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İlm-i Nücum: The Science of The Stars - I

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İlm-i Nücum: The Science of The Stars

Part 1

By its definition,ilm-i nücum denotes ‘the Science of the Stars.’ During the Ottoman Empire founded in 1299/1302, astronomy and astrology, which were known as ilm-i ahkam-ı nücum, sınaat-i ahkam-ı nücum or shortly ilm-i nücum, ahkam-ı nücum, ilm-i hey’et or ilm-i eflak, were treated together up until to the 19th century. The term ‘müneccim’ (soothsayer) was therefore used to mean both astrologer and astronomer (Salim Aydüz, “Osmanlı Devleti’nde Müneccimbaşılık ve Müneccimbaşılar,” Unpublished M.A. Thesis, Istanbul University, 1993, pp. 1-2). As such, Katip Çelebi, one of the Ottoman scholars from the 17th century, wrote about three areas of ilm-i nücum in his well-known work, Keşfü’z zünun. Although he dealt with astrology and astronomy in different sections of his book, he considered both as ‘ilm-i nücum’, namely ‘the science of the stars’ (Katip Çelebi, Keşfü’z zünun, nşr, Ş. Yaltkaya, İstanbul, 1943, II, pp. 1930-1931; Aydüz, p. 3).

The Science of the Stars from the religious perspective

In general, Muslim scholars before the Ottomans Empire had approved and recommended the science of the stars if it was based on calculation (astronomy). However, they had criticized the one that was based on predictions (astrology), which they argued was forbidden by religion (Taşköprüzade Ahmed b. Mustafa, Miftah es-Saade ve Misbah es-Siyade, Kahire, 1968, I, p. 338; Mehmed İzzet, “İhtiyarat”, Mahfel, number 25, pp. 8-10). Unlike the earlier Muslim scholars, the Ottoman müneccims believed that the main effectual power behind the influence of the stars and the planets was nothing but God.

The Ottomans leaned the above quotation on İmam Şafii (Muhammed Ibn Idris al Shafii, 767-820, founder of The Safi’i madhhab):”If the müneccim believes that the main effectual power is God and God’s justice on the earth is achieved through the movements of the stars and their positions, there is nothing wrong with that” (Miftah es-Saade ve Misbah es-Siyade, I, p. 338, Keşfü’z-zünun, II, pp. 1930-1931; Peçevi İbrahim Efendi, Peçevi Tarihi, II, B.S. Baykal, Ankara, 1982, II, p. 426). Peçuylu İbrahim (meaning İbrahim from Pécs) cited İmam Şafi’s above words and he himself wrote about the Science of the Stars in his famous history, Peçevi Tarihi.

Clearly, the Ottomans believed that astrology was not objected by religion. At the beginning of their works, (ahkam risaleleri) the müneccims thus quoted verses from Qur’an as follows: ‘The knowledge (of the time of its coming) is with Allah only’ and sometimes they referred to the hadith of Prophet Muhammad to give the same message. Moreover, at the end of their calendars, just after making predictions and foresights, they wrote the sentences like ‘Allah u alem’ meaning ‘God knows’. This last sentence indicated that the müneccims’ predictions might have been wrong and it was only God that can know the truth (Aydüz, p. 89, p. 94).

Like Peçevi İbrahim, there were some other Ottoman historians like Naima (1655-1716) who supported the Science of the Stars. He was even believed to be a müneccim and was known for influences on the statesmen of his time. Due to his accurate horoscope predictions, some statements avoided to confront him openly (Ahmet Refik, Alimler ve Sanatkarlar (900-1200), İstanbul 1924, p. 258).

In order to show that religion did not oppose the Science of the Stars, one should also look at the roles of muvakkithanes, which were the places established near mosques to determine the time for the call to prayer according to Sun and its movements. Muvakkithanes under the the chief müneccims were the only establishments, other than the observatories (rasathaneler) where astrological studies were carrid out. Müneccims, who worked in muvakkithanes located especially at the entrances or courtyards of big mosques, informed the müezzin (the crier who calls the Muslims to prayer five times a day) about the time for the prayer. It is known that some müneccims and muvakkits who took administrative roles in different muvakkithanes of Istanbul produced invaluable works on astronomy. At themuvakkithanes, which were also the centers of education, muvakkits taught mathematics, astronomy, astrology and calander-planning to many who were either the men of science or ordinary people (Süheyl Ünver, “Osmanlı Türkleri İlim Tarihinde Muvakkithaneler”, Atatürk Konferansları V, 1971-1972’den ayrı basım, Ankara, 1971, p. 228; Salim Aydüz, “Osmanlı Devletinde Müneccimbaşılık”, Osmanlı Bilimi Araştırmaları, I, pp. 159-207).  


The Science of The Stars from the administrative and political perspective

It was during the reign of Sultan Mehmed II that the müneccims predicted the eşref saati (auspicious hour). In Mahruse-i İstanbul Fetihnamesi, a poet, writer and a statesmen, Tâcîzâde Câfer Çelebi (1452-1515) wrote that Mehmed II attacked on the Byzantine Empire to conquer Istanbul according to the auspicious hour, which had been determined by the müneccims (Tacizade Cafer Çelebi, Mahruse-i İstanbul Fetihnamesi, A. İhsan ve Şirkasi Publishing, 1913, p. 10).

In the time of Sultan Bayezid II (1481-1512) who succeeded Mehmed II that the first official müneccim was employed at the Ottoman palace and from then on, the office of the chief müneccim (müneccimbaşılık) became official. The first chief müneccim who lived in his reign was Seydi İbrahim b. Seyyid. In other words, this office that was first ruled by the palace and later by the Bab-ı Ali (the Sublime Porte) became official at the end of the 15th century. It was abolished after the declaration of the Turkish Repbuplic (in 1923) and the death of the last chief müneccim Hüseyin Hilmi Efendi in 1924 on the condition that no other müneccim would be appointed thereafter (S. Ünver, “İstanbul Muvakkithaneleri Vazifelerinin İlmi ve Kültürel Değerleri Üzerine,” International Symposium on the Observatories in Islam, ed. M. Dizer, İstanbul, 1980, p. 49).

During the period in which the office of the chief müneccim was active for almost 500 years, the sultans and the high statesmen relied on the müneccims’ predictions. The ruling elite relied on astrology for important occasions. Even the sultans who were not very supportive of astrology like choosing the auspicious hour did not object such practices as it was part of their customs and traditions (Aydüz, pp. 99-100). Sultan Abdülhamid I (1725-1789) and Sultan Selim III (1761-1807) were among the sultans who did not show much interest to the science of the stars while there were others like Sultan Mustafa III (1717-1774) who were very fond of it. Due to his interest in astronomy and astrology, he sought the translations of the books that he ordered from European countries and elsewhere.

As being both astronomers and astrologers, the müneccims and the chief müneccims were asked by the ruling class to prepare annual calendars, calendar predictions (ahkam takvimleri), timetables (imsakiyeler) for the Ramadan, and horoscopes for the state officials. They also chose the proper and the auspicious hour to start something important. Briefly, the office of chief müneccim was founded to meet the needs of the ruling class.

It was one of the palace müneccim’s main task to draw horoscope (zayiçe) for the enthronement of sultans. Also horoscopes were arranged to choose the best time when the seal would be given to the newly appointed Grand Vizier, the most important figure after the sultan. The palace müneccims however were not expected to do the same for the remaining state officials, which in fact might consult the müneccims on their wish (D’ohson, Tableau General de L’empire Ottoman, 7th binding, Paris 1788-1824, p. 12)

As stated above, müneccims chose the auspicious hour as part of their job. This was made to start negotiations talks between the Ottoman Empire and its counterparts, to declare wars, to sign treaties, and decide the time for the departure and the entrance of the navy to the Golden Horn. Also, it was practiced for the groundbreaking ceremonies as well as the opening ceremonies of a mosque or a state building. The time when sultans married, traveled or wore new garments, had childbirth, the time when the children of the royal family started to go to the school were also important occasions, for which the münneccims prepared horoscopes for the auspicious hour.

In addition to the prediction calendars, müneccims also prepared the birth epistles called tali-i mevlud. In these epistles were the horoscopes drawn to make prediction for the sultan’s sons’ and the governors (pashas). As such,the 15th century Müneccim Hatayi Geylani wrote the epistle for Mehmed II (the Conqueror) (1432-1481), in which he explicitly pointed out that the Sultan was going to pass away in his fifties (Arslan Terzioğlu, “Devrinin Kaynakları Işığında Fatih Sultan Mehmed’in Ölümü”, Tarih ve Toplum, no. 115, Temmuz 1993, pp. 29-30).

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