The Astrology Podcast
Transcript of Episode 295, titled:
Queen Buran, Astrologer in 9th Century Baghdad
With Chris Brennan and guest Ali A. Olomi
Episode originally released on March 12, 2021
Note: This is a transcript of a spoken word podcast. If possible, we encourage you to listen to the audio or video version, since they include inflections that may not translate well when written out. Our transcripts are created by human transcribers, and the text may contain errors and differences from the spoken audio. If you find any errors then please send them to us by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Transcribed by Andrea Johnson
Transcription released June 21, 2021
Copyright © 2021 TheAstrologyPodcast.com
CHRIS BRENNAN: Hi, my name is Chris Brennan, and you’re listening to The Astrology Podcast. Today is Wednesday, March 10, 2021, starting at 9:07 AM, in Denver, Colorado, and this is the 295th episode of the show.
Today, I’m going to be talking with Ali Olomi about the 9th century queen, Buran, who was an astrologer who practiced astrology and is one of the earliest women that we know of whose name is recorded in history to have practiced astrology. So hey, Ali, how’s it going?
ALI A. OLOMI: Hello. Thanks for having me. I’m very excited to be here.
CB: Yeah, thanks a lot for coming on. I’ve been following you on Twitter for a while now and really appreciating your work. So you are a scholar and a historian of the Middle East and Islam, and you focus, in particular, on esotericism, on politics, and on astrology and other related things, right?
AO: Yeah. I always have to apologize whenever someone says that they follow me on Twitter. I’m like,”Oh, I’m so sorry. Please don’t do that.”
CB: Well, I think there’s a lot now. There’s like 50,000 people you have to apologize to…
AO: I do.
CB: …so you do have some work cut out for you.
AO: Those poor, poor people.
CB: Yeah. Well, I’ve appreciated your threads. You have done a lot of interesting work on astrology, and I know one of your threads was on Buran and different Medieval Islamic rulers and their interactions with and use of astrology and a lot of interesting things from that time period, around the 8th and 9th and 10th centuries, give or take. But you’ve also done a lot of work on jinn or spirits, or what used to be called in the Greco-Roman tradition, the daimon, right?
AO: Yeah, absolutely. And in fact, the daimon is probably the best associated spirit or the best connection we can make to them.
CB: Okay. And you are the host of the Head on History podcast, which is available at headonhistory.com, I believe, but you primarily release episodes through Patreon now at patreon.com/headonhistory, right?
AO: Yep, and the free episodes are all available on the podcast app and Stitcher and all sorts of apps.
CB: Brilliant. And that covers posts on jinn and magic and astrology?
CB: Cool. And what’s your Twitter handle?
AO: My Twitter handle is A-A-O-L-O-M-I.
CB: Brilliant. All right, so let’s go ahead and–well, first, before we jump into that, what got you into this? What got you into this area of study, in terms of your academic work?
AO: Yeah, that’s a fantastic question. I’ve always been interested in the esoteric, and I’ve always been interested in people’s beliefs and the way they make sense of the world. And so, I always tell people that I’m a scholar that studies how Muslims imagine their geography, the monstrous, and the heavens, kind of all balanced together. But my interest in Medieval Islamicate astrology really came when I came across a source, Abu Ma’shar. I was reading a fragment of his Kitāb mawālīd, and his personality really shines through.
Anyone who’s done any sort of archival work knows that when you read people’s writings, you can start to get a sense of who they are as a person, and Abu Ma’shar just was boastful, confident, super-sarcastic, a little bit of a trickster. And I became fascinated with this tradition that isn’t always talked about when we talk Medieval Islamic history, about the early history of astronomy, about the history of astrology, and how it was interwoven into the fabric of their society.
The more I researched, and the more I went down this path, I absolutely fell in love with this idea that there is this entire intellectual tradition that is interwoven–from the lowest levels of society, all the way up to the caliphs–but doesn’t quite get the attention that it deserves in history texts. And I was like, “Oh, there’s kind of an open space here for me to to examine.”
And then I found some of his theories just thoroughly fascinating–what happens when a person is born on a particular day, what their horoscope looks like–and they reflected in many ways the contemporary interest to make sense of the world and read our horoscopes; but also they were so vastly different. They were very blunt and very non-diplomatic in any way, shape, or form. They were not afraid to tell people, “By the way, your life might suck.”
AO: That just fascinated me. His personality really comes through in his writings, and that’s kind of a long love affair between me and this 9th century astrologer.
CB: Yeah, Abu Ma’shar, the ’Prince of Astrologers’, is one of the most famous, influential Medieval astrologers, as well as prolific, writing…
AO: Very prolific, yeah.
CB: …a lot of texts. And that’s interesting, because you have a unique vantage point and ability to access some of those texts, because of your background in Arabic and the ability to read Arabic. Other people, like myself, are reading through English translations of some of these texts, and you lose a lot of the nuance and some of the character, I think. Whereas, being able to read in the original Arabic, I’m sure a lot more of that is coming through and is more visible to you than it might be to somebody else.
AO: Yeah, absolutely. Arabic is a difficult language. And whoever starts Arabic, I tell them the same thing: I spent my life mastering Arabic, and I still haven’t mastered it. It’s just a very difficult language; it’s also a very elusive language.
And then it’s made worse or more difficult by the fact that Medieval Islamicate manuscripts are intertextual, but they have no concept of citation; there are no footnotes. Sometimes they may say, “According to so-and-so”–Dorotheus is very commonly referenced by Abu Ma’shar–but in general, they don’t; they just kind of assume you already know. So if you’re not actually immersed in the manuscript tradition, you end up losing quite a bit; and the same thing happens in the Latin.
So don’t feel bad in any way, shape, or form. The Latin translators themselves ended up missing so much, just because they are very challenging texts. But we’re in the 21st century, more translations are coming out, so I’m hoping that we’re going to see a decade of accessibility when it comes to these texts.
CB: Yeah, we’re off to a pretty good start so far with the great translations that have been done over just the past decade or past few decades. And with Arabic, there’s a little bit of a leg-up compared to some of the other older languages, like ancient Greek, that are kind of dead languages in modern times.
And correct me if I’m wrong, but Quranic Arabic–because that’s something that’s still spoken and is relatively close to modern, standard Arabic–is more accessible to modern-day Arabic speakers who could learn and read texts from the 9th or 10th century a little bit more easily than, for example, somebody that speaks modern Greek; it’s just a completely different language almost to ancient Greek.
AO: Yeah, there is some accessibility there. It’s more akin to someone who speaks English reading Old English. So there are certain languages–I mean, certain terms, certain concepts, and even certain spellings that just don’t make sense. You do have to immerse yourself in Medieval Arabic in order to really understand it.
But the average person who reads the Quran can pick up a text and make their way through it. Especially if they have some type of lexicon or dictionary at hand, they can make their way; and that’s just because of the impact of the Quran that sort of standardizes the language, and also keeps it in continuity up until the 21st century.
CB: Right. That makes sense. All right, so let’s jump into our topic today. So part of the background on this is that I had done some work, and I have a small section in my book about women in ancient astrology and how women are sometimes mentioned in different texts. Astrologers did see women as clients.
There were men who were astrologers that saw women as clients, and they sometimes mentioned how to interpret the charts of women and whether they’re interpreted the same or differently in some instances as the charts of men; but there’s not really–due to education–a lot of women that we know of that practiced astrology prior to modern times, because women were not generally afforded the same education as men.
So I was able to mention a couple of things from the Greco-Roman tradition, like a piece of satire, where the 1st century poet Juvenal mocked the idea of women that saw astrologers so frequently that they eventually became proficient and started practicing it themselves. Later, there was in the 4th century or 5th century, the famous philosopher Hypatia, who was the daughter of a famous astronomer, Theon of Alexandria; and they may have collaborated on a commentary of Ptolemy together or something like that.
Because she had some background in astronomy, she might have also had some background or training in astrology, but that was kind of the closest I could get to identifying a woman by name who may have had that sort of familiarity and practice of astrology to some extent, which is really a reach. But it’s not until we get to the 9th century with Buran that she is the first woman that we know of that, according to a legend that’s preserved, that survives, may have actually practiced astrology, it seems.
So that’s kind of an issue, I guess, the place of women. I know that’s something that you focus on to a certain extent in your studies as well, and in terms of the political angle, just the role of women in esotericism and different things and different topics like that, right?
AO: Yeah, and it is an ongoing challenge. I mean, my entryway into the study of gender and sexuality was actually through an advisor of mine, Professor Philip–who was a brilliant scholar of science from India–an introduction into feminist historiography, into how to read archives, how to read against the archival grain in order to find women.
The reality is that women aren’t lost in history, they’re silenced; by which we mean that the majority of the sources are written by men, and men generally didn’t have an interest in writing the stories of women or their participation. And so, we have to kind of work the sources in unique ways, looking for elusive references, looking for mentions.
So for example, you mentioned how some of the Greek sources would talk about women going to astrologers to such a degree that they themselves would become astrologers. A historian would be able to read that and go, “Okay, that’s an indication that women did have astrological knowledge.” That criticism–it’s reading against the grain. Why does the criticism exist? Because women have astrological knowledge, and so, they must be critiqued.
And so, this is an ongoing challenge, and part of the challenge is not to just recover one voice here or there, but also to recognize that there may be countless people that just aren’t recorded by name. We know that women participated in intellectual life throughout the ancient world and in the Medieval world–and it’s the same thing with LGBTQ identities–and then this becomes even further challenging when you come to questions of translation, translators.
So if you already have patriarchal texts, you have societies that are writing these histories that don’t include women; and then you have translators who then translate those texts, who are even more patriarchal and are like, “Oh, what little reference there is to women, let’s remove them.” And we see this with references to gay people, intersex people, non-binary people to women; especially women that aren’t from an elite background just get completely erased in the texts. So we’re fighting against the current here, but we do what we can.
CB: Yeah. And that’s why I wanted to do this episode and center it on Buran, because in modern times, the majority of people that are into astrology tend to be women, but also most of the practitioners at this point are women and the leaders in the field. So it’s interesting that if you go back more than a century that it shifts so dramatically due to the way that society was set up prior to modern times.
So that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do this, in order to be able to have that discussion and highlight one of the first figures that we could somewhat reliably say probably really did have some training or some background in astrology, partially due to her family and coming from a family lineage of astrologers.
And that’s not entirely unique, because there were, in many different eras, different family lineages of astrologers, where astrology was passed down as a profession from the parents, or from the father to oftentimes the son. But also, I tend to think that the daughters of different astrologers would have had exposure to that and become proficient in some instances, and perhaps become astrologers themselves to some extent, going back to those family lineages, for example, in Mesopotamia or what have you.
AO: Yeah, absolutely. The family lineage is the primary way by which knowledge is transmitted to women, though there is formal education as well, particularly, in the Medieval Islamicate period. We know that women studied with scholars and became scholars themselves. And so, we have more references in the Medieval Islamicate period than we have maybe in previous centuries, as well as in the later Latin tradition; but that’s a sort of random change.
There is an inclusion of formal education, and there is an indication that even Buran had some type of formal astrological training. But the primary way that people learned was family traditions, and that stretches back to Mesopotamia; some way of transmitting knowledge down from grandparents to parents to daughters.
CB: Yeah. Let’s see, in the Hellenistic tradition, we have family lineages, like Thrasyllus, the famous astrologer to the Emperor Tiberius; probably had a son named Balbillis, who went on to be the head astrologer/court astrologer for the Emperor Nero and other emperors. And there’s also Paulus Alexandrinus in the 4th century; he wrote an introduction to astrology, and he dedicates it to his son. We have apparently the second edition of the text, because he says that his son complained that he hadn’t used Ptolemy’s updated ascensional times for the rising sign; so he decided to write a second edition because his son chided him.
And what’s funny is that Paulus uses an example chart a couple of times, or two pieces of half of an example chart in different chapters, and it’s for somebody who’s only in their 20s or something like that, which James Holden speculated was probably Paulus’ son, Cronamon, who he dedicated the work to; so we see a father kind of embedding his younger son’s chart in his work that he dedicated to him. So lineages–we’ll talk more about lineage in this episode because of Buran being in the middle of a very long family line of astrologers that stretched over a century or maybe two.
AO: Yeah, absolutely. The family of Nawbakht.
CB: Right. All right, so let’s get into that. So Buran is the first woman we know of by name who’s said to have used astrology. I wanted to give a shout-out to Kenneth Johnson, the astrologer who wrote a paper on Buran for the NCGR journal in 2006, titled, “Buran of Baghdad: An Astrological Woman in the Early Middle Ages.”
And I’ll probably post a scan of this with the show notes on this episode for theastrologypodcast.com, and I’ll get permission from Kenneth for that, just because it was a good, early research piece that was kind of formative in Buran always being there in the back of my mind. But I always wanted to research her more and that’s something I tried to do in preparation for this episode.
So you’re actually working on a paper on Buran as well, and have done some research. You’ve been doing research into the caliphs and their use of astrology over the past several years.
AO: Yeah. I’m particularly interested in the role of astrology in political life. But the article on Buran that I’ve been working on for quite some time now is really to kind of pinpoint what her astrological knowledge really was. So I take the episode, or the story which we can talk about in a bit, and break it down into what it actually means for historians of astrology and historians of astronomy: what she might have known, what type of education she likely had, what type of skill she had based off of a very small story, which is what we academics do. We take a small reference and then kind of parse it and break it down.
So it’s really focused on both, her as an individual, but also connecting her to a particular intellectual moment–what type of techniques would have been used at the time, what type of knowledge would have been accessible to her–and hopefully, that’ll come out sometime later this year, fingers-crossed. Academic publishing takes a little bit.
CB: Brilliant. Well, I’ll definitely link to it in the show notes whenever it does come out in the future and update that, so people can check it out. So let’s place Buran–first, her name. What was her name, or what do we know about that?
AO: So her name is likely Khadijah. Buran is probably a nickname, or a title, or some type of affectionate way of demonstrating that she was a very important person, but we know that her name was Khadijah. Most of the sources, from Abu Sa’id and others, mention her. Even al-Tabari mentions her name is Khadijah, which was a common name during the time.
But it seems like as her reputation grew, she became more and more associated with the name Buran, which is linked to an old Sassanian Queen Boran. And so, there was a way of recognizing her Persianate lineage, while also bestowing upon her a level of prestige that she is a beloved queen.
CB: Right. And she’s known primarily as Buran at this point. Kenneth referred to her as ‘Buran of Baghdad’, using her place name. You were telling me, before we started doing this recording, you’re a little unsure if that would be an appropriate designation for her, or maybe not a great one.
AO: Yeah, because in Arabic, it’ll be al-Baghdadi, which would confuse her with another entirely other family; and there’s even a historian and geographer that’s living contemporaneously to Buran called al-Baghdadi. It’s just in Arabic, when you say ’from’ or ‘of something’, that’s usually their name, and this is common, even in the case of Buran.
A person may have a given name, but they will be called something entirely different based off of a skill that they have, based off of where they come from. So historian, for example, al-Baghdadi, it’s not his actual name. In the same case with Buran, she’s known as Khadijah–that’s her actual given name–but all the sources referred to her as Buran; this is common in Arabic.
Sometimes people are known as ‘the mother of so-and-so’, ‘the father of so-and-so, ’the son of so-and-so’. So ‘Buran of Baghdad’ would be two nicknames added on top of one another. I think Queen Buran is just easy and more accurate, or Queen Bawran Khadijah, something like that.
CB: Okay, got it. So she lived in the 9th century–there’s a little bit of ‘iffy-ness’ surrounding her dates– from about 807 until about 884 CE, right?
AO: Mm-hmm. She had a long life. We’re not exactly sure of her time of birth and date of birth. Unfortunately, a common tendency in the biographical details and even the chronologies–despite being quite meticulous elsewhere–birthdays were a little finicky, just because you had to have witnesses present; people forgot things. I think anyone who’s ever looked up their birth chart based off a parent’s memory versus their birth certificate can relate to the anxiety of finding out your dates are radically different by hours. Well, in the Medieval world, it would be by days, and sometimes even months.
And then there was also a tendency to sort of fabricate dates in order to select a more auspicious birthday. So-and-so was born on this particular day, and that’s an indication that they will go on to become a great queen or a mighty king, or whatever.
CB: Yeah. Kenneth Johnson went with one of the reports about her being born on a Sunday and the date which was connected with the lunar calendar, which also adds some ambiguity.
CB: It ended up translating to something like December 5, 807, some time in the evening, which he speculated might mean around 7:00 PM, in Baghdad, modern-day Baghdad, Iraq. So we’re not sure, and we have to put that proviso in that there’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding that. But that’s one of the hypothetical dates roughly, either December 5 or December 6, 807 CE.
Just for the sake of speculation, I wanted to share a little chart using a modern astrological software program of what that might look like, roughly speaking, if she was born on that date or around that time.
CB: This has the modern outer planets, but let’s take those out for the sake of just doing this episode as a Medieval astrologer would. I actually was more–before we started talking last night and reviewing Kenneth’s article—ambiguous. It’s so highly speculative when you’re talking about dates from a thousand years ago or what have you–especially when birthdays are not recorded with as much precision as today–but I was actually kind of interested in this chart in terms of how it connects with some of her biography.
Because if she was born in the evening, around December 5, and had Cancer rising, this chart would be a Cancer rising chart, with the Moon in Capricorn, in the 7th sign, or the 7th whole sign house, the place of relationships and marriage and partners. She would have been born after sunset. So with a day chart, with Venus, the benefic of the sect in favor, in the 7th house of relationships; and then the ruler of the 7th house would be Saturn, which is in the 5th whole sign house, in a night chart, in the place of children.
And then, finally, Jupiter in Libra, in the 4th house, as the ruler of both the 9th house of religion and learning and astrology, and the 6th house as well being placed in the 4th. So just some interesting little tidbits that we’ll maybe keep in mind as we talk more about her actual biography.
AO: And even the Ascendant in Cancer is significant. Cancer rising or Cancer on the Ascendant was the traditional sign of rulers. Cancer was associated with Islamic lands or Muslim lands; it’s one of the signs that they connected to the territories they ruled. So it was not uncommon for rulers of the Islamic world to have Cancer rising or Cancer Ascendant.
