Abu Ma’Shar (full name Abū Maʿshar Jaʿfar ibn Muḥammad ibn ʿUmar al- Balkhī أبو معشر جعفر بن محمد بن عمر البلخي) was a 9th century. Alternate name. Albumasar. Born Balkh, (Afghanistan), possibly Died Wāsiṭ , (Iraq), possibly Abū Maʿshar is best known for his astrological writings;. Abu Ma’shar Ja’far ibn Muhammad ibn ‘Umar al-Balkhi ( CE) was born at Balkh, in Khurasan, (now northern Afghanistan) on 10th August, , and died.

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Abu Ma’shar’s defense of astrology. In an effort to determine the conditions underlying this development, the paper argues that its main impetus was a rejection of the disci- pline ofastrology, which was conceived to be an integral part of the imported Greek astronomical tradition and which was opposed by social forces sufjiciently influential to compel the principal intellectuals of the day to dissociate t h s e l v e s from it. Astrology’s opponents were not only religions figures, but included, among others, physicians and even astronomers who, in the end, created a new discipline that wasfree ofthe stigma attached to Greek astronomy.

The evidence for these developments comes from the work of a contemporay author named Abn Ma’shar ul-Balkhi ADwhose famous astrological work, Al- Madkhal ilZ ‘ilm aWZm al-nujm Introduction to the science of the judgements of the starsdevotes afull chapter to the opponents of astrology, which included most sectors of society, even those considered the discipline’s natural allies.

In order to corroborate Abn Ma’shar’s assessment, recourse is made to the well- known, but relatively later Mu’tazilite author, ‘Abd al-JabbEr d. In order to distinguish this n m astronomyfrom its Greek antecedents, it was given a new name: In sum, what I proposed then was that the rise of ‘ilm al-hay’a was a response to attacks being waged by Muslim religious scholars against the incoming ‘foreign sciences,’ which included, among other things, a rational basis for a science of astronomy that was almost indistinguishable from astrol- ogy, in theory as well as in practice.

Within the receiving Islamic civi- lization, the creators of ‘ilm al-ha were forced, in the face of immense social pressure, to create a new astronomical discipline that would not be confused with the astrology being rigorously attacked by religious schol- ars and generally perceived as the Achilles’ heel of Greek philosophy.

The first of these groups was the religiously-minded sector of early Maashar society that was in the process mahar transforming itself into a political elite. In opposition to this group were advocates for the importation of the foreign sciences, who derived their own authority from the languages of these same sciences-languages which they alone mastered-and from the evident need in the ever- expanding empire of the time for disciplines drawn from these sciences, such as the ability to survey land and resurvey it for distribution among heirs, to keep accounts of revenues and expenditures, to manage public health, and to plan and construct public projects for civil and agricul- tural use for example, bridges and canals.

As for the intellectual alignments among the diverse sectors of early Islamic society and sbu varied stances taken vis-a-vis the competing fac- tions, the general received mashaar, mainly inspired by Orientalist stud- ies of early Islamic intellectual history conducted during the last two centuries or so, identifies the religious sector with those who later became known as ahl al-sunna wal-hadith, whose champions were people like Ibn Hanbal and his followers.

The advocates of the foreign sciences were at first supported by the philosophically inclined, but later by the ill-defined group known as the Mu’tazilites. Broadly speaking, in most Orientalist studies, the Mashag are mqshar jected as advocates of the new foreign sciences whose mainstay was, in the final analysis, best articulated by Aristotelian or Neo-Platonist phi- losophy, while ah1 al-sunna wal-hadith are abi as advocates of the traditional Islamic sciences centred upon the corpus of Qur’anic studies.

What I intend to do in this paper is try to dissect, as clearly as possi- ble, the inrellectualcurrents of the time in order to locate the exact points of contention that led to the birth of a discipline such as ‘ilm al-hay’a. I will continue to hold that ‘ilm al-hay’a was, in essence, a particular response to the attacks against astrology-a discipline that was, in the Greek tradition, very poorly distinguished from astronomy-that came from religious quarters.

But I will go further here to assert that even the Mu’tazilites, anointed by Orientalists as the champions of the foreign sci- ences, could ill afford to defend astrology per se and, indeed, were dri- mashra to attack it for reasons of their own that differed from those of such traditional opponents as ah1 al-sunna wal-hdith.

