The Middle East’s Growing Space Ambitions

“Very few people could name an Arab astronaut or scientist, even in many Arab countries.”

A father holds his two daughters while they look through a telescope.
A 2015 moon-sighting event in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates (Kamran Jebreili / AP)

More than a thousand years ago, Islamic scholars and thinkers embarked on an exciting period of scientific study. They translated Greek and Sanskrit works on astronomy into Arabic and used them to develop their own methods for observing the mysterious heavenly bodies twinkling in the night sky. They recorded the movements of the sun and the moon. They calculated the diameters of the Earth and the planets they could see from the ground, and pondered their place in the universe.

It’s this period, the Islamic “Golden Age,” which stretched from the eighth century until about the 14th century, that is often invoked in discussions of astronomy in the Middle East. Sometimes, these historical achievements in the Arab world overshadow the region’s modern-day contributions to the field, like the Qatar Exoplanet Survey, which joined the worldwide search for planets beyond our solar system in 2010. History has recorded the great medieval astronomers, but so far taken little notice of recent ones, says Jörg Matthias Determann, an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar.

“There’s little awareness of scientists in the Arab world—and especially compared to other figures,” Determann says. “Most people could name an Arab terrorist, but they couldn’t name an Arab scientist, and that maybe has to do with there having been a lot more books written about Arab terrorists.”

Determann tries to change that perception in his new book, Space Science and the Arab World: Astronauts, Observatories, and Nationalism in the Middle East. He chronicles the work and achievements of various scientists and astronomers in the region, from the first formal space observatories in the late 1800s to plans for a Mars mission in 2020.

I spoke with Determann about this new period in history. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Marina Koren: What made you decide to leave the Golden Age behind and focus on modern-day space research in the Middle East?

Jörg Matthias Determann: I found modern astronomy and space science in the Arab world, the kind of research that has existed since 1800, to be broadly an under-researched topic, compared with all the research that we have on medieval and premodern Arabic and Islamic science. And there was long the idea that science was one thing that moved through history, and the Arabs had their role in that history only at a certain point. There was this narrative where science emerged thousands of years ago with the ancient Babylonians, perhaps the ancient Chinese as well, and then it would move on to the Romans and the Greeks, and then science was inherited by the Arabs and they preserved it and worked a little bit on it, and then the Arabs passed science on to Europe, when Europe had its renaissance, and then science moved to America, which is now the world center of science.

So we have a lot of books that focus on the role of medieval Arab and Muslim thinkers preserving and translating and modifying and developing ancient Greek or Persian knowledge, and then we have a lot of scholarship on how this knowledge was then transferred to early modern Europe. According to these narratives, just as you had a scientific revolution in the West, in Europe, with Galileo, with Isaac Newton, you had an end to the Golden Age in the Arab and Muslim world. And this narrative is quite problematic.

Koren: Why?

Determann: I should say it’s not just a Western narrative. It’s also a narrative that exists in the Arab world itself. It’s dangerous to be too nostalgic about the science that happened in the Arab and Muslim world a thousand years ago. It feeds into a very backward-looking perspective. Arabs might think, oh, a thousand years ago, we had this Golden Age when our science was superior, when our science was the best in the world. What went wrong? Maybe we need to go back to how Islam was 100 years ago, maybe we need to go back to how our society was a thousand years ago. This kind of overemphasis on a Golden Age might even contribute to fundamentalism, to Salafism, to past versions of Islam.

So I wanted to see the Arab scientists and astronauts and astronomers we have in the world today. We have universities and research institutions across the Arab world, and yet we know relatively little about what’s going on there. Maybe some educated people, both in the Arab world and in the West, could probably name a few medieval Arabic scholars. But I think very few people could name an Arab astronaut or scientist, even in many Arab countries. There’s little awareness of scientists in the Arab world—and especially compared to other figures.

Koren: What do modern-day astronomers think of their medieval predecessors?

Determann: This idea of the Golden Age is a powerful part of their heritage, and just like any other heritage, it can be mobilized and used for certain purposes. It can be used to convince government to spend money on space science and astronomy, which is expensive. Putting an astronaut in Earth orbit, constructing rockets and big telescopes—all of that costs money, and scientists need to convince politicians in any country why the government should spend millions and billions of dollars on a new space telescope rather than on roads or hospitals or schools or military equipment.

