Our Arabic Heritage in the Celestial Vault

by Roland Laffitte Published on: 1st May 2008

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In Arabic culture, as in other civilisations, the cultural dimension of the history of astronomy appears in part in the meanings and origins of star and constellation names. This nomenclature was shaped by cultural symbols transmitted across the centuries. The article describes some examples of the popular Arabic culture that lies behind the names of several stars and constellations.

By Roland Laffitte*

There is today a real interest in the history of astronomy, not only in its mathematical and physical aspect but also in its cultural dimension, that is to say in the representations of the sky and of the celestial imaginary. Furthermore, we may observe a huge effort on the part of many people around the world to make these treasures of the human spirit more generally available. However, whereas two thirds of the common names for stars in star catalogues around the world are Arabic in origin, the very rich immaterial patrimony to which these names belong is largely unknown. It is a cruel paradox.

This situation is due, perhaps to a characteristic feature of the Arab and Islamic astronomy consisting in the fact that the figures represented on the heavenly vault were inherited from the Greeks.

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Figure 1: Brass celestial globe, made in Mosul by Muhammad ibn Hilâl in 674 H / 1275-76 CE; preserved at the British Museum. (Source).

If we consider for example the star names on the figure of al-Dubb al-Akbar (“the Great Bear”), i.e. Ursa Major, as presented on the globe by Muhammad Ibn Hilâl (see Fig. 2.), we may find the following list:

Al-Na‘sh, evoking a “hand-barrow”, a “bier”, but corresponding to an antique Arab divinity: Na‘sh; Banât Na‘sh (“the Daughters of Nash”); al-Qâ‘id (“the Guide”), al-Zhibâ’ (“the Gazelles”), al-Hawdh (“the Pond [of the Gazelles]”), Âwlâd al-Zhibâ’ (“the Young of the Gazelles”), al-Qafzat al-Ûlâ (“the First Jump”), al-Qafzat al-Thaniyya (“the Second Jump”), and al-Qafzat al-Thâlitha (“the Third Jump”), those names corresponding, as reported by the astronomer ‘Abd al-Rahmân al-Sûfî in his Kitâb suwar al-kawâkib althâbita (“Treaty of Figures of Fixed Stars”), written in 964, to the hoof spoors of the Gazelles when they are jumping, afraid as they are when the Lion – a very near figure in the sky – is striking the soil with its tail. Al-Jawn may be “the Black Horse”, al-‘Inâq (“the Lynx of the desert”), or al-Suha (“the Abandonned One”).

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Figure 2: The figure of Ursa Major (Al-Dubb al-Akbar) on the globe of Muhammad Ibn Hilâl in the 13th century, now at the British Museum (published by Johannes Albrecht Bernhard Dorn, 1829).

As we may observe (see Fig. 2), not all the star names are related to the mythology of the Bear. As a matter of fact, within the constellations inherited from the Greeks, the Arabic tradition of astronomy took up the organization of the sky from the Greeks. However, the astronomers of Islam generally indicated in this frame the popular Arabic names for the stars belonging to their own figures, such as the names we just saw in the figure of Ursa Major. Nevertheless, it is possible, as we are trying to show below, to compose representations in conformity with the descriptions given by the Arab classical astronomical texts (see for example Fig. 3).

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Figure 3: A modern depiction of the Arab constellations of Nash and his daughters and the Gazelles.

By the way, for the Bedouins of the Syrian desert, the Daughters of Nash accuse al-Jaday, i.e. Polaris, to have killed their father. But al-Farqadân deem that the killer is not al-Jaday but Suhayl, and interpose between them and the North star. That is the reason why they are called al Hawâjzîn, “the Interposers”: they prevent the daughters from slaking their thirst for vengeance, and condemn them to turn indefinitely around the Pole.

It was only in a further time that the Arabs got accustomed to creating new appellations corresponding to the positions of the stars in the Greek figures, such as, once more if we still consider the figure of Ursa Major: Marâqq al-Dubb al-Akbar (“the Lower part of the Abdomen of the Great Bear”), Maghriz al-Dubb al-Akbar (“the Root of the Tail of the Great Bear”), and Fakhd al-Dubb al-Akbar (“the Thigh of the Great Bear”). These are the elements which explain the following international appellations: Merak, Megrez and Phecda.

Living the space of the Great Bear, let us now have a glance on other Arab figures during a short trip in the celestial vault.