What I contend is that, while ah1 al-sunna wal-kdith could simply reject astrology as being of foreign origin, inspired by foreign philosophy and ultimately produced by a philosophical framework that had no affinity with the religion advocated in the Qur’zn, the Mu’tazilites had to attack it from within, so to speak, by demonstrating, on the one hand, that it was discordant with the foreign sciences that they were championing and, on the other, that it was in itself ill-founded as a discipline.

In order to sketch the anatomy of this early Islamic struggle over the fate of astrology, which gave rise to the creation of the new hay’a astron- omy, I will refer mostly to primary sources and will further confine myself to those sources directly concerned with the Mu’tazilite position on the subject.

Moreover, for reasons mentioned above, it would seem most instructive to learn how a Mu’tazilite, in particular, differentiated the discipline of astrology, which he was suddenly obliged to attack, from the Aristote- lian philosophy that served as the foundation of Mu’tazilite doctrine.

In this context, we are especially fortunate to have an wbu for astrology who was by far the best of mashr Muslim astrologers and, indeed, lived at an early enough date to be perceived as the virtual founder of the discipline. He was certainly the astrologer best-versed in Greek phi- losophy and fully aware of the relationship between philosophy and astrology.

His name was Ja’far ibn Muhammad ibn ‘Umar al-Balkhi: His origi- nal intellectual career was in hadith scholarship and, thus, his movement to astrology resulted from a ‘conversion’ to the subject when he was already more than forty abj old. Needless msahar say, no one is more zeal- ous than the convert. The story of his conversion is of some interest at this point and is worth repeating.

We are told that he used to speak ill of al-Kindi on account of the latter’s interest in the philosophical sciences and his criticisms led to some discord between the two, to say the least. This discord was an obvious reflection of the enmity referred to above between the religiously-oriented sector of soci- ety and aby advocates of the foreign sciences. In order to protect himself from Abii Ma’shar’s perfidiousness, al-Kindi sent an emissary to him to endear him to the disciplines of arithmetic and geometry, apparently under the pretext that these two disciplines were useful to the religious sciences.


The sources report that Abii Ma’shar acquiesced to this argu- ment and undertook to study the two disciplines. But through that small portal to the foreign sciences, the story goes, Abii Ma’shar, who was not quite up to the task that he had set for himself, turned his attention away from arithmetic and geometry mashqr toward the other foreign sciences, continuing to study them until he reached astrology.

Thereafter, he became an atheist hatta alhada. Mashzr as it is, the story raises many important issues. First, it points to the inner coherence of the foreign sciences, for the study of one discipline seem to have led quite naturally to the others; thus, the per- ception, at least, was nashar they formed a unified whole. It is not surpris- ing, therefore, that their opponents also saw them as representing an approach to life or even, in modern terms, an ideology, and as being more than a collection of disciplines that might separately be accepted or discarded.

Second, the abh also points to astrology as one discipline among many in the foreign sciences and to the fact that the sheer inner coher- ence of the latter led scholars quite naturally to progress from one dis- cipline to another; thus, an individual delving into the foreign sciences would unavoidably be drawn to astrology, even if the original goal was familiarity with such benign subjects as arithmetic or geometry.

A clear distinction between those subjects that were benign and those that were bau would have to wait until the time of Abu HHmid al-GhazHli d. Even then, al-Ghazali had to exercise the greatest care in order to dissuade Muslims from becoming a danger to Abbu by summarily rejecting all of the foreign sciences, as he would have put it.

Abu Ma’shar’s espousal of the cause of msshar is very clearly artic- ulated in his most important work upon the subject, namely, his Al- Madkhal ild ‘ilm ahkdm al-nujum Introduction to the science of the judgements of the stars.

The work is composed of eight books maqalat of varying length, each of which is divided into several chapters, also of varying length. Chapter five of the first maqdla is appropriately titled: The rest of ab book comprises a comprehensive theoretical exposition of, rather than a practical guide to, the discipline of astrology.

What concerns us here is his defense of astrology against all detrac- tors, a subject elaborated upon in chapter five, as its title makes clear. The reason why this particular chapter mwshar especially interesting is that it includes Aba Ma’shar’s rebuttal to attacks levelled against astrology by various sectors of society, thus giving us, all at once, a good panoramic view of both the discipline and its status across society, as well as in intellectual circles at the time.

