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The statue of al-Farghani in Cairo, Egypt
Born9th century
Died9th century
Academic background
Academic work
EraIslamic Golden Age
Main interestsAstronomy
Notable worksThe compendium (jawāmiʿ) of the Almagest, Treatise on the Astrolabe
InfluencedChristopher Columbus, Nicolaus Copernicus, Al‐Jūzjānī, al-Bīrūnī, Al-Qabisi

Abū al-ʿAbbās Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad ibn Kathīr al-Farghānī (Arabic: أبو العبّاس أحمد بن محمد بن كثير الفرغاني‎; 800/805–870), also known as Alfraganus in the West, was an astronomer in the Abbasid court in Baghdad, and one of the most famous astronomers in the 9th century. Al-Farghani composed several works on astronomy and astronomical equipment that were widely distributed in Arabic and Latin and were influential to many scientists. His best known work, Kitāb fī Jawāmiʿ ʿIlm al-Nujūmi (whose name translates to Elements of astronomy on the celestial motions), was an extensive summary of Ptolemy's Almagest containing revised experimental data. Among those influenced by al-Farghani's works were Copernicus, who is said to have used al-Farghani’s calculation of the diameter of the Earth in his own calculations, and Christopher Columbus, who used the same calculation for his voyages to America. In addition to making substantial contributions to astronomy, al-Farghani also worked as an engineer, supervising construction projects on rivers in Cairo, Egypt. The lunar crater Alfraganus is named after him.


Al-Farghani was born sometime in the early 9th century, and his last name suggests that his birthplace was most likely Farghana.[2] He has been described as Arab[3][4] or Persian.[5][6] He was involved in the calculation of the diameter of the Earth by the measurement of the meridian arc length, together with a team of scientists under the patronage of the ʿAbbāsid caliph al-Ma'mūn in Baghdad. Later he moved to Cairo, where he composed a treatise on the astrolabe around 856. There, he also supervised the construction of the large Nilometer, called the New Nilometer, on the Rawda Island (in Old Cairo) at the behest of the ʿAbbāsid caliph al-Mutawakkil, which was completed in the year 861.[7] This instrument allowed the height of the Nile to be measured in the event of a flood.[2] Also in Cairo, al-Farghani was tasked with building a canal, called al-Ja‘fari, by the two brothers Muhammad and Ahmad ibn Musa, who were themselves ordered by al-Mutawakkil to oversee the construction of the canal.[2] Reports indicate that al-Farghani made a critical mistake in the design of the canal, and had the entrance of the canal dug too deep for water to enter the rest of the canal without unusually high water levels.[2][7] Al-Mutawakkil was enraged when he heard of the mistake, and so he sent Sanad ibn ‘Ali to assess the culpability of the brothers Muhammad and Ahmad who contracted al-Fraghani to build it.[2][7] Sanad ibn ‘Ali ultimately reported (deceitfully) to al-Mutawakkil that there was no mistake in the design of the canal created by al-Farghani, which delayed any consequences long enough for the controversy to cease abruptly after the assassination of al-Mutawakkil in 861 that resulted in the canal remaining unfinished.[2][7] Al-Farghani died in Egypt sometime after 861.[7]

There is some debate about whether the two names for al-Farghani, Muhammad ibn Kath lr and Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Kat, mentioned in historical sources refer to two different people, but most historians argue that both names describe just one al-Farghani.[8]


