Ibn Khaldoun

During the fourteenth century, the celebrated Ibn Khaldoun (who died in Cairo in 1406) devoted a chapter of his Prolegomena, or Muqaddimah, to the art of geomancy.7 Ibn Khaldoun assumed that geomancy was developed by the sand diviners 'because they found it difficult to establish the attitude of the stars by means of instruments, and to find the adjusted [position of the] stars by means of calculations. Therefore, they invented their combinations of figures.'

After a description of the sixteen geomantic figures, each named and classified into favourable and unfavourable, Ibn Khaldoun explains this classification in terms of the astral influences which are brought to bear by each of them. The sixteen figures are then set under the domination of the Twelve Signs of the Zodiac and of the Four Cardinal Points.

Geomancers are called by him munadjdjdimun or 'astrologers', thereby connecting the derived meanings of the geomantic figures with astrological speculations. There is, however, never any doubt that Ibn Khaldoun is talking about geomancy and not astrology.

Ibn Khaldoun objected to geomancers because they used 'artificial' geomantic figures rather than observing the real and natural astrological phenomena of the various stars in the sky. Here the rationalist Arab philosopher makes the error of confusing geomancy, which works by the chance formation of patterns, with the precise calculations of man's location in time and space which gives his relationship with the universe, as expressed in astrology. Geomancy is however not a debased form of astrology as Ibn Khaldoun would have us believe, but a valid divination system in its own right.

Even more aberrant, Ibn Khaldoun thinks, is the pretension of certain geomancers to succeed in perceiving the unknown by applying their minds to the geomantic figures, then abstracting a complete understanding of the human sphere and the spiritual realm He parallels this with the manner of the soothsayers and particularly those who practised omoplatoscopy, hydromancy and lecano-mancy. Ibn Khaldoun concludes: 'the truth that you must present to the mind is that the supernatural cannot be revealed by any technique; it cannot be perceived by an élite class of men naturally predisposed to pass from the conscious world into the spiritual.' Ibn Khaldoun did however concede that the better types of geomancers 'attempt to remove [the veil of sense perception] by occupying their senses with the study of combinations of figures' by which they 'may attain intuitive supernatural revelation (kashf) through complete freedom from sense perception', thereby exchanging bodily perceptions for spiritual ones. For Ibn Khaldoun, the ability to 'soothsay' was god-given, and it did not matter at all if the soothsayer used bones, sand, pebbles, water or anything else as an aid to stimulate his ability. However, anyone who used sand divining, without this natural ability was, according to Ibn Khaldoun, 'merely trying to spread the falsehoods to which they are committed'.

The modus operandi outlined in the Muqaddimah is much as it occurs in medieval European works on geomancy, having sixteen figures which are produced by rows of dots made on paper, sand or flour, which are made at random whilst asking the question. Each row is then marked off, a pair of dots at a time, until only one or two dots are left. These are transcribed and form the first four figures. From these (Mother figures) the remaining twelve figures are generated by juxtaposition and addition, the details of which are set out later in this book. In applying these geomantic figures to the Houses of Heaven the Arab geomancers, according to Ibn Khaldoun, limited themselves to using only the sextile (60°) aspect rather than the whole range of possible astrological aspects from conjunction (0°) to opposition (180°).8

Arab diviners assumed the existence of sixteen Houses in all: twelve corresponding to the Signs of the Zodiac (the ordinary Houses) and four to the cardines. The practitioners of khatt-al-raml thus invented 'a discipline which runs parallel to astrology and the system of astrological judgements'.

Ibn Khaldoun thought that horary questions put to astrology,9

do not come within the influence of the stars or the positions of the spheres, nor do (the stars and the positions of the spheres) give any indications with regard to them. This branch of [horary] questions has indeed been accepted in astrology as a way of making deductions [concerning a particular query] from the stars and positions of the spheres. However, it is used where it is not natural for it to be used.

How much less legitimate then is geomancy in Ibn Khaldoun's view, as geomantic figures 'are based upon arbitrary conventions and wishing thinking. Nothing about them is proven.'

In accord with the tradition, Ibn Khaldoun ascribes the origin of the art of geomancy to the prophets of old, frequently to the Biblical Daniel or the Koranic Idris.


Ibn Khaldoun, together with az-Zanati's classic work on geomancy, provided the basis for the later works of Ahmad ben 'Ali Zunbul. Zunbul's dates are not certain, but as he mentions the Sultan Sulaiman the First (1520-66), and also that one of his sons died in 1553, it can be assumed that Zunbul flourished circa 1550. Between the time of Ibn Khaldoun in the fourteenth century and Zunbul in the sixteenth century there is little mention of rami. Zunbul's key works were the Kitab lamm as-saml fi 'ilm al-raml, and the more important Kitab al-maqalat fi hall al-muskilat (or Treatise on the Solution of Problems) by Ahmad ben 'Ali Zunbul al-Mahalli al-Munaggim, which occurs in manuscript versions in the library of the Greek Patriarchate in Jerusalem, in Cairo, and in Istanbul. However, the Jerusalem manuscript is not contemporary with its author, and dates from the year 1721.

