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Am Introduction to Abu Mashar - compiled by Mari Garcia and Joy Usher
Brief Summary :
Abu Ma'shar Ja'far ibn Muhammad ibn 'Umar al-Balkhi (787-886 CE) was born at Balkh, in Khurasan, (now northern Afghanistan) on 10th August, 787, and died at al-Wasit in Iraq on 9th March, 886. In his lifetime he acquired immense renown as the leading astrologer of the Islamic world, a reputation which was maintained in medieval western Europe and in later periods.

Major Contribution :
Abu Ma 'shar drew upon elements of earlier astrological and philosophical sources to compile his astrological works: sources such as Masha'allah, Dorotheus, Valens and al-Tabari (Omar of Tiberias). He was a pupil of al-Kindi (ca.796-873), who wrote copiously on all subjects, including astronomy, astrology and the astrolabe. Al-Kindi created a new Arabic philosophical language, drawn largely from the writings of the Neo-Platonists, and through them, Plato and Aristotle. It was al-Kindi who translated the works of Aristotle into Arabic, and what we today call "Arabic astrology" is really the body of astrological learning heavily influenced and shaped by the Greeks, and assembled by Arabs, Jews, and Persians from the 8th to the 12th century in Arab lands.

Short Biography :
Abu Ma'shar (known also as Albumasar) became professor of astrology at Baghdad University during the caliphate of the great Abu al-Abbas al-Mamun. Al-Mamun was responsible for the translations of hundreds of Greek works into Arabic, and founded the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, with a large library where scholars of all races and religions could mingle in fraternal pursuit. Abu Ma'shar began his career as a student of the 'Hadith', or sayings and traditions of the Prophet Mohammad, but in 825, as a result of a quarrel with al-Kindi, he realized that to understand philosophical arguments he must study mathematics in all its forms, including the study of astrology.

Quote :
Insofar as the higher bodies signify the things existing in this world through the powers of their natural motions, then what is the advantage of being ignorant of this knowledge?


Most Significant Contribution :
Abu Ma'shar's principle work The Great Introduction to the Science of Astrology was written around 850 CE. Some fifty other books are also ascribed to him. One of his lost books, called Book of the Thousands, apparently contained an outline of world history. One of his surviving works is a small treatise entitled The Abbreviation of the Introduction to Astrology, and is believed to be the earliest such manual to be translated into Latin. This was a version of the Great Introduction reduced to the handy format of seven chapters containing the main astrological information without the philosophy. The Book of Flowers (meaning 'choice selections' or anthology) contains rules for interpreting what is now called the Aries Ingress.

Interesting Fact :
It was Abu Ma'shar who arranged for the translation into Arabic of Ptolemy's great treatise on astronomy, thereafter known by its Arabic title as the Almagest.

Recommended Further Reading :
The Significations of the Planets - from Abu Ma'shar's Great Introduction, translated by Benjamin Dykes.
'Abu Ma'shar Al-Balkhi, Ja'far ibn Muhammad ibn 'UMar al-Balkhi' - David Pingree's biography of Abu Ma'Shar published in Dictionary of Scientific Biography (1970).
'Abu Ma'shar Al-Balkhi, Ja'far Ibn Muhammad' - Keiji Yamamoto's biography of Abu Ma'Shar published in The Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers (2007).
Electronic reproduction of 12th century Latin translation of the Flowers of Abu Ma'shar, also made available for download in PDF format.
Wikipedia entry on Abu Ma'shar al-Balkhi


© Mari Garcia, Joy Usher, February 2012.

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