Abu Ma'shar: Prince of Astrologers
Copyright © 1993 Robert Zoller All Rights Reserved. Revised 2000
The Persian astrologer Abu Ma'shar (Abu Ma'shar Ja'far ibn Muhammad ibn 'Umar al-Balkhi) (787-886) was to the Medieval West the most important representative of Arabic Astrology. His works were translated into Latin in the twelve century and widely circulated in manuscript. Thus he exerted a powerful influence on the development of Western Astrology.
His writings were held up as models of astrological practice. For instance, they provided the thirteenth century Guido Bonatti with a frequently cited source in his summa of Medieval Astrology, the Liber Astronomia (c. 1282). Wedel tells us that Chaucer and Gower were familiar with Abu Ma'shar's works . One can almost say that Abu Ma'shar established the standard practice for Medieval Astrology in general with additional input from Masha’allah (also, known as Messahala), Ptolemy and Dorotheus.
Abu Ma'shar's astrological writings also show the Hermetic influence on Arabic astrology. His works represent a fusion of Sabian Hermeticism, Persian chronology, Islamic religious doctrine, Greek science and Mesopotamian astrology. He, and his teacher Alkindi (in Latinised form), were instrumental in identifying the Antediluvian Prophet Idris with Enoch and Hermes. He was an extremely successful practitioner of the Art of astrology and travelled throughout the 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 his thirteenth century Conciliator Differentiarum Philosophorum Et Precipue Medicorum (Diff. 156) were he quotes the Al-Mudsakaret or (Memorabilia) of Abu Sa'id Schadsan, a student of Abu Ma'shar who recorded his teachers 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. It is analysed by Lynn Thorndike in Isis, 1954, pp. 22-32.
It is, perhaps the only example of a medieval astrological hagiography. It portrays "the master" as a nearly omniscient wise man learned not only in the techniques of all branches of the Art of astrology but also in its traditional history with an awareness of the contributions of his predecessors. He is quoted, in Albumasar In Sadan (p29 of Isis article), as saying that he follows Messahala's method of projecting rays and in other places admits to following other methods of Messahala (Masha'allah).
Professor Richard Lemay has shown the central role played by Abu Ma'shar and his Latin translators in the transmission of Aristotelian philosophical teaching to the Christian West in the twelfth century. Specifically, Lemay  has shown that Abu Ma'shar knew Aristotle's De Generatione et Corruptione, Physica, De Caelo, Meteorologica and Metaphysica. Also, Ivry shows that Alkindi adopted Aristotle's arguments (second hand) for contingent substances as found in the Metaphysica and Physica and that he knew De Anima.
Abu Ma'shar's astrological works are of the greatest importance for the history of astrology and from the practical point of view, for astrological technique.
The known astrological works of Abu Ma'shar are as follows:
1. The Greater Introduction To Astrology 
2. The Flores Astrologicae (Flowers of Astrology) 
3. On The Great Conjunctions And On Revolutions Of The World
4. On Revolutions Of Nativities 
5. The Thousands 
Pingree mentions two treatises by Abu Ma'shar on the subject of astrological history: Kitab Al-Uluf and Kitab Al-Qiranat. The first is number 5 in the list given above; the second is the Arabic title for number 3.
In this article I will limit my discussion of Abu Ma'shar's works to certain aspects of interest in his Kitab al-Uluf or The Thousands as it forms the basis of the greater part of his mundane astrological theory and practice and contains some time measures hitherto unknown.
In the following I am indebted to David E. Pingree's The Thousands Of Abu Ma'shar, Warburg Institute, London, 1968.
In his Preface Pingree observes that Abu Ma'shar's system of chronology in The Thousands is based upon the Sindhind tradition and is therefore drawn from Indian and Iranian sources. Pingree also observes that Abu Ma’shar’s astrological history is of Sassanian origin. Pingree sees this as a deliberate corruption of the pristine Hermetic tradition. He regards it a "brazen imposture" intended to support the idea of the possibility of an astrological history and to enhance Abu Ma'shar's reputation as a great astrologer.
Abu Ma'shar builds his astrological history around the Great Deluge (the Biblical Flood), which he dates at midnight, Thursday - Friday, 17-18 February 3101 BC. This happens to be the beginning of the Kali Yuga according to the Hindus. Pingree tells us that this is no mistake as the both the Arabs and Persians had become familiar by Abu Ma'shar's day with the Siddhantas in which the entire system of Hindu chronology was contained. Thus, Abu Ma'shar, knowing the Yuga systems of the Hindus, calculated a grand conjunction of mean planets at 0 degrees Aries in 183,101 BC; 3101 BC; and in 176,899 AD thus showing that he was working with the "Great Year" of 360,000 solar years. This cycle appears in Ismaili sources and in the fourth century Sanskrit Vishnupurana, translated by H.H. Wilson Vasudeva Ainapure, Bombay Saka 1824 (1902) 4.24,40-41; London 1840; reprinted 1961 Calcutta, p.391.
