a book of presages and omens. The narrower and more common use of the term, equivalent to “bibliomancy,” is confined to texts used as material for divination by the reader directly or through a fortune-teller.


FĀL-NĀMA, a book of presages and omens (see DIVINATION). The narrower and more common use of the term, equivalent to “bibliomancy,” is confined to texts used as material for divination by the reader directly or through a fortune-teller. These texts may also contain their own manuals of interpretations, a kind of users’ guide. More loosely, the term sometimes appears on the titles of manuals of different kinds and techniques of divination. Three examples of this general use of the term in relation to some of the different forms of divination will be enumerated briefly before examining bibliomancy itself in greater detail (for other manuals used in other forms of divination like jafr and raml see under their individual entries and the references in the bibliography given below).


1. Astrological manuals. This is the broadest category of all, with a vast literature of its own (see ASTROLOGY AND ASTRONOMY IN IRAN; EḴTĪĀRĀT). Ebn al-Nadīm (q.v.), for example, mentions several books with Fāl as part of the title, including Abū Sahl b. Nawbaḵt’s (q.v.) Ketāb al-faʾl al-nojūmī (Ebn al-Nadīm, ed. Tajaddod, p. 333; tr. Dodge, II, p. 651). Horoscopes, of which there are some finely executed specimens including the personal horoscope of the Timurid ruler Eskandar b. ʿOmar Šayḵ (r. 812-17/1409-14) called Ketāb-e walādat-e Eskandar (Keshavarz, pp. 396-402) are similarly excluded here, although the distinction between horoscopes and books of omens is often a fine one. Astrological lore and planetary figures were also used in bibliomancy, as in the case of the illustrated fāl-nāma discussed below.

2. Ornithomancy (zajr and taṭayyor), i.e., divination through the observance of the pattern of flight and behavior of birds. This itself is part of the wider category of divination through the behavior of animals in general (see Fahd,”ʿIyāfa,” for an account of the semantic development of these terms). In Persian usage taṭayyor became a general synonym for an ill omen. In his list of works on omens, Ebn al-Nadīm refers toa ketāb zajr al-fors (Ebn al-Nadīm, ed. Tajaddod, p. 376; tr. Dodge, II, p. 736). The best known Fāl-nāmas in this category are the two short satirical tracts by Obayd Zākānī, Fāl-nāma-ye ṭoyūr and Fāl-nāma-ye woḥuš (Maḥjūb), which can be described as mock-auguries poking fun at auguries and those naive enough to be duped by them, just as a third tract that he composed on planetary divination, Fāl-nāma-ye borūj, has been called an “anti-horoscope” (Sprachman, p. 236). It should be added that even now itinerant fortune-tellers often carry along with them sparrows and budgerigars in small cages and train them to pick a card inscribed with a fāl (usually based on some verses from Ḥāfeẓ) with their beaks from a selection, each placed individually in small envelopes.

3. Scapulimancy or omoplatoscopy (Ar. ʿelm al-katef, ʿelm al-aktāf, maʿrefat al-aktāf;Pers. kat-bīnī, šāna-æenāsī,ʿelm-e šāna, fāl-e šāna; see Fahd, “Katif”), i.e., divination using the shoulder blades of sheep or goats. One of the earliest references to this practice is in the anonymous Mojmal al-tawārīḵ wa’l-qeṣaṣ composed in 520/1126 (ed. Bahār, p. 103). A chapter is also devoted to it in Abū Bakr Moṭahhar Jamālī Yazdī’s Farroḵ-nāma, dated580/1185 (pp. 243-48); and four manuals of uncertain date on ʿelm-e šāna are listed in Storey(II/3, p. 493). Recent scholarship on medieval Arabic and Latin manuscripts has done much to clarify the lines of transmission of manuals of scapulimancy in the medieval world and the scattered allusions to it in writers and regions as wide apart as Jāḥez and Chaucer and Central Asia and Andalusia (Burnett, no. XIII, p. 32 n. 7).


Even within this more specific use of fāl and fāl-nāma,a distinction must be made between sacred and poetic texts, sometimes appended by explanatory material for their use in divination, and books and pamphlets designed solely for divination. The simplest method, practiced in the west with copies of Homer, Virgil, and the Bible (sortesHomericae, Virgilianae, and biblicae) and in Persia with the Koran and Hāfeẓ, was by opening the book at random and drawing guidance or inspiration for divination from the first verse or passage on the page.

