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A Muslim History of Time: On Film

Man Fixing A Clock

Time is a serious business and Muslims throughout history have been working out ways to keep it ticking over for centuries. Here is a brief history of Muslim time and inventors with a thoughtful meditation on the present from two Turkish clockmakers.

قَالَ اللَّهُ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ يُؤْذِينِي ابْنُ آدَمَ يَسُبُّ الدَّهْرَ وَأَنَا الدَّهْرُ بِيَدِي الْأَمْرُ أُقَلِّبُ اللَّيْلَ وَالنَّهَارَ

“Allah said, ‘The son of Adam wrongs me for he curses Time; though I am Time. In My Hands are all things, and I cause the revolution of day and night” (Al-Bukhari)

Until a few decades ago horologists had an important and active role in all societies but our contemporary reliance on mobiles to keep time for us has seen a dramatic decline in this highly specialised skill. The act of looking at an object wholly apart from us, and perhaps even watching the hand of time literally go around for a while, is very different from today’s obsessional checking of mobiles in which we rarely even notice the fact that it is also telling us the time. It seems that time itself has been reduced to an auxiliary part of a multi-functional object that by its nature blurs our awareness of it. 

The marking of time may have a history as old as humanity itself but the objects that became what we now know as clocks took a little longer to emerge with the most ancient form being ‘shadow’ clocks or sundials. Horologists held a particularly esteemed position in Muslim societies. They were both artisans, who designed, built and repaired the instruments of time measurement, and pioneers like Muhammad Al Sa’ati who constructed the 12th century Jayrun Water Clock, at the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus.

This clock was described in detail by his son Ridwan who wrote a book in 1203 called On the Construction of Clocks and their Use.  There is also evidence of a huge water-powered alarm clock constructed in 1235 to mark prayer times at the Mustansiriya Madrasah in Baghdad. The first geared clock was invented in the 11th century by engineer, Ibn Khalaf Al Muradi. This clock also used water but had a complex mechanism unrivalled until the mechanical clocks of the mid-14th century. 

Muslim astronomers were renowned for constructing various and highly accurate astronomical clocks for use in mosques and observatories, including one built by Al Jazari in 1206. This was a complex device that included a zodiac and solar and lunar path functions as well as keeping the time. In the early 14th century the first astrolabic clock was invented by Ibn Al Shatir but this was itself a development of the sophisticated timekeeping and calendar astrolabes of Abu Rayhan Biruni in the 11th century and Muhammad Ibn Abi Bakr in the 13th. Astrolabes purely as navigational tools have an even older history and one master maker of the 10th century was Mariam Al Astrulabiya.

1001 Inventions And The Library Of Secrets

Both Al Jazari and Al Astrulabiya feature in a wonderful short film called The Library of Secrets. On a school visit to an old library, three children are tasked by their teacher to learn about the period traditionally referred to by European historians as the Dark Ages. Their boredom about this task is overturned when they are shown a book, that brings history to life, by a librarian who turns out to be Al Jazari himself. They discover that the 10th and 11th centuries were actually an age of progress and light and they get to meet great Muslim thinkers, scientists and inventors, as well as learning all about Al Jazari’s clock from the man who made it.

The Hands Of Time

Perhaps it is such a history that makes what is ostensibly a short documentary about the craft of clock repair, a deeply philosophical meditation on time itself.  Interspersed with short scenes of everyday city life, The Hands of Time introduces us to two Turkish clock masters, each of whom reflects on the intimate relationship they develop with the clocks they repair and what this relationship has taught them about themselves and the nature of time.

In the context of the Covid pandemic, when our perception of time seemed to become distorted and its passing measured by lockdowns, statistics and vaccine schedules, this film is a gentle and comforting reminder of time’s unchanging and absolute truth.

In some ways much of the content on Alchemiya relates to our relationship with time and our journey through it. Dramas and documentaries about people and places in Muslim history, combined with a celebration of contemporary filmmakers, artists and creatives affirms that spiritual and cultural continuity that keeps us grounded in the present. It is also a secure and ageless foundation of knowledge and beauty on which the future will be built.

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