The Transmission of Astrology into Abbasid Islam (750-1258 CE)

The Abbasid Caliphate 750–1258

Much discussion often arises as to the origins of astrology – most of it centered on whether what we know of the discipline, as it is practiced today, was birthed in Greece, where horoscopy was defined, or in Mesopotamia, where man first began to track the movements of the stars in order to interpret their language. However, the astrological tradition has been long-lived and well proliferated; it may then perhaps, be as accurate to argue that what has come down to us as astrology is as much as multicultural product as it is of either Greek or Babylonian genesis. In its lengthy and diverse history, there have been several significant astrological points of transmission crossroads. One of the most significant cosmopolitan intersections transpired in the Near East after the Islamic conquests of the Sassanian Empire in the 7th century. Arabic astrology as it developed during the Islamic Abbasid Dynasty (750-1258), flourished as a high science which synthesized intellectual influences from Indian, Greek, and Persian scholars, with some cultural influences also streaming in from the Jewish and Sabian traditions. The following essay examines these different streams as they were represented by the Arabic authors and translators active at the Abbasid courts. While I have organized this survey by assigning astrologers to the stream that best represents the language of the majority of sources which they consulted, the majority of the Abbasid astrologers clearly relied on sources from all of these traditions.

The Pahlavi Sassanian Stream

All of the astrology of Persian origin which has been recovered can be traced to the second great Persian Empire period – that of the Sassanid dynasty (224-642). The Sassanians under Ardashir I, overthrew the Parthians and established an empire that rivaled in size that of the Acheamenids seven centuries earlier. At the time of Shapur I (241-272), the Empire stretched from Armenia and Iberia (Georgia) in the North, to the Mazun region of Arabia in the South, to the Indus Valley in the East, and to the Tigris and al-Qadisiya in the West. [1] Under Shapur’s reign, scholarship flourished and a massive translation project of Eastern and Western scholarly works into Pahlavi (middle Persian language) was undertaken.

Since no extant astrological manuscripts in Pahlavi  have been recovered, most of the corpus of Persian astrology was transmitted directly and indirectly to the Islamic courts of the 8th century via two, often culturally intersecting, geographical streams:one from the Indian tradition in the East, and one from the civilizations built upon the Near Eastern conquests, particularly Greece and Babylon. Of the non-astrological sources in Pahlavi containing astrological references, the most specific is a passage in the Bundahishn (the 9th century Zoroastrian scripture), which makes reference to a horoscope of the world. This horoscope is taken to be an adaptation of a chart found in the Yavanajataka – a manuscript of Hellenistic astrology but containing Indian adaptations and probably written by a Greek residing in India.[2] The Persian horoscope in the Bundahishn attests to Greek and Indian influences, but also contains what Pingree asserts to be a Sassanian innovation. Of Greek influence is the concept of a Thema Mundi – a chart for the creation of the world – while the practice of including both of the Lunar Nodes in the same categorical considerations as the other seven planets is typical of Indian practice. But it is the fact that both of the Nodes are also given exaltation signs (Sagittarius and Gemini) that Pingree considers to be a Sassanian innovation.[3]

While the Arabic translations of Pahlavi astrology reflect a mixture of influences – “largely Sassanian and Greek in origin, with Indian material entering in through its intermingled with the Greek and Iranian elements in Sassanian astrology” – most of the astrologers in the Abbasid courts of the 8th and 9th centuries were Iranians.[4] The following authors translated Pahlavi originals or Persian adaptations of foreign works into Arabic at the Abbasid courts, and were either of Persian origin or lived in Sassanian Iran:[5]

Newbakht  or al-Naubakht (679-777): Newbakht was a Persian who became an astrologer at the court of the 1st Abbasid Caliph: al-Mansur (the Victorious). It is said that he arrived at the court as a Zoroastrian, but soon converted to Islam. He wrote seven works but only fragments have come down to us. It is documented by al-Biruni, that he was chosen to head a group of astrologers in charge of electing[6] a chart for the founding of Baghdad in 762 CE. His son and grandsons succeeded him as Abbasid court astrologers.

