“Insofar as the higher bodies signify the things existing in this world through the powers of their natural motions, then what is the advantage of being ignorant of this knowledge?”Abu Ma’shar
Sa’id Shadhan, a ninth-century Muslim student of astrology, recorded several anecdotes about his teacher, a man named Abu Ma’shar. On a trip to Baghdad, Abu Ma’shar was staying with a friend who also had some knowledge of astrology. Seeing that the Moon in Leo was squaring Mars, Abu Ma’shar advised his fellow travelers against embarking at that hour, as it boded ill for the journey. The other travelers laughed at what they considered superstition and embarked anyway. Abu Ma’shar remained with his friend and the two ate, drank, and conversed. A short while later, the ragged remnants of the group returned. They had been attacked by thieves, who had killed some of them and robbed the rest. The travelers, blaming Abu Ma’shar for their misfortune, pursued the astrologer with sticks and stones. Barely escaping, Abu Ma’shar swore never again to discuss “the science of [astrology] with the man in the street.”
The protagonist of this colorful tale, Abu Ma’shar, was in many ways the foremost representative of his science in the Medieval Islamic world. The author of more than 50 works on astronomy and astrology, the most famous court astrologer in Baghdad, and an important proponent behind the preservation of the works of Aristotle and Ptolemy via translation into Arabic, Abu Ma’shar would become to astrology what Ptolemy was to astronomy. Known as Albumasar in Medieval Latin and Apomasar in Byzantine Greek, his texts in translation reintroduced astrology to regions where the art had all but disappeared, causing a revival in the West along with the general transmission of Hellenistic knowledge that sparked the European Renaissance.
Jafar ibn Muhammad Abu Ma’shar al-Balkhi was born in Balkh, in what is now Afghanistan, at the end of the eighth century A.D. His birth year is typically recognized as 787, thanks to an anonymous horoscope cited in one of his works, but in all likelihood, Abu Ma’shar did not know his own nativity. Balkh itself was an important frontier city in the new Abbasid caliphate, conquered as recently as the seventh century. One of the principal urban centers in the Khorasan region, Balkh boasted the full religious, cultural and intellectual diversity of Central Asia. Known as Bactra by the Greeks, it had long been a Hellenistic outpost in the region and had since become a significant site for both Zoroastrians and Buddhists. The city also boasted significant Jewish, Nestorian, Manichean, and Hindu populations. A pro-Iranian intellectual elite, of which Abu Ma’shar was a member, dominated the city during the Abbasid era, having supported the new caliphate in their revolt against the Umayyad.
During the reign of al-Ma’mun (813-833), Abu Ma’shar moved to Baghdad, the capital city of an empire that stretched from the mountains of the Hindu Kush to the northern coast of Africa. The ringed city, one of the world’s largest at the time, was a commercial and scientific hub. The libraries of its “House of Wisdom” boasted more books than any other in the world, with an intellectual elite of Arab, Persian, Jewish, Nestorian, and Syriac scholars writing in the international scientific language of Arabic. Thanks to the work of prominent intellectuals such as Masha’allah and al-Kindi, the city was also the foremost center for astrological learning, a science that had been transmitted to Arab dominions from Egypt and the Mesopotamian city of Harran.
Abu Ma’shar, however, came to Baghdad not as an astrologer but as a student of the Hadith, the sayings and traditions of the prophet Muhammad and his followers. Suspicious of astrology, mathematics, and philosophy, Abu Ma’shar became embroiled in a disagreement with al-Kindi, then the most prominent Arab philosopher in the city. Al-Kindi advised Abu Ma’shar to study mathematics, and it was in his 47th year that he did just that. Devoting himself to the study of mathematics and the motions and significance of the celestial bodies, Abu Ma’shar would soon become the most famous astrologer in the Islamic world.
We have many anecdotes relating Abu Ma’shar’s exploits and proficiency as a practicing astrologer, handed down by students such as Shadhan, or recounted in Ibn Tawus’ 12th-century Biographies of Astrologers. All contributed to the myth of the man. He cast the horoscope of an Indian prince, served as a court astrologer in Baghdad, and advised princes on many matters. He even accompanied the ruler al-Muwaffaq on his campaigns against the Zanj in Basra. He may have been epileptic and was apparently fond of drinking. Many of these anecdotes paint a portrait of an astute individual and talented astrologer not particularly given to either moral or intellectual rigor.
For the most part, his reputation protected him from persecution, although he was once flogged during the reign of al-Musta’in for practicing astrology. He was also briefly imprisoned by Lenies, the king of the Persians, who was displeased by his predictions. The king promised to let him go free if his predictions proved true but threatened to kill him if they did not. Fortunately for the astrologer, he was right on the mark.
Within the field of astrology, Abu Ma’shar’s principal contribution was that of synthesis. Working at the heart of the Abbasid caliphate during the golden age of Islam, he had access to Egyptian, Greek, Syriac, Persian, and Indian sources regarding the movements and attributes of the stars and planets. He frequently employed Indian techniques, treating the lunar nodes as equal in power to the luminaries. He also contributed to the number of lots and recognized as many as 25 conditions of the planets.