Apart from az-Zanati, Zunbul's sources probably number amongst them works by the literary circle of the Isma'iliyya, such as the Rasa'il ikhwan as-safa' or Epistles of the Brethren of Purity (written in the second half of the tenth century, but an Arabic edition of which was last published in Cairo in 1928). Other sources cited by Zunbul include at-Tarabulusi, Muhammad al-Kantawi, Ahmad al-Kurdi, al-Hamdani, at-Ta'labi and Abu-l-Hasan 'Ali ben Yunus al-Misri (author of an astronomical table), Ptolemy's Tetrabiblos, and 'Antiqus' who is often cited in the Astrology of the ubiquitous Masa'allah, and perhaps some of these will provide fruitful avenues of exploration.

Zunbul's longest work, the Kitab al-maqalat fi hall al-muskilat, is designed to be a very practical manual of geomancy. It is the largest of Zunbul's books and is divided into thirty-one chapters. After outlining the history of geomancy in his preface, Zunbul (in the guise of Hermes Trismegistus or Idris) explains that the sixteen figures of geomancy (ashkal) are allocated to the sixteen Houses or Mansions (buyut). Zunbul then outlines the sixteen different figures explaining that the primary figure is Via, or in Arabic Tariq (the path or way). This is the primary figure because it contains one dot on each of its four layers: these layers corresponding with the four Elements, so that reading downwards we have:

o Earth (Turab)

From this basic figure of Via (Tariq), Zunbul states that ill the other figures are derived, and are less perfect than this prime figure. Here geomancy, like alchemy, utilized a method of mixing the Elements, to form the various figures. Thus if the bottom dot (corresponding to Earth) is removed, and replaced instead by two dots (or by a line, in the manuscript) we get the figure el 'ataba el kharga:

which is Cauda Draconis. Cauda Draconis therefore symbolically consists of Fire, Air, Water, but not Earth. Likewise for nusra el-kharga or Fortuna Minor:

which consists of Fire and Air but not Water or Earth The other figures listed by Zunbul are tabulated in Appendix V.

The first four geomantic figures are cast in the usual manner and the remainder worked out by addition till you have a series of sixteen figures to place in the Houses or Mansions. This configuration, or taskin, is then interpreted on the basis of the astrological relationships between figures, and with reference to their Elemental constitution. This division of individual geomantic figures into Elements is almost unique to the Arab tradition as expressed in Zunbul's manuscript, and does not seem to have been carried through into later European developments of geomancy, although of course whole individual figures have always had specific Elemental attributions.

In interpretation the most powerful figure is again Tariq, or Via, because it includes all of the four Elements. This is quite the reverse of later geomantic interpretations when Via was attributed to the fluctuating moon, and became one of the less powerful figures. Perhaps the nomadic element in Arab life has contributed to the importance of Tariq.

Further qualities are denoted by the position of the dots of the figure, so that, from the geomancy of the 'Indian' Turn-Turn, the first dot equates with minerals, the second with living creatures, the third with plants, and the fourth with inorganic bodies. Time sequences can also be determined from figures by attributing certain numbers of years, months, weeks or days to each figure, so that the length of a life, of a journey, of a dynasty, or of an appointment can be determined by geomantic manipulation.

So much for Zunbul's preface. The first chapter explains in detail the sixteen Houses: the twelve usually known to astrology, and the further four which are derived from them by addition. Some of the Houses or Mansions are considered to be fortunate (numbers 1, 2, 3, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15), whilst some are less favourable (4, 10). The most unfortunate Mansions are the 6th, 8th, 12th, 14th and 16th. This division of Mansions into fortunate and unfortunate assists in the later interpretation by examining the figures which fall into one or other category of House or Mansion.

The second chapter considers the result of discovering any one of the sixteen geomantic figures in any one of the sixteen Houses. Thus some figures are more propitious in some Houses than in others, giving flesh to the skeletal interpretation. This theory of combination falls under sixteen times sixteen (or 256) different headings.

The third chapter considers specific questions, such as the fate of a ship (taskin al-markab), in which case examination of each Mansion in turn determines events happening at every stage of the voyage. Other special combinations of figures reveal whether the travellers are Muslims, Christians or Jews, what their business is, and whether it will be profitable or not.

Further specialized configurations or taskins are outlined together with mnemonics for remembering their order. Gematria, or the art of interpreting words in terms of the total of the numerical equivalents of each of their letters, is introduced at this point. Using the mnemonic of a particular taskin such as Bzdh, Zunbul explains that the letters represent the four Elements, in descending order of grossness. Each letter also represents a number in Arabic, thus:

b - 2 - Fire z - 7 - Air d - 4 - Water h - 8 - Earth

This mnemonic therefore indicates House number 2 for Fire, House number 7 (Air), House number 4 (Water), and House number 8 (Earth). For each of the Houses indicated in this taskin, we see that the second is most compatible with Fire, the seventh with Air, and so on. Therefore, if the geomantic figure Laetitia (or in Arabic Hayyan), which is solely Fire, occurs in the second House, this would be an extremely favourable omen. Likewise, the occurrence of Rubeus (or Humra), which is solely Air, in the seventh House would also be extremely auspicious. Further chapters are devoted to even more complicated combinations of the basic figures, and to labyrinthine rules for everything from marriage to medicine. Diagnosis by rami even became a lay rival of the latter, and tables were educed of the relationship between specific parts of the body and the geomantic figures.

