Mariam Al-Astrolabi: A Female Scientist or a Wish Upon a Star?

Stars have been a major part of human’s historic life. Whether it entailed the search of their personality in zodiac signs, a route on sea to new worlds or a wish for a better future. From astronomy to navigation to dreams, stars can give some people a source of direction in their lives. Even, in 10th century Syria, there was a Muslim woman who found a way of living through the stars: Mariam “Al-Astrolabi” Al-Ijiliya.

Craft inherited from father to daughter

Mariam Al-Ijiliya lived in tenth century Aleppo, Syria. History gives a glimpse on her reputation as the chief astrolabe manufacturer of her time. Mariam came from a family of engineers and manufacturers. After her father, she became the apprentice of Bastulus, noted compiler Ibn Al-Nadim. Bastulus was a well-known astrolabe manufacturer in Baghdad and the scientist on record as having created the world’s oldest surviving astrolabe. It seems that Mariam’s hand-crafted designs were so intricate and innovative that she was employed by Sayf-Al-Dawla, the Emir of Aleppo, serving him from 994 AD until 967 AD.

Tools that named her “Al-Astrolabi”

Astrolabes are useful tools in the science of the celestial objects and helped scientist’s research in astronomy, astrology and horoscopes. The global positioning instruments determine the position of the sun and planets, tell time and navigation by finding location by latitude and longitude. Not only in science are these tools helpful. In Muslim society, astrolabes find the Qibla, prayer times, and determine starting days for Ramadan and Eid. In both science and Islam, astrolabes play a vital role, thus, making such instruments was a prestigious career. To top that career, in 1990, the main-belt asteroid 7060 ’Al-‘Ijliya’, discovered by Henry E. Holt at Palomar Observatory, was named in her honor.

Inspiration for Okorafor’s novella ‘Binti’

In 2016, science-fiction writer Nnedi Okorafor revealed that Mariam Al-Astrolabi was the inspiration for her protagonist in her science fiction novella Binti. The eponymous main character is a young woman who is an expert at crafting astrolabes. The author stated that she learned of Al-Ijliya ata book festival in the United Arab Emirates. Mariam’s name was woven into Binti’s longer name and Binti’s father also makes astrolabes, both a nod to the inspirational influence.

A wish upon a star?

Historical records of Mariam Al-Astrolabi are scarce and none of her astrolabes have ever been discovered since it appears she did not sign her instruments. People online even try to debunk her existence! It seems the odds are seemingly against her. Still, Mariam might be a dead star in our history, her legency may still live on in a character like Binti, and hopefully her light will be seen by many more as a result.

This article was written by Siham Machkour


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