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ASTROLOGY. To say that a belief in astrology is a feature of the popular culture of the modern Islamic world is to make a trivial statement, for this is true of practically all world cultures. It is a nontrivial exercise, however, to study the distinguishing features of the Islamic astrological tradition, the role it has played in blending and modifying and then transmitting outward all the various elements in drew from a host of classical foreign cultures, and the attitudes Islam displayed toward astrological doctrines and practices. A study of this kind suffers from an inherent limitation-a large number of primary Arabic astrological sources are no longer extant; moreover, a large number of those that are preserved still await scholarly examination. Many of our present views and conclusions must thus remain tentative, and this discussion is no exception.

By the eighth century CE, astrology had emerged as a distinct discipline in Islam-a discipline born out of a creative blending of the Hellenistic traditions of Iran, India, Mesopotamia, and the eastern Mediterranean. All these traditions share certain fundamental features. They all presuppose a geocentric finite universe in which celestial bodies exercise an influence on the terrestrial world. They all accept some version of Aristotelian physics, believing variously that astral influences determine all motions of the four sublunar elementsEarth, Water, Air, and Fire-and that these influences signify trends that may be altered by future influences, or by supernatural or human intervention, or that these influences simply manifest divine will.

Eastern Emphases. With these characteristic tures, astrology is evidently a Hellenistic invention, a system based on Greek astronomy and physics mixed with elements drawn from Babylonian celestial omens and Egyptian demigods. This Hellenistic astrology reached India in the second century CE, and here it received local treatments and was then transmitted as a transformed entity to Sassanian Iran in the following century. Through an assimilative process in Iran the Greco-Indian astrological tradition underwent further modifications, now integrated with both indigenous Iranian as well as additional Greek elements. Thus developed a Greco-Indo-Iranian astrological tradition that finally became part of the cultural booty of conquering Islam.

In Islamic civilization this complex phenomenon of transmission becomes even more intricate: texts were translated into Arabic not only from Pahlavi and Sanskrit, but also from Syriac and directly from Greek. Thus the Islamic astrological tradition displays not only certain characteristically Hellenistic features but also elements contributed locally by India and Iran. Unlike what occurred in many other sciences, Eastern elements remained strong in Islamic astrology. Thus despite their intimate relationship and similar routes of transmission, the science of astronomy underwent in Islam a thorough Hellenization, whereas astrology continued to show a dominance of characteristically Indo-Iranian features, with emphases on interrogational, military, and political astrology.

Categories. Experts recognize four broad categories of astrological practice: genethlialogy, which relates all aspects of an individual’s life to the situation of the heavens at the moment of his nativity; catarchic astrology, which consists in determining on the basis of the celestial configurations whether a given moment is auspicious (sa’d) or inauspicious (nahs) for a particular activity; general astrology, which is concerned with periodic heavenly situations (eclipses, planetary conjunctions, equinoxes, etc.), relating them to events affecting large numbers of people, nations, or the whole world; and interrogational astrology, which answers specific questions on the basis of the heavenly configuration at the time of the query.

Genethialogy (mawalid) had already reached its high point in the work of Dorotheus of Sidon, written in about 75 CE. In this work we find a number of historic innovations in the techniques of horoscope casting, horoscopes being diagrams of the signs of the zodiac based on the aspects of celestial bodies at a given moment. One of the Dorothean innovations is the system of lots (AT., sihdm, sg. sahm)-points whose distance from some specified points in the horoscopic diagram equals the distance between two planets. Another is the introduction of the prorogator (Ar., al-hayldj, whence Lat. alhyleg), a point on the ecliptic that determines the life of the native. Dorotheus had spoken also of continuous horoscopy; this assumes that even though an individual’s basic natal horoscope is generally valid, new horoscopes must be cast at periodic intervals and compared with the base horoscope to generate specific predictions for the next period.

All these Dorothean features are found in Islamic astrology; but here they are further fortified by the Harranian version of the Neoplatonic doctrine of astral influences cast in terms of Aristotelian physics, and creatively blended with Indian and Iranian elements. An outstanding example of this blending is found in the writings of Abu Ma’shar (d. 886), Islam’s most influential astrologer. For example, as compared to the two principal lots of the Greeks-the Lot of Fortune and the Lot of the Demon-Abu Ma’shar could enumerate well over a hundred lots. Similarly, the complicated rules governing the prorogator are here made even more elaborate. A variation on or adjunct to the prorogator was the Lord of the Year, the strongest planet in the horoscope. Again, the techniques of determining this planet are further refined by Arabic astrologers.

It is interesting to note the grafting of Iranian political and continuous astrology onto the Hellenistic base of the Islamic tradition. For example, among the thirteen lots employed by the astrologer Masha’allah (d. c.815) in his Kitdb al-mawdlid al-kabir (Great Book of Nativities), one finds also the Lot of Political Power (sahm alsultan), taken from the Sassanian tradition. Similarly, Arabic horoscopes frequently include the Lot of Warfare (or Soldiering}–a lot that had received a distinct emphasis and development in India, growing into a whole field of military astrology (ydtrd) and reaching Islam through circuitous routes. Indian as well as Harranian features of Islamic astrology are evident also in the elaborate rituals Arabic writers devised to avert or alter the influences of the planets; these rituals include mysterious invocations, prayers, and animal sacrifices.

Islamic catarchic astrology is likewise a combination of the Dorothean and Indian systems. Treated under the general classification of ahkam al-nujum (“judgments of the stars,” hence the term “judicial astrology”), a whole genre of ikhtiyardt (“choices”) literature exists in the Arabic astrological tradition. Indeed, “choices” is a happy title for this activity, since it presupposes free will on the part of the subject: he is free to choose the best time for commencing on activity, with the time being judged from the horoscope. This may be one reason why catarchic astrology enjoyed a relatively wider acceptance in Islam. In one notable instance, the ‛Abbāsid caliph al-Mansur consulted as many as four astrologers-Nawbakht, Masha’allah, al-Fazari, and `Umar ibn al-Farrukhan-to determine an auspicious moment for the founding of his new capital Baghdad; they chose 30 July 762.

