Beautiful Fakes and Mistakes

Calligraphy by Mohamed Zakariya

God Is Beautiful; He Loves Beauty was the title of a recent conference hosted at Qatar’s Museum of Islamic Art. It comes from a popular saying that is touted as an utterance of Prophet Muhammad, though the evidence is weak that he ever said it. But even if it’s apocryphal in that sense, the saying still expresses a sentiment which has resonated in the Islamic world for centuries (whether taken with religious gravity or whimsically inscribed above a mirror).

The saying is on my mind because I’ve spent most of today reading about how various medieval Islamic thinkers posited the pursuit of pleasure/beauty as the way to God. And it’s made me realize that, in my research on Islamic astrolabes, apocryphal material (or even intentional lies and forgeries) have furnished some valuable leads.

For example, several sources in the premodern Islamic period say that أسطرلاب (astarlaab, the Arabic word for astrolabe) is that it comes from an ancient Greek word meaning “mirror of the stars”. Many scholars point out that this is incorrect, for the Greek term means “star-holder”. I do not dispute this; my own knowledge of ancient Greek confirms it. Yet doesn’t a mirror “hold” the image of its object? What if “star-mirror” were intended as a metaphorical translation, drawing attention to the idea that an astrolabe reflects aspects of the night sky? (Not only does Arabic love its metaphors, but even the original Greek is figurative – astrolabes do not literally grab anything!)

But whether or not you accept “star-mirror”, it seems the idea of an astrolabe as a mirror was present in the cultural/period mind of Islamic astrolabe-users. For instance, consider the conclusion of Rumi’s second discourse:

Just as this copper astrolabe is the mirror of the heavens, so the human being (…) is the astrolabe of God. When God causes man to have knowledge of Him and to know Him and to be familiar with Him, through the astrolabe of his own being he beholds moment by moment and flash by flash the manifestation of God and His infinite beauty, and that beauty is never absent from his mirror.

(Jalaluddin Rumi, 13th century AD; trans. A.J. Arberry, 1975)

These lines would lose much of their force if Rumi’s audience didn’t already conceive of astrolabes as mirrors. I argue that to ignore this sort of association belies the place that Islamic astrolabes occupied in the societies that used them.

More to the point, I contend that there is much more to Islamic astrolabes than their practical/scientific functions. There are wider cultural and spiritual contexts to the objects. I started this work with the idea that you don’t get such intensely decorated instruments by accident; they must have been made so for a reason. And between the surviving astrolabes from the period/region that are scientifically useless, and remarks such as:

“So much did they love to have one [an astrolabe] in their sight, although many could not understand one iota of it”.[1]

…we see that it is not just in the present day that people engaged astrolabes as art.

[1] From an 1875 Iranian text, quoted in: Gingerich, Owen, David King and George Saliba. “The ‘Abd al-A’imma Astrolabe Forgeries.” Journal for the History of Astronomy 3 (1972): 188-198.