Divination in the world of Islam took many forms. The best summary of these in a European language is Toufic Fahd's La Divination Arabe. The main forms of divination include kihana, djafr, fa'l, ihhtiladj, ta'bir (oneiromancy), and of course rami, more precisely al-khatt bi-raml, the original name for Arab geomancy. Of course, ta'bir has always been the most popular, followed by rami.
Rami, literally 'sand', is variously spoken of as derb-al-raml, derb-al-ful, 'ilm al-raml (the science of sand), hati ramli (colloquially) and khatt al-raml} In the Islamic era, the term, rami (or 'ilm al-raml) was dominant, but with the growing influence of astrology on the occult sciences, the term shakl (plural ashkal), 'figure' came into prominence. From shakl may be derived the expression to 'squill' or practise divination by sand, and perhaps sikily or sikidy, the terms used in Madagascar to denote geomancy.
Khatt in Arabic originally meant a straight furrow or line drawn in the sand by a stick or with the finger. In time the word came to mean a line drawn on parchment or paper, or a line of writing, and finally, the art of calligraphy. For our purpose, the earlier meaning is the most interesting because it especially applied to the lines which a diviner (hazi) drew in the sand to prognosticate the happy or unlucky outcome of an undertaking or event about which he was consulted.
At first sight, khatt is the line which the geomancer traces on the sand when, strictly speaking, he is practising psammomancy. This is also the meaning of rami. Finally the development from khatt to rami began with the juxtaposition of the two terms. Indeed, khatt al-raml is the term most frequently used to denote geomancy.2
For the purpose of divining by khatt al-raml, the diviner, accompanied by an assistant or acolyte, drew with the utmost haste a quantity of lines or ripples in the sand, allowing himself to be carried away, so that he did not know how many lines he had drawn. Then he slowly wiped out groups of two ripples at a time, whilst his assistant often recited an incantation in Arabic, such as the words: 'Ye two sons of 'Iyan hasten with the explanation!'
The marks they made were joined by other marks (khutut) in order to complete a figure (shakl). When these figures became stylized, a board was used, which was covered with sand or even flour, and the finger was drawn over it at random; the shapes formed in this way were then examined. If in the end two lines were left (i.e. there was an even number of lines drawn) then this foretold success. If however only one line remained (an odd number of lines drawn) then disappointment was certain. Here can be seen the germ of the later and more complex practice, where each line is reduced to odd (only one left) or even (two remaining). In this, the simple form of khatt al-raml, only one set of marks were made, leading straight to a lucky/ unlucky prediction.
A more modern Arab version of this technique involves the making of lines in the sand. On to these lines, corns of barley or date-stones (or even cubes resembling dice with combinations of one or two marks on each face) are thrown. The resultant patterns provide a more complex prognostication. Where dice are used, the four possible markings on their six faces are:
Examples of such dice are to be found in the Ni'matallahi Khanaqah Library in Tehran.
We have already examined the almost mythical roots of geomancy deriving the doctrine from the Archangel Gabriel through Idris to the possibly mythical Tum-Tum. From here we are on firmer ground with the copying of Tum-Tum's work into Arabic by Halaf al-Barbari. Unfortunately it is difficult to determine from what language it may have been copied into Arabic, and whether this throws doubt upon Arabic being the ultimate origin of the practice, or whether it is merely a distancing device designed to give the practice more authority.
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