#HHWT Explorers: From Ancient Islamic Astronomers To Modern-Day Muslim Astronauts


Shasha Dania •  Jul 20, 2019

July 20 1969: an international milestone is marked when 2 astronauts - Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin - successfully walk on the surface of the moon. It's been 50 years since that monumental occasion and in that time, thoughts of space exploration, space travel, and even the hypothetical scenario of living in space itself have all become widely talked about beyond the limits of science-fiction novels and movies.

Credit: Giphy

With private companies now exploring the possibilities of space tourism, it seems as if space may soon become the next great destination on everyone's bucket list. But did you know that the study of space and even space travel itself are not completely foreign to Muslims? That Muslims have not only contributed to centuries of understanding of the cosmos, but even had the chance to visit space itself? ? To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, we take a look at how ancient Islamic astronomers and scholars and modern-day Muslim scientists and astronauts have honoured the bewildering and entrancing final frontier.

1. What is the significance of space and the cosmos to Islam?

وَسَخَّرَ لَكُمُ الشَّمْسَ وَالْقَمَرَ دَائِبَيْنِ ۖ وَسَخَّرَ لَكُمُ اللَّيْلَ وَالنَّهَارَ

Surah Ibrahim [14:33] "And He subjected for you the sun and the moon, continuous [in orbit], and subjected for you the night and the day."

Putting aside actually visiting space, the study of the sun, moon, and the rest of the cosmos have always been of utmost importance to Muslims. As our 5 daily prayers are based on the position of the sun, even early Muslims had to quickly learn to calculate when prayer times would be in order to keep up with this obligation. Sightings of the moon are also important in determining major events such as the start and end of the holy month of Ramadan, intertwining all aspects of our religious and daily life with astronomy.

وَهُوَ الَّذِي جَعَلَ لَكُمُ النُّجُومَ لِتَهْتَدُوا بِهَا فِي ظُلُمَاتِ الْبَرِّ وَالْبَحْرِ ۗ قَدْ فَصَّلْنَا الْآيَاتِ لِقَوْمٍ يَعْلَمُونَ

Surah Al-An'am [6:97] "And it is He who placed for you the stars that you may be guided by them through the darknesses of the land and sea. We have detailed the signs for a people who know."

The Qur'an is also full of quotes about the deliberate placement of the stars by God, reflecting the perfect celestial order within them. Some quotes even mention facts such as multiple worlds (planets), or the orbits of the planets that were not discovered until centuries after the Qur'an was revealed! It's no wonder that astronomy has been a major discipline in Islamic studies even till today, as the study of astronomy itself is akin to a study of theology and God. ☺️

2. What were some of Islam's early contributions to astronomy?

Early Islamic scholars' observations of the stars and writings about space helped lay the foundation for later generations of scientists not just in astronomy, but in mathematics too. This is because the process needed to observe such celestial movements necessitated an understanding of calculus and trigonometry amongst under concepts. Early discoveries still linger on today in some of the terms used in the field (e.g. nadir) as well as hundreds of Arabic star and constellation names. Heard of Deneb, Betelgeuse, Vega or Rigel? They all have Arabic roots! Here are some famous ancient Muslim astronomers, as well as their key contributions to the field:

Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (commonly known as Al-Khwarizmi) is one of the most famous historical Muslims who produced work covering not just mathematics but astronomy. His text "Zij al-Sindhind" was a series of calculations and tables that was a pivotal work in Islamic astronomy as it was original research rather than a translation of earlier works.

Hasan Ibn al-Haytham (commonly known as Ibn al-Haytham) was an astronomer, mathematician, and physicist during the Islamic Golden Age. His use of a pinhole camera to observe an eclipse were what led to his discoveries in the field of optics, and he's even known as the father of modern optics!

Abu Abd Allah Muhammad ibn Jabir ibn Sinan al-Raqqi al-Harrani as-Sabi al-Battani (commonly known as Al-Battani) is one of the best known ancient Islamic astronomers. His most famous discovery was determining that the solar year lasts 365 days, 5 hours, 46 minutes and 24 seconds - one of the closest estimates before modern-day technology emerged! His findings were so crucial that he was referenced multiple times by famous astronomers such as Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler, all of whom used his data to help in their work. There's even a crater on the moon (Albategnius) named after him in his honour.

3. So who are some of the modern-day Muslim astronomers and astronauts involved in the research of space?

Did you know that there have been 10 Muslims who've been sent to space? ? Though their names may not be as well-known as Armstrong or Aldrin, they mark a major step forward for Muslim space travel and scholarship and we ought to remember their names and determination to succeed. ? Here they are in chronological order:

Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud


On June 17 1985, Sultan Salman Al Saud became the 1st Muslim, 1st Arab, 1st Saudi, and 1st member of a royal family to venture into space. Flying with the NASA-led STS-51-G mission, he was a payload specialist and represented the Arab Satellite Communications Organization (ARABSAT) in launching its satellite ARABSAT-1B.

