Arab World Foundations Enriched Understanding of Eclipses
By: Michaela Schrum/Contributing Writer
For most people in the United States, the total solar eclipse yesterday was a chance to marvel at our vast universe and science. However, for a select few, it was a reminder of achievement, and by what means that achievement was reached. For thousands of years, cultures and civilizations have utilized time through the rotations of the moon and the sun to keep track of important occurrences like the harvest and planting seasons, and those in the Arab world were no different.
The achievements made by Islamic astronomers, most notably Ibn Yunus of Egypt, (the first to discover the building blocks of the logarithm and their use in his astronomy tables) have helped set the groundwork for understanding and documenting these fantastic marvels starting in the mid 900’s. Ibn Yunus documented over 30 lunar eclipses and 40 planetary movements, some of which were used to help later research and understand the patterns regarding the gravity and acceleration patterns of Earth’s moon.
However, while scientists know that documentation of solar eclipses occurred in ancient times, very few writings are actually known to the modern world. The sun, for instance, played a central role in religious and cultural practices in ancient Egypt but few writings actually detail a solar eclipse from this area. An exception to this standard lies in the Vienna Demotic Papyrus which among other events, documents solar and lunar eclipses and is believed to be Babylonian in origin.
Hamid-Reza Giahi Yazdi classified all reports of solar eclipses into 4 categories. The first explains the religious affiliation of eclipses. This includes tales of leaders and their activities on days of an eclipse. Meccans claimed that because of the eclipse, the prophet Muhammed prayed. The second type focuses on the appearance of these events, noting the time of duration and sometimes the effects sudden darkness had on animals and plants as seen in the Vienna papyrus. The third type of notation is the fear that the people experienced upon contact with an eclipse (especially a total solar eclipse), and the fourth documents conversations astronomers had with everyday people about the eclipse and what they meant for everyday life. David G. Smith argues that an eclipse of any sort must have been very frightening, especially in ancient Egypt because of the sun’s vast importance in society.
But despite this fear, we know that people of that time made huge advancements that enabled us to climb to the stars and understand our universe better. We started with astrolabes, sundials and the discovery of trigonometry with Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi and math’s relationship to the stars and Earth. We also do remember the journey humans have taken to get here. What better way to celebrate those achievements than with an eclipse.