Bibliomancy with the Koran. As in most questions relating to divination, particularly when sacred texts were also involved, religious opinion differed on what was or was not permissible in Islam. In the case of the Koran, seeking guidance from God on specific issues (esteḵāra) was usually regarded as licit, but using the Koran as a device for augury (tafaʾʾol) was disapproved of (Omidsalar, p. 441; for Christian parallels, see von Dobschütz, p. 611; Donaldson, p. 197). But the border-line between augury and resorting to the Koran in search of personal consolation is often blurred, as in the account of the tafaʾʾol on the Koran by the famous Il-khanid minister, Šams-al-Dīn Jovaynī shortly before his execution in 683/1284 (Maḥmūd b. Moḥammad Āqsarāʾī, Mosāmerat al-aḵbār,ed. O. Turan as Müsâmeret ül-Ahbâr: Mogollar Zamanında Türkiye Selçukları Tarihi, Ankara, l944, p. 144).

There is a great variety of koranic fāl-nāmas, both in verse and prose (e.g., the following manuscripts in the Central Library of Tehran University: nos. 4360 and 8846 in verse and 4995/2 in prose; see also Storey I/1 p. 55-56). There is a full description accompanied by illustrations from a 19th century koranic Fāl-nāma in the Nasser D. Khalili Collection (Savage-Smith, l997, p. 156). The text provides descriptions of different forms of esteḵāra, including one attributed to the l9th century Shiʿite mojtahed Ḥājj Mīrzā Ḥasan Āštīānī (q.v.). Some printed editions of the Koran have a fāl-nāma appended to them, and some merely indicate whether the particular page is auspicious or not by inserting ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or ‘in between’ at the top of the page.

Bibliomancy with the Dīvān of Ḥāfezá. Although bibliomancy using poetical works is now closely associated with the Dīvān of Ḥāfeẓ, the tradition was long-established before his time. Abu’l-Fatḥ Bostī (q.v.), for example, describes how he opened at random (ketāb-ī. . .bāz kardam) a volume of poems in Arabic by way of divination (bar sabīl-e tafaʾʾol) to see whether he should proceed on his journey (Abu’l-Šaraf Nāṣeḥ Jorfādaqānī, Tarjama-ye Tārīḵ-e yamīnī, ed. J. Šeʿār, Tehran, 1345 Š./1966, pp. 25-26). Moḥammad ʿAwfī cites the dīvān of Sayyed Ḥasan Ḡaznavī (see AŠRAF ḠAZNAVĪ) being used for bibliomancy (ʿAwfī, Lobāb I, p. 59) and there is a manuscript of a fāl-nāma of the Robāʿīyāt attributed to Abū Saʿīd Abi’l-Ḵayr (q.v.) in the Marʿašī Library in Qom (no. 7341/3).

One of the earliest references to the use of Ḥāfeẓ in bibliomancy occurs in Abū Bakr Ṭehrānī’s Ketāb-e Dīārbakrīya, written between 875/1469 and 883/1478 (ed. N. Lugal and F. Sümer, 2nd ed.,Tehran 1356 Š./1977, preface, pp. 5-6, text, pp. 363-64) where the epithet Lesān-e ḡayb (“the Tongue of the Unseen”) is used about him. In his account of Ḥāfeẓ, Edward G. Browne gives a succinct description of different methods of bibliomancy used in the case of the Dīvān, including the use of numerical tables, and provides examples of historically famous instances of auguries drawn from the Dīvān (Browne, Lit. Hist. Persia III, pp. 311-19). A list of manuscripts and printed editions of Fāl-nāmas of the Dīvān may be found in Mehrdād Nīknām’s Ketāb-æenāsī-e Ḥāfeẓ (Tehran, 1367 Š./1988, index).


Illustrated Fāl-nāmas. A poetic simile by the famous Ḡaznavīd panegyrist Manūčehrī (p. 3), comparing the birds in the trees to fortune tellers (fālgūyān) spreading in front of them their manuals, filled with images (por az taṣwīr daftarhā), suggests that pictorial Fāl-nāmas may have had a long history. Most surviving examples, however, are from the Safavid period and are extant only in fragmentary form. There are, however, a few notable exceptions, some of which have been published in recent years such as the 16th century Fāl-nāma now in the Museum voor Volkenkunde, Rotterdam (Ros). An account of this manual, written before it was acquired by the Museum, includes an inventory of its 35 illustrations with their accompanying explanatory verses (Kahl, p. 120). Taken together, they show the syncretic nature of the pictorial tradition. The seven planets each have their individual illustrations; five pictures deal with miraculous episodes in the life of ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭāleb (Plate I; see ʿALĪ B. ABĪ ṬĀLEB ii. ʿALĪ AS SEEN BY THE COMMUNITY), two are on the eighth Imam, ʿAlī al-Reżā (q.v.), referred to in the verses accompanying the illustrations solely by his epithet, “Šāh-e Ḵorāsān" (Plate II). Most of the remaining illustrations deal with episodes taken from the Koran as elaborated in the Esrāʾīlīyāt or qeṣas-al-anbīyā (stories of the prophets) literature (Plate IV). There are also single illustrations of the Day of Judgment (Plate III), the Kaʿba, and the plight of the hapless lover, Majnūn. Most of the verses accompanying the pictures are of course intended to instill optimism, but certain images, like that of Joseph in the well, or the planet Saturn (Kahl, p. 124, pp. 138-39), provide convenient occasions for advice on fortitude in the face of predicted calamities. Another, similar, example is the Dresden Fāl-nāma (Rühdranz).

