in trigonometry, which was to find the sine of one degree and its parts, namely minutes and seconds.

Abul Khair Khairullah, the grandson of Ustad Ahmad Lahori, wrote a commentary on Zij Muhammad Shahi, translated Almagest as well as wrote a commentary on it. He was appointed the director of the Dehli observatory in 1718. His other major works were: Majmu’a al-Madkhil fil al-Najoom & Majmu’a al-Saboot al-Qudsia.

In the 19th century, European books on mathematics were available in India and English terms were used in these texts. For instance, Khazinatul Ilm (Treasury of Knowledge) was a Persian book by Khawaja Azimabadi dealing with arithmetic, geometry, astronomy along with the English terminology and their translations into Persian. This is also reflected in the works of Fakhruddin Khan Bahadur, author of Risala dar Biyan Amal al-Qata and Shamsul Hindsa, which are on measurement, geometry, and trigonometry.

Other notable works produced are as follows: Sharh al-Shamsiya by Abu Ishaq b. Abdulah of Gulkunda (1555), Sharh Tashrih Usool al-Hindsa by Mir Muhammad Hashim which is a commentary on geometrical work of Tusi (1635), Qawaid al-Hisab by Ismat Allah Saharanpuri which dealt with algebra and arithmetic, Khulsatul Hisab a commentary on Amuli, Dastoor al-amal by Anand Ram (18th century), Bij Ganita translated into Persian by Jawahar Mal, Risala Riyadhi by Lutfullah Muhandis, Mir’at al-Hisab by Khawaja Muhammad Mah. Some outside works brought to India were Khulasat al-Hisab by Baha al-din Amuli and Tahrir Uqlidis & Tahrir al-Majisti by Tusi.


Muslim practitioners were known by their designation Hakim or Tabib. Hakim means a scientist or a learned man while Tabib means a physician. The Jarah was a surgeon, surgery was called Elmey Jarahat. Most of the medical & scientific books were written in Arabic and Persian.

Islamic medicine in India was founded on books of two Persian physicians, namely Zakariya Razi and Hakim ibn Sena. During the rule of Tegin (1098-1127) a scholar from Khawrazm Hakim Zainuddin Ibrahim Ismail wrote a book on a medicine called Zakhirah Khawazim. This compendium asserted great influence in India from the 12th to the 15th century. The book described the definition of medicine, diagnosis of an illness, reasons for illness, fevers, types of poisons and constitution of the human body. He also wrote another book Aghraz al-Tibb which was also very popular among the local practitioners of medicine. His Tibbey Yadgar was an extensive pharmacopeia in 14 chapters. Physician Nafees Ibn Kirmani (d.1424) wrote a book entitled Tibbey Akbari.

Hakim Mansur ibn Ahmad was a Persian who had settled in Kashmir. He authored a book Kafaya al-Mujahideen, on the diseases of women and children and their treatment. This was dedicated to Sikandar Shah II of Dehli. One of the secretaries of Emperor Humayun Yusuf ibn Muhammad Herati wrote a book on various diseases and their remedies. Muhammad Momin wrote Tuhfatul Mominin which was a compilation of various Arabic & Sanskrit authorities, on the whole field of medicine. Madan al-Shifa Sikandar Shahi was written in 1512 by Beva-bin-Khas., a vizier of Sultan Sikandar Lodhi, synthesizing Islamic and Sanskrit medicine. Famous historian Hindu Shah wrote Dastul al-Ittiba’a. Hakim Nooruddin Abdulla was a nephew of abul-Fazl, vizier of Akbar. He wrote a book Alfaz al-Adwiyya on material-medica giving names in Hindi, Arabic, Persian, Latin, Spanish, Turkish and Sanskrit. The book was dedicated to Emperor Shah Jahan.

Hakim Ali Gilani (1554-1609) was not only a physician but a renowned mathematician and a scientist. He was attached to the court of Akbar who had given him the title of Jalinoos al-Zaman (Galen of the world). He was the only Indian physician to have written a commentary of all five volumes of al-Qanun. The first volume of the commentary Jamay al-Sharahein was published from Lucknow in 1850. Another book of his on medicine is called Mujarrabatey Gilani (tested remedies). Emperor Jahangir believed that Akbar was poisoned by Hakim Gilani.


Figure 3. Aurangezb, hardly a believer in pluralism

Muhammad Raza of Shiraz wrote a treatise Riaz-i- Alamgiri on medicine, food, and clothing, and was dedicated to Aurangzeb. Muhammad Akbar Arzani, the court physician of Aurangzeb, wrote Tibb-i-Akbari in 1678, which was in fact translation of Sharh -ul-Asbab. Arzani also wrote Tajriba-i-Akbari, based on the author’s own experiences.

His Qarabadain Qadri was an extensive pharmacopeia of medicine extensively used in India. Imam Ghulam Hakim wrote in Persian Elaj al-Ghuraba (treatment of special diseases) which was reprinted several times during the 19th century due to its immense usefulness.

Hakim A’lvi Khan was born in Shiraz, in Persia, in 1670. In 1699 he went to India and presented himself at the Mughal court of Afghans, where he was appointed a physician to Prince Muhammad A‘zam (who was later to rule for only three months in 1707). The Mughal ruler Bahadur Shah (ruled. 1707-12) gave him the title ‘Alavi Khan. Muhammad Shah (reg.1719-1748), the Mughal ruler in Delhi, raised him to the rank of Shash-hazari and gave him the title of Mu‘tamad al-Muluk. When the Persian ruler Nadir Shah defeated Muhammad Shah and sacked Delhi, ‘Alavi Khan accompanied Nadir Shah when he left India and ‘Alavi Khan accepted the position of Hakim-bashi (“chief physician”) to Nadir Shah (1747). After making a pilgrimage to Mecca, ‘Alavi Khan returned to Delhi in 1743 and died there four years later. He wrote four medical treatises in Arabic and four in Persian. His nephew Muhammad Husayn ibn Muhammad Hadi al-‘Aqili al-‘Alavi al-Khurasani al-Shirazi (fl. 1771-81), known as Hakim Muhammad Hadikhan, used ‘Alavi Khan’s pharmacopoeia titled Jami‘ al-javami‘-i Muhammad-Shahi, which was dedicated to the Mughal ruler Muhammad Shah. A large portion of this comprehensive work written in 1771 is on simple and compound remedies.

Sihatul Amraz composed by Pir Muhammad Gujrati (1726) contained prescriptions for the cure of all diseases. Following is a list of undated medical manuscripts preserved in India.

  1. Khulasat –ut-Tibb: by Muhammad bin Masood, a short treatise on medicine, on the art of dying, and paper-making.
  2. Asrar-i-Ittiba: by Shihab al-Din, essays on the virtues of amulets, medicine, charm for averting disease.
  3. Shifa ar-Rijal: Shihab al-Din, a poetical treatise on medicine
  4. Bahr-ul-Manafia: 1794 by Maulood Muhammad, dedicated to Tipu Sultan, a treatise on midwifery, children, exorcising devils, enchantments etc.
  5. Qanun-dar-Ilm-Tibb: a translation by order of Tipu Sultan, a complete pharmacopeia.
  6. Tarjuma Kitab-i-Farang: a translation of Dr. Cookburn’s treatise on a twist of the intestines.
  7. Mufradat dar-Ilm-Tibb: on botany and natural history, translated by the order of Tipu Sultan from French & English.
  8. Risala Tib-i-Aspan: translation from Sanskrit by Zain al-Din 1519 and dedicated to Shamsuddin Muzafar Shah on farriery.
  9. Kitab al-Sumum: by Shanka of India, translated into Persian by Hatim, later by Abbas Saeed Jauhari.
  10. Sharah Hadae-tul-Hikma: by Muhammad bin Ibrahim, qazi of Shiraz, contains the whole course on sciences read in schools. It was much esteemed by Muslims of India.
  11. Makhzanul Adwiyya: by Hakim Muhammad Hussin, printed in Persian.
  12. Tazkira-tul-Hind: by Hakim Razi Ali Khan, on materia medica in Persian, written in the early part of the 19th century, lithographed in 1866 Hyderabad.

