Abu Ma'shar


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Abu Ma‘shar

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

The famous Persian astrologer Abū Ma’shar (787–886), whose full name was Abū Ma’shar Ja’far ibn Muhammad ibn ‘Umar al-Balkhi, is perhaps the major representative of Arabic astrology from the medieval Western world. His works were widely translated in the twelfth century, were widely circulated in manuscript, and exerted a very powerful influence on the development of Western astrology. His writings were used as prototypes for astrological practice. For instance, they provided the thirteenth-century astrologer Guido Bonatti with a frequently cited source in his summa of medieval astrology, the Liber Astronomia (c. 1282). Episcopal clergyman Theodore Otto Wedel tells us that English poets Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower were familiar with Abū Ma’shar’s works. One can almost say that Abū Ma’shar established the standard practice for medieval astrology in general with major additional input from Messahala, Ptolemy, and Dorotheus. Abū Ma’shar’s influence upon the philosophical foundations of Arabic and Latin astrology is far greater than has been recognized and to a large degree constitutes the difference between medieval astrological theory and modern astrological theory, especially with regard to fate and free will.

Abū Ma’shar’s astrological writings are also an example of Hermetic influence on Arabic astrology. His works (written in Arabic) represent a fusion of Sabian Hermeticism, Persian chronology, Islam, Greek Science (especially Aristotelian), and Mesopotamian astrology. He, and his teacher Al-Kindi, were instrumental in fostering the identification of the antediluvian prophet Idris with Enoch and Hermes, thereby creating a religious syncretism that had important ramifications for the dissemination of pagan science, including astrology. Abū Ma’shar was an extremely successful practitioner of the art and traveled throughout the Middle East in service to numerous Indian, Persian, Arab, and Egyptian chiefs of state. His reputation was established in the Christian west by Peter of Abano in the thirteenth century in his Conciliator Differentiarum Philosophorum et Precipue Medicorum (Diff. 156), wherein Peter quotes the Al-Mudsakaret or (Memorabilia) of Abū Sa’id Schadsan, a student of Abū Ma’shar’s who recorded his teacher’s answers and astrological deeds. The Memorabilia, which have come to be known among scholars as “Albumasar in Sadan” due to traditional corruptions of both men’s names, is analyzed by Lynn Thorndike in a 1954 ISIS article.

The astrological works of Abū Ma’shar we have are:

  • The Greater Introduction to Astrology
  • The Flores Astrologicae
  • On the Great Conjunctions and on the Revolutions of the World (Kitab al-Qiranat)
  • On the Revolutions of Nativities
  • The Thousands (Kitab al-Uluf)

Abū Ma’shar was a religious Muslim. He was also an astrologer and a noted philosopher. His impact upon subsequent Arabic and Latin astrology is best understood through a consideration of his attitude toward the idea of freedom of the will as it relates to astrology. In his Greater Introduction, he sets forth his theory of astrological determinism in the context of a defense of astrology against its detractors.

Abū Ma’shar repeatedly mentions the divine will as the originator or director of nature. All motions, including celestial motions, are derived from one unique and unmoved source. Abū Ma’shar equated this with God. His source, Aristotle, placed it in a universal attraction at the periphery of the supreme sphere—the sphere of the fixed stars. According to Abū Ma’shar, God is the source of all motions in the universe. God’s intervention in terrestrial affairs, however, never disrupts the regular operation of the system of causes and effects leading to generation in nature. This causal relationship is dependent upon the stars. This means that although Abū Ma’shar asserts frequently that Allah is omnipotent, Abū Ma’shar’s universe is conceived primarily in terms of physical science and merely draped in Koranic theology.

We may be excused for questioning whether Abū Ma’shar believes that divine providence is the actual cause of natural manifestations. Where is human free will in this? Is his cosmo-conception deterministic, or can God intervene in terrestrial affairs? Is the individual human free to choose a course of action? Apart from his many assertions of orthodoxy, Abū Ma’shar leaves little room for providence because he asserts that the planets and stars intervene in the chain of causes flowing between God and nature as a kind of buffer or series of filters through which the will of God must act.

