218. Knowing Islam in History: The Astrolabe Workshop

I thought it’s apt to kinda have a little detour from the Seeking Spain series and talk about this super interesting workshop I attended while in Manchester! I last stopped at Cordoba, the center of learning and higher education in the world in the 10th century, so this particular entry falls naturally into this theme of exploration and discovery. 🙂

I am typing this while lying down in bed nursing a bad cramp so pardon any mistakes! >.<

On one of our lunch dates after I came back from Spain, Hui Ying (my beautiful sister-in-faith in Manchester) told me about an astrolabe workshop that was to happen that weekend. I had nothing on so I immediately signed up for it! It was truly our rizq to attend it.

But hang on! What is an astrolabe in the first place?

An astrolabe is a device historically used by astronomers, navigators and astrologers to locate and predict the positions of the sun, moon, planets and stars, to determine local time given local latitudes, triangulation and horoscopes. The name has its origins from the Greek words astron and lambanien meaning “the one who catches the heavenly bodies.” In the Islamic world, it was used to determine the Qibla and times for prayers. The earliest invention of an astrolabe-like device was traced back to Hellenistic times circe 150 AD.

So what is its relation to Cordoba?

It was in the Islamic world where this particular device was fully developed and then widely used!


The astrolabe was introduced to the Islamic world in the eighth and ninth centuries through translations of Greek texts. Arab treatises on the astrolabe were published in the ninth century and indicate a long familiarity with the instrument (the oldest existing instruments are Arabic from the tenth century, and there are nearly 40 instruments from the 11th and 12th centuries).

The first person credited with building the astrolabe in the Islamic world is reportedly the 8th century mathematician Muhammad al-Fazari.The mathematical background was established by the Muslim astronomer Albatenius in his treatise Kitab az-Zij (ca. 920 AD), which was translated into Latin by Plato Tiburtinus (De Motu Stellarum). The earliest surviving dated astrolabes is dated AH 315 (927/8 AD) and are of such quality and craftsmanship that they represent a continuing tradition rather than a new activity. In the 10th century, al-Sufi first described over 1,000 different uses of an astrolabe, in areas as diverse as astronomy, astrology, horoscopes, navigation, surveying, timekeeping, prayer, Salat, Qibla, etc. By the eleventh and twelfth centuries there are many surviving texts and astrolabes, the instruments varying in style and artistry but retaining many fundamental similarities in functionality and design. [source & source]

My first experience with an astrolabe was years ago, when I visited an exhibition (I forgot which one now) and saw a replica of an astrolabe for the first time. I was so intrigued by it that I went home and immediately sought more information online. What I learnt was mindblowing, to say the least.

So of course there was no way I was going to miss out an opportunity to learn how it actually works!

The workshop was held in the British Muslim Heritage Centre in Old Trafford, a stunning place accentuated by the backdrop of spring. I remember walking up to it and just being so taken aback by its beauty. Wow.

Anyway…. The workshop!

We were given mock astrolabes to work with (and play with, haha) and I was so excited to learn, you couldn’t possibly imagine it.

I’m not kidding, we had to do calculations and stuff.

Our teacher, Huseyin, was born to Turkish parents but lived his entire life in The Netherlands. He did his Bsc. degree in Aerospace engineering and a Msc. degree in history of science specializing in the history of Arabic-Islamic science. He is currently doing his doctorate in the history, development and circulation of medieval astronomical instruments in medieval Islamic societies. I didn’t know there’s such a thing!

If anyone is interested to get him to do workshops, you may contact him here. 🙂

He actually flew in to Manchester after being invited to conduct the workshop, which was held in conjuction with an Islam and Science conference at the same venue. MashaAllah, it was truly an honor and a great opportunity to learn!

So that’s the workshop! 🙂

I hope you learnt something interesting today. 🙂

I’ll be back with my trip back to Granada soon!

Learn everything you can, anytime you can, from anyone you can, there will always come a time when you will be grateful you did.



One thought on “218. Knowing Islam in History: The Astrolabe Workshop

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