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Mariam al-Ijliya al Asturlabi | Before Newton

Submitted by Adeline Bickerstaff.

One is at a loss when searching for female astronomers in ancient Islam. Only one name comes up and it is connected with the seemingly obscure art of astronomic instrument building, specifically the astrolabe (astrolabos; Greek, star-taker): Mariam al-Ijliya al Asturlabi.

First, astrolabes are ancient tools used to map stars and the positions of planets; the origins of the astrolabe were in Greece and its invention has been attributed to Hipparchus around 150 B.C.; however, it is likely Apollonius of Perga studied astrolabe projections around 225 B.C. and Hipparchus redefined and formalized the projection as a method for solving complex astronomical problems without spherical trigonometry and probably proved its main characteristics (

The astrolabe as it is known today came to be as the result of its introduction to the Islamic world around 750. Bitolus was a well-known and popular astrolabe maker located in Baghdad, Iraq. Mariams father was an apprentice of his and she in turn went to work for her father. She, too, became a pupil of Bitolus and worked in the court of Sayf al-Dawla in Aleppo, who reigned from 944-967. It has been said her designs were more intricate and innovative, and therefore more useful; however no known astrolabes have ever been directly attributed to her as she did not sign her work. It is also not known if astrolabes were her only contribution to astronomy or if she was influential in other areas such as math or geography. She and her work were clearly important as ibn al-Nadim, a Muslim scholar and bibliographer, took the time (briefly) to mention her (by last name) while listing pupils of Bitolus (

It is not clear where or when Mariam was born or how old she was at the time of her death; her fathers family was likely from in Nejd, a region in central Saudi Arabia. It is not mentioned if she ever had a family of her own or if she had any other siblings. It would be most interesting to know more of her family life was it just her and her father? Did she have brothers, and if so were they in the family business as well? For a father to take his daughter on as an apprentice in a craftsmans trade today is not common; for it to have occurred so long ago in a time that was far less friendly to women, she must have been extremely talented and persistent – and her father must have been incredibly ahead of his time, or desperate to keep the family tradition alive and lucky she was good at it.


Here’s another link, although it’s in Arabic:

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