CB: Okay. Interesting. and a quick side note and digression about this, but we had a conversation on Twitter a few months ago where maybe it was you that shared a chart or I shared a chart–it was a chart from the 12th or 13th century in Arabic–and I was surprised that it was still using whole sign houses, or divisions of the houses by sign instead of by degree…
CB: …like some of the modern systems, like Alcabitius or Placidus or what have you. In the Western tradition, it started shifting after the 9th century, so that the divisions by degree, like quadrant houses, started to take over; and that accelerated especially after the transmission of astrology back to Europe in the 12th century with that translation movement.
And you made the comment that you’ve studied at least 30 or more different surviving charts, and that from what you can see, the whole sign house system was the primary system in Arabic-speaking countries and amongst Arabic-writing astrologers, all the way until the 18th century or something like that, right?
AO: Yeah, I posted the chart of Ali ibn Abi Talib, which was in sign-based division. It’s a Mongol chart, if I’m not mistaken, 13th-14th century or so. But yeah, the sign-based division of the houses is the predominant house system from the early Islamicate period, all the way to the 18th century. I think I’m entering into some type of cultural war controversy, because I always get this question in my DMs, like, “What house sign did they use?”
So I’m assuming modern astrologers are really fixed on the house systems; but there is no controversy whatsoever if your lens is not Eurocentric. If you’re only looking at the European sources, then of course you’re going to fall into this debate. But if you’re looking at the Medieval Islamicate sources, there’s absolutely no question that they’re using sign-based divisions. Not only are all the horoscopes that we have sign-based, with some minor exceptions, but we have 30 horoscopes from Abu Ma’shar himself.
Abu Ma’shar literally gives horoscopes and their sign-based division. He goes, “Your rising sign is Pisces, so your money is ruled by Aries, and your siblings are ruled by Taurus.” It just goes by, one-by-one. He doesn’t say 1st house, 2nd house, he just talks about the signs. And he gives a clear horoscope entirely based off of whole sign division, and that remains true up until the 18th century, when we start to see a little bit more European influence in the Ottoman world.
That’s not to say degrees don’t matter. Quadrant-based or divisions of the houses by degree does exist, but it’s predominantly used with specific prognostication techniques; so it’s about a predictive tool. We see it particularly through what today would be called ‘distribution through the bounds’. When they’re doing that technique, they’re very interested when it moves from the cusp of one house to the other–so from the 1st house to the 2nd–and that’s an indication of a massive change in a person’s life; so that’s one of the few times they divide it up by degree.
I think, and I could be wrong here, but I think the reason why degree-based ends up being so popular in Europe is twofold: one is the increasing prestige of mathematics–that the more mathematical precision you have somehow equals more accuracy; but the Medieval astrologers themselves had great, advanced mathematics, and they didn’t see it that way–and secondly, I think it results from a mistranslation of Abu Ma’shar.
What ends up happening in the Latin tradition is that Kitāb taḥāwil, his book on revolutions, is translated first and is far more popular than his other books; and it’s in his revolutions book, what we call today ‘solar returns’, I believe, his Kitāb taḥāwil, where he talks about quadrant division. The problem is that you’re supposed to read Abu Ma’shar in order.
If you read his Kitāb mawālīd, his book of natal horoscopes, it’s all sign-based. But for whatever reason, the Kitāb mawālīd doesn’t really get translated, but only certain fragments of it into the Latin. And so, there’s a fixation on his solar revolution techniques , and therefore, a kind of overemphasis on quadrant-based divisions. It’s a weird kind of twist of history that it’s just a translation issue.
In the Medieval Islamicate tradition, if you’re reading the sources, from Masha’allah to Al-Khayyat, even Al-Buruni, all of them are using whole sign houses, and it remains so up until the 18th century. We have Safavid charts, we have Timurid charts, Mongol charts, and they’re all whole sign houses; all of them, with, again, minor exceptions.
CB: Yeah. And that, from my analysis of the Greek tradition, is pretty much consistent with the Greek tradition as well, where they’re also primarily using the signs as houses. But then they will use quadrant divisions or sometimes equal houses as a secondary overlay, especially for specific techniques, like the ‘length-of-life’ treatment, where they’re doing ‘primary directions’ or ‘circumambulations through the bounds’.
AO: Yeah. When it comes down to why they did it, it’s likely because they were trying to remain faithful to the Hellenistic tradition. The Islamicate astrologers were very keen on preserving what came before them, advancing it, developing it further, but they were very keen on whatever the ancients did. And they very clearly say it, “The ancients were wise when they did this; that was a good technique,” and that’s the technique that they wanted to continue.
And so, it’s likely, as a result of people like Dorotheus and others, that they are very keenly aware of what techniques are being used. They’re aware of Valens’ techniques as well, and they’re very clearly using quadrant when needed, but again, it’s only for specific predictive techniques; it’s only with particular moments of prediction. The actual natal chart itself is cast in sign-based division just like the Hellenistic astrologers did.
CB: Okay. And one of the things I talked about with Benjamin Dykes in Episode 198–when his new translation of Sahl ibn Bishr came out–is that he said there were different terms, like six different terms for a cadent house, and that sometimes they would use special terms for when they were referring to the whole sign house versus maybe the division by degree.
But a lot of this got collapsed down in the 12th century Latin translations when the European astrologers started translating the Arabic works from Arabic into Latin, and they would just pick one term for referring to a cadent house. And so, maybe some of what happened is there was a loss of nuance due to that translation movement in the 12th and 13th centuries.
AO: Yeah. It also comes down to the Arabic. Qisma (division) also means ‘degrees’. And so, I think part of the issue is that they saw one word and didn’t realize that Arabic has 60 meanings for that one word. The contextual component is super crucial for understanding and, again, one of the reasons why you have to read these texts in order, in order to understand them, and that flattens the differences.
So by focusing on qisma, degree, they think degree, degree, degree. But in the Arabic tradition, qisma also just means division; it just means separating the houses. And they do sometimes, in fairness, use words interchangeably, and that can be a bit confusing. For example, bayt (house) and buruj are almost always used interchangeably; buruj means ‘zodiac’ and bayt means ‘house’; and they’ll just sort of use it interchangeably and they have no issue with it.
I think part of the assumption is that these texts, while they’re attempting to make astrology accessible really for the first time to a popular audience, there’s an idea that this is a living tradition, that you are also going to find a teacher; the teacher is going to explain those differences to you, and you’re going to understand them.
We also find that when they use these kinds of terms interchangeably that they’re emphasizing that, for example, buruj and bayt are the same.
CB: Right, that they’re interchangeable.
AO: Zodiac and house are the same; they’re interchangeable. Where you’ll see the big difference is in when they tell you about how to pick which house it is for a particular topic. And they’ll tell you adad, or they’ll say hisab (count); that’s an indication that maybe they’re working in the sign-based for what a particular house means, or what particular sign is associated with a particular topic.
But then when it comes to a particular technique, like let’s say they’re trying to do a solar revolution chart, a taḥāwil chart, then they’ll say you want to divide; you want to do qisma. And that’s where you see the difference between sign-based and division. That gets lost; they just assume qisma means division for everything. And so, the nuances are there in the Arabic, and if you’re reading them within that context, you understand it and it’s very clear, but they get lost.
And then I think the modern debate gets shaped by this sort of Eurocentric lens of only looking at the Latin authors, or the Latin translations of even the Greek authors, and forgetting this whole other Medieval Islamicate tradition, which faithfully reproduces the Hellenistic techniques. I think that would resolve the conflict or the controversy very easily.
Once you take a look at those horoscopes, there’s no way of looking at them and going, “Oh, no, but this must be quadrant-based.” No, no, you look and that’s a sign-based division. They’re just assigning each sign to the houses.
CB: Yeah. The issue in the Western tradition is just it shifted so dramatically, entirely towards quadrant divisions by the time of the Renaissance–and certainly in the modern period, in the past hundred years–that the sign-based division in the Western tradition was completely forgotten and just isn’t even mentioned, both by practitioners of astrology in the 20th century, as well as even some academics.
There was a great book produced by a scholar in the Warburg Institute in the ’80s that was on all the different forms of house division, and because he has no idea that whole sign houses is even a concept, he says the Greek astrologers didn’t seem to have used the houses, because they’re talking about the houses as signs; and so, he didn’t register that as them using houses.
So there was a big, blind spot in the Western tradition until the work of James Holden and some other recent scholars, who just sort of pointed out that the signs were being used as the houses or places in the Greco-Roman, as well as into the Medieval Arabic tradition.
AO: Yep, absolutely.
CB: So here’s that thread. I just want to show it, because it has a good illustration of an actual chart. And what was this chart for, again?
AO: Yeah, this is for the horoscope of Ali ibn Abi Talib, who is the Imam of Shia Islam, and the Fourth Caliph of Sunni Islam. And you can see it’s a sign-based division. This is the ṭāli–this means the ‘Ascendant’–and the only kind of connection here is there in the 5th house, he has Cancer, Sarathan–I mean his rising is Sarathan.
CB: And is the Ascendant at the top?
AO: The Ascendant is right here. This is the Indo-European or the Indic tradition of putting it up at the top; we’ll see Sahl ibn Bishr still uses the Ascendant over here, on the left side. But up at the top is the common tradition that we take from the 12th century on–and this is a 13th-14th-century-ish horoscope–and they’ll only list one particular sign; generally, the Ascendant or one particular house. And the assumption is that you then know what all the other signs are, because they’re all in the other houses. So the focus here is predominantly on the planets, with the indication that the Mars and Saturn conjunction in the 5th house is an indication that he will have a loss of children.
Now this horoscope is sort of projecting backwards. It’s written centuries after Ali already died and all the events of his life are already there. So you can see here–oh, sorry, it’s gone–but in the 5th house, it says Aqrab; so Scorpio is in the 5th house. This 5th house is where Aqrab is, and there’s accompanying text with it, where it has Zuhal, which is Saturn, and has Mirrekh, which is Mars. Saturn in Mars, 5th house, his children died; and in the history, quite famously, of Ali ibn Abi Talib, his children end up dying, or they’re martyred in kind of horrific ways at the Battle of Karbala.
And so, this is one example; this is the 14th century. But even going back, when you look at, for example, Sahl ibn Bishr’s horoscopes, they’re all done in whole sign houses, even when it comes to masā’il, which is the questions or interrogations, or horary, as it’s known today. They’re done in sign-based division; he’s not using quadrant in any way, shape, or form.
CB: Yeah, and that’s really fascinating, the early history of horary. I mean, we have very little traces of horary in Dorotheus, in the 1st century, that is starting to percolate a little bit–and then some of the first horary charts exist in the Greek tradition from the 5th century–but it’s not until we get to Sahl and Theophilus and Masha’allah in the 8th and 9th centuries that we have some of the first full works on horary that survive.
And it is very fascinating that they’re using whole sign houses in those early works, because from the later Western tradition, especially in the English-speaking world, people tend to focus on William Lilly in the 17th century, who wrote the earliest English text on horary and he used quadrant divisions. So it’s assumed that that’s kind of what you’re supposed to use as that approach, but it’s interesting then contrasting that with Sahl, as you were saying.
AO: Yeah, completely different. And again, it’s just an indication of how the tradition ends up getting lost in that translation, but also the overemphasis of the European texts as the only way to do astrology.
I mean, I understand Lilly is important for a lot of the English-speaking world, but before there was Lilly, there was Masha’allah. And Masha’allah and Sahl were writing about interrogations and horary, and they were using sign-based divisions without any difficulty.
CB: Speaking of that, how did you start learning astrology? Did you have some exposure to Western astrology first, or did you come in with Western primers on astrology? Did you, as an academic, start more with looking at some of those Arabic texts in the Arabic tradition of astrology?
AO: Well, I mean, like everybody, I knew what my sign was, and I knew a little bit about the daily horoscopes; but when it came to the modern tradition, I didn’t know jack-shit. I’m sorry, am I allowed to cuss on this podcast?
CB: Fuck, yeah. I mean, I don’t know.
AO: I’m notorious for cussing in lectures, and I’m always very careful not to do it on podcasts or whatnot. I don’t want to startle delicate ears.
CB: I mean, if there is anybody, I apologize ahead of time.
AO: Yeah, I apologize. But I had no real understanding of contemporary astrology in any way, shape, or form, or any of the weird debates, and the way that some of this stuff becomes highly-associated with people’s identities; and they fight in their corners about, “You’ve got to use one particular house system.” “No, the signs mean this particular definition.” I had no idea.
In fact, when I entered into ‘Twitter astrology world’, it was weird at first. I didn’t quite understand all the debates, and sometimes things would show up, and I’m like, “I don’t know what the fuck is going on here.”
AO: So I was predominantly about recreating those Medieval Islamicate techniques. But as I’ve recreated them, and now that I’ve started to look at these debates, I can see the traces; I can see those particular components of it.
I’ve also spoken to contemporary astrologers from the Islamic world. And so, that was part of the education; speaking to those people and seeing how they still practice it today. There is a living tradition of astrology that does stretch back to Masha’allah and these older, older texts. It is slightly different. It’s not identical to the Medieval world–they’re using computers now–but there is a living tradition.
And so, speaking to the people who may have had a family line of astrologers stretching back centuries–who have been doing astrology for ages, who grew up in the tradition of al-Biruni or Abu Ma’shar or whatnot–was one way that I was able to help pinpoint what was going on in the texts and recreate some of those techniques. But I was not particularly aware of the modern stuff beyond I knew what my horoscope was, and I knew who I was compatible with.
CB: I think that’s really cool and gives you a really unique perspective on things, because then you don’t have preconceptions about what should be the case going into it, from a 21st century standpoint. But instead, you’re maybe more able to sit and read the texts on their own terms and in their own context without too many preconceptions, which is probably an advantage in many ways.
I mean, while sometimes there are advantages that contemporary astrologers have in knowing the practice, and there being similar dynamics when they go back and look at historical charts and can make interesting observations and inferences as practitioners, it also sometimes can bring baggage that you might be more free of and have an interesting perspective on, and that was one of the reasons I was interested in your perspective on that.
AO: Yeah. I mean, it was only, I would say, in the past few years, well after I started my academic research, that I’ve learned a little bit more about modern astrology. I had a friend, a former paramour who was really into modern astrology and looking up our signs, and so, I read a couple of her books on astrology. And it was interesting to see some of those connections, but also to see how vastly different it could sometimes be; but it wasn’t until I was on social media that I’ve started to see more of the modern traditional astrologers.
And so, that’s been kind of fun, seeing these people recreate techniques or talk about, “Oh, yeah, that’s Abu Ma’shar. That’s Masha’allah.” “Look, they’re using this technique that I’ve read about in this text from a thousand years ago,” but there are people who are still very vested in it, very interested in it, and they’re recreating it and practicing it in their own various ways.
CB: Yeah, definitely. So there’s a lot of stuff we can go into there. Let me share this one other chart that I saw at one point. Somebody shared a solar return chart in Arabic for a young boy that was cast by his parents, from the 12th century. And this was another chart where I was asking them what divisions were they using, and they were saying that they were using divisions by sign.
AO: Yep, sign-based division.
AO: Oh, this is a fantastic chart.
CB: Yeah, it’s very detailed. There’s a lot going on.
AO: Way more detailed, yeah. But again, sign-based division.
CB: Okay. Is the Ascendant at the top in this one, or is it on the left?
AO: Yeah, the Ascendant–I wish this was colored. I don’t see it, but I think, yeah, this is the Ascendant here, if I’m not mistaken. Here’s the data. I’m looking for where it says ṭāli. Ṭāli just means ‘Ascendant’, and usually they mark it up at the front. I don’t see it at the top, but it looks like this is the Ascendant, yeah.
CB: So there’s one guy that translated it. Let me see–I think he’s here. This guy on Twitter translated some of it or tried to.
AO: Oh, Ilyass, you are wonderful. This is fantastic.
AO: Oh, look at those colors. I love it. Yes, Ascendant at the top. Dad’s Ascendant is Taurus, his natal Ascendant is Libra, Mom’s Ascendant–okay, interesting.
CB: Yeah, so it’s not just that, but it’s like a synastry chart, because it’s showing the parents’ positions as well; and there’s a lot of interesting things going on here.
AO: Oh, yeah, that’s fascinating. Please link this to me. I would love to examine this further.
AO: One of the big problems of manuscripts is just the coloring here is such a pain in the ass.
AO: And for those of us who have bad eyesight, reading manuscripts can be quite tricky, but that’s fantastic. And from what I can tell, Ilyass’ translations are a hundred-percent.
CB: Okay, good. All right, so back to our story, after that little digression, and back to Buran. So Buran lived in the 9th century, during the early Abbasid dynasty, which was the third caliphate or dynasty after the Prophet Muhammad, right?
AO: Right. So there’s the Rashiduns, the Umayyads, and then the Abbasids.
CB: Okay. And she lived in Baghdad–this was the new capital of the Abbasid rulers–and this was during what’s sometimes called the early Islamic ‘Golden Age’, which was a golden age of science and translations and astrology and all sorts of other things, right?
AO: Yeah. I mean, the term ‘Golden Age’ is a little bit misleading nowadays, but it was the common way it was associated; this was the period of intellectual achievement in the Islamicate world. We can certainly say that it was probably one of the most prestigious of the early dynasties, far more than the Umayyads. They lived a very lavish lifestyle, absolute monarchy, but it was also the period in which we see the most translation of texts; a concerted effort and engagement with philosophy, with art, beautiful architecture.
But was it ‘Golden’? Maybe less so, because it was still quite a brutal time period and a great deal of civil strife and conflict and war, but Baghdad itself did become a massive cultural hub. It does get a little bit outshone later on, in a few centuries, by Bukhara, over in the east, and then Cairo, which is also built on astrological foundations.
But Baghdad becomes the model; it becomes the intellectual hub. And then every Islamic city that’s built afterwards is built around the principles of Baghdad as a sort of cultural center, not just as a political center. It should have some type of massive library. There should be some type of endowment for scholars. There should be some type of engagement with intellectual traditions. So Baghdad, we can say, is sort of the first, true, intellectual capital of the Islamicate world.
CB: Okay. And here’s a map I’ve always loved from Wikipedia that just shows the expansion of the Islamic Empire starting in 622, coming out of the Arabian Peninsula, and then expanding over the course of the next century or so across the Middle East, as far as the westernmost portions of India, up through northern Africa, all the way over to Spain and Portugal and the Iberian Peninsula eventually. And at its height, this was the extent of it, right?