The substance of Abū Ma’shar’s argument is that both the necessary and the impossible, being unchangeable, leave no room for the contingent. But accidental (i.e. possible, contingent) things happen in the world of generation. Thus a third category, “the possible,” is necessary to cover these things. The greatest source of contingency in man’s affairs is his ability to reason. His capacity for deliberation and the exercise of choice constitutes a principle of indetermination for future occurrences; but man’s choice does not extend to things he knows to be necessary or impossible.

Abū Ma’shar asserts that contingency actually exists and gives examples taken from concrete reality. A piece of cloth may be cut up or, equally possible, it may remain whole until worn out through use. Iron or lead is at one point in time solid and at another point in time liquid. Air may receive more or less heat or cold. All such possibilities of mutations may materialize or not, but they are clear proof of the existence of contingency in some beings. On the other hand, the necessary and the impossible either are or are not absolute.

Abū Ma’shar recognizes three categories of the possible or the contingent. The first category is contingens naturalis sive facilis; an example is that of rain most often following the gathering of clouds. The second category is per optacionem et difficilis; an example is that of the non-noble man seeking to become king. The third category is et contingens equalis; an example is that of the pregnant woman hoping to give birth to a boy, but who has a 50–50 chance of delivering either a girl or a boy.

Possibility originates in the physical world from the capacity of matter to receive first one quality and then its opposite. Water may be cold at one time and hot in another, with varying intensity in each state. In man, possibility springs from his capacity for deliberation and choice, but also from his capacity to receive the qualities of matter in his body. Hence, though man is endowed with free choice that constitutes a first principle of contingency in him, his freedom of choice is limited, circumscribed by the matter from which his body is made.

According to Abū Ma’shar, something remarkable happens when a thing moves from potentiality to actuality. He concludes that contingency is ultimately absorbed into either the necessary or the impossible! Once a thing has come into being, its potentiality in which its contingency resided no longer subsists, and therefore it must be classified in the camp of the necessary. On the other hand, if it does not materialize, Abū Ma’shar thinks that it must be because of some sort of impossibility. Thus, Abū Ma’shar shares the fatalistic leanings of Arabic Aristotelianism.

Abū Ma’shar holds that planetary influence does not destroy contingency or freedom. He asserts that planetary influence signifies the necessary, the possible, and the impossible. With respect to contingency in matter, Abū Ma’shar holds that universal matter, formed of the four elements, is entirely dependent in all its transformations upon the stellar influences. Thus, the totality of contingency is outlined in advance in the regular motions of the stars. With respect to contingency in animated beings, Abū Ma’shar says it depends upon planetary motion, although a living thing needs more than just a natural motion to pass into action because its soul is a principle of indetermination to it as regards its future action.

Indetermination in man is no insurmountable obstacle to astrology, we are told, because there is a harmony between man’s soul and the souls in the planets. The rational soul, even under the influence of the stars, has a power of deliberation and choice as a result of a similar power in the stars. Man’s body, on the other hand, has the capacity to receive new qualities from the sky. Through the parallelism between the animated planets and living things in this lower world, Abū Ma’shar found it possible to ascribe an unlimited scope to the planets’ influences upon the voluntary contingency in man’s twofold body and soul. Within this cosmological framework, man’s free will appears drastically curtailed from what it was held to be by Aristotle, the Christians, Jews, and Muslims, notwithstanding Abū Ma’shar’s frequently uttered statements to the contrary inspired by his religiosity.

Having set forth his planetary theory, Abū Ma’shar reviews the various influences exerted by the planets upon man, intending to show how freedom or contingency is not destroyed. As an animated being, man possesses life, which is a necessary attribute of his nature. The animated and intelligent planets signify this for him, and in doing so they signify a modality of being that may be called of the type necessary. On the other hand, there are things incompatible with man’s nature, such as the ability to fly. By excluding this eventuality from the nature of man as he comes to be, the planets signify another modality of man’s being—the impossible. Finally, as man has the power of choice and reason, and the capacity to receive the impression of different physical qualities in his body by virtue of the four elements of which it is composed, human nature is open to a wide range of contingency that is nevertheless signified by the planets. Thus, the planets signify the three modes: the necessary, the impossible, and the possible.

