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Volume 37, Number 1January/February 1986

In This Issue

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An Introduction

The stars, gleaming with special brightness above the dunes and salt flats of the deserts of the Middle East and their environs, have always beckoned to the Arabs. They provided a celestial map for the ancient nomads, and later challenged the greatest minds of the Muslim world.

To all ancient civilizations, the night sky provided a fascinating and often frightening array of mysterious astronomical phenomena that even the greatest scholars could not explain: brilliant Venus and the North Star, meteors streaking suddenly across the blackness, curved shadows moving ominously across the moon and the sun, and comets blazing unexpectedly into view, their fiery tails warning of death, plague and defeat in the months ahead. But of all the scholars who sought to unravel those mysteries, few compared with those in the Islamic countries: the mathematicians, philosophers, astronomers and linguists who flocked to the Bait al-Hikmah, (The House of Wisdom) during the Abbasids' Golden Age in Baghdad or later expanded and extended their studies in Islamic Spain and transmitted their discoveries, concepts and theories to Europe.

In Golden-Age Baghdad, Muslim scholars often tended to be polymaths, i.e. scholars whose interests encompassed such disciplines as mathematics, philosophy, medicine and literature. As a result, most of the great scholars of the Golden Age not only pondered the problems of astronomy, but also built instruments to make observations and measurements or developed the mathematics needed to calculate and test their data. Thabit ibn Qurrah, for example, was primarily a mathematician, as was the great Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarazmi, but Ibn Qurrah also produced original work in astronomy and al-Khwarazmi developed important astronomical tables. The famous trio of scientists called the Banu Musa (the sons of Musa) were mathematicians and also contributed a book on celestial mechanics.

The same was true in Islamic Spain. Men like Ibn Abi 'Ubaidah in the ninth century, Mashlah al-Majriti in the 10th century and al-Zarqali in the 11th century developed theories, corrected al-Khwarazmi's tables and built instruments, while al-Bitruj came up with a new theory of stellar movement. Al-Zarqali - Arzachel in the West - also contributed to the highly accurate compilation of astronomical data called the "Toledan Tables," and before the age drew to a close the Arabs had put their names on most of the important stars and planets and left a legacy of astronomical speculation still seen in such important astronomical and mathematical terms as "zenith," "nadir" and "azimuth," all clearly Arabic in origin.

For all those reasons, it was particularly appropriate for 22 Arab League countries to launch the first Arab satellite and for the first Arab astronaut to ride a space ship into orbit in 1985, the year when Halley's Comet, one of the wonders of astronomy, returned after 75 years. Altogether, these developments suggest not only the historical contributions of the Arab world to the study of astronomy, but also the extraordinary renaissance of scientific and technological learning in and throughout the Arab world in the past decade.

To cover this story, Aramco World, early in 1985, lined up an international team of reporters, scholars, researchers, illustrators, photographers and photographic agencies to report, write on and illustrate the February 8 launch of Arabsat-A from the jungles of French Guiana and to analyze the expected impact of the space age on communications in the Arab world. This team included Yasar Durra, an executive of Worldwide Television News , Arthur Clark, an Aramco World correspondent in Saudi Arabia, John Christie, a former British diplomat and now publisher of Middle East Newsletters, Patricia Moody, a former Aramco employee now free-lancing in the United States with her husband Burnett H. Moody, former Aramco chief photographer, Douglas A. Boyd, University of Maryland communications expert, and the result was a 14-page special section - "The Arabs in Space" - in the March-April issue.

But that was just the beginning. By the time Arabsat-A was actually launched, the Arab League had accepted the invitation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to place an Arab payload specialist on the space shuttle Discovery, and had chosen Prince Sultan ibn Salman Al Sa'ud of Saudi Arabia to fill that slot. By then too, astronomers all over the world were beginning to crank up their telescopes for one of the great moments in astronomy: the return of Halley's Comet. So, the story still incomplete, Aramco World assigned Contributing Editor Paul Lunde to provide a history of Arab astronomy, and to weave in research submitted by Dr. Zayn Bilkadi, a research scientist at the 3M Corporate Research Laboratories in Minnesota, but also, as he puts it, "a Tunisian Arab ... interested in the history of science and technologyin the Middle East."

As lift-off time approached, Aramco World Contributing Editor John Lawton, assigned to help Saudi Television provide daily coverage of the event, found himself in Houston—and thus able to add on-the-spot coverage.

Still more contributors went into action when Prince Sultan later flew to France and the United States. Joe Fitchett, a veteran reporter with the International Herald Tribune, covered the prince as he was inducted into the French Legion of Honor; Kenneth Storey, media advisor to the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabiain Washington, traveled with the prince as he flew - himself - to Boston, Washington, Dallas and Los Angeles, met President Reagan and answered pointed questions from sharp students in a Dallas high school. Meanwhile, still another contributor, Daniel Pawley, working on a story on the travels of American authors in the Middle East, came up with a short item about Mark Twain and Halley's Comet and Arthur Clark in Saudi Arabia came up with background material on what, basically, is one of the more important aspects of the spaceflight: scientific experiments developed by Arabs to be carried out by an Arab in regions of the universe that Arab science has studied since atleast the ninth century.

This article appeared on pages 2-3 of the January/February 1986 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1986 images.