From: Thomas Hockey et al. (eds.). The Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers, Springer Reference. New York: Springer, 2007, p. 11 Courtesy of Springer.

Keiji Yamamoto

Abū Maʿshar Jaʿfar ibn Muḥammad ibn ʿUmar al‐Balkhi

Alternate name


BornBalkh, (Afghanistan), possibly 787

DiedWāsiṭ, (Iraq), possibly 886

Abū Maʿshar is best known for his astrological writings; however, he also wrote on other branches of the science of the stars, including astronomical tables. There is some question about his dates of birth and death because the former is based solely on an anonymous horoscope cited in his Book of the Revolutions of the Years of Nativities, while the latter comes from Ibn al‐Nadīm, the 10th‐century bookseller. But Bīrūnī tells us in his Chronology of the Ancient Nations that Abū Maʿshar made an observation in 892, and there is a reference by Abū Maʿshar himself in the Book of Religions and Dynasties to stellar positions due to trepidation dated 896/897. Both would have been made when Abū Maʿshar was well over 100 if the birth date is to be believed.

Ibn al‐Nadīm reports in his Fihrist that Abū Maʿshar was at first a scholar of ḥadīth (prophetic traditions), was antagonistic toward the philosophical sciences (i. e., Hellenistic science and philosophy), and sought to stir popular opinion against his contemporary Kindī, one of the champions of these sciences. By means of a ruse, Kindī sought to interest him in arithmetic and geometry. This apparently succeeded in mollifying Abū Maʿshar; though he never became proficient in mathematics, he did become interested later in life (at age 47) in astrology, another of the Hellenistic sciences. This late start, though, did not deter him because he was said to have lived to the ripe old age of 100. Since Abū Maʿshar was considered the greatest astrologer of the ʿAbbāsid court in Baghdad, his works were prominent, and therefore he was occasionally mentioned in tales on astrology. Ibn Ṭāwūs (1193–1266) collected several anecdotes on Abū Maʿshar in his Faraj al‐mahmūm (Biographies of Astrologers).

All works on astronomy attributed to Abū Maʿshar are lost, and only his astrological works in Arabic are known to us. Much of our knowledge of his contribution to astronomy comes to us either from other sources or by way of information gleaned from his astrological works. Abū Maʿshar's major astrological works that survive in Arabic manuscripts can be classified into three categories, based on the surviving manuscripts.

The first type is works that provide an introduction to astrology. Included in this group is Abū Maʿshar's 106‐chapter work, Kitāb al‐mudkhal al‐kabīr, which he wrote “for the establishment of astrology by sufficient arguments and proofs.” Not since Ptolemy's Tetrabiblos had philosophical proofs of astrology been argued; Abū Maʿshar's philosophical basis was Aristotelian physics, which he had acquired through Kindī's circle. This work was translated into Latin in 1133 and 1140, and selections from it were translated into Greek circa 1000. The Latin translations had a significant influence on western European philosophers, such as Albert The Great. Abū Maʿshar also wrote an abridged version of his introductory work (Kitāb mukhtaṣar al‐mudkhal), which was translated into Latin by Adelard of Bath.

The second type of work is Abū Maʿshar's historical astrology, which was introduced from the Sasanian tradition by al‐Manṣūr, the second caliph of the ʿAbbāsid dynasty. This was part of his political strategy for laying a solid foundation for the newborn dynasty, and indeed it was used most effectively among the early ʿAbbāsids. Abū Maʿshar's monumental book on this subject, the Kitāb al‐milal wa‐ʾl‐duwal (Book on religions and dynasties), is in eight parts in 63 chapters. The work was translated into Latin and read by Roger Bacon, Pierre d'Ailly, and Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494), and discussed in their major works. Other works in this category include Fī dhikr ma tadulluʿalayhi al‐ashkhāṣ al‐ʿulwiyya (On the indications of the celestial objects [for terrestrial things]), Kitāb al‐dalālātʿalā al‐ittiṣālāt wa‐qirānāt al‐kawākib (Book of the indications of the planetary conjunctions...), and the Kitāb al‐ulūf (Book of thousands), which is no longer extant but is preserved in summaries by Sijzī.

The third and final type is Abū Maʿshar's works on genethlialogy, the science of casting nativities. An example is Kitāb taḥāwil sinī al‐mawālīd (Book of the revolutions of the years of nativities). The first five parts in 57 chapters (out of nine parts in 96 chapters) were translated into Greek circa 1000, and the Greek text was translated into Latin in the 13th century. Another work in this genre is Kitāb mawālīd al‐rijāl wa‐ʾl‐nisāʾ (Book of nativities of men and women). The large number of extant manuscripts suggests its high popularity in the Islamic world.

Selected References

Abū Maʿshar (1994). The Abbreviation of the Introduction to Astrology. Together with the Medieval Latin Translation of Adelard of Bath, edited by Charles Burnett, Keiji Yamamoto, and Michio Yano. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

——— (1995–1996). Liberintroductorii maioris ad scientiam judiciorum astrorum, edited by R. Lemay. 9 Vols. Naples: Istituto Universitario Orientale.

——— (2000). AbūMaʿšhar on Historical Astrology: The Book of Religions and Dynasties (On the Great Conjunctions), edited by Keiji Yamamoto and Charles Burnett. 2 Vols. Leiden: Brill.

Gutas, Dimitri (1998). Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco–Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and EarlyʿAbbāsidSociety (2nd–4th/8th–10th centuries). London: Routledge.

Ibn al‐Nadīm (1970). The Fihrist of al‐Nadīm: A Tenth‐Century Survey of Muslim Culture, edited and translated by Bayard Dodge. 2 Vols., Vol. 2, pp. 656–658. New York: Columbia University Press.

Ibn Ṭāwūs (1948 or 1949). Farajal‐mahmūm fī taʾrīkhʿulamāʾ al‐nujūm. Al‐Najaf: Manshūrāt al‐maṭbaʿa al‐ḥaydariyya, 1368 H.

Pingree, David (1968). The Thousands of Abū Maʿshar. London: Warburg Institute.

——— (1970). “Abū Maʿshar.” In Dictionary of Scientific Biography, edited by Charles Coulston Gillispie. Vol. 1, pp. 32–39. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

Sezgin, Fuat (1979). Geschichte des arabischen Schrifttums. Vol. 7, Astrologie– Meteorologie und Verwandtes, bis ca. 430 H pp. 139–151. Leiden: E. J. Brill.