Mariam Al Astrulabi: The female Muslim astronomer who reached for the stars

This brass Islamic astrolabe was made by Musatafa Ayyub-I in the Middle East. An astrolabe is in essence a model of the universe that an astronomer could hold in their hands
5 min read
09 August, 2022
What we understand and observe of the night sky and its make-up is the product of thousands of years of scientific investigation. Mariam Al Astrulabi, a Syrian Muslim woman hailing from 10th C. Aleppo, should be thanked for much of this progress.

We often credit scientific progress to recent developments, to the near present.

What this fails to take into account are the thousands of years of scientific research, particularly during the Islamic Golden Age. 

Many of the figures involved during that time are then lost to the annals of history. One of them was Mariam Al Astrulabi, a Syrian Muslim woman, whose astrolabe sparked the beginning of development in the field of astronautics and space navigation. 

"Mariam was born in 950 AD in Aleppo, Syria. She is credited for developing the first 'complex' astrolabe, with her invention akin to a GPS navigation tool for the stars"

One could logically suggest that the Hubble telescope wouldn't have existed were it not for Galileo's invention of the telescope in 1609. Through his invention, Galileo, famously, was able to look at the moon, observe a supernova, spot the phases of Venus and the rings of Saturn and discover sunspots. 

And yet, the Hubble telescope would have still needed a space navigation system to lead the telescope to said objects. The history of this system began in primitive ways between 220 BC to 150 BC.

As time went by, astrolabists were able to develop many versions of astrolabes with Mariam Al Asturlabi one of the pioneers of this field. 

Mariam was born in 950 AD in Aleppo, Syria. She is credited for developing the first 'complex' astrolabe, with her invention akin to a GPS navigation tool for the stars. 

An astrolabe is, essentially, an ancient, hand-sized astronomical model of the universe. This tool was particularly useful during the Islamic ages and was heavily used for trade as a marine navigation tool. 

Ibn Al Nadim, "Al Nasab" - a key bibliographer of the Islamic Middle Ages - wrote that there were 1,000 different applications of the astrolabe at the time. The diversity of this instrument, therefore, served both astronomical and astrological purposes.

The Religious Astrolabe

Astrolabe development was critical to the Muslims. Religious applications of the astrolabe helped Muslims know when prayer time was.

In addition, the qibla: the direction of Mecca, which Muslims pray direction, and other uses of astrolabes to create the lunar calendar of this time, helping Muslims to determine when to start/break fast during Ramadan and when Hajj was.

Given this importance, Khalifas - or Muslim rulers - used to sponsor scientists during the Islamic Golden Age, encouraging the pursuit of knowledge through funding schemes. 

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Sayf Aldawla, the founder of Eimart Aleppo, sponsored Mariam's scientific studies. The Khalifa's support allowed Mariam to devote herself to astrolabes and travel to Baghdad to learn more from 10th-century masters.

According to Ibn Al Nadim, Mariam’s father, Kusayar Al Ijliyy, was also an astronomer and astrolabist. He used to sell astrolabes to sailors and other astronomers, resulting in the surname Astrulabi which means astrolabist in Arabic.

Mariam and her father were apprentices of one of the renowned astrolabers in Baghdad called Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd Allāh Nasṭūlus - "Basṭūlus", who is known for making one of the oldest surviving astrolabes, dating back to 927/928.

Nasṭūlus astrolabes are now on show in the Kuwait Museum of Islamic Art and the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo.

 Group of scientists using an astrolabe, from al-Hariri's 'Maqama', 1240 CE [Getty Images]
Group of scientists using an astrolabe, from al-Hariri's 'Maqama', 1240 CE [Getty Images]

After years of neglect, Mariam was finally honoured internationally in 1990 as an astrolabist by naming the main belt asteroid 7060 Al.' Ijliya after her.

She is also mentioned in 1001 inventions – an award-winning UK science and cultural heritage organisation which helps engage over 450 million people around the world to the wonders of the universe and our inventive capacity. 

Astrolabe development after Mariam Al Astrulabi

Ibn Al Nadim noted that the essential features of the astrolabe came about in the 11th century in al-Andalus when Muslim astronomers devised the single universal plate, which included markings for equatorial and ecliptic coordinate systems.

This modification meant that the astrolabe no longer needed containers/plates for different latitudes and eliminated the need to re-calculate values at each use.

This technology was not recognised outside the Islamic world in Al-Andalus at the time. However, Muslim scholars perfected this technology in Syria around the fourteenth century.

In learning about Islam's role in astrophysics, The New Arab spoke to Professor Somaya Saad, head of astrophysics at the National Research Institute of Astronomy & Geophysics in Egypt.

She explained, "Muslims used a primitive version of the astrolabe with plates. The tool was a two-dimensional planetarium model showing what the sky looks like in a specific place at one particular time."

Saad added: "The sky was drawn on the face of the astrolabe so that it was easy to find celestial positions on it; it was used in navigation, to determine the angles of elevation of celestial bodies concerning the observer horizon anywhere, to calculate time and distance from the equator."

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Modern Muslim astronomers

We're privileged to now have a new generation of female Muslim astronomers. Fatoumata Kébé is a French astrophysicist specialising in solving the problem of space debris. She is the founder and director of Ephemerides, a program that provides access to astronomy for disadvantaged youth. Kébé states, "to go into space is a privilege, and women are not strictly welcome in this elite club".

Furthermore, Dr Hashima Hasan, a NASA Program Scientist for NuSTAR, the Keck Observatory and ADCAR, is a deputy program scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope. She also serves as the Education and Communication Lead for Astrophysics and the Executive Secretary of the Astrophysics Advisory Committee.

All these astronomers prove that Muslim women were never reluctant to contribute to science and leave a historical legacy for humanity.

What has been achieved today is nothing but continuous historical episodes that are handed over to generation after generation to build upon - and Muslim women have played an integral role in that journey.

Mariam Elsayeh Ibrahim is a freelance journalist and story producer currently based in the United Kingdom 

Follow her on Twitter: @mariamelsaieh