Fāl-nāmas and their “authors.” Like other forms of arcane literature, in order to enhance their prestige and credibility, books of oracles often claimed mythical or historical figures as their author or progenitor. One example is the Fāl-nāma-ye Dānīāl (see DĀNĪĀL-E NABĪ), with a preface written by ʿAlī-Reżā Monajjem Šīrazī in 1064/1636 (MS. Qom, Marʿašī Library, no. 7016/2). Bozorgmehr (see BOZORGMEHR-E BOḴTAGĀN), the legendary Sasanian vizier, is claimed as the author of Żamīr-e ḵosrowānī (Storey II/3 pp. 493-4). The British Library manuscript (Add. 6591) of this work, written in 884/1480 is probably the oldest extant manuscript of a fāl-nāma. The same volume also includes a koranic fāl-nāma supposedly by Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq (Donaldson, p. 196). Its preamble describes how the Imam had spent fifty years composing it and how it had been highly prized by the caliphs before being presented to Sultan Maḥmūd, who resorted to it constantly (Rieu, Persian Manuscripts II, pp. 800-801, fols. 1-18; 122-25). There are other copies of the same fāl-nāma attributed to Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq in various collections (see al-Ḏarīʿa XVI, p. 98, no. 85). There are also fāl-nāmas attributed to historical figures, including one supposedly prepared for the Caliph Harūn al-Rašīd by his vizier, Yaḥyā Barmakī (Storey II/3 p. 495 no. 4.) However, the greatest number of the extant manuscripts are attributed to the Shiʿite Imams. The list of fāl-nāmas in standard bibliographical sources (e.g., Storey and al-Ḏarīʿa)should be supplemented by lists and references in recently catalogued collections (Keshavarz; Savage-Smith, l997).


Bibliography (for cited works not given in detail, see “Short References”):

C. Adle, review of Rührdanz, Abstracta Iranica 12, 1989, p. 161, no. 618.

M. Asadī Ḵorramābādī, “Naẓarī ba tafaʾʾol wa ṭelesmāt,” in M. Rowšan, ed., Haštomīn kongera-ye taḥqīqāt-e īrānī (Kermān) III, n.p., 1358 Š./1980, pp. 949-59.

Browne, Lit. Hist. Persia III, pp. 311-19.

C. J. Brunner, “Astrology and Astronomy II: Astronomy and Astrology in the Sasanian Period,” EIr. II, pp. 862-68.

C. Burnett, “Arabic Divinatory Texts and Celtic Folklore: A Comment on the Theory and Practice of Scapulimancy in Western Europe,” Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 6, 1983, pp. 31-42; repr. in idem, Magic and Divination in the Middle Ages, Aldershot, U.K., l996, no. XIII.

E. von Dobschütz, “Bible in the Church 6. Misuse of the Bible,” in J. Hastings, ed., Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics II, Edinburgh, l909, p. 611.

B. A. Donaldson, The Wild Rue: A Study of Muhammadan Magic and Folklore in Iran, London, l938. T. Fahd, La divination arabe, Leiden, 1966; repr., Paris, l977.

Idem, “Djafr,” EI2 II, pp. 375-77.

Idem, “Faʾl,”EI2 II, pp. 758-60.

Idem, “ʿIyāfa,”EI2 IV, pp. 290-91.

Idem, “Katif,” EI2 IV, p. 763.

Idem, “Khaṭṭ,” EI2 IV, pp. 1128-30.

Idem, “Kihāna,” EI² V, pp. 99-101 (helpful as a brief survey).

Idem,”Malḥama,” EI2 VI p. 247.

G. Flügel, “Über die Loobücher der Muhammadaner,” Berichte über die Verhandlungen der K. Sächsischen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften, Phil.-hist. Klasse 13, 1861, pp. 24-74.

L. H. Gray, “Divination (Persian),” in J. Hastings, Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics IV, Edinburgh, l911, pp. 818-20 (useful for pre-Islamic antecedents).

