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Fantastic 4 Clocks from Islamic Heritage

With the arrival of Islam came a strong emphasis on time management: {Prayers have been prescribed for the believers at set times.} (Surat An-Nisa’ 4:103).

Believers strive to observe their prayers at the correct times, ever hopeful of Allah’s generous mercy and reward for their faithful efforts.

Knowing the correct time of day is critical for proper time management, especially during the holy month of Ramadan.

Dinner preparations must be carefully planned to ensure that the often-huge assemblies of fasting people gathered for iftar (breaking the fast) are fed at the correct time for maghrib (sunset).

This successful planning, however, necessitates advance knowledge of the correct time of maghrib.

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From the earliest days of Islam, the seemingly simple question of “What time is it?” occupied the inquisitive minds of Muslim scientists.

Working with the wisdom and technology of their days, inventing, refining and documenting their endeavors, slowly the modern clock evolved in the hands of these enlightened masters of arithmetic, astronomy and engineering.

Innovative mechanical devices of precise engineering, elegant in design and amazing in appearance, these historical timepieces invoke our delight and gratitude to Allah for giving us this ingenious object that we call the clock.

Ibn Al-Haytham’s Mechanical Water Clock


[Credit: © FSTC President Dr. Selim al-Hassani via]

Born in Basra, Iraq in 965 CE, Al-Hasan ibn Al-Haytham –the Persian scientist known in the West as Alhazen– lived most of his life in Cairo, Egypt.

A polymath and philosopher, he contributed significantly to astronomy, mathematics, meteorology and optics. Among Ibn Al-Haytham’s many contributions was the mechanical water clock, which, for the first time in history, accurately measured time in hours and minutes.

In one of his books, he describes his clock as a cylinder designed to sink over a period of 24 hours, while an attached string rotated a circular disc divided into 24 sections with fractions for minutes also marked. A pointer in front of the disc indicated the passage of time.

Historically, Al-Haytham’s water clock was notable for the first “clock face” denoting hours and minutes. Al-Jazari’s Elephant Clock.

Born in 1136 CE in the region of Jazirat ibn Umar (currently Cizre in southern Turkey just on the northeast border of Syria), Al-Jazari was a brilliant polymath, scholar and inventor of mechanically engineered devices.

Utilizing the period water clock technology, Al-Jazari’s elephant clock is the first to feature automatons regularly performing actions.

A sinking bowl in the water reservoir within the elephant’s body pulled a string attached to a mechanism releasing a ball into a serpent’s mouth.

The ball’s weight made the serpent tip over, pulling the sinking bowl back up out of the reservoir, ready for another 30-minute cycle.

Simultaneously, a mannequin in the howdah raised either left or right hand, indicating half or full hour, the elephant’s driver struck a cymbal, a bird chirped, and the serpent tipped back in place, poised to receive another ball. Ridhwan Al-Sa’ati & His Father’s Umayyad Mosque Clock

Living all his life in Damascus, Syria, Ridhwan al-Sa’ati became famous for repairing and documenting the work of his father, Muhammad al-Sa’ati of Khurasan, Iran.

During the reign of Nur al-Din Mahmud bin Zangi (1154-1184 CE) in Damascus, Muhammad al-Sa’ati created his water clock on Bab Jayrun, the eastern entrance gate of the Umayyad Mosque.

The original clock was destroyed by fire in 1167. Muhammad then built a new one, operating it until his death. Ridhwan noted that three operators followed his father, attempting to repair it, before Ridhwan received the post in 1202.

Al-Jazari's Elephant Clock.

Al-Jazari’s Elephant Clock.

Constructed on two levels, the upper level held the mechanical parts of the clock itself, and the lower level contained the water vessel and float device that generated the movement of the clockworks above.

Dividing day and night into twelve equal hours, whatever the season, the daytime always remained twelve hours from sunrise to sunset, thus establishing prayer times such that the noon prayer was always at midday, or 6 o’clock.

Twelve doors on the clock face rotated on its specific hour, showing its back face with a number indicating the hour.

A sliding ruler indicating minutes was under each door.

As the door rotated, two falcons threw copper balls into a large copper cup generating loud ringing beats with each hour.

The clock face displayed a disc divided with the zodiac signs to indicate both lunar calendar and changing seasons, and an arrow indicated the angle of the sun with respect to the earth.

A half-circle disc with twelve openings indicated the hours during the night.Taqi Al-Din’s Astronomical Clock

Taqi al-Din, born in 1521 CE in Damascus, Syria was educated in Cairo, the major hub of science in the medieval Islamic world.

An adept polymath, Taqi Al-Din authored over 90 books and was widely regarded by his contemporaries as “the greatest scientist on earth.”

Moving to Istanbul in 1571 CE as Sultan Selim II’s official astronomer, Taqi Al-Din’s observatory was built between 1575-1577.

However, political opponents prevailed and the observatory was destroyed in 1580 in favor of reserving funds for the war budget.

Clock of Ridhwan al Sa'ati

Drawing of the Clock of Ridhwan al Sa’ati, from his work “The Operation of Clocks and Using them”.

Taqi Al-Din’s clock inventions included the first mechanical alarm clock, first spring-powered astronomical clock, first watch measured in minutes, and first clocks measured in minutes and seconds.

Progressing from the water clock to one using falling weights that easily recoiled to restart the clock, Taqi Al-Din designed his astronomical clock with three dials showing hours, degrees of hours and minutes.

Automaton trains sounded every hour and devices displayed the sun and moon phases, prayer times as well as the first day of the Gregorian months.

Holes around the dial allowed manual placement of a peg to set the position of a specified alarm time.

Taqi al-Din’s clock was small enough to be portable, very likely useful for moving from bedroom to kitchen, as the need for alarms ranged from waking up on time to pray, to the timely removal of dishes from the oven.

Finally, the question of “What time is maghrib?” was settled, as they could set a peg and the clock would ring at the correct time. Alhamdulillah!

Fantastic 4 Clocks from Islamic Heritage

About Aisha Abdelhamid
Aisha Abdelhamid is a native of Long Beach, California, happily residing in Egypt with her husband, Mohamed.A syndicated writer for Important Media Network, Aisha often represents the Muslim perspective on, an interfaith website exploring the relationship between faith and the natural environment.