The credit of developing techniques of applying horoscopy to general astrology, the third broad category of astrology, belongs to Sassanian Iran. It arose out of the blending of Hellenistic continuous astrology with the Zoroastrian belief in the twelve-thousand-year cycle of the creation and destruction of the material world, thereby becoming a potent device for all kinds of chiliastic propaganda. Indeed, many an Arabic astrological history culminates in an absolute future victory for the author’s chosen party. Given the millennial aspects of general astrology, it carried a particular appeal for the Isma’ilis, who predicted the emergence of the hidden imam at the moment of certain planetary conjunctions, and even the revelation of a new shari `ah and the beginning a new cycle of seven imams. The chiliastic writings attributed to the alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan (probably eighth century) constitute a tantalizing example of this kind of astrology.

Interrogations (masd’il), the final category of astrology, saw its greatest development in Islam. This astrological practice determines the answer to the question from the horoscope of the moment when the query is formally presented to the astrologer. Experts believe that interrogational astrology first appeared in India, where it developed as an extension of divination, and then reached Islam via Sassanian versions. An outstanding Arabic work in this field is that of Abu Ma’shar’s pupil Shadan, a collection of examples called Mudha-karat (Studies), which constitutes a rich sample of the highly developed interrogational activities of Islamic astrologers.

Recently a few interrogational texts of Masha’allah have been subjected to a critical analysis which throws into relief the eclectic nature of the astrologer’s enterprise. Their topics include the intention of the querist, finding buried treasure, travel, marriage, debts, clipping nails and hair, cutting out new clothes, manumission of slaves, childbirth, political power, and many more. Here all topics, except political power, are derived from the catarchic aspect of the Greek astrological tradition. Thus one notes that, following the Indians, a Greek technique is appropriated for a different purpose and mixed with Sassanian elements.

From the 10th century Arabic innovations in all four categories of astrology began to travel outward to other cultural areas: first to Byzantium, then to the Latin West, and finally to India. A great many Arabic astrological texts were translated into Latin: the Europeans knew Abu Ma’shar as Albumasar, `Al! al-`Imrani as Haly Imrani, Abu `Ali al-Khayydt as Albohali, Sahl ibn Bishr as Zahel, and Abu Bakr al-Khasibi as Abubather. Indeed, Islamic astrology has profoundly influenced the astrological traditions of both India and the West.

Attitudes toward Astrological Practices. According to a hadith in al-Bukhari, the Prophet had denounced the astral cults of the pre-Islamic Arabs; this must have created in Islam an ethos unfavorable to the growth of an astrological tradition. But a tradition did grow, and it came under heavy fire from religious circles. Genethlialogy and general astrology in particular were the targets of opposition, primarily because they were considered to offend the idea of free will and human responsibility on the one hand, and God’s infinite power on the other. Although these astrological practices received strong support from the ShNs, especially those of the Isma`ili persuasion, they were eventually abandoned by sober thinkers and now survive only in the popular culture. Catarchic and interrogational astrology do leave room for free will; therefore, these enjoyed a longer and flourishing career in the Islamic world.

Nonetheless, general attacks on all things astrological have never ceased in the Islamic world. The great sage Ibn Sina wrote a whole work against astrology in the eleventh century; some nine hundred years later, the modern poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal elegantly mocked the very enterprise of the astrologer:

How can it transmit my fate? A star!

Humiliated, helpless

In the infinite vastness of the heavens!

[See also Astronomy; Divination; Geomancy; Magic and Sorcery; Numerology.]


David Pingree is a leading contemporary scholar of Islamic astrology. The present entry draws heavily on some of his works, which are strongly recommended to the serious reader. A general and lucid account is to be found in his “Astrology,” in Dictionary of the History of Ideas, edited by Philip P. Wiener, vol. 1, pp. 118-126 (New York, 1968). His articles on Abu Ma’shar and Masha’allah in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography, edited by Charles Coulston Gillespie, vol. 1, pp. 32-39 and vol. 9, pp. 159-162 (New York, 1970-), constitute important studies and deserve particular attention. The Astrological History of Masha’allah (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), coauthored by Pingree and E. S. Kennedy, is another valuable work based on primary material. An article by Pingree, “Masha’allah: Greek, Pahlavi, and Latin Astrology,” will be published in Arabic Science and Philosophy and presents many original reflections on the fortunes of the Hellenistic astrological tradition in the Islamic world.

C. Nallino’s “Astrologic e astronomia presso i Musulmani. i. Astrologia,” Raccolta di scritta editi e inediti 5 (1944): I-41, is still the best standard source for the history of Islamic astrology. The reader should also consult relevant articles in the new edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam (Leiden, 1960-) including “Ikhtiyarat” (vol. 3, pp. 1063-1064), “Kihana” (vol. 5, pp. 99-101), and “Nudjum” (vol. 8, pp. 105-108), all by Toulic Fahd, as well as D. B. Macdonald’s “Sihr,” in E.J. Brill’s First Encyclopaedia of Islam, vol. 7, pp. 409417 (Leiden, 1987). Numerous references to Arabic astrological sources are given in volume 7 of Fuat Sezgin’s Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums (Leiden, 1979). For sources, see as well Manfred Ullmann’s Die Natur- and Geheimwissenschaften in Islam (Leiden, 1972).


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/astrology/

  • writerPosted On: October 12, 2012
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