AO: Yeah, this is the extent of it; the largest empire up until that point. But what I should note is that despite how vast this map looks, it is still divided up politically. So there’s different emirates and different kingdoms. Even at the height of the Abbasids, there’s a period where the eastern parts of the territories are completely ruled by autonomous rulers. So we can argue that there’s a sort of civilizational unity or some type of cultural unity that kind of spans through it, even as, politically, it might not be one, single empire.
CB: Okay. And so, there’s three different dynasties, and by the time we’re talking about the 8th century, the mid-to-late-8th-century, when we get to the Abbasid dynasty, the capital, initially, of the empire was in Damascus, I believe, which is in modern-day Syria; but then it was moved to Baghdad.
AO: Yeah, a common tactic of most empires. When you conquer the empire that came before you, you don’t want to change too much, but the one thing you do want to change is your capital; move your power base elsewhere.
So the original power base under the Rashiduns was in Medina, but after the Rashiduns came to an end, the Umayyads moved their capital to Damascus. And so, there was already one shift, and they did so in order to align themselves with the Byzantines. The Umayyads, the Banu Umayya were closely allied with the Byzantines before the coming of Islam.
When the Abbasids took over in 750 CE or so, they wanted to move their capital–and over time they eventually did–and they wanted to move it closer to the Persianate world, as they had garnered a lot of support from Khorasan and this broader Persianate region; and so, it was a way to kind of break with the Umayyads. And originally they settled around Ctesiphon, which was the old Persian capital of the Sassanians, until they were like, “You know what, we need our own capital,” and established Baghdad.
CB: Okay. So Baghdad was going to become the new center of the empire, and the caliph at the time was al-Mansur. And there’s all these legends surrounding that, that he got together a group of astrologers and asked them to pick an electional date, or an auspicious electional chart for the founding of the new capital of Baghdad; and that chart actually survives due to al-Buruni, i believe, right?
AO: Yes. So al-Biruni preserves it, but it comes from Yaqubi originally. And so, there’s two attestations to this particular horoscope or foundation, so we’re pretty confident that that was the horoscope or the elected time that the astrologers used.
CB: Okay, and I can share the chart here; it was a little ambiguous. James Holden gives July 31, 762 CE, around 2:00 PM, in Baghdad, Iraq. I did notice that Pingree gave, in an article I was reading last night, July 30, and I wasn’t sure. Maybe it’s just because we’re recreating it based on the chart itself, and so, there’s two possible dates for what would match.
AO: 30th or 31st is kind of where most of us are. We don’t know the specifics, and that’s just because we’re also moving from one calendar to another.
AO: But I think the 31st–yeah, the 31st date might be accurate in my humble opinion, and it’s the one that I’ve used in my work; but I do recognize Pingree as saying the 30th.
CB: So here is the chart, calculating it just based on the modern, western, tropical zodiac. There’s a little bit of a discrepancy there, because they could have been using sidereal placements; but for the most part, most of these placements are pretty solid by sign in the recalculation.
So the chart had Sagittarius rising, with Jupiter in Sagittarius in the 1st sign, or in the 1st whole sign house, in a day chart. You can see right away what some astrologers are doing here in terms of picking out a lucky date based on electional principles.
CB: The Sun is in Leo, in the 9th whole sign house. The Moon is somewhere in Libra, in the 11th whole sign house. Mercury is in Cancer; and interestingly, it’s actually stationary. It’s stationing direct; so it’s just coming out of a retrograde phase. Venus, I guess, is also in Cancer, in the 8hth whole sign house. Saturn is in Taurus, in the 6th, and Mars is in the 7th house, in Gemini; famously, in the 7th house.
And we were talking about this, and it’s interesting to me that you were mentioning that there was some debate about this in ancient sources. In modern sources, this is looked at as probably one of the most famous examples of electional astrology in history, of astrologers picking an auspicious date and clearly trying to employ the electional principles in practice, and they have some great things going for it: Jupiter on the Ascendant, in its own domicile in a day charter; or the Sun in the 9th in its own domicile.
CB: But that part that always sticks out to modern astrologers when looking at this is Mars being right there in the 7th house, very angular and very prominent, opposing the ruler of the Ascendant.
CB: And you mentioned in our pre-show talk that that’s actually debated in ancient sources as well.
AO: Oh, yeah. So there’s a debate on whether Mars’ placement in the 7th caused the end of Baghdad, as this place that has constantly been invaded. But al-Khayyat gives a very interesting argument, and he says that Mars in the 7th place means that you will conquer your enemies; that your enemies will be easily defeated. And so, that is an indication that there was a debate; that there was like, “Where do we place Mars?”
And the reality is that they didn’t know where to put Mars. Mars is kind of a dangerous planet, except when it’s in its exaltation, where Abu Ma’shar has this very funny phrase where he says, “Mars purrs like a dog, or it purrs like a house pet when it’s in its exaltation.”
CB: As a native with Mars in his exaltation, I’ll take that. Thank you, Abu Ma’shar.
AO: Abu Ma’shar is giving you some cred from a thousand years ago or so.
AO: But there is this question of where do you place Mars, and al-Khayyat says, “Oh, it’s a good place, 7th place. It’s on the Descendant. It’s an indication that you will defeat your enemies.” The worst placement for Mars, however, was on the Ascendant; that was the big fear.
In fact, Baghdad will become then the model for other cities. It’s not the only city that is elected. Shiraz has an election chart; we know that it’s Virgo rising. Ahmedabad, almost centuries later, has an electional chart; there’s a debate on what the actual chart is. And quite famously, Cairo itself also has an electional chart; and it, again, comes down to the issue of Mars.
So the Caliph Mu’izz tells his astrologers, once he’s conquered Egypt, he says, “I want you to build a city like Baghdad, and I want you to build it based off of astrological principles.” And the astrologer at the time said, “Yeah, I got this.”
And so, what he does is he stretches out a big rope with bells on it, so that he could pull on it, telling the individuals or the diggers when to start the actual building. And he stands with his astrolabe, and he’s looking at the horizon, waiting for the perfect moment to pull on that rope and start this great new city.
When the poor guy realizes that suddenly a giant crow lands on the rope, ringing the bell, and people start digging, the astrologer looks up to the heavens and realizes, “Oh, shit, Mars is rising.” And he yells out, “Al Qahir! Al Qahir!”, and he runs out, trying to stop it, but the damage has been done. Al-Qahir in Arabic means ‘the destroyer’ or ‘the conqueror’, and it is a name for Mars.
Al-Mu’izz, the caliph, however, takes it as an auspicious sign. He says, “All right, I’m going to name my city Al Qahir;” Cairo. That’s where it comes from; it’s the name of Mars. And he takes Mars as auspicious, because he had conquered Africa when there was a great conjunction in Aries. And so, for him, he’s like, “All right, this martial energy, I’m just going to flow with it.”
But Mars on the Ascendant was the big, scary placement. That was the one where you don’t want to build a city there. It means your city will get destroyed, unless you have a really powerful caliph who’s going to reinterpret it in his own way.
CB: Yeah, I love that, and that’s based on the entire branch of Western astrology known as electional astrology. And what was the name for electional astrology in Arabic?
AO: Ikhtiyarat means ‘selections’ or ‘choices’ or ‘timings’.
CB: Right. So election also means a choice, because you’re choosing to start something on one day rather than another day.
AO: Yeah. It was the astrology probably most openly associated with magic and astrological talismans and medicine as well: when to take particular precautions, take particular medicines and whatnot. And it is probably the branch of astrology that demonstrated that there was an element of manipulation when it came to astrology; that not everything was fixed and not everything was set in stone; that there was a way of working the heavens to your particular favor.
And it was the most popular branch of astrology. We have evidence that even caliphs who may not have been astrologers knew some element of ikhtiyarat. They would only meet their commanders on particular days; they would only go to war at particular times. Even if the astrologer wasn’t consulting, they, themselves, knew a particular one. So there was some element of popular knowledge when it came to electional astrology or ikhtiyarat; that everybody knew some component of it.
It’s also a good reminder that when we’re talking about pre-modern astrology, we are talking about a calendar system first and foremost; that this is a way of organizing people’s lives. And so, we have some fascinating tales about how caliphs would only promote generals when Scorpio was on the Ascendant, as a way of indicating martial victory. If they ever wanted a conspiracy, they would wait until Cancer was–I mean, Capricorn was rising, because that was the sign of plots. And this was just an indication that even caliphs, these kinds of kings had some astrological knowledge.
CB: That makes me think then of that 1st century story about women visiting astrologers so much that they eventually become astrologers themselves. That’s a legitimate phenomenon where anybody that gets into astrology and gets really into it eventually, if motivated enough, does have this urge that comes internally to ‘cut out the middleman’ of the astrologer–who is your gatekeeper to understanding this information–and to learn it yourself, so that you can make your own choices or use it to your own advantage, either to do elections or to understand your birth chart.
And that’s why I do think that 1st century story tells us something that may have been a legitimate phenomenon, and we can see echoes of that in later periods, like you talking about the caliphs themselves getting some understanding of astrology and knowing how to use it; at least the very least, in the basics, if not more for their own advantages. I know you have some stories about certain caliphs having tests of astrologers in order to test their knowledge.
AO: Yeah, absolutely. So obviously, some caliphs had more knowledge than others; some of them just had some basic knowledge. And the reality is it was just practical, right? You can’t constantly turn to your court astrologer or to an astrologer to ask every single question.
One of the ways that election astrology was used was for conception. You can’t constantly ask, “Is this a good time to get laid?” Sure, maybe the first time around; but after that, it gets a little bit tedious, so you end up learning a little bit about astrology yourself. But other caliphs were very clearly versed in it.
Caliph al-Ma’mun, for example, who is the husband of Buran, very famously was knowledgeable in astrology, to the point where he would test his astrologers out; he would ask them questions. And all the caliphs do it. Mu’tasim does it; Mutawakkil–they all test their astrologers.
There’s one very famous example. Liana Saif–the brilliant Liana Saif, who is also a historian of Islamic esoterism–relates the story of Abu Ma’shar in her book, The Arabic Influences on Early Modern Occult Philosophy. She mentions how the caliph holds an object in his hand, behind his back, and he asks his court astrologers, “What do I have behind my back?” and so, they cast an interrogational chart to discover it. One of the astrologers goes, “Ah! It’s some type of fruit,“ and Abu Ma’shar, the famed astrologer, goes, “It’s an animal.” And the caliph reveals that it’s a small apple; it’s a beautiful, little red apple.
And Abu Ma’shar, being the confident jackhole that he is, cannot accept that he got it wrong. He’s like, “There’s no way.” So he sits down, and he looks at the chart, and he kind of thinks to himself, “What did I miss here?” And then, suddenly, he shouts out, “Allahu akbar!” and he rushes forward, grabs the apple and tears it in two, to discover that there are worms inside. So there’s all sorts of these funny little anecdotes about caliphs trying to test out how well their astrologers knew what they were talking about. They also used their astrologers to test other people.
So there’s an example of a miracle worker that shows up in the court of Baghdad, and it’s the astrologers that must test whether this miracle worker is legit or not; and it’ll be actually Abu Ma’shar that’s like, “No, no, this guy’s a charlatan, because he has Mercury in Scorpio, and that’s the sign of charlatans and liars and deceivers.” And so, there is this way of testing others.
CB: Abu Ma’shar, from his student, Sadan, recounting some of Abu Ma’shar’s sayings, I get the sense that Abu Ma’shar was not a fan of the sign Scorpio very frequently.
AO: He had a complicated relationship with Scorpio. I would say in interrogational charts, and definitely in electional charts, Abu Ma’shar is not a fan of Scorpio; but he is far kinder to them in his natal work.
In Kitāb mawālīd, he calls them “one of the signs of wisdom;” that those who have Scorpio Ascendant or natives who are born under the star Scorpio all end up becoming wise, spiritual leaders, occultists, astrologers. And so, he has sort of a mixed response.
In interrogational work, absolutely not. If there’s ever a Scorpio placement, he thinks the person is like a murderer or a thief or something.
CB: Right, or deception.
AO: Or deception or something along those lines, yeah.
CB: Yeah. All right, so let’s see–so back to our Baghdad electional charts. So there’s some controversy about Mars in the 7th house, just because it’s Mars; it’s a day chart, and it’s applying to an opposition with the ruler of the Ascendant. And so, there were some astrologers, you said, that defended that placement; there’s others that criticized it or said that that’s a problematic placement in the later tradition.
AO: Yeah. There are those that say that the best placement for Mars should never be the 7th house, because it’s an indication that you will be conquered yourself. And they will argue that the best placement for Mars is actually the 11th house of hopes; that way, you, yourself, are the conqueror; you achieve your dreams of conquering the world.
We will see this particularly with Timurid astrologers, quite famously, Timur-i Lang, or Tamerlane, as he’s known. His horoscope will have Mars in the 11th house, and that will be a sign of him being a conqueror. His grandson, Iskandar, will also have Mars in the 11th house in Scorpio, in fact, and that’s an indication that he will be a conqueror; so there is an argument over where you place Mars.
But the al-Khayyat says it’s an okay placement, and in fact, will go on to make the claim that because Mars is in the 7th house, that means no caliph will ever die, or blood of the caliph will never be spilled in Baghdad. And indeed, there’s a sort of funny story that when Baghdad is eventually conquered, the Mongols end up not wanting to spill the blood of the Caliph Mu’tasim.
They wrap him up in a rug and trample him with all their horses as a way to avoid actually cutting him or spilling his blood. And some say that is the horoscope of Baghdad made manifest; that he may have been conquered and defeated, but his blood was not spilled.
But then there’s other arguments. For example, Abu Ma’shar, and in particular, al-Biruni, will make the case that Mars in Gemini is an indication of scholars fighting amongst themselves, of religious scholars, in particular, constantly being in a state of war or debate with one another. And so, yes, you created an intellectual center, but you created an intellectual center with a bunch of ‘debate bros’–debate me, bro; debate me, bro–because you have Mars in Gemini.
CB: Which is funny and ironic, because Abu Ma’shar originally came out of that tradition and was a religious scholar until he was in his 40s and famously debated with the philosopher and astrologer, al-Kindi.
AO: Al-Kindi, yeah.
CB: And al-Kindi was the one that got Abu Ma’shar into astrology after those arguments.
AO: Yeah, somewhat tricked him into astrology actually; he’s very circumspective. You need to get better at math; and the math is the entryway into astrology. You studied arithmetic and then it led you to astrology.
And Abu Ma’shar sucked at the math. He hated it. He was not a good student when it came to math, but he was excellent in astrology. So al-Kindi does some sort of subtle ‘Jedi mind trick’ on him and convinces him to become an astrologer.
CB: Right, probably just challenged him, like, “I bet you can’t learn this subject,” or something like that.
CB: So let’s see–to wrap up this section about Mars, in the ancient Dorotheus electional tradition, there’s just a general association that whatever you’re starting, and you, yourself, the one initiating the action, is the 1st house and the 7th house is the default other; who, in a one-on-one sense would be the other person receiving the action, or the partner or what have you, and that’s one of the reasons why people might treat Mars in the 7th as problematic.
The main thing I come back to though as a practitioner that people have to remember is electional astrologers don’t have full reign. You can’t wait a century for the best chart to do a certain thing; you’ve got to make do with what’s available.
And when it comes to electional charts, you never know what time restraints the astrologer was working with, what their constraints were. Did they have a year to plan out a chart? Did they have two to three to five years?
Or did they have a month and they had to pick the best that they could, and so, this was the best that they could do with Jupiter on the Ascendant, in the 1st house, and the Sun and Moon well-placed? But just that lingering issue of Mars being opposing, you sometimes just have to do the best you can with what you have to work with.
AO: Yeah, there’s never a perfect moment ever in history for it; and we certainly see this also with what, for them, were the outer planets. While you can certainly make sure that Jupiter, for example, was rising, you also couldn’t do too much with Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. The one thing you could do is make sure that they weren’t in a particularly bad sign.
So make sure that Mars isn’t in a sign that’s going to make Mars even worse. You want Mars either exalted or you want Mars kind of chilling in a sign somewhere and it’s not too bad. But then there’s the question, do you want Mars rising? Do you want Mars on the Midheaven? Do you want Mars setting on the Descendant?
So there’s always sort of a funky debate around what to do with Mars, and there isn’t a clear answer; the Medieval Islamicate astrologers just don’t have one answer on what to do with Mars. The one thing they mostly agree on is you don’t want it rising. Except in the case of Caliph Mu’izz who just decided to throw the rule book out the window, you don’t want it rising, because then you’re facing a very dangerous Mars.
CB: Yeah, that makes sense. So the city was founded in 762, and it quickly became a new center for science and learning and philosophy; and it was famously a round city and was designed to be a circle with four gates.
And I don’t know where–I think you used this in one of your threads. I’m not sure where this image comes from, but there’s this illustration I’ve seen all over the place of this being roughly what Baghdad looked like.
AO: Yeah, I wish I knew what the attribution of this was, so that I can give credit. I’ve used it in my PowerPoints, and it’s a fantastic example of Baghdad’s astrological principles. So it’s not just they were elected based off of astrology, the city itself is designed to reflect the celestial order.
These are the spheres–the outer spheres the inner spheres–with the caliph right in the center, almost as a sort of ‘First Cause’, ‘Prime Mover’, or ‘the Manifestation of God’s Shadow’ as he’s often called, on Earth, and then that reverberates outward. And this was their understanding of how astrology worked. Why astrology was an omen of something is because there was a First Cause.
This was their Aristotelian understanding of astrology; that there was a First Cause that then reverberated through a chain of being until it manifested in the sub-lunar world, and Baghdad is meant to, architecturally, design-wise, reflect that astrological principle.
CB: Yeah. And it seems like an amazing city and was the height of city planning in the 8th the 9th century, and eventually–what were the numbers? It came to hold something like a million or two million people at a time.
AO: Yeah, several million people. We have some conflicting accounts, but one really good way of understanding the prestige of Baghdad, as well as just the sheer numbers that they were working with is that, on average, in the Medieval Latin world, a monastery would have something like 20 books or so and that was considered very wealthy; and that’s a result of the fact that books were made on vellum; they were quite expensive to make.
But a European ambassador from the Carolingian dynasty comes to Baghdad, and he enters a shop where he sees somewhere in the count of 10,000 books, and he’s kind of shocked. He goes, “This must be the king’s palace!” And the guy goes, “I’m a bookseller. This is the street of booksellers. There’s 800 other shops.” He couldn’t wrap his mind around just how wealthy the city was, but also the level of merchants that they were interacting with.