In the 17th and 18th century when Persian medicine almost died in Iran, it was kept alive in India. Cyril Elgood observes, “ When Persian medicine almost died of inanition in Persia, it was kept alive by the Hakims of Delhi & Lucknow. Its literature was preserved by the printing presses of northern India. It was to them that we owe the first printed editions of such famous works as Tashrih-i-Mansuri, Tuhfatul Momineen, and Tuhfatul Ashiqeen of Avicenna.” (11)


Sultan Alauddin Khilji (1296-1316) had several eminent Hakims in his royal courts. This royal patronage was a major factor in the development of Unani/Arabian practice in India, but also of Greco-Islamic (Unani/Arabian) medical literature with the aid of Indian Ayur-vedic physicians.

During the reign of Moghul kings of India, several Qarabadains were compiled like Qarabadain Shifae’ee, Qarabadain Zakai, Qarabadain Qadri, and Elaj-ul-Amraz. In these pharmacopeias quantities of drugs in a given prescription were specified, and methods of preparation. The court physicians supervised the preparations of royal medicine, which were sealed to ensure safety. Hakeem Ali Gilani was the chief physician of Emperor Akbar and used to accompany him in his travels. Hakim Gilani used to carry his pharmacy with him in these travels. He invented a kind of sweet wine for getting rid of traveling fatigue. During the reign of Emperor Jehangir, Itr-i-Jehangiri was discovered by Queen Noor Jehan. Hakim Ain-ul-Mulk Shirazi composed for his royal patron emperor Shah Jahan Alfaz-al-Adwiyya (vocabulary of drugs). It was printed in 1793 in Calcutta, and rendered into English by Gladwin. Hakim Akbar Arzani, was a court physician of Emperor Aurangzeb 1707). He wrote Tibbe Akbari, and Mizan al-Tibb.

During British rule, Eastern medicine in India declined. However, the famous house of Hakim Sharif Khan of Delhi made a concerted effort to rejuvenate the decaying art of Unani medicine. Hakim Ajmal Khan founded the Hindustani Dawakhana and the Tibbiya College in Dehli. At the Tibbiya College, Dr Salimu-Zaman Siddiqui carried on a chemical investigation of certain potent drugs and Ajmailain was produced. At Lucknow, the Talim al-Tibb college was established under the auspices of Hakim Abdul Aziz.

Hakim Kabir al-Din was a distinguished author who wrote four books on the Eastern system of medicine: Masaela Dauran-ey-Khoon, Sharah Qanoon Shaikh, Tashrih Kabir, Ilm al-Adwiyya and Burhan.

Muhammad Husayn al-Aqili al-Alavi, a practitioner and grandson of a well-known Indian practitioner wrote in 1732 Makhzan al-adwiyah dar-i bayan-i adwiya( The Storehouse of Medicaments Concerning the Explanation of Materia Medica). The illuminated Persian manuscript, now at the National Library of Medicine, USA is in alphabetical order.

At Lahore Hakim Ghulam Nabi and Hakim Ghulam Jeelani promoted Eastern medicine by writing books such as Tarikh al-Ittiba, and Makhzan al-Adwiyya. After the demise of Hakim Ajmal Khan, Hakim Abdul Majid (d.1922) started a pharmacy in 1906 which blossomed into Hamdard Waqf Laboratories. Hamdard now is a leading pharmaceutical house in India and Pakistan.

Chemical Technology

Chemical technology during the Muslim rule was centered on five areas:

  1. Preparation of drugs 2.preparation of perfumes and cosmetics 3.preparation of beverages including fermented ones 4.making of dyes 5.making gun-powder, and pyrotechnics.

Rockets were also made with gunpowder in them. Some rockets went in the air and some went along the surface. Tipu Sultan (d.1799) and his father Hyder Ali (d.1782) are regarded as pioneers in the use of solid-fuel rocket technology or missiles for military use. A military tactic they developed was the use of mass attacks with rocket brigades on infantry formations. Sultan Tipu (1799) , scholar, soldier, poet & ruler of Mysore wrote a military manual called Fathul Mujahidin in which 200 rocket men were assigned to each Mysore a “cushoon” (brigade). Mysore had 16 to 24 cushoons of infantry. The areas of town where rockets and fireworks were manufactured were known as Taramandal Pet (“Galaxy Market”). It was only after Tipu’s death that technology eventually reached Europe.

Figures 4-6. (from left) Tipu Sultan, first son of Hyder Ali (Source), Hyder Ali (Haidar Ali), Sultan of Mysore and commander of the Marathas (Source), Translation of what Baba Iqbal wrote about Tipu: “The will of Tipu for the Muslim Ummah and youth! — This message is for you today — from Tipu in the voice of Baba Iqbal.  Treasure, it, understand it and apply it and live by it. This is the code of honor, real men are made of.  May Allah give you all the vision, courage and character of Tipu – a life of dignity, a death of honor…”

The rocket men were trained to launch their rockets at an angle calculated from the diameter of the cylinder and the distance to the target. In addition, wheeled rocket launchers capable of launching five to ten rockets almost simultaneously were used in war. Rockets could be of various sizes, but usually consisted of a tube of soft hammered iron about 8 inches (20 cm) long and 1.5 to 3 in (3.8 to 7.6 cm) in diameter, closed at one end and strapped to a shaft of bamboo about 4 ft (1 m) long. The iron tube acted as a combustion chamber and contained well packed black powder propellant. A rocket carrying about one pound of powder could travel almost 1,000 yards. In contrast, rockets in Europe, not being iron cased, could not take large chamber pressures and as a consequence, were not capable of reaching distances anywhere near as great.[57]

Hyder Ali’s father, the Naik or chief constable at Budikote, commanded 50 rocket men for the Nawab of Arcot. There was a regular Rocket Corps in the Mysore Army, beginning with about 1200 men in Hyder Ali’s time. At the Battle of Pollilur (1780), during the Second Anglo-Mysore War, Colonel William Baillie’s ammunition stores are thought to have been detonated by a hit from one of Hyder Ali’s rockets, contributing to a humiliating British defeat.

After the fall of Srirangapattana, 600 launchers, 700 serviceable rockets, and 9,000 empty rockets were found. Some of the rockets had pierced cylinders, to allow them to act like incendiaries, while some had iron points or steel blades bound to the bamboo. By attaching these blades to rockets they became very unstable towards the end of their flight causing the blades to spin around like flying scythes, cutting down all in their path.

These experiences eventually led the Royal Woolwich Arsenal to start a military rocket research and development program in 1801, based on the Mysorean technology. Their first demonstration of solid-fuel rockets came in 1805 and was followed by the publication of A Concise Account of the Origin and Progress of the Rocket System in 1807 by William Congreve.


