Power and Protection: The Question of Islam and Horoscopes 13 January 2017

The Ashmolean Museum is currently running an evocative and rare exhibition titled “Power and Protection”. The exhibition presents artefacts from across the Islamicate world, and running across history, that represent various Muslim practices seeking unseen influence in the world around them. This includes horoscopes, amulets and talismans, and various forms of divination (thanks to Harry Potter for teaching a generation that word!).

For those at least vaguely familiar with Islam, this presents a contradiction. Islamic orthodoxy has generally shunned many of these practices, seeing them as a contradiction of tawhid – the sublime and all-encompassing oneness of God, a divine monopoly on power. The Quranic lists divination as an evil Muslims should abandon alongside it’s prohibition on gambling and alchohol (Quran 5:90). Various forms of divinitation nonetheless persisted however, especially amongst rulers and the elite (who were also partial to alcohol and gambling, it’s perhaps worth noting). Similar tensions exist between various orthodoxies and other items in the exhibition, from talismans to bibliomancy. By like all debates, following the threads can be revealing.


My first challenging encounter with Muslim views on divination came from my undergraduate dissertation. I was translating part of a ninth century Arabic history, Tarikh al-Yacubi¸the History of al-Yacoubi. It was a relatively overlooked work (especially compared to the more famous history of Ibn Kathir – “The Beginning and the End”), but it reflected a wide genre of works by Muslim scholars that sought to tell the entire history of humanity, from Adam, through to pre-Islamic empires, the Caliphs and various Muslim powers, concluded usually with an account of Islamic prophesies regarding the end of times (such as the Second Coming of Jesus Christ). The genre reflected an “end of history” attitude, the authors often felt they lived at the pinnacle of the human development, and not much but the apocalypse remained.

What is curious about Tarikh al-Yacoubi, I discovered soon, was that he began his sections on the rule of the Four Caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali – the four immediate leaders of the nascent Muslims after the Prophet Muhammad) with an account of the astrological signs during the leaders’ inauguration. I was forced to consult my Arabic dictionary for the translations of zodiac symbols. It was surprising since hitherto, my only engagement of horoscopes and Islam was the hadith warning that visiting an astrologist would result in one’s prayer being rejected for 40 days: –

The salah (daily prayer) of whoever approaches a fortune-teller and asks him about anything will not be accepted for forty days and nights.” Sahih Muslim, vol. 4, p. 1211, no. 5440

Yet Muslims during the time of al-Yacoubi were among the world’s foremost astronomers, and it was no challenge for them to include the astrological theory of the Greeks. They were already accustomed to following the passage of stars and plents through the night sky.

The question however remained “why?” What interest did this otherwise pious Muslim have in the rather questionable science of astrology?

What I discovered was that contrary to my presumptions, that there was a rich and established tradition of astrology within the Middle-East, Islam’s disapproval notwithstanding. Arabist James Robinson writes that “astrology [was] as popular in the ninth – and tenth – century courts as it was scorned by most monotheistic authorities, be they ulema or rabbis”. Rashid Khalidi, Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University seemed inclined to the same view as Robinson, “Yaqubi manifested a most unusual interest in astrology”, and believes “it must have been the strong antipathy against astrology which prevented Yaqubi from spelling out explicitly how the position of the stars determined the fate of his caliphs”. But there is a more innocent possibility Khalidi considers, cosmology was often used to “establish the exactitude of dating”, and al-Yacubi’s horoscopes transcend Gregorian, Julian and Hijri calendars, helping establish a more objective frame for dating.

But it is also entirely possible al-Yacubi wasn’t just providing data, but a fully fledged believer that the stars predicted (or indicated) man’s fate. He lived and wrote during the ninth century, and would certainly have been aware of three prominent astrologists during his time. The first is Masha’Allah ibn Athari, an Persian Jewish astrologist living in Basra (died 815 CE. Along with Masha’Allah, we have Abu Mashar (died 886 CE), The Professor of Astrology at the University of Baghdad. It’s notable that the ninth century University of Baghdad even had a Professor of Astrology. Then finally we al-Kindi (ied 873 CE). These three scholars were the leading astrologists of their time, more polymath and scientists than mystics or magicians, but nonetheless convinced and drawn to the possibility that human beings were subject to grand influences that stretched across the cosmos. Indeed, for these three scholars at least, astrology was not a mystical art but another predictive science. For them, astrology was no more divination than social science. In another work of al-Yacoubi, his “geography”, he describes how the climates and foods of differing peoples influences their character and temperament. This “science” is predictive in the same way al-Yacoubi may have viewed horoscopes to be “predictive”. It all fell under the divine authority of God in the end, so there was no question of “shirk”, or a breach of God’s authority.

Science, Religion, Magic

James George Frazer, the scholar of religious studies, argued that mankind went through three distinct stages in understanding the world. At first, unaware of how the world operated, they would attempt to control and influence it through magic. So the shaman might attempt to make it rain through a rainstick, simulating the sound of water falling, or the witchdoctor may try to cure illness through using smoke to chase away evil spirits. These magicians found that the application of this magic inconsistent, according to Frazer, and so they turned to religion. The belief of an all-powerful diety who decided whether or not the magic would be effective. Frazer’s thesis continues, religion too is found lacking, and so as a final recourse, humanity turns to the empirical sciences, and finds that unlike magic or religion, it successfully and consistently explains and controls the world. His theory is attractive, and has shaped contemporary Western views of religion as backward superstition to be superseded by science.

In terms of religion and science, many have already argued the relationship is more complex. After all, the scientific method was developed first by a Muslim scholar, Ibn al-Haytham. Likewise, some of the biggest discoveries of the modern world were made by pious believers, such as Georges Lemaître, the Belgian Roman-Catholic Priest who first postulated the idea of the big bang. Religion and science co-exist.

The same is true of magic. Rather than being replaced by religion, religion and magic in many cases co-exist. This is what we see in the Ashmolean’s exhibition. And like astrology and al-Yacoubi, these practices are sometimes contextualised within faith, as an expression of it rather than an aberration of it.

The Power and Protection exhibition represents the extent to which magic can be imbued in the practices of Muslims – usually powerful rulers or poor peasants. The ways in which it diverts from orthodoxies of Islam, and the way it can be incorporated into it. It is in many ways a view into an old debate within Islam that still continues, showing religious practice is rarely about the text, but the way people live them.

The Power and Protection exhibition is running in the Ashmolean until the 15th January 2017.

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About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.