Abū Bakr Moṭahhar Jamālī Yazdī, Farroḵ-nāma, ed.Ī. Afšār, Tehran, 1346 Š./1967.

O. Kahl, “Ein anonymes persisches Orakelbuch (fāl-nāmah) aus dem späten 10./16. Jahrhundert,” Die Welt des Orients 19, 1989, pp. 118-41.

F. Keshavarz, A Descriptive and Analytical Catalogue of Persian Manuscripts in the Library of the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, London, l986, pp. 370-72, 460-95.

Ḥ. Lesān, “Tafaʾʾol wa taṭayyor,” in M. Rowšan, ed., Haštomīn kongera-ye taḥqīqāt-e īrānī (Kermān) I, n.p., 2535=1357 Š./1978, pp. 447-507.

M.-J. Maḥjūb, Kollīyāt-e ʿObayd Zākānī (forthcoming). Manūčehrī Dāmḡānī, Dīvān, ed. M. Dabīrsīāqī, 5th repr., 1363 Š./1984, p. 3. Massé, Croyances.

Idem, “Fāl-nāma,” EI2 II, pp. 760-61.

Mojmal, ed. Bahār. Mošār, Fehrest II, cols. 2386-87.

M. Omidsalar, “Divination,” in EIr. VII, pp. 440-43.

D. C. Phillott, “Bibliomancy, Divination, Superstitions, Amongst the Persians,” Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (N.S.) 2/8, 1906, pp. 339-42.

D. Pingree, “Abū Sahl B. Nawbaḵt,” in EIr. I, p. 369.

Idem, “Astronomy and Astrology in Iran iii. Astrology in Islamic Times,” in EIr. II, pp. 868-71.

Idem, “Eḵtīārāt,” in EIr. VIII, pp. 291-93.

F. Ros, “Dreaming of the Future,” in F. Ros and C. Huygens, eds., Dreaming of Paradise, Islamic Art from the Collection of the Museum of Ethnology Rotterdam, Rotterdam, 1993, pp. 101-5.

K. Rühdranz, “Die Miniaturen des Dresdener ‘Fālnāmeh’,” Persica 12, 1987, pp. 1-56.

E. Savage-Smith, “Divination,” in J. Raby, ed., The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art XII/1, London and Oxford, l997, pp. 148-58.

Idem and M. B. Smith, Islamic Geomancy and a Thirteenth-Century Divinatory Device, Malibu, Calif., l980.

P. Sprachman, “Fālnāma-ye borūj,” Āyanda 5, 1358 Š./1979, pp. 224-38, 738-48.

Storey I/1, G. “Fāl-nāmahs”; II/3, J. “Occult Arts.”

Plate I. While still in his cradle, the infant ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭāl eb slays a dragon. The poet comments on this and adds the reassuri ng comment that success and victory will be on the side of the reader since ʿAlī has looked favorably upon this fāl. A fter Kahl, p. 131, no. 19; courtesy of the Museum voor Volkenkunde, Rotterdam.

Plate II. The poem informs the reader that since the shah of Khorasan, “the supreme leader of mankind and the jinn” (i.e., the Eighth Imam, & #191;Alī Reżā), has appeared in his fāl, his enem y, even if of the stature of a dīv, will be destroyed at once. Af ter Kahl, pp. 125-26, no 10; courtesy of the Museum voor Volkenku nde, Rotterdam.

Plate III. This illustration depicts the Day of Judgment and is therefore caut ionary in tone. The picture contains many symbols associated wit h the theme of the day of reckoning, including Gabriel weighing hu man deeds in the Scales of Justice (mīzan-e ʿadl). The Prophet, with ʿAlī and his two sons, Ḥasan and Ḥos ayn, sit at the sides ready to intercede on behalf of those being judged. The reader is advised that since the Day of Judgment has c ome up in this fāl, journeys should be avoided and an a ttitude of penitance and patience adopted in order to avoid potent ial disappointments and regrets. After Kahl, pp. 137-38, no. 30; courtesy of the Museum voor Volkenk unde, Rotterdam.

Plate IV. Moses striking the giant ʿŪj (the biblical Og) with his staff on his anklebone and killing him, as elaboarated in the “stor ies of the prophets” (cf. Ṭabarī, tr., III, pp. 81-83). The verses convey a comforting message to the reader: The fact that Mo ses and Og have appeared in your fāl confirms the wretch ed plight of your enemies. Follow God and the religious path, and you will never be afflicted by sorrow. After Kahl, p. 135, no. 25; courtesy of the Museum voor Volkenkunde, Rotterdam.

(Īraj Afšār)

Originally Published: December 15, 1999

Last Updated: January 20, 2012

This article is available in print.
Vol. IX, Fasc. 2, pp. 172-176