Muhammed Ahmed Faris


Just 2 years after Sultan Salman Al Saud's flight into space, Muhammed Faris became the 1st (and as of today, the only) Syrian to fly into space on 22 July 1987. Participating in the Soviet Union's Interkosmos program as a research cosmonaut, he was onboard the Soyuz TM-3 aircraft as it visited the Soviet space station Mir.

Musa Khiramanovich Manarov


Several months after Muhammed Faris' spaceflight, Musa Manarov would become the 1st Azerbaijani in space, and the 1st member of this list to participate in 2 separate expeditions to space! His first flight lasted from 21 December 1987 to 21 December 1988 as a space engineer on the Soviet Soyuz TM-4, and his second flight lasted from 2 December 1990 to 21 May 1991 on Soyuz TM-11. The 2nd flight held the record for the longest continuous time spent in space at that time (at 175 days), and he has spent a total of 541 days in space, and performed 20 hours of spacewalks!

Abdul Ahad Mohmand


In between Musa Manarov's 2 space flights, another Muslim set the record of being the 1st Afghan in space. Abdul Ahad Mohmand trained with the Soviet Union, and made his voyage into space on 29 August 1988 with the Soyuz TM-6 spacecraft. The mission took place during the Soviet-Afghan war, and his inclusion in the crew was a monumental symbol during a time where Soviet occupation in Afghanistan was at its highest.

Toktar Ongarbayuly Aubakirov


On 2 October 1991, Toktar Aubakirov became the 5th Muslim and 1st Kazakh in space. Born in what is now Kazakhstan, Aubakirov trained under the Soviets as a cosmonaut before flying with the Soyuz TM-13 spacecraft. The mission took place shortly before Kazakhstan's independence, and Aubakirov's inclusion was intended to persuade Kazakhstan to continue launches from a spaceport in their territory.

Talgat Amangeldyuly Musabayev


Amazingly, our next astronaut on this list is the 2nd Kazakh in space, and the 1st to have flown 3 separate expeditions! Talgat Musabayev's first venture into space was on 4 November 1994 on the Soyuz TM-19. His next two would take place on 25 August 1998 on the Soyuz TM-27, and then on 6 May 2001 aboard the Soyuz TM-32 (the latter of which was his shortest flight lasting just 7 days). He spent a total of 341 days in space! Musabayev was the flight engineer on his 1st flight, and Commander of the mission on the next two.

Salizhan Shakirovich Sharipov


Salizhan Sharipov is the 1st on this list to have flown separate missions with the U.S.A. and Russia, and is also the 1st cosmonaut from modern-day Kyrgyzstan (though he is ethnically Uzbek). His first flight on 22 January 1998 was with the U.S.-led STS-89 mission onboard the space shuttle Endeavour. His second flight was on 14 October 2004 onboard the Russian Soyuz TMA-5 spacecraft. He has conducted 2 spacewalks with a total of 10 hours and 34 minutes

Anousheh Ansari


Our first (and for now only!) muslimah on this list is the American-Iranian Anousheh Ansari. Ansari flew into space on 18 September 2006 with the Soyuz TMA-9 spacecraft as the 1st female space tourist, not long after her 40th birthday. During her time in space she even published a weblog of her experiments!

Dato' Dr. Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor Al Masrie bin Sheikh Mustapha


Closer to home, Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor was the 1st Malaysian Malay to venture into space on 10 October 2007 onboard the Soyuz TMA-11 spacecraft. His expedition was under a joint agreement between Russia and Malaysia's Angkasawan program, the latter of which he was selected for after a series of rigorous tests. During his expedition he carried out several experiments related to scientific and medical research, some of which were intended to benefit Malaysian industries.

Credit: @drsheikhmuszaphar on Instagram

Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor's mission is also notable because it coincided with Ramadan, resulting in the first-ever guidebook for Muslims in space. The guidebook is a 7-page word document that includes advisories on how to locate the qiblat from space, how to pray in low-gravity, and how to fast. He even celebrated Eid during the mission, and handed out satay and kuih to his fellow crew.

Aidyn Akanovich Aimbetov


The final member of our list, Aidyn Aimbetov is the 10th Muslim (so far) and 3rd Kazakh in space. His mission took off on 2 September 2015 onboard the Soyuz TMA-18M spacecraft. Though he was originally intended to only fly in 2017, he was given the opportunity to join the 2015 flight after a participant pulled out resulting in an empty seat needing to be urgently filled.

These 10 Muslims have truly gone to extraordinary means to expand our understandings of science and the universe, following in the footsteps of early Muslims who looked to the stars for guidance and a deeper understanding of their faith. ? We hope that through learning more about how much Islam and Muslims have contributed to the study of astronomy, you too feel inspired to keep exploring and learning more about both your faith and the amazing universe out there!

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