Ibn al-Shatir

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Ala Al-Din Abu'l-Hasan Ali Ibn Ibrahim Ibn al-Shatir (1304 – 1375) (Arabic: ابن الشاطر‎) was an Arab Muslim astronomer, mathematician, engineer and inventor who worked as muwaqqit (موقت, religious timekeeper) at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria.

Ibn al-Shatir conducted extensive observations which led to some of his theoretical contributions, designed and constructed new instruments, and made advanced contributions to Islamic astronomy in the field of Planetary theory.[1]


Ibn al-Shatir's model for the appearances of Mercury, showing the multiplication of epicycles using the Tusi-couple, thus eliminating the Ptolemaic eccentrics and equant.


His most important astronomical treatise was the Kitāb Nihāyat al-Suʾāl fī Taṣḥīḥ al-ʾUṣūl (كتاب نهاية السؤال في تصحيح الأصول The Final Quest Concerning the Rectification of Principles),[2] in which he drastically reformed the Ptolemaic models of the Sun, Moon, and planets. While previous Maragha school models were just as accurate as the Ptolemaic model, Ibn al-Shatir's geometrical model was the first that was actually superior to the Ptolemaic model in terms of its better agreement with both contemporary theory and empirical observations.

Experimentally Ibn al-Shatir employed careful eclipse observations to measure the apparent size of the Sun and Moon and found that they disagreed with Ptolemaic expectations.[3] His work on his experiments and observations (e.g. Ta'liq al-arsad, or Accounting for Observations) has not survived, but there are references to it in his Final Quest Concerning the Rectification of Principles.[4]

Theoretically he objected to Aristotle's ether, in its eternal uniformity, and argued that if one grants that the heavens must allow for a variation in composition then there's no reason to reject epicycles, while agreeing that equants and eccentrics, which violated Aristotelian principles of uniform circular motion and gravity, were impossible.[5] He then built a model that by adding new epicycles utilizing the Tusi-couple eliminated entirely the epicycle in the solar model, the eccentrics and equants in the planetary models, and the eccentric, epicycles and equant in the lunar model.[6] The resulting model was one in which the Earth was at the exact center of the universe around which all heavenly bodies moved in uniform circular motions, remained as accurate as Ptolemy in predicting the paths of heavenly bodies, and improved on Ptolemy by accurately predicting the apparent size and distance of the Sun and Moon.

By creating the first model of the cosmos in which physical theory, mathematical model, and empirical observation were in agreement, Ibn al-Shatir marked a turning point in astronomy which may be considered a "Scientific Revolution before the Renaissance".[6]


Although his system was firmly geocentric—he had eliminated the Ptolemaic equant and eccentrics—the mathematical details of his system encompassed those in Nicolaus Copernicus' De revolutionibus, which had retained the Ptolemaic eccentric.[7][8] Copernicus' lunar model was identical to the lunar model of al-Shatir.[9][10] Noel Swerdlow noted of Copernicus' Commentariolus that his model of Mercury is mistaken, and that "[s]ince it is Ibn ash-Shatir's model, this is further evidence, and perhaps the best evidence, that Copernicus was in fact copying without full understanding from some other source".[11] All this suggests that Ibn al-Shatir's model may have influenced, if indirectly, Copernicus while constructing the latter's heliocentric model.[12][13] How Copernicus would have come across al-Shatir's work, exactly, remains an open question, but there are some number of possible routes for first or secondhand transmission.[14]


Polar-axis sundial[edit]

Ibn al-Shatir constructed a magnificent sundial for the minaret of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus which gave both seasonal and equinoctial hours.[15] The fragments of this sundial in a Damascus museum make this the oldest polar-axis sundial still in existence.[16]

Time keeping device[edit]

He made a timekeeping device incorporating both a universal sundial and a magnetic compass.[17]


The compendium, a multi-purpose astronomical instrument, was first constructed by Ibn al-Shatir. His compendium featured an alhidade and polar sundial among other things. These compendia later became popular in Renaissance Europe.[18]

Universal instrument[edit]

