Image Credit: Supplied

Although the famous medieval bibliographer Ibn Al Nadim reported in his “Fihrist” that Ja‘far Ibn Mohammad Abu Ma‘shar Al Balkhi (AD787-886) — better known in the West as Albumasar — was a scholar of Hadiths (prophetic traditions), that his dislike of Greek sciences and philosophy led him to accept a challenge from his contemporary, Abu Yousuf Ya‘qub Ibn Ishaq Al Kindi (c 800–870), the first Arab philosopher. Al Kindi managed to pique Abu Ma‘shar’s interest in arithmetic and geometry. These fields evidently mollified Abu Ma‘shar, but he opted to delve into astrology rather than mathematics. He went on to become the greatest astrologer of the ‘Abbasid court in Baghdad, as his works gained prominence.

Regrettably, most of his works on astronomy were lost, but his studies on astrology survived, including a monumental 106-chapter work, “Kitab al-Mudkhal al-Kabir”, a historical study composed for the Sassanian ruler Al Mansour, the second ‘Abbasid dynasty caliph, and his study on genethlialogy, the science of calculating positions of the heavenly bodies on nativities, in the “Kitab Tahawil Sini al-Mawalid” (Book of the Revolutions of the Years of Nativities). Equally important, and though largely forgotten, the Western world came to know of Aristotle’s books on nature through Abu Ma‘shar. It may be correct to surmise that while he was not an original scientist, Abu Ma‘shar was, nevertheless, a key link in the transmission of knowledge.

Early life and times

Abu Ma‘shar was born in AD787 in or near Balkh, in Khorasan province (today’s Afghanistan), which was a relatively cosmopolitan centre of learning — an outpost of Hellenism in central Asia where Indians, Chinese, Scythians, and Greco-Syrians mingled with Iranians during the Sassanian period. The city was a beacon of learning where various religious communities, including Jewish, Nestorian, Manichaean, Buddhist, Hindu, as well as Zoroastrian believers coexisted. Khorasan was the human well from which the ‘Abbasids drew succour, as they turned to its peoples for soldiers, military leaders and intellectuals.

Abu Ma‘shar was among those scholars who perceived themselves as intellectually beholden to their Persian culture. In time, the young man moved to Baghdad where he became a leading exponent of the theory that “different national systems of thought are ultimately derived from a single revelation”. It was a pragmatic approach that paralleled the Neoplatonic doctrine of emanation, which posited that everything derived from a perfect God, and which he used to advocate heretical views while maintaining strict adherence to the tenets of his faith. In fact, it was this intellectual pragmatism that permitted Abu Ma‘shar to become the leading astrologer of the Muslim world without being persecuted.

Neoplatonic arguments and astrology

To be sure, while the Caliph Al-Ma’mun (813–833) at first welcomed Abu Ma‘shar in Baghdad as a Hadith expert, it was long before he became a leading astrologer. Indeed, the process of verification associated with authentic sayings attributed to the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) opened various scholarly venues, including a proficiency in pre-Islamic Arabic calendar and the chronology of the early caliphs. Yet, the quarrel with Al Kindi around AD825 changed his life.

Al Kindi, who was interested in Plato, Aristotle and various Neoplatonist writers, prodded Abu Ma‘shar to delve into mathematics to gain a skill that would add value to his life. He urged his erudite interlocutor to study the sciences to better understand philosophical arguments. What was remarkable was that the future astrologist was already in his forties, yet he gleefully accepted Al Kindi’s dare. Over a short period of time, Abu Ma‘shar mastered astrology, as he drew upon various traditions: Greek, Indian and Persian. It was not long before his vast knowledge as an astrologer earned him fame. Princes and other high-ranking officials sought his readings and recommendations. He even advised several rebels against the authority of the caliph. Soon, he became “the teacher of the people of Islam concerning the influences of the stars”.

Refined astrology

Abu Ma‘shar’s philosophical proof of the validity of astrology was probably most elaborately presented in his lost “Kitab Ithbat ‘Ilm al-Nujum” (Book of the Establishment of Astrology), which was also discussed at length in the first section of his “Kitab al-Madkhal al-Kabir”. Borrowing from the Neoplatonists, this philosophy incorporated religious doctrines and probably orbited three analogous levels: “the divine (the sphere of light), the ethereal (the eight celestial spheres), and the hylic (the sublunar core in which matter is involved in constant process of change)”.

Abu Ma‘shar espoused the Aristotelian physical universe in which the four elements that the Greek philosopher Empedocles posited (all matter is composed of earth, air, fire and water, and that all change is caused by attraction and repulsion) were confined to the sublunar world. He advanced that the celestial spheres consisted of an additional fifth element, which could be studied through astronomy and astrology. Still, while many Muslim scientists balanced the four Empedoclean elements with various Pythagorean principles, Abu Ma‘shar did not simply incorporate the movements of planets, zodiacal signs, and decans with human and animal factors governing nature’s behaviour. Rather, he “attempted to validate the scientific basis of these arbitrary associations between the celestial and sublunar worlds in astrology by casting over the whole system a peculiar interpretation of Aristotelian physics”.

Consequently, the astrologer’s improvement identified the balance between the influences of superior spheres on inferior ones that, and this was probably an innovation, did not prevent terrestrial bodies from being moved by particular celestial bodies. The corollary to this logic, which Abu Ma‘shar developed in his “Kitab al-Madkhal al-Kabir”, concluded that celestial bodies also possessed the possibility of influencing particular terrestrial bodies.