Abu Ma'shar acknowledges Indian sources for this chronology but argues that his system is superior because in it each planet moves an integer of degrees in 1000 years and because the length of a year is 365.259 days and 259 days is equal to what he presents as a minimum gestation period of the human foetus.
He also employs a number of otherwise unheard of astrological periods, which are shown below merely to give an indication of his mundane astrology/astrological chronology:
I. Tasyirat ( from tathir = effects; qessmah or qisma = division)
a. mighty qisma = 1 degree moves along the equator in 1000 yrs
b. big qisma = 1 degree moves along the equator in 100 yrs
c. middle qisma = 1 degree moves along the equator in 10 yrs
d. small qisma = 1 degree moves along the equator in 1 yr
II. Intiba ( nature of the time)
a. mighty intiba = 1 sign moves along the equator in 1000 yrs
b. big intiba = 1 sign moves along the equator in 100 yrs
c. middle intiba = 1 sign moves along the equator in 10 yrs
d. small intiba = 1 sign moves along the equator in 1 yrs
III. Fardar (Persian – corruption of the Greek meaning "period")
a. mighty fardar = 360 solar years.
. each fardar is ruled by one sign and one planet. The series begins with Aries and Saturn and follows the order of the signs and the Chaldean Order of the planets.
b. big fardar= 78 years.
. allotted to the signs in an uneven manner:
c. middle fardar = 75 years.
. each fardar is ruled by one of the seven planets or by one of the two lunar nodes in the order of their exaltation. Thus one cycle
= 9 X 75 = 675 Years. The order being: Sun, Moon, N.Node, Jupiter, Mercury, Saturn, S.Node, Mars, Venus.
d. small fardar
. begin the attribution in a diurnal figure from the Sun; in a nocturnal figure from the Moon in the following order:
Sun (10), Venus(8), Mercury(13), Moon (9), Saturn (11), Jupiter (12), Mars (7), N.Node (3), S.Node (2), Sun....etc
This "small fardar" is the firdaria system found in Bonatti's Liber Astronomiae and other Medieval Latin works on astrology. This system and how to use it is more fully explored in the Foundation Course on Medieval Astrology.
Abu Ma'shar was the archetypal astrologer. Not only did he advise kings, rajas and caliphs in an age when to make a false prediction could mean death, but he lived to instruct disciples. He exerted an influence on contemporary Muslim culture not only as an astrologer, but also as a philosopher who later influenced the development of Western Science.
He and his teacher, Alkindi, were part of an Hermetic cabal which, having veiled itself in Koranic respectability by the fusion of Hermes and Enoch and by adding the prestige of the Greek natural philosopher Aristotle, created a philosophical overview of science and human endeavour that suggested that the way to Allah lay in studying His footsteps in Nature. This very overview became a cornerstone of Arabic science from the 9th -11th centuries. The Hermetic astrologer-magicians erected thereby a doctrinal edifice in which all the arts and sciences (including ethics, politics and economics) were subordinated to magic, alchemy and astrology, which alone were subordinate to Allah Himself.
It was this unified cosmology that entranced the Christian Crusaders when they came in contact with the Arab Culture during the Crusades. In Europe it gave rise to Vincent of Beauvais's encyclopaedic Speculum which was to be the literary prototype of the Gothic Cathedral - an encyclopaedia in stone dedicated to God in which through the choice and arrangement of the materials, as well as in the manner of ornamentation, especially the Rose window and freemasonry around the porches and entrances, all the arts and sciences known to medieval man are portrayed for the public's edification. As such the cathedral stands as a declaration of the Christianisation of the path of knowledge.
This same cosmology was also the impetus behind the Neoplatonic spiritual vision of St Bonaventura (1221-1274). Bonaventura sets forth in his Itinerarium mentis in Deum and his Reductio artium in Theologium a theory of knowledge remarkably akin to that in the works of Alkindi and Abu Ma'shar and their circle in 9th century Baghdad.
For further insight into this topic please read the related article: Robert Zoller on:Arabic Astrology
1 Theodore Otto Wedel, The Mediæval Attitude Toward Astrology Particularly in England, New Haven: Yale University Library, 1920; Archon Books, 1968, pp 132, 134. See also pp 49-59, 62, 65-67, 72-3. To date, to my knowledge, only Abu Ma'shar’s The Abbreviation of the Introduction to Astrology has been published (edited and translated by Ch. Burnett, K. Yamamoto and M. Yano, E. J. Brill, Leiden, 1994. A translation of the Greater Introduction is being prepared.
