Reading Māshā’allāh : Sassanian Ayanamsa

The Sassanid Palace at Sarvestan Shiraz Iran – Persian: kakh-eh Sassani-ye Sarvestan – Photo- Javad Jowkar

Before we begin, I would like to make it abundantly clear that it is not my intention to replace the chart we have for the foundation of Baghdad This is in most respects as well sourced as can be expected. What I would like to, however, is to explore what happens when we decide not to take the best of intentions as the only possible motivation and that, further, the shifting of one element in the charts’ construction can change the meaning dramatically and with often unexpected results. Scientists and other researchers understand the necessity of ridding ourselves, as much as is humanly possible, of preconceptions. I think it only fair to read Māshā’allāh using the Sassanian Ayansama to see what might be found. I will add that this study makes me uncomfortable for all the right reasons and I most certainly mean no disrespect to Māshā’allāh.

Māshā’allāh (from mā shā’ Allāh, i.e. “that which God intends”) was a Jewish astrologer from Basra. Ibn al-Nadīm says in his Fihrist that his name was Mīshā, meaning Yithro (Jethro).  Māshā’allāh was one of the leading astrologers in the eighth- and early ninth-century Baghdad under the caliphates from the time of al-Manṣūr to Ma’mūn, and together with al-Nawbakht worked on the horoscope for the foundation of Baghdad in 762. (See Māshā’allāh ibn Atharī (or Sāriya) [Messahala]

13-th century manuscript, drawn by Al-Wasiti of the celebrated book “The Assemblies”. Written by Hariri, shows a library in Baghdad

The chart that he was commissioned for the construction of Baghdad comes down to us from Al Biruni, a fellow Persian from modern-day Uzbekistan / Turkmenistan, in his monumental work The Chronology of Nations.  He is less commonly known by his full name of Abū Rayḥān Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad Al-Bīrūnī (4/5 September 973 – 13 December 1048).  Biruni gives us the time, place and date, but makes no mention of the House System or Ayanamsa used for the chart. It’s normally considered that Māshā’allāh used Whole Signs and we know his most famous student did also. This still leaves the thorny question of which Ayanamsa he used.

If he used the Sassanian Ayanamsa along with material available to him in the Greater Bundahishn. This would change a great many things and would certainly challenge some of our more cherished notions, such as the Chart for Baghdad being done in good faith in the hope of the greatest possible benevolence. Before proceeding any further, it needs to be said that this chart has been subjected to all kinds of tortuous logic by several astrologers, including my initial article on this chart a decade ago. It has always seems to have been discussed with a touch of reticence.

This is no more than a ‘what if’ because we cannot absolutely prove it either way.  As a Persian Jew, Māshā’allāh had good reasons to dislike and resent the Islamic invasion of Persia and the slaughter of Jewish tribes in the Arabian peninsula and elsewhere. Jews had enjoyed a good life in Persia for millennia, as they do to this day. It would be extraordinary if he had no reservations whatsoever.

Here we have the chart with all the information passed on to us by Al Biruni, using Whole Sign houses, calculated using the Sassanian Ayanamsa.  This strikes me as a struggling chart with little to commend it.  But the chart has never been unequivocally beneficent in any of its forms, using other house systems and the sidereal zodiac, for example. This has been part of the confusion. Baghdad was indeed a great centre of learning with widespread influence, both through space and time. However, it has also suffered excessive calamities and violence over the centuries and still suffers to this day.

A brief history of the city shows us that Baghdad’s early meteoric growth was stifled due to problems within the Caliphate itself, including a relocation of the capital to Samarra (during 808–819 and 836–892), the loss of the western and easternmost provinces, and periods of political domination by the Iranian Buwayhids (945–1055) and Seljuk Turks (1055–1135).

Nevertheless, Baghdad held her place and continued as a major cultural and commercial centre in the Islamic world. Then tragedy struck on a massive scale. On February 10, 1258,  the city was sacked by the Mongols under the command of Hulagu Khan. The Mongols killed most of the inhabitants, including the Abbasid Caliph Al-Musta’sim. They also destroyed large sections of the city. Even the canals and dikes forming the city’s irrigation system were destroyed. The attack ended Abbasid Caliphate. It has often been noted that Islamic civilization never completely recovered.

In 1401, Baghdad was again vanquished by Timur. So it continued, until the incursion of the Ottoman Turks. It’s difficult to make the case that Bagdad has not had far more than its share of sorrows and reversals of fortune.  It is equally difficult not to recognize the measure of success and abundance.

We are used to thinking of the Royal Stars of Persia – the Watchers of the Directions –  as Regulus, Aldebaran, Fomalhaut, and Antares, representing the four Fixed Signs and hear we see them on the angles. However, the Sassanian model put the emphasis on Sirius. canopus is used in Islam for the orientation of places of worship. For those reasons, I have included them. It is crucial to consider the Horoscope of the World which we examined in a previous article. In that schema, the House of Life (the Ascendant) was at the nineteenth degree of Cancer, the asterism Azara too was disposed in the star Sirius, which in the chart we have falls in the House of death at 24°18.  I cannot see how he could have missed this. He was certainly aware of the Horoscope and the extraordinary power of Sirius.

In the Great Bundahishn

in Chapter 2, sections 3 & 4, in the translation by Behramgore Tehmuras Anklesariawe, we find:

“3. Over these constellations, He appointed four chieftains, in four directions; He appointed a chieftain over these chieftains; He appointed many innumerable stars that are recognized by name, in various directions and various places, as givers of vigour, by cooperation, to these Constellations.