Various types of weapons were made in India. Zinc was not known in Europe but extracted in India. Many alloys were made, iron, steel, brass, bronze used in making weapons. These kinds of weapons were produced in a plant called Karkhana. Descriptions of castings of cannons are found in Babur Nama & Ain-e-akbari.

Paper industry was introduced during the 14th century. There were numerous centers of fine textiles and the silk industry. The Yargha was invented to clean 16 gun barrels at a time which was turned by a bullock. To grind flour wagon mill was used which employed the cog-wheel principle.

Screw cannon: In order to carry heavy cannons on the hilltop, the cannon was made in pieces and assembled subsequently. Multi-barreled cannons were made in order to fire 17 barrels successively. For coating the surface of copper with a mixture of zinc and tin, threads were made from various metals like gold, silver which were used in textiles. Gold & silver leaf was produced for use in goods and medicines. Another dimension of metallurgy was the production of gold, silver and copper coins.


During the Muslim rule of India considerable work was done in mathematics, medicine, astrology, astronomy, and translations of various texts. Custodians of faith-filled the minds of people with superficial things and did not allow enquiry into religious dogmas. Science was not patronized as a state policy by Kings or the Raja’s. It is unfortunate science and technology was not pursued rigorously as it was being developed in Europe. No scientific institutions were set up, nor were students sent to Europe for higher studies. The money that was spent on constructing monumental edifices, had it been spent on creating scientific institutions, India could have become an advanced country a long time ago.


  1. A Hist of Astronomy from Thales to Kepler, by J.L.E. Dreyer, NY, 1953, p 244
  2. Aziz Ahmad, Islamic Culture in the Indian Environment, Oxford, 1964, p 109
  3. Tara Chanda, Influence of Islam on Indian Culture, Lahore, 1979, p140
  4. Aziz Ahmad, Islamic Culture in the Indian Environment, Oxford, 1964, p 113
  5. Sir H.M. Elliot, The History of India, as Told by Its Own Historians.

The Muhammadan Period, UK 1877

  1. S. Lane-Poole, Medieval India, 712-1764, 1963, Dehli, p112
  2. W. Durant, The Oriental Heritage, NY 1954, p 461
  3. S.A.A. Rizvi, Religious & Intellectual History of Muslims, Dehli, 1975, p 206
  4. S.A.A. Rizvi, Religious & Intellectual History of Muslims, Dehli, 1975, p 209
  5. Aziz Ahmad, Islamic Culture in the Indian Environment, Oxford, 1964, p 220
  6. C. Elgood, Medicine in Persia, NY 1934, page 68


-Edward Balfour, Cyclopaedia of India & of Eastern & South Asia, Vol 2.

-Mohammad Taher, Educational developments in the Muslim World, Dehli, 1997

-Mona Baker, Routhledge Encyclopaedia of translation studies, UK, 1998

-Father Monserrate, His journey to the court of Akbar, London, 1922

-A. Rogers, Tūzuk-i-Jahangīrī Or Memoirs Of Jahāngīr, London 1914

-Tara Chanda, Influence of Islam on Indian Culture, Lahore, 1979, p140

– C. Elgood, Medicine in India, NY 1934

– S.B. Ashri, Delhi’s Jantar Mantar Observatory, New Delhi, 2005

– Andreas Volwahsen. Cosmic Architecture of India,

– Astronomical Monuments of Jai Singh, London, 2001

– V.S. Bhatnagar, Life and times of Sawai Jai Singh, Delhi, 1974

– Zakaria Virk, Biography of al-Biruni, Nia-Zamana, Lahore 2007

– A.Y. al-Hasan, Science & Technology in Islam, UNESCO 2001

Development of Astronomy in Ottomans

 Generally, it is possible to study the development of astronomy in the Ottomans in three periods;

  1. The astronomy from the establishment of Ottomans to Ali Qushji’s arrival in the Ottomans (1299-1472)
  2. The astronomy from Ali Qushji’s arrival in Ottomans to the demolition of Istanbul Observatory (1472-1580)
  3. The astronomy after the demolition of Istanbul Observatory

bannerFigure 1. Part of the manuscript which shows Istanbul Observatory
(Source: Ottoman Contributions to Science and Technology by Salim Ayduz)

In the first period, it cannot be said that the astronomical studies were productive just like the other scientific areas. There is only one scientist who stands out in this period, Ahmad-i Dâî, who is famous with Risâla-i Sî Fasıl (The Treatise in Thirty Chapters) which consists of translations of al-Muhtasar fî Ilm al-Tancîm va Marifat al-Takvîm (Summary of the Astronomy and Calendars) by Nasîrüddin al-Tûsî. In addition to this book, there are a few books about cosmology and cosmogony. Generally, these books include the basis for Ptolemaic astronomy. 

The second period begins with Ali Qushji’s arrival in Istanbul. He was educated in Semerqand by Ulugh Beg and was directed to Semerqand Observatory which was founded in 1421 by Ulugh Beg. After Ulugh Beg’s death, he came to Istanbul in 1472 by the insistence of Mehmet II.

Figure 2.
 Artistic impression of Ali Al-Qushji (Source: Ali Al-Qushji… by Ilay Ileri )

Ali Qushji was born in Samarkand. The last name Qushji derived from the Turkish term kuşçu – the falconer – due to the fact that Ali’s father Muhammad was the royal falconer of Ulugh Beg. He took courses in the linguistic sciences, mathematics, and astronomy as well as other sciences taught by scholars in the circle of Ulugh Beg. In 1420, Qushji secretly moved to Kirman where he studied the mathematical sciences. Upon his return to Samarqand, he presented Ulugh Beg with a monograph (Ḥall eshkāl al‐muʿaddil li‐l‐masīr) (Explanations of the Equation of Mercury) in which he solved the problems related to Mercury.

Ulugh Beg was fascinated with the works and read the entire work while standing up. Ulugh Beg assigned him to Samarkand Observatory at that time. He worked there till Ulugh Beg was assassinated.

Figure 3. Statue of Ulugh Beg and his students, Registan square, Samarqand, Uzbekistan (Source: Ulugh Beg” )

After Ulugh Beg’s death, Ali Qushji went to Herat, Tashkent and finally Tabriz. The Ak Koyunlu ruler Uzun Hasan sent him as a delegate to the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II. When Qūshjī and his entourage approached Istanbul, Sultan Mehmed sent a group of scholars to welcome them. Upon arrival in Istanbul, Qūshjī presented his mathematical work entitled al‐Muḥammadiyya fī al‐ḥisāb and his astronomical works entitled al-Fathiyya to the Sultan.

Qūshjī spent the remaining two years of his life in Istanbul. He educated and influenced a large number of students, who, along with his writings were to have an enormous impact on future generations. He was buried in the cemetery of the Eyyūb mosque.

Qushji improved on Nasir al-Din al-Tusi’s planetary model and presented an alternative planetary model for Mercury. He was also one of the astronomers that were part of Ulugh Beg‘s team of researchers working at the Samarqand observatory and contributed towards the Zij-i-Sultani compiled there.

Whereas he died in 1474 in Istanbul, Ottomans mathematics and astronomies raised by him, because he educated a few students so that important astronomers grown up after him. One of them is Taqî al-Dîn. He studied optics, mathematics, astronomy, and mechanics. Istanbul Observatory was established by him in 1575. But it was demolished in 1580 and after that Ottomans science was stroked. He made lots of precise astronomical instruments, applied the clocks into astronomy and used trigonometrically functions in astronomy and might have been used a telescope.