If you need that many bookstores, you’re talking about millions of people passing through. This isn’t like a Starbucks on every corner; this is like a street of Barnes and Nobles. And that’s just to appeal to merchants that are coming from outside the city, merchants that are living there, people that are living there. So we’re talking about millions and millions of denizens and subjects of Baghdad.
CB: Wow, that’s amazing. And it also became a hub of intellectual activity and of translation efforts, and there was a concerted effort to translate older or ancient works from Greek and Latin and Sanskrit into Arabic and to sort of inherit the intellectual tradition of some of these earlier empires and earlier peoples; and astrology books were some of the first texts that were translated into Arabic.
AO: Yeah. There were a variety of reasons for the translations–one, it was a wealthy empire. It was wealthy, and so, you’ve got to spend your money on something. And you can double that wealth; you can double the prestige through learning. If you attract scholars, if you attract translators, that’s a way of demonstrating your prestige.
It’s also a way for the Abbasids to demonstrate their legitimacy. They are philosophical rulers. They see themselves, in many ways, as philosopher-kings in the Platonic tradition; in the tradition of Plato. Al-Ma’mun is debating with his philosophers and theologians; he sees himself as a philosopher first and foremost. And so, it’s a way of legitimizing their rule, but they also had a deep, deep appreciation for ancient knowledge.
They had an understanding that the ancient world had secrets and mysteries that needed to be preserved. And so, Persian forms of knowledge, Indic forms of knowledge, Greek forms of knowledge are all being preserved. It’s also important to remember that they are not foreigners ruling over foreign countries, so to speak. They’re working with the local traditions.
So when we talk about, for example, translating Greek texts, the Greeks are translating the Greek texts. One of the reasons why the translations are so accurate is because it’s not always being translated by Arabic speakers. They’re being translated by Greek speakers first–people who were Greek themselves, or people who were Syriac themselves–who were translating a tradition that they were familiar with; a tradition that was being lived within the region.
And so, astrology wasn’t adapted from the outside, it was integrated from the local level; it was being used in these cities. Their astrologers lived there, and the Greek speakers were living there, and they got integrated into the empire itself. So it’s a fascinating example of the way in which top-down translation with local integration worked hand-in-hand in order to produce this intellectual flourishing.
CB: So you’re thinking of astrologers like, for example, Theophilus of Edessa who was from Syria. His first language was either Syrian or Greek, but he also knew Arabic and he served one of the caliphs as a military adviser for electional charts.
AO: Yep, exactly. And we have other examples of unnamed astrologers, of people who are locals, who spoke Greek. For example, we have an example, Kankah al-Hindi, who knows Sanskrit. He’s from India, he’s an Indic astrologer, and he makes his way to Baghdad, where he starts translating various Vedic and Indic texts; and then that was a way in which it becomes incorporated.
So these are people who are translating their own traditions; they are translating the traditions that they are aware of. It’s not necessarily, for example, Arabs translating something foreign or different into Arabic culture, Islamicate culture. it’s rather an integration process of what’s already there.
Even the idea of Baghdad as a center of learning is adapted from Gundeshapur, which is an older Persian city. So they basically just take the books that are already there and move them over to Baghdad and start to translate them.
CB: Right. It’s sort of like in the 1st century, there was Alexandria, which was this huge metropolitan city, which was a melting pot of a bunch of different cultures. And we see different astrological traditions converge there from Mesopotamian from Egypt, and then you get this new synthesis of astrology, also infused with Greek culture and a bunch of different cultures that produces Hellenistic astrology in the 1st century BCE.
And you get a similar thing happening in Baghdad, in the 8th and 9th centuries, which was just this huge convergence of different cultures, which creates a new and unique synthesis of astrology, which is the birth of essentially what we call early Medieval astrology to distinguish it from the earlier Greco-Roman or Hellenistic tradition, which is usually considered to have been practiced up until the 6th or 7th century or something like that.
AO: Yeah. I think the example of Alexandria here as an analogy is a perfect, perfect example. Alexandria is the same sort of process, a sort of top-down, but also the integration of the local. Alexander is establishing his city; he has a very keen interest in promoting Hellenism. But Hellenism isn’t just Greek culture; Hellenism is local culture.
The heartland of Hellenism isn’t even in Greece–it’s in Anatolia; modern-day Turkey. For the vast majority of the ancient world, it’s in Anatolia. And there’s an integration of Egyptian knowledge; there’s an integration of local peoples. This sort of gets flattened in the way we often talk about both the Hellenistic tradition and the Islamicate tradition; we often use terms that can sometimes be misleading.
So for example, we use the term ‘Western’, right? We often say ‘Western astrologer’ or the ‘Western intellectual tradition’; it’s a deeply misleading way of talking about it. And of course, it’s a product of Renaissance racialization, but it also erases whole groups of people who are working on it.
So many people talk about, for example, ‘decolonizing knowledge’. One way to decolonize it is to return to the historical roots. Why is it that an ancient Egyptian is considered ‘Western’, but a modern Egyptian is not? This is a deeply problematic way of understanding what ‘Western’ means. Ptolemy’s a prime example. We actually don’t know what Ptolemy’s ethnicity is.
AO: He likely was an Egyptian who was Hellenized, but we talk about him as ‘Greek, Greek, Greek’, because we imagine Greek as white; when in actuality, Greek has more in common with Egypt and Syria and Lebanon than it does with, say, the Nordic world.
And the same thing with Arabic astrology. When we call it ‘Arabic astrology’, or when we call it ‘Persian astrology’, we miss out on the fact that plenty of people contributed and participated in it who didn’t fall into these linguistic categories, which was made worse by the fact that linguistic categories become ethnic categories in the modern world.
AO: Not all Arabic speakers are Arabs. Where do we place someone like al-Rijal who’s Tunisian? He’s called an Arabic astrologer. Why is he not North African?
AO: Why is he not Tunisian? Why does he become Arab? Because he speaks Arabic. And so, I think Alexandria offers us a really great model for pushing back on these kinds of categories. Rather than talk about Western, we talk about Hellenistic astrology. Rather than talk about Arabian or Persian astrology, we talk about Islamicate astrology. And rather than talk about Western astrology, we talk about these more complicated terms: Hellenistic, Islamicate, Medieval, Latin, Renaissance, etc.
CB: Yeah, I love that. That’s a really great point. When these certain, especially, ancient languages become a lingua franca in different time periods, there’s people from many different cultures and ethnic backgrounds that will use that language to communicate and share ideas with each other; like when Greek became the common spoken language, by the 1st century BCE, in Alexandria. You have many different people, from different ethnic backgrounds, using that, but that doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily ethnic Greek people.
CB: And then you have a similar thing in Arabic, in the 8th and 9th centuries, where it becomes the lingua franca of the ancient world, but you have many different people, from different ethnic and religious backgrounds using Arabic to write, for example, astrological texts; but you can’t necessarily make assumptions about their ethnicity just based on that.
AO: Exactly. And this is also a way of ‘recovering’, as we kind of mentioned at the beginning of the podcast. You quite brilliantly pointed out how, for example, women don’t show up. We have the exact same issue when it comes to people’s ethnicities and identities. Where are black people in astrology? Where are other ethnic groups in astrology? Where are all these different categories?
When we create Arabic astrology or Persian astrology or Greek astrology, we flatten those complexities; we flatten those differences. So someone like al-Rijal goes from being Tunisian or having multiple identities to being Muslim. Being Ifriqi from Ifriqiya, he suddenly becomes Arab; his identity gets lost in that flattening discourse. So in the same way that we recover the voices of women, so, too, must we recover the voices of other people that don’t fit our idea, our narrow definitions of ethnicity.
CB: That makes a lot of sense; so that brings us back to our topic. We have astrologers like Theophilus of Edessa, who was a Christian that wrote in Arabic, but then we also have Abu Ma’shar, who was a Muslim astrologer. And also, Masha’allah, who was involved in picking the foundational chart for Baghdad, was evidently a Jewish astrologer who wrote in Arabic. So there’s many different ethnic and religious identities going into this; they’re all speaking in the same language in this time period.
AO: Yeah. Ibn Hibinta is Christian. Sahl was probably a Zoroastrian, we believe, or possibly also a Christian. This is an interesting little sidenote, but Masha’allah is actually less involved with the foundation of Baghdad than we might think. That’s mostly a product of the Latin tradition that he ends up becoming this huge figure because he writes books; in reality, it’s Nawbakht who casts the foundation.
Masha’allah was 19 or 18 when the foundation happened; he was still an apprentice to Nawbakht. So he certainly was a participant, but not a major player; but he ends up writing some of the most foundational texts in a way that Nawbakht doesn’t, and so, he becomes huge in the later Latin tradition. But he is of Persian and Jewish descent, and he sees himself as part of this Islamicate society, as part of this Islamicate civilization and culture.
And that diversity is really crucial for understanding these periods. These are very, very diverse empires: both the Hellenistic empires, as well as the Islamicate ones. Very diverse, with a complex group of characters that come from different religious backgrounds, different ethnicities, and all of them are contributing to this intellectual tradition.
CB: Yeah, and I love that one of the key things there is the multiculturalism in these different areas often leads to these great flourishings of astrology. And one of the things–to tie it back to something you were saying earlier–is that just like in Alexandria, where there was some level of royal or state support for libraries and translations and literary efforts through the Library of Alexandria, we have a parallel with that in the 8th and 9nth centuries with the House of Wisdom in Baghdad.
AO: Exactly. In fact, the Library of Alexandria is one of the motivations for Bayt al-Hikmah, the House of Wisdom.
CB: Could you tell me a little bit more, for those that are not familiar with the House of Wisdom?
AO: Yeah. So the House of Wisdom, or Bayt al-Hikmah, is an institution that was started by Harun al-Rashid, one of the caliphs of the Abbasid period, and concluded by al-Ma’mun. It is a vast, vast library and translation program. It likely wasn’t a single place, and it isn’t a library in the way we might imagine libraries today. It was an institution, more akin, perhaps, to a foundation or a university center.
This was a place in which Abbasids wanted to attract a great deal of scholarship. They wanted to attract translators, and they had committed a significant amount of their funds to translating ancient knowledge, particularly around medicine, mathematics, philosophy, science, which includes astrology at this time period; but it was also a place where scholars could engage in theology and debate.
It was accessible to any scholar that came there. So we often have a hard time imagining it in a modern, capitalist sense, but this would have been funded fully by the Abbasid caliphs, and the scholars would have all received stipends and paid for their work by the caliphs themselves.
There would have been individuals dedicating their entire lives to recovering ancient knowledge, translating that, debating and discovering new knowledge. It’s basically a bunch of nerds that got paid to be nerds. And it became the model for most cities. Cairo would also develop its own institutions, Bukhara would establish its own institutions, and it was a way of demonstrating both wealth and prestige: “Look what we have built.”
Islamicate societies had a very keen understanding of beauty. They had a very, very dedicated focus on beautifying the world around them. They wanted to create, in many ways, paradise on earth, so they built vast gardens, running fountains, beautiful places that you can walk and travel through. And one of the ways that they saw beauty was through knowledge.
Books were beautiful to them, and knowledge was beautiful to them. There was a sort of beauty in mathematics, in the simplicity of calculations. And they wanted to demonstrate that by housing it and embodying that knowledge in a physical place, and Bayt al-Hikmah is the embodiment of that knowledge.
CB: That’s brilliant. And I wonder if part of that is motivated by just the traditions surrounding the Quran and the importance of the written word and written tradition in terms of that.
AO: Absolutely. Language is important to them, and so, we find, for example, the caliphs speak multiple languages. We know that they get trained to read and write in Greek; but they also read and write Arabic, and they also read and write in Persian. But the Quran, as it is canonized, sort of fixes Arabic as the lingua franca, and also produces a very literate society.
If you have a textual religion, a religion in which you must memorize a text, or you write a text, or you must read a text in order to participate in the religious functions, then you are going to have a literate society. That doesn’t mean that they have literacy in the way that we imagine it today, like 90% or something, but they are a highly literate society. And we find, for example, ordinary people engaging in these texts; we’re not just talking about elite culture. One prime example of this are the astrological texts.
Many of the books that are written during this time period by people like Abu Ma’shar, in particular, his Kitāb al‐mudkhal, his Great Introduction to Astrology, is meant to be read by ordinary people. It’s meant to be read by anybody who reads Arabic, to pick it up and learn the foundations or the philosophical roots of astrology, and then find an astrological teacher to master it.
And so, this is a society that sees the word as sacred. There’s magic and beauty in the written language, and that is then manifested in the actual translation of texts, which they see as sort of gateways into ancient wisdom.
CB: That’s brilliant. The term I was thinking of when you’re describing this, the House of Wisdom, was ‘research institute’; that might be a modern…
AO: Fantastic, yeah.
CB: …term, almost equivalent to what we’re describing there.
CB: And also, I was reading last night that in Alexandria, they had this policy, reportedly, of ships coming in and sometimes texts being confiscated; and then they would make a copy of the texts, and the library might keep the original and give the copy back to the ship. There’s not an analogy in Baghdad, but there were stories about sending out emissaries to the Byzantine Empire, to the Greek-speaking empire, to collect important texts and manuscripts and things and offering large amounts of money in order to collect actual texts that could be brought back to Baghdad and translated.
AO: Yeah. They had not only people that they sent out to collect it, but they also put out basically a ‘help wanted’ sign, if you will. Any scholar that wanted to come to Baghdad, if they brought books with them, would be immediately elevated and immediately accepted; but they also paid to train people. People who were unlettered, people who were unschooled could come to Baghdad and become a scholar. It was actually one of the ways in which social mobility was built into the society.
You could come from any background; you don’t have to come from nobility. But if you became a scholar–if you found books and brought them over, and you started off as a translator–or you started off learning the language and then work your way up to becoming a translator, from becoming a translator, you then become an alim, or a scholar; there was a way to move up.
So there was a way in which Baghdad acted as a magnet, both actively going out and seeking knowledge and drawing it in, but also just passively waiting for scholars to come in, by building this massive institution and saying, “Hey, we’ve got the money. We’re going to throw it your way, if you come and you help us out. If you find books in your local village, bring it to Baghdad. We will preserve it, we will elevate you, and we will pay you.” And people did. They would bring books that they found, even texts that they couldn’t read, because they knew that they would be safe in Baghdad.
CB: All right, so this brings us to Buran’s family line. Part of Buran’s story starts actually with the founding of Baghdad, where I believe her great-grandfather or grandfather–who’s known sometimes as ‘Nawbakht, the Persian’–was the head astrologer in charge of picking the electional chart or the foundational chart for Baghdad, right?
AO: Yeah. Nawbakht al-Farzi, the astrologer, was the court astrologer of the Abbasids. He establishes Baghdad. He’s the one that not only selects the particular time, but also is the individual that helps to design it.
He’s also likely the teacher of Masha’allah. He’s likely the one who introduces Masha’allah to the Persianate brands of astrology. So the introduction of things like the Great Conjunction, the introduction of the fardars, the introduction of what we call the ‘planetary periods’ probably came through Nawbakht to Masha’allah.
As a result of his contributions to Baghdad, he is named court astrologer, munajjim, to the caliph, and that becomes a hereditary title that is then passed down to his son. I think Buran’s dad is the only one that doesn’t end up becoming an astrologer himself, but the entire line is a line of astrologers. It’s one of a dozen astrological families that passed down hereditary knowledge of astrology, but also who become court astrologers in a sort of hereditary fashion. Father is a court astrologer, son is a court astrologer, and it just kind of passes down.
What’s great about that is not only is this an interesting historical tidbit, but it is also demonstrative of the contemporary experience of astrology in the Middle Eastern world or the Islamic world today. People who practice the living tradition of astrology, practice it now predominantly through a family lineage. Someone in their family was an astrologer who then teaches them to be an astrologer, and then that passes down.
CB: Right. So there’s an oral lineage and transmission from teacher to student or from parent to son, or in some instances, perhaps daughter.
CB: And we also have that in India, where the oral tradition is very strong and very important.
CB: Okay. So one of the things I wanted to mention, because it’s a good digression, is Nawbakht was from a large Persian family from Khorasan; and this is from the eastern part of the empire, from the Persian part of the empire. And when we’re talking about Khorasan, what does that encompass in terms of modern-day geography?
AO: Yeah, so this is Eastern Iran, modern-day Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan. It’s kind of a huge number of modern-day nation-states, and it would have included a very diverse group of people that today would have been considered Central Asian, South Asian, Persianate. And it is also probably the most autonomous part of the empire. It’s sort of in the mountains; there’s weird geography. And so, if you were named governor of this particular region, you had a great deal of autonomy.
And so, a great deal of Islamicate history is shaped by Khorasan. The Abbasid Caliphate itself stems from a revolution that starts in Khorasan. They gather their supporters under Abu Muslim al-Khurasani, literally, ‘Abu Muslim from Khorasan’. In Khorasan, they gather their troops and then they march on Damascus.
And so, Nawbakht comes from Khorasan; he’s connected to it. It’s also where we see a great deal of Sassanian power. But when you have an autonomous territory that also means it’s where there’s a great deal of political turmoil. Every time a kingdom is overthrown, you can bet your dollars-to-donuts that it’s probably someone from Khorasan. There’s some type of revolution that started at Khorasan; someone has gathered troops, and now, they’re marching somewhere.
CB: Okay. And in terms of the history of astrology, one of the reasons this is important is the distinction between when the Arabic tradition really picks up, in the 8th and 9th centuries, the Arabic-speaking astrological tradition, versus the earlier Sassanian-Persian astrological tradition, which had been around for several centuries up to that point; and the 8th century, in Baghdad, really becomes the transition point between the Persian astrological tradition and the Arabic astrological tradition.
And maybe we can spend a little bit of time talking about that, just to set up that distinction. Part of the transmission and part of what, for example, David Pingree tried to document was there was a transmission of texts starting in the 3rd century, where some texts in Greek, such as Dorotheus, started being translated from Greek into Sassanian-Persian, or into Middle Persian. And then that started a new tradition of horoscopic astrology in Persia that thrived for several centuries, maybe being at its height around the 6th or 7th century under the Persian emperor or king, Khusro I, right?
AO: Yeah. There is a tradition of astrology or astral omens that predates horoscopic astrology in the Sassanians. We see, for example, the planetary periods, the fardars–a sort of calendric system, a cycle, a dynamic calendar–likely would have existed in Sassanian Persia, but horoscopic astrology is likely a Greek contribution, a Hellenistic contribution. It’s a great reminder, again, that we’re not looking at a teleological or linear history. Astrology doesn’t start in the Greek world, take a detour in the Islamic world, and go back to Europe; but rather these are overlapping cycles and constant states of exchange.
