Female STEM-sters in the Golden Age of Islam

I thought I would try something different this month. Instead of focusing on the achievements of one relatively well-known woman, I decided to pick a culture and a time period, and dive into that to see what I might find. A time and place that has fascinated me for a while is the Golden Age, or Classic period, of the Islamic Empire, the 8th to the 13th century CE.

This period was full of innovation and discovery. This was the age that created algebra; this was the age that helped to shape astronomy; this was the age of optics.

There were many fascinating scientists and inventors from this period who helped to make the world what it is today. However, as is the case with most cultures of that time, and let’s face it, of today, there are few women. Their names are swept away with history, and they often faced many barriers to accessing their education. So while it might be easier to ignore these hardworking and intelligent contributors, as history is wont to do, I present to you these two fascinating and extraordinary women. (There were many wonderful women to research, but many did not have enough biographical information to comment upon. I would have only been able to copy and paste for you. Hit up the links in the bibliography if you are so inclined).

If one googles “women in science” (you can play along at home if you like), most pages, especially Wikipedia, focus almost solely on the achievements of white women. And while these achievements are indeed important, they are not so important that they excuse skipping over entire cultures and time periods (such as the Golden Age of Islam). So together, let’s celebrate the women that history almost forgot. Let’s be better than Wikipedia!

 A side note before we go on:

  • There are lots of different spellings of all the names, places, and mosques mentioned in this article. This is because the records date back from more than a millennium ago, and they have been translated through different languages and different versions of those languages. So I am very sorry if there any mistakes, please let me know when I have it wrong so I can correct it.

 

Fatima al-Fehri (al-Fihri): founded the world’s first university in Fes, Morocco

Fatima and her sister Mariam were both well-educated women who received a large sum of money after the death of their father. Fes was experiencing a rapid population growth at the time (i.e. the 9th century), due to an influx of immigrants and refugees from Spain and Tunisia. As with any area experiencing rapid growth, its facilities and services could not cope with the increased workload. This was especially true of the mosques, as the population influx was predominantly Muslim, and therefore, needed to use these mosques. Fatima and Mariam saw this problem and decided to remedy the situation; they wanted to help their community.

While Mariam built a mosque, Fatima had a different idea. Not only did she build a mosque for her community -Masjid Al-Qarawiyyin- but she also decided to house a university there: the world’s oldest university, established in 859 (while Oxford wasn’t established until around 1096, over 200 years later).

al-qarawiyin (The Qarawiyyin Mosque, Fez, Morocco (859 AD, Credit: Mosaic)

People travelled from around the globe to attend al-Qarawiyyin and study a variety of subjects; particularly Islamic studies, language, and sciences (including astronomy and mathematics).

Al-Qarawiyyin was an open educating atmosphere, with non-Muslims encouraged to study there too. Because of this, al-Qarawiyyin was pivotal in educating many of the era’s great thinkers. Students of the history of science may recognise the name of Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher and physician (made famous by his philosophical work “A Guide for the Perplexed”). Another famous face to attend the university was Pope Sylvester II (well before his inauguration). While studying there, he was introduced to the concept of zero, and the numerals used in the Islamic Empire: Arabic numerals, the ones we know and love today. He took these concepts back and helped spread them throughout medieval Europe.

Al-Qarawiyyin also houses the Al-Qarawiyyin Library, one of the oldest surviving libraries in the world. (I think we can all agree this helps make up for the collective grief we feel over the Library of Alexandria. Don’t lie to me, you tear up a bit when you think about it, don’t you?). This library holds some of Islam’s most prized manuscripts as well as other important documents and books.

So while Fatima was quite privileged, as she was well educated and wealthy, she used this privilege to help disperse knowledge and wisdom throughout her community, and ultimately, the world. And, although she wasn’t a researcher herself, without Fatima al-Fihri and her patronage of education, science, mathematics, and astronomy wouldn’t be what they are today.

Fatima Al-Majritrya: Astronomer

Born in Madrid, Fatima moved with her father to Cordoba, the bustling centre of Andalusia in the 10th century. There is some controversy surrounding her existence, as not much is known about her, and the records are shady at best (as is the case with many records from the 10th century). However, a review by Núñez Valdés determined that she most likely did exist.