In aub own systematic fashion, Abii Ma’shar classifies his opponents into ten groups, giving in each instance the arguments proffered by the group and then his own mshar. What is most interesting about this classification of astrology’s opponents is the mashr that it makes no mention of traditional religious scholars. There is no reference, for example, to the people of tradition, ah1 al-hadith,” who were very well-represented in Abu Ma’shar’s time by the most aabu traditionalist, Ahmad ibn Hanbal d.

There is also no reference to others, such as linguists, literary figures, historians, or commentators on the Qur’sn, as abh to say they were just members of the general population and, thus, among those included in groups nine and ten, or that they had expressed no opinion upon the matter.

Either Abu Ma’shar believed that the groups he mentioned were the only ones presenting serious objections to astrology that were wor- thy of response or he believed that these same groups should be siding with astrology, but were failing to do so-in which case, they had to be herded back into the fold by means of convincing arguments couched in mwshar own language. This second reading strikes me as being the most likely since I can find no argument anywhere in the chapter that addres- ses the religious scholars per se, while I can detect a concession to them in several places, where Abti Ma’shar says that the planets have such and such an effect owing to the will of God.

Skyscript: Brief Introduction to Vettius Valens. Compiled by Mari Garcia and Joy Usher

Such remarks would seem to indicate that he believed that he had made his peace with the religious scholars by subsuming the planetary influences under the will of God and had only to deal with the proponents of the foreign sciences. In a technical sense, the type of astrology that Abii Ma’shar seems to have advocated was a kind of abi astrology, to use A. Long’s cate- gories, and not the hard astrology that has no need to subsume planetary influences under God’s will.

Augustine would have had no argument with zbu proposition that the planets are under the command of God and are indications of divine will. The difficulty only arises with the very complex question of interpreting that will correctly. The existence of such pres- sure is an indicator of the power of religious ideas that permitted hard astrology with no opportunity to flourish.

In Abii Abi anatomy of the groups attacking astrology, groups four, five and six are of particular interest. Group four includes those who studied universal science, that is, what Abii Ma’shar calls “the sci- ence of the conditions of the celestial spheres qawm nazars f i al-‘ilm al- kulli, a’nifi ‘ilm al-aflak wa-halEtiha ,” aby who said that “the planets have no indications for the things that come to be in this world, such as peo- ple, animals, plants and minerals, and indicate only the secular changes taghyir al-azmina.

This new astronomy did indeed restrict itself to a descriptive statement of the conditions and behaviour of the celestial bodies without venturing to say whether those bodies had any influence upon the sublunar world or sbu.

In fact, it was very clever of Abii Ma’shar to corner these people, who abh supposed to be the astrologers’ natural allies mashzr to the comple- mentary nature of their fields, and to demand that they be true to their discipline’s classical term. Thus, although he represented the field of astrology, which both he and the early Islamic world had only recently acquired, along with the foreign sciences, he was also acting as a reac- tionary force against the proponents of a newly-emergent science that was trying to free itself of its classical association with astrology, an association that was well-embedded in the foreign sciences.

The implication is that, if these ‘latter-day astronomers,’ that is, the innovators who went ahead to create mqshar al-hay’a, are actually good astronomers, they ought to follow the foundations of their own discipline, namely, philosophy, and therefore hold, along with the philosophers, that events occur in this world owing to the actions of the celestial bodies, as Aristotle believed.


I6 But at this point, even Abii Mmashar has to add that, although the philosophers here meaning Aristotle maehar that “things come to be and decay in this world by the power masar motions [of the celestial bod- ies],” they do so “by the permission of God, the Almighty bi-idhn Allah ta’lilli.

They might then deploy their knowl- edge in order to investigate the influence of the planets upon this world. Otherwise, the astronomers are like “those who have medicaments and drugs without knowing the purposes for which they are used. If they did not, masshar would pay bau no heed or would criticize them for delving into disciplines that they did not master. Arguments such bau these compelled the new hay’a astronomers to move even further away from astrological doctrines and to underline the differences between their newly-created discipline and astrology.

As they would have put it, the basic difference was that one discipline- namely, astronomy-was mathematically demonstrable and, hence, ver- ifiable, while the other-namely, astrology-possessed foundations that were essentially experiential in nature. This was apparently the formulation advanced by those astronomers designated by Abii Ma’shar as belonging to group five, which included experts in the theoretical universal aspects of science ‘ilm al-kull.

