Arabian Astrology

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Ottoman astronomers at work at the Istanbul Observatory[1]

Synonym: Islamic Astrology

Arabian astrology only really came into its stride in the 7th century around the time of Islam. Since then the branch of astrology referred to as Arabian hasn't remained restricted to the Arabians as an ethnic group but has been adopted and influenced by other ethnic groups that converted to Islam. In this respect, a more appropriate term might be 'Islamic astrology'.

Arabian and Islamic cultures had an ambivalent attitude towards astrology. There were times when it flourished, but such times were often followed by periods of disinterest or persecution. There were also differing attitudes among theologians regarding astrology. This ambivalence can be traced back to the prophet Mohammed who doesn't appear to have made any clear statements on the subject, and this has left considerable room for interpretation. Although astrology wasn't explicitly forbidden in the Koran, it didn't enjoy a particularly good reputation. For example, in Abraham sura 6 verses 77-80 it is clearly stated that:

"In the darkness of the night Abraham saw a star and spoke: "That is my Lord". But as it descended he said: "I do not love those who descend." And watching the moon rise he said: "Truly, that is my God." But when the Moon descended he said: "If my God does not lead me I am also akin to this mistaken people." And as he watched the Sun rise he said: "Hark, that is my God, for it is the greatest being." But as the Sun set he said: "Oh, my people, I no longer wish to partake of your idolatry, I turn to face the one who created Heaven and Earth."

However, the branch of astrology that believed in determinism, i.e. the idea that all existence on Earth is predetermined in the heavens, did complement some aspects of Islamic teaching.

Before the rise of Islam in the Arabian world astrology remained at a fairly rudimentary level. Despite the fact that the predominantly nomadic peoples observed the position of the stars when travelling to help ascertain their location, and the existence of simple star worship, no system of divination had yet been developed. After the rise of Islam the whole of the Arab world was united in a kingdom that stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to South East Asia. This meant that not only were numerous peoples brought under Arabian rule but that the Arabians were confronted with a wide variety of foreign cultures. One aspect of these was astrology which played a significant role in many of the subjugated regions.

The most important influences to affect Arabian astrology came from Hellenistic, Indian and Persian cultures, together with the Jewish Kabbala. The Arabians adopted the signs of the zodiac taken from Greek and Babylonian sources with the seven classical planets, to which the seven days and seven parts of the body were ascribed. The particular significance of the Lunar houses came from Indian Astrology. The Arabians referred to a Lunar Calendar that is still consulted in the present day to determine the start of the fasting month of Ramadan.

Arabian astrologers translated the works of classical antiquity and Indian astrology into their own language, something which proved to be an invaluable service to occidental culture because many Greek and Roman texts did not manage to survive the Inquisition and other persecutions. But Arabian astrology was not only concerned with translating older works. It also gave an important impetus to further developments and set new standards in mathematical and astronomical accuracy. Arabian astrologers were the first to develop a complete house system. They also made significant advances in the art of calculating directions. Their achievements led to prognoses becoming an integral part of Arabian astrology. And because of the Hellenistic influence, which meant that they were acquainted with the art of casting horoscopes for individuals, their prognoses were not restricted to making forecasts of a general nature or to the Oracle. Their mathematical skills enabled them to achieve a high standard of accuracy. Horary Astrology and Electional Astrology would have been almost unimaginable without their groundbreaking work.

In addition, the Arabian astrologers concerned themselves with mundane astrology, particularly with the astrological interpretation of historical events. They tried to understand certain historical trends with regard to particular planetary cycles. Because Uranus, Neptune and Pluto had not yet been discovered they concentrated on the cycles of Jupiter and Saturn. These two planets form a conjunction roughly every 20 years (see Great Conjunction) that is considered important in astrological literature.

Their astronomical and mathematical knowledge eventually led them to revise Ptolemy's categorisation of the fixed stars in 48 groups and to rename some of them. For example, we still know Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation of Taurus, Betelgeuse and Rigel in the constellation of Orion, Deneb, the brightest star in Cygnus or Fomalhaut in Pisces. The fixed stars were also linked to certain qualities, although Arabian astrologers remained faithful to Ptolemy's 48 constellations.

Occult practices designed to influence the future course of events were already widespread during the heyday of Arabian astrology from the 9th to the 13th century. This led to strong condemnation from theologians who considered them to be a challenge to God's will, and eventually this was to contribute to astrology's decline. In addition, since the 13th century Mongolian and Persian armies increasingly threatened the high centres of Arabian culture which weakened their influence. For a couple of centuries the Moors in Spain remained the guardians of astrological tradition. But after their expulsion Arabian astrology lost its universal significance. Although it is still used as an Oracle in some Arabian countries, the glory of its heyday remains only in memory.

Arabian planetary model with epicycles[2]

Weblinks

Bibliography

  • Thabit Ibn Qurra: De Imaginibus, translated and published by Christopher Warnock[3] Review online (Deborah Houlding, 2005)
  • Seyyed Hossein Nasr (1976) Islamic Science: An Illustrated Study, World of Islam Festival Publishing Company ISBN 090503502X

Notes and References

  1. Approximately 1574-1595
  2. 13th century manuscript of Qotbeddin Shirazi's treatise
  3. 14th century Latin reproduction of the original 9th century manuscript