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THE GEOMANCY OF AḤMAD B. ‘ALĪ ZUNBUL A STUDY OF THE ARABIC CORPUS HERMETICUM BY FELIX KLEIN-FRANKE* * Institute of Asian and African Studies, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel. Translated from German by Mrs. J. Goddard and Mr. H. K. Sheppard. Transcribed from an archived copy of AMBIX March 1973 (Vol. XX, pp. 26-35) located in the University of Virginia, by Mr. S. J. Block. Not for republication or resale; for personal use only.

THE desire to look into the futures is as old as mankind itself. New methods to enable man to read the future from natural omens or from self-made systems were constantly evolved. In Islam, with its strict doctrine of predestination, such divinatory practices were present at an early age and are still extant. One of the oldest of these is geomancy (‘ilm ar-raml): lines are drawn in sand, or sand is sprinkled into certain shapes, and from these combinations conclusions concerning the Unknown and Future are arrived at. How this occurs in individual cases is explained later with the aid of the Book of Zunbul. For a number of modern geomantic systems there are numerous appropriate descriptions;1 but all these systems have been very much simplified and the magico-historical background which is of interest to us is missing. Ibn Khaldūn devoted a short chapter to geomancy;2 on the whole, however, he denies geomancy, like all other attempts, the ability to gain an insight into supernatural subjects, prophecy excepted. The work Kitāb al-maqālāt fī ḥall al-muškilāt of Aḥmad b. ‘Alī Zunbul al-Maḥalli alMunaǧǧim is our nearest clue to the historical sources of geomantic magic. Brockelmann3 mentions two MSS. In the Library of the Greek Patriarchate in Jerusalem I identified a third MS. (παφον, 109). Unfortunately, I could not obtain a copy of the Cairo MS. My researches, therefore, are based on the Jerusalem MS. (H) and the Istanbul MS (K). In K the title reads: Kitāb al-maqālāt fī wa-ḥall al-muškilāt. According to a colophon, H was copied in the year 1133 A.H./1721 A.D.; it has 170 double pages. From one of the works of Zunbul dealing with the history of his own times, we can see that he was still living after 960 A.H./1553 A.D.4 The following works of Zunbul can be added to the titles listed by Brockelmann:

K. aḏ-ḏahab al-ibrīz al-muḥarrar K. lamm aš-šaml fī’ilm ar-raml K. ‘aga’ib al-maẖlūqāt (the author has presented this work in three parts, as was

customary during the Middle Ages, viz. a compendium, an intermediate

commentary, and a major commentary–perhaps a commentary to Qazwīnī’s book

of the same title?).5


E. Caslant, Traité élémentaire de Géomancie, Paris, 1935; B. Maupoil, La Géomancie à l’ancienne Coté des Esclaves, Paris, 1943; R. Davies, “A System of Sand Divination”, The Muslim World, 17, 123-9, 1927. 2

Ibn Khaldūn, The Muqaddimah, tr. F. Rosenthal, I, 216ff.; “Auszüge zur Geomantie aus den Geschichten von 1001 Nacht”, collated by O. Rescher, Islam, IX, 1919. 3