We will begin with this original Superlion (see Fig. 4) suggested by the names of the Manâzil al-qamar and the anwâ’ tradition. As a matter of fact, the proper Arab Lion is far greater than the classical Lion transmitted by the Greeks: he spreads indeed from the bright stars of the constellation al-Taw‘amân (i.e. Gemini, “the Twins”) and al-Kalb al-Asghar (i.e. Canis Minor, “the Little Dog”), where his arms are located, till the west end of al-‘Adr\â’ (i.e. Virgo, “the Virgin”), there is located the asterism al-Ghafr, popularly conceived as “the Tailhair” of the Lion. This Superlion has probably been shaped inside an oral heritage coming from the Babylon through to Aramaic traditions.

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Figure 4: A modern composition of the Arab Superlion, with inside, the Lion inherited from the Greeks.

Pursuing our trip, we can look at an immense figure occupying roughly the space of Orion/Canis Minor and Major/Carina (see Fig. 5), we meet Al-Jawzâ’, linked in the Arab legends to the imaginary of Suhayl. According to an old tradition, we are told that Suhayl (Canopus) espoused her lover and, unfortunately, he broke her back when entering into the nuptial bed: hence the name of the famous three bright stars that indicate the hour along the night, particularly in winter, that is to say al-Faqâr (“the vertebras”). In consequence of this fatal event, poor Suhayl ought to flee towards Yemen, condemned to indicate the direction of South. According to the legend, Suhayl has two sisters, both called al-Shi‘râ: the first of both managed to cross the Milky Way, what explains her name: al-Yamâniyya, “the Yemenite” or al-‘Abûr (“the Crossing One”); the second remained alas on the North bank, forever crying for her dear brother moving away towards the South, from where her name : al-Shâmiyya (“the Syrian”), or al-Ghumaysa, “the Rheumy-eyed One”.

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Figure 5: Artistic depiction of the figures of Al-Jawzâ’, Suhayl and the two al-Shi‘râ.

We may also admire al-Thurayâ (corresponding to the Pleiades) (see Fig. 6), the most famous figure in the Arab imaginary. As you can see, her figure, and especially her right arm, contains a lot of stars endowed with a name explaining their position in the constellation: so, between al-Kaff al-Jadhmâ’ (“the Mutilated Palm”), and al-kaff al-Khadhîb (“the Palm tincted with hanna”), we can find: al-‘Âtiq (“the Omoplate”), al-Mankib (“the Shoulder”), al-Marfiq (“the Elbow”), and al-Mi‘sam (“the Fist”). Note that we only mentioned above the names borrowed by the international nomenclature, namely: Kaffaljidhmah, Kaff, Atik, Mankib, Mirfak, Misam. Furthermore, let us not neglect a very bright star, a bit apart but the best known of them all, Aldebaran, which comes from the Arabic al-Dabarân [al-Thuraya] (“the Follower of Al-Thuraya”).

Here below is a testimony of the importance of the celestial figures in Arabic literature, with these two verses of a poem by ‘Umar b. Abî Rabî ‘a , from the 7thcentury, known by all Arab pupils. The author relates the marriage of Suhayl b. ‘Abd al-Rahmân b. ‘Awf and Al-Thurayâ l-‘Abliyya of the Banî-Umayya, a beautiful metaphor of miscommunication:

O thou who intendst to marry al-Thurayâ to Suhayl,
by God, tell me how they could get on well ?
Al-Thurayâ is Syrian when she is awaking
whereas Suhayl is Yemenite at her rising.

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Figure 6: Artistic representation of al-Thurayâ.

Thus, taking into account the mentioned characteristics of Arab and Islamic astronomy, we do not possess the least picture of the constellations imagined by Arab peoples. But, at a time when the world is living the image revolution, there is a special interest in presenting the figures that are the product of the Arab imagination, as others are doing elsewhere in the world for other cultures.

And besides images, there is also a need of giving the world public Arab star lore. But this one remains to be assembled and will require a considerable amount of work, on classical literature and popular traditions as well.

On the one hand, classical literature is concerned, and the work may be based on the following sources: classical dictionaries, literary texts (poetry, fiction, etc.) and classical astronomical literature. On the other hand, the work consists in gathering the popular traditions. It will be based on popular literature in dialectical Arabic and on oral memory and, being partly pursued on the ethnographical and partly anthropological field, will involve: assembling material provided by orientalists or European travellers to the Maghreb as well as to the Mashreq; local almanacs (kutûb al-anwâ’) – on which a consistent work has already been done particularly in Arabia and Yemen –; and collecting data from the populations concerned.