The astrologer is only concerned with the possible. He does not inquire whether fire burns or not, but rather will fire burn tomorrow a matter that has a disposition to be burned? Will this individual talk to that one tomorrow? What the astrologer does in these cases is to make sure that the focus of the enquiry belongs to the possible. The planets can indicate that something cannot occur (impossible), that something may occur (possible), or that something must occur (necessary). If the signification holds only in the future, it will remain uncertain until the time of occurrence, when the actual event will fall into the category of the necessary. If, for instance, no impediment deprives a man from the use of his tongue, the man enjoys potentially the faculty of speaking or not. But only until he speaks. When he has spoken, his speech falls into the category of the necessary. Abū Ma’shar holds that the modes of activity of concrete beings exist potentially in them before they are translated into action. Once they have reached the stage of a completed action they fall into the category of the necessary.

Abū Ma’shar concludes that “since the planets signify the contingent in nature as well as in deliberation and choice proper to man, they indicate that man will choose only what is implied in planetary motion.” If there is a providential intervention in this scheme of natural motion, it must come from outside the regular activity of nature and, presumably, against it.

Abū Ma’shar holds that the choice exercised by man’s rational soul is circumscribed by its connection to the physical body, whose potentials are already limited. Man’s rational soul acts in connection with his vital soul, but the latter is influenced by the animated planets. For instance, among the motions within his possibilities through the physical properties of his body, he may select walking, sitting, or standing (but not flying). Once he chooses, the possibilities of his material nature are forthwith determined to this particular motion. Moreover, man’s choice is itself limited to the actual determination caused by the planetary motions.

In conclusion, what we see here is a doctrine of astrological determination that is, from one point of view, an exercise in double-talk. The planets give possibilities because they are ensouled, and, as such, they are in harmony with man’s soul. So they judge and deliberate and so does man. Yet man, it turns out, judges and deliberates what the planets have already deliberated, and, thus, man’s reason and choice merely reflect the celestial reason and choice. In fact there is little, if any, freedom.

Again, man’s body may receive influences from the heavens or it may not. But the body exists because of heaven ordering the elements. Therefore, the body is determined already by the stars. The rational soul is free to reason. Yet the rational soul acts in concert with the vital soul, which reflects the celestial decrees. Thus, the rational soul’s rational choices are adulterated by the appetitive, emotional, and instinctive inclinations of the vital soul.

Abū Ma’shar’s description of the constitution of man agrees well with the esoteric teachings coming down to us from the Middle Ages, which attribute to man a rational soul, an astral soul (the soul of the middle nature, or Tree of Life), and a physical body. A fifth factor, the highest, is alluded to elliptically by the reference to the sphere of the Moon, which was associated with the intellect. There is much implied in the statement “If there is a providential intervention in this scheme of natural motion, it must come from outside the regular activity of nature and presumably against it.”

Abū Ma’shar’s theory of astrological influence is actually deterministic in spite of his pious posturing. As such, it is contrary not only to religious tendencies in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but also to the contemporary New Age idealism to which most modern (nineteenth-to twenty-first century) astrologers consciously or unconsciously ascribe. It is this difference that must be appreciated if one is to properly understand the difference between modern and medieval astrological practice.

—Robert Zoller

Sources:

Alkindi’s On the Stellar Rays. Translated by Robert Zoller.
Hermetis philosophi de revolutionibus nativitatum incerto interpreter … (bound with Proclus In Claudii Ptolemaei quadripartium ennarator ignoti nominis Basilieae, 1559).
Khaldun, Ibn. The Muqaddimah. New York: Pantheon Books, 1958.
L Astrologie et la Science Occulte. Le R. P. Festugière, O.P.
Lemay, Richard. Abū Ma’shar and Latin Aristotelianism in the 12th Century. Beirut, 1962.
Studies in Islamic Exact Sciences by E. S. Kennedy, Colleagues and Former Students. Edited by David King and Mary Hellen Kennedy. Beirut: American University of Beirut, c. 1983.
Tester, Jim. A History of Western Astrology. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydel Press, 1987.
Thorndike, Lynn. History of Magic and Experimental Science. Vol. 1. New York: Columbia University Press, 1923.
Wedel, Theodore Otto. The Mediaeval Attitude Toward Astrology, Particularly in England. New Haven: Yale University Library, 1920. Reprint, Norwood, PA: Norwood Editions, 1978.