Biography of Al-Farghani

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Abu’l-Abbas Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Kathir al-Farghani, born in Farghana, Transoxiana, was one of the most distinguished astronomers in the service of al-Mamun and his successors. He wrote “Elements of Astronomy” (Kitab fi al-Harakat al-Samawiya wa Jawami Ilm al-Nujum i.e.the book on celestial motion and thorough science of the stars), which was translated into Latin in the 12th century and exerted great influence upon European astronomy before Regiomontanus. He accepted Ptolemy’s theory and value of the precession, but thought that it affected not only the stars but also the planets. He determined the diameter of the earth to be 6,500 miles, and found the greatest distances and also the diameters of the planets.

Al-Farghani’s activities extended to engineering. According to Ibn Tughri Birdi, he supervised the construction of the Great Nilometer at al-Fustat (old Cairo). It was completed in 861, the year in which the Caliph al-Mutawakkil, who ordered the construction, died. But engineering was not al-Farghani’s forte, as transpires from the following story narrated by Ibn Abi Usaybi’a.

Al-Mutawakkil had entrusted the two sons of Musa ibn Shakir, Muhammad and Ahmad, with supervising the digging of a canal named al-Ja’fari. They delegated the work to Al-Farghani, thus deliberately ignoring a better engineer, Sind ibn Ali, whom, out of professional jealousy, they had caused to be sent to Baghdad, away from al-Mutawakkil’s court in Samarra. The canal was to run through the new city, al-Ja’fariyya, which al-Mutawakkil had built near Samarra on the Tigris and named after himself. Al-Farghani committed a grave error, making the beginning of the canal deeper than the rest, so that not enough water would run through the length of the canal except when the Tigris was high. News of this angered the Caliph, and the two brothers were saved from severe punishment only by the gracious willingness of Sind ibn Ali to vouch for the correctness of al-Farghani’s calculations, thus risking his own welfare and possibly his life. As had been correctly predicted by astrologers, however, al-Mutawakkil was murdered shortly before the error became apparent. The explanation given for Al-Farghani’s mistake is that being a theoretician rather than a practical engineer, he never successfully completed a construction.

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