Astrology of the Sassanian and Islamic Empires (300-1200 CE)

Astrology of the Sassanian and Islamic Empires (300-1200 CE)

By: Robert Hand

Arabic/Islamic civilization is one of three cultures that succeeded in the classical period of Greece and Rome. However, this civilization, unlike the Byzantine Greek and the Latin West, did not just inherit from the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome; it also inherited a great deal from the empire that it had completely conquered, the Sassanian Persian.

The last and largest of the great middle eastern empires before Alexander the Great was the Persian Empire, often referred to as the Achaemenid Empire (after a Greek form of the name of the dynasty that ruled it). Alexander the Great conquered it in 331 B.C.E. and the area was subsequently ruled for a time by his general Seleukos and his descendants, what is known as the Seleucid Empire. However, another Iranian people, the Parthians, founded a new state in what had been eastern Persia. Its founder was one Arsaces I who established the new Parthian state in 248-247 B.C.E. As time passed, the Parthian Empire gradually conquered all of the Seleucid Empire except the regions along the Mediterranean coast which were conquered in turn by the Romans.

In 224 C.E. the Parthians were themselves overthrown by a Persian family, the Sassanians, led by Ardashir I. The dynasty is called Sassanian after an ancestor of Ardashir, Sasan. This event is important for two reasons:

1) The Sassanians regarded themselves as the legitimate heirs of the old Achaemenids (who ruled the first Persian empire conquered by Alexander the Great) and adopted a number of policies designed to reestablish the old empire.

2) They adopted an astrologically based ideology to justify their reign.


Regarding the first of these, the Sassanians, correctly or not, traced their ancestry back to the Achaemenids, and regarded their rule as a restoration of the old empire, not as the beginning of a new one. As part of their restoration ideology, they asserted and believed that when Alexander the Great conquered the old empire, he had all of the writings of the Persians that could be found gathered, translated into Greek, and then he destroyed the originals. They believed that all of the knowledge of Greeks and other surrounding peoples was based on knowledge pilfered from the ancient Persians, especially knowledge possessed by the Greeks. Therefore, they adopted a vigorous campaign of gathering up as much literature as possible from the surrounding peoples (because after all it was originally “their own”) and translating it into Middle Persian, Pahlavi. Eventually, the city of Jundishapur (also spelled Gundeshapur) became the center of this translation movement and remained so until well into the Islamic era. More about this below. In addition to all of the above, another part of the restoration program was the reestablishment and reform of the Zoroastrian religion which had also been the state religion of the old empire. This had some impact on what we describe next.

The second matter is more important to the history of astrology. The “recovery” of the old Persian literature derived from the translation of the works of the surrounding peoples also included much astrology and astronomy from both the Greeks and the Indians. It is asserted by most historians, including David Pingree, that Sassanian astrology and astronomy were derived entirely from Greek and Hindu astrology and astronomy. However, it is also recognized that the Sassanians also created or inherited from someone a peculiar technique for forecasting the rise of religions and dynasties using the long-term cycles of Jupiter and Saturn and other conjunctions. This is the source of the principle of forecasting by the “Great Conjunctions” as later medieval astrologers called it.

The problem is that there is no indication of this technique and method in either the Greek (Hellenistic) or Indian traditions. It was also combined with a system of lengthy planetary ages similar to the Indian system of Yugas. This might make it seem tempting to say that all of this came from the Indians. There is just one problem. The Sassanian and yuga systems are both based on periods of multiples of sixty years; it is, in other words, sexagesimal. There is no evidence of any native mathematical tradition in India based on the sexagesimal system. In fact, the Indians perfected the decimal system in a form similar to what we now use. Sexagesimal numbers are a characteristic of Mesopotamian mathematics, and we have a description of long-term historical cycles of this kind in the Babyloniaka of Berossos of Cos (?290 B.C.E.).

This gives rise to an interesting hypothesis, namely, that the long-term cycles of the Sassanians were not derived from the Hindus but are survivals of Mesopotamian astronomy. Possibly this is true of the system of Great Conjunctions as well. We do know that Babylonian astronomy continued in practice up to the arrival of the Parthians, but after that, there is no evidence at all, positive or negative. This is why I call this a hypothesis. But there are reasons for questioning the idea that Sassanian astronomy and astrology are completely derived from the Greeks and Indians.

Be that as it may, the important thing is that astrology was not merely practiced by the Sassanians; the doctrine of Great Conjunctions was employed as a part of the imperial ideology. The dynasty, so it was reasoned, had come to power because it was ordained to do so by the conjunctions. Thus astrology gained a degree of integration into the prevailing power structure of a society that it may not have had since the Mesopotamians and the earlier Persian Empire, certainly not since the pre-Christian Roman Empire in the 3rd century C.E.