In relation, everybody can understand a very simple observation: at the time of daily meteorological bulletins and GPS, when a farmer using the anwâ’ tradition, that is to say the almanacs based on heliacal risings or settings is dying, when a sailor or a fisher, a Bedouin who uses the stars for finding his way is leaving us, when any old man or woman who was accustomed to look at the sky as a clock in the night is going for ever, it is a precious knowledge and a rich star lore that are also vanishing for ever. So it is high time to make haste to collect this precious patrimony and to share it.

Popular literature and oral memory are not only precious tools for explaining a certain number of celestial figures. They can also be used as a reference point for presenting these figures to an Arab public, while also helping to safeguard the cultural heritage of the Arab peoples and of humanity. Such en effort would lead to a correct glaring imbalance existing today between the importance of the Arab patrimony in our conception of the Sky and the knowledge we have of it, and to confer to this patrimony the full place it is worthy of in the celestial imaginary of humanity.

References and further reading

  • Dick, Wolfgang R., The Constellations and their Stars. Created: 1 Aug 1996. Latest update: 12 Apr 2000. Accessed 21 April 2008.
  • Hinckley Allen, Richard, Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning. Dover reprint, 1963; first edition in 1899.
  • ICOP (The Islamic Crescents’ Observation Project): The Constellations. Accessed 21 April 2008.
  • Kunitsch, Paul, “Star Catalogues and Star Tables in Medieval Oriental and European Astronomy.” Indian Journal of History of Science vol. 21 (1986): pp. 113-122.
  • Kunitzsch, Paul, The Arabs and the Stars. Texts and Traditions on the Fixed Stars and their Influence in Medieval Europe. London: Variorum Reprints, 1989.
  • Kunitzsch, Paul and Smart, Tim, A Dictionary of Modern Star Names: A Short Guide to 254 Star Names and Their Derivations. Cambridge (MA.): Sky and Telescope Publishing, 2nd Revised edition, 2007.
  • Laffitte, Roland. “Ce que notre ciel doit aux Arabes“. Les Cahiers Clairaut, Bulletin du Comité de Liaison Enseignants-Astronomes, No. 114, été 2004, pp. 7-8. Accessed 21 April 2008. Laffitte, Roland, “Des noms arabes pour les étoiles“, La Lettre des astrologues, No. 26, June 2002. Accessed 21 April 2008.
  • Laffitte, Roland, Héritages Arabes: Des noms arabes pour les étoiles. Paris: Geuthner, 2001, Second edition 2006.
  • Laffitte, Roland, “Liste des noms arabes avec leur é\étymologie”, on the SELEFA website : www.selefa.asso.fr / See the “Documentation en ligne”, or on www.uranos.fr.
  • SELEFA, website URANOS, dedicated to History of astronomy, in Arabic, English & French: see www.uranos.fr.
  • Sesti, Giuseppe Maria, The Glorious Constellations: History and Mythology. New York: Harry N Abrams, 1991.
  • Sūfī, al-, Abū al-Husayn ‘Abd al-Rahmān b. ‘Umar, Kitāb suwar al-kawākib al-thamāniya wa-‘l-arba‘īn (Book of the images of the forty-eight stars). Beirut: Dār al-Afāq al jadīda, 1981.
  • Sūfī, al-, Abū al-Husayn ‘Abd al-Rahmān b. ‘Umar, Description des étoiles fixes: Suwar al-kawākib. Translated by Hans Carl Frederik Christian Schjellerup. Edited by Fuat Sezgin. Frankfurt: Institut für Geschichte der Arabisch-Islamischen Wissenschaften, 1986.
  • Thompson, Gary D., “An Annotated Bibliography of Studies of Occidental Constellations and Star Names to the Classical Period”: “Arabic“. Accessed 21 April 2008.

*Roland Laffitte is secretary of SELEFA (Société d’Études Lexicographiques et Étymologiques Françaises et Arabes), Pantin (Île-de-France), France, and editor of its Bulletin. Website: www.selefa.asso.fr. Email address: infos@selefa.asso.fr. He has specialised in (i) Arabic and oriental words in European languages and (ii) ancient astronomy and the names of celestial bodies, particularly in Mesopotamian and Arabic, and he is the author of the book Héritages arabes: Des noms arabes pour les étoiles, Paris: Geuthner, 2001, Second ed. 2006. He is in charge of the global project The Sky, Our Common Heritage, and of its Research part, Star Lore in the Arab World, available in Arabic, English and French versions on the websites www.selefa.asso.fr and www.uranos.fr.

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