The Lighthouse and the Observatory: Islam, Science, and Empire in Late Ottoman Egypt

Publication Year



Daniel Stolz, Ph.D. 2013.

An observatory and a lighthouse form the nexus of this major new investigation of science, religion, and the state in late Ottoman Egypt. Astronomy, imperial bureaucrats, traditionally educated Muslim scholars, and reformist Islamic publications, such as The Lighthouse, are linked to examine the making of knowledge, the performance of piety, and the operation of political power through scientific practice. Contrary to ideas of Islamic scientific decline, Muslim scholars in the nineteenth century used a dynamic tradition of knowledge to measure time, compute calendars, and predict planetary positions. The rise of a 'new astronomy' is revealed to owe much to projects of political and religious reform: from the strengthening of the multiple empires that exercised power over the Nile Valley; to the 'modernization' of Islamic centers of learning; to the dream of a global Islamic community that would rely on scientific institutions to coordinate the timing of major religious duties.

  • Places the rise of modern sciences in a transnational context that also considers the role of non-Western empires
  • Focusing on astronomy allows readers to understand continuities and ruptures between pre-modern and modern scientific practices
  • Offers a practice-centered approach to understanding science and religion that moves beyond a textual interpretation
Table of Contents

List of figures and tables
Note on chronology and transliteration
List of abbreviations
Part I. Geographies of Knowledge:
1. The deaf Shaykh: scholarly astronomy in late Ottoman-Egyptian society
2. Astronomers and pashas: viceregal imperialism and the making of state astronomy
Part II. Objects of Translation:
3. Positioning the watch hand: ʿUlamaʾ and the making of mechanical timekeeping in Cairo
4. Positioning the planets: translating French planetary tables as Ottoman-Islamic knowledge
Part III. Islam, Science, and Authority:
5. The orbits of print: astronomy and the ordering of science and religion in the Arabic press
6. The measure of piety: making prayer times uniform
7. Different standards: the Ramadan debates and the establishment of lunar crescent observation
Appendix: Introduction to Muhammad al-Khudari's Sharh al-Lumʿa fi Hall al-Kawakib al-Sabʿa


Advance praise: 'Daniel A. Stolz’s study on the history of astronomy in nineteenth-century Egypt is a piece of superb scholarship. It sheds new light on the questions of science and religion, history of science in a non-European context, and of how science changed during a period that saw the rise of new forms of scientific training, politics, techniques and readership.' Khaled Fahmy, Sultan Qaboos Chair of Modern Arabic Studies, University of Cambridge

Advance praise: 'Pace the hallowed historiography of ‘invented traditions', Daniel A. Stolz’s fine-grained analysis shows how modernities contrapuntally were digested by traditions of knowing. In the ‘scholarly astronomy’ of the nineteenth-century Egyptian ‘ulama' he discovers a living tradition of scientific practices that dynamically engaged with modern western sciences. Firmly grounded in the archive and analyzed with aplomb, the book inaugurates an entirely new chapter in the historiography of science beyond the west.' Projit Bihari Mukharji, University of Pennsylvania

Advance praise: 'This eloquent and deeply researched book shows how the technical apparatus and knowledge of modern sciences were drafted into projects of Islamic reform in late Ottoman Egypt around 1900. Science helped redefine communities of knowledge according to diverse and often conflicting geographies of empire and belief, while framing new horizons for historical understanding: practices of worship were modernized even as astronomy was recast within a centuries-old Islamic tradition. Engagingly written, sophisticated and fascinating, Stolz's book is an eye-opening read for historians of science, empire, and religion.' John Tresch, University of Pennsylvania


Series Title
Science in History
Cambridge University Press
Cambridge and New York