Figure 4. 1001 Inventions book, Astrolobe section in Astronomy zone, Page 280-821
Star-finders Astrolabes by Cem Nizamoglu)

Taqî al Dîn al Râsid

Taqî al Dîn al Râsıd (Taqî al Dîn Mehmed ibn Maruf al Hanafi al Dımışkî) was one of the greatest 16th-century Ottoman scholars. He was born in Damascus in 1526 and studied both there and in Egypt. In 1550 he came to Istanbul with his father Marûf Efendi, and in 1555 went to Egypt, where he served as a member of the judiciary. He returned to Istanbul in 1570, and a year later, upon the death of chief astrologer Mustafa Çelebi, was appointed to this post by Sultan Selim II. While serving in this position he began making astronomical observations from Galata Tower, and in 1577 was authorized by Sultan Murad III to build a new observatory on the hillside above Tophane on the shore of the Bosphorus. Regrettably, this observatory was demolished in 1580 after the chief religious functionary in the Ottoman Empire issued a decree alleging that countries possessing observatories were struck by disasters. Taqî al Dîn died five years later in 1585.

Taqî al Dîn carried out research not only in mathematics and astronomy but optics and medicine. His work on the subject of trigonometry is particularly notable. Although the renowned 16th-century astronomer Copernicus (1473-1543) did not use the sine function, or even mention sines, cosines, tangents, and cotangents, Taqî al Dîn defined all of these, gave their proofs, and drew up tables. Moreover, he began to use decimal fractions in place of the sixtieth fractions that had long been used by mathematicians.

Taqî al Dîn was also a skilled technician, who built sundials and mechanical clocks, and designed various machines for raising water from lakes, rivers, and wells, giving detailed accounts of these in one of his books.

Of his numerous works on astronomy, optics, mathematics and mechanics, the best-known and most widely researched arc the following:

  1. Bugyat al-Tüllâb min İlm al-Hisâb (What We Expect of Arithmetic)
  2. Sidret al-Muntahâ al-Efkâr fî Malak al-Falak al-Davvâr (Frontier of Knowledge of the Skies)
  3. Tashîl Zîj al-A ‘sariyya al- Sbahinshâhiya (Interpretation of Tables Based on the Decimal System of the Sultan)
  4. Caridat al-Durar ve Harida al-Fikar (Compilation of Pearls and the Finest of Ideas)
  5. Al-Turuk al-Saniya fî al-Âlat al-Rûhâniya (Outstanding Methods for Automatons), 1385.
  6. Al-Kavâkih al-Duriyafî Bangâmât al-Davriya (Brightest Stars Concerning the Construction of Mechanical Clocks), 1556.

A work by another author, probably one of the astronomers who worked with Taqî al Dîn, describes the astronomical instruments used at Taqî al Dîn’s observatory in Istanbul. Entitled Âlât al-Rasadîya li Zîj-i Şahinshâhîya (The Astronomical Instruments for the Royal Astronomical Tables), it was written in Turkish between 1575 and 1577.

Figure 5. The overview of the astronomical instruments and staff of the Istanbul Observatory with Taqi Al-Din Rasid at work from Shahinshahnāme, (Book of the Shah of the Shahs), 1581 (Source: A Chronology – Turkey’s 700-year…  by Feza Günergun)

Istanbul Observatory

Taqî al Dîn’s observatory established in Istanbul in the second half of the 16th century was the first to be built in the Ottoman Empire, and so has an important place in Ottoman scientific history.

When he arrived in Istanbul in 1570, Taqî al Dîn immediately got in touch with the foremost scholars of the time, encouraging their interest in the idea of establishing an observatory. Vezir Sokullu Mehmed Pasha and royal chronicler Hoca Saadettin, with whom Taqî al Dîn became friendly while serving as chief astrologer, lent their support to the project. Taqî al Dîn wrote a report explaining that the astronomical tables of Central Asian Turkish astronomer and ruler Ulugh Bey were now out of date and unable meet the needs of the time; and therefore those new observations were necessary in order to draw up new tables. Hoca Saadettin and Sokullu Mehmed Pasha presented this report to Sultan Murad III. And they persuaded him that an observatory should be established under the direction of Taqî al Dîn. The subject was presented to the Council of State and endorsed. Murad III’s interest in astrology and desire to see into the future were an important factor in his approval of the project. In 1575 Taqî al Dîn was charged with preparing an astronomical manual in the name of the sultan. Although sources disagree on the exact dates, scholars generally concur in thinking that construction of the observatory began in 1575 and was completed in 1577.

Google Arts & Culture partners with 1001 InventionsFigure 6. Istanbul Observatory

The Observatory Building

We do not know exactly how large the observatory was, although we know that it included offices and sleeping accommodation for both astronomers and administrative staff, and a library. Next to the main building was another described in historical sources as the Small Observatory, which is perhaps where the portable astronomical instruments were kept.

Some sources record that the observatory included an observation shaft (either underground in the form of a well or above ground in the form of a tower). Its existence was popularly believed and became associated in time with an earlier celebrated astronomer, Ali Kuşçu (d. 1474). In fact, modern scholars have come to the conclusion that Istanbul Observatory did not possess such a shaft, although Taqî al Dîn is said to have used one while he was in Cairo.

The names and duties of some of those employed at the observatory are preserved in archive documents, and fifteen people worked under Taqî al Dîn, including the second and third astronomers, a clerk and an assistant.

In November 1577 the celebrated comet which was seen right across the northern hemisphere appeared in the sky over Istanbul. In his capacity as a royal astrologer, Taqî al Dîn made predictions to Sultan Murad based on the appearance of the comet, interpreting it as a favorable sign, and prophesying a Turkish victory over the Iranians. However, when a plague epidemic struck the city in 1578, public hostility to the observatory spread rapidly, and certain quarters at court took advantage of this opportunity to allege that every country where an observatory was established was beset by a succession of catastrophes, citing Ulugh Bey as an example. Sheikh ul-lslam Kadızâde Ahmed Shemseddin Efendi wrote a report to the sultan, asserting that astronomical observation was ill-omened; that those who had the audacity to attempt to lift the curtain of mystery from the spheres would suffer the consequences; and that a country where astronomical tables were drawn up would fail into ruins and its public buildings be destroyed by earthquake. The report had the desired effect, and an imperial rescript was sent to High Admiral Kılıç Ali Pasha commanding him to demolish the observatory. Almost certainly Taqî al Dîn only got away with his life due to the intervention of his friend and patron at court, Hoca Saadettin Efendi.

Figure 7. Remains of Jaipur observatory in India built by Maharajah Jai Singh in 1726. Early observations were carried out by the naked eye from the top of this monumental architectural structures. The monuments include a massive sundial, the Samrat Yantra, and a gnomon inclined at 27m , showing the altitude of Jaipur and the height of Pole Star. There is also a large astronomical sextant and a meridian chamber.
(Source: Astronomical Observatories in the Classical Islamic Culture by Salah Zaimeche)

Instruments Used at the Observatory

Istanbul Observatory was equipped with the most advanced instruments of the period, including two not known in Europe. Studies have shown that the other instruments were the same as those at the observatory established in 1576 in Hveen by the celebrated astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), under the patronage of King Frederick II of Denmark.