2The Hermetic cult surviving in the Levant until c1100 called the Harranians (Sabians or Sabeans) were involved with a great deal more than astronomy and astrology as may be seen in my translation of Alkindi's On the Stellar Rays, 2nd Edition, New Library, London, 2000 or in The Muqaddimah (1377), by Ibn Khaldun ( 1332-1406), Pantheon Books, New York, 1958. Ibn Khaldun deals with magic (156-246) setting forth all that was known (or could be written) in his day. cf. Mas'udi. Chwolsohn, in Ssabier Und Ssabianismus, St Petersburg 1856 which is still regarded as authoritative on the Sabians. Also see Massignon, in L'Astrologie et La Science Occulte, Le R.P. Festugiere O.P., Paris, Librairie LeCoffre, J. Garabalda et Cie, Editeurs, Troisieme Edition, 1950. Appendix III, "Inventoire de la Litterature Hermetique Arabe," par Louis Massignon which has much of interest. Also cf. The Fihirst (c 987) of Ibn al-Nadim. It contains citations from The Book Of The Five Mysteries (exact date and authorship unknown), which purports to be a service book of Sabian religion. It declared that it was unlawful for a Sabian to declare his religion to a non-believer. It gives vesicles and responses repeated by the kahin (priest) and a congregation of youths.
Their religion was a Hellenised Babylonian religion in Neoplatonic garb underpinned by magic — which was for the more advanced a way of life. According to Shahrastani (1076-1153), they were "philosophers." To many contemporary Muslims they were "the Chaldaeans" or "the Chasdeans" (Heb. Kasdim). In the writings of the Medieval astrologers Abu Ma'shar and Messahalla, who drew their knowledge of Hermetic Astrology directly from contemporary Sabian sources, they are cited as "the ancients", "the Chaldaeans" and "the philosophers".
Not only did this community preserve much Hellenistic Hermetic astrology, they were also the major means by which both Hermetic-Nabatean magic and the Alchemical tradition was preserved. The famous statement of Thabit ben Qurrah (826-901) to the effect that they were the inheritors of classical paganism is exactly correct.
Thabit ben Qurrah, Hermetic philosopher/priest and Sabian scientist was a contemporary of Hunain ibn Ishaq & Ishaq ibn Hunain. Al-Battani also a Sabian.
3 Abu Ma'shar and Latin Aristotelianism in the 12th Century, American University of Beirut, Publications of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Oriental Series, no. 38.
4 Al-Kindi's Metaphysics, a translation of Ya'kûb ibn Ishâk al-Kindi's treatise "On First Philosophy" (fi al-Falsafah al-Ula), with Introduction and Commentary by Alfred L. Ivry, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1974, p.17-18.
5 p. 134, op. cit.
6 One of his techniques, the "universal question" is a horary figure used as a natal in lieu of such when no reliable birth data exists. This was a technique of Abu Ma'shar's. He may have invented it. He certainly popularised it. Bonatti mentions it in Liber Astronomiae, Tractatus Primus and passim. I use it in modern practise today (2000).
7 For further discussion of Abu Ma'shar's works, see Thorndike History of Magic and Experimental Science, Columbia University Press, 1923, Vol I., p649-652. cf Richard Lemay, Abu Ma'shar and Latin Aristotelianism in the 12th Century, American University of Beirut, Publications of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Oriental Series, no. 38. Useful information relative to the tradition of Abu Ma'shar's works will be found in Jim Tester's, A History of Western Astrology, 1987, Boydel Press, p 152 n91. See also, same work, pp157-172, 181, 182, 206.
8 Translated by John of Spain (still unpublished according to Thorndike History of Magic and Experimental Science , NY: Columbia University Press, 1923, Vol I., p649.) and by Hermann of Dalmatia.
9 Cited by Roger Bacon as severely criticizing physicians who do not study astrology.
10 There is some debate as to whether Abu Ma'shar, apart from writing the On the Revolution of Nativities, ascribed to him, was also the author of Hermetis Philosophi De Revolutionibus nativitatum incerto interprete... (bound with Proclus in Claudii Ptolemaei quadripartium ennarator ignoti nominis Basilieae 1559). The two works are on the same subject with similar names. One states Hermes as author. Abu Ma'shar himself frequently cites Hermes as an author.
11 See Prof. Kennedy's work in Ithaca pp 26-50 for the broad outlines of Abu Ma'shar's astrological theories in the Kitab al-uluf. This article was printed in: Studies in Islamic Exact Sciences by E.S.Kennedy, colleagues and former students. ed David King and Mary Helen Kennedy. Beirut. American University of Beirut. c 1983.
12 The relation of the "Great Year", or even any astrological period at all, to the period of human gestation is a frequently met with trope in Hermetic and Neoplatonic literature.
13 cf. The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century by Charles Homer Haskins, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1927, pp 308-310.
14 St Bonaventura (1221-1274), Franciscan. "The Seraphic Doctor." Professor of Theology at Paris. Created a cardinal by Gregory X. Venerated in his life time. Appears as saint in Dante's Paradiso. Canonized 1482.Made Doctor of the Church 1587.
Major works: Itinerarium mentis in Deum; Reductio artium in Theologium; Biblia pauperum; Speculum Mariae Virginis; Breviloqium.