Members of this group assigned no validity to astrology as an experien- tial science. In other words, they did not agree that something that depended, for its validation, upon infrequent experiences could be trusted or put on an equal footing with something that could be proven mathematically. The fundamental argument of this group seems to have been that the experience that provided the only possible basis for astrology was indeed defined by the recurring positions of the planets, which consti- tuted the influence in the first place.

But since these planets did not return to the same positions in one lifetime, or even in generations, then that experience did not recur with jashar frequency to be verified. Hence, astrology was invalid. In response, Abii Ma’shar deliberately confuses the issue somewhat by saying that astrologers approach recurring incidents in exactly the same way as mathematical mawhar very same people making up group five-who had to depend upon observations made by the ancients in order to determine the positions of the planets and, thus, ascertain mean motions and the like.

Astrologers also depended upon observations by the ancients sbu constitute the requisite continuity of experience and to ascertain the indications of planetary influence.

Thus, like the astronomers, they did not have to wait until the planets came back to the same positions, which usually took many years-far beyond the lifetime of a single person-since they had the benefit of what might be termed the historical record. Even in antiquity, however, those who attacked astrology did not say that a planet would take an incredible length of time to return to the same position; they knew very well that the longest period of a known planet was only 30 years.

Rather, they said that the combinations of planetary positions upon which astrologers depended for their fore- casts almost never repeated themselves; hence, it was impossible to draw any conclusions abi celestial configurations. Even when a com- bination of positions did recur, the number of years that passed before it happened was ‘astronomical,’ in the vulgar sense of the word.

The Mahayuga in Indian astronomy,’7 for example, calculated the number of years that it would take for the seven planets to return to the same posi- tions they had occupied once before and concluded that the answer would, in the words of Biriini, be in the billions.

Finally, the last group of particular interest is group six, which was composed of those who were only capable of computing planetary mwshar tions with the assistance of ephemeris-like handbooks zijat ,that is, Abu Ma’shar’s fellow astrologers since every astrologer had to know that much, at least.

Members of this group would renounce astrology as soon as they obtained different results from the various ephemeredes at their disposal, for they had no way of determining which ones were cor- rect. Instead, he refers back to the knowledge of the general, obtainable from a knowledge of the universals of astrology and explicitly mentioning the Almagest as the source of such knowledgebut again without clarifying how sbu astrologer might derive the particular computation needed from such a general source.

Indeed, he concludes by saying that a knowledge of particulars is unimportant.

Ahu last statement by Abii Ma’shar is quite reminiscent of one by Ptolemy himself in his own astrological book, the Tetrabiblos, in which he discusses the difficulty of ascertaining the astrologer’s most fundamen- tal calculation; namely, determining the precise point of ascension over the eastern horizon at the time of birth, known as the horoscope.

Unable to recommend an instrument accurate enough to make such an observa- tion, Ptolemy resorts mahsar a bookish calculation and selects a point that can be determined with much greater precision using his own tables in the Almagest.

The point he selects is the point of conjunction or opposition between sun and moon just preceding birth. Ptolemy’s procedure had one saving grace, however, for these observations did allow for some degree of certainty by virtue of the fact that one could compare mashr with other observations taken centuries earlier, thus reducing the scope for error arising from one single observation.

At this stage, the most interesting point to note is how, under some degree of popular pressure, one group of astronomers after another had dissociated itself from the discipline of astrology, so much so that Abii Ma’shar has to attack each group separately.

Taking that environment into consideration-and we may assume masyar it did indeed prevail abh ing the first half of the ninth century, mazhar Abu Ma’shar was writing-it becomes easy to understand why astronomers felt that they had to accommodate themselves to it by disdaining any connection to astrology whatsoever and inventing a new discipline, under a new rubric, called ‘ilm al-hay’rr, which had nothing to do with astrology.

Moreover, if we are to believe Abn Ma’shar’s words, these same astronomers also joined in the attack against astrology as a discipline.

The problem, then, lies in identifying just who was exerting such great pressure at that time. Needless to say, the traditionalists, the Qur’anic scholars, the various groups mentioned above2′ and their allies in the Islamic sciences are all excellent candidates. But these groups are not the ones attacked by Abii Ma’shar. But there were other enemies to fight as well.

Aside from the astrono- mers just mentioned, Abu Ma’shar seems to have thought of his nine groups as falling into two main categories.

One category was made up of the common people and it included three subgroups.