Astrology and faith

Because fortune tellers are forbidden in Islam — just as they are in Christianity and Judaism — many condemned the study of astrology, mistakenly associating with astrology with jinns. Of course, the Prophet (PBUH) denounced fortune telling as a demonic practice. Still, he encouraged scientific research, and it is worth underscoring that astrology developed as a specific scientific field. It had nothing to do with crystal ball readings or other means of soothsayers, as astrology seldom predicted what was to occur to an individual, which was unverifiable. In fact, astrology involved deep chart calculations and complex house systems that its practitioner need to study for years to become an expert.

If the science is relied upon to improve the life of a believer, as leading Sufi scholars posited, then astrology — based on statistical knowledge that motivates people for further research and comprehension of the human condition — may be permissible. According to Muslim teachings, every prophet is gifted with diverse miracles, and it does not dispute that living creatures could well be under the influence of cosmic movements.

For Abu Ma‘shar, astrology was not only determined by Neoplatonising Aristotelianism, which would have been akin to take the doctrines that contradicted Islam and run with them. Simply stated, he was not a believer who accepted the infinite temporal extension of the world, or that divine foreknowledge contradicted human freedoms. Rather, he interpreted world history, and posited that the “transmission of sciences permitted one to trace back the fragments of truth about nature scattered among the peoples of the Earth to a pristine divine source: it is a sort of prophetology of science”. Like many of his contemporaries, Abu Ma‘shar believed that revelation is the source of all knowledge, even if reasoning helps identify or clarify the specific knowledge. Towards that end, he focused on the personality of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) to validate the core unity of human thought. Given his background and strong faith, Abu Ma‘shar thus opted for a universalist approach, which formed the foundations of Muslim historiography of philosophy and religion.

Legacy to Arabs and Muslims

Even if Abu Ma‘shar may not rank among the great Muslim scientists of his era, his legacy included the monumental efforts to translate some of Aristotle’s works. Indeed, he became the single most important original source of Aristotle’s theories of nature for European scholars, starting a little before the middle of the 12th century. It is worth noting that the European scholars then had little or no access to the original books on nature by Aristotle, which were translated from Arabic into Latin starting in the 1180s. Generally recognised as “the master of logic”, Aristotle’s works on logic were well known, though his other contributions were overlooked. With these valuable additions, Aristotle became the “master of those who know”, especially a master of natural philosophy. Serious scholars, such as John of Seville, Spain (1133), Herman of Corinthia, Greece (1140), who read and studied Arabic, translated into Latin Albumasar’s treatise on astrology and, in the process, discovered Aristotle’s critical contributions on nature.

In his writings Abu Ma‘shar did not display any original skills to innovate, although he was a talented scholar. What he produced, instead, were practical astrology manuals to train those who wished to engage with the “science”. Muslim and European intellectuals benefited from his numerous contributions as rulers marshalled dogmatic interpretations to solidify their authority. At a time when the core sciences were still in their initial stages, the man from Balk added value, even if many dismissed his intellectual dexterity.

Dr Joseph A. Kéchichian is an author, most recently of, “Legal and Political Reforms in Saudi Arabia”, London: Routledge, 2013.

This article is the 21st of a series on Muslim thinkers who greatly influenced Arab societies across the centuries.

List of works

Abu Ma‘shar, “The Abbreviation of the Introduction to Astrology: Together with the Medieval Latin Translation of Adelard of Bath”, edited by Charles Burnett, Keiji Yamamoto, and Michio Yano. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1994.

“Abu Ma‘shar on Historical Astrology: The Book of Religions and Dynasties (On the Great Conjunctions)”, edited by Keiji Yamamoto and Charles Burnett, Leiden: Brill, 2000.

“Persian Nativities III: Abu Ma‘shar on Solar Revolutions”, translated by Benjamin N. Dykes, Minneapolis, Minnesota: The Cazimi Press, 2010.

Several hard to find books are available only in specialised libraries, including:

“Kitab al-Milal wal-Duwal” (Book on Religions and Dynasties)

“Fi Zikr ma Tadullu ‘Alayhi al-Ashkhas al-‘Ulwiyyah” (On the Indications of the Celestial Objects)

“Kitab al-Dalalat ‘ala al-Ittisalat wa-Qiranat al-Kawakib” (Book of the indications of the planetary conjunctions)

“Kitab al-Uluf” (Book of Thousands)

“Kitab Tahawil Sini al-‘Alam” (Flowers of Abu Ma‘shar)

Selected readings

Dimitri Gutas, “Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco–Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early ‘Abbasid Society (2nd–4th/8th–10th centuries)”, London: Routledge, 1998.

David Pingree, “The Thousands of Abu Ma‘shar”, London: Warburg Institute, 1968.

“Abu Ma‘shar”, in “Dictionary of Scientific Biography”, edited by Charles Coulston Gillispie, Vol 1, pp 32–39, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970

Keiji Yamamoto, “Abu Ma‘shar Ja‘far ibn Muhammad ibn ‘Umar al-Balkhi”, in Thomas Hockey et al (eds), “The Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers”, Springer Reference, New York: Springer, 2007, p 11.