Mariam Al Astrulabi: The 10th century Muslim astronomer and eye of the skies

Mariam Al-Astrulabi
3 min read
04 May, 2023

In our modern age, global positioning systems help us find our bearings and track our location. Telescopes help us observe the sky. 

But how was this possible one thousand years ago?  How did they find their way, how did they measure the distance between stars, and how were they able to calculate the height of mountains? Part of the answer? Mariam Al Astrulabi's astrolabe.

"Al Astrulabi contributed to tracking the position of the sun, moon, stars and planets, helping find the Qiblah and ascertaining prayer times and the date of Ramadan"

For Muslims, the position of the sun plays a crucial role in determining prayer times. Finding the most accurate bearing of the Kaaba, in Makkah, has been an integral part of Islamic science since its inception. As such, astronomy has always played an important role. 

From Al Battuni, Al Kharawizmi, and Thabit Ibn Qurra, to Ali Al Qushji, Ulugh Bey, and Al Biruni, Muslim polymaths have always helped innovate and expand the discipline. 

But it's not only Muslim men who have contributed. In the 10th century, a Muslim woman, Maryam Al Ijlya - also known as Mariam Al Astrulabi - changed the face of astronomy forever by pioneering the astrolabe. 

Her contribution to astronomy was recognised in 1990 when Henry H. Holy discovered the main-best asteroid at Palomar Observatory and named it the 7069 Al Ijliyye.

Astrolabes are used for astronomical observations, timekeeping and navigation. Mariam's innovation also laid the foundation for managing transport and for communication routes.

She also contributed to tracking the position of the sun, moon, stars and planets, helping find the Qiblah and ascertaining prayer times and the date of Ramadan.

Mariam is considered one of the 200 most famous astronomers in history. 

Born to the astrolabe-maker Al Ijliy Al-Astrulabi in Syria during the 10th century, Mariam's father was her inspiration. Her mastery was soon discovered by the founder of the Emirate of Aleppo, Sayf Al Dawla, who employed her in his royal court. 

During his reign between 944 to 967AD, Mariam helped develop navigation and timekeeping and became well-known throughout the region as the maker of the most detailed astrolabes of her generation.

Nigerian-American science-fiction writer, Nnedi Okorafor revealed in 2016 that Mariam was her source of inspiration in her novella, Binti. Okorafor learnt about Mariam Al Astulabi in the United Arab Emirates during a book festival. Okorafor’s book won an award in 2015, and Mariam was also named an extraordinary woman from the Islamic Golden Age by the 1001 Inventions.

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How astrolabes work and help

The astrolabe first appeared as a scientific instrument used to reckon the time and observe the sky. There is a disk of metal or wood with the circumference marked off within degrees. A portable pointer pivots at the disk's centre and is called an alidade. 

Astrolabes enabled astronomers to calculate the positions of the stars and sun regarding their positions on the horizon and the meridian.

Their invention is traced back to the ancient Greeks. However, they were widely used during the Middle Ages by Muslims and Europeans. Their use became common among mariners around the 15th century until the development of sextants. 

From the 8th to 15th centuries, Muslim astronomers produced countless sophisticated astronomical works. Muslim scholars, particularly those during the Islamic Golden Age, helped create innovative discoveries that would impact generations to come. 

Dr Ufuk Necat Tasci is a political analyst, academic, and journalist. His research areas and interests include Libya, the foreign policy of Turkey, proxy wars, surrogate warfare, and new forms of conflict and history

Follow him on Twitter: @UfukNecat