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The Astrolabe: Its History and Application Workshop by the Centre for Advanced Studies on Islam, Science, and Civilization (CASIS) at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (25 & 26 Feb, 2015)

February 26, 2015

UPDATE: Rather comprehensive, though certainly not exhaustive, bibliography of scientific instruments published in 1997, that also included the role of gender. It would be interesting to know more about the position of women in Eastern civilizations in relation to these instruments, given the centuries of an educated woman’s role as helpmeet to their men who ‘produce’ the sciences (

Astrolabes from the Museum of Boerhave at Leiden and A full resource page on the astrolabes from the same site.

MIT page containing links to catalogs, archives, and galleries of scientific instruments, including astrolabes.


So, I’d attended my first history of science workshop in Malaysia, which was exciting for me, since it brought me into connection with a community of people interested in different aspects of the history of physical sciences. Unfortunately, I was the only non-Muslim Malaysian attending the workshop, though there were a number of participants from Indonesia and elseshwere. Given how such workshops are entirely lacking around here, it would be great to have more of them around here, and even at the regional level. That said, I have had good fun as I not only learned how to use an astrolabe at a very basic level; I also learned how to analyze cosmographic texts produced in language cultures alien to me just by learning how to interpret clues that are provided while also learning how to read Arabic numerals, despite having minimum knowledge of the Arabic script, on manuscripts containing mathematical tables (that included trigonometric tables). While I hope to write a more nuanced post on this issue at a later date, for now, I just want to post my most immediate reaction in the aftermath of attending the workshop.

I actually missed much of the first day since I could not take time off from my teaching obligations then, so I missed the introductory lecture by Dr Robert H. Van Gent on the origisn and mathematical background of the astrolabe, though the reader  (and myself) get a sense of what he was talking about from his earlier writing on the topic, which was incidentally reproduced in Malay by CASIS, in their program book. I also missed a potentially interesting talk  by Dr Salim Ayduz on the relation between Astronomy and the Ottoman empire (though I found an article of his on a similar topic here that is targeted at a more general audience) and another on eclipses in al Biruni’s Treatise VII on al-Qanun al-Mas’udi (though in this case, I was given a handout of the lecture, which I plan to take time to digest over the weekend and give a summary of later). I caught the tail-end of Dr Tatiana Denisova‘s talk on orientation, navigation and seafaring  within Malay historiography between the 14th and 19th century (the tail end of her talk I caught is focused on the circulation and importation of scientific knowledge among seafarers from within and without the Malay world, her analysis is derived from textual analysis of available primary sources concerning maritime practices in the Malay world. My intention is speak to her more about her work a little later, once I have time to take everything in). Dr Muhammad Zainiy Uthman gave a presentation on the ‘Batu Bersurat Terengganu’ which is connected to a book he recently edited “Batu Bersurat of Terengganu: Its Correct Date, Religio-Cultural and Scientific Dimension,” where he  was identifying astrological (and elements of ilmu falak) inscribed within the royal edicts carved on the stones, as well as the confusion that one gets sometimes from paleographic analysis.

The 'Batu Bersurat' of Kuala Terengganu, with hints of horoscopic predictions.

The ‘Batu Bersurat’ of Kuala Terengganu, with hints of horoscopic predictions.

It appears that astrological and astronomical practices are long conflated in the practices of early Malay cosmology and knowledge; even then, one might consider the existence of such traces evidence of intellectual exchanges that were going on within Southeast with other parts of the world.  That said, I hear that the centre intend to publish the proceedings of the talks later this year, so we will see what we will get. Based on my still rather limited knowledge of how area studies on SEA is conducted within Malaysia, one can see a divide between those who concentrate on SEA studies largely from the confines of post-war Malaya/Malaysia (including those working in areas of literature, cultural studies, film studies, gender studies, anthropology, sociology, economics, policy studies, development studies etc) and those more interested in older historiographical knowledge (whether through textual or artefactual analysis) that encompasses not very new fields of the contestable ‘ethno’ science/mathematics and recently, the archaeology of a particular science.