Portrait of Alfraganus in the Compilatio astronomica, 1493

The most influential work produced by al-Farghani was his textbook Kitāb fī Jawāmiʿ ʿIlm al-Nujūm (كتاب في جوامع علم النجوم A Compendium of the Science of the Stars) or Elements of astronomy on the celestial motions, written sometime between about 833 and 857.[9][10] Elements was a descriptive summary of Ptolemy's Almagest that included the findings and revised values of earlier Islamic astronomers.[11] Among the revisions included in the book were corrections to calculations of the circumference of the Earth, the Earth's axial tilt, and the apsides of the Sun and the Moon.[11] Though al-Farghani's summary of Almagest contained these numerical corrections, the summary itself did not emphasize the mathematics of Ptolemy's astronomical theory and was instead focused more on conveying the conceptual parts of the theory in an easily-understood manner.[12] Al-Farghani's book was translated into Latin in the 12th century by John of Seville in 1135 and later by Gerard of Cremona prior to 1175.[12] These translations remained very popular in Europe until the time of Regiomontanus. Dante Alighieri's knowledge of Ptolemaic astronomy, which is evident in his Divina Commedia as well as other works such as the Convivio, seems to have been drawn from his reading of Alfraganus.[13][14] Elements was also translated into Hebrew by Jacob Anatoli sometime from 1231 to 1235.[10] This translation of Elements contains an additional section discussing Ptolemy's 48 constellations, which was probably also written by al-Farghani, but is not found in other translations of the book.[10] Drawing primarily from Anatoli's Hebrew translation, but also from John of Seville's previous Latin translation, Jacob Christmann translated yet another Latin translation of Elements in 1590.[15][10] In the 17th century the Dutch orientalist Jacob Golius published the Arabic text on the basis of a manuscript he had acquired in the Near East, which was accompanied by the final recorded Latin translation and extensive notes and revisions.[16]

Al-Farghani also wrote several documents about astronomical instruments. His most famous is his treatise on the astrolabe, which is the oldest surviving document that details the theoretical construction and use of the tool.[9] Although historical sources indicate that there were probably other documents regarding the theory of astrolabes (including one written by al-Khwarizmi) circulating around the time that al-Farghani wrote his treatise, al-Farghani notes in his treatise that he was not aware of any such documents, suggesting that his treatise was a purely original work.[17][18] Al-Farghani's treatise on the astrolabe provides the mathematical basis for the construction of the astrolabe, along with tables containing thousands of data points enabling the construction of astrolabes that function at varying lines of longitude.[18][12] Though a theoretical basis for the construction of an astrolabe is presented in this work, the treatise lacked specific methods for physical construction because the purpose of the treatise was not to give instructions for building an astrolabe, but rather to provide mathematical justification for the functionality of the astrolabe.[9][17] The work Kitāb al-Fihrist by Ibn al-Nadim suggests that al-Farghani was also responsible for writing a book about the use and function of sundials, though no copies exist in the present day.[9][19]