C. Brockelmann, Geschichte der arabischen Litteratur, II, Leiden, 1949, 298.




M. Steinschneider, Die hebräischen Übersetzungen der Mittelalters und die Juden als Dolmetscher, Berlin, 1893, 52ff.

K. ad-durr al-muhdī fī ẓuhūr al-Mahdī

In the preface to his work Zunbul states that the angel Gabriel appeared before Idrīs (Hermes Trismegistos) and taught him the art of geomancy. As a result of this Idrīs sought out the Indian Ṭumṭum and instructed him in this art. A parallel legend can be found in the fragments of the Book of Enoch6 (sometimes identified with Hermes), wherein the fallen angels taught man the science of geomancy.7 In an article some years ago M. Plessner reviewed the significance of the Hermetica still preserved in Arabic.8 The most important characteristic which justifies the description of a text as being Hermetic is the revelation bestowed on Hermes, who, in turn, confers it on his son Tat or Asklepios.9 Thus, in Zunbul’s geomantic script Hermes receives a revelation, just as he does in the Poimandres; hence, the work in question is a Hermetic script. Its crypto-scientific character justifies its inclusion in that group of Hermetic texts which Festùgiere has designated “l’hermétisme qu’on pourrait dire populaire”.10 The idea of “occult sciences”, in which geomancy is included, had early acquired among the Arabs a dual meaning: occult sciences were, above all, secret sciences which were confined to a certain circle of people and preserved as a secret by them, partly to prevent misuse of the sciences and thus prevent a world catastrophe,11 and partly to protect themselves from persecution. Another explanation described the occult sciences as the “doctrine of secrets”; in this context, for instance, the expression “al-’ulūm al-bāṭina” in Ismailian literature is to be interpreted as belonging to the latter.12 Generally speaking, astrology, alchemy and magic are described as occult sciences; L. Thorndike, however, rates magic as the superior one.13 From the following it can be seen that geomancy is based on the teachings of astrology and alchemy; thus, viewed from this angle it, too, must be included in the occult sciences. In ancient times manticism was already accepted as referring to divine revelation, as is similarly indicated by the term “divinatio”. Iamblichos says: “The most important aspect of manticism can be traced back to the Gods, is given only but the Gods, attains its fulfillment in divine acts or signs, and is manifested in divine visions.” 14 From the same source one gathers that Iamblichos did not consider manticism to have any value as a science. In medieval Islam, 7

Ed. Dindorf, 1829.


L. Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science, I, New York, 1923, 341.


M. Plessner, “Hermes Trismegistus and Arab Science”, Studia Islamica, II, 1954, 45-59.


Ibid., 48.

10 A. 11

J. Festugière, La Révélation d’Hermès Trismégiste, I, Paris, 1950, vii.

Vide H. Ritter, “Picatrix, ein arabisches Handbuch hellenistischer Magie”, Vorträge der Bibliothek Warburg, ii, 107, 1923.


P. Karus, “Dschābir ibn Ḥajjān und die Isma’īljja”, Forschungs-Institut für Geschichte der Naturwissenschaften in Berlin, Dritter Jahresbericht, 1930, 38. 13 14

Thorndike (7), 2.

De Mysteriis, III, i. The tr. by Th. Hopfner reads: Das Wesentliche an der Mantik geht durchaus nur auf die Götter zurück, wird von den Götter allein eingegeben, kommt in göttlichen Werken oder Zeichen zur Vollendung und enthält in sich göttliche Visionem. (Über die Gehimlehren von Jamblichus, Leipzig, 1922).

however, the term “science” (‘ilm) was accorded a different meaning from that generally accepted in the west; thus, for instance, the interpretation of dreams was regarded as a science (‘ilm ta’bīr ar-ru’yā), although at the same time it was legitimately included as one of the 46 parts of the Prophecy. 15 In which circles were occult sciences practiced in Islam? P. Kraus has shown ((12), p. 29) that the collection of alchemistic texts under the name of Jābir–the Geber of the Latin Middle Ages–originated from the Sect of the Isma’īliyya. The magnitude of this circle, or its scientific activity, was recognized quite early by I. Goldziher, when he realized that the Encyclopaedia of the Brethren of Purity was also of Ismalilan origin. It is now assumed that the Isma’iliyya constituted a centre of occult sciences. The geomancy of Aḥmad b. ‘Alī Zunbul confirms the assumption that the author utilized sources belonging to a wide literary circle of the Isma’īliyya. The list of Zodiacal Signs and their virtues (chap. 1) is identical word for word with that of the Encyclopaedia of the Brethren of Purity.16 A resemblance in style to the literature of the Brethren of Purity can also be discerned; numerous sections are introduced by Zunbul as follows: “Know you, dear Brother, may God guide you ton the path of virtue” (i’lam yā aẖī arsadanallāhu wa-iyyāka ilā ṭarīq ar-rašād). The introduction by the Brethren of Purity reads: “Know, wise and gentle Brother, may God strengthen you and us with His spirit” (i’lam yā aẖī ayyadakallāhu iyyānā bi-rūḥin minhu). Zunbul’s work, mentioned previously, namely ad-durr al-muhdī fī uhūr al-Madhī supports the assumption that the author sympathized with the ideas of the Isma’īliyya. That the sect was no longer extant as a religio-political body is irrelevant in this context. In Zunbul’s geomancy the philosophical aims are absent, whereas in the Corpus Geberianum they play a very important part; as what mentioned at the beginnging, the former is a text concerned with “l’hermétisme populaire”. All in all, what Festugière has said of the other occult sciences is valid for geomancy:17 Le trait dominant des pseudo-sciences de l’époque hellénistique et gréco-romaine, c’est qu’elles visent toujours à des fins pratiques. Si l’on contemple le ciel, c’est pour y lire la destinée des hommes. Si l’on recueille les propriétés des bêtes et des pierres, c’est pour en tirer les remèdes. Si l’on cherche le moyen de transmuter le métaux, c’est pour trouver le secret de les changer tous en or. Ce critère de l’utilité est décisif. 18 In particular, geomancy lists the services which Hermetism offers to man: how a thief is identified, how a hiding-place can be discovered, how one makes fortune come one’s way and generally protect oneself from misfortune.