Ibn al-Shatir described another astronomical instrument which he called the "universal instrument" in his Rays of light on operations with the universal instrument (al-ʾashiʿʿa al-lāmiʿa fī al-ʿamal bi-l-āla al-jāmiʿa). A commentary on this work entitled Book of Ripe Fruits from Clusters of Universal Instrument (Kitāb al-thimār al-yāni'a ʿan qutāf al-āla al-jāmiʿa) was later written by the Ottoman astronomer and engineer Taqi al-Din, who employed the instrument at the Istanbul observatory of Taqi al-Din from 1577-1580.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Dallal, Ahmad (2010). Islam, Science, and the Challenge of History. Yale University Press. p. 25. ISBN 9780300159110. 
  2. ^ George Saliba, 'Theory and Observation in Islamic Astronomy - the Work of Ibn-Al of Damascus', Journal for the History of Astronomy, Vol.18, NO. 1/FEB, P. 35, 1987.
  3. ^ George Saliba, 'A History of Arabic Astronomy: Planetary Theories During the Golden Age of Islam', NYU Press, 1995; p.277.
  4. ^ George Saliba (1994), A History of Arabic Astronomy: Planetary Theories During the Golden Age of Islam, p. 238, New York University Press, ISBN 0-8147-8023-7.
  5. ^ George Saliba (2007), 'Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renasaince', p.196
  6. ^ a b George Saliba (1994), A History of Arabic Astronomy: Planetary Theories During the Golden Age of Islam, p. 233-234 & 240, New York University Press, ISBN 0-8147-8023-7.
  7. ^ James Evans, "History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy", Oxford University Press, 1998
  8. ^ V. Roberts and E. S. Kennedy, "The Planetary Theory of Ibn al-Shatir", Isis, 50(1959):232-234.
  9. ^ George Saliba (1994), A History of Arabic Astronomy: Planetary Theories During the Golden Age of Islam, p. 236, New York University Press, ISBN 0-8147-8023-7.
  10. ^ George Saliba (2007), 'Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renasaince', p.196
  11. ^ George Saliba (2007), 'Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renasaince', pp. 207-209.
  12. ^ Guessoum, N. (June 2008). "Copernicus and Ibn Al-Shatir: does the Copernican revolution have Islamic roots?". The Observatory 128: 231–239. Bibcode:2008Obs...128..231G. 
  13. ^ George Saliba (2007), Lecture at SOAS, London - Part 4/7 and Lecture at SOAS, London - Part 5/7
  14. ^ George Saliba (2007), 'Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renasaince', pp.214-230
  15. ^ David A. King (1983), "The Astronomy of the Mamluks", Isis 74 (4), pp. 531-555 [545-6]
  16. ^ Jones, Lawrence (December 2005). "The Sundial And Geometry". North American Sundial Society 12 (4). 
  17. ^ David A. King (1983). "The Astronomy of the Mamluks", Isis 74 (4), p. 531-555 [547-548].
  18. ^ King, David A. "Astronomy and Islamic society". pp. 163–8. , in (Rashed & Morelon 1996, pp. 128–184)
  19. ^ Dr. Salim Ayduz (26 June 2008). "Taqi al-Din Ibn Ma’ruf: A Bio-Bibliographical Essay". Retrieved 2008-07-04. )


  • Fernini, Ilias. A Bibliography of Scholars in Medieval Islam. Abu Dhabi (UAE) Cultural Foundation, 1998
  • Kennedy, Edward S. "Late Medieval Planetary Theory." Isis 57 (1966):365-378.
  • Kennedy, Edward S. and Ghanem, Imad. The Life and Work of Ibn al-Shatir, an Arab Astronomer of the Fourteenth Century. Aleppo: History of Arabic Science Institute, University of Aleppo, 1976.
  • Roberts, Victor. "The Solar and Lunar Theory of Ibn ash-Shatir: A Pre-Copernican Copernican Model". Isis, 48(1957):428-432.
  • Roberts, Victor and Edward S. Kennedy. "The Planetary Theory of Ibn al-Shatir". Isis, 50(1959):227-235.
  • Saliba, George. "Theory and Observation in Islamic Astronomy: The Work of Ibn al-Shatir of Damascus". Journal for the History of Astronomy, 18(1987):35-43.
  • Turner, Howard R. Science in Medieval Islam, an illustrated introduction. University of Texas Press, Austin, 1995. ISBN 0-292-78149-0 (pb) ISBN 0-292-78147-4 (hc)

Further reading[edit]

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