Occult studies towards a modern approach.

This review is very much a co-production with Dr Petra Schmidl, an expert on Islamicate occult studies, and she is in fact the lead author

The last couple of decades has seen a steady increase in both the volume and the quality of the studies of the occult sciences, magic, astrology, and alchemy, along with the acknowledgement that these studies very much belong to any attempt to produce a complete picture of the history of science. 

I have already, in the past, mentioned that I regularly attend the Tuesday evening lectures at the International Consortium for Research in the HumanitiesFate, Freedom and Prognostication. Strategies for Coping with the Future in East Asia and Europe a research institute located on the University of Erlangen.  I have also reviewed two books on the occult sciences that have their origins in said institute, Darrel Rutkin’s excellent Sapientia Astrologica (Springer, 2019) and the equally excellent, Prognostication in the Medieval World eds. Matthias Heiduk, Klaus Herbers and Hans-Christian Lehner (De Gruyter Reference, 2021). Today, I’m looking at another book than came, not directly from but via the same source, Islamicate Occult Sciences in Theory and Practice.[1] This is a collection of papers presented at the three-day international conference Islamic Occultism in Theory and Practice held at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford University in 2017.

The book opens with a thirty-two-page introductory essay, written by Liana Saif (Warburg Institute & Universitè Catholique de Louvain) and Francesca Leoni (Ashmolean Museum) that is both a polemic and a manifesto. It opens with a definition and explication of the term occult sciences–magic, astronomy, astrology–respective Islamicate cultures. This is followed with a chronological description of how the historiography of this discipline has changed and evolved over the decades. In particular they emphasise that occult studies have progressed from being handled as a stand-alone exotic topic, to becoming imbedded in their cultural and especially scientific contexts.  The introductory essay closes with an explanation of how the approach of the original conference and the resulting book is an advance on previous presentation of the topic. They argue that theoretical presentations and the occult sciences and practical aspects, meaning material culture, talisman etc., have in the past been handled separately in conferences and publications and their aim in this conference and the resulting book was to bring together researchers on the two aspects and see how they interact. The introduction closes with a nine-page bibliography covering the whole topic.

The book itself is presented in two equal halves of six papers each, the first six on theory the second on practice. The book closes with a thirty-four-page postscript by Travis Zadeh (Yale University), which takes a deeper look at the theory/practice divide in occult studies.  

The theory papers are:

1) Charles Burnett (Warburg Institute) on the the three divisions of magic as presented by Maslama al-Qurṭubī (d. 964), the author of the Ghāyat al-ḥākim (“the Goal of the Sage”) also known by its Latin title “Picatrix”. They comprise alchemy, talismans, and nīranjāt, “a magical practice that includes a combination of mixing and processing ingredients, invoking spiritual beings, burning incense (suffumigation), and making figurines to manipulate spiritual forces.” (p. 50-51). 

2) Bink Hallum (British Library) provides an overview of the early Arabic awqāf literature. He begins with searching for pre-Islamic developments in China, Greece, and India, and introduces in the second part new evidence, such as newly discovered treatises written before the 13th c. 

3) Liana Saif provides a study of the Risāla al-sīḥr (“Letter on Magic”) comparing various version and manuscripts.

4) Michael Noble (Ludwig Maximillian University, Munich) follows with a closer look on the Sirr al-maktūm (“The Hidden Secret”) of Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 1210) as well as on his predecessor’s work, the Kitāb al-Milal wal-niḥal (“The Book of the Religions and Sects”) by ˁAbd al-Karīm al-Sharastānī (d. 1153) to delve into the soteriological aspects of Sabian astral magic. 

5) In the next paper, Noah Gardiner (University of South Carolina) investigates the Naẓm al-sulūk fi musāmarat al-mulūk (“Regulation of Conduct: On the Edification of Kings”) by ˁAbd al-Raḥmān al-Bisṭāmī (d. 1454), a treatise that he places at the intersection between occult sciences, namely lettrism, and historiography. 

6) The first part closes with Maria Subtelny introducing the Asrār-i qāsimī (“Qasimian Secrets”) by Kāshifi (d. 1504/05), a manual of the occult sciences, whose author played, together with his son Fakhr al-Dīn ˁAlī Ṣāfī (d. 1532/33), “a key role in the popularisation of Persian literature on the occult sciences” (p. 267). 

Although the second part of the book is about practice i.e., material culture, it actually opens with two textual examples.

7) Jean- Charles Coulon (Institute de Recherche et d’Histoire des Textes, National Centre for Scientific Research, Paris) introduces the Kitāb Sharāsīm al-hindiyya (“The Book of Sharāsīm, the Indian”). Having described and discussed the seven existing manuscripts he closes with the Arabic Text and an English translation of the introduction to the introduction to the Kitāb Sharāsīm al-hindiyya. 

8) This is followed by Matthew Melvin-Koushki (University of South Carolina) discussing a treatise by Kemālpaşazāde Aḥmad (d. 1534), who uses lettrism to “scientifically prove the Ottoman sovereign’s [Selīm I. (d. 1520) – pgs] conquest of the Mamluk capital [Cairo – pgs] to be cosmically inevitable” (p. 383) and to promotes by this means his courtly career. 

9) Turning now to material culture Maryam Ekhtiar (Metropolitan Museum of Art) and Rachel Parikh present examples of arms and armour “talismanic in nature” (p. 420), also documenting the human need for encouragement and protection when faced with the threat of war and death. They discuss the materials used, in particular stones that possess “magical and medicinal properties” (p. 422), and list talismanic motifs and symbols such as the seal of Solomon or the hand of Fāṭima. 

10) In his contribution Farouk Yahyo (SOAS) first reflects generally on the talismanic properties of calligrams, graphically arranged script often in the form of an animal. He then discusses the specific case the case of the Lion of ˁAlī in South-East Asia. His study provides insights into Sunnī and Shīