The Royal Observatory, the modern-day centre of time, held a half-day seminar on astronomy and its Islamic bearing a day before its closure for refurbishment. The seminar, which was heavily oversubscribed, and attended by about 45 people from a range of professional and scientific backgrounds, took place in Greenwich and proved to be a most illuminating experience.
|`This was, in effect, a graduate-level presentation for those who had barely achieved a primary-school grasp of astronomy.'
First, we climbed up into the planetarium, which reminded me of Madame Tussaud's. The Observatory's Dr Alan Longstaff gave a history of astronomy and its chronological development, from ancient to modern day advancements.
Through Longstaff providing us with many an interesting fact, we came to know that the ancient Egyptians were the pioneers of astrology being first to record astronomical observations over 5000 years ago! A few millennia later, they were able to measure quite accurately, the equator of the earth through astronomy. Interestingly, their calculations are still referenced today.
Tony Sizer of the Royal Observatory showed that astronomy wasn't all to do with stars, astrolabes, and crescents with a comical yet informative look into astrological constellations. We were soon twisting and turning our heads trying to make out those mythical figures in the simulated night sky of the planetarium. As Tony quite rightly put it, `the more vivid the imagination, the better the astronomer'. I am sure there were conflicting opinions as to how accurate the ancient astronomers were, but the history was certainly entertaining.
Scientific Editor at HM Nautical Office, Dr Steve Bell, spoke about the twilight zones (no, not the 1980's sci-fi series!). Twilights are the middle zone of dim light that lies between the sunlit and the completely dark, deeper zones. To Muslims this plays quite a significance in their daily lives as the times for the early morning and sunset prayers, the first and fourth of the five daily prayer services.
To learn of the intricacy of the calculations and measurements exercised was quite astounding. In effect it was a graduate-level presentation for those who had barely achieved a primary-school grasp of astronomy.
Every year, there is confusion as to the start of Ramadan, with countries and groups alike commencing the month of fasting at different times. As the Islamic calendar is a lunar one, there are several conflicting reports of moon sightings for the month of Ramadan.
Dr Usama Hasan, an Imam of Masjid At-Tawhid, and a Cambridge postgraduate, gave an encouraging presentation on the steps, however tentative, being taken towards a unified Islamic lunar calendar. He highlighted the work of one of the forerunners in this field, Professor Mohammad Ilyas, towards a unified calendar.
This was in summary a most interesting and philosophical seminar that successfully showed just how vital a role astronomy and Islamic jurisprudence play on a global stage.