ad-Damīrī, Ḥayāt al-ẖayawān, English tr. Bombay, 1906, I, 26: “The science of interpretation of dreams…though it is only a conjecture, forms one of the fourty six parts into which the office of prophecy is divided” (at-ta’bīr wa-in kāna taẖmīnan lainnahu ǧuz’un min sitta wa-arba’īna guz’a-n-nubuwwa–Arabic ed. Cairo 1274/1858, 19). 16 Arabic 17 18

ed., Cairo 1347/1928, IV, 384ff.

Festugière (10), 194.

“The dominant feature of the pseudo-sciences in Hellenistic and Greco-Roman times is that they always have practical aims in view. If the sky is studied it is in order to read in it the destiny of men. If the qualities of animals, of plants and of stones are gathered together it is for the purpose of deriving a remedy from them. If the means of transmuting metals is sought it is in order to find the secret of changing them all into gold. This criterion of utility is decisive.”

The traditional chain of geomancy begins as follows: Gabriel | Idrīs/Hermes | Ṭumṭum | Halaf al-Barbarī | Abū ‘Abdallāh az-Zanātī We have, quite independently, the testimonies of major and minor authorities such as: aṭṬarābulusī (H 38v), Muḥammad al-Kantāwī (37r), Aḥmad al-Kurdī (38r), al-Hamdānī (38r), aṯṮa’labī (38r), Abū-l-Ḥasan ‘Alī b. Yūnus al-Miṣrī (71r), author of an astronomical table (ṣāḥib az-zīǧ) etc. Of the Greeks and their works Zunbul cites the Tetrabiblos of Ptolemy (38r), “the Greek WYMS” (38r) and “Anṯīqūs” (83r), who is probably to be identified with Antiochos of Athens (2nd century A.D.), and who is often cited in the astrology of Mašā’allāh.19 Of these authorities the Indian Ṭumṭum belongs rather to legend than to actual history. In the occult sciences of Islam he is referred to as one of the highest authorities. As well as from the oriental sources of the Alexander legend, it was through the intermediary of Byzantium that he became known to the Latin west as Dindimus.20 Kroll remarked that “if someone in Greece is outstanding for his profound wisdom, then he has attended the schools of the Egyptians whose country he visited during his travels; at least, that was the opinion in ancient times.” 21 In the case of the Arabs Egypt’s place in respect of the occult sciences was taken by India. “To be an Indian, wise in the interpretation of secrets”, belonged to one of the human ideals of the Brethren of Purity.22 After the introduction of Islam into India and the conquest by the Arabs under Muḥammad b. Qāsim in Sind in 712 A.D., the interest of the Muslims in Indian culture grew noticeably; India’s influence upon the Islam world became stronger.23 Al-Fazārī (fl. at the end of the VIII century A.D.) is considered to have been one of the first translators of Indian scripts into Arabic.24 During the following centuries Muslim travellers and wise men repeatedly undertook the journey to India.25 Zunbul relates that Ṭumṭum 19

Cf. F. Boll, Sitzungsberichte der Heidelberger Akademie, Phil.-hist. Kl., 1, 1910. I have been unable to identify the corrupted proper name WYMS. 20

