Brief Stay in the city of Astrology—II

February 8, 2016

Al-Biruni, whose full name is Abu’l-Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad Al-Biruni, was born in 973 C.E. in what is now Khiva, Uzbekistan (formerly part of the Soviet Union). At the time of Al-Biruni’s birth, the area was a suburb of Kath, the capital of Khwa¯rizm (north and northeast of ancient Parthia on the lower Oxus River in the region south of the Aral Sea). Known to the classical Greeks and Romans as Chorasmia, Khiva was the homeland of a people related to the Sogdian Magi who lived to the south and southeast of Khwa¯rizm on the Oxus in the eastern reaches of what had once been the Persian Empire.

… Thus, Al-Biruni came from a highly cultured society known for its mathematical, scientific, astronomical, and astrological lore. In his various works, Al-Biruni shows interest in, and familiarity with, the cultures and sciences of the peoples who surrounded him. He shows profound and advanced knowledge of scientific subjects. His mind was precise and he was a close observer of nature. He studied the Hindu numeral system and showed how to determine latitude and longitude accurately. When he visited India and viewed the Indus Valley, Al-Biruni concluded that it was an ancient sea basin filled with alluvium. In many ways, he was ahead of his time…

The Tafhim is the book authored by him, which explains on the subject of  astrology and related subjects, is truly remarkable book in several respects. First, it is a medieval Oriental book dedicated to a woman. This by itself is remarkable. The woman, Rayhana bint al-Hasan, was a Persian noblewoman who was apparently a student of Al-Biruni’s while both were semicaptive at Mahmud’s court at Ghaznah. Virtually every paragraph of the Tafhim is interesting. Al-Biruni seems to have written both an Arabic and a Persian version. It contains 550 paragraphs plus a colophon that Al-Biruni tells us was intended as an aide-mémoire for Rayhana in the form of questions and answers.

Al-Biruni next discusses the size and distance of the planets and elements, the distribution of the land and water masses, and terrestrial longitude and latitude. He discusses the gnomon (a kind of sundial) and its shadow (so basic for chronology) in between discussing details of the horizon system of celestial coordinates (azimuth and altitude). Having prepared the student with the basics, Al-Biruni then discusses geography, including the seven climates, their extent, and their characteristics. His presentation of the various cities in the climates shows that, although he has a fairly accurate mathematical sense of the terrestrial globe, his knowledge of exact latitude and longitude on Earth is approximate. One of the surprises of this book is Al-Biruni’s mention in paragraph 239 of the mythological mountain Meru (the World Axis), under which angels dwell, and the island Lanka (modern Sri Lanka), where the demons dwell. This lore is Indian, not Persian, and definitely not Islamic. Could it be that the Persian Al-Biruni sought to keep ancient traditions common to both Iran and Aryan India alive?

Al-Biruni, to the subject of astrology, discussing the zodiacal signs and their correspondence to directions of the compass, professions, character, appearance, diseases, crops, and animals. Next he shows the relation of the signs to each other, the year, and the triplicities. He then expounds on the planets with their various correspondences. Some of his correspondences seem a bit beside the point or of little importance; for instance, he lists pimples as a Cancer “disease.” The last section of the Tafhim deals with judicial astrology. It is here that the author’s lack of examples is most disheartening. Case studies would have been helpful. He divides the subject of astrology into five categories: (1) meteorology, (2) mundane astrology relating to famine, plague, epidemics, etc., (3) environmental effects on the individual, (4) human activities and occupations, and (5) a division including horary and electional astrology.

Al-Biruni says the foundations of this latter division are unknown: “Here astrology reaches a point which threatens to transgress its proper limits, where problems are submitted which it is impossible to solve for the most part, and where the matter leaves the solid basis of universals for particulars. Where this boundary is passed, where the astrologer is on one side and the sorcerer on the other, you enter a field of omens and divinations which has nothing to do with astrology, although the stars may be referred to in connection with them.”

… The famous Persian astrologer Abu¯ Ma‘shar (787–886), whose full name was Abu¯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 Abu¯ Ma‘shar’s works. One can almost say that Abu¯ Ma‘shar established the standard practice for medieval astrology in general with major additional input from Messahala, Ptolemy, and Dorotheus. Abu¯ 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.

Abu¯ 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. Abu¯ 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. Abu¯ 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 Abu¯ 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 Abu¯ Ma‘shar asserts frequently that Allah is omnipotent, Abu¯ Ma‘shar’s universe is conceived primarily in terms of physical science and merely draped in Koranic theology.

Abu¯ 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 etcontingens 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… Abu¯ 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, Abu¯ 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, Abu¯ 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….

Abu¯ 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. Abu¯ 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

… Evangeline Adams, born February 8, 1868, in Jersey City, New Jersey, was the premier American astrologer of the early twentieth century. She was the daughter of George and Harriet E. (Smith) Adams and was related to U.S. presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams. Raised in Andover, Massachusetts, she was educated there and in Chicago. She became part of the elite metaphysical community in the larger Boston area and was introduced to astrology by Dr. J. Heber Smith, a professor of medicine at Boston University. Adams also studied Hindu philosophy under Swami Vivekenanda. She eventually became so interested in the science of the stars that she chose it as her life’s work.

In 1899, Adams visited New York City and stayed at the fashionable Windsor Hotel. Her first client was Warren F. Leland, owner of the Windsor. After casting his chart, she told him that he was under a planetary combination that threatened immediate disaster. The next afternoon, on March 17, 1899, the hotel burned to the ground. Adams subsequently gained much newspaper coverage, which led to her becoming an astrological superstar, and she gained many rich and powerful clients. She eventually established her studios at Carnegie Hall and was consulted by financier J. P. Morgan, tenor Enrico Caruso, playwright Eugene O’Neill, mythologist Joseph Campbell, and actress Mary Pickford, among many others.

In 1914, Adams was arrested and charged with fortune-telling. She went to court armed with reference books and proceeded to explain the principles of astrology. She concluded her defense by reading a chart of an individual unknown to her. Impressed with the accuracy of her reading, Judge John H. Freschi remarked that “the defendant raises astrology to the dignity of an exact science” (New York CriminalReports, volume XXXII, 1914 ed.). He found Adams not guilty, and the case set a precedent on how similar cases would be tried in New York City in the future….

Source: From the Book, The Astrology Book, by James R. Lewis





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