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Safavid astrology

Posted 29/12/2015

dCollecting material for a short book chapter on the sciences in Safavid Iran (1501-1722), I keep finding numerous astrolabes as well as manuscripts. I also encountered a new book by Stephen Blake on time, calendars and chronology in three major Islamicate societies in the early modern period. While the historical objects delight me, Blake's book deeply disappoints me. His brief section on Safavid astrology provides exclusively information taken from a few, relatively brief secondary sources of modern historical research, ignoring other, more substantive research work, and two French travel accounts of the 17th century. For a research monograph this alone is a major methodological shortcoming. But if the subject would be well and reliably researched, nothing more than such a point would need to be made if the author had correctly presented the results of his predecessors and properly evaluated the reliability and appropriateness of the early modern reports by foreign visitors. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Most of the astrological, calendrical and related astronomical works by Safavid scholars, including astrologers, have never been read, let alone surveyed or edited and translated. Neither do we know much about their biographies and hence about their daily activities. To claim that by the time of the Safavids "the munajjim had become one of the most important men at court" is thus at best a generous speculation, based on what Jean Chardin (1643-1713) reported in his travel account, but not the result of an investigation of the standing of individual astrologers at court under different Safavid rulers. The description of the astrologer's duties is a summary of the standard content of the tables brought together in astronomical handbooks. Safavid astrologers, however, did not produce such handbooks themselves, but relied almost exclusively on works from the Timurid and Ilkhanid dynasties. It is thus unclear how often they truly calculated anew data for eclipses or other astronomical events. The visible difference between occurring eclipses and data calculated with Ulugh Beg's tables, which were often used by Safavid, Ottoman and perhaps also Mughal astrologers (the latter I assume, but do not know), was bemoaned by Ottoman astrologers in the second half of the 17th century. It would have been nice to hear from Blake whether that was also the case in Safavid Iran and if so, what the consequences of such observations were. Equally, it is disappointing that the enumeration of assumed duties of practicing astrologers is not followed by a discussion of evidence for such activities. According to another visitor from Europe, Pietro della Valle (1585-1656), the court astrologers in Isfahan in the early 1620s, for instance, had little interest in observing the comet or any other heavenly appearance. If his claim is true, then they obviously did not consider all duties listed by Blake following Chardin as binding. But whatever the truth of such conflicting reports by foreign visitors might be, these reports clearly do not paint a coherent, consistent image of the astrologers' activities. Thus using merely two of them (Jean Thévenot (1633-1667) and Jean Chardin) cannot deliver a reliable understanding of Safavid practices. Blake's chapter also displays an uncomfortable lack of familiarity with the history of the mathematical sciences in previous Islamicate societies and a lack of accuracy when summarizing parts of the secondary sources he relied on. It remains an enigma to me why Blake thought that (astrological) birthday parties of the Buyid amir Adud (not 'Abd!) al-Dawla in the 10th century have any relevance for a discussion of the Safavids who entered history seven centuries later. The Ilkhanid and the Gurgani (Ulugh Beg) astronomical handbooks are certainly not the outcome of pure observation. Nor are they the "most accurate and sophisticated astronomical treatises" ever written by scholars in Islamicate societies. They contain outdated material going back to antiquity. From earlier, mostly  Arabic handbooks, they transmit observational data by astrologers of the 9th and 10th centuries. Historians working on planetary theory also would deny  - I believe - that the knowledge and skills needed for compiling a handbook was more sophisticated than that needed for creating new models of planetary movements. Moreover, without clearly formulated criteria, such judgments are all too often in the eye of the beholder and his or her knowledge of the particularities of the matter. Blake's knowledge of some such elements or his attention to his text in any case was clearly limited. In his glorifying depiction of astrologers from territories today belonging to Iran, he makes the following surprising claim:"By the mid-eleventh century, furthermore, Iranian astronomers had fashioned a new synthesis - the language was Persian but the system was predominantly Ptolemaic, with Sanskrit, Zoroastrian, Assyrian, and Syriac elements added." As his source he gives the entry "Astronomy and Astrology" in the Encyclopaedia Iranica. The author of the respective part was David Pingree, who - despite all his admiration for Iranian scholars which many of us share - did neither claim that the astronomical theory translated from Arabic into Persian or summarized directly in New Persian since the late 10th or early 11th centuries contained "Assyrian and Syriac" elements. Nor did he attribute the multicultural, but predominantly antique astronomical knowledge discussed, criticized, taught and practiced by scholars of different ethnic origin and faith in Islamicate societies to efforts of only Iranian scholars from as late as  the 11th century . Pingree, however, wrote about traces of elements from the Late Babylonian period that can be found in Arabic (or Persian) material. A quick and simple check on the Internet clarifies that the Assyrians were not the Late Babylonians, neither in time nor in geography. There are other regrettably imprecise or false statements in Blake's short section on Safavid astrology. Not having access to the entire book, I hope that other parts of his book are written with more care, methodological reflection and respect for the primary sources.