Astrology for the Ottomans

Among the Ottomans there was constant controversy over whether astrology violated the principles of reason and religion. Although many Islamic scholars judged astrology to contravene religion, astronomers continued to interpret the heavens, and sultans to act on their advice.

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Astrology (tanjim) was also known as ilm-i ahkam-i nacm ('the science of drawing inferences from the stars') in Islamic culture. However, there was constant controversy over whether astrology violated the principles of reason and religion. Although many Islamic scholars judged astrology to contravene religion, astronomers continued to interpret the heavens, and sultans to act on their advice. The office of chief astronomer (munajjimbahsi) instituted at the Ottoman court in the mid-fifteenth century combined astronomical observations for such purposes as drawing up annual calendars, and astrological functions. But the attitudes towards astrology of the Ottoman sultans varied. While some complied with tradition and consulted the chief astrologer from time to time, others dismissed astrology as contrary to both religious principles and reason. When Sultan Abdelhamid I (1774-1789), who belonged to the latter category, was told by his grand vizier that astronomers had given two different auspicious times for the army to march out of Istanbul on campaign, and asked which to choose, he wrote the following in reply:

Our Lord Prophet, in whose deeds the world glories, never acted according to the stars, but put his trust in God. My affairs are in the hands of God Almighty, not the stars. In the Ottoman State great affairs of this kind have always been attributed to the propitious time, and action taken at once. It is up to one of my commanders from Istanbul, no other way is acceptable. When the enemies of the faith attack us, should we wait on the grounds that the time has not yet come? It is sometimes acceptable to choose between the opinions of notable honorable people. Otherwise whatever you wish it is up to you, I will not interfere. Our dignitaries will hinder you greatly, let the outcome be auspicious, let no one write a word about it, but march at once on whatever day is decided upon. 'May God be with us. It is not known how the weather will be by Thursday, so there is no better day than the morrow, which is Monday, the birthday of our Prophet, and I trust in that.

Like his predecessor Abdelhamid I, Sultan Selim III (1789-1807) did not believe in propitious times and horoscopes, and when he was asked to decide between two times cited by astrologers as propitious for the sailing of the fleet, he replied:

Every day is the day of God Almighty. I have no belief in the stars. I place my trust in God, so let the navy sail on whichever day you deem appropriate. And may the engagement take place on whichever day is appropriate.

However, when a further horoscope was presented to him, Selim III let tradition have its way, and wrote the following reply:

Since it has become the custom, let it be done accordingly.

Zodiac Illustrations Dating from the Tulip Era (Lale Devri)

The Tulip Era is the name given to the period 1718-1730, corresponding to the second half of the reign of Sultan Ahmed III (1703-1730). The predominant figure of this period was Grand Vizier Nevsehirli Damad Ibrahim Pasha (1718-1730), under whose government the Ottoman State enjoyed a period of peace and flourishing scientific and cultural activity. Although best remembered for its pleasure-loving aspect, the period is in fact more important for its achievements in the field of scholarship and the arts. Ibrahim Pasha encouraged scholars and poets, and enjoyed discussing scholarship and literature with them. One of the most important of the activities during this period was the second great translation movement in Islamic history.

Ibrahim Pasha organized teams of scholars to translate many books, which he deemed to be of importance from diverse foreign languages into Turkish. One of these was Ikd al-Juman fi Tarihi Ahl al-Zaman, a book on world history by Imam Kadi Mahmud ibn Ahmed ibn Musa ibn Haeyin ibn Yusuf ibn Mahmud Bedreddin al-Ayni of Antep (d. 1451), known as Imam Ayni.

This book describes the events of history from the time of Adam up to the writer's own time in the fifteenth century, and the first volume includes sections on geography and astronomy. The first section of the first volume about astronomy and geography was translated into Turkish by the poet Mirzazade Salim Efendi (d. 1743).

Mirzazade Salim Efendi

Mirzazade Salim Efendi wrote introduction giving information about the author and his book, correcting some mistakes by Ayni on the subject of astronomy, and making some additions, which included 46 miniature paintings depicting the fixed stars and zodiacal constellations. These illustrations were intended to give readers a better understanding of the astronomical subjects discussed by Bedreddin Ayni, and they seem to have been painted by Salim Efendi himself.

The illustrations are on pages 19b-30b of the manuscript. Twelve depict the signs of the zodiac, and the remainder fixed stars. Two of the miniatures depict two constellations each, bringing the total number depicted to 48, which is equal to the number of diagrams in the star catalogue of Ptolemy, in whose footsteps Muslim astronomers followed. The book relates that the fixed stars are 1022 in number, which again is in accordance with Ptolemy, but says that only 917 of these have been illustrated in 48 diagrams. Probably the remaining 105 were not illustrated because of their faintness. Twelve of the 48 diagrams belonged to the zodiacal constellations. Twenty miniatures showing 331 stars represent the constellations of the northern hemisphere, and fifteen those of the southern hemisphere.

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