GEOMANCY. The term geomancy comes from medieval Latin geomantia, first used in Spain in the twelfth century as a translation of the Arabic `ilm al-raml (“the science of sand”), the most common name for this type of divination. The practice is to be distinguished from a Chinese form of prognostication based on landforms, also called “geomancy” in English, that is entirely unrelated to the Islamic art. The origin of the practice is a matter of speculation, but it appears to have been well established in North Africa, Egypt, and Syria by the twelfth century. The majority of existing treatises on the subject are from the fourteenth century, but many were still being written in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The divination is accomplished by forming and then interpreting a design, called a geomantic tableau, consisting of sixteen positions, each of which is occupied by a geomantic figure. The figures occupying the first four positions are determined by marking sixteen horizontal lines of dots on a piece of paper or a dust board. Each row of dots is examined to determine if it is odd or even and is then represented by one or two dots accordingly.
Each figure is then formed of a vertical column of four marks, each of which is either one or two dots. The first four figures, generated by lines made while the questioner concentrates on the question, are placed side by side in a row from right to left. From these four figures the remaining twelve positions in the tableau are produced according to set procedures. Various interpretive methods are advocated by geomancers for reading the tableau, often depending on the nature of the question asked. The course and seriousness of illness, the outcome of pregnancy, the location of lost or buried objects, and the fate of distant relatives are among the most popular questions addressed to geomancers.
Virtually no scholarly attention has been given to modern geomantic practices, except for those found in Africa. African geomancy has been the subject of several anthropological studies, most notably the form called gara practiced in Chad, the Yoruba practice of ifa, and the Madagascar form called sikidy. These practices are simplified but clearly derivative versions of classical Islamic geomancy.
In Egypt the medieval geomantic practices continue with little alteration. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there were several printings of an Arabic manual using the name of the great thirteenth-century master of the art, al-Zanati, as well as printings of essays on raml appended to a magical treatise by al-Bfinli (thirteenth century) and to a popular medical manual by Dd’fid al-Antaki (d. 1599). Treatises by early twentiethcentury geomancers such as `Ali Salih al-Asyuti and `Abd al-Fattah al-Sayyid al-Tukhi are still available in Cairo bookshops. Nearly all large collections of Islamic manuscripts include Arabic geomantic manuals by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Syrian or Yemeni authors as well as nineteenth-century Egyptian and North African geomancers, while numerous Turkish treatises written in the nineteenth century still await examination.
In Iran the term raml is applied to two types of divination. One type, frequently described by travelers such as E. G. Browne (A Year Amongst the Persians, London, 1893, reprinted 1984, p. 58), employed the throwing of brass dice that were strung together in groups of four. Although these are commonly referred to as geomantic dice, they are not marked so as to produce a geomantic figure, and thus the divination is a form of lot-casting or sortilege rather than true geomancy. Raml is also used for the classical form of geomancy, and in modern Persian writings the art often attains an astounding degree of complexity, with successive tableaux generated from previous ones. A large number of lithographed Persian texts published in India in the nineteenth century-notably by Raushan `Ali Faizabadi (Lucknow, 1881), Khuda-Bakhsh of Gujarat (Meerut, 1881), and Nur Muhammad Rammal (Lucknow, 1891)–drew upon the Persian geomantic manual written before 1 768 by `Abd al-Ghani Shirwani that was lithographed in Lucknow a number of times between 1877 and 1895. Shirwani’s treatise in turn incorporated many of the techniques described by the astrologer Hidayat Allah Shirazi, who acknowledged more than fifty sources used in his geomantic tract dedicated in 1592 to the Mughal emperor Akbar I.
In nearly all Islamic lands, geomancy and related methods of divination are still practiced. The popular forms vary from the simple casting of favorable or unfavorable geomantic figures to the complex interpretation of tableaux employing a large number of procedures.
[See also Astrology; Divination; Numerology.]
Bascom, William R. Ifa Divination: Communication between Gods and Men in West Africa. Bloomington, 1969. Definitive study of the Yoruba form of geomancy (ifa) practiced in Dahomey and Nigeria. Includes an extensive bibliography.
Jaulin, Robert. La geomancie: Analyse formelle. Paris, 1966. Anthropological and structuralist analysis of Islamic geomancy extrapolated from his study of practices in Chad. Robert Ferry contributed sections on the mathematical significance of the system.
Peek, Philip M., ed. African Divination Systems: Ways of Knowing. Bloomington, 1991. Contains a chapter by Pierre Vdrin and Narivelo Rajaonarimanana on sikidy geomancy that includes a good bibliography (“Divination in Madagascar: The Antemoro Case and the Diffusion of Divination,” pp.. 53-68), and a chapter by Susan Reynolds Whyte on a popular form of geomancy introduced in 1902 into Eastern Uganda (“Knowledge and Power in Nyole Divination,” pp. 153-172).
Savage-Smith, Emilie, and Marion B. Smith. Islamic Geomancy and a Thirteenth-Century Divination Device. Malibu, 1980. The most comprehensive guide to the origin and practice of Islamic geomancy, with a bibliography of historical studies on the subject published prior to 1980.
Skinner, Stephen. Terrestrial Astrology: Divination by Geomancy. London, 1980. Written by an advocate of the art, the study is marred by a lack of knowledge of Arabic and insufficient acquaintance with original sources. Includes chapters on Islamic origins, with examples drawn from a modern Sudanese village, and on the Yoruba practice of ifa and on sikidy used in Madagascar.
Smith, Marion B. “The Nature of Islamic Geomancy with a Critique of a Structuralist’s Approach.” Studia Islamca 49 (1979): 5-38. Important critique of the structuralist analysis of Islamic geomancy made by Jaulin. Includes a guide to earlier anthropological as well as historical studies.
There are no European-language translations of any Arabic, Persian, or Turkish geomantic treatises. Some modern manuals have been printed, but are not readily available in even the largest libraries. The following are two of the more recent Arabic books:
Asyuti, `All Salih al-Falaki. Kitab `Alam al-arwah. Cairo, about 1970. Tukhi, `Abd al-Fattah al-Sayyid. Manba` usul al-raml . . . almusamma al-Durrah al-bahiyah ft al-`ulum al-ramliyah. Cairo, 1956.