Cf. F. Pfister, “Kleine Texte zum Alexanderroman (Sammlung Vulgärlatein. Texte IV)”, Heidelberg, 1910, IX, for indications of literature. 21

J. Kroll, Die Lehren des Hermes Trismegistos, Münster, 1904, IX. “Wenn jemand in Griechenland durch profunde Weisheit hervorragt, dann ist er wenigstens nach antiker Vors-tellung bei den Ägyptern, die er auf Reisen besucht hat, in die Schule gegangen.” 22

G. E. v. Grunebaum, Der Islam im Mittelalter, 1963, 291; H. H. Schaeder, Die Antike, IV, 1928, 226-65.


I. Goldziher, “The Influence of Buddhism upon Islam”, J. Royal Asiatic Soc., 1904, 124-41.


P. K. Hitti, History of the Arabs, London, 1958, 307.

25 According

to the Isma’īlī al-Ḥallāǧ, Brockelmann (3), 199.

had prepared his book on geomancy “in the language of the inhabitants of India” (91r). “After Halaf al-Barbarī had travelled to India to study this science (that is, geomancy) he compiled from this previously mentioned Taskīn an excerpt (or copy, istaẖraǧa) inthe language of the Berbers.” ‘Abdallāh Muḥammad az-Zanātī was the first to be able to shed some light on the mystery (ḥalla ramzahu).26 Zunbul’s work agrees with those Arabic legends which fixed the origin of the Hermetic art as belong to and originating in India. Ibn Abī Uṣaibi’a (d. 668 A.H./1270 A.D.)27 reports in his comprehensive biographical work on ancient and contemporary physicians28 that Hermes Trismegistos, together with his pupil Asklepios, travelled to India. We can determine when Zunbul wrote his geomantic work from a note which he gives on f. 50v. In it we in find mention of the Sultan Sulaiman I (1520-1566 A.D.), with the addition “may God prolong his life”. Zunbul also mentions his sons Muṣṭafā (d. 1553 A.D.), Salīm and Bāyazīd (d. 1561 A.D.). This must mean that Zunbul completed his book before 1553 A.D.

Kitāb al-maqālāt fī ḥall al-muškilāt A Treatise on the Solution of Problems By Aḥmad b. ‘Alī Zunbul al-Maḥalli In the preface the author states that the work in question was the largest of his books; he had written an introduction to it and had divided the book into 31 chapters (not 30, as is wrongly stated by Toufic Fahd;29 the erroneous date is copied from Brockelmann). After a review of the chapters the author states: We have found in ancient books that, prior to his return, Idrīs, on the instruction of a spiritual being (rūḥaniyya), had travelled extensively (katīru-s-siyāḥa, πολύτροπος). During one of these journeys Gabriel appeared to him in the shape of a man, drew lines in the sand and said to him: “You are a prophet; but you hide your gifts of prophecy out of fear of your fellow men.” And Idrīs answered: “Yes, out of love and reverence for you.” Idrīs was surprised at the knowledge that Gabriel possessed (in the art of geomancy) and said to him: “Dear Brother, I will become your companion and you shall teach me that which is known to you.” And Gabriel answered: “Out of love and respect for you will I do this.” Thus, Idrīs met Gabriel every day until he had mastered this science. Then


Ibn Khaldun (2), I, 229, n. 344. It is not known when exactly when az-Zanātī lived; Steinschneider in Die hebräischen Übersetzungen des Mittelalters und die Juden als Dolmetscher (1893), §528, p. 855, wrote “perhaps the XII-XIII century”. However, in the Byzantine astrological literature there were already known treatises and predictions attributed to Ζανατή probably translated into Greek from Persian (see Fr. Cumond, Catalogus Codicum Astrologorum Graecorum, Brussels, IV (1903), 118f). 27

Cf. Brockelmann (3), I, 326ff.


K. Uyun al-anbā’fī ṭabaqāt al-aṭibbā’, ed. A Müller, Königsberg/Cairo, 1299/1884, 16.


La Divination Arabe, 1966, 203.