All of these factors pertaining to astrology in the Sassanian Persian empire were assisted significantly by developments in the Roman Empire. The advent of Christianity had made the empire an increasingly hostile environment for the studies of pagan philosophy and astrology. And there were also significant struggles within the Church itself that also supported the Sassanian effort to gather all knowledge. As a result of the effort of the Council of Nicaea and subsequent Church councils to define precisely what it meant to be Christian, disagreements increased rather than decreased. One of the most significant of the resulting movements was the Nestorian. The debate began over the precise status of the Virgin Mary and the humanity and divinity of Christ. This was not dissimilar to many other such schisms, but what made this one different historically was that the Nestorians resorted increasingly to the use of Aristotelian logic to support their position and thus gained a vested interest in translating and studying pagan philosophy for their particular Christian application.

After the Nestorians and their leader, the Patriarch Nestorius were condemned at the council of Ephesus in 431 C.E., they settled in the city of Edessa on the frontier of the Roman and Sassanian empires. This city had changed hands between the empires several times. There the Nestorians founded schools to study philosophy and carry on the debate. These schools were then closed by the order of the Eastern emperor Zeno in 489 C.E. whereupon the Nestorians began to move into the Sassanian Empire. At first, the city of Nisibis in the Persian Empire became their center, but then around 560 C.E. the Persian emperor Chosroes (Khosru) I established a center in Jundishapur for the translation and study of Hellenistic thought into Syriac, the dominant literary language of the Semitic world at that time. When the Arabs arrived and overthrew the Sassanian Empire in 651 C.E., this movement was not seriously interrupted.

The early period of the new Islamic Empire from the conquest of the eastern portions of Byzantine Empire and the fall of the Sassanians in the mid-6th century until the rise of the second major dynasty of Islamic religious leaders, the Abbasids, in 749-50 C.E. was one which can be broadly described as Arabic. That is, it was an empire in which all of the dominant positions of the empire were filled by Muslims who were also ethnic Arabs. There was not a great deal of opportunity for non-Arabs except in subordinate positions. Also, while non-Muslims were not actively discouraged from becoming Muslims, there was also no great effort at converting non-Muslims who were either Jewish or Christian, so-called “Peoples of the Book.” In addition, the Arabs did not care what kind of Christians the Christians were, so unorthodox forms of Christianity flourished under Muslim rule, including the Nestorians.

This period of benign neglect was followed by one of active interest. In 750 C.E. the last of the Caliphs of the Ummayid dynasty was overthrown by the first Abbasid, Abu al-Abbas al-Saffah (reigned 750-754 C.E.). The Abbasids were supported by troops from Khurasan, an eastern region of the former Sassanian Empire. This and other factors began to bring in a strong Sassanian influence into the government of the Islamic empire under the Abbasids. Under Abu al-Abbas’ successor, Al-Mansur (reigned 754-75 C.E.), a new capital was founded at Baghdad and a new government installed there. The chart for this capital was astrologically elected by the Persian astrologer Newbakht (also Nawbakht) and the Persian Jewish astrologer Masha’Allah. The new government reflected a major change from that of the Ummayids; it was ethnically diverse. All that was required to attain a high position was that one be one of the peoples of the book or a Muslim. Being an Arab was not required or even especially useful. Sassanian influence was strong not only because of the Khurasan connection but also because, and this was clearly intentional, Baghdad was located quite close to the old Sassanian capital of Ctesiphon (originally founded by Greeks).

This leads to a point of great importance: The Abbasids clearly regarded themselves as successors to the Sassanian monarchs, only now under the guidance of the “proper” religion, Islam. They not only took on the Sassanian translation project, but they also adopted their astrological ideology based on the Great Conjunctions. In fact, the definitive work on this topic was written by the astrologer (of Eastern Persian origin) Abu Mashar (787 – 886 C.E.), titled in its modern English edition On Historical Astrology: The Book of Religions and Dynasties, and known to medieval astrologers as On the Great Conjunctions. Under Al-Ma’mun (reigned 813-33 C.E.) libraries known individually as a bayt or dar al-hikhmah (a house or dwelling of wisdom) were founded in many of the major cities of the Islamic world, the most important of these being in Baghdad itself. These foundations were what finally led to the decline of Jundishapur as a center of study, not through the failure of interest in the translation, but because of the triumph of that interest. According to Gutas (see supplemental readings) the level of sophistication and linguistic skill in these translations reached such great heights that Arabic translations made from other languages achieved a very high level of authenticity and accuracy with respect to the originals.

The earliest translations appear to have been made from Syriac translations of Greek and sometimes from Middle-Persian (Pahlavi) translations from Greek. But very early on, according to Gutas, scholars sought out Greek originals as well. It soon got to the point where the Muslim scholars regarded themselves as the true inheritors of Classical culture. They wondered at how the Byzantines could possibly have been descended from the ancient Greeks. Recall that this period was in the middle of the Byzantine “Dark Ages” mentioned last week. There is evidence that these unfavorable comparisons made by Islamic scholars of the Byzantines to the ancient Greeks stung the Byzantines into their own movement to preserve and recover ancient texts after the middle of the 9th century once the internal affairs of the Byzantine Empire had settled down a bit. Suffice to say that the scholars of the Abbasid empire did an incredible job of preserving ancient knowledge. But they did not merely preserve; they also built their own work on top of ancient thought and added to it considerably, especially in the sciences and in philosophy. Again according to Gutas, there actually came to be a time when there was a movement by Islamic scholars against those among them who added, altered or amended ancient systems of ideas, i.e., scholars who exhibited what we would regard as “originality.”