In the 15th century, Christopher Columbus used al-Farghani's estimate for the Earth's circumference as the basis for his voyages to America. However, Columbus mistook al-Farghani's 7091-foot Arabic mile to be a 4856-foot Roman mile. This error caused him to underestimate the Earth's circumference, leading him to sail to North America while he believed that he was taking a shortcut to Asia.[20][21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Gillispie, Charles Coulston (1970). Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Scribner in New York. pp. 541–545. ISBN 0-684-10114-9.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Abdukhalimov, Bahrom (1999). "Ahmad al-Farghani and His "Compendium of Astronomy"". Journal of Islamic Studies. 10 (2): 142–158. ISSN 0955-2340.
  3. ^ Science, The Cambridge History of Islam, Vol. 2, ed. P. M. Holt, Ann K. S. Lambton, Bernard Lewis, (Cambridge University Press, 1978), 760.
  4. ^ "Al-Farghani." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 6 Dec. 2018 <>.
  5. ^ Sir Patrick Moore, The Data Book of Astronomy,CRC Press,2000,BG 48ref Henry Corbin, The Voyage and the Messenger: Iran and Philosophy, North Atlantic Books, 1998, pg 44
  6. ^ Texts, Documents and Artefacts: Islamic Studies in Honour of D.S. Richards. Edited by Chase F. Robinson, Brill Academic Publishers, BG 25.
  7. ^ a b c d e Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Detroit, MI: Charles Scribner's Sons. 2007. ISBN 978-0-684-31559-1.
  8. ^ Abdukhalimov, Bahrom (1999). "Ahmad al-Farghani and His "Compendium of Astronomy"". Journal of Islamic Studies. 10 (2): 142–158. ISSN 0955-2340.
  9. ^ a b c d Palmeri, JoAnn; Bolt, Marvin (2014). Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers. New York: Springer. ISBN 978-1-4419-9917-7.
  10. ^ a b c d Sela, Shlomo (2016). "Al-Farghānī on the 48 Ptolemaic Constellations: A Newly Discovered Text in Hebrew Translation". Aleph. 16 (2): 249–365. doi:10.2979/aleph.16.2.249. ISSN 1565-1525.
  11. ^ a b Dallal, Ahmad (2010). Islam, Science, and the Challenge of History. Yale University Press. p. 32. ISBN 9780300159110.
  12. ^ a b c Selin, Helaine (2008). Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures. Dordrecht: Springer. ISBN 978-1-4020-4425-0.
  13. ^ Mary A. Orr, Dante and the Early Astronomers (London: Gall and Inglis, 1913), 233-34.
  14. ^ Scott, John A. (2004). Understanding Dante. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P. p. 22. ISBN 978-0-268-04451-0.
  15. ^ Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Detroit, MI: Charles Scribner's Sons. 2007. ISBN 978-0-684-31559-1.
  16. ^ Alfraganus: Elementa astronomica, in Arabic and Latin, year 1669, translation by Golius. Alfraganus is a medieval Latin spelling of Al-Farghani.
  17. ^ a b "Al-Farghānī On the Astrolabe, Richard Lorch (Ed.), in: Boethius, Band 52, Franz Steiner Verlag, Stuttgart (2005), viii + 447 pp. 80.00€, ISBN: 3-515-08713-3". Historia Mathematica. 34 (4): 433–434. 2007-11-01. doi:10.1016/ ISSN 0315-0860.
  18. ^ a b Al-Farghani (2005). On the Astrolabe. Steiner. ISBN 978-3515087131.
  19. ^ Lorch, Richard; Kunitzsch, Paul (2013-04-01). "al-Farghānī". Encyclopaedia of Islam, THREE. doi:10.1163/1573-3912_ei3_com_26973.
  20. ^ Douglas McCormick (2012), Columbus’s Geographical Miscalculations, IEEE
  21. ^ S. Frederick Starr (2013), So, Who Did Discover America?, History Today, Volume 63, Issue 12

Further reading[edit]

  • Sabra, Abdelhamid I. (1971). "Farghānī, Abu'l-ʿAbbās Aḥmad Ibn Muḥammad Ibn Kathīr al-". Dictionary of Scientific Biography. 4. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. pp. 541–545. ISBN 0-684-10114-9.
  • Jacobus Golius (ed.), كتاب محمد بن كثير الفرغاني في الحركات السماوية وجوامع علم النجوم، بتفسير الشيخ الفاضل يعقوب غوليوس / Muhammedis Fil. Ketiri Ferganensis, qui vulgo Alfraganus dicitur, Elementa astronomica, Arabicè & Latinè. Cum notis ad res exoticas sive Orientales, quae in iis occurrunt, Amsterdam 1669; Reprint Frankfurt 1986 and 1997.
  • El-Fergânî, The Elements of Astronomy, textual analysis, translation into Turkish, critical edition & facsimile by Yavuz Unat, edited by Şinasi Tekin & Gönül Alpay Tekin, Harvard University 1998.
  • Elements of Chronology and Astronomy - Muhamedis Alfragani Arabis Chronologica et astronomica elementa (in Latin).
  • Richard Lorch (ed.), Al-Farghānī on the Astrolabe. Arabic text edited with translation and commentary, Stuttgart, 2005, ISBN 3-515-08713-3.
  • Yavuz Unat, El-Fergânî, Cevami İlm en-Nucûm ve Usûl el-Harekât es-Semâviyye, Astronominin Özeti ve Göğün Hareketlerinin Esası, T.C. Kültür ve Turizm Bakanlığı, Bilimin ve Felsefenin Doğulu Öncüleri Dizisi 14, Ankara 2012.
  • Yavuz Unat, “Fergânî’nin ‘Astronominin Özeti ve Göğün Hareketlerinin Esasları’ Adlı Astronomi Eseri”, DTCF Dergisi, Cilt 38, Sayı 1-2, Ankara 1998, s. 405–423.

External links[edit]