Fatima and her father were astronomers who were correcting and creating astronomical tables, or zijs. One of the most important sets of tables they were correcting was Al-Khwarizmi’s Tables (he’s the guy who invented algebra, love him or hate him, he was pretty amazing). These tables were full of astronomical data which was useful for pure science, but was also important to the Muslim faith. This data was used to set prayer times, and to calculate the direction one should face while praying. It is specific to each region, as it based on meridian lines, i.e. time zones. Al- Khwarizmi had lived in a different region and used a solar calendar (the one Western society uses, but also the calendar used by Persia at the time, where he had lived), and thus the data had to be corrected to be useful for the Cordoba meridian and the use of a lunar calendar (as this was the calendar used by the Islamic Empire). Correcting these tables took both technical skill as an astronomical observer (trust me, taking observations from a night sky without computers is really hard), and mathematical skill to compute the data (probably also difficult, but I haven’t yet tried this one personally).

al-khwarazmis-tables

(Al-Khwarizmi’s Tables. Credit: John Rylands Library (Gaster Arabic, Ms345))

Fatima didn’t just correct these astronomical tables; she loved them. Here’s a list of the tables she made herself:

  • True position of:
    • The sun
    • The moon
    • The planets
  • Trigonometry ratios (sine, cosine, tangent)
  • Spherical trigonometry (as opposed to circular trigonometry, the stuff we had to learn in school)
  • Astrology (astrology was serious business for the Caliphate, the leader of the Empire; they used this information for important decisions such as when to go into battle)
  • Parallaxes (this is used with trigonometry to calculate the distance to a star)
  • Lunar phases and eclipses (as the Islamic calendar is based on the lunar month, astronomers has to keep a close eye on the moon to create new calendars for the future)

Fatima not only observed and collected technical data, she was also a scientific writer. Sources differ on which works she published, however. One source asserts that she wrote “A Treatise on the Astrolabe”(Núñez Valdés) (the astrolabe was an instrument used to take technical data for astronomy. They were very intricate and well engineered pieces). Another source asserts that she wrote a series called “The Corrections of Fatima” (Valera Perez). The series appears to be lost, while a library of the Escorial Monastery has preserved the treatise.

Fatima also made corrections to Ptolemy’s Almagest, which was the standard textbook for astronomy throughout the Islamic Empire up until the 13th century. While it had been written in Ancient Greek, its updated translation helped to make the Islamic Empire a centre of astronomical learning. The Almagest also had a long history of commentary and corrections, and Fatima was contributing to this tradition and the rest of the astronomy created by the Islamic Empire.

It is also worth noting that some sources represent Fatima Al-Majritrya as the female astrolabe engineer whose name appears to be lost to time, but is known as Al-‘Lijliya. However, given that they appeared to lived in different centuries, most sources distinguish between them.

 

 

So those are the stories of two important women in the history of science. Their female peers were also helping in mathematics, literacy, law, and studying scripture, but information is scant on these women. Let’s make sure these women aren’t lost to history.

Bibliography

Al-Khwarizmi’s Tables: John Rylands Library, accessed via: Goldstein, B. R., and Pingree, D., (1978). The Astronomical Tables of al-Khwarizmi in a Nineteenth Century Egyptian Text. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 98 (1). 96-99

Núñez Valdés, J. (2016). Did Fatima de Madrid Really Exist? Review of Social Sciences, 1 (2). 19-26.

Al- Hassani, S. (2009). Women’s Contribution to Classical Islamic Civilisation: Science, Medicine and Politics. Retrieved from: http://www.muslimheritage.com/article/womens-contribution-classical-islamic-civilisation-science-medicine-and-politics

Khan, S. (2014). Fatima al-Fihri: Founder of World’s Very First University. Retrieved from: https://www.whyislam.org/muslim-heritage/fatima-al-fihri-founder-of-worlds-very-first-university/

World Travel Guide: Fes History. Retrieved from: http://www.worldtravelguide.net/fes/history

Al- Qarawiyyin Mosque (2012). Fatima Al Fahri: Founder of Qaarawiyiin Mosque and oldest university in the world. Retrieved from: http://mosaicofmuslimwomen.com/2012/01/then-fatima-al-fahria-founder-of-qaarawiyiin-mosque-and-the-oldest-university-in-the-world/

Valera Perez, A. (2009). Women in Astronomy. Retrieved from: https://www.cosmos.esa.int/documents/13611/404110/040609_Varela.pdf/299a93c6-9166-475d-a97c-e16ec0d40a0e

Scott L. Montgomery, Science in Translation: Movements of Knowledge through Cultures and Time. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000.

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