Gabriel said unto him: “… Go to the Indian Ṭumṭum and his people and teach this science. Afterwards they will believe you.” Idrīs went to Ṭumṭum and revealed himself as a prophet to the latter and his forty followers. These forty men were the “pillars of the state and conversant with secret sciences” (haramisa; in a monotheistic religion Hermes is, of course, no god but the appellation of someone who is both an expert in, and proclaimer of, secret sciences). In the following Idrīs teaches the rules of geomancy to the Indians: sixteen figures (aškāl) are allotted to sixteen Mansions (buyūt). The fundamental figure is termed the “Path” (or “Way”)–ṭarīq–and consists of four dots placed vertically. These portray the four elements, reading downwards: Fire (nār), Air (hawā’), Water (mā’) and Earth (turāb). A line in place of a dot means the elimination of the relevant element from the elements in the original mixture. Thus a total of sixteen possible figures is obtained: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16

(2) (1) (4) (3) (14) (7) (6) (9) (8) (12) (13) (10) (11) (5) (16) (15)

𝌆 𝌮 𝌓 𝌡 𝌊 𝌏 𝌥 𝌭 𝌇 𝌉 𝌒 𝌫 𝌒 𝌪 𝌤 𝌐

ṭarīq ǧamā’a ḥayyān30 ‘ataba dāẖila nuṣra ẖāriǧa naqiyy al-ẖadd ḥumra rakīza ẖāriǧa ‘ataba ẖāriǧa ǧūdala31 ‘uqla bayāḍ iǧtimā’ nuṣra dāẖila qabḍ dāẖil qabḍ ẖāriǧ

Transcriber’s note: I have had to replace the original Arabic-style figures with similarly-appearing Tai Xuan Jing symbols. Here, a single line represents a line with one dot, and a broken line represents a line with two dots.

It is seen that the figures consist of eight pares and are arranged in such a way that every second figure is obtained by reversing the proportions in the mixture. The order, however, is not consequential; no. 5 must be linked with no. 14, no. 10 with no. 12 and no. 11 with no. 13. I have indicated the second order by placing the figure in brackets. The table of figure of Ǧa’far aṣ-ṣādiq does not reveal any orderly principle. A series of sixteen horizontally placed figures is termed a taskīn, that is, literally, a settlement of Mansions. When setting out the figures the sequence of the Mansions can, of course, be changed; the meaning of a taskīn depends on the actual positions of the Mansions in relation to one another.


Thus Ǧa’far aṣ-ṣādiq. Vide J. Ruska, Arabische Alchemisten, II, Heidelberg, 1924, 29: liḥyān.


Idem., ǧandala

Here one is dealing with the original Greek theory of the temperaments. Empedokles (490-430 B.C.) assumed that the mixing of the four elements, fire, air, water and earth gave rise to the specific qualities of individual bodies. It is well known that the alchemists carried out experiments based on this theory, and that an ideal mixture of the basic elements would result in the production of gold. Geomancy, like alchemy, utilized a method of mixing the elements, though only symbolically. Whilst the mixing of the elements–in geomancy, the construction and layout of a figure–has its basis in alchemy, the doctrine of Mansions, i.e. the construction of a taskīn in geomancy in based upon astrological knowledge, as will be seen. On the advantages of geomancy the writer has this to say: “This is the sacred teaching (šarī’a) of Idrīs, who judged among men, and with whose aid mankind was able to separate the oppressor from the oppressed and the true thief from the one merely suspected of theft.” Then follows an enumeration of further miraculous powers attributed to Hermetic geomancy. These are based upon the principle of “sympathy”, i.e., the reciprocal action between visible forms of matter–in this case the four elements–and the transcendental. 32 Some of the figures are bearers of good fortune, others of misfortune. The most powerful, universal figure is the first (“the first figure includes everything because it possesses all four elements”, Zunbul tells us). Since the four elements form the basis of the universe, each dot in a figure can be treated as having a place-value and in its place an appointed realm of the universe can be constituted. This is mostly clearly illustrated in an example from the geomancy of the Indian Ṭumṭum: the first dot denotes, for example, the minerals, the second the living creatures, the third the plants and the four the inorganic bodies (ǧamādāt), etc. If years, months, weeks and days are included the date of return of a traveller can be foretold, as, too, the dynasties of Sultans, Kings, Emirs and Secretaries of State, etc. In short, through geomancy, every possible field can be grasped. How this is actually carried out is revealed by the author in the following 31 chapters. Chapter 1: The explanation of the 16 Mansions. In geomancy Mansions correspond to the Signs of the Zodiac in astrology. This chapter literally presents the description of these Signs and their virtues as set out in the Encyclopaedia of the Brethren of Purity. As enumerated by Zunbul, however, the list of virtues is more comprehensive and detailed. Suffice it here to refer to the Encyclopaedia of the Brethren of Purity. In the present case the number of Signs of the Zodiac is less–12–and Zunbul mentions this difference: “Others have mentioned only twelve mansions in their books, in accordance with the number of Signs in the Zodiac.” Zunbul’s peculiar description of several sources as “others” was quite intentional. That in geomancy 16 Mansions resulted from the 12 Signs of the Zodiac is simply the result of many possible alternative combinations. Chapter 2: The re-grouping (tarḥīl) of the 16 figures and what each represents. In the following each figure is placed in turn in each of the sixteen Mansions. Each figure acquires its particular virtues according to the type of Mansion, viz., each mixture of the elements now contains an astrological omen. Altogether, 16 × 16 movements can be tried, with the result that an almost incomprehensible number of prognoses will be produced. Chapter 3: In the preceding chapter all possible combinations of figures and Mansions were tired out, whereas here the virtues obtained are applied to special cases. A certain combination of Mansions is called a Ship’s Series (taskīn al-markab). “If you now want to know”, says Zunbul, “what is going to happen to the traveller from the beginning to the end of his journey, whether 32