Musa ibn Nawbakht (c.840-c.940): Musa ibn Nawbakht was a 6th generation removed descendant of Nawbakht the Persian (see above). He was the author of an extensive treatise on astrological history in the vein taught by Albumasar entitled Al-Kitab al-Kamil of which a modern Spanish translation, Horóscopos Históricos was made. His sources would have been both Arabic and Pahlavi.

id ibn Khurasankhurrah (probably writing c. 747-754): Sa‘id is the author of Kitab al-mawalid (The Book of Nativities),  “the oldest surviving genuine Arabic translation of a Pahlavi astrological work that we possess”. [7] The work is attributed to the sage Zaradusht but Sa’id asserts that he did not translate his version from the original Zaradusht manuscript, but rather from a version in newer Persian written by Mahankard in about 637. Pingree thinks the original work was written by a Greek astrologer known as ‘Aelius the Wise’ who would have lived in Harran around the 3rd century, where he may indeed have been a teacher to Zaradusht. The work contains methods of genethlialogy found in both Dorotheus of Sidon’s and Vettius Valens Greek treatises, but also Arabic transliterations of Pahlavi technical terms possibly representing Sassanian developments in natal astrology.

Umar ibn al-Farrukhan al-Tabari (writing c. 800): Al-Farrukhan, also known as Omar of Tiberius was a translator of Persian descent of the Arabic translation from Pahlavi of Doretheus of Sidon’s 5 books on genethlialogy and catarchic astrology. While Masha ‘allah also translated Dorotheus’ works in  the 770s, of which we quite extensive fragments, Umar’s version, although contaminated, is thought to be more complete.[8] The contaminations consist of charts that postdate Dorotheus’ life, references to Hermes, Valens and Qitrinus al-Sadwali, and the typical Sassanian inclusions of Indian concepts. He is also known to have paraphrased into Arabic a Pahlavi version of  Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos in 812. His natal astrological work Book on Nativities, was translated into Latin by John of Seville.

Masha’ allah ibn Athari (c.740-c.815): Masha’ allah or Messahalla, as he is sometimes referred to in the west (a phrase meaning ‘what has God done’), was a Persian Jew living in Basra who became one of the leading astrologers of the late 8th century. According to medieval sources, his Hebrew name was Menasseh.[9]  Masha’ allah was among those who participated in the selection of the chart for the founding of Baghdad, even though he was still young at the time. He was familiar with Persian and Indian astrology and used astronomical tables compiled by a Persian in the 6th century but based upon earlier Indian versions.[10] His bibliography is extensive and consists of more than two dozen works, some of his own authorship, some of Pahlavi translations of earlier Greek works. In the 770’s, Masha’allah translated Dorotheus’ five volume genethlialogical treatise, Pentateuch into the Arabic Book of Nativities (Kitab al-mawalid) and then in his later years used it as the basis for his own genethlialogical work: Kitab al-mawalid al-kabir. While his natal treatise is fundamentally Greek in character, Maha’ allah transformed Dorotheus’ fifth book on Greek catarchic astrology into a work on interrogations after the style introduced via Indian astrology.[11] Masha’ allah also seems to have translated Vettius  Valens’ Anthology, which appeared in Pahlavi under the title Bizidaj (Choice) based upon a 6th century version by a Persian commentator named Buzurjmihr.

Some of the works attributed originally to Masha’allah are: The Revolutions of the Years of Nativities, a work on Solar Returns, The Revolutions of the Years of the World, an  astrological history based upon Aries Ingresses, Conjunctions, Letter on Eclipses, Reception of the Planets or Interrogations, a work on horary techniques, and The Construction of the Use of the Astrolabe.[12]

Sahl ibn Bishr (9th century): Sahl was also known as Zael or Zahel, and was a Jew from Khurasan, who also relied on Pahlavi sources. He was considered a master in horary astrology and was often cited by later Medieval astrologers who were in possession of his five works in Latin.

