Racialization Obscures Islamic Astronomical Tradition


Dominant narratives shape our understanding of astronomy’s historical development. Racism and other forms of marginalization certainly influence science today. But looking back in time, biases lead to an underappreciation of non-Western astronomical traditions, be they Mesoamerican or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. This is despite these other traditions displaying advanced understandings of the cosmos.

Dr. Joe Lockard, an Associate Professor at Arizona State University, recently wrote an article about how white supremacism has affected historical accounts of Arab and Persian astronomy. Although his discipline is English, not astronomy, Dr. Lockard has during his career studied how racialization affects bodies of knowledge. We spoke with him to learn more about his research.


How did you come to study science history’s underappreciation of Islamic astronomy?

I have no formal education in astronomy beyond a memorable Astronomy 1 introductory course taken nearly 30 years ago at University of California, Santa Cruz. This article was originally written as a paper for that course. I put the paper in a file folder that followed me for years through graduate work and my first academic appointments. A couple years ago I began re-researching and developing the paper. I am an English professor, not a scientist, so I was very cautious and asked a wide set of astronomy historians to read the draft paper. Once they and peer reviewers were satisfied, I published.

What first caught my attention as an undergraduate was the absence of substantial information about Islamic astronomy in that edition of Seeds’ Foundations of Astronomy textbook. When I went to the library to read other textbooks and histories of astronomy, I found the same minimal information, paraphrasing of other texts, and sometimes plagiarism. It was clear that this represented a transmission chain of ignorance. Although medieval Islamic astronomy was well in advance of Western scientific knowledge for centuries, textbooks did little or nothing to inform students on the subject. The history of astronomy became quite skewed and Euro-centric in consequence.

Why has such underappreciation occurred?

Much of my research and writing has concerned the racialization of narrative and bodies of knowledge. This pervasive racialization has deep roots in Western social thought and philosophy. Standpoint theory and feminist epistemologies have complicated further that racial history by showing how gender and class operate to privilege or obscure knowledge.

Astronomy was no exception. Astronomy presents a clear case where a standard European historical narrative – Copernicus to Galileo to Kepler to Newton is the usual line – made invisible a much richer, more complex, and more accurate global historiography. Islamic astronomy is only one of the observational traditions, found on every continent, which astronomy textbooks and histories have obscured or ignored.

We need to do better. The good news is that historians of astronomy and textbooks are doing better. The situation is no longer the same ignorance that I encountered as an undergraduate three decades ago. Historians such as George Saliba, John Steele, David King, and others with specialist knowledge have published detailed accounts of astronomical instruments and manuscripts in the Islamic world that were not available a generation ago. Astronomy textbook authors can no longer claim lack of solid historical information.

What are some ways to change the teaching of popular astronomy to foster greater appreciation of other astronomical traditions?

All human cultures have observational relationships with the skies and stars. We need to become aware of our local science histories. To give an example, every week on my driving route through the Sonoran Desert to teach at a state prison, I pass the Casa Grande Ruins national monument. Its major feature is a multi-story adobe structure built about seven centuries ago by the Hohokam people. Since the late nineteenth-century we have known that astronomical observations were one of the functions of this structure. A leading, well-evidenced interpretation of the ceremonial function of the Casa Grande structure suggests that the architectural layout corresponded to seven cosmological domains with observation holes for celestial events such as solstices. There were possibly a half-dozen other, now-destroyed similar structures in Arizona.

Casa Grande, Casa Malpais, Chaco Canyon, and other archeoastronomical sites throughout the American Southwest point to well-developed indigenous astronomical traditions. We can take advantage of local astronomical sites and cultures, whether in Arizona, Mexico, the Pacific islands, India, England, or elsewhere to illustrate basic concepts of astronomy. However far our impressive Big Science projects take us into the skies, this is where astronomy started and astronomy education can make a good beginning.