Abu Ma’shar – the Greatest Astronomer of Baghdad

Abu Maʿshar

Abu Maʿshar – page of a 15th-century manuscript of the “Book of nativities”

On August 10, 787, Persian astrologer Abu Ma’shar, Latinized as Albumasar, was probably born. Abu Maʿshar thought to be the greatest astrologer of the Abbasid court in Baghdad. While he was not a major innovator, his practical manuals for training astrologers profoundly influenced Muslim intellectual history and, through translations, that of western Europe and Byzantium. He is known primarily for his theory that the world, created when the seven planets were in conjunction in the first degree of Aries, will come to an end at a like conjunction in the last degree of Pisces.

Albumasar was born in the city of Balch in the province of Chorasan, then Persia. He probably came to Baghdad in the early years of al-Maʾmūn, the seventh Abbasid caliph. He probably lived on the West Side of Baghdad, near Bab Khurasan, the northeast gate of the original city on the west Bank of the Tigris. Abu Ma’shar was a member of the third generation of the Pahlavi-oriented Khurasani intellectual elite. He advocated a “most astonishing and inconsistent” eclecticism. Due to his great reputation he was probably safe from religious persecution.

Abu Ma’shar was a scholar of hadith, and it is believed that he only turned to astrology at the age of forty-seven. He faced a conflict with al-Kindi, back then the foremost Arab philosopher who was versed in Aristotelism and Neoplatonism. In that period, Abu Maʿshar probably realized that he had to study mathematics in order to understand philosophical arguments. It was delivered that Abu Ma’shar authored a book on the variations of astronomical tables, which describes how the Persian kings gathered the best writing materials in the world to preserve their books on the sciences and deposited them in the Sarwayh fortress in the city of Jayy in Isfahan. His “Introduction” (Kitāb al‐mudkhal al‐kabīr, written c. 848) was first translated into Latin by John of Seville in 1133, as Introductorium in Astronomiam. It is one of the Arabic texts which have passed down the philosophical works of Aristotle in Arabic translation.

Abu Ma’shar created horoscopes of both Muhammad and Christ. According to his interpretation of the stars, the world was created when the seven then known planets (i.e. Sun and Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) were in conjunction in the first degree of Aries. For the end of the world he also made a prediction for a similar conjunction. He was quoted by Tycho Brahe as a former critic of the peripatetics concerning the comets beyond the moon sphere, even though Abu Ma’shar’s traditional reason for the color change was not convincing.[3]

Abu Ma’shar was a very productive author and is said to have written over 50 books. In medieval Europe he was considered the most important Iranian astrologer, with great influence on the genesis of the medieval astrological world view. His books, which were translated into Latin in the 12th century, were widely used as manuscripts, but were only printed about two hundred years later.

Unfortunately, all astronomical works attributed to Abu Ma’shar are lost. However, a lot of information can still be gleaned from summaries found in the works of later astronomers or from his astrology works. Abu Maʿshar is said to have died at the age of 98 (but a centenarian according to the Islamic year count) in Wāsiṭ in eastern Iraq, during the last two nights of Ramadan of AH 272 (9 March 866).

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