Researcher seeks inspiration in the stars

More than 1000 years before NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope was sent into orbit to study the stars, a Muslim Persian astronomer had them thoroughly mapped.

In world-first, a James Cook University PhD student has translated an ancient Arabic manuscript that is regarded as one of the most important medieval treatises on astronomy.

Ihsan Hafez has researched the manuscript, the title of which translates as The Book of the Fixed Stars by the famous tenth century Iranian astronomer Abdul-Rahman al-Sufi.

Al-Sufi’s work, which includes detailed, colourful maps and descriptions of different constellations as well as an extensive star catalogue and star co-ordinates and magnitude estimates, dates from around AD 964.

No one has ever made an English translation of the manuscript.

Mr Hafez, who is originally from Lebanon, said he initially planned to do a general survey of the history of Arabic and Islamic astronomy for his doctorate thesis.

“However, my supervisors thought that this might be a very wide topic and requested I narrow it down to something more specific,” he said.

“I started to look for more specific topics, however to my surprise I could not find any copies of the works of the famous Arab and Islamic astronomers in English.

“I decided to translate the work of Al-Sufi, since it is one of the most important works in the history of Arabic and Islamic astronomy.”

Mr Hafez said in order to make an exact translation, he had to find the best manuscript of The Book of the Fixed Stars.

“I started to locate the extant manuscripts which are found in libraries throughout the world and I managed to find as many as 33.”

“It is a measure of the popularity of this book that many manuscripts are still preserved in libraries throughout the world.”

Finding them was not an easy task, and took several years, involving travel to libraries across the world, including London, Oxford, Paris, Istanbul, Cairo, Tehran, Tunis, New York, Damascus and Beirut.

He identified two main manuscripts for the basis of his intended translation and discussion.

Mr Hafez said the translation, which took several years, was surprisingly challenging.

“At first I thought that translation was going to be easy since my first language is Arabic,” he said.

“However, I found that translating an old manuscript is not that easy.

“You have to know your topic very well, as well as understand many of the historical ideas and the way Arabic was written during that time. It was a little difficult sometimes to understand the meaning of every idea and sentence because Al-Sufi’s work was written in old Arabic style with no commas or full stops.”

Mr Hafez said no English translation of this work had ever been done.

“The last translation of this work was done in French by Hans Karl Frederic Schjellerup in 1874, and this is the main work which almost all scholars who are interested in this topic rely on.”

Mr Hafez’s doctorate thesis, which he hopes to conclude this year, is titled: Abdul-Rahman Al-Sufi and his Book of the Fixed Stars: A Journey of Re-discovery.

Issued: 28.04.10