Figure 8. Ottoman Astronomer (Source)

Taqî al Dîn made astronomical instruments for the observatory. The following instruments were used at the observatory:

  1. Armillary sphere (dhât al-halâk)
  2. Mural quadrant (libne)
  3. Azimuthal semicircle (dhât al-samt va’l-irtifâ)
  4. Turquetum (dhât al-subatayn)
  5. Wooden quadrant (rûb-i mıstara)
  6. Dioptra (dhât al-sakbeteyn)
  7. Dhât al-Awtar
  8. Mushabbaha bil-Manâtiq
  9. Calibration Rule (sindî jatvali)
  10. Clock

Armillary sphere (dhât al-halâk)

For centuries this instrument, which was used to measure the latitude and longitude of heavenly bodies, was the foremost piece of equipment used by astronomers. The earliest known picture of this instrument appears in Ptolemy’s Almagest (ca. 150 CE), where it is described as an astrolabe. The armillary sphere used by Taqî al Dîn was made of six hoops with a diameter of over 4 metres, and was suspended inside a horizon ring, which was underpinned by six columns upon a base. Armillary spheres used in 16th century Europe were similarly constructed.

Mural quadrant (libne)

This type of quadrant was fixed to the surface of a vertical wall standing on a meridian plane. It was used to observe the culmination of celestial bodies, that is, the point at which they cross the meridian. As the name implies a quadrant consists of a quarter circles. Ptolemy discussed the astronomical use of the quadrant in detail, and instruments of the type he described were subsequently used in the Islamic world from an early period. The first Islamic author to write about the quadrant was Harezmî in the 9th century. The mural quadrant at Istanbul Observatory was 6 metres in diameter.

Azimuthal semicircle (dhhât al-samt va’l-irtifâ)

Figure 9. Sextant of Tycho Brahe (Source:  Astronomical Instruments of Tycho Brahe and Taqi al-Din

This instrument—the forerunner of the theodolite—was used to calculate the height of heavenly bodies and their azimuth, and had been used in the Islamic world since the time of Ibn Sina(980-1037). Naşir al Dîn al Tûsî (1201-1274) perfected its design. It was first used in Europe by Tycho Brahe.

Taqî al Dîn’s azimuthal semicircle consists of a vertical semicircle 1.5 meters in diameter balanced at the centre of a horizon ring.

Turquetum (dhhât al-subatayn)

The earliest known illustration of this instrument, also known as a parallactic ruler, is by Ptolemy, and that used by Taqî al Dîn is precisely the same. Fixed to the meridian plane, it was used for measuring the height of heavenly bodies from any angle.

Wooden Quadrant (rûb-i mistara)

A quadrant made of wooden rulers used for measuring the height and zenith of stars. Tycho Brahe and Taqî al Dîn appear to have been the first astronomers to ever use this instrument. That at Taqî al Dîn’s observatory had a radius of 4.5 metres.

Dioptra (dhât al-sakbeteyn)

Also known in English as alidade, this instrument consisting of a ruler with two sights was used for measuring the diameter of the sun and moon, and eclipses. Taqî al Dîn’s dioptra was so large that it could even show the minutes. 

Dbât al-Awtar

This instrument for calculating the equinox was invented by Taqî al Dîn. In his explanation of an illustration of instruments in one of his works, he says that it replaces the earlier solar armillary used for the same purpose.

Mushabbaha bil-Manâtiq

This resembled a sextant, and was used for measuring angles between two heavenly bodies in any plane. It was one of the most important 16th century inventions of practical astronomy. It consisted of three graduated arcs, and was used for measuring the sides of a spherical triangle formed by three stars. Taqî al Dîn says that this instrument was his own invention.

Calibration Rule (sindî catvali)

Also known as the suneydî ruler, this was a calibration rule used to increase the precision of instruments.


The clock is classified as an astronomical instrument in Âlât al-Rasadiya and Sidrat al-Muntabâ. The most important characteristics of astronomical clocks were their accuracy and ability to precisely measure minutes and seconds. In Europe time was first divided into minutes and seconds in 1550. In his al-Kavâkib al-Duriya written in 1556, Taqî al Dîn speaks of the division of hours into minutes.

The right ascensions of the stars are measured as the angular distance between the sun and the stars and calculated by means of the time that passes. This requires accurate clocks, but it was not until the second half of the 16th century that clocks became sufficiently accurate to be useful to astronomers. Tycho Brahe constructed three clocks for this purpose, and Taqî al Dîn also used astronomical clocks in his observatory. In Âlât al-Rasadiya the author quotes Ptolemy as saying, ‘If I could measure time precisely, I could do without observation altogether.’ In the section on instruments in Sidrat al-Muntahâ, Taqî al Dîn says that Ptolemy had not found a method even to measure minutes, never mind degrees and that therefore he had been forced to abandon the search for precision. By means of his astronomical clock, Taqî al Dîn says that he had fulfilled Ptolemy’s ambition.

This clock designed and made by Taqî al Dîn is a kind of mechanical clock. As we learn from Sidret al-Müntehâ it comprises three separate trains of cogwheels, each turning three hands or pointers located on a large sphere. The force which drives each is a large weight attached to a short rope. The pointers are on separate dials, one showing the number of hours, another angle of the sun in degrees, and another the minutes. The interval between each mark on the minute dial, which was divided into 360, represented 10 seconds, and by having this, it was possible to measure time to an accuracy of 5 seconds.

Figures 10-11. In the middle part of this famous manuscript of an Istanbul observatory (left) is a clock placed on a table that is believed to be Taqi al-Din’s. Computer animated rendering of the workings of Taqī al-Dīn’s observational clock is shown on the right.  © FSTC Ltd.
(Source: Ingenious Clocks from Muslim Civilisation… by Cem Nizamoglu)

Astronomical Clocks

Astronomical clocks show the movement of the celestial bodies. The first example is the mechanical clock built between 1348 and 1362 by the Italian Giovanni Jacobo de Dondi. This clock showed the movements of five planets, the sun and the moon. Another astronomical clock built by Eberhard Baldewin in 1561 showed the positions of the stars as well as the planets, sun and moon.

In his al-Kavâkib al-Duriya Taqî al Dîn describes how such clocks are made and their seven types, the sixth of which is his own invention. They showed the days of the month and week, the phases of the moon, the position of the sun on the ecliptic, the positions of the moon and sun relative to one another, the azimuths of some of the fixed stars, their right ascensions and altitudes, and the times of prayer.

Taqî al Dîn says the following on the subject of constructing an astronomical clock that will show prayer times:

Then in the year 971 [1561], I was faced with the problem of making a clock which would tell the times of prayer. So I made a dial and marked it with the necessary times, which were the temcid, dawn, Friday. mid-fasting, morning, afternoon, evening, bedtime and midnight prayers. By means of another dial it is possible to tell the degree of the sun and the first day of the months in the Julian calendar.

Again in the same work, Taqî al Dîn gives an account of making wall and table clocks. He was clearly aware of the types of table clocks being made in 16th century Europe, and refers to those with double compartments, single compartments, and horizontal mechanisms. He gives particularly detailed information about striking movements.

Taqî al Dîn describes pocket clocks’ in al-Kavâkib al-Duriya: ‘The pallets taper towards the inside, so that the surface of each becomes equal to the radius of the cylinder. Some people make them circular in form, and some leave them as they are in pocket clocks.’ He goes on to write that a cogwheel that revolves once in every degree can show minutes and other values.

