A fascinating 15th-century Arabic manuscript compendium of astrological and occult texts

Abu Ma'shar Ja'far ibn Muhammad ibn 'Umar al-Balkhi (Albumasar). Kitab mawalid al-nisa' wa'l-rijal (The Book of Nativities of Women and Men).

[Possibly Iraq], [1456 CE] = Thursday, 6 Shawwal 860 H.

4to (150 x 207 mm). Arabic manuscript in black ink on paper. 384 pages numbered in pencil, containing 4 discrete texts and a section of fragments, the first 2 in the same hand, the later texts in a variety of hands, all apparently contemporary. Bound in contemporary goatskin decoratively blind-ruled with repeating interstitial floral devices, later decorative cloth tie. Frequent tables and occult symbols; full-page diagrams to pp. 321-333; frequent framed headings. 8 later (19th or early 20th century) leaves laid in at front and rear.


A fascinating 15th-century Arabic manuscript compendium of astrological and occult texts, including a notably early and dated copy of the Kitab mawalid al-nisa' wa'l-rijal, a treatise on natal astrology attributed to the great astrologer Abu Ma'shar (786-886, known in the West as Albumasar). It is divided into 24 sections, giving a systematic account of each of the twelve constellations, their interactions with other celestial bodies, and the effect on the characteristics and prospects of men and women born under each sign.

Abu Ma'shar was born in Balkh (modern-day Afghanistan) and travelled to Baghdad during the caliphate of al-Ma'mum (813-33), where he became the main rival of al-Kindi, known as the father of Arab philosophy, though principally he "devoted himself to the account and justification of astrology ... He drew together into one great synthesis many ancient traditions Indian, Greek, and Iranian. The Greek influence consisted of the teachings of Plato, Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Theon. Yet he also drew on Syriac Neoplatonic sources and on al-Kindi for a general metaphysics" (Hackett, "Albumasar", in Gracia & Noone, eds., A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages, p. 102). Abu Ma'shar was an important influence on such thinkers as Albert the Great and Roger Bacon, who commonly referred to him as the "auctor in astronomia", granting him the same status in astronomy that Aristotle enjoyed in philosophy. His immense introduction to astrology, the Kitab al-mudkhal al-kabir ila 'ilm ahkam al-nujum, and his book on planetary conjunctions, the Kitab al-dalalat 'ala 'l-ittisalat wa-qiranat al-kawakib, were both translated into Latin in the 12th century and printed by Erhard Ratdolt in 1489.

The Kitab mawalid al-nisa' wa'l-rijal was printed several times in Cairo during the early 20th century from a variant manuscript. Keiji Yamamoto, Professor of Arabic at Kyoto Sangyo University, notes that the "number of extant manuscripts suggests its high popularity in the Islamic world" (Hockey, ed. The Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers, p. 11). Our manuscript is notable in having a dated colophon. Manfred Ullmann records 13 copies in libraries worldwide, of which none is dated. Of twelve further copies traced, only one of the six copies dated is earlier than the present copy. It has been noted that "the earliest manuscripts of Abu Ma'shar's Kitab al-Mawalid to survive are from the Jalayirid period in the late 14th century" (Stefano Carboni, review of: Wonder, Image, and Cosmos in Medieval Islam by Persis Berlekamp, in: West 86th. A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture 19.2 (Fall/Winter 2012), pp. 319-324). We can trace one possible complete copy in commerce, dating from 1988, and ambiguous with regard to the content of the manuscript; a fragment appeared at auction at Christie's South Kensington in 2015.

Abu Ma'shar's work is preceded by another, otherwise untraced astrological text entitled al-Hikmah al-Sulaymaniyah ("The Wisdom of Solomon", pp. 1-108). It is divided into six sections, the first of which provides a short summary of each sign of the Zodiac, followed by a fable in which Solomon approaches whichever ruler is associated with the given sign, and is provided with four differently inscribed amulets. The second treats naming of children. This is followed by passages on the treatment of illnesses depending on the star sign of the afflicted, treatment depending on the day that the illness arises, the auspicious days of each month according to the "Greek" calendar and then of the Arabic calendar, and finally a list of afflictions and curative talismanic inscriptions.

The Kitab mawalid is followed firstly by various unnamed fragments containing occult maxims and passages of Qur'anic exegesis (pp. 300-326). These are in turn followed by an unnamed astrological text (pp. 327-348), in which each page is headed with the name of a celestial body and is followed by ten lines of stylistically formulaic divinatory maxims, for instance, "Mercury ... You have asked me about marriage: it is blessed unto you ... Moon ... You have asked me about marriage: delay it until a later time" (pp. 340f.). Finally, there is a work entitled Hikmat alhuruf ("The Science of Letters", pp. 349-384), an occult text detailing the nature of illnesses in accordance with the first letter of a person's name. Like the first work in this volume, it also bears an apocryphal attribution to Solomon. The final leaf is signed "tamma tamma", indicating completeness.

Binding lightly rubbed overall with minor loss to head of spine and the leather apparently re-stitched along top edges of both boards, contents tanned, occasional smudging, marking and scribal, errata, a few later annotations or embellishments, tide-mark extending from fore edge, legibility only affected between pp. 305 & 320 (this section comprising textual fragments only; text on p. 318 sometime overwritten in blue ink), earlier and later leaves slightly nicked or crumpled at the fore edge with a few closed tears, a few leaves skilfully reinforced along gutter. Overall a very well-preserved Arabic manuscript in a pleasing contemporary binding.