So we see, for example, this first transmission, this first exchange happening in the Sassanian world; and we see examples, from Andrazaghar and others, these fantastic beginnings of horoscopic astrology that then are picked up by the astrologers of the Islamicate world and brought together with the horoscopic translations or the translations of horoscopic astrology from the Greek world; and so, there’s a fusion that happens.
And al-Biruni is the one that tells us that the bridge between these two worlds, between the Persianate tradition that already exists and the Hellenistic tradition that is being translated and adapted is likely Masha’allah; Masha’allah is the one that really brings them all together. He’s the one that, in fact, puts forth the first Great Conjunction theory long before Abu Ma’shar does. Even though Abu Ma’shar takes this to its zenith, if you will, it is really Masha’allah that brings it up; but he probably learned it from Nawbakht.
We have very strong indications that Masha’allah, at the founding of Baghdad, was the assistant of Nawbakht and his student, and likely would have learned the Persianate tradition from Nawbakht and then brought it together with the Hellenistic tradition, which produces the unique flavor or character of the Islamicate astrology of the 8th century, all the way to the 18th century.
CB: That makes a lot of sense and is really important. So while there’s a transmission of Hellenistic astrology and horoscopic astrology to Persia and it’s practiced for several centuries, not a lot of the Persian texts from that time period survived, because many of them were destroyed in the subsequent, ensuing wars after the rise of the Islamic Empire, in the 7th century.
So there’s a loss of a lot of Persian texts, and we don’t know a lot about what was going on during that period, but there’s a few techniques that developed in the interim that we assume probably were developed in the Persian Empire between the 3rd and the 7th centuries, such as the approach to mundane astrology that involves the Great Conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn in order to study world history and the rise of different religious leaders and dynasties; and that’s probably one of the innovations that happened in Persia that you were just mentioning there.
But also, even some of the ways that horary astrology developed and some of the new rules, like ‘transfer of light’ and ‘collection of light’ don’t show up in Hellenistic astrology; they’re just sort of there all of a sudden in the 8th century, in early Arabic astrology; and I assume that some of those were probably developed in the Persian tradition as well.
AO: Yeah, absolutely. There’s likely a transmission here; and again, we’re talking exchanges from the Indic world into the Persianate world. And this is also where Pingree, in my opinion, as brilliant as he was, was a little bit blindsided. He only sees a transmission to India; he doesn’t always see the transmission from India.
AO: But yeah, there were likely some transmissions from India at this particular time that would have contributed to the development of some of the techniques in what we call today horary astrology; but this would have been ‘Persianate’ style, and then that gets adapted by Masha’allah, who really gives a full outline of how to actually implement these strategies.
The reality is that we have some minor evidence of this, but like you mentioned, most of these texts have been destroyed, partly because they didn’t write a lot of it down. They wrote a couple texts. There were a few texts, but there wasn’t a flourishing of writing. Even, for example, the Hellenistic writers, there’s way more Hellenistic writers than there were Sassanian writers on astrology; we have a few of them; we know that they existed.
We know that it was probably a family lineage–Nawbakht is an example of this–that the Sassanians probably passed down astrological knowledge in a hereditary fashion, from one person to the next, and that there may have been some teaching involved, but mostly bound up in families; and then the court astrologer was also a hereditary tradition.
So the Islamicate tradition not only adapts the Persian methods that we see in Masha’allah, but so, too, does it borrow a Persian structure when it comes to the transmission of knowledge; that is, family lines and then hereditary official titles. The court astrologer becomes father-son-grandson, so on and so forth; that comes from Sassanian Persia.
CB: Okay. And I think one of the points that Pingree made is that it’s not an accident then that many of the leading astrologers in the first few generations of astrologers, writing in Arabic in the 8th century, had a strong Persian influence or were Persians themselves, because of that long, pre-existence of astrology for a few centuries in Persia leading up to that point.
AO: Yeah, we could certainly say that there was a massive Persian contribution to this time period, but again, identity is very complicated. So for example, Masha’allah probably wouldn’t have identified–I mean, he spoke Persian, certainly, but he would have identified with his religious community. He was of Jewish descent and maybe lived in the Persianate Empire. Ibn Hibinta is another one of the early translators that’s working with Masha’allah, but he’s of Christian background. We don’t even know if he’s Persian; we think he’s Arabic, Syriac as well.
But there is, without a doubt, a Persian contribution, not just in astrology, but in the intellectual tradition, and also in the language. By about the 10th century, we will see Persian emerge as its own important language, as its own sacral language; sacred in its own rights, alongside Arabic; and we’ll start to see Persian treatises about astrology.
So there is a Persian contribution and we see it in the Abbasid period, who in their own way align themselves with the Sassanians. They saw themselves as a continuity with the Sassanians that came before them.
CB: Right. So that sets things up for our central figure, which is Nawbakht, the Persian, who was the lead astrologer for the founding of Baghdad, but then he has a son who is an astrologer, and then he has a son that was an astrologer; and there’s this whole family line that starts at that point; and Nawbakht lived from, according to James Holden, 679 through 777 CE.
And I just wanted to show this passage from Holden, just because his description of this family line is so interesting and it ties directly into Buran. For anybody waiting, this is where we’re going to transition into actually talking about Buran, our primary subject of this episode. But Holden–he’s talking about Nawbakht, the Persian, and the picking of the founding chart for Baghdad. He talks about Masha’allah being one of his assistants, and then he says that Nawbakht retired some years before his death and was succeeded as court astrologer by his son, Abu Sahl ibn Nawbakht, who died somewhere around 786.
And then one of this person’s sons, Abu Sahl al-Fadl ibn Nawbakht, who lived until around 815, was court astrologer to the Caliph Harun al-Rashid, who reigned from 786 to 809, and supervisor of the royal library. He wrote at least seven books on astrology, but only fragments of them remain. Two of his grandsons, says Holden, were court astrologers to the Caliphs al-Ma’mun and al-Watiq, as well as al-Mutawakkil; and a sixth generation descendant of Nawbakht, the Persian, Musa ibn Nawbakht, was the author of an extensive work on astrological history, following in the footsteps of Abu Ma’shar. So just a whole family lineage comes out of this very crucial early astrologer, Nawbakht, the Persian.
AO: Yeah. Is this from his History of Horoscopic Astrology?
CB: Yeah, this is from James Holden’s 1996 book, A History of Horoscopic Astrology, which is still my favorite book on the history of astrology.
AO: It’s a really good book.
CB: Yeah, it’s so concise, and he packs so much into such short spaces, focusing on the biographical history of who the important astrologers were in different periods.
AO: Yeah, Nawbakht’s family line ends up becoming generations of astrologers, but they’re one of twelve families; one of actually probably more families. We have names of them. One of the families is known as the Banu Musa; they’re also court astrologers. Up until, I would say, Abu Ma’shar, most of the court astrologers were hereditary. Abu Ma’shar is kind of one of the few exceptions in which he’s not; he just sort of learns it. And then because he’s so good, he becomes court astrologer.
But it’s a cushy job, right? They’re getting paid around the equivalent of a Supreme Court justice, if you will–a lot of money–to be the court astrologer, and you live in the palace; and so, their families want to pass down that knowledge and the cushy job and the money that comes with it. So the Banu Musa, for example, the original founder was actually a highwayman, a robber, who then becomes an astrology. He becomes so good at it, he impresses the caliph, and he then passes it onto his son. And then one of the family lines is known as the Banu Munajjim, literally, the ‘family of astrologers’; that’s the name of the family, Banu Munajjim. And so, there were a bunch of them.
CB: That’s sort of like in modern times, we have some of these names that are carry-overs of that, in that they’re trade names, like the last name ‘Taylor’, where originally it was an actual tailor as a job description, and that’s sort of like an equivalent.
AO: Exactly. And so, the Banu Munajjim were all astrologers; they were a tribe of astrologers that sort of passed down the knowledge. And Nawbakht is probably the most illustrious of all the family lineages. To be connected to Nawbakht was to be connected to the very foundation of Baghdad itself.
CB: Okay. And so, Buran was part of this family lineage, and she was part of the Nawbakht family lineage; and as a result of being from a family of astrologers, it’s a very easy inference to say that she would have had some exposure to astrology. But then it raises the question, would she also have had some training in astrology? For her, the circumstances were right that she very well could have, we could say pretty easily, right?
AO: Yeah, we don’t know who her teacher would have been. There were a lot of court astrologers around that she could have learned from, but it was not unusual for women to be trained from their family line; not as a sort of casual thing, but as a formal act of learning. One of the ways that women in Islamicate society were able to move up in the world was through learning.
So one of the things that we see in the Medieval Islamicate tradition is that there is an opening up for women. It’s still a patriarchal society, like all ancient societies are, but we start to see more and more women scholars. We see women scientists, women philosophers, and they’re engaged in learning; and that was a way for them to develop prestige, renown and become famous in their own right.
We find, for example, Mariam Astrulabi. She was known for being an astrolabe-maker; she learned it from her father, Ali Samarqandi. She is a religious scholar in the Hanafi tradition of Islam, and she learned it from her husband; so learning from their family and then becoming scholars in their own right would have been likely what happened with Buran. So this is not an instance of, for example, her just learning because she grew up with the Nawbakht; there would have been a formal aspect of training her; she would have been trained in astrology.
And so, the anecdote that we have from her also demonstrates the techniques she’s using, which indicate formalized learning. This is not a person who knows what the Ascendant is and sort of makes basic temperament questions or answers; this is a person who’s using very advanced forms of astrology, which indicates that she had some formal training from her family, and then likely would have engaged with court astrologers or had a tutor of some type, who trained her in the astrology of the time period.
A fusion of the Nawbakht and Persian tradition, as well as what was emerging at the time period; this sort of fusion with Greek horoscopic astrology; these new techniques around mathematics, particularly, the Arabic Lots and whatnot–all of that would have been within her training.
CB: Okay, and we’ll get to one of her contemporaries as a potential person, Sahl ibn Bishr, in just a little bit here. But there’s a poem that survives from her, after the death of her husband, and I don’t know if we can take that to imply that she was also literate; that she knew how to read and to write; that she was a woman of letters in some sense.
AO: Yeah, all noble women were literate, or most noble women were literate; she comes from a noble family. But also, again, literacy was highly encouraged. Even among the working class people, again, not as literate in the way that we might think of it in the contemporary, but more people were literate than we imagined they were, and that was likely a result of the Quran. You have to learn it, you have to memorize it, you should read it, you have to write it.
Doubly so if you were a noble woman, because you had to be able to read things like poetry. You had to be able to talk about philosophical discourses. You wanted to debate your colleagues, your husband. Ma’mun, when he ends up marrying her, marries her predominantly because of her learning. There’s a very fascinating line that says he’s drawn to her because she’s highly-educated, highly-learned; she’s lettered. And he’s able to hold very intellectual discourses and debates with her, and she’s able to stand on her own as an intellectual giant.
And so, there are indications that she was formally-trained, highly literate, and probably well-versed in the intellectual traditions of the time; not just astrology, but philosophy and mathematics, and even literature.
CB: Brilliant. So that’s a good transition point to talk about the marriage and talk about her wedding. So she became married to Caliph al-Ma’mun and became queen at one point, and the setup for that is that Buran’s father was al-Hasan ibn Sahl ibn Nawbakht, who was somebody who became the vizier of Baghdad under Caliph Ma’mun, right?
AO: Yeah. So her father was originally an advisor, but he is elevated under Ma’mun because, one, he’s from the line of Nawbakht; he ends up becoming sort of a vizier. His main position is actually running Baghdad to a certain extent. There’s a position where you kind of do administrative duties–the city guard, the stipends–and that’s what it seems like he was in charge of; the financial/administrative components, while remaining an important advisor to Ma’mun.
CB: And maybe we should set up the civil war and how Ma’mun came to power, because that’s a crucial piece. The wedding to Buran doesn’t happen until after the civil war is concluded. So what is the setup?
Baghdad’s founded 40 years earlier, before Buran is married, and there’s a succession of different caliphs that are in charge and ruling from Baghdad. There was a caliph that died, and then there were two siblings that got into a fight with each other basically, right?
AO: Yeah. So Harun al-Rashid, who was the founder of the Bayt al-Hikmah that we mentioned, had a bit of a difficulty determining who his successor would be. Ma’mun was the son of a Persian courtesan, not his official wife; and so, there was some controversy about whether he wanted to make Ma’mun caliph.
What he decided was to allow al-Amin, his older brother from his official wife, to become caliph, under the promise that al-Amin would then pass the title onto his brother, Ma’mun; that was the original agreement.
CB: Okay. And in the meantime, al-Ma’mun has semi-autonomy in Khorasan, over Persia roughly, where he’s doing his own thing, while his brother is caliph and is ruling from Baghdad.
AO: Exactly. So once again, Khorasan ends up becoming the place of all the troubles, right?
AO: Ma’mun ends up developing his autonomy there; he’s developed really strong support amongst his soldiers. Al-Amin is sort of a ‘dilettante’ caliph. He’s, fascinatingly, not interested in ruling whatsoever. He’s also likely gay; so it’s very important to kind of recognize the identities of people that often get forgotten in history. There was a gay caliph–al-Amin was one of them. So much so, in fact, that his mother was afraid that he would never have children. And so, his mother contrived to have all his wives dress as men, as pages, in the hopes that it would entice him to have some interest in women.
But he was a party boy. He just kind of wanted to hang out and drink and hang out with his friend, Abu Nuwas, who was writing homoerotic poetry, and really enjoy the culture. But the one thing that he ends up doing is that he decides that he’s not going to pass on the succession to his much more popular, more straightforward, military commander brother, al-Ma’mun.
CB: And Ma-mun is also an intellectual who’s over in Persia, and interestingly, one of his advisors is Buran’s father, who is Nawbakht and from that Persian family line of astrologers.
AO: Yes. And so, Ma’mun is developing a reputation as a theologian, as a philosopher, as an intellectual leader, while al-Amin is kind of having fun; and he breaks the contract and that becomes the big turning point. Al-Ma’mun is given the justification to invade and wage war against his brother.
CB: And that’s because he had a son, and he decides to make his son his heir to the throne instead of his brother.
AO: Yeah, he breaks the contract. He says, “I’m going to pass this onto my son. My son is gonna be the caliph, not my brother.” It’s one way also to stick it to his brother, who’s a bit of a ‘stick-in-the-mud’, according to al-Amin.
The battle actually has astrological ramifications as well. Both brothers are advised by astrologers. We don’t always know the names of these astrologers, but we know that al-Amin does not listen to his astrologer. His astrologer warns him, “Don’t go to war with, the Moon is in Scorpio. The Moon is in a bad position.” And in the Islamicate world, the Moon was super important for any type of election, but also in natal work; but al-Amin doesn’t listen.
On the other hand, Ma’mun, being the wise philosopher that he is and somewhat astrologer, is very careful about his elections, and he wisely listens to astrologers. He waits for the Moon to be out of Scorpio and then he invades Baghdad. Al-Amin is forced to flee, he ends up getting killed, and then Ma’mun takes over.
And Ma’mun is a Virgo, and in typical Virgo fashion, he decides that his entryway has to be perfectly ordered, and every single one of his retinue dresses in all green as they enter into Baghdad, demonstrating the rise of the philosopher-king, which was also associated with the sign Virgo, Al Ardhra in Arabic or Islamicate astrology.
Once he establishes himself as caliph, he then goes about rewarding the people who were loyal to him–the people who supported him–and the family of Nawbakht becomes an important way for him to legitimize his claim. He is the son of a courtesan; he is of Persianate descent. So now the dynasty is shifting; it’s moving to another power base; this power base in Khorasan.
So to shore up that power base, he turns to this ancient, noble Persian line, the Nawbakhts, and that’s where he meets Buran. He’s engaged to her, and they end up getting married in this lavish, lavish ceremony, and it was a way of celebrating her, but also demonstrating that he really prized and valued and appreciated the marriage to Buran.
CB: Yeah. And in the ancient world, and in this time period, there’s no better way of forming bonds and political connections than the merging of one’s families; and that was a very important political thing at that time.
AO: Yep, absolutely. This was a way of ensuring that this ancient Persian line would continue to be an ally of the Abbasids, particularly, under al-Ma’mun, but also demonstrating to the rest of the world a sense of continuity. “I am marrying into an ancient line. I’m not just an outsider. I’m not just a random person. I will continue.” There is an element of stability there as well.
So women often were an important political connection; a way in which to develop these alliances. But it’s also important to understand that, here we are, we’re talking Queen Buran, but we keep talking about men. But Buran herself, and many women themselves, would have been important political influences on their husbands and on the court themselves. They’re not passive recipients of these marriages; they’re not, oh, their hand is given and some lineage is established. The queens themselves would have exerted a great deal of influence, and Buran is a perfect example of this. She goes on to becoming an important influence on Ma’mun and an important political advisor for him.
CB: Okay. So al-Ma’mun, he takes over and starts reigning, starting in 813, and his reign lasts for 20 years; he doesn’t die until 833. But Buran and him are wed; I think they were married sometime between December of 824 and January of 825, and the festivities lasted for 17 days, and were so lavish and extravagant that their wedding became something of a legend in it of itself, right?
AO: Right. So the wedding itself is so lavish that all the chronicles that we have of Buran focus on the wedding. From Abu Sa’id, al-Tabari–all of them focus on it, because it was such a massive wedding. There was supposed to be a candle that weighed like tons, that was in this giant candelabra, and it was a demonstration of wealth. Candles were quite expensive; these types of lights were very unique.
There was this particular moment in which pearls were cast before Buran as a sort of gift for her, and it was said to be something in the thousands. And Ma’mun–there’s this great show, and he demands that the pearls be counted. “How many pearls are here? How many are there?” And they’re like, “Oh, it’s thousands!” Some other chronicle says it’s 5,000; and he says every single one of them is for Buran; so it’s a sort of romantic gesture for this wife that he’s married.
But the wedding ceremony is immense, and it is an indication that Ma’mun wants to establish a great deal of continuity, of stability, but also the value that he places in Buran. We can argue that this was a marriage of affection. While certainly there was a political alliance that was being made here, certainly there was an alliance that was being made with the Nawbakhts, he also had deep affection and respect for Buran.