In other books that he wrote between 1575 and 1576, he refers to a clock showing the seconds, minutes and hours that he made for using at Istanbul Observatory.

Figure 12. City of Istanbul and Develi illumination from Matrakçi’s Beyân-i Menâzil-i Sefer-i ‘Irakeyn
Maps from Muslim Civilisation by Cem Nizamoglu and Khaleel Shaikh)

Did Taqî al Dîn Use a Telescope?

Another piece of equipment which Taqî al Dîn seems to have used is an optical instrument which made things far off appear nearer. In his Kitâb Nur Hadakat al-Ebsâr ve Nur Hadîkat al-Enzâr (Book on the Light of the Gardens of the Eye and Vision) he writes:

‘I made a crystal [lens] similar to that which the Greek scholars made and placed in the tower at Alexandria, and which, when we look through it with one eye, is capable of showing in the smallest detail objects which are so far away that they are invisible, and the sails of ships in the middle distance.’

According to known sources, the first telescope was made in the 1600s, and the first astronomical telescope by Galileo (1564-1642) in 1609. Yet Taqî al Dîn was writing at the beginning of 1574. The instrument Taqî al Dîn describes perhaps cannot be described as a telescope as such, but may have been a proto-telescope of the type known as a ‘sighting tube’. Another interesting point about his account is that the Lighthouse at Alexandria is not recorded in any other source as possessing an instrument of the kind Taqî al Dîn describes.

Astronomical Observations Made by Taqî al Dîn

Our knowledge of the observations made at the observatory in Istanbul is based on three zîj or manuals of astronomical tables written by Taqî al Dîn:

  • Sidrat al-Muntahâ (1577/78-1580)
  • Tashîl Zîj al-A’sariya al-Shâhinshâhiya (1580)
  • Carîdat al-Durar (1584)

In Sidrat al-Muntabâ Taqî al Dîn mentions observations of the sun in 1577 and 1579 for the purpose of calculating Istanbul’s latitude. In this manual, there are no lunar tables, which are given in Tasbîl Zîj al-A ‘sariya and Carîdat al-Durar. The latter two manuals give tables of latitude for the planets Saturn, Venus and Mercury, and tables of lunar eclipses. Carîdat al-Durar also includes a table drawn up in 1581 giving the positions of 69 stars. His calculations concerning the theory of solar motion based on astronomical observations are regarded as the most outstanding work of its kind in the world in the 16th century.

The last period of Ottomans astronomy starts with the demolishment of the Istanbul Observatory. The astronomy in Ottomans was not developed after this. After 17th century, Ottomans has tried to follow the new science developed in the west and met the Copernican astronomy. However, the new astronomy wasn’t accepted till the beginnings of the 19th century and a new observatory named Rasathane-i Âmire was established in 1867.

The first contacts of the Ottoman Turks with the modern astronomy which developed in the axis of Nicolaus Copernicus (d. 1543), Tycho Brahe (d. 1601), Galilei Galileo (d. 1642), Johannes Kepler (d. 1630) and Isaac Newton (d.1727) had begun in the middle of the 17th century.  The first works that provided the introduction of the modern astronomy to Ottomans were generally the translations of astronomical tables and geography studies. These contacts about the new astronomy had continued with the translations of West geography works in the 18th century and with the translations of French astronomical tables in the second half of the 18th century.


Figure 14. Portrait of Copernicus (beginning of the 16th century). (Source: Copernicus and Arabic Astronomy by George Saliba )

The first work that mentioned the Copernican System was the translation of the astronomical table (Novae Motuum Caelestium Ephemerides Richelianae, 1637) of the French astronomer Noel Durret (d. 1650) with the name in the Ottoman Turkish language Sajanjal al-Aflāk fi Ghāyat al-idrāk (The Mirror of the Heaven in a Quite Perception) between the years 1660-1664, by Ibrahim Efendi al-Zigetvari Tezkireci (the end of the 17th century) who was Zigetvar originated and settled in Istanbul. Ibrahim Efendi mentioned the tables written up to that date and then about the astronomical table of Copernicus.

As far as we know it is the first book that was transferred from the European languages about astronomical tables. Ibrahim Efendi, translated Durret’s table into Arabic first, then with the encouragement of Kazasker Unsi Efendi (d. 1664) he translated it into Turkish.

The second work that had mentioned the modern astronomy was the Nusrat al-Islām va‘l-Surūr fi Tahrīri Atlas Mayor (1685) which was a reduction of the Latin work shortly known as Atlas Major. It was prepared by Abū Bakr ibn Bahrām ibn Abdullāh al-Hanafi al-Dimashki (d. 1692) who was one of the 17th-century Ottoman geographers and he was known as Geographer Abu Bakr Efendi.

Dimashki was charged with the translation of the book prepared by Wilhelm Blaue (d. 1638) and his son Joan which was completed in 1662 and was published in 1664 in Amsterdam as ten volumes, named Atlas Major (seu Cosmographia Blaeuiana Qua Solum, Coelum Accuratissime Describuntur) because of his knowledge on mathematics, geography and Latin by the Sultan Mehmet the IV.

In 1968, a copy of this work was represented to the sultan by the ambassador of Holland, Justin Colier and this work was translated by Dimashki with the name Nusrat al-Islām va‘l-Surūr fi Tahrīri Atlas Mayor as six volumes between the years 1675 and 1685. Dimashki had not only translated the work he also had added some information about the Ottoman geography. And also after a while, he published a summary of the work called as Muhtasar Nusrat al-Islām va‘l-Surūr.

The work that comes after these two works is the Cihannüma edition of Müteferrika. The additions of Müteferrika to the Katip Chelebi’s Cihannüma have the feature of being the largest writing that provided the new astronomy subjects to be known in the Ottoman culture in real. After printing Cihannüma a year later with this addition, Müteferrika, translated the astronomy work of Andreas Cellarius’ (d. 1665) Atlas Coelestics, which was first published in 1660 in Latin by the order of the Ahmed the 3rd with the name of “Macmūa Hay’a al-Kadīme va‘l-Cadīda (The New and Old Astronomy Magazine, 1733) and by the way an independent work about the new and old astronomy had been acquired to the Ottoman Science.

Figure 15. A page from Kâtib Çelebi’s Kitâb-i Cihânnümâ / Jihân-numâ (Cosmorama), Istanbul: Ibrahim Müteferrika, 1732.
(Source: Manuscripts and printing in the spread of Muslim science by Geoffrey Roper)

Another new work about the new astronomy subject is Tarcuma-i Kitāb-i Cografya (The Translation of Geography Book, 1751) by Osman ibn Abdulmannān. Osman ibn Abdulmannan (d. 1786’s) is probably Bosnian originated. During the governorship of Köprülü Hacı Ahmet Pasha (d. 1769) in Belgrad, he worked as the second interpreter of this city’s council of state. He began to translate the important works of European languages with the encouragement of Hacı Ahmet Pasha beginning by the year 1749. Between the years 1749-1791, he translated Bernhard Varenius’ (d. 1676), the Holland doctor, physician and geographer, Geographia Generalis (in Qua Affectionnes Generalles Telluris Explicantur) (1650) from German into Turkish as Tarcuma-i Kitāb-ı Cografya.

