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Catalogue: Astrology/Divination/Magic

Blue arrow pointing to the rightA Note on Astrology, Divination, and Magic

Of the numerous practices employed in the medieval Islamic world to foretell future events or discern hidden things, astrology was by far the most popular. Its primary use was in the preparation of horoscopes. These were intended to indicate the influences of the stars and the planets on a person either at birth or at other times in his or her life, though horoscopes were also commonly used to determine the wisdom of undertaking a particular course of action. The next most popular form of divination was known in Arabic as ‘ilm al-raml ('the science of the sand'), which came to be known as 'geomancy' in medieval Europe. Unlike astrology, geomancy did not require astronomical observations and calculations. Instead, divination was accomplished by forming and then interpreting a design, called a 'geomantic tableau' consisting of 16 positions, each occupied by a geomantic 'figure'. There are several manuscripts at NLM with geomantic tableaux, as well as the generation lines of dots used to form the figures, drawn in the margins; for an illustrated example, see MS P 28, fols. 51b-52a.

Magic squares played an important role in Islamic talismanic designs. The first appearance of such a square (called a wafq in Arabic) in Islamic literature occurred in the alchemical writings attributed to Jābir ibn ayyān. This early magic square was recommended as a charm for easing childbirth, and it is thought to have been of Chinese origin. It was a 3 x 3 magic square, consisting of nine cells with the numbers 1 to 9 arranged with 5 in the center so that the contents of each row, column, and the two diagonals added up to 15. This particular magic square had its own Arabic name: buduh, after the four letters occupying the four corners of the square (b-d-wa-h). In subsequent years Islamic writers developed a variety of methods for forming magic squares of higher order, with 4 x 4, 6 x 6 and 7x7 squares being particularly popular.

For a general introduction to magic and divination in the medieval and early modern Islamic world, see F. Maddison and E. Savage-Smith, Science, Tools & Magic [Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, 12] (Oxford: Oxford University Press / London: Azimuth Editions, 1997), pp. 59-164; R. Irwin, The Arabian Nights: A Companion (London: Allan Lane/The Penguin Press, 1994), pp. 188-94; E. Douttß, Magie et religion dans l'Afrique du Nord (Algers, 1908, reprinted Paris 1984); and D.B. MacDonald and T. Fahd, 'Simiya' in EI, 2nd edition, vol. 9, pp. 612-3.

For magic squares, see 'Buduh' in EI, 2nd edition, suppl. p. 153-4; and 'Djadwal' in EI, 2nd edition, vol. 2, p. 370; Jacqes Sesiano, Un traité medieval sur les carres magiques: De l'arrangement harmonieux des nombres (Lausanne: Presses Polytechniques et Universitaires Romandes, 1996); and F. Maddison and E. Savage-Smith, Science, Tools & Magic [Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, 12] (Oxford: Oxford University Press / London: Azimuth Editions, 1997) pp. 106-7.

For amulets, see A. Fodor, Amulets from the Islamic World: Catalogue of the Exhibition held in Budapest in 1988 [The Arabist. Budapest Studies in Arabic, 2] (Budapest, 1990); P.W. Schienerl, Schmuck und Amulett in Antike und Islam [Acta Culturologica, 4] (Aachen, 1988); and R. Kriss and H. Kriss-Heinrich, Volksglaube im Bereich des Islam. Band II: Amulette, Zauberformeln und Beschwörungen (Wiesbaden, 1962); and F. Maddison and E. Savage-Smith, Science, Tools & Magic [Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, 12] (Oxford: Oxford University Press / London: Azimuth Editions, 1997), pp. 132-147.

For numerology, see also T. Fahd, 'Huruf, ‘ilm al-' in EI, 2nd edition, vol. 3, pp. 595-6; A. Schimmel, The Mystery of Numbers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993)

For divination, see T. Fahd, La Divination arabe, etudes religieuses, sociologiques et folkloriques sur le milieu natif de l'Islam (Strasbourg/Leiden: Brill, 1966); T. Fahd, 'Kihana' in EI, 2nd edition, vol. 5, pp. 99-101; E. Savage-Smith and M.B. Smith, Islamic Geomancy and a Thirteenth-Century Divinatory Device [UCLA Studies in Near Eastern Culture and Society, 2] (Malibu, CA: Undena, 1980)

In the collections at NLM there is a short Arabic essay on numerology attributed to Zosimos (3rd to 4th century AD), and a treatise on magic and magic square attributed (incorrectly) to Caliph ‘Ali, and another extracted from the writings of Ibn ‘Abd al-Mualib (who lived sometime before 1546). The other related items, eleven in number, at NLM are anonymous and mostly fragmentary.

In addition, geomantic tableaux are to be found in the margins of three different manuscripts MS P 5, fol. 348b; MS A 18.1 on the pastedowns; and MS P 28, item 4, fols. 51b-52a.

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