From apps like Co-Star and The Pattern that tell you about your personality based on the time you were born, to daily horoscopes in your favorite publication that dictate “what Gossip Girl character you are” based on your zodiac sign, astrology seems to be everywhere. And whether or not you believe in the validity of the practice, it can be a lot of fun to take part in.
But oftentimes, Muslims who are even slightly interested in astrology or what their horoscope might be are scolded by older generations for participating in something they deem is completely incompatible with Islam. You might have even heard an elder go as far as to say that it was Shirk. But Kaiser Aslam, the Muslim Chaplain at Rutgers University–New Brunswick in New Jersey, doesn’t completely agree.
He says that one of the first things that needs to be recognized is that in the past, astrology and astronomy were actually the same field.
“We have so many scholars of our past that actually wrote books on astrology, but they were commenting just as much on astronomy as they were on astrology,” Chaplain Aslam tells Muslim. “It’s not until maybe like 400 or 500 years ago that these two fields shift. So almost no one is in disagreement that Islam has a lot to do with astronomy.”
Think about the very core of Islamic traditions and how we determine our holidays and prayer times. “So much of our tradition has to do with looking at the moon, right?” Chaplain Aslam jokingly refers to the “moon wars” Muslims get into every Eid as one of the only setbacks of following a lunar calendar. At its foundation, though, the lunar calendar is unique because it does not require a central government or authority figure. This, in turn, empowers the idea of a local community coming together to make sense of it, as we see happens every Eid. “I think that’s a lot to do with the ideas of astrology … it takes away governmental or human authority figures and places it literally to the universe,” Chaplain Aslam says. “And who’s the one who made the universe? Allah SWT.”
All this to say social upheavals are not new and throughout history people turned to religion, philosophy, and science (including astrology) as intellectual historical frameworks to make sense of it all
Muslim astrologers would probably look at 2020 and say, yup makes sense
— Ali A Olomi (@aaolomi) June 6, 2020
Astronomy plays a very important role in Islam and spirituality in general, as it usually meant looking at celestial objects and how amazing they are and relating it to the grandeur of God, Chaplain Aslam explains. “Eventually that started getting into ‘So well, what can we do with them?’ That’s where the big debate is,” he says. “It’s not whether it’s an appropriate field in and of itself [but rather], ‘what are they used to do?’”
This is where astrology comes in and thus, the biggest controversy with the practice.
While some people look at horoscopes as a fun way to see how close your personality traits match up with their zodiac signs, other people attempt to use this as a way of determining their life decisions. But so long as we don’t give too much power to our horoscopes in our decision-making, we should be fine.
“We can appreciate things sometimes without seeing them as sources of guidance, where if you start going, … ‘My friends can only be the same Zodiac sign as me’ or like, ‘It’ll determine whether I say yes or no to having a relationship with someone or marrying someone,’ I think we’ve crossed the boundary.” Chaplain Aslam says. When you start subjugating all of your life’s choices to your star sign, that’s when you get into some really questionable territory. “Because at the end of the day, you’re actually supplanting a basic Islamic principle, which is that the people are based on their character,” he says.
But this doesn’t mean you should denounce astrology completely.
“We’re living in a weird moment within Islamic discourse, it’s a reactionary movement that we see, where things like horoscopes have [come] and we’re like, ‘that’s not Islam in any way, shape or form’,” Chaplain Aslam says. “But when we do that, when we turn the other way completely, we actually take away the nuance [of texts].” Whether people realize it or not, there are many traditions within Islam that play into a similar line of thinking as astrology.
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Ilm-al-Nujum, or “science of the stars” is an older Islamic school of thought that encouraged believers to think about signs within nature and the universe as having a higher spiritual purpose. And these beliefs have spilled out into Islamic practices that you don’t even have to check smaller sects to find. Muslims believe Ramadan to be the most virtuous month. This has everything to do with the phases of the moon. When there is an eclipse, Muslims congregate for the Salat-ul-Kusuf prayer, which is essentially an appreciation of an astrological phenomenon. Muslims also look for signs around them for life decisions more often than one might think. The entire basis of the Istikhara is to ask Allah to give you guidance on a decision, and to provide that guidance by providing the Istishara, or the signs that may lead you to the right path. This isn’t far off from people looking to stars for guidance.
“When you do just look up at the stars …they point you towards God,” Chaplain Aslam says. “I think that can be said about astrology in general … because astrology has that … same idea that you’re not as in control as you think you are.” He explains that one of the basic premises of astrology is that there are things that are beyond your control that end up determining things about you like your personality traits. This doesn’t drift far from the “nurture/nature” debate.
Astrology just seems to suggest a very huge nature component. Chaplain Aslam says that we as Muslims can appreciate that there are many aspects of who we are that we didn’t have any way of controlling — but that shouldn’t paralyze us. Instead, it should just make us focus more on the aspects of our personalities we can control.
“I think that’s that balanced approach where we appreciate it up until it rubs up against one of our religious traditions, which is when we start measuring people’s worth based on their astrological sign,” Chaplain Aslam says. “But if we use it to be like, ‘Can I understand myself a little bit better so that I can focus on the things I can and cannot change?’ that might be a positive thing because you’re learning to understand yourself more.”