Ja‘far in Muhammad Abu Ma‘shar al-Balkhi (c.787-886): Albumasar, as he became known to the Latin West, was born near Balkh in Khurasan (present day Afghanistan). Balkh had been an outpost of Hellenistic culture and became during the Sassanian period, “a center for the mingling of Indians, Chinese, Scythians, and Greco-Syrians with Iranians”.[13] Holden says Albumasar is “the most imposing” of all the Arabic writers on astrology. [14] He began studying astrology at the age of  47, after having studied hadith (the teachings of Muhammad), because of an intellectual disagreement he had with Caliph al-Madhi’s renowned court philosopher, Al-Kindi. He “wrote what became the canonical textbooks on all branches of Arabic astrology.”[15]

Abu Ma‘shar was a member of the third generation of “Pahlavi-oriented intellectual elite”

“but he himself relied entirely on translations for his knowledge of Sassanian science. He mingled his already complex cultural inheritance with various intellectual trends current in Baghdad in his time, and became a leading exponent of the theory that all national systems of thought are ultimately derived from a single revelation (thus, in a sense, paralleling in intellectual history the Neoplatonic doctrine of emanation, which he accepted philosophically in its Harranian guise).” [16]

Thus, Abu Ma‘shar contributed to the Pahlavi stream in so far as he grew up amongst and promoted the corpus of work begun by his Pahlavi-speaking colleagues and predecessors. At the same time, his original works drew upon such a culturally diverse array of sources that he should actually be classified amongst the key figures in the transmission of Greek, Indian, Iranian, and Syriac astrological, mathematical, cosmological, and philosophical thoughts. Among his sources, we find:

“the Pahlavi Greco-Indo-Iranian tradition in astrology, astronomy, and theurgy as preserved in Buzurjmihr, Andarghar, Zaradusht, the Zij al-Shah, Dorotheus, and Valens; upon a Sanskrit Greco-Indian tradition in astrology and astronomy from Varahamihira, Kanaka, the Sindhind, the Zij al-Arkand, and Aryaghata; upon the Greek tradition in philosophy, astrology, and astrology through Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Theon; upon Syriac Neoplatonizing philosophy of the astral influences and theurgy from al-Kindi and the books of the Harranians; and upon the earlier, less complete attempts at such vast syntheses among Persian scholars writing in Arabic…”[17]

Other Known Translations of Pahlavi Originals

There are a number of Arabic translations which have survived in manuscripts that claim to be of Pahlavi originals. According to Pingree, some of the translations are of genuine Pahlavi sources, while others are either more recent forgeries or of dubious origin. I will only list here those which have been attributed to a transcriber or translator and for which enough substantiated information remains.[18] All of them appear in a manuscript known as the Paris Arabe 2487, which was copied in Egypt in 1492.

Book Concerning the Judgments of the Conjunctions (Kitab fiahkam al-qiranat ): This work is purported to have been transcribed by Jamasb the Wise in 1181 from an original unidentified manuscript that was brought to the court of the Caliph al-Iman al-Nasir sometime between 1180 and 1225. The work contains the an astrological world history based upon the 20-year cyclic conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn and their millennial recurrence in the sign of Aries. The history begins at about 2800 BC (thought to be when Zaradusht lived) and continues to 2300 CE. One curiosity about the work is that it makes reference to the planetary deities as having many hands, in the same vein as the Indian devatas.

 The Book of Conjunctions (Kitab al-qiranat): The work is attributed to Zaradusht the Wise, but also lists an ‘author’ by the name of Yahya ibn Muhammad al-Halabi. [19] Judging from internal astrological references, the work would have been transcribed c.1150. It too consists of an astrological history cataloguing every Jupiter/Saturn conjunction occurring with the Sun in Aries from a period of 1145-1624.

The Greek Stream

 Theophilus of Edessa (c.695-785): Theophilus originated in the city of Edessa, which became a major Christian center in the 3rd century, and which was located near Harran, a strategically placed city on the Nineveh trade route and major center for the cultivation of Greek astrology, astronomy, and Neoplatonism. He served in the court of the Caliph al-Madhi (775-785). Although a Christian, Theophilus saw no contradiction between its doctrines and astrology, which he makes clear in his Christian defense of astrology in the preface to Astrological Effects. Theophilus’ native tongue was Syriac but he was clearly also fluent in Greek and translated several texts from Greek into Syirac, including the two books of Homer on the fall of Troy, Aristotle’s Sophistici elenchi, Galen’s De methodo medendi. His Greek sources included Ptolemy’s Almagest, his Handy Tables and Astrological Effects, Dorotheus’ 1st century poem, Valens’ Anthologies, Rhetorius the Egyptian’s  7th century compendium, and Hephaistion of Thebes’ 5th century work entitled Apotelesmatics.[20]