Astrology and the Oneness of Wisdom
At the heart of Abu Ma’shar’s philosophical justification for astrology—and, to some extent, at the heart of Islamic astrology in general—lay three key concepts. The first, tawhid, is an Islamic doctrine proclaiming a oneness of wisdom that parallels the essential oneness of God. This doctrine allowed Islamic thinkers to draw from the diverse sources of the ancient world in search of a unified, divine truth. The second, transmitted from distinctly pagan roots, was the Neoplatonic model of the cosmos. This concept had reached Islam by way of the city of Harran, in northwestern Mesopotamia, an influential center of Hermetic philosophy and astrology and the last refuge of the pre-Islamic Mandaeans.
The inhabitants of Harran resisted conversion until the 11th century, engaging star worship based on the Hermetica, texts attributed to the legendary Hermes Trismegistus. Their geocentric model of the cosmos consisted of three spheres. The outermost sphere was known as the divine sphere. The middle, or ethereal, sphere, contained the stars and the planets. Both revolved around the innermost hylic, or sublunar, sphere, where the four elements met in a state of constant change.
For the Harranians, the human soul descended from the divine sphere to the earthly sphere, and so one’s spiritual journey involved striving to reconnect with this divine source. However, they believed that, instead of addressing the divine source in worship, it was better to address the stars and planets as intermediaries between the human and the divine. The form of this worship depended upon the respective attributes of each celestial body and thus relied heavily on astronomical observation and astrological knowledge.
In recognizing this Neoplatonic approach to astrology, Abu Ma’shar attested to the scientific and religious reasons for studying the stars. Not only could their motions be scientifically predicted, but through the association between zodiac signs, planets, human behavior, and certain plants, animals, and elements, the astrologer could both predict the outcome of an event and even influence it through a practice known as theurgy.
Abu Ma’shar explained the necessary techniques for working astrologers in his seminal work, The Great Introduction to the Science of Astrology, written around 850. With that and his Zij al-Hazarat, an astrological compendium drawing on Persian, Hellenic, and Indian sources and techniques, Abu Ma’shar attempted to reconstruct a unified “antediluvian” astrology as it had originally been revealed to humans by God.
As opposed to the talisman-using Mandaeans of Harran, Abu Ma’shar’s primary interest lay more in predicting and justifying the course of history rather than influencing it. This brings us to the third pillar of Islamic astrology influencing his work, this time from Sassanian Persian roots: historical astrology. Initially introduced to the Arab world by caliph al-Mansur to solidify Abbasid legitimacy, historical astrology involved using mundane techniques such as transits to explain the course of history.
In his now lost work, Book of the Thousands, Abu Ma’ashar used a system of conjunctions, Aries Ingresses, and profections to explain the course of history. He attributed the greatest importance to the conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn, the slowest-moving Hellenistic planets. Their conjunctions, spaced 120 degrees apart on the zodiac, occurred every 20 years, and every 260 years they moved into a new triplicity. The cycle of conjunctions would begin anew every 960 years, giving astrologers three main subdivisions to mark periodicity in history. Abu Ma’shar aimed to use the technique to predict the rise of tyrants or prophets and ultimately underscored the temporary nature of all human societies—including the Abbasid caliphate. The astrologer predicted that the caliphate would last for another three hundred years after his death, a prediction not too far off the mark from the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258.
The Legacy of a Legend
According to Ibn al-Nadim, a 10th-century bookseller, Abu Ma’shar died in Wasit, Iraq in 886 at around the age of 100. The astrologer’s fame outlived the astrologer himself, with his works commanding considerable influence and popularity in the Arab-speaking world for the next few centuries.
His treatise On the Nativities of Men and Women circulated widely, with the 14th-century scholar Isfahani copying excerpts into his Kitab al-Bulhan. To the West, the abbreviated version of The Great Introduction became the first astrological manual to be translated into Latin, and Abu Ma’shar’s name became virtually synonymous with astrology in late Medieval Western Europe and Byzantine Eastern Europe. Flores Astrologie and the Book on Religions and Dynasties, two mundane astrology texts, saw translation into Greek and Latin and were much discussed by European thinkers, as did his Book of the Revolutions of the Years of the Nativities.
Through his astrological treatises, his embracing of Hellenistic philosophy, and the promotion and preservation of the work of both Ptolemy and Aristotle, Abu Ma’shar influenced thinkers as diverse as Biruni, Albert the Great, and Roger Bacon. Ultimately, this colorful and accomplished character, through his prodigious literary output and synthesizing mind, became one of the core conduits by which Hellenistic astrology again moved west to experience yet another golden age in a radically different cultural context.
- An Introduction to Abu Ma’shar compiled by Mari Garcia & Joy Usher
- Abū Maʿshar Al-Balkhī, Jaʿfar Ibn Muḥammad, encyclopedia.com
Abū Maʿshar, The Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers, Thomas Hockey et al.
- ABŪ MAʿŠAR, Encyclopædia Iranica
- Abu Ma’shar on Solar Returns, with Benjamin Dykes, The Astrology Podcast
- History of Horoscopic Astrology, James Holden
- The fated sky: astrology in history, Benson Bobrick
- Abu Mashar – On Solar Revolutions, Benjamin Dykes
- Abu Mashar – Introduction to Astrology, Benjamin Dykes
- Astrology: a history, Peter Whitfield Albumasar in Sadan, Lynn Thorndike