The history of the Falnama and
divination in the Islamic world.
In the Iran and Turkey of the second half of the sixteenth century bibliomancy and pictures for prognostication (TQS: fortune-telling in academic terms) had become quite the popular thing. The Falnama – meaning consulting the sacred or seeking auguries – or otherwise called Book of Omens, became not just an integral part, but the most important part of predicting the future and asking for guidance.
The illustrated manuscripts were used on the streets or were made for the wealthy in certain parts of Iran or Istanbul. The simple tomes have not survived as far as academics now. The current 4 remaining books were of the richly decorated sort and obviously made for influential people. The four (three are written in Persian, one in Ottoman Turkish) were fully dedicated to the art of divination and they contained a large number of paintings that could be used as part of the interpretation.
Enormous verse books
The remaining books are named respectively: 1. the Dispersed Falnama, made in Qazvin around the end of the 1550s or early 1560s; 2. the Persian Falnama, now kept at the Topkapi Library in Istanbul and which dates to the last quarter of the sixteenth century; 3. the Dresden Falnama, produced over a long period of time from the 1540s to the 1570s; and 4. an Ottoman copy of the Falnama created as a gift for the Ottoman Sultan Ahmed I (r. 1603–17) by his vizier Kalender.
Compared to the oracle and tarot study books we deal with today they are simply enormous. Page heights started at 41.5 cm and some books even reached 66.5 cm (16+ till 26+ inches) in length. It made the figurative paintings and texts; all used for predicting the future and preparing magical spells and amulets, shine even brighter. What’s more, it is suggested that quite possibly the fortuneteller needed an extra set of hands to properly open -and keep open – the Book of Omens on the page that would answers someone’s wish.
Why there was such a sudden interest in (and creation of) large-scale Falnama manuscripts back then isn’t clear. Some academics say it was linked to the restlessness and anxiety arising from the anticipation of the Islamic Millennium (1000/1591–2), others point out that excludes the Ottoman volume – produced much later – so can’t be true. Regardless of the reason, by that time fortunetelling and divination had definitely become popular in the Muslim world, despite religious authorities officially banning the practice.
In order to ‘legitimise’ their work divining practitioners developed and used many stories in which the Prophet Muhammad consulted the Koran as a way to foretell the future and added that he taught his students how to do so as well. A sort of ‘he did it, so we can too’ (a similar argument can be made for and by Christian cartomancers, but Angelo Nasios explained that already in his Tarot book for beginners).
And this legitimisation had ample proof; by the fifteenth century the use of the Koran for prognostication was well established, as you can see Falnama tables at the end of Koranic codices. They became the most popular in Safavid Iran.
In order to make sure they received the right answer (augury) it was custom to recite Koranic verses first and then open the book at a random page; the first line on which your (or the diviners) eyes fell, or the last poem on the page, would constitute the omen. (TQS: which is interesting. This is a custom still used by many diviners and tarot-readers alike. Whether it is during consulting a reference book or looking at a spread). Initially only the text was used, but by the sixteenth century Falnama images had become an integral part of the divination process too.
Interpreting the images in the Falnama asked for quite some symbolic knowledge as well as the way to link them to parts of the manuscript. Every illustration could be read on many levels. While many depictions were part of a story in the Koran it was imperative a diviner knew not to easily use the Koran text, but to always refer to the Falnama texts first. When you work with the Falnama Oracle by Asli & Polat Canpolat you of course don’t need to have a Koran present, nor do you need to know by heart how pictures were viewed in 16th-17th century Iran & Ottoman Empire (and which roles images played in other text, but it will definitely help a 21st century diviner to have some historical insight and a knack for interpreting verses.
Since the Falnama books used familiar stories that were widely illustrated, these images were meant to be interpreted allegorically and symbolically, and they do indeed go beyond their usual narrative into predictions of the unknown. As such, Falnama is pretty much the same as any other way of diving that has pictures. It asks of the diviner to peel the layers of meanings and interpretations hidden in them.
Each of the different Book of Omens that has survived, the ones used by the wealthy inhabitants of Iran and Ottoman Istanbul in the 16th/17th century, has a different style. Kind of like we have different oracles nowadays that we prefer to use for different topics or querents. The Dispersed Falnama is the bold and vivid one with some original works that were very clear and hierarchical in order nonetheless. It was an expression of new visual concepts that would fully materialize in the second half of the sixteenth century at the Safavid court (Shah Tahmasb was very interested in dreams, sacred geometry and divination, so sometimes the creation of most of the Falnama codices is credited to him).
There aren’t that many English research sources on the Falnama useful for the diviner (trust me, I did a thorough search online), but a good place to start is the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC. Or at least, the catalogue they created as a result of an exhibit on divination in the Muslim world and the Falnama in particular (2009). The catalogue contained several essays, three of those could be of use to everyone who wants to take the plunge into the Book of Omens-rabbit hole.
Maybe the catalogue is still for sale (on Amazon it costs so much that I suggest looking elsewhere), or the essays or authors in questions are in some way or shape online. Look for these names:
1. Maria Mavroudi describes the various techniques and methods of reading into the future, as well as how common these auguries were among Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus & others.
2. Kathryn Babayan focuses on the practice of prognostications and auguries in Safavid Iran. She explains the flourishing of the Falnama during this particular time in the Safavid empire.
3. Especially interesting if you are going to work with the Falnama Oracle cards and want to add to the companion are the appendices containing translations by Sergei Tourkin and Wheeler Thackston of three of the Falnama books. The reader will be able to see the text of the augury (the prose that tells you the answer) next to the painting, coupled with an English translation below.
(Source: Caarereviews, Mika Natif, WikiVisual, Sackler, Smithsonian et al.)