When you typically think of astrology today, the image of you excitedly flipping through the newspaper to check your daily horoscope pops up in your head. Surprisingly, astrology’s rich history dates back to centuries ago across cultures and is not restricted to the millennial zodiac sign frenzy that we are acquainted with. Religious cultures are integral to the world of astrology. In particular, astrology has for a long time held an important place in Islamic history and culture.
Whilst opinions differ amongst Muslim scholars whether it is a ‘haram’ (forbidden) practice or not, astrology has without doubt historically played a prominent role in the Islamic tradition going all the way back to the Islamic Golden Age (800-1258 CE).
During the Golden Age, both astronomy and astrology dominated much of intellectual, political, and cultural life for medieval Muslims. Early Muslims relied on celestial bodies such as the Sun and the Moon to accurately calculate the time and direction of Mecca, determine sunrise and sunset for fasting in Ramadan, and sight the phases of the moon to mark the beginning of a new month. The practice of astronomy and astrology spanned continents, drawing on ancient Greek, Indian, and Persian traditions that influenced Arabs and Muslims. Astrological doctrines such as horoscopes, zodiacal elements, and planetary influences derived from the Hellenistic astrological tradition, while the other aspects, like the cyclical guidance of universal world events, derived from India and Persia.
Zodiac symbols and constellations were represented by animals in Hellenistic astrology. Islamic astronomers followed this tradition, using the same symbols, signs, and order of the zodiac signs. Muslim astronomers referred to the zodiac cycles as falak al-buruj or dairat al-buruj, both meaning ‘zodiacal sphere’. Similar to Greek astrology, Islamic astrology was less concerned with the signs themselves and more with the particular planets that ruled them, with each sign representing a different element and energy.
Astrology took hold in early Islamic society, particularly during the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates. It was especially revered in Shi’ite religious circles where, according to Ibn Tawus, it was protected. Astrology was then perceived as a tool of foreign sciences that had made its way to the Islamic sphere through the Translation Movement and contact with the heirs of the Byzantine and Persian empire. The Translation Movement involved sustained and systematic efforts to translate secular Greek texts into Arabic during the Abbasid era and was specifically known as the Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement for this reason. As a result, astrology was seen as an avenue to attack the imported foreign sciences and philosophies. Later on, however, Orthodox strains of Islam would interpret astrology to be associated with Shi’ism, foreign sciences, or atheism.
Many nobles, including caliphs, throughout the Islamic world employed court astrologers to help rulers make strategic and important decisions or even foretell the future of their kingdom. Baghdad was founded in 762 upon advice from astrologers employed under the second caliph al-Mansur. One influential astrologer was Abu Mash’ar who, as Hilary Carey writes, ‘adapted classical Aristotlian theories of change, growth and decay in the natural world to provide a powerful validating philosophy for the theory of celestial influence.’ Abu Mash’ar wrote over 40 works, including authoritative accounts of all the major branches of astrology. Astrology was also linked to medical stalwarts such as Ibn Sina, who used astrology as a part of his medical practices.
Zodiac symbols were even depicted on art and objects from the 12th to 17th centuries, further reflecting their importance to Islamic culture. Tessa Sarr writes, ‘This development and integration through art can be seen growing and changing through uses of figural representations, content of inscriptions, overall composition, and intended uses of the objects.’ One example was metalworks, which would reference texts, stories, and manuscripts from many periods of Islamic history.
Mysticism and superstition are nothing new amongst many predominantly Islamic cultures. For instance, coffee cup readings are a common practice amongst the Arab world, while Nazar (the eye amulet) and the Hamsa (also known as the Hand of Fatima) are still worn today to ward off the evil eye. Sufism is a form of Islamic mysticism which encourages introspection, ascension and developing a spiritual relationship with Allah. It is highly known for its mystical practices through poetry, romantic religious texts, rituals, and doctrines. Many Sufi works romanticise God by constantly invoking Him in their works. For example, the famous Persian poet Jallaludin al-Rumi constantly invoked Allah and the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in his poetry, presenting his connnection to God as divine—almost romantic.
Unfortunately, information about the continuation of astrological practice today amongst Muslim societies is lacking. We can assume that it is not practiced as widely anymore due to its controversial position in Islamic theology and its interpretations. However, there is no doubt that it once had a significant place in Islamic societies, including amongst the Christian and Jewish segments living in the medieval Middle East, despite their ideological differences.