Solar Eclipses in Medieval Islamic Civilization: A Note on Cultural and Social Aspects
By Hamid-Reza Giahi Yazdi
Tarikh-e Elm: Iranian Journal for the History of Science, No.6 (2008)
Introduction: A total solar eclipse is one of the most beautiful celestial phenomena visible to the naked eye. It can inspire awe, and solar eclipses have sometimes been interpreted as omens. Despite their rarity, solar eclipses have had a large impact on society and sometimes they could change the course of history.
In the Middle East the best known solar eclipse affecting a historical event occurred during a war between the Lydians and the Medes on 28 May 585 B.C. Darkness fell in the middle of battle, so both sides became fearful and eager to make peace. The Greek historian Herodotus tells us that the year of the eclipse had been predicted by Thales of Milete. But the claim is vague and the contribution of Thales doubtful in the opinion of modern historians of astronomy; no theoretical framework for the prediction of such eclipses seems to have existed at the time.
In ancient times, the births and deaths of leaders or dignitaries were often supposed to be associated with celestial omens. However, Islamic theology does not accept that eclipses are indications of events on earth. The Prophets infant son, Ibrahim, died on 29 Shawwal 10 A.H./27January 632 A.D. The event was dated precisely because historians mention that the sun was eclipsed on that day. Some Meccans claimed that the eclipse was an omen sent by God, indicating Ibrahim’s death. The Prophet quickly rejected this claim, declaring “The sun and moon are signs of God and do not eclipse for the death or birth of any person”, then he prayed with his fellow Muslims because of the eclipse Islamic theologians probably have used this statement to support the rejection of astrology.
In Islamic culture, solar and lunar eclipses are associated with a specific prayer which is called the prayer of eclipse. It is a necessity for every Muslim to praise God during an eclipse, because the eclipse is a sign from God. In medieval Islamic society, people gathered in the great mosque and even small mosques of cities to perform this payer in a large group. During partial solar eclipses, where the darkening of the sky was not so visible, people seem not to have gathered to perform praying because of the eclipse.