His own three original extant works are all in Greek: 1) Labors Concerning Military Initiatives, a work on military astrology which shares many resemblances to Varahimira’s Sanskrit Brhadyatra, such as an indication that “the invader is indicated by the Ascendant, while the besieged is shown by the Descendant”.2) Apotelesmatics, his own introductory textbook with the same title as Hephaistion’s. It too contains some elements of Indian origin such as a zodiacal topothesia, similar to that found in the Yavanajataka. 3) On Various Initiatives, a work on interrogational astrology which shows influences from Dorotheus and Hephaistion and Pingree also suggests of Indian horary preserved through Syriac materials. [21]

It also appears that Theophilus may have spoken Pahlavi because his work on astrological history attests to the influence of Persian theory and techniques, and also because his work on military astrology above, would have been available to him in Pahlavi. [22]

Masha’ allah ibn Athari [also see above in the Pahlavi Sassanian and below in the Sanskrit Indian streams] Along with his translations from Pahlavi, it appears that Masha’ allah received a Greek compendium by Rhetorius of Egypt from Theophilus of Edessa at the court of al-Mansur.[24] Of the three Greek authors which he relied heavily upon (Dorotheus, Valens and Rhetorius), the latter is the only source written in its original language, but “he was also acquainted with some Greek material (perhaps through Arabic versions of Syriac texts”.[25]

As one of the 1st generation astrologers at the Abbasid courts, according to Hand, Masha’ allah is grouped together with Omar of Tiberias, Abu Ali Al-Khayyat and Sael as representing “a stage in Arabic era astrology in which Greek astrology provided almost the only basis for astrological practice”.[26] In contrast to what is found in Pingree, Hand asserts that elements of the Persian stream were introduced into the Abbasid courts subsequent to the introduction of the Greek influences, particularly because they surface “in a fully elaborated form in the writings of Abu Mashar, an ethnic Persian who would no doubt have had access to the pre-Islamic Persian astrological tradition”.[27] While it is true that the astrology found in the above mentioned authors is characteristically more Hellenistic than some of Abu Mashar’s work, this may be explained rather by Abu Mashar’s eagerness to synthesize Aristotelian philosophy and physics with his astrology and possibly incorporating many of Ptolemy’s Aristotelian astrological departures than because of any delayed introduction of Sassanian sources. Pingree clearly indicates that he was working with Arabic translations of Pahlavi sources which presumably would have been made by the ethnically Persian scholars of the late 8th century.

The Sanskrit Indian Stream

Theophilus of Edessa [see his entry in the Greek stream above for Indian influences apparent into his Greek works.]

Masha’ allah ibn Athari [see also above in both Greek and Pahlavi streams] In Greek fragments written by Masha’ allha, he describes the Indian theory of the navamsas and also describes methods for finding these lords in his Kitab al-mawalid al-kabir. There are also references to the Indian theory of planetary chords and to the “Era of the Flood” and its divergence from the Indian Kaliyuga in the Latin translations of De elementis et orbibus coelestibus (On the elements and celestial orbits) and in citations by al-Rijal of his Arabic work.[28]

Indian Astrologers at al-Mansur’s court:[29] In either 771 or 773, an embassy of astrological and astronomical scholars from the city of Sind in the Indus Valley, is reported by Ibn al-Adami in his Nazm al-‘iqd to have come to the court of al-Mansur. Among these scholars, one brought with him a text (probably entitled Mahasidhanta), a version of which was later rendered into Arabic by al-Fazari under the title Zij al-Sindhind al-kabir and by al-Khwarizmi in his own Zij al-Sindhind  (813-833). “Zij al-Sindhind” literally means the tables by the Hindu from Sind (al-Sindhind), and the lack of a name to identify this Indian scholar has generated some confusion among Arabic chroniclers. In the 12th century, Abraham ibn Ezra identified this unnamed Indian astronomer as Kankah al-Hindi (Kankah the Hindu). Abu Ma‘shar also expounded on Kankah as one of his 3 manifestations of Hermes – the founders of science in his astrological history Book of Thousands.[30] It is on the basis of this work that several legends involving an Inidan named Kankah were generated and taken as historical fact. Nevertheless, Pingree recognizes that there were probably two astrologers named Kanaka (the Indian version of the name) from Western India, one who wrote in Sanskrit and one who came to the Abbasid court.[31] The great Arabic bibliographer, Ibn al-Nadim lists several works by the second Kankah in his famous Fihrist. Among Kankah’s works are also listed works by other Indian scholars:

