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History & Heritage


Why do many star names have Arabic origin?

Acamar, Rasalased, Kochab.. these words are examples of star names. At a first glance, they look unidentifiable. So where do they come from? The short answer is Arabic, but the long answer is a bit more nuanced than that.

The story begins in 8th century Middle East, Abbasid Caliphs became more and more interested in science and exploration. So they requested that the scientific works of previous translators be translated in Arabic, the rising scientific lingua franca of the world at that era. Greek and Roman scientific texts, notably Claudius Ptolemy’s Almagest, were translated into Arabic. But this was not merely a linguistic transfer; it also involved a comprehensive assimilation and expansion of knowledge. Ptolemy’s Almagest, translated in the 8th and 9th centuries, became a cornerstone in Islamic astronomy, enriched with commentaries and refinements by scholars of the time. It inspired many Arabs to take on the study of astronomy and carry on the study of space.


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The advent of Islamic astronomy

Islamic astronomers like Al-Ḥasan Ibn al-Haytham and Ibn al-Shatir made significant strides in refining observational techniques and developing advanced instruments. Astrolabes and sundials, products of this new civilization, enabled precise measurements of celestial positions and movements. The practical application of astronomy was paramount in the Islamic civilization, particularly in the context of trade and navigation. The vast Islamic trade routes necessitated accurate navigation, and astronomy provided the means to achieve this. Bright stars, visible without telescopes, became vital reference points for navigation, leading to the naming of stars in Arabic, a practice that persisted due to its utility.

The influence extended beyond astronomy into mathematics, where the adoption of Arabic numerals revolutionized calculations. The spread of these numerals to Europe further increase the influence of Arab-Islamic scientific practices on the continent. As Europe entered the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Arabic astronomical texts, including star names, were reintroduced through translations. However, linguistic challenges and imperfect translations led to alterations and Latinizations of some names. Despite these modifications, many Arabic star names have endured and continue to be used in contemporary astronomy, which is why, while most of these names come from Arabic, they are often Latinized, and sometimes slightly modified. Other star names from Arabic include Altair, from Arabic Al-ta’ir, meaning the flying, Menkar, from Arabic Minkhar meaning the nostril, or Sulafat, from Arabic Sulahfat, meaning the tortoise.

See also

11 countries sign the creation of the first pan-Arab space organization

Published on 18 December 2023

#Arab world