Th. Hopfner, Griechisch-Ägyptischer Offenbarungszauber, I, Leipzig, 1921, para. 94.

the ship will arrive safely or not, whether it will burn, sink or meet an enemy or not, consider what I have to say about it”, i.e. the answer is to be obtained from the coordination of figure and Mansion. From chapter 1 we learn that the mansions 1, 2, 3, 7, 9, 11, 13, and 15 are bearers of good-fortune (sa’īd). Mansions 4 and 10 are less favorable, while mansions 6, 8, 12, 14, and 16 will bring disaster (naḥs). If, during the sprinkling of sand, the first figure (ṭāli’) belonging to a Mansion of the first group is obtained, that means that the ship will arrive safely at its port of destination; in the case of a Mansion belonging to the middle group the ship will arrive safely but with considerable delay. But if the figure obtained belongs to the third group of Mansions the ship will founder (yankasiru-l-markab lā maḥālata). By means of special combinations of figures and Mansions it is also possible to foretell whether the travellers are Muslims, Christians or Jews, whether travelling salesmen will sustain gains or losses, etc. By further demonstrations the author explains the taskīn of famous authorities who happen to be, at the same time, his guarantors. They all have their own systems according to which their taskīn are prepared and which can best be remembered by memorizing mnemotechnical words. The best taskīn is that of az-Zanātī; it bears the key-word bzdḥ: according to the principle of Gematria,33 the transposition of letters of a word into numbers, in place of bzdḥ there result the numbers 2748. Thus the Mansions of the taskīn are indicated; each spot denotes one of the four elements; in the 2nd Mansion there is only the element Fire (𝌓 ḥayyān), in the 7th Mansion only Air (𝌥 ḥumra), in the 4th Mansion only Water (𝌫 bayāḍ), and in the 8th Mansion only Earth (𝌭 rakīza ẖāriǧa). Those chapters which follow do not contribute anything further; in them the whole process is again explained and every possible combination of figures and Mansions bearing on actual cases is referred to. SUMMARY Geomancy is a mixture of alchemical and astrological principles; the four elements are mixed with due consideration to their virtues and formed into combinations (conjunctions) with those Mansions (Signs of the Zodiac) which are bearers of fortune and misfortune. By the use of this principle of “sympathy” certain conclusions concerning the Unknown or the Future can be arrived at from those combinations. Zunbul’s geomancy is a careful compilation from early written sources. They are related to an archetype which goes back to the Hermetic legends of India.34 Both linguistics and contents point to the possibility that the author used much earlier sources embodied in the literature of the Shi’ites.


F. Dornseiff, Das Alphabet in Mystic un Magie, Leipzig, 1922, 91ff.


Cf. R Reitzenstein, Poimandres, Leipzig, 1904, 175.

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