Kankah, the Indian: Book of the Secret of Nativities; Book of the Namudar Concerning (the Lengths of) Lives; Book of Conjunctions.[32]

Judar the Indian: Nativities

Sanjahil the Indian: Secrets of the Questions

Naq (Nahaq) the Indian: Nativities [33]

Pingree rejects the idea that the legendary Kankah listed in al-Nadim’s bibliography is the same Hindu of the al-Zij al-Sindhind[34]  since he says it was based upon the Sanskrit Mahasidhanta which “belonged to the Brahmapaksa of Indian astronomy”.[35] Of the Arabic speaking Kankah he says: “everything that we can discover concerning the doctrines propounded by Kanaka the Indian links him intellectually to Sasanian Iran, and not to India…Unfortunately, we do not know whether he learned this astrology while he was in India…or whether he picked it up in Iraq from his colleagues at the Abbasid court.[36]

Works Consulted

Armstrong, Karen. Islam; A Short History. A Modern Library Chronicles Book. New York. 2000.

Burnett, Charles, Keiji Yamamoto, and Michio Yano editors and translators. “Abu Ma ‘shar. The Abbreviation of the Introduction to Astrology”. Islamic Philosophy Theology and Science. Volume XV. H. Daiber and D. Pingree editors. E. J. Brill. New York. 1994.

Campion, Nicholas. The Great Year. Arkana. London. 1994.

_______ “The Concept of Destiny in Islamic Astrology and its Impact on Medieval European Thought”.

Grant, Edward. The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press. New York. 1998.

Gurney, Gene. “The Dynasties of Iran (Persia)” Kingdoms of Asia the Middle East and Africa. Crown Publishers, Inc. New York. 1986.

Holden, James Herschel. A History of Horoscopic Astrology. American Federation of Astrologers. Tempe, AZ. 1996.

Kennedy, E.S. and David. Pingree. The Astrological History of Masha’ allah. Harvard University Press. Cambrisge, MA. 1971.

Kusuba, Takanori and David Pingree. “Arabic Astronomy in Sanskrit. Al-Birjandi on Tadhkira II, Chapter 11 and its Sanskrit Translation. Islamic Philosophy Theology and Science. Volume XLVII. H. Daiber and D. Pingree editors. E. J. Brill. New York. 2002.

Omar of Tiberias. Three Books on Nativities. Robert Hand trans. Project Hindsight. Latin Track. Vol. XIV.  

Pingree, David. From Astral Omens to Astrology; From Babylon to Bikaner. Instituto Italiano Per L’Africa e L’Oriente. Roma.1997.

_______ The Thousands of Abu Mashar. The Warburg Institute University of London. London. 1968.

_______ “From Alexandria to Baghdad to Byzantium. The Transmission of Astrology”. International Journal of the Classical Tradition. Vol. 8, No. 1, Summer 2001.

_______ “The Sabians of Harran and the Classical Tradition”. International Journal of the Classical Tradition. Vol. 9, No. 1, Summer 2002.

_______ “Astrology”. The New Encyclopedia Britanica. Vol. 25. 15th edition.

_______ “Abu Ma‘shar”. Dictionary of Scientific Biography. ed. Charles Gillespie. Vol. II. Charles Scribner’s Sons. New York. 1974.

_______ “Masha’ allah”. Dictionary of Scientific Biography. ed. Charles Gillespie. Vol. IX. Charles Scribner’s Sons. New York. 1974.

_______ “The Indian and Pseudo-Indian Passages in Greek and Latin Astronomical and Astrological Texts”. Viator, Medieval and Renaissance Studies. Vol. 7. University of California Press. Berkeley. 1976.

 Tester, Jim. A History of Western Astrology. The Boydell Press. Rochester, N.Y. 1987.

Yamamoto, Keiji and Charles Burnett editors and translators. Abu Ma ‘shar. “On Historical Astrology”. Volumes One and Two. Islamic Philosophy Theology and Science. Volume XXXXIV. H. Daiber and D. Pingree editors. E. J. Brill. New York. 2000.


