Physiognomy in the Medieval Islamic World

Submitted by Maria Subtelny on Thu, 10/04/2018 - 15:40

The desire to read faces—and minds—is age-old. Although physiognomy (assessing a person’s character from his or her physical features) is today likely to be dismissed as a pseudo-science at best, following the old adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” intellectuals in the medieval Islamic world regarded it as a science and included it in the classifications of sciences, usually under natural sciences or branches of natural philosophy (following the Aristotelian/Avicennan model). Physiognomy was often classed together with the occult sciences, such as astrology, alchemy, and various types of divination, because it was an “occult” discipline, that is, one that extrapolated from what was manifest to what was hidden. 

Composite Talismanic Chart
Composite Talismanic Chart.
Detail. Iran, 19th century.

Treatises on ‘ilm al-firāsa (“the science of physiognomy”) were composed by such renowned scholars as the 12th-century philosopher, encyclopaedist, and physician Fakhr al-Din Razi, and chapters dedicated to it were often included in Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Turkish books of advice for rulers. The roots of physiognomy in the Islamic world lie in Late Antiquity, specifically the Greek treatise by Polemon (ca. 88–144 AD), who was known in the Islamic world as Afilamun, “the master of physiognomy.” His treatise was translated into Arabic during the great translation movement of the high caliphal period of the late 8th to the early 10th centuries. A work that played an important role in the legitimation of physiognomy in the political sphere was the Pseudo-Aristotelian Politics, better known as Sir al-asrār (The secret of secrets), an Arabic mirror for princes, composed by the 10th century, that took the form of an extended letter from Aristotle to his pupil, Alexander the Great. 

Alexander the Great with Persian Hermit
Alexander the Great Visiting a Hermit.
From the Khamesh of Nizami, 1494

 Covering every topic a ruler needed to know, from taking care of one’s health to the conduct of war, it achieved great renown in the West through Latin translations. Although physiognomy focused on the face, and especially the eyes of an individual, it also took into account such aspects as gender, environment and race, and the resemblance of people to animals and animals to people. This type of physiognomy was considered to be of the Greek type (called hikmiyya, or judicious physiognomy), an inferential process based on careful observation, analogy, and experience. It was closely associated with medicine, as every physician had to be a physiognomer to some extent, as in the case of Hippocrates, who was regarded in Galenic medicine as the founder of physiognomy. Parallel with the Greek type, another type of physiognomy, which was peculiar to the Islamic sphere, developed under the influence of esoteric currents in Islamic thought, particularly Sufism, and was called “Islamic” (shar‘iyya)  or “divine” (ilahiyya) physiognomy. This type was not necessarily based on the scrutiny of external physical signs; rather, it was an intuitive insight granted by God. Endorsed by a rare hadith, or saying of the prophet Muhammad, that went “Beware the firāsa of the Muslim believer, for he sees with the light of God,” it was an involuntary charismatic gift granted to great Sufi masters and Muslim saints. Many examples of this type of physiognomical insight are cited in the Islamic hagiographical literature. This JHI project intends to investigate the role of physiognomy in the medieval Arabic and Persian mirrors for princes literature and to analyze the ways in which the two types of physiognomy—Greek and Islamic—were presented to medieval Muslim dynasts of the post-caliphal period, with a particular focus on the eastern Islamic world. 

Arabic sir-al-asrar
The Arabic Sir al-asrār (The Secret of Secrets) Section on Firāsa, fol. 24a-.
Chester Beatty Library, Ar. 4183.
Copied for Tamerlane's grandson, Baysunghur, in 829/1425,
probably in Herat.