Concerning “Mariam” Al-Asturlabiya

Al-‘Ijliya is the only woman astrolabist from the premodern Islamic world that history has recorded. My understanding is that everything we know about her comes from the following lines in the Fihrist (a 10th century AD encyclopedia):

Names of the makers [of astronomical instruments]:
al-‘Ijli al-Asturlabi, an apprentice of Betulus[Nastulus?];
al-‘Ijliya, his daughter, a pupil of Betulus[Nastulus?] who was with [i.e. worked for] Sayf Al-Dawla.

– The Fihrist of Al-Nadim, Vol 2, Ch 7, Section 2; trans. Bayard Dodge

There are no birth or death dates or places, no comment on what she looked like or the quality of her work, and no mention of a personal name. She is not mentioned in any other texts, nor can any surviving objects be attributed to her. At best, we can extrapolate a few things. Her family origins have been traced from the name “Al-‘Ijliy(a)”, which implies she was from the Banu ‘Ijli of the larger Banu Bakr tribe. Given the full list of instrument makers (of which I have only quoted the last two entries), we can trace the lineage of her teachers; it seems she was taught by a well respected astronomical instrument-maker, who himself had a line of renowned teachers before him. And we know that Sayf Al-Dawla, for whom she worked, was an emir who reigned in Aleppo from 945-967 AD.

Unfortunately, there are many unsupported details widely circulating about her: that her name was Mariam “Al-Asturlabiya” Al-‘Ijliya; that she was born in 945 and died in 967 AD; and most notoriously that she invented the astrolabe, or at least made such beautiful astrolabes that she had regular royal commissions.

First of all, I have no idea why so many people think her name was Mariam. (If anyone can shed light on this, please reach out to me!)

The most glaring error is the claim that she invented the astrolabe. There is a mountain of evidence that she did not – for example, the known existence of at least three astrolabe treatises (by Theon of Alexandria, John Philoponus, Severus Sebokht) written centuries before she was born. Furthermore, all three use the term ‘astrolabe’, which is noteworthy because I’ve encountered people who think that ‘Al-Asturlabiya’ was part of her name and that the astrolabe was named after her. (“Al-asturlabi”, which has feminine form “al-asturlabiya”, simply means “the astrolabist”.)

Regarding the claim that her work was especially “beautiful” or “intricate” or “ingenious”: we have no idea. We have no surviving instruments attributed to her, nor descriptions thereof. The closest we get is some work attributed to her teacher, Nastulus*: this astrolabe and this mathematical instrument. Considering that the known surviving 9th/10th century astrolabes are stylistically similar (compare this Syrian instrument by a different astrolabist), I would assume that Al-Ijliya’s astrolabes were similarly sparse, undecorated, and offered a similar range of functions. It is certainly unlikely that she produced anything like these especially ornate instruments, which are centuries more recent, and none of them from Syria.

Regarding her work for Sayf Al-Dawla: we don’t know how she came to his court. There is a tendency to assume that her work must have been exemplary if she worked for an emir, but we don’t know this. The fact that her father was in the same trade and/or that she had a famous teacher may have played a role. We also don’t know how long she worked for him, or for that matter how long she lived (the dates of Sayf Al-Dawla’s reign are often mistakenly given for her birth/death dates).

So why do we envision the sole recorded woman astrolabist as a young woman (cf. this cartoon illustration and costumed actor) excelling at her craft and making lovely things? Why is the narrative which has arisen around her focused on beauty? No other astrolabist is romanticized this way – not even the ones whose surviving instruments are replete with poetry, gems, ornate natural imagery, and other such “romantic” things.

*Assuming you accept, as I and many scholars do, that ‘Betulus’ and ‘Nastulus’ are different readings of the same name.