Stars as guides, Surah Al-An’am, (6:97)
And He it is who created the stars so that you use them
To navigate in the depths of darkness
On land and in the oceans (of water or space).
Behold! We have described in detail Our Signs
For a people who have knowledge!
Surah Al-An’am, (6:97)
The Ayah draws attention to Divine mercy that bestows its blessings through the stars. Each star is a point of light in the heavens that is a beacon for a lost soul in the desert or a lonely mariner on the high seas. The heavenly bodies obey the Shariah of nature, also called the natural laws. A knowledge of these laws empowers humankind to chart its course during journeys on earth and in the vast expanse of space. The emphasis here is both on the faculty of visual observation and knowledge based on mathematical reasoning.
Here are a few questions to ask and reflect on: how does a Bedouin find his bearing in the Sahara Desert? How does an astronaut navigate his spaceship in the darkness of space?
Finding your way in the desert
A desert is like a vast ocean of sand. There are no markers here, no left turn, right turn, go forward or make a U-turn sign. There are no rivers and very few landmarks. An experienced traveler may recognize his location using known mountains as markers but a novice is left to fend for himself. Fortunately, the stars come to his rescue.
Our own star, the sun, is a reliable guide during daytime. Every child knows that the Sun rises from the East and sets in the West. The shadow of a vertical stick at dawn points to the West. At dusk, the opposite is true; the shadow points to the East. In actuality, things are a bit more complex. The directions of the rising and setting of the sun depend on the latitude and the season. An exact calculation would require a knowledge of the latitude of location as well as the time of the year.
The sun can be used to located the local North. Here again, a vertical stick is used. The shadow of the stick is plotted on the sand to locate the shortest shadow. As the sun moves, the shadow generates an arc on the sand. If one stands with one’s left foot at the tip of the shortest shadow and the right foot at the tip of shadow a half hour later, one faces the local nominal North. This method is used as a survival technique by people who are lost in the wilderness.
Direction of the Qibla
The movement of the sun in the heavens can be used to locate the direction of the Qibla. Twice a year, on May 27 and July 15, the sun is directly over the Ka’aba approximately at 12.18 pm local time. The shadow of a vertical stick where the sun is visible at time anywhere in the world points towards the Qibla. A mosque under construction in New Guinea or New York can be precisely oriented to face the direction of Mecca.
Ulegh Bey observatory in Samarqand, courtesy Wikipedia
The North Star
The North Star is so called because it is aligned with the axis of the rotation of the earth. In the Northern hemisphere it is used to locate the “true” North. Caravans in the desert as well as mariners in the vast oceans have used the North Star as a guide. In the Southern hemisphere, the North Star is not visible and a constellation of stars called the Southern Cross is used to located the “true” South.
Determination of Latitude
In ancient times, the Bedouin Arabs taught their children how to measure the latitude by observing the stars. The fingers of the hand were used as a measurement tool. The altitude of the North Star was measured with four fingers with the hand outstretched in the front. The width of four fingers was considered equal to 4 isba’. In a 360-degree circle there were223 isba’. With some practice, each individual was able to calibrate the width of his fingers to the number of isba’ in a circle. The latitude at a location is approximately equal to the altitude of the North Star from the horizon at that location. In the absence of a measuring instrument, the same method could be used to measure the latitude of a ship sailing at night though the high seas.
The astrolabe, an instrument invented by the Chinese, developed and perfected by the Muslims, was used by astronomers and navigators to measure the latitude, the direction of the Qibla, the time of day and the times of rising of the stars. Innovations in spherical astrolabe improved the accuracy of the measurement. In the Middle Ages (800 to 1500 CE), the astrolabe enabled Muslim mariners from Arabia, Persia and India to ply the oceans between East Africa and China and knit the littoral region in a vast network of international trade and culture.
Stars in the Space Age
With the advent of the space age in the twentieth century, the stars acquired even more importance for scientific studies and navigation through space. The Fine Guidance Sensors on the Hubble Space Telescope offer a good example. The Hubble Space Telescope was one of the most precise instruments built by humankind in the twentieth century. With its resolution, precision and accuracy, it enabled humankind to look at stars that were born barely 100 million years after the Big Bang.
The Hubble has three Fine Guidance Sensors (FGS) mounted 90 degrees apart. Each FGS is a precise optical instrument that can point to a guide star with an accuracy of 0.02 arc seconds. Two FGS are used to lock onto two guide stars. The third one can be used to observe a star of interest. Spatial geometry and triangulation are used to locate a star with precision. The instruments are so stable that the Hubble can focus on a star for hours at a stretch and acquire faint stars of magnitude 8. These are the faintest stars we have been able to see in the visible light.
The Hubble has been used to map the heavens and produce a comprehensive atlas of the sky with billions of stars. It has altered the way humankind has looked upon itself and upon life on earth.
A Spiritual Meaning
Every Ayah in the Qur’an is an ocean by itself; it has a host of meanings. Some meanings are manifest, some are hidden. The prophets and men and women of knowledge are like stars in the heavens. Their light illuminates the landscape and enables generations who come after them to see. Just as the stars in the heavens guide a lost mariner at sea, people of knowledge guide those who are lost in the travails of life. The process is unending. In the words of the Qur’an, “for every master who knows there is one who knows more”. The light that is reflected from a master is radiated in turn by those who partake of it. As an illustration, Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) was the point of light who imparted that light (Noor e Muhammdi) to his companions. The companions, in turn, radiated it to the next generation. And so on until that light reaches the current generation.
Immeasurable are the blessings of Allah upon humankind!
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