Abu Ma’shar al-Balkhi – The Prince of Astrologers

 Abu Ma'shar al-Balkhi (787-886)

Abu Ma’shar al-Balkhi (787-886)

Probably on August 10, 787, Persian astrologer, astronomer, and Islamic philosopher Abu Ma’shar al-Balkhi (Abu Ma’shar Ja’far ibn Muhammad ibn ‘Umar al-Balkhi) was born. He is thought to be the greatest astrologer of the Abbasid court in Baghdad. He wrote a number of practical manuals on astrology that profoundly influenced Muslim intellectual history and, through translations, that of western Europe and Byzantium.

We’ve realized that our daily blog on History of Science somehow is focussed on the Western view of history and the World. Of course it’s because we ourselves are part of this Western world of science. Nevertheless, we should also include scientists and other people important for the history of science, who do not necessarily belong to this Western canon of science. Today, we begin with the famous Persian astrologer, astronomer, and philosopher Abu Ma’shar al-Balkhi.

There is not really much known about the life of this Persian scientist. We know that Abu Ma‘shar was born in Balkh, (Afghanistan) and lived in Baghdad. Early in his work as an academic he studied the hadith. The hadith is a report of the teachings, deeds and sayings of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. He was antagonistic toward the Hellenistic tradition of philosophical sciences, and sought to stir popular opinion against his contemporary Al-Kind?, one of the champions of these sciences. By means of a ruse, Kind? sought to interest Abu Ma’shar in arithmetic and geometry. This apparently succeeded in mollifying Abu Ma’shar, who realized that to understand philosophical arguments he must study mathematics. Though he never became proficient in mathematics, he became interested in astrology, another of the Hellenistic sciences. Interestingly he started to study astrology at age 47, but this late start did not deter him because he was said to have lived to the ripe old age of 100 [2]. His works on astronomy are not extant, but information can still be gleaned from summaries found in the works of later astronomers or from his astrology works.

All works on astronomy attributed to Abu Ma’shar are lost, and only his astrological works in Arabic are known to us. His writings were held up as models of astrological practice. For instance, they provided the Italian 13th century astronomer and astrologer Guido Bonatti with a frequently cited source in his summa of Medieval Astrology, the Liber Astronomia (c. 1282). According to other sources, also the father of English literature Geoffrey Chaucer was familiar with Abu Ma’shar’s writings. One can almost say that Abu Ma’shar established the standard practice for Medieval Astrology in general with additional input from Masha’allah, Ptolemy and Dorotheus [1]. It was Abu Ma’shar who arranged for the translation into Arabic of Ptolemy‘s great treatise on astronomy, thereafter known by its Arabic title as the Almagest.

The first type is works that provide an introduction to astrology, as e.g. his 106 chapter work, Kitab al-mudkhal al-kab’r, which he wrote “for the establishment of astrology by sufficient arguments and proofs.” Not since Ptolemy‘s Tetrabiblos had philosophical proofs of astrology been argued; Abu Ma’shar philosophical basis was Aristotelian physics, which he had acquired through Kind?’s circle.[2] His introduction to astrology which received many translations to Latin and Greek starting from the 11th-century. It had significant influence on Western philosophers, like Albert the Great.

The second part of his astrological writings focussed on historical astrology. Most prominent is his “Book on religions and dynasties“, is in eight parts in 63 chapters probably also his most important work, commented on in the major works of Roger Bacon, Pierre d’Ailly, and Pico della Mirandola.[4] The third and final type of writings is Abu Ma’shar works on genethlialogy, the science of casting nativities. The large number of extant manuscripts suggests its high popularity in the Islamic world. Overall, he is said to have written some fifty other books, which are all lost.

At yovisto academic video search you can learn more about astronomy in a popular lecture by Neil deGrasse Tyson at the University of Washington in Seattle.

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