Nevertheless, the real fun for me began on the second day, which was when the actual workshop took place (the first day saw more of presentation of works by various individuals as I’d mentioned). The workshop was conducted by Dr Robert H Van Gent (a historian of science) and Wilfrid de Graaf, the latter being a mathematics lecturer who happens to be interested interested in history of mathematics and astronomy in Islamic thought and civilization, particularly in Iran.

2015-02-26 20.06.38

Plastic Astrolabe calibrated to Kuala Lumpur’s latitude, 3º above the equator . You can determine the location of the sun on the day you are born, and then used it to determine the position of the sun during sunrise and sunset to discover the hours of daylight you have in a day (which is fairly predictable if you live that close to the equator). You can also measure the direction in which the qiblah should face from your local position.

In the second workshop, we were shown how we can also determine the direction the qiblah should face through both approximate measure on a two-dimensional map and through the use of trigonometric spherical calculations that also involve using a string to find the shortest distance between Mecca and one’s local position. It is like revisiting old high school geography and geometry combined – and got me thinking how much more interesting school geography lessons would have been if they have demonstrated the relevance of cartography to both geometry and cultural practices, rather than merely focusing on physical and economic geography (though I do appreciate the geography teacher who coerced us into drawing world maps from memory).

In the third workshop, we finally got down to the business of analyzing cosmographical texts that involve knowing how to interpret symbolisms, icons, and also available knowledge models represented by the cosmographic charts. The process reminded me of my even more intensive training at the Rare Book School in the course Scientific Illustration up to the 18th Century, where we concentrated on looking at known Western textual sources (you can find posts on this in the archives of July and August 2013). The first was Seyyed Loqman Ashuri’s Zubdat al_Tawrikh. The one we looked at is

Zodiac and Ecliptic Phases as represented by the Mansions

Though, if you look visit this page by Prof G’nsel Renda from Ankara on the miniature paintings found in the compendium, you will find description of other pages in the volume. We also look at the birth chart of the grandson of the great Mongol conqueror (Tamerlane). The same knowledge we obtained from determining the zodiac position based on one’s birth chart and alignment to constellations (obtained through direct observations) is then used to understand how everything is aligned in this birth chart, though we did not get any training on how one makes predictions out of these alignments, but that is another workshop in itself.

Horoscope of Iskandar, Grandson of Tamerlane, born in the 12th century AD.

And the Wall Cloth by Hossein Fakhari depicting late nineteenth century Persian understanding of developments in astronomy (one thing I find very interesting is the use of various mythical figures, which one finds conflated from multiple cultures of the ‘East’ and ‘West’, to represent constellations and planets.

The Persian, Hossein Fakhari's 19th century wall cloth depicting the solar system, which I need to research more on before I can say more).

The Persian, Hossein Fakhari’s 19th century wall cloth depicting the solar system, which I need to research more on before I can say more).

Then, there is the “Adjāyeb al-makhlouqāt wa gharāyeb al-mawdjoudāt” by Zakariya Qazwimi that can be found online at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris and also, the Ottoman reproduction of his work can be found here.

The final workshop concerns understanding how Arabic numerals are written in the Arabic script, and how one can decipher them. Below are the two tables we used for this exercise, as well as a reproduction of a print of a manuscript with lists of Arabic numerals. The exercise was easier on my Muslim colleagues than me, given that most have learned the script through having to read the Quran, among other things. That said, thanks to the patient explanation of one of my group members, I finally understood how the alphabets and stringed together, as well as how their formulation change, depending on how you write them and what word you desire to formulate.

2015-02-26 20.57.472015-02-26 20.57.47 2015-02-26 20.57.582015-02-26 20.58.40That is all for now. Watch this space for more updates as I obtain more information and explore more into this area.

Finally, I bought a book while at the workshop, which I am curious to read more about, as it seems potentially interesting and also contentious. I was introduced to this book by Dr Wan Suhaimi Wan Abdullah from CASIS.

2015-02-26 18.49.32

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