4. As one says: “Sirius [Tishtar] is the chieftain of the East, Sataves the chieftain of the South, Antares [Vanand] the chieftain of the West, the Seven Bears [Haptoring] the chieftain of the North; the Lord of the throne, Capricornus, whom they call the Lord of Mid- Heaven, [is the chieftain of chieftains; Parand, Mazd-tat, and others of this list are also chiefs of the directions.”

Ibn al-Nadīm lists some twenty-one titles of works attributed to Māshā’allāh; these are mostly astrological, but some deal with astronomical topics and provide us information (directly or
indirectly) about sources used which included Persian, Syriac, and Greek)  He was a learned, brilliant and extremely talented man. We wouldn’t expect him to simply make a mistake.

Most strikingly, we have both Sun and Moon in Leo in the tenth house. This is a great place for the Sun, but the Moon is weak as a Lord of the Ninth House – a very important placing when higher education, the meeting of foreign cultures and of course, religion. We find Mercury Retrograde and conjunct the South Node.

The Eighth House of Death is lord of the Twelfth House of hidden enemies and Venus also takes the place of open enemies. Jupiter that rises in the charts using the tropical zodiac is here relegated to the Second House (the purse) in his dignity, but retrograde. Saturn is in his Fall in an unfortunate, but an unproductive house.

I see no useful reason to further elaborate on this. It is after all entirely speculative, even if plausible. I realize this turns the old enigma in its head, but sometimes an entirely new way of looking at something can be useful.  At the very least, it ought to raise awareness of just how different a chart can appear when the astrologer is using an Ayanamsa that may not have occurred. It also asks the astrologer to consider the cultural differences between practitioners that may very well, on the source be in agreement on virtually everything. This demands that we read far beyond the astrology itself, to the very ground of being which informs us all.


Beginning in 1211, Genghis Khan and his nomadic armies burst from Mongolia and swiftly conquered most of Eurasia. The Great Khan died in 1227, but his sons and grandsons continued the expansion of the Mongol Empire across Central Asia, China, the Middle East, and into Europe.


Note: shortly after publishing this brief article, I became aware of another, written in 2003: The Horoscope of Baghdad: historical, astronomical, and astrological notes by Juan Antonio Revilla. The topic is not identical, but Revilla does well in describing context, methodologies and sensibilities involved in deriving the chart.  He has a familiarity with Sassanian astrology and discusses many things, such as the Tables of al-Kwarizm, which go beyond the limitations of a single blog post.

Mercury : The Hypocritical Planet?

Gemini – Horoscope from ‘The book of the birth of Iskandar” Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

This article is little more than a footnote that concerns an intriguing passage I had the good fortune to read while perusing a publication of The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1997) : Following the Stars: Images of the Zodiac in Islamic Art by Stefano Carboni.  The book is out of print, but you can find a digital version @ Google books.

Mercury is known as many, many things, from the Trickster to the Psychopomp, the Magician & the Physician. His very nature is protean and either gender may be applied, depending on the relative position of the Sun. He is also known as Quicksilver and the Patron of Scribes. Mercury is by nature duplicitous.  The glyph for Mercury suggests he is a messenger of the Sun and Moon But the term ‘hypocritical’ has further implications, specifically professing a virtue that not only one does not possess while impugning a lack of the same virtue in others. The term ‘two-faced’ applies and that may be one of Mercury’s greatest possessions.

The word munafiqun (‘hypocrites’, Arabic: منافقون‎, singular munāfiq) was a group decried in the Quran as those who professed to be Muslims but were secretly holding antipathy to the Islamic cause and sought to defeat the Muslim community.  For example, sura ‘Al-Munafiqun’, Quran 4:61, Quran 9:67, Quran 8:49, Quran 4:140, Quran 9:64, Quran 4:145.  Hypocrisy itself is called nifāq (Arabic: نفاق‎).

The Islamic context exceeds the negative connotations of the English word hypocrite. The Munafiq is considered worse than an unbeliever, with the tribal connotations of a traitor.

Ancient Persian gold cup featuring two faces gazing in opposite directions, with entwined serpents. 4th century B.C.E.

When he is represented as one of the seven planets and luminaries, the traditional iconography is maintained. However,  when the same planet is read in actual astrology, “he “hypocritical” association is operative.  Carboni explains that Mercury was considered a munafiq because it “did not have positive or negative influences (in conjunction with a lucky planet, he brought good fortune, and with an unlucky one,  ill fortune.) His neutral and ultimately weak nature was reflected in his image as conveyed by the representatives of the two Zodiac signs he presides over, Gemini and Virgo… that Mercury not only did not maintain his attributes of the pen and scroll but also was superseded by the more powerful image of the Head and Tail of the Dragon.” (p.13)

.This particular twist would seem to be in accordance with the Sassanian schema I discussed in the previous article.  The horoscope of the World is based on Exaltations, rather than the Domicile basis of the Greek Thema Mundi. It is probably the case that the Sassanian model sought one that placed the Sun not only in Dirunal charts but one that places the Sun in his Exaltation in Aries the Tenth House The Exaltation of the Head of the Dragon is Gemini.

Bichitr, A Scribe, ca. 1625.

 We know the Persian influence on Arabian astrology was enormous and we also have the Persian Al Biruni’s view, albeit indirectly expressed.  In this regard, we can look to the talismanic assignments given by Biruni who places a Serpent in the right hand of Mercury. Carboni touches on this briefly in the same article.

>This ought to show that although a great deal of imagery and meaning is shared from one culture to another, that in some cases the meaning can seem virtually alien. This should always be borne in mind when taking concepts from foreign cultures, even when they seem to have a great deal in common. On the other hand, the cognitive jolt one might experience from such interactions can force one to see connections that would otherwise have been missed.