Biography of al-Ṣūfī

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Detail from Albrecht Dürer’s 1515 woodcut map of the northern constellations depicting the Persian astronomer Abū al-Ḥusayn ʿAbd al-Raḥmān ibn ʿUmar al-Ṣūfī who was commonly known by European astronomers as Azophi Arabus

The Persian astronomer Abū al-Ḥusayn ʿAbd al-Raḥmān ibn ʿUmar al-Ṣūfī was born in Rayy (near Tehrān) on 7 December 903 [14 Muharram 291 H] and died, probably in Shīrāz, on 25 May 986 [13 Muharram 376 H].

The Scientific Works of al-Ṣūfī

Al-Ṣūfī wrote on alchemy, astrology and mathematics but he is best known for his works on astronomy.

His best-known astronomical work is the Kitāb Ṣuwar al-Kawākib al-Thābitah (“Book of the Constellations of the Fixed Stars”) which he completed in Shīrāz around 964. The work was dedicated to the Buyid ruler Abū Shujāʿ Fannā Khusraw, entitled ʿAdud al-Dawlah (936-983 [324-372 H]), who was a friend and a pupil of al-Ṣūfī and whose court was seated at Shīrāz (until 977/78) and Baghdād. Originally written in Arabic, it was later translated into Persian and also into Castilian and Latin.

The stellar coordinates are based on Ptolemy’s values, precessed to the epoch 1276 Alexander [1 October 964] by adding 12° 42' to the ecliptic longitudes.

Al-Ṣūfī’s work was the basis of the star catalogue (epoch 1437) in the Zīj-i-Ṣultānī of the Timurid ruler Ulugh Bēg (1394-1449), who used the Persian translation made around 1250 in Marāgha by Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī (1201-1274), court astronomer of Hūlagū Khān (c. 1217-1265).

Al-Ṣūfī’s stellar nomenclature was also adopted on the 34-cm celestial globe published after the mid-1640s in Amsterdam by Jacob Aertsz Colom (1599-1673) in collaboration with the Leiden oriental scholar and astronomer Jacob Golius (1596-1667).

He also compiled a comprehensive work in 1760 chapters on the astrolabe and its use of which only a shorter version in 170 chapters is now extant.

The lunar crater Azophi and the minor planet 12621 Alsufi are named in his honour.

Biographical Sources on al-Ṣūfī

Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Alasdair Watson (Bodleian Library, Oxford) for improvements and additions.