There are still streets named after various medieval scholars, after Avicenna, this great medieval Persian physician and writer. In Doha, Qatar, where I am based, there is a chain of pharmacies called Ebn Sina (after Avicenna). There’s a relatively new science and technology park in Doha that is modeled after scientific parks in Cambridge, England, or the kind of hubs that you have around major universities in America. It’s relatively brand-new, built of glass and steel, looks like a spaceship, super hypermodern and very expensive. But it has meeting rooms that are named after these medieval Arabic and Islamic scholars. This Golden Age memory, this heritage, is still very much a part of the modern science landscape.

Koren: Where does the modern story of space science in the Middle East begin for you?

Determann: It begins in the 19th century, with this new, heliocentric view of the universe, when you had more Western research being translated into Arabic—research about the solar system, about the different planets. It begins with the establishment of the first modern observatories with telescopes, like the observatory of the Syrian Protestant College, the institution that would later be renamed the American University of Beirut, which was established during the 1870s. It begins with observatories built in Egypt, by both the Egyptian government and by the colonizing British government that had occupied Egypt during the 1880s.

Koren: Skipping ahead to the next century, you write quite a bit about Farouk El-Baz, an Egyptian space scientist, who in the 1970s worked as both an adviser to the Egyptian president and a director at Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. How did El-Baz bridge those two worlds?

Determann: Farouk El-Baz is perhaps one of the most famous Arab space scientists. He wasn’t an astronomer at the beginning. He was trained as a geologist, both in Egypt and the United States, so he had a foot in the education systems of both countries. After finishing his Ph.D. in the United States, and after doing a postdoc in Germany, he tried to move back to Egypt with his American wife and had the intention of settling down in Egypt. He had a deep attachment to Egypt, but he felt the country at the time didn’t offer him the opportunities for his big ambitions. So he immigrated to the United States and got involved in the Apollo space program, which was looking for geologists to help them study lunar surfaces and potential landing spots.

El-Baz did face, like many Arabs at the time, a lot of discrimination. It was not easy for him, but he is obviously very bright and he worked extremely hard. He became an important person in the study of the lunar surface and in the training o the Apollo astronauts who landed on the moon.

Koren: It seems like that was the case with Sultan bin Salman, the first Saudi astronaut, too. As Salman prepared to fly on the Space Shuttle, NASA brought in people from Aramco, an oil company that had an office nearby in Houston, to give NASA astronauts a one-day crash course in Saudi culture. Why did NASA officials think that was necessary?

Determann: At the time, the average American, and that includes perhaps the average American astronaut, would have very little idea about Saudi Arabia. There were these orientalist fantasies, these exotic ideas, that people had about the Middle East. When people heard about Saudi Arabia, they would have perhaps been reminded of Lawrence of Arabia, of camels and sand, of harems and sultans and princes and sheikhs. A lot of Americans didn’t quite know what to make of a Saudi astronaut. What kind of person would that be, and how do you integrate him as a crew member on a space shuttle? So perhaps people in NASA were worried about cultural misunderstandings.

It turned out that actually, this Saudi prince, as many Saudi elites at that time, was already quite Americanized. He had studied in America. He actually knew American culture much better than French astronauts, and perhaps even knew the English language better. But somehow, NASA administrators had less worries about cultural misunderstandings with the French astronauts.

Koren: You mention a ruling—a fatwa—made by Islamic scholars in 2014 that prohibited a one-way mission to Mars if the chances of death were significant. “Participation on this journey would be punished the same as suicide in the Hereafter.” How do some of the more traditional values of Islam, which views taking one’s own life as sinful, coexist with human space exploration, which can be deadly?

Determann: Modern bioethics—the kind of ethics that deals with human life—is still evolving in the Arab world. Some figures in the Muslim world, like the people who issued that fatwa, would have a big problem with suicide, or possible suicide. Of course, that’s true of any religious group that puts a special emphasis on the value of human life. That’s not something that’s specific to Islam.

Koren: And it hasn’t necessarily stopped Muslim nations from pursuing Mars missions.

Determann: In the case of the United Arab Emirates, national, political, and economic ambitions have trumped these Islamic concerns about Mars missions. The United Arab Emirates has perhaps the most ambitious missions in the region planned for Mars. There’s a Mars mission that is to be launched in 2020, to send an orbiter that would study the Martian atmosphere. The orbiter is supposed to reach Mars in 2021, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the state of the United Arab Emirates.

There’s also the Mars 2117 project, where the United Arab Emirates actually plans to establish a whole city on Mars in 100 years’ time. Obviously, that’s a project that is very early in its development. And if you want to establish a city on Mars, that might mean that you lose a few lives in the process in one way or another. There might be objections by Muslim scholars toward those kinds of projects. But these ambitions are there.