ABU DHABI // For centuries, the light of the North Star was the only way to navigate through the dark nights of the desert.
GPS has changed all that, making navigation available to everyone. Now, with the help of Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, a new smartphone application is offering to put those ancient star maps alongside it.
Staff from the mosque teamed up earlier this year with Vito Technology, a software developer, to modify and translate its existing astronomy application, Star Walk.
They say the aim of the new version, available for iPhones, iPads and the iPod Touch, is to "keep Muslim heritage intact".
"The whole of the solar systems is now available in the palm of your hands, you no longer need to squint or search for stars," said Wasfi Aming, the man behind the Arabic translation.
Mr Aming, also a researcher and inventor, first heard of the app when he was offered the job six months ago. He was hired as part of the centre's mission to spread the word about the contribution to society of Muslim scholars through the ages. He accepted immediately, seeing a chance to verify the conclusions of a project he worked on in 2007.
Then, he compared Quranic verses with theories from Johannes Kepler, a 17th-century European scientist who determined that the planets move in flat, elliptical orbits around the sun.
Mr Aming found that the Quran described the moon's orbit as "swimming".
"From this programme I found that my research was right," he said. "The moon moves in and out of the elliptic line around the celestial sphere, and not directly on it, as Kepler stated."
The Arabic version of Star Walk, completed in August and released this week, is more than just a translation, though.
"I gathered information from almost everywhere, a line from a magazine, a paragraph from a book, a word from a website," he said. "The chairman of the Mosque wanted the Arabic culture and Islamic heritage to be integrated into this programme."
The app lets users explore the whole sky, with 88 constellations, 9,110 stars, and seven other planets (and the former planet, Pluto). Point the iPhone into the sky, and it calculates and labels the stars and planets in any direction.
It can even look back and forward through time, accurately plotting the ever-moving heavens as they were as far back as 999 years ago, and estimating the same distance into the future. But so far, it can look no further than that.
"Unfortunately, we can never see how it was in the beginning of time," said Mr Aming. "These are things only known to Allah."
There are also virtual tours of the planets, with original, high-quality images.
Dr Ali bin Tamim, chairman of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque Centre, said the launch marked a revolutionary era for Muslims.
"There is a huge Arabic heritage in this field, this is the birthplace of astronomy, so we needed to do this," he said. "We had 100,000 visitors during the Eid break, of both Muslims and non-Muslims - this is a clear sign of their interest in our culture and heritage."
Talal al Mazroui, the mosque's director of events and cultural activities, expressed the hope that more programmes will be translated in the future. At the moment, images of the night sky are taken daily by the Mosque's centre and VITO technology to keep the programme updated.
"We hope to do this every day," he said. "We want to educate the whole society, walk them through all of Muslim astronomy. We are a centre where the community can get together."
The original version of Star Walkwon an Apple award for application design in June, after being a bestselling education app for three weeks in a row.
Users warned to be cautious
ABU DHABI // With the release of Star Walk in Arabic, Muslims from all over the world have an easy way to follow the moon’s movements and work out for themselves when the first day of Ramadan, Eid and other holidays will be.
However, they should be cautious – unofficial sightings are a far from reliable way of determining such events.
Last year, for example, the start of Eid al-Fitr was declared on the evening of September 19 before the crescent moon was visible anywhere in the UAE. It was, however, due to be visible in part of southern Saudi Arabia.
UAE officials said at the time the decision had been made “after communicating with neighbouring countries”.
Islamics clerics agree that according to the Prophet, the Shawwal moon has to be visible to the naked eye. One of the hadiths reads: “Fast to its sight [birth of a new moon], and breakfast to its sight [birth of the next new moon]. If it is not clear, then fast for 30 days only.”
For this reason, Wasfi Aming, the translator of Star Walk, urged users not to rely too heavily on his app.
“Saudi Arabia already has these applications and more, and it knows when the sightings are,” he said.
“This will not help in any way to change the current system. We can not always rely on technology.”