By the various translations of the tables, it is seen that the Ottoman astronomers were following the Western Astronomy studies. In the seventeenth century, after the translation of French astronomer Noel Durret’s table by Ibrahim Efendi, Kalfazade Ismail Çınari have translated Alexis Claude Claraut’s table in 1767 and Jacques Cassini’s table in 1772. Later on, by the order of Selim the III the calendars have begun to be arranged according to this table and by the time the Zīc-i Ulugh Bey which had been used since then, have been left.

Tarcuma-i Zīc-i Klaro (Translation of Clariaut’s Table) is a translation of the book Theorie de la Lune published in 1752 of Alexis- Claude Clairaut (d. 1765) from French. The book was translated in 1767 and it was dedicated to Sultan Mustafa the third.

The second book that was translated by Ismail Efendi is Jacques Cassini’ (d. 1756) Tables Astronomiques de Soleil (de la Lune, des Planetes, de Etoiles Fixes et des Satellites de Jupiter et de Saturne) (Paris, 1740) called as Tuhfa-i Bahīc-i Rasīni Tarcuma-i Zīc-i Kasīnī (The Translation of Cassini’s Tables) in 1772 from French.

Another work about Copernicus Astronomy is Erzurumlu Ibrahim Hakkı’s Mārifetnāme which was completed in 1757 and was first published in 1825. In this work three sources were used for explaining the comprehension of the Universe, and the solar and lunar eclipses and the natural events; 1) the religious sources, including the Holy Koran, the hadiths and religious sources 2) the scientific works like Katip Çelebi’s Cihannüma with the additions of Müteferrika) the folk beliefs like Suyuti’s work including the legends and superstitions.

Figure 16. Erzurumlu İbrahim Hakkı published an explanation of the Solar Eclipse in his encyclopedia Marifetname 
(Source: Nearly 3 Centuries old light system… by Cem Nizamoglu)

Tarcuma-i Zīc-i Laland (The Translation of Lalande’s Table) translated by Hüseyin Hüsnī ibn Ahmed Sabīh (d. 1840) which was written by  Joseph-Jeome Lefrançais de Lalande  was one of the translations of tables mentioning the new astronomy. Hüseyin Hüsnī ibn Ahmed Sabīh had lived in Istanbul in the 19th century and he became the chief Astrologer of the Ottoman Sultan. First he had been to the Arabic countries and then he came to Istanbul. He became the second astrolog at Mahmut the II period and after the death of Mehmet Rakım Efendi in 1825 he was assigned as the chief astrolog of the Sultan. Then he became the Kadhi of Selanik in1838 and he died in 1839 (or 1840).

Tarcuma-i Zīc-i Laland is the translation of Joseph-Jeome Lefrançais de Lalande’s (d. 1807) Tables Astronomiques (Paris 1759). Hüseyin hüsni translated this book first into Arabic in 1814 then into Turkish in 1826.  Tarcuma-i Zīc-i Laland is the Turkish translation of the book Tables Astronomiques’ making a calender part’s broadened version in six sections. In the preface, it is told that the table of Lalande was prepared according to the Copernican System and invalidated the Ulugh Bey and Cassini’s Tables and this new table would be valid till the Doomsday.

Besides the translations of the West astronomy sources, it is seen that for the first time the Copernican astronomy had been mentioned in a work which was prepared by using a Russian source. This book is the translation of Agha ibn Mirzā Muhammed Han-ı Sanī of Abasku’s (d. 1846), known as Kudsī of Baku, book with the name of Asrār al-Malakūt (The Mystery of Angels). Kudsī of Baku translated the book first into Persian then into Arabic and he presented it to the Sultan in 1846. The book took the Sultan’s attention and it was translated into Turkish by Hayatizade Seyyid Sherif Halil al-Albistani with the name of Afkār al-Cabarrūt fi Tarcama Asrār al-Malakūt with the order of Reshid Pasha in 1848.

At the late eighteenth century, these studies show us that the Ottomans began to have contacts with the West not only in geography but also in astronomy and in mathematics fields at least the theoretical information that was needed in the first plan. However, the Ottomans translated the tables which were involving the information about how to identify the time. Although there were lots of works that changed the structure of the astronomy in the West, choosing that kind of tables showed the general dominant character of Ottomans about science in that era.

bannerFigure 17. From 1001 inventions’ “House of Wisdom” Canvas
(Source: International Women’s Day by Cem Nizamoglu)

Astronomy began to be taught by the state itself after the foundation of Mühendishāne-i Bahrī-i Humāyun (The School of Naval Engineering) in 1773 and Mühendishāne-i Berrī-i Humāyun (The school of Ground Forces Engineering) in 1793.  Hüseyin Rıfkı Tāmāni (d. 1817), who was the first principal of the Mühendishāne-i Berrī- Humāyun which was founded in the Sultan Selim the III’s time, had great efforts in the arrangement of the lessons in Mühendishāne, and also he was one of the pioneers to divert the contemporary West science to the Ottomans by the help of his knowledge of English, French, Italian and Latin besides Arabic and Persian.

Hüseyin Rıfkı Tāmāni was the first teacher that gave lessons on astronomy in  Mühendishāne-i Berrī-i Humāyun. Hüseyin Rıfkı Tāmāni did not have an independent book related to the astronomy. One of his students; Hodja Ishak Efendi summarised his notes about the geography and published as al-Madhāl fi’l-Cografya (An Introduction to the Geography) in 1831. The astronomy system given here in this book is the Earth-centered System. On the other hand, in Hüseyin Rıfkı’s work Macmūa al-Muhandisīn (The Magazine of the Engineers) which was about the contemporary physic; the measurement of the meridian circle was given. According to him to measure one degreed meridian is important from two aspects; by the way, an international unity would be able to do in order to find the unit of measurement and the real shape of the Earth would be defined. Finally, as a result of the measurement, the shape of the Earth was proved to be protruding on the Equator and compressed at the poles as Newton projected.

Seyyid Ali Pasha became the principal after Hüseyin Rıfkı Tamani in Mühendishāne-i Berrī-i Humāyun in 1817. Seyyid Ali Pasha translated Ali Qushi’s, who was one of the important astronomers of the fifteenth century, al-Fathiyya with the name of Mirāt-ı al-ālam (The Mirror of the Universe) and in the preface he mentioned about the existence of three approaches in the astronomy. These are; Ptolemaios’ Earth-centered system, Pythagoras’ and Copernicus’ Sun-centered System and Brahe’s system that puts both the Sun and the Earth in the center. Seyyid Ali Pasha said that the Earth-centered system was common in the Islamic countries, the tables prepared to arrange calendars were depending on this system and by the way it had been accepted.

