Abu Ma’ashar al-Balkhi (A.D. 787-886) was a Persian philosopher and astrologer who flourished during the time of the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad. Educated in the usual manner of his day with logic, jurisprudence, rhetoric, and the religious sciences, he turned to astrology late in life at the age of 47. We cannot quite call him an astronomer, for in his day that science was still in its embryonic stage; but he did assemble some astronomical tables that added to the collective wisdom in the field. Just as alchemists eventually contributed to chemistry, so did medieval astrologers serve a function as a bridge between superstition and reason.
His historical importance also lies in the fact that some of his Arabic treatises found their way to Europe through Latin translations, thereby helping alive in the West an acquaintance with Greek and Islamic science. Western Europe knew him by his Latin name “Albumaser” after one of his books was translated into that language in 1133 under the title Introductorium in astronomiam.
We moderns so easily take for granted the easy dissemination of knowledge. In previous ages, before the advent of printing and mass media, things were quite different. Books were precious, and knowledge was not easy to acquire: and when it was acquired, it had to be guarded jealously, lest it become buried in the silt of time or lost forever through the malice of offended sovereigns.
A weird story is told about al-Balkhi by his biographer Ibn Khallikan. It may be apocryphal, but one suspects that some element of truth is lurking in the shadows. We are told that al-Balkhi achieved a reputation for being very good at the art of divination. Once, when he was working for a prince, he was asked to “locate” some junior official who had committed a crime and now had to face justice. The man had secreted himself and could not be found.
The junior official in hiding was also a clever man. He knew that the prince would ask the court astrologer to use all the skills of his trade to find him. He knew that al-Balkhi was a formidable diviner and psychic, and had ways of learning information that others could not understand. So to confuse the astrologer and throw off his psychic “tracking,” the fugitive placed a large gold-decorated mortar (a vessel for grinding or crushing food) inside a larger tub partially filled with the blood of slaughtered animals. He then sat in the mortar, elevating himself above the bloody mess around him. He was confident that this gruesome precaution would cause the astrologer’s readings to go haywire.
Al-Balkhi cast his horoscopes and made his divinations, but he could not get a read on where the fugitive junior official was. After numerous attempts, he told the prince in exasperation, “The man you want is–as far as I can tell–located on a golden mountain surrounded by a sea of blood. As far as I know there is no such place on this earth. I can do no more.”
So the prince decided to pardon the man and anyone who was hiding him. He marveled at the ability of al-Balkhi to have divined the basic details about how the man was hiding, even if he did not get everything exactly right. This, in any case, is the story as it is related by Ibn Khallikan.
What can be made of this anecdote? Is it just an odd bit of legend, or is there anything else that can be concluded from it? My own opinion is that it may be an early description of psychic phenomena. What in those days were called “astrologers” often functioned as today’s psychics. From my own personal observations and experience, I’ve come to believe that at least some psychic phenomena are “real,” in the sense that some people have ways of knowing about past and future events that defy explanations.
Psychic ability seems to be a kind of talent, much like athletic prowess or musical ability; everyone has some capacity for it, which often remains unused, but some people are “naturals.” I base my opinions on what I have seen on my own travels in Asia, as well as some other experiences. We should not take this sort of thing too far, of course; there is much that is fraudulent or counterfeit in this arena. But I have seen enough to be convinced that some people have unique cognitive and perceptive abilities that cannot be explained any other way.
As for an ultimate opinion on these esoteric matters, every person will have to decide for himself, of course.
Read more about this and related subjects in Pantheon.
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