The way he talks about Buran as a deeply-educated woman, as a woman that he is attracted to, that he wants to speak to, that he can’t wait to get married to, indicates that there was genuine affection between the two of them; that this may have been a love marriage, in addition to an arranged, political marriage.
CB: Okay. And there were special gifts for each of the guests and people were showered in pearls. And she was about 18, give or take, at the time that they were married, depending on her birth year. And he granted her three wishes on their wedding day, and some of what she wished for were certain political things that she wanted to happen.
AO: Yeah. The two, big, political things that she asked for; and she was very clever about this. Ma’mun asks her, and she’s very coy at first; and it’s actually her grandmother that goes, “No, no, speak up. He is your husband. You have the right to speak to him.” And so, she asks for two things: one, she asks for her uncle to be forgiven, Ibrahim. She says, “Please forgive him. He was on the other side, but forgive him.” And she asks for Zubaidah, who is Ma’mun’s stepmother, if you will, to be allowed to make the hajj pilgrimage.
This was very smart on her end. On one end, she’s working on the grace of Ma’mun; she’s playing to the gift. No caliph will refuse that. There is a very important aspect to being a caliph: you must be magnanimous; you must be generous. This is why he’s showering her with gifts; that’s why he’s showering everybody with gifts; why people are going away with expensive perfumes and jewels and gems. But it’s also an incredibly smart political decision on her end; she is creating stability.
Rather than seek retribution, rather than allow Ma’mun to go through a process of purging, she’s trying to repair and rebuild the fabric of Baghdad society through these acts, and there’s an indication that she will remain an important political influence on Ma’mun throughout his life. I would not be surprised if he turned to her for astrological counsel as well. While he may have had a court astrology, we know that Ma’mun relied on intimate relationships.
There was a male astrologer, Yahya Abi ibn Mansur, who was an intimate partner of Ma’mun–they were likely lovers–but was also an astrologer. So he had a court astrologer, like Abu Ma’shar and others that he would engage with, but his private council involved personal astrologers, like his best friend and lover, Abi ibn Mansur, but also his wife Buran might have been an astrological consultant and consulted for al-Ma’mun throughout his life. So there is an indication he relied on her, not just for political advice but perhaps for philosophical, theological, and even astrological advice.
CB: Right. And this is where we can transition into our next section, talking about one very famous and influential astrologer that Buran may have had some connection to and certainly would have been in close proximity to, who is the astrologer Sahl ibn Bishr.
In an episode where I interviewed Ben Dykes about his new translation of some of Sahl’s work many episodes ago, in the past year or two, he said that the charts for Sahl seemed to indicate that he was active definitely between 815 and 825, and this is the same time period where we’re talking about Buran; because al-Ma’mun starts his reign from 813, all the way until 833. And they’re married in 825, is that correct?
AO: Yeah, so it’s tricky. The dates are rough that we’re engaging with. It is possible she likely had some form of interaction with him, but she probably would have been in the harem, which is not accessible to strange men, to outsiders. The only ones who would have access to her would have been the chief eunuch and her husband and her sons, as well as a figure known as the mukhannathun. The mukhannathun are sort of what we would consider today non-binary or trans-individuals who also mediated between the harem and the public sphere; she would have exerted her influence through the mukhannathun. The mukhannathun would have been her emissary, as well as the chief eunuch; these would have been the connections that she had.
Even though she may have been in the harem, she probably had some interactions with Sahl; so probably not formalized learning under Sahl, but definitely probably would have learned what horoscope he cast, or may have even watched some of the work that he did when she was in court with her husband; she may have seen it and may have learned or interacted, in some way, shape, or form, with Sahl. So there’s definitely a connection there; we just don’t know how deep the connection is.
CB: Yeah, and part of it was through because Sahl was employed by her father.
CB: And maybe just a quick biographical note about Sahl before we go into that connection. He had a specific name appellation, but you were clarifying something for me about his background, in that he was probably a Syriac Christian or Zoroastrian who wrote in Arabic.
AO: Yeah. So ‘Yahudi’ means ‘the Jew’, but it also means ‘the Christian’, and it was in appellation.
CB: So what was his name, or what was the full name?
AO: Yahudi. So Sahl ibn Bishr al-Yahudi, ‘the Jew’, is the title. And so, people have assumed that Sahl was Jewish. There were Jewish astrologers; Masha’allah is a prime example of this. And I would even argue Ibn Ezra, to a certain extent, is part of the Islamicate tradition; he’s engaging with al-Kindi and Abu Ma’shar greatly.
But Sahl was likely a Syriac Christian, because Yahudi doesn’t always mean a person’s religion; it just means the community he is part of, and the Syriac Christians were sometimes called Yahudi. So the evidence seems to indicate he was Christian; he was of Syriac Christian descent, probably of that religious religious community. But later on, there are some people who debate maybe he would have been Jewish; we’re not sure; we don’t know a hundred percent. Not everyone’s religious identities are clarified in the biographical texts, but all indications seem to Indicate Syriac Christian, as far as I can tell.
CB: Okay. So what we can say is that he wrote a number of astrological texts in Arabic that became highly influential in the later astrological tradition; authors like William Lilly in the 17th century are still citing Sahl and drawing on his work. And in the episode I did last summer with Martin Gansten on the Tajika tradition from India–where some Arabic and Persian texts were translated into Sanskrit and started a new tradition of astrology there in India that lasted for many centuries–Martin said that one of the core texts that he thinks started that was a work of Sahl ibn Bishr that eventually got translated into Sanskrit. So Sahl became, at least in later times, a very highly influential astrologer.
And he originally was said to have worked for the governor of Khorasan, but then later Sahl came to work for Buran’s father in Baghdad.
AO: Yeah. I mean, Martin Gansten’s work here is really fascinating; I’m most excited about what he’s doing. Because we’ve seen the European connection, Zael; it’s there–but the connection to Tajika, that is groundbreaking stuff. I saw that particular episode and his translation of The Jewel of–oh, what is it called? ‘The Jewel of Something’. The translation he did of that work on Tajika is just amazing.
So if there’s a connection to Sahl, I wouldn’t doubt it. If Masha’allah is the beginning or the entryway of Persianate astrology into the Islamicate world, the fusion, Sahl represents that ‘middle ground’. He becomes the text that everyone is referring to; he becomes the text that most astrologers are engaging with.
Sahl himself is a prolific writer. The three, big prolific writers are Masha’allah, Sahl, and Abu Ma’shar. These three leave a lot for us; and not only do they leave a lot, but they are also characteristic of the three stages of astrology in the Islamicate world.
The beginning stage is with Masha’allah. This middle stage, we really see, for example, interrogational astrology really comes into its own under Sahl. Masha’allah lays out the rules, but, man, does Sahl take it to another level. And then we see it with Abu Ma’shar as a sort of finalization of ‘Islamizing’ all of the astrology, of really bringing it into an Islamic cosmology, and then transmitting it for a thousand years after him.
So Sahl is an important figure and has a connection to the Nawbakhts. He may not have had the formal education of the Nawbakhts, he may not have learned from them, but he is politically-aligned with them through Buran’s father.
CB: And that’s a really good point and might be relevant later to Buran’s story in terms of Sahl, I agree, really being one of the most foundational authors for horary, and so much of the later horry tradition flows from this foundation that Sahl sets up in the early 9th century; even though we have some of that with Masha’allah in his text on reception. But Sahl really formalizes the horary tradition in a way that almost didn’t seem to exist prior to that time.
So Sahl comes to work for Buran’s father in Baghdad, and if he’s active circa 815 through 825, there’s just this interesting parallel where he would have been alive and he would have been practicing. And a lot of his intellectual activity and political work for the rulers at the time would have been in parallel with Buran growing up and becoming an adult and eventually getting married to al-Ma’mun at that same time period. So it’s just fascinating for me and it provides some insight, understanding the world of the astrologers, seeing the two parallel lives of these two figures line up in this way.
AO: Yeah. One of the beauties of history is being able to see that maybe these two people intersected; that maybe they had some form of connection.
AO: I mean, I often joke, what are the historians of 100 years from now going to write about? Did someone have a Tinder connection or a Bumble? I don’t even know what the hell they’re called. But these people were linked some way, shape, or form; it’s like finding out that someone follows someone on Instagram or TikTok or whatnot.
This is what history is–it’s a way of working with these fragments and seeing if we can recreate their lives. And I think we can be reasonably sure that these two people intersected at some point. They overlapped at some point. They may have even interacted, maybe not as deeply as we hope but certainly there would have been a connection.
CB: Yeah, at least in terms of having a shared connection, where we can pinpoint that both of them were interacting with Buran’s father versus, in the 2nd century, for example, this really tantalizing overlap of the timelines of Claudius Ptolemy and Vettius Valens both probably being in Alexandria in the mid-2nd century, but not referencing each other.
And we have no idea if they ever knew each other, ever passed each other on the streets, and they very well may not have, because it’s sort of like the equivalent of two people who live in New York right now, and they may never come across each other. But in this instance, it’s a little different with Buran because of that shared connection through her father.
CB: Yeah, so that leads us to Buran’s later life and the astrological legend that specifically ties her in more closely with not just being from an astrological family, but potentially practicing and knowing astrology herself.
So after she’s married, there may have been some issues with her bearing children, and there’s no heirs that are recorded coming from those two. And I know Kenneth Johnson talked about this a little bit, and I wasn’t sure what his sources were for this, if this may have created some tension with al-Ma’mun because he needed an heir. Do you know anything about that or what the deal is there?
AO: Yeah. We don’t think she had any children, but I don’t think it would have caused any real tensions. There wasn’t the same sort of anxiety that if we don’t have an heir, that wife somehow has to be discarded, mostly because caliphs were polygamous.
AO: They had multiple wives, they had concubines, they had consorts. In fact, Ma’mun himself is the son of a courtesan or a concubine of some sort. So yeah, I don’t think it would have caused real issues; it just means the lineage passes onto another. There isn’t ever an instance of, for example, a queen can’t have a child, and therefore, she’s discarded.
We know that Buran remains an important part of Ma’mun’s life, because she’s traveling with him to battles. You don’t get to travel to battles unless you’re a very important person. The caliphs traveled with their court, but taking his wife there, likely she would have consulted for these various battles, given him advice; we know that there is some reference that she gave advice around battles.
And she remains in a privileged position in the court even after his death. So she doesn’t seem to have had any real loss or there was no real tension there, but there is likely no children, because the line doesn’t follow Buran.
CB: Okay. And so, she accompanied him on military expeditions against the Byzantine Empire, the Greek-speaking empire that’s still up in parts of Turkey, in that area, and he’s also going out and has astrologers as part of his entourage and his military thing. So she’s obviously going to have some crossover there with whoever–do you know who the chief adviser/astrologer was to al-Ma’mun? Do we have a name?
AO: Ma’mun has several astrologers. I’m not sure who would have been with him during the battles. I know that at one point, he is dealing with Abu Ma’shar, if I’m not mistaken, a little bit later in his life. So it’s possible Abu Ma’shar is involved in some of that.
I know Abu Ma’shar is involved in the Zanj revolt, which is kind of more the successor of al-Ma’mun. So it’s possible, but we don’t know who the specific court astrologer was; he had several. One that would have accompanied him, that would have been probably his main advisor–not specifically the court astrologer, but the person who would have advised him about various battles–would have been Abi ibn Mansur.
Abi ibn Mansur was basically his best friend, his lover, and his astrologer most of his life, and he would have gone with him through the battles. In fact, Abi ibn Mansur gets paid by Ma’mun to do the first real major study on eclipses, lunar eclipses; and so, he would have been there. I don’t know if he was the official astrologer though; that’s less clear.
CB: Okay, and there’s others. I know Umar ibn Farrukhan al-Tabari died somewhere around 815, and he translates Dorotheus from the Persian translation into Arabic sometime in the early 9th century or so.
AO: Yeah. Al-Tabari isn’t a full-on court astrologer though; he works predominantly as a translator; he is an advisor. We know he’s cast some horoscopes for the caliph, but he’s not the main court astrologer. He predominantly is a translator and a teacher, so his role is more in the Bayt al-Hikmah; he’s much more engaged in the intellectual tradition. He is being paid by the caliph and he’s being paid quite handsomely, but he never had the same influence as, say, a court astrologer does.
CB: Sure. I guess I was just trying to think of what other astrologers were active at that time in the early 9th century and what texts were being translated. So we have him translating Dorotheus and some Persian version of Valens is translated around this time.
AO: Yes. The Dorotheus text probably is the most important text that is being translated, hands-down. I know in the history of astrology, we often talk about Ptolemy, Ptolemy Ptolemy, Ptolemy, Ptolomy, but I do think Ptolemy gets a little bit overblown.
Yes, they’re dealing with his text, Tetrabiblios–they’re absolutely writing about it and commenting–but the text that they are deeply influenced by is Dorotheus. In fact, if I were to say of the astrology of the Islamicate world, where its Hellenistic sources are, it’s Dorotheus.
There are some very unique characteristics in Islamicate astrology and one of them is the divisions of the zodiac. They give very clear breakdowns with, first, the faces, the terms, the 9th part and the 12th part. The dodecatemoria, they’re drawing on Dorotheus; they even say they are. “Wise Dorotheus says check the 12th part; double-check the 12th part.” The only difference is that they translate Dorotheus, they take his methods, and then they expand it.
So for example, Abu Ma’shar, who relies heavily on Dorotheus, gives delineations of the 12 parts. In fact, I’m working on a translation of the 12 parts of the Ascendant; he gives all of them. He goes, “If the 12th part is in Virgo, it means this, this, this, and this for a person’s life.” That is Dorotheus; that’s Dorotheus’ influence that is just then expanded in the Islamicate tradition.
CB: Right. So Dorotheus is the main influence for natal. He’s definitely the main influence for electional.
CB: And then even some of his electional stuff is reinterpreted as rules for horary; so it even ends up influencing a lot of the interpretations in the early horary tradition.
AO: Yep. Al-Tabari’s translation of Dorotheus is not very good, unfortunately. It’s not the best translation, but we know that they were engaging with Dorotheus. We know Masha’allah at one point also translates Dorotheus, that there is a translation from him and it’s circulating around.
So it would not have been unlikely that she would have read Dorotheus, that she would have had access to that translation either through Sahl or through others who were translating it at the time. The methods that she ends up demonstrating later on indicate that she would have been well-versed in the Islamicate astrology of the time, which was indebted to Dorotheus.
CB: Okay, brilliant. I love that connection. We’re getting into some real connections and interesting stuff here. So Buran is married to al-Ma’mun for about 20 years, but he, sadly, dies in 833, a bit prematurely from something like food poisoning while he’s out on a military expedition; and she’s actually there with him when he dies.
AO: Yeah, he eats some type of fruit; we don’t know what it was. But he asks for some type of fruit or something to be given to him from the trees, he eats it, and he doesn’t end up sitting well with it.
CB: One source said dates or something like that.
AO: Yeah, it might have been dates. We know it’s some type of fruit, some type of stone fruit of some sort that was quite popular, and it just didn’t sit with him, and that’s the end of Ma’mun.
CB: Oh, man, that’s rough.
AO: A date took him out.
CB: Yeah. There’s always funny delineations that sometimes happen with ancient astrological authors, like weird deaths–like the native will be torn apart by dogs–and you’re like, “Why is that relevant?” or “How could that ever happen?” But then, occasionally, there will be those really weird stories still, even in modern times, of a native that accidentally got eaten by a dog or something.
AO: It’s like when you read those random, really weird rules in America. Don’t shove a moose out of an airplane is an Alaskan law; it lets you know somebody’s shoved a moose out of an airplane. So when they tell you the native might be torn by dogs, some poor, hapless person was torn by dogs at some point.
CB: Right. There’s a reason that rule exists.
CB: So he ate some fruit or something, and he was poisoned and passed away. So Buran lives for another 50 years, and this seems to have affected her pretty seriously. I found this one poem that she was said to have written after he died, which was actually really beautiful; and it comes from a translation that I just picked up of Ibn al-Sai, titled The Consorts of the Caliphs: Women in the Court of Baghdad.
CB: Yeah, it’s amazing. There’s a bunch of authors associated with it, but here’s the actual poem from Buran, and part of it says: “Weep, my eyes! The Caliph has passed on, and I’m a captive to melancholy. Once I was the one who ravaged fate; now he’s gone, fate ravages me.”–which is just really beautiful. I’m sure it’s even more beautiful in the actual Arabic, because you always lose something with poetry when it’s translated.
But still, that death and that loss of her husband, like you were saying earlier, it probably wasn’t just a politically-arranged marriage, but there was some actual perhaps even intellectual or other emotional connection that they shared that was a real thing.
AO: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, all indications point to her becoming a very close companion for Ma’mun. They were intellectual equals. They would have debated philosophy. They would have been talking about battle strategy. She would have advised him. And so, there’s a deep affection there, both in the initial marriage, but even by the end.
And so, by all indications–I mean, no marriage is perfect–but it was probably a happy marriage, a happy union between the two; not just a convenient one, but one where there was true affection between these two people.
CB: Okay. So interestingly, she lives to be about 79 or 80. So she’s only, what, in her 30s at this point; because she lives for another 50 years.
CB: So after this point, there’s a series of events, but her father ends up falling out of power and ends up falling out of favor with the next caliph.
CB: And Buran’s own lands and estates end up being confiscated by the next caliph’s new vizier, who’s kind of a–I don’t know if you can say he’s a sketchy figure.
AO: Yeah, he’s shady.
CB: Okay, good, I wasn’t sure. I don’t know if you can make the analogy, but in Aladdin and Disney, he sounds like a ‘Jafar’-type character; that was the image that I had because he said he was the inventor of the iron maiden torture device or something like that.
AO: Yeah, he’s sketchy, he’s corrupt; we know he was corrupt. He confiscated people’s lands and monies. He’s a brutal dude–not in any way, shape, or form a good guy.
CB: Okay. So Buran falls afoul of him and her father loses. Why did he lose power and influence? Who was the next caliph, I guess I should ask first?
AO: The next caliph is Mu’tasim. And Mu’tasim is really trying to shift the power balance. He wants to bring in his people, he wants to bring in the people that are going to support him, and he’s being advised by others.
Buran isn’t fully out of favor; she remains an esteemed person. She ends up in her own palace, but she sort of lives in retirement. She lives away, secluded from courtly life; she’s not part of the court. Her father is the one that takes a serious tumble.