This was a time of great activity in astrology. The patronage of the Abbasids was certainly an enormous help. Among astrologers of this period we have (in order of date) Theophilus of Edessa (late 8th Century C.E.) a Nestorian who wrote in Greek, Masha’allah (770-?815 C.E.) mentioned above and his contemporary Newbakht, Omar of Tiberias (d. 815 C.E.) who translated a Pahlavi translation of Dorotheus of Sidon into Arabic, Zahel (d. between 822 & 850. C.E.) who had a strong influence upon the medieval Italian Guido Bonatti (among many who influenced Bonatti), Abu ‘Ali al-Khayyat (?854 C.E.) a student of Masha’Allah’s, Al-Kindi (d. after 870 C.E.) who in addition to his astrology was one of this period’s greatest philosophers, Abu Ma’shar (d. 886 C.E.), and many others. Of these Abu Mashar had probably the greatest influence upon the future of astrology. It was he who recast astrology into as completely an Aristotelian mode as possible with results that were not always fortunate either historically or theoretically.

However, the decline of this great intellectual flowering was not due to the reaction against innovations described two paragraphs back. This decline came about because of two factors. The first had to do with defining Islamic orthodoxy. In the early period prior to the Abbasids, especially Al-Ma’mun, there was no centrally established definition of orthodoxy. This is in stark contrast to Christianity with its councils, popes and patriarchs! The basic definition of Islam was rather loose, and various schools came into being that emphasized or disagreed on various points. The major source of disagreement was not about doctrine but about who properly should have succeeded Mohammed as the leader of Islam. This leader or successor was what came to be known as the Caliph or deputy, full title “the deputy to the prophet of God.”

However, in the time of Al-Ma’mun and his successors two movements came into being which struggled with each other to define what constituted correct Islam. One was led by the Abbasid caliphs themselves, and attempted to define a theology based on Neo-Platonic and Aristotelian ideas; this would have been somewhat similar to what later came to be in Christian theology in the High Middle Ages (12th-14th centuries). On the other hand, another movement had come into being among Islamic scholars in which doctrine and law were defined exclusively with reference to the Koran and sayings, or hadith, attributed to the Prophet along with legal decisions based upon these. This second movement regarded foreign (i.e., Hellenistic) ideas with some suspicion and began to resist doctrines imposed by the caliphs. The caliphs responded with a kind of inquisition, the mihna. Eventually the efforts of the caliphs to define orthodoxy failed, and the hadith-based juridical schools won out. This, in turn, led to deemphasis on ancient teachings and the bayt al-hikhma’s began to be dispersed.

But interest in ancient ideas never completely died out and skilled study of, and translation of ancient ideas has continued until modern times. The movement has never completely stopped possibly until now. But there was one major blow to all of these studies. In the 13th century, the Mongols erupted out of eastern Asia and conquered much of the Islamic world (Egypt and North Africa excepted) and did serious damage to the Islamic world. This more than anything else brought an end to the period of the great flowering of Islamic scholarship. By this time the fruits of that movement were already being translated into Latin by Western scholars, and in some cases into Greek by the Byzantines. The High Middle Ages had begun.


Robert Hand (c) 2007

Supplemental Reading:

The following primary source astrological texts will give you a general understanding of the kind of astrology that was practiced during the Islamic period.

Abu Ma’shar, The Abbreviation of the Introduction to Astrology, edited and translated by Charles Burnett. ARHAT Publications, 1997. Abu Ma’shar (787-886) was the greatest of the Arabic astrologers whose works were widely translated into Latin.

Abu’ Ali Al-Khayyat, The Judgment of Nativities, translated by James H. Holden. Tempe: AZ: AFA, 1988. Abu’ Ali (c. 770-835) was a student of Masha’allah, and his book is in the mainstream of Arabian tradition.

Abraham Ibn-Ezra, The Beginning of Wisdom, translated by Meira B. Epstein, ARHAT, 1998. Jewish scholar Rabbi Ibn-Ezra (1089-1164 CE, Spain) wrote this basic textbook of astrology.

Al-Biruni, The Book of Instruction in the Elements of the Art of Astrology, London: Luzac & co., 1934. [Now available from the Astrology Center of America in reprint.]

Al-Kindi, On the Stellar Rays, translated by Robert Zoller. Berkeley Springs, WV: Golden Hind Press, 1993.

Masha’allah, Book of Nativities, translated by Robert Hand. Berkeley Springs, WV: Golden Hind Press, 1994. Masha’allah (762-815 CE) was one of the earliest Arabic astrologers from Persia who elected the Baghdad foundation chart.

Masha’allah, On Reception, translated by Robert Hand. ARHAT, 1998.

Nadim, Muhammad ibn Ishaq al-, The Fihrist of al-Nadim: A Tenth Century Survey of Muslim Culture, 2 Vols., ed. and tr. Bayard Dodge. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970.

The Correspondence Between the Rabbis of Southern France and Maimonides about Astrology, translated by Meira Epstein. ARHAT, 1998.