Masha'allah

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Masha’allah

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Masha’allah (c. 740–815), known to the Latin writers of the Middle Ages under a number of corruptions of that name, among which Messahalla is most common, was an Egyptian Jew who lived and worked in Basra. He practiced the astrological art in the context of Islamic society during the golden age of Arabic astrology. Because of their superior astronomical and astrological skills, he and the Persian Al-Naubakht were selected to elect the time for the founding of the new city of Baghdad in 762, which the caliph Al-Mansur intended as a kind of Muslim Rome—the centerpiece of Islamic high culture.

Masha’allah wrote the first treatise on the astrolabe in Arabic. It was later translated into Latin as De Astrolabii Compositione et Utilitate and formed the basis for Geoffrey Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe. Masha’allah’s astrological writings include On Conjunctions, Religions and Peoples, which deals with mundane astrology (i.e., the astrology of world events). This treatise does not survive intact, but it has been preserved in works of the Christian astrologer Ibn Hibinta (c. 900–950). The influence of the Hellenistic/Phoenician astrologer Dorotheus (first century c.e.) on Masha’allah was significant.

Masha’allah also wrote Liber Messahallae de revoltione liber annorum mundi, a work on revolutions (the modern term is “Ingresses of the Sun into the cardinal signs”), and De rebus eclipsium et de conjunctionibus planetarum in revolutionibus annorm mundi, a work on eclipses. His work on nativities, with the Arabic title Kitab al-Mawalid, has been partially translated into English from a Latin translation of the Arabic by James H. Holden in his Abū ‘Ali al-Khayyat—The Judgment of Nativities. His other works include Book of Astrological Questions and On Conjunctions, which treats the Jupiter-Saturn conjunctions and their role in mundane (political, religious, military, and meteorological) matters.

Apart from relying on Dorotheus, Masha’allah repeatedly quotes Hermes. His astrology is wholly traditional and not scientific in the modern sense. For instance, his work bears little similarity to that of the Persian Al-Biruni, whose organization of material is orderly, rational, and pleasing to a modern mind. Moreover, Al-Biruni’s pedagogical approach is systematic. He gives a thorough outline of the mathematics necessary for practicing astronomy and astrology. Masha’allah, like most medieval astrological authors, regardless of their origin, does nothing more than discuss the practical facts of astrological procedure. Nor does he provide the reader with any theory of astrology as Ptolemy does in Tetrabiblos. It is likely that Masha’allah, like Al-Kindi (who died c. 870) and Abū Ma’shar (787–886), had direct contact with the Hermetic cult at Harran (later known as the Sabaeans). According to A. J. Festugière:

That Mashalla had at his disposal a great number of Hermetic or pseudo-Hermetic works is ascertained by a short Greek extract contained in the Vatican …. Mashalla says, “I have determined that the ancient sages present ambiguities as to certain fundamental doctrines of astronomy and that these wisemen wrote a considerable number of books. From this it follows that the mind of him who reads them is quite confused. Therefore I have published this book in which I have brought forward the uncontested points and the best doctrines of these treatises, with the help of the books of Ptolemy and Hermes, those great sages of an infinite science, and was also assisted by books which my predecessors left as a heritage to their sons.”

Those who published these books are the following: Hermes published 24 books: of these 16 are about genethliology; five on consultations; two on the degrees; and one on the art of calculation. Then follows Plato, Dorotheus, Democritus, Aristotle, Antiochus (of Athens), (Vettius) Valens, Eratosthenes ….

Mashalla concludes, “Such are the books which find themselves in our hands today, and on the subject of which, as I have said, I have brought forward (certain ones), in order that you may know that I have taken great care in publishing this book, which you see here as I have made it in four treatises, the synthesis of the aforementioned books.”

Masha’allah’s importance to astrologers consists in his having edited, and therefore purged, and standardized the Hermetic astrological literature of his day. He also established practical techniques that influenced subsequent astrologers. The Al-Mudsakaret (or Memorabilia) of Abū Sa’id Schadsan, a student of Abū Ma’shar’s who recorded his teachers answers and astrological deeds, told of Abū Ma’shar’s confession to using a number of Masha’allah’s methods.

Masha’allah’s practices and theory of astrology greatly influenced Avraham Ibn Ezra (1092–1167), the famous Jewish biblical exegete and astrologer whose astrological works influenced Peter of Abano (1250–1316) and others. Ibn Ezra translated two of Masha’allah’s astrological works, Book of Astrological Questions and Eclipses, from Arabic into Hebrew.

—Robert Zoller

Sources:

Al-Biruni. The Book of Instruction in the Elements of the Art of Astrology. Trans. by R. Ramsay Wright. London: Luzac & Co., 1934.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. “Geoffrey Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe.” In The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. 2d ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1933.
Dorotheus of Sidon. Dorothei Sidonii Carmen astrologicum: interpretationem Arabicam in linguam Anglicam versam una cum Dorothei fragmentis et Graecis et Latinis. Edited by David Pingree. Leipzig: BSB Teubner, 1976.
Festugière, A. J. L’Astrologie et La Science Occulte. 3d ed. Paris: Librairie LeCoffre, 1950.
Ibn Ezra, Avraham. Abrahe Avenaris judei astrologi peritissimi in re iudiciali opera: ab excelentisimo philosopho Petro de Abano post accuratem castigationem in latinem traducta. Venice: 1507.
Kennedy, E. S., and David Pingree. The Astrological History of Masha’allah. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.
Khayyat, Yahyá ibn Ghalib. The Judgments of Nativities. Translated from the Latin version of John of Seville by James H. Holden. Tempe, AZ: American Federation of Astrologers, 1988.
Ptolemy. Ptolemy: Tetrabiblos. Translated by F. E. Robbins. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964.
Ptolemy. Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos. Translated by J. M. Ashmand. London: Foulsham & Co., 1917.
Tester, S. J. A History of Western Astrology Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 1987.
Thorndike, Lynn. “Albumasar in Sadan.” Isis (1954).