Gematria Talismans

Figure 4 Geomantic talisman against diseases of various parts of the body, from an eighteenth-century Arab manuscript attributed to Id ris (MS Arabe 2631, fol. 64v, Bibliothèque Nationale)

For example, a particularly beautiful Arabic manuscript of the eighteenth century10 attributed to the prophet Idris deals with the medical application of geomantic theory. It contains diagrams correlating the various parts of the body and diseases with the sixteen geomantic figures including the stylized figure of a man drawn in red and black ink with the following attributions:

Head Laetitia

Throat Rubeus

Right Shoulder Puella

Left Shoulder Puer

Chest (heart?) Career

Right Side of ribcage Conjunctio

Left Side of ribcage Populus

Solar Plexus Albus

Stomach Via

Right Hand Amissio

Left Hand Acquisitio

Right Thigh Fortuna Major

Left Thigh Fortuna Minor

Genitals Tristitia (Laetitia?)

Right Foot Cauda Draconis

Left Foot Caput Draconis

The figure faces outwards from the page, so left and right have been designated in Figure 4 from the point of view of the figure rather than the manuscript page. The same manuscript continues with a series of talismans using the geomantic figures for the usual gamut of magical reasons, such as uncovering hidden treasure. It could be, however, that the square into which the sixteen geomantic figures are subdivided is much more than just a talisman, for techniques have persisted until the seventeenth century for determining direction by use of geomancy, an obvious start when trying to locate hidden treasure!

JOT^I ait

Image Talisman Arabic
Figure 5 Geomantic talisman to uncover hidden treasure showing attribution of geomantic figures to compass points (MS Arabe 2631, fol. 65r, Bibliothèque Nationale)

With the advent of ZunbuPs book came a deluge of lesser treatises and a general upsurge of interest in rami in the Muslim world. Indeed geomancy was second only to oneiromancy in the prestige it enjoyed in the lands under Muslim domination. The practice of geomancy was also supported by Sura XLVI, 4 of the Koran which has been interpreted by some as alluding to geomancy.11 However, its most formal claim to fame lies in the saying attributed to Muhammad: 'among the prophets there was one who practised khatt-, whoever succeeds in doing it according to his example will know what that prophet knew.'12 As a result of this, some licence was given to the art of geomancy and it was allowed to experience an amazing expansion across the Islamic world.13 Like that other popular form of Arab divination, oneiromancy, rami or Arab geomancy has extended beyond the frontiers of the Muslim empire both to the coast of India, the coasts of Byzantium (as explored in chapters 1 and 5), south through black Africa (chapter 3), Madagascar (chapter 4) and finally to the Latin west (chapters 5-8).

In modern times such usage has continued, with a decline in scholarly interest in rami, but a wide dissemination of material pitched at popular level. Although the rules as outlined by Zunbul still hold sway throughout the Muslim world, there are many regional variations in the system of interpretation of the basic figures. Davies, in Sudan Notes,14 describes in some detail a system of sand divination which was practised early this century by Mahamid and Ta'aisha Arabs, but which was common in northern and central Kordofan and the northern Sudan. Locally it retained its traditional name of khatt al-raml. It is interesting to examine the technique in some detail as it is representative of rami as it is practised today in village communities.

A smooth patch of sand is prepared by the practitioner or khattat at a specific hour of the day, according to the nature of the question. The querent places the tip of the middle finger of his right hand on the sand whilst at the same time concentrating on his question, which he usually does not tell the khattat., At the same time the khattat makes in the sand four lines or jabs of random length with his fingers. These are then marked off, a pair at a time, until either one or two are left over. This process is repeated four times, generating a geomantic figure made up of four levels containing either one or two marks in the satid. A further three figures are made in the same way. These four figures are the 'Mother' figures and, placed in order from right to left, they breed the rest of the khatt, or geomantic spread.

The technique for deriving the remaining eleven figures is detailed in the chapters on practice towards the end of this volume. However, briefly it is as follows: figure V is the figure formed by taking in order the top components or heads of figures I, II, III and IV. The four components next below these (or necks) give figure VI; those components next below (or bodies) give figure VII; those at the bottom (or feet) give figure VIII.

Figure IX is bred from figures I and II by a different process. The top two components are combined to form the new top component, which is a single mark if the combined components amount to an odd number of marks, and a double mark when they amount to an even number. Similarly the remaining components of figure IX are derived by combining in pairs the remaining components of I and II. In exactly the same way, figures III and IV breed X; V and VI breed XI; VII and VIII breed XII; IX and X breed XIII; XI and XII breed XIV; XIII and XIV breed XV, the Judge.

The fifteen figures now look like this:

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