Her father ends up kind of butting heads with the vizier of al-Mu’tasim, and Mu’tasim just doesn’t like her father in any way, al-Hasan. And so, he ends up kind of on the outskirts of society. He’s still quite wealthy, he’s still well-off, but he no longer has access to power.
This was not uncommon; even astrologers faced the whims of the caliph. Mu’tasim himself was not a friendly dude; he was quite harsh. In fact, Abu Ma’shar has a very famous experience with Mu’tasim.Mu’tasim goes to Abu Ma’shar and tests him and says, “Tell me what is going to happen. Cast this interrogational chart.” And Abu Ma’shar does, but the result is not a good result; and so, he tells the caliph, and the caliph doesn’t like it.
But Abu Ma’shar, being the brilliant astrologer that he is, ends up being right. So the unfavorable thing turns out to be true, and so, al-Mu’tasim has him flogged; he has Abu Ma’shar beaten. And this is the court astrologer, he should be in a cushy position, but even Abu Ma’shar is ‘on the rocks’ with Mu’tasim.
And Abu Ma’shar gives a very funny sort of response. He says, “I hit the mark, so I got hit,” as a way of demonstrating that, “Yeah, I’m good, but even I get my ass beat every once in a while.”
CB: Right. Yeah, so that is a real shift. And the time period for his reign, for the caliph, is 833 through 842.
CB: And so, this is where things get kind of interesting, because Buran’s father’s out of power, she is kind of in retirement. She’s off in her palace in the eastern part, the older part of Baghdad or something like that, right?
AO: So the way that Baghdad is designed, there is a series of palaces that they can move around in; and she’s in one of those palaces sort of living in retirement.
CB: Okay. And it’s at this point in her life, at some point during the reign of this new caliph, that the astrological legend is preserved. There’s at least one source, a 13th century historian, but there may be two sources, right?
AO: Yeah. So Ibn Tawus gives a reference to the predictions; he has a compendium of predictions, of astrological predictions. He gives a series of them, like, “Oh, so-and-so astrologer predicted this, and so-and-so astrologer predicted that.”
And then George Saliba, in his seminal and brilliant article–I should say, germinal; I’m trying to stop using that word. The germinal work, The Role of the Astrologer in Medieval Islamic Society, or Medieval Abbasid society, also mentions Khallikan as a reference to it. So there’s two sources there, two named sources; and then there’s a third anonymous text that is a series of prophecies that also mentions it. So likely, at the very least, after her death, this legend is attributed to her; so it’s very possible that she gave the prediction.
CB: Okay, so it’s tested pretty well. So I want to read it from Saliba’s synopsis–because he does it in a very short and very good fashion–and then we can talk about it from there. And this is from the article that you just mentioned, but it says: “The last example of a ta’sil is reported about the only female astrologer as a historical personality that we know of to date. Bawran, the daughter of al-Hasan ibn Sahl ibn Nawbaht and the wife of al-Ma’mun ‘used to lift the astrolabe and look at the horoscope of the caliph, al-Mu’tasim’.” And that’s a quote from one of the actual historical texts, saying that Buran used to lift the astrolabe and look at the horoscope of the current caliph who had taken over after her husband died.
So he goes on, Saliba goes on and says: “One day she noticed that a crisis was about to befall the caliph through a wooden instrument. She sent her father al-Hasan, who had fallen out of favor with the caliph, to the court with the ominous news. At the appointed time, every precaution was taken so that the caliph would not come near any wood. When his servant brought him his comb and toothpicks, al-Hasan ordered the servant to use them before offering them to the caliph. As soon as he did, his head swelled up and he fell dead. Needless to say, al-Hasan was then taken back into the service of the caliph as a reward and Bawran was allowed to repossess her villages and estates that Ibn al-Zayyat, the vizier of Mu’tasim had confiscated from her.”
So this is sort of a condensed version of the legend, that Buran was actually involved in somehow thwarting an assassination attempt on the current king, the current caliph, through astrological means of some sort, which basically is the gist of the story or the legend.
AO: Yeah. And George Saliba is this brilliant scholar, and I’m at the risk of correcting him. She is not the only named female astrologer; she’s the first named female astrologer; the earliest example that we have in the Islamicate world. But Rayhana, Biruni’s paramour, is also an astrologer.
Very famously, he dedicates his book, The Elements of Astrology, to her. In the Latin, unfortunately, they skip the end portion of it; the end portion of the text is questions from her. She’s an astrologer asking questions about how to practice astrology.
CB: That’s really interesting, because he comes off, in Saliba’s analysis of al-Biruni, as more of a skeptic of astrology that’s reluctantly writing that intro to astrology text. Is that your take as well? What’s the truth of that?
AO: Not at all, no.
AO: So this is a bit dated. And Saliba is brilliant, again, but we’ve updated our understanding. The history of astrology often–particularly, the early history of astrology–falls into a very orientalist framework of rationality and science versus the superstition of astrology, and al-Biruni, who’s the scientist, couldn’t possibly have believed in astrology.
Al-Biruni is a court astrologer. He is an astrologer; he doesn’t do it reluctantly. He’s a true believer of astrology, he believes it’s a genuine science; the difference is that al-Biruni is deeply critical of other astrologers. He’s not critical of astrology, he’s critical of other astrologers, who he sees some of them as being charlatans and not good at the mathematics and science portion of it. We see this with his reflections of Abu Ma’shar. He is deeply indebted to Abu Ma’shar, but he’s constantly criticizing Abu Ma’shar, because Abu Ma’shar sucked at math.
So al-Biruni is much more about aligning it with the mathematics of the time period, but he doesn’t reject astrology. He practices astrology up until his very last day. He’s a court astrologer, and he writes probably one of the most important Medieval texts on how to practice astrology for a female astrologer, for a woman astrologer, a princess known as Rayhana, who herself would have been an astrologer.
So Buran is the first, but there are others. There’s a third, Zulema, a North African queen, probably of Berber or Amazigh descent is also mentioned, but I don’t have the primary sources for her, only secondary; so I’ve got to track that down a little bit, but there are other ones.
So this is where Saliba is a little bit off but, the story itself is very interesting. It tells us a lot about Buran and the knowledge she might have had and the things that she was able to do, or at least was attributed to her because of her astrological knowledge.
CB: Yeah. And one thing, before we move back to that really quickly I want to mention, because it ties into, earlier, you mentioning al-Biruni and his views on other astrologers and criticisms. One of the things that comes up is the social stratification of the different astrologers and that there’s very many different levels.
A lot of the ones we’re talking about are astrologers at the very top of the social hierarchy, who are direct advisors to the caliph or to the king, but there were many. There’s a middle tier and there is also a lower tier of the street astrologers that were literally practicing on the streets, right?
AO: Yep, absolutely. So astrology is deeply, deeply popular. As I’ve mentioned, this is not just a matter of some elites who are interested in astrology; astrology is woven into the very fabric of Medieval Islamicate society.
Everybody is paying attention to where the Moon is, everyone’s paying attention to where Venus is. They’re conceiving based off of the astrology, they’re planning their weddings, they’re planning their battles–they’re doing all of it and everybody has access at different levels.
There are street astrologers who practice on the corners. Every sort of future law that we’ll see that restricts astrology is only dealing with street astrologers; and it never bans astrology, it just sort1 of regulates it.
Then there’s middle tier astrologers who are the astrologers for governors and local emirs; al-Biruni is an example of one of these–he was working for a Turko-Persian dynasty in Khorasan–and then you have court astrologers.
But the problem is that the history of astrology often gets shaped by our modern understandings or colonial modernities’ understanding of science. Rationality and superstition, these are the two tiers, and that leads to some uncomfortable, weird, and awkward conclusions. Al-Kindi is another example of this.
Al-Kindi’s quite critical of astrologers, and so is al-Rijal, but there’s Medieval texts about him and astrology. But if you ask modern philosophers about al-Kindi, they only focus on his philosophy. They don’t talk about Al-Kindi as the astrologer, even though it’s a very important part of him. Al-Rijal is another one.
Al-Rijal, for the longest time, was just referred to as an astronomer, even though he writes these very important astrological treatises; and the reason for this is that he criticizes Abu Ma’shar. He actually has a very funny line where he says he prefers al-Kindi because: “Abu Ma’shar will leave you sleepless at night and confused.” And anyone who’s ever read the French philosopher Derrida can probably sympathize with that experience.
Because of that criticism of Abu Ma’shar and other astrologers, there’s an assumption that al-Rijal was an astronomer, not an astrologer. In reality, these were the same positions–astronomers were astrologers–and so, that’s where al-Biruni is.
CB: And that’s funny, that criticism of Abu Ma’shar. Another criticism of him was that he was very long-winded and his texts were sometimes very long, and so, actually what al-Qabisi set out to do with his introduction was to shorten an Introduction to Astrology and shorten Abu Ma’shar’s Great Introduction.
But then that ties in, because al-Qabisi also is one of the authors of a surviving test of astrologers that was supposed to be given if you wanted to be the caliph’s astrologer. You had to take this test, and these are the things that you needed to know in order to standardize what it took to be a good astrologer.
And some of what we’re seeing here, that exists in any different time period of astrology, is the inter-fighting among astrologers or the competition for who knows the most or who is the best at what they do, and what you should know in order to be considered a professional astrologer versus what they looked down on as a charlatan or a street-level astrologer or what have you.
AO: Yeah, and it’s also an indication, again, of the formalized training that would have existed for an astrologer; you needed to pass it. This system is not unique to astrology in the Medieval Islamicate world; it’s all learning. It’s known as the ijazah system; it means ‘licensing’.
To demonstrate that you have learned something, you must pass the particular series of tests. In many ways, some have argued that that is the birth of our modern degree system. You pass a sort of exit exam and then you get a degree. It’s more complicated than that, obviously; there’s no real transmission, but the astrology would have had a formal component to this. And this indicates to us also that Buran likely would have had formal education, and it was very likely that she herself would have taken this examination at some point or demonstrated it.
The technique that she uses here–or what we can surmise of her techniques–all indicate not just a formal level of learning, but also indicate that at some point, she would have put that learning into practice and have been examined. Therefore, she’s able to advise and consult and her predictions are taken seriously. She’s not a dilettante or an amateur; she is an expert.
CB: Okay. Yeah, I mean, at some point, I’d like to see a translation of that work of al-Qabisi, because I’m very curious what the test was and what was considered to be required knowledge for an astrologer to serve at the highest levels.
And there’s also another translation that I came across of al-Tawus, I think, which sounds like it has a lot of anecdotes from different astrologers and the different stratifications of society, and anecdotes about the street-level astrologers versus mid-tier versus higher-tier ones.
AO: Ibn Tawus, is that who you mean?
CB: Yeah, that’s right.
AO: Ibn Tawus, yeah, he’s probably one of the better sources when it comes to stories about astrologers. He’s also the one that records the most predictions. There’s all sorts of fascinating predictions about death and people doing all sorts of interesting things about it, and Ibn Tawus is the one that records a great deal of them.
We do know what the examinations did look like. They involved demonstrating the theoretical frameworks of astrology, like some basic stuff–what does Mercury govern and stuff–but also can you find this lost object; if there’s a thief, how do you uncover their name. There’s a whole tradition of uncovering names using the lunar mansions that involved letters associated with the lunar mansions. So the examination was pretty intense.
CB: Okay. So the crucial sentence in there was that “she used to lift the astrolabe to look at the horoscope of the caliph.” So she has the birth chart, she knows the birth chart through whatever sources she has, and she’s actively studying his birth chart on a regular basis, and perhaps using other forms of astrology: like electional or inceptional astrology, where you’re looking at the different dates and times, or even horary astrology, where you’re casting a chart for the moment of a question, which an astrolabe would be useful for in terms of determining the exact rising sign or the Ascendant at a specific moment in time.
That’s one of the reasons I hired an illustrator to illustrate the cover art for this episode…
AO: It’s gorgeous.
CB: …sort of a fantasized version of Buran examining an astrolabe. Astrolabes were very important and became one of the characteristic pieces of equipment that astrologers used in this time period, right?
AO: Yeah. So this particular reference here tells us a lot; it’s small, but it’s a lot. And this is what historians do; we take a fragment and we try to pull as much as we can from it; squeeze as much detail as possible.
Firstly, it tells us that contrary to the way we might understand contemporary astrology, they are not looking at one chart; they’re looking at multiple charts.
AO: We know that, at minimum, from, for example, the practices of Abu Ma’shar, that they’re probably looking at about three or four charts. They’re looking at the natal chart, which is the ‘root’, as it’s referred to. They’re looking at the taḥāwil, which is the revolution chart; this is the breakdown by year.
CB: Solar return chart.
AO: Yeah, the solar return chart. They’re looking at the tasyīr chart, which the word is ‘profection’; the profection chart.
CB: Annual profection.
AO: And they’re looking at the zij, which is a table of some sort; an ephemeris, if you will. So they’re taking all of those into consideration, and then of course the astrolabe is used to deal with things like transits and what’s going on right then and there. So she was likely using all of these charts in order to determine what was happening.
So there would have been the qat technique here; the reference of the qat is very significant. Yeah, there’s an astrolabe right there.
CB: So there’s an astrolabe.
AO: I wish I had brought mine. I left mine in my work office. I could have totally shown you. When I teach my class on this, we actually play around with the astrolabe; it’s really quite fun to work with them.
CB: So for those not familiar, what can you do with an astrolabe? What can you calculate?
AO: So an astrolabe allows you to calculate the exact position of the stars; it’s used predominantly for the Ascendant. The Ascendant is the most important piece for the Islamicate astrologers; and for all traditional astrologers, still, it is crucial.
It’s also used to understand what stars are rising, what wandering stars are rising at that particular time. It’s used as both a mathematical device, a sort of calculation device, as well as an observation device; something that you actually hold up to your eyes and measure. And for centuries after, it’ll be used for navigation predominantly; but astrologers were also using it; so it’s one of the main tools.
CB: So this is like advanced technology.
CB: This is like the equivalent of pulling out your smartphone and looking up your astrological chart at the moment; you could do that basically with this device.
AO: Yep, it is an advanced technology that’s being used and will remain in use for roughly about a thousand years after its invention. I mean, I think we still have evidence that in the 19th century people were using astrolabes.
CB: Okay. And there’s a crucial word that Saliba mentions that’s used in there, which he translates as ‘crisis’, but what is the actual term?
AO: Yeah, the word is qat. it doesn’t mean ‘crisis’; it means ‘cut’ or ‘cutting’ or ‘something that’s being severed’. The qat is a very important technique; it’s part of a series of ‘length-of-life’ techniques that, again, drawing very heavily from Hellenistic astrology, involves looking at the hilaj, that is, ‘the giver of life’, but then determining what’s known as the ‘killing planet’; the planet that is going to cause death.
And Abu Ma’shar gives some very clear indications of how to do this. It involves figuring out ‘the victor of death’, usually looking at the 8th house, but there’s also other ways of doing it. The Lot of Death, the sahm al maut, also gets translated into the Latin, Pars Mortis. It’s there, not used as much, but it’s still there in the Latin tradition; which if I’m not mistaken, the distance from Moon to Mars projected then from Saturn is one of the formulas that’s given for it.
Once this is determined, that planet is the ‘killing planet’: Mars, Saturn. The Moon could also be a ‘killing planet’ interesting enough; there’s a whole other story we can talk about, about the Moon as a ‘killing planet’. But she would have then determined, okay, this is the ‘killing planet’, the planet that would cause illness, harm, and damage to the caliph. She would have then compared it to the taḥāwil chart; that is, the solar revolution chart.
The fact that she’s checking it daily indicates that she’s looking at transits; she’s trying to find out what is going on. And this is where they struggled–transits were difficult. They couldn’t always see when an ingress was happening, and so they relied on tables, they relied on the astrolabe. And so, they had a series of canonical tables, these zijs, that they would rely on to tell them, okay, 60 years from now Mars will be here; and so, she would have used all of this to determine what is going to happen.
Say, for example, the ‘killing planet’ was the Moon. She then would have noticed the movement of the Moon, the aspects to the Moon, and that would have allowed her to come to the conclusion that there is some type of harm from a wooden object. We can even go further by saying that whatever planet it was, it was probably in Capricorn.
Capricorn rules over lead and wood; wood is one of the connections of Capricorn, as well as various instruments that we find in al-Rijal and other texts. I think al-Biruni also gives it as well, if I’m not mistaken. And Capricorn also governs plots of some sort; so we can pull much detail from this.
And from there, she advises her father, “Hey, the caliph is in danger from a wooden object. It’s going to happen when the Moon is in Capricorn,” in a month or so, or a week, or so or in a day, or so whatever it is; and her father intervenes, and as a result is rewarded because she does save the caliph’s life. All of this indicates just the level of sophistication that Buran would have had.
The Lot of Death, the sahm al maut, is not an easy technique; Pars Mortis is a difficult technique. If she’s using a Lot of Death, or if she’s using the ‘victor of death’ that involves a level of calculation; it also involves something known as hakam, meaning ‘judgment’.
I know sometimes people talk about intuition when it comes to astrology. For the Medieval Islamic astrologer, it’s not intuition, it’s judgment, and judgment is a faculty; it’s something that is trained over time. The best way to compare it to is to a craftsman that knows how to carve wood just by feeling it, or he’s able to touch a stone and knows where it’ll crack if he strikes or where it’ll break; it’s this faculty that is developed.
And so, there is an element measuring and judging which of these planets would have been the most dangerous, which of these planets would have caused harm. That takes an extreme level of learning. This is not an amateur astrologer; this is an expert astrologer who has been formally-trained, who’s able to apply that judgment, demonstrate advanced calculation techniques–if it’s the Lot of Death, taking the distance between planets and then projecting it from there–and demonstrating facility with the advanced technology of the time period, the astrolabe.
CB: Yeah. And that makes me think it’s something that is not just book-learning, but it’s something that can only be mastered from years of practice and experience. For example, Lee Lehman, for her book, she titled it, The Martial Art of Horary Astrology. She likens it to learning something like a martial art, where initially you just start with learning stances, and you just woodenly recreate what you’re taught.
But over a period of years of repetition, and through repeated usage and applying yourself over an extended period of time, eventually it becomes something that’s ingrained in you, that just sort of flows as a result of your mastery of the subject, and that’s sort of what comes to mind when you say that.
AO: Absolutely. And this is the reason why I believe that Buran likely consulted Ma’mun. The ability to make that judgment indicates that she had practiced this, not casually, but formally, in some type of setting.
So if the story holds, then the reality is that one of the court astrologers and main astrologers of the Abbasid time period was Buran. She was the one guiding events with Ma’mun, and she likely had a huge influence; a much larger influence than the biographers give credit to, and it’s likely because of this technique. This technique is very advanced and it only comes from years and years of really plying her craft.
CB: Yeah, we’re truly talking about an astrologer-queen at this point in history, which is a really fascinating thing to think about in the larger historical context; not just the first woman that we know of who practiced or knew astrology by name, but potentially one of the most eminent ones in history.
The only other one I can think of maybe on that level, there was Queen Elizabeth who was consulting with astrologers at different times in the whatever century, but maybe Nancy Reagan, who was the wife of Ronald Reagan, and their interest in astrology and use of astrology in the White House or something like that.
Anyways, back to your point about the complicatedness of this technique. Determining the planet that was the Master of the Nativity or the predominator in Hellenistic astrology for the purpose of the length-of-life technique, and also some of the subsequent debates about the length-of-life technique is one of the most hotly-contested and was said to be one of the most difficult things in ancient astrology to do.
The technique to actually determine either the length that somebody would live or to determine when a person might reach a crisis–that could be a period where health and physical vitality was threatened, so that the person could exit their life at that point in time or could have a significant health crisis–I don’t think there’s any technique that more ‘ink was spilt over’ in terms of trying to figure out how to make that work. Ptolemy dealt with it, and Valens dealt with it, and just about every ancient astrologer eventually addressed this topic.
AO: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, it’s the primary and the first thing that the astrologers in the Medieval Islamicate world are learning as well. It’s about learning the Master of the Nativity, the hilaj–these are the crucial calculations; there is no horoscope without it.
We talk about the Ascendant. The Ascendant is very important, but you’ve got to be able to identify, after the Ascendant, this ‘giver of life’, and from that springs everything. All the major predictions come from that, and it also ties in then these different charts. You’re looking at the natal chart, the yearly chart–they’re all kind of tied into one another.
It’s also what makes transits and gives them those significations. It’s why transits become important. Mercury moving through Gemini isn’t going to have the same effect on everybody, right? All transits don’t have the same effect. And it’s going to be that crucial point that will kind of tie everything together; and the fact that she’s able to do this technique indicates, again, that she’s had formal learning.
She’s probably reading these texts, she’s probably engaging these texts, she’s probably very familiar with Dorotheus and his rules about how to locate the hilaj, how to locate the ‘giver of life’. And even the terms are very important. Who is the ‘term ruler’ of the ‘giver of life’ is a very important technique, and she would have been aware of this. So she’s working not just with the zodiac but the calculated divisions of the zodiac.
She’s looking at the terms, she’s looking at the dodecatemoria, she’s looking at the 9th part, she’s looking at the faces, again, indicating the high level of sophistication as an astrologer. And as sophisticated as she is, what it tells us more broadly about Islamicate astrology is that it is interwoven throughout society, that this isn’t a case of one person consulting.
I mean, attributing astrology to a queen is not a minor act; it’s an indication of how prestigious astrology was and how it will remain for about a thousand years in the Islamicate world or so. And Buran is that point; she’s a really great example of how important astrology was to the Medieval Islamicate societies, but also the prestige that was associated with this. She is a woman of learning, and she’s able to put that learning into practice.
CB: Right, and a woman of education and of letters and poetry, but also of science and of what was kind of an advanced technology that could give you information that you shouldn’t otherwise be able to have. And sometimes that was applied to things like medicine–to do things like we do in modern times with x-rays as a diagnostic tool–but other times was used to provide information about a situation that otherwise you shouldn’t be able to know about through this strange system or what have you.
AO: Yeah, absolutely. And the fact that she was a person who wrote poetry, but also practiced astrology is a further indication that we have a very holistic understanding of knowledge here. Astrology is not a separate field–astrology is interwoven with all of these different fields. Just as the astrologer is not, for example, a natal astrologer versus a mundane astrologer–I think the word is now, mundane astrologer–they are not separated. They are trained in all of that, because you have to interweave it.
If you’re doing a natal prediction, you’re also taking into consideration what fardar the state is in. You’re taking into consideration which period, which dawr, it’s in, which are these massive planetary periods. You’re taking into consideration where in the Great Conjunction you are: are you in the greater conjunction, the middle conjunction. So your work here, as you noted earlier, you’re doing electional work as you’re reading the natal chart; so all of that is interwoven into one another.
But astrology also is linked to these other sites of knowledge; it’s not something separate. If you’re an astrologer, you’re a historian. Masha’allah is a historian, Abu Ma’shar is a historian–they’re putting forth universalist theories through astrology. In fact, I joke that if you want to become a really good astrologer, study history. Become a historian because it’ll really give you the tools and techniques for understanding political and world astrology, because they’re all interwoven with another.
So she is a person who doesn’t see poetry and astrology as separate, but would have seen these things as a holistic understanding of knowledge. To be lettered, to be educated means to respect knowledge and learning in all its varied forms, and also see how these are interwoven together. To see the poetry of the stars, or the science of the stars, the judgment of the stars, the history of the stars–all would have been part of her learning.
CB: Right. Brilliant. And you mentioned Dorotheus, and that’s great because that ties us back into that. You’re right, Book 3 of Dorotheus is on the length-of-life technique and on this very technique that we’re talking about, so that’s crucial.
So she ends up having this successful prediction, her father’s power is restored to some extent and some of hers is restored, and she goes on to live the rest of her life, 50 years after her husband died; she eventually passes away in September of 884.
And there is some story towards the end of her life where one of the later caliphs had moved the center of power away from Baghdad, and she stayed in Baghdad, in her little palace. But then a later caliph wanted to move back to Baghdad, but they didn’t own any lands there anymore somehow. So she was asked if she would give up her home to allow the caliph to relocate back to Baghdad, somewhere later in her life.
AO: Yeah. Eventually, as a result of a crisis, a military crisis, these soldiers, imported mercenaries, become very, very powerful, and there’s tensions with soldiers in Baghdad; they moved to Samara, which is a little bit further away. And Samara actually is where most of the horoscopes are cast.
This is something that people who are recreating the horoscopes often forget. They keep setting it for Baghdad, but it’s actually in Samara. For the majority of the horoscopes we have, with the exception of the foundation of Baghdad, obviously, the majority of the horoscopes are in Samara–all of them are, because the caliphate ends up being there with its court astrologers.
When they return back, they do ask her if they can return to the palace. She remains sort of committed to the institution of the caliphate; she protects the successor of her husband. Not only does she restore her father, but she saves the caliph. If the caliph died, her father could have been restored that way, but she intervenes to save the caliph; and later on, it seems like she continues to remain favorable and is willing to acquiesce.
But also, as a reminder that she remains an important figure even later in her life, she may possibly have given advice to caliphs, they may have sought her out–not regularly–but she would have transformed into the wise woman role. She is connected to the Nawbakhts, she is the descendant of the Nawbakhts, she is connected to Ma’mun–so she’s the direct lineage of the foundation of Baghdad itself.
CB: I’m thinking of her in this elder stateswoman-type role at this point later in her life.
AO: Think about her as like the daughter of someone who founded DC.
CB: Right, like George Washington or something.
AO: Yeah, like George Washington’s ancestors. So she has a very important connection here, and so people continue to see her in respectful terms. It’s not easy, right? A woman living in a patriarchal society; we shouldn’t paint a rosy picture by any means. But this is a woman who enjoyed a great deal of success even after the death of her husband, and enjoyed that success based off of her own merits.
CB: Yeah, potentially stayed relevant partially due to her skill in astrology in some way.
AO: Yeah. I mean, a lot of the biographical accounts focus on the marriage, but the actuality is that her later influence comes predominantly because of her learning. She is a learned woman who is educated, who’s smart, who’s wise, and who’s able to give counsel to other caliphs, and so much so that Ibn Tawus talks about her saving the caliph with the prediction.
CB: Okay. So to bring this full circle and wrap it up with other legends involving astrologers, like Thrasyllus, for example, and the famous legend surrounding him and Tiberius. Tiberius was said to be in the habit of interviewing astrologers and having them read his birth chart, and then once they get done saying great things, he turns the tables and asks them, “Now, what do you see in your birth chart?” And if they didn’t say something to the effect of, “I’m in imminent danger,” then they were thrown off a cliff, and that was the end of the interview. And Thrasyllus, famously, when asked that question, supposedly breaks into a cold sweat and says, “I’m in imminent danger,” and then Tiberius turns around and says, “You’re hired,” basically.
With legends like that, we don’t know for sure about the authenticity of it, or how much is just a legend versus how much it’s actually based on something real. But with this, while we somewhat run into a similar ground about the specifics, there’s a lot more going here because of Buran’s family background and astrology, the place of astrology, the education she would have had, the role she had in the society, and all sorts of other things–the connections she would have had to other astrologers–that makes some core part of this a little bit more plausible or makes it seem like there’s some kernel of truth that’s more compelling here than some of these other legends that sometimes involve astrologers. Do you feel that way? Where are you at with this?
AO: Yeah, I think it’s very likely. I think the detail here is specific. Mentioning the qat, they could have said, oh, she predicted the death phase of the caliph. But by going into the techniques, this is an indication that this likely either happened or there was some semblance of ‘factual-ness’ to this; we don’t know what level it is.
The reality is that predictions are often associated with prestige; so it’s a way of adding prestige onto people. But I’m also one of those historians that I’m not committed to the idea that we need to disabuse people of their beliefs. If people believe that Buran made a prediction about the caliph’s death and intervene, that in of itself is significant. That in itself is important; it tells us something; it tells us something about Buran’s character, it tells us something about Medieval Islamicate societies.
And I’m also a big believer in trying to recreate that sense of wonder to a certain extent. These aren’t superstitious people. These are people with a great sense of wonder around their world, and there’s something beautiful in that; and so, it is important to treat these legends on their own.
I don’t know whether she really predicted the caliph’s death, but we do know that these techniques likely would have been used by her. The fact they’re attributed to her indicates that she probably made regular predictions; this was probably the most famous of hers because she was able to save the caliph.
That mention of the qat, the mention of the astrolabe, the mention of the wooden object–those are very specific. Usually, when a prophecy is made, or when a prophecy is used as a sort of discursive tool or a tactic of building prestige for a person, it’s more vague: so-and-so predicted the end of this empire, and the empire came crashing down.
When they get into the details of it, what they’re trying to do is demonstrate the science behind it; they’re trying to demonstrate the technique. They’re going, “This is what happened and this is how it happened.” And so, that is what makes Buran’s legend particularly significant. You mentioned Thrasyllus. Have you ever seen I, Claudius, the TV series?
CB: No, I haven’t, but I heard he plays a role in that. Is he prominent?
AO: He has a very minor role, but I think you would enjoy it. Tiberius was neurotic about his astrologers; very nervous and anxious about them.
AO: There’s this great scene in the series–you’ve got to check it out; BBC, really good–where he’s off in Capri; he’s kind of in isolation. And everyday, Thrasyllus has been making these predictions, and he’s sitting with the horoscope, “Any day now, you’re going to get good news. You’re going to get good news.”
And Thrasyllus comes home one day and Tiberius is sitting at his table, and he goes, “What are you doing” He goes, “I’m reading your horoscope, and it tells me that the messenger that’s about to show up is going to determine your life, because if he doesn’t have good news I’m going to throw you off of this island.”
AO: And Thrasyllus looks, and he goes, “I promise you it’s good news.” Turns out that the messenger is like, “Come back to Rome, you have been named emperor,” so it works out for him.
CB: Yeah. And that’s actually based on one of the legends or stories, which is that there was supposedly a boat off in the distance, and there was a question put to Thrasyllus of what message does this contain, and then he says, “It’s a very positive, and it’s predicting great things for you,” or something positive like that.
And I’ve speculated that for something like that, he may have cast an inceptional chart for that moment. There are actually rules in the electional tradition that survive, maybe from Dorotheus, about casting a chart for the moment a letter is received in order to see what it is about, before you’ve even opened it or something like that.
AO: Yeah, the same technique is still found in the Islamicate tradition, determining the contents of a message, but also the hidden element of it. So you check the 12th part of the message to see if there’s an underlying secret message, or if there’s a secret intention, or if there’s some type of plot behind it; and that comes from Dorotheus; directly from Dorotheus.
CB: Right. So the important part about this or part of the important point is legends like this were able to circulate because people in that time saw there was a certain amount of plausibility surrounding it for some reason and surrounding the figure of Buran, and that’s probably what’s most important and probably does point to whatever the greater truth is underlying it, because of her family lineage of astrologers and her learning and her position in society and everything else.
And so, that’s one of the reasons why we feel a little bit more comfortable doing this episode and talking about in that way and giving her, or restoring in some sense, her rightful part in history in having this discussion. So thanks a lot for doing this with me today.
CB: I think this was a lot of fun. And I can’t believe how much we covered, but I think we’ve given a pretty good overview of the whole story.
AO: Thank you for having me. I hope everyone found it interesting, our foray into Buran and the fun, fun world of Medieval Islamic astrology.
CB: Yeah, which is a huge, sprawling thing that you’re doing amazing work on. And, so this is something you talk about regularly in your podcast, right?
AO: Yeah. So I talk quite a bit about Medieval Islamicate astrology. For example, the last one, we recreated Abu Ma’shar’s techniques in the podcast: what he would have used, what the solar revolution actually looked like, what the 12th part was in the role of the whole horoscope; how you had to look at the hilaj, but also translations.
I’m not a translator in the sense that I just don’t have the patience or the time. I’m tenured-tracked, so I’ve got to put out books and articles, and I don’t have the time to write translations, which take a decade to do; but I am able to do small translations. So I translated Abu Ma’shar and al-Biruni’s natal significations for the lunar mansions.
AO: So the lunar mansions are one weird element of Islamicate astrology that just disappears in the Medieval Latin tradition; they just don’t pay attention to it at all. But like the nakshatra, the tradition from India, where the lunar mansion is in your birth chart is interpreted to mean something for your life; so it’s not just electional and talismanic work.
For example, if you’re in the 12th mansion, or if you’re in the 6th mansion, if you’re Al Thurayya or whatever, it means that you’ll grow up noble, that you’ll have a broken bone at 16, that you’ll find marriage at 25; a very specific delineation; so I just translated those. So there will be a mix of translations and a mix of recreation of methods on the podcast.
CB: Nice. That’s amazing. And that’s one of the elements that came in from India, the lunar mansions, and then was merged with whatever Greek horoscopic tradition in the 8th and 9th centuries. So that’s primarily available on your page; it’s patreon.com/headonhistory, right?
AO: Yep, available there, and I’ll probably publish it somewhere at some point. I’m a big believer in accessibility. So at some point, it’ll end up either in a Twitter thread, or it’ll end up on some place that’s not paywalled, I promise, at some point.
CB: Okay. And you do pretty much weekly Twitter threads on different topics, often on astrology and other related things through your Twitter account, right? I do Wednesday threads; they were started about a year ago. And they weirdly got popular and people seemed to like them, but it was really fundamentally a desire to make things accessible.
I think my deepest frustrations with the academy is that things are hidden behind the the ‘ivory tower’, and there’s some really cool things that people are doing on the history of astrology, the history of these areas, and I’m trying to make it as accessible as possible, and also, just interesting. This history is not boring history by any means; at least, I don’t think so: I mean, brother turning on brother, astrologers beefing with one another, shade thrown in texts, predictions of death.
CB: Yeah, I mean, this is all interesting stuff. For me, since I was a teenager, astrology became the gateway into learning about ancient history and learning about philosophy and learning about ancient mathematics and ancient cultures and different things like this, because there’s real interesting stories and stuff that are also sometimes tied into the astrology and the astrology techniques.
And being able to look up charts for the chart of Baghdad or the possible birth charts of Buran or different things like that are all fascinating things that make history and everything else come alive in a way that I don’t think you could do in a way that’s at least different and is more appealing and accessible to people.
AO: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. This is why in my classes, we do a whole section on working with astrolabes and casting horoscopes, and they absolutely love it. They love being able to say, “Okay, what does my Ascendant mean?” “What does it mean if my lunar mansion is here?” “Can we examine the horoscope of the city of Shiraz, and what does that tell us about Shiraz and the philosophy there?” What actually happened in Shiraz?”
So it is an interesting way to look at history, and I think it makes it more real. We go from people who are sort of dead, abstract figures to living people who have personalities, who have horoscopes, who have complicated lives, who have intellectual passions and interests, and who go on to become powerful queens of astrology themselves.
CB: Yeah. And sometimes the most interesting thing is that even though there are major differences, we have to recognize that in ancient times versus modern culture, fundamentally, people’s lives and the core components of their lives and sometimes personalities, there’s so many similar dynamics. Once you get to know this, you realize that these were real people that just happened to live a thousand years ago in different circumstances, but sometimes responded to things in ways that are very relatable and very understandable just like we do today.
AO: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a way of making them real and recognizing their hopes were our hopes, their anxieties were our anxieties. The things they were worried about–whether it was getting married or getting that paycheck—those were their anxieties, very much real. And so, time changes, but the human condition remains the same.
Certain things are clearly different. Modern capitalism makes hyper-individualism. It’s very different from the pre-modern world; they’re thinking more communally than we are. But if you read some of their writings, they’re worried about the exact same things we’re worried about. The questions we’re asking today–astrologically, historically, philosophically–are the same questions they were asking a thousand years ago, and there is something comforting about that.
There’s something about where you’re able to pick up a text and read about a person a thousand years ago, and it’s like you’re having a conversation with them, and you’re resonating and completely meshing on, “Oh, yeah, I’m totally stressed about those exams that I’ve got to take too;” so too was this person in the 9th century.
CB: Yeah. And I think that’s one of the reasons astrology and that system of horoscopic astrology has remained relevant, because there was something at the core of it that did speak to the core concerns of one’s everyday life through constructs such as the 12 houses and the different areas of life that those relate to that are still very much the same today.
CB: All right, well, thank you so much for joining me today and for doing this. I really appreciate it. This was amazing; I hope everybody enjoyed it. They should check out your Twitter and your Patreon.
I want to give a shout-out to Matias Del Carmine for the cover art for this episode, just because I love that illustration. Thank you for putting this together for me. I look forward to seeing more of your work in the future and different things that you produce over the course of your career.
And yeah, I guess that’s it for this episode of The Astrology Podcast. So thanks, everyone, for listening, and we’ll see you again next time.
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