[1] Harper Collins Atlas of World History. p.78-79.

[2] Pingree, David. From Astral Omens to Astrology, From Babylon to Bikaner. 1997. p.39.

[3] Pingree, David. From Astral Omens to Astrology, From Babylon to Bikaner. 1997. p.40.

[4] Pingree, David. From Astral Omens to Astrology, From Babylon to Bikaner. 1997. p.41

[5] Compiled from Holden pp. 99-129; Pingree’s four essays as specifically cited; and Tester pp. 156-175.

[6] Refers to the astrological technique of selecting the most propitious time and location for undertaking any enterprise. Elections are known in the Hellenistic tradition as catarchic astrology.

[7] Pingree. From Astral Omens to Astrology, From Babylon to Bikaner. 1997. p.44.

[8] Pingree. From Astral Omens to Astrology, From Babylon to Bikaner. 1997. p.46.

[9] Hand. Masha’allah, On Reception. p.ii.

[10] Holden. p.107.

[11] Pingree. From Astral Omens to Astrology, From Babylon to Bikaner. 1997. p.47.

[12] Holden. p. 105.

[13] Pingree. Dictionary of Scientific Biography. p. 32.

[14] Holden. p. 111.

[15] Pingree. From Astral Omens to Astrology, From Babylon to Bikaner. 1997. p.66.

[16] Pingree, Dictionary of Scientific Biography. p. 32.

[17] Pingree, Dictionary of Scientific Biography. p. 33.

[18] For the complete list see Pingree. From Astral Omens to Astrology, From Babylon to Bikaner. 1997. pp. 43-45.

[19] Pingree calls this the ‘author’ which I can only assume from his Arabic name that he is also the translator. It is common in ancient civilizations for the authorship of texts to be attributed to religious or wise sages or to mythological figures thought to be imbued with divine knowledge. Often, but not always, the text also names the transcriber or redactor, who may either be the divinely inspired author, or be copying an earlier work said to have been authored by the sage. In this case, I’m assuming the original Pahlavi authorship is being attributed directly to the sage Zaradusht but redacted into Arabic by al-Halabi.

[20] Pingree. “From Alexandria to Baghdad to Byzantium. The Transmission of Astrology”. p. 14.

[21] Pingree. “The Indian and Pseudo-Indian Passages in Greek and Latin Astronomical and Astrological Texts”. Viator. p. 148 and “From Alexandria to Baghdad to Byzantium. The Transmission of Astrology”. pp. 16-17.

[22] Pingree. “From Alexandria to Baghdad to Byzantium. The Transmission of Astrology”. pp. 16-17.

[23] Abu Ma’shar. The Abbreviation of the Introduction to Astrology. Burnett, Yamamoto, and Yano trans. p. ii.

[24] Pingree. “Classical and Byzantine Astrology in Sassanian Persia” Dumbarton Oaks Papers. pp. 236-237.

[25] Pingree, Dictionary of Scientific Biography. p. 160.

[26] Omar of Tiberias. Three Books on Nativities. Robert Hand translation. p.ii.

[27] Omar of Tiberias. Three Books on Nativities. Robert Hand translation. p.iii.

[28] Pingree. “The Indian and Pseudo-Indian Passages in Greek and Latin Astronomical and Astrological Texts”. Viator. pp. 149-150.

[29] Pingree, “The Indian and Pseudo-Indian Passages in Greek and Latin Astronomical and Astrological Texts”. Viator. pp. 151-152; in From Astral Omens to Astrology, From Babylon to Bikaner. 1997. pp.51-62. and Holden pp. 103-104.

[30] Abu Ma‘shar. The Book of Thousands.

[31] Pingree. From Astral Omens to Astrology, From Babylon to Bikaner. pp.54-55.

[32] Pingree. From Astral Omens to Astrology, From Babylon to Bikaner. p.55

[33] The previous 3 authors are listed by Holden. p. 103-104.

[34] From Astral Omens to Astrology, From Babylon to Bikaner. p.52.

[35] “The Indian and Pseudo-Indian Passages in Greek and Latin Astronomical and Astrological Texts”. Viator. p. 151[36]From Astral Omens to Astrology, From Babylon to Bikaner. p.55.