In 1830 Ishak Efendi was assigned as the principal after the dismissal of Seyyid Ali Pasha. Ishak Efendi saved his most important work; Macmūa-i ‘Ulūm-i Riyāziya’s fourth volume to the astronomy and mostly the Theory of Copernicus and gave the longest and probably the most technical description of this system in Ottomans “although it is possible to be mistaken” absolutely defined that the approach of Copernicus was most proper to the science.

image alt text
Figure 18.
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: “Arabic Star Names…” by Zakri Abdul Hamid)


  • Kaçar, Mustafa, M. Şinasi Acar & Atilla Bir, XVI. Yüzyıl Osmanlı Astronomu Takiyüddin’in Gözlem Araçları, Istanbul 2011.
  • Tekeli, Sevim, “İstanbul Rasathanesinin Gözlem Araçları,” Araştırma, Cilt 11, 1979, s. 29-44.
  • Tekeli, Sevim, “Meçhul Bir Yazarın İstanbul Rasathanesinin Âletlerinin Tasvirini Veren ‘Âlât-ı Rasadiye li Zîc-i Şehinşâhiye Adlı Makalesi”, Araştırma, Cilt 1, 1963, s. 71-122.
  • Tekeli, Sevim, “Nasîrüddin, Takiyüddin ve Tycho Brahe’nin Rasat Aletlerinin Mukayesesi”, Ankara Üniversitesi, Dil ve Tarih-Coğrafya Fakültesi Dergisi, Cilt 16, Sayı 3-4, 1958, s. 301-393.
  • Unat, Yavuz, “Time in The Sky of Istanbul, Taqî al Dîn al-Râsid’s Observatory”, Art and Culture Magazine, Time in Art, Winter 2004/Issue 11, pp.86–103.
  • Unat, Yavuz, “The Ottoman Astronomy in General”, The Ottoman, vol., 8, Edited by Güler Eren, Ankara 1999, s. 411-420.
  • Unat, Yavuz, Tarih Boyunca Türklerde Gökbilim, (Astronomy in Turks), Istanbul 2008.
  • Unat, Yavuz, Ali Kuşçu,  Istanbul 2009.

“Development of Astronomy in Ottomans”
by Prof. Dr. Yavuz Unat,
Kastamonu University
3rd Azarquiel School of Astronomy, A Bridge Between East and West, July 8-15, 2012, İstanbul Kültür Üniversitesi, İstanbul 2012.

British Museum: “Inspired by the East…” Art Exhibition 10 October 2019 – 26 January 2020

How the Islamic world influenced western art
10 October 2019 – 26 January 2020



School of Veronese (1528–1588), A Portrait of Sultan Bayezid I. Oil on canvas, c. 1580. © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia.

Supported by Jack Ryan
Sponsored by Standard Chartered
Organised with the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Charting the fascinating history of cultural and artistic interactions between East and West, this exhibition explores the impact the Islamic world has had on Western art for centuries.

Artistic exchange between East and West has a long and intertwined history, and the exhibition picks these stories up from the 15th century, following cultural interactions that can still be felt today. Objects from Europe, North America, the Middle East and North Africa highlight a centuries-old tradition of influence and exchange from East to West. The diverse selection of objects includes ceramics, photography, glass, jewellery and clothing, as well as contemporary art, showcasing how artistic exchange influenced a variety of visual and decorative arts. The exhibition concludes with a 21st-century perspective, through the eyes of four female artists from the Middle East and North Africa who continue to question and subvert the idea of Orientalism in their work and explore the subject of Muslim female identity.

The show takes a deeper look at the art movement of ‘Orientalism’ – specifically the way in which North Africa and the Middle East were represented as lands of beauty and intrigue, especially in European and North American art. Often blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, Orientalist art reached its heyday in the mid-1800s, as Europeans and North Americans were looking overseas to fundamentally learn more about other cultures, but its popularity had faded by the 1940s with the decline of the British Empire.

1001 Cures: Translation Movement

1001 Cures - Translation Movement
In the early period of Graeco-Arabic translation movement, Syriac translations often served as an intermediary step in the transmission from Greek into Arabic. The first aphorisms of this copy of Hippocratic Aphorisms in Syriac and Arabic says that ‘life is short, the Art long, opportunity fleeting, experience dangerous, and judgement difficult.’

The Greeks drew on the know-how of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilisations, to which they had access through a process of both oral and written translation; a wonderful monument to this transfer from Ancient Egyptian into classical Greek is the famous Rosetta Stone, which contains a decree by the Ptolemies in hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek. Likewise, Roman culture drew heavily on Greek sources and developed its own medical language through translation. For most of the medieval and early modern periods, Latin was the lingua franca in which medicine was taught, discussed, and written about throughout Europe, and it was only through a long process of translation that medical knowledge became accessible in various European vernaculars such as German, French, English, and Russian. Even during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, translations between these vernaculars furthered knowledge transfer and helped promote scientific research and progress. In the early twenty-first century, English emerged as a new scientific lingua franca, playing a similar role to that of Latin during the Middle Ages or Greek in Antiquity.

1001 Cures - Translation Movement
13th-century manuscript showing a Greek translation of the medical handbook by Ibn al-Jazzār entitled Provisions for the Traveller and Nourishment for the Sedentary (Zād al-Musāfir wa-qūt al-ḥāḍir), known in Greek as Ephódia toû apodēmoûntos. The handbook was first translated from Arabic by Constantime the African (d. before 1099).

Arabic also emerged as a lingua franca of scientific exchange during the medieval period as a result of the famous Graeco-Arabic translation movement. On the shores of the Guadalquivir and the Ganges, physicians wrote medical treatises in Arabic. Even in early modern Europe, there was a clear sense that Arabic was the language of science par excellence. For this reason, the Franciscan Friar Roger Bacon (c. 1214–92) advocated the study of Arabic, and John Selden (1584–1654), a prominent lawyer, historian and linguistic scholar, said that ‘the liberal and correctly taught sciences were for a long time called by us ‘the studies of the Arabs’ or ‘Arabic studies’ (Scientiae Liberales ritèque institutae, diù ante vocari solebant a Nostris Studia Arabum & Arabica Studia)’ (quoted in Pormann 2013a, 73). Dimitri Gutas (1998, 8), who studied the Graeco-Arabic translation movement in detail, rightly likened it to classical Athens or Renaissance Italy in importance and impact. What then was this great movement that so profoundly shaped the fates and fortunes of countless human beings?

1001 Cures - Translation Movement
Opening of Maimonides’ Abridgment of Galen’s ‘Method of Healing’ in Judaeo-Arabic, that is, Arabic written in Hebrew. The text begins with the basmala ‘In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate (Bi-smi llāhi l-raḥmāni l-raḥīm)’.

From the second half of the eighth to the first half of the tenth century, the majority of Greek works read and studied in late antique Alexandria were translated into Arabic. These translations included not only philosophy (e.g. Aristotle, Plato, Plotinus, Porphyry), mathematics (e.g. Euclid), astronomy and astrology (e.g. Ptolemy), medicine (e.g. Hippocrates and Galen), engineering (e.g. Hero of Alexandria), but also some popular philosophy (gnomological collections) and literature (e.g. the Alexander Romance, Menander one-liners). For the sake of convenience, one may divide this translation movement into three periods: 1) an early one in the late eighth century when a technical vocabulary had not yet been established; 2) the heyday in the mid-ninth century; and 3) a later period in the early tenth century. The two main groups of translators during the second period coalesced around al-Kindī, the so-called ‘philosopher of the Arabs’ (c. 801–66) and Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq (c. 808–73), respectively. The later period is chiefly associated with a group of Aristotelian philosophers in Baghdad who gathered around al-Fārābī (d. c. 950). In the following, I shall focus on Graeco-Arabic translations of medical texts during the first and second periods…

1001 Cures


1001 Cures: Translation Movement

by Peter E. Pormann Published on: 27th September 2019

Translation is one of the most powerful drivers in the development of science and medicine. From the earliest periods of recorded history until today, translation has played a crucial role in propagating scientific knowledge.

1001 Cures – Introduction

by Peter E. Pormann Published on: 12th October 2018

Islamic civilisation developed a system of healthcare that, at its apogée, was envied by both friend and foe. Therefore, medicine evolved into a highly complex and variegated discipline from the 7th to the 21st century…