Operating out of the strategic citadel in Constantinople (now Istanbul) overlooking the Bosphorus (the narrow strait separating Europe and Asia), the Ottoman Empire grew to become one of the largest and longest running empires in history. At its peak it spanned three continents from the gates of Vienna to the Persian Gulf and spread along the North African coast.
Over most of the six centuries of Ottoman rule, astrology and astronomy were combined into a highly respected discipline.(1) These joint celestial studies were known as ‘ilm-i nücum’ – the science of the stars.(2) The practitioners were known as ‘müneccim’ – a term that covered astronomers, astrologers and wise men or magi.
Before the Ottoman era, Muslim scholars approved of astronomy based on calculation, but argued that the associated predictions (astrology) were prohibited by religious texts. However, later Ottoman star gazers or müneccims considered that celestial influences were divine and cited tradition:
“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.”(3) ~ Imam al-Şafii, 767-820, founder of the Shafi’i school of Islamic law
Only God Knows Truth
At the beginning of their prognoses, the müneccims humbly quoted the following verses from the Qur’an: “The knowledge (of the time of its coming) is with Allah only”. Sometimes they referred to the hadith (narrative) of Prophet Muhammad to give the same message. At the end of their calendars, having set out their forecasts, they would add ‘Allah u alem’ meaning ‘God knows’. This was the equivalent of a disclaimer affirming that the müneccims’ predictions might have been wrong and it was only God that can know the truth.(4)
Further evidence that the Ottoman religious authorities tolerated astrology comes from the role of the müneccims who were attached to the mosques. Celestial scholars worked in a muvakkithane (timing room) located at the entrances or courtyards of big mosques. (An example is now the ticket office for the spectacular Hagia Sofia Mosque in Istanbul.) One of their roles was to determine the times for the five daily calls to prayer. These muvakkithanes were also centres of education where mathematics, astronomy, astrology and calendar-scheduling were taught.
Chief Star-gazer to the Sultan
While müneccims had advised early Ottoman sultans on matters, such as the most auspicious hour for an attack on the Byzantine Empire(5), it was not until the end of the 15th century that their status became official. Sultan Bayezid II (1481-1512) appointed the first chief müneccim (known as müneccimbaşılık) to the Topkapi palace. For the subsequent 500 years or more, Sultans and statesmen relied on the advice of a succession of 37 müneccimbaşılıks to help run their expanding Ottoman Empire. This exalted role was finally abolished in 1923 after the establishment of the Turkish Republic.
Being both astronomers and astrologers, the müneccims and the chief müneccims were asked by the ruling class to prepare calendars, annual predictions, timetables for Ramadan and horoscopes for the sultans and key state officials. The müneccimbaşılıks also elected the most auspicious hour to start important tasks such as declare war, start negotiations, sign treaties and for ceremonies for opening mosques. Personal advice on optimum timing and horoscopes were given to sultans for marriage, travelling, wearing new garments, children’s education and of course, childbirth. These eminent star gazers would publish their annual calendars at the beginning of each year (in March on the Spring Equinox when the Sun entered Aries). Not only did they identify auspicious and inauspicious dates, but they would advise on how matters could be avoided. Nevertheless, the chief müneccim still had the unenviable task of predicting the death of the sultan.
The chief müneccims were highly educated and typically taught mathematics, astrology and astronomy. Some were professors, judges or physicians. Sometimes the coveted position remained within a single family passing from father to son.
The appointment of the chief müneccims required approval by four of the most powerful figures in the Empire: the Sultan (the sovereign), the Grand Vizier (Prime Minister), the Grand Müfti (highest religious official) and the Chief Physician. When they were appointed to their offices, the müneccimbaşılık wore an honorific garment called hil’at and were granted their seals in the presence of the Grand Vizier at the Bab-ı Ali – the sublime gate in the outer grounds of the Topkapi Palace.
However not all 37 chief müneccims enjoyed such an illustrious career. One Hüseyin Efendi in the 17th century, buoyed up by his successful predictions, started to meddle in affairs of state. He soon aroused enmity and his downfall came after making simple errors such as miscalculating the date of a lunar eclipse. When he refused to go into exile, he was executed in 1650. Another müneccimbaşılık who became unpopular with religious and political statesmen had his observatory burnt down.
Family tradition passes on
What is heartening is that this great tradition is being revived in Istanbul today. One of the leading lights of this revival is astrologer Öner Döşer, who provided detailed information and research for this article. By a fateful coincidence, Öner is a descendant (indirectly) of the 35th chief müneccim, Seyyid Mehmed Arif Efendi (1853-1940). Mehmed Arif was the father of Öner’s great uncle on his maternal line – so he was Öner’s great, great uncle. Öner’s cousins have inherited some of his badges, seals and papers. His official dress (kaftan) is now on display at the Arts Museum in the Topkapi Palace.
Mehmed Arif was a scholar and linguist who prepared astrological calendars. Öner interviewed family members about their famous ancestor. They confirmed that Mehmed Arif frequently practiced astrology in his daily life. This included drawing up horoscopes for his children, daily routines and timings. He even predicted his own death and invited family members to be in his room at that specific hour and date.
What’s past is prologue
While Turkey is a modern western country, there is a great yearning among the Turkish people to know more about their colorful Ottoman imperial history and to study the Sufi philosophical tradition. Sufi mystics such as Jalaluddin Rumi who lived in Konya in Turkey in the 13th century now have a world-wide appeal. Though the ruling Turkish political AK party is conservative, their respect for their Ottoman ancestral tradition helps to clear the way for them to welcome this astrological revival.
Döşer has been instrumental in bringing astrology to a wide audience in Turkey through his appearances on TV and other media and through his AstroArt School. Here modern astrology is taught as well as ancient techniques passed down from astrologers/ müneccims and the wisdom of the Sufi tradition. Since its establishment in 2005 the school has trained and certified 703 astrologers, and in 2014 began holding classes at the internationally recognized Girne American University in Istanbul.
Döşer is heading a project to translate and to publish ancient Arabic and Ottoman Turkish texts. In 2015, the AstroArt School hosted an international conference attended by some 350 people with live translation. Öner Döşer, Roy Gillett, Dr. Glenn Perry, Robert Currey, Dr. Lea Imsiragic addressed the topic ‘Is Astrology Scientific?’ Another guest speaker was Professor Mahmud Erol Kılıç Head of Islamic Mysticism at the Faculty of the Divinity/Marmara University, the Director of Istanbul Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum and General Secretariat to the Parliamentary Union of Member States of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. In his presentation Professor Kılıç was adamant that Islamic opposition to astrology was unfounded. He went further in a subsequent television interview and recommended that the Faculties of Divinity should include astrology as part of the curriculum.
1. Astrology and astronomy became separate disciplines in the 19th century, though astrology retained its official status up until the end of Ottoman rule in 1922.
2. Katip Çelebi, Keşfü’z zünun, nşr, Ş. Yaltkaya, İstanbul, 1943, II, pp. 1930-1931
3. 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.
4. Aydüz, p. 89, p. 94.
5. Tacizade Cafer Çelebi, Mahruse-i İstanbul Fetihnamesi, A. İhsan ve Şirkasi Publishing, 1913, p. 10. In 1453, following the advice of the müneccims, Mehmed II timed the launch of his attack on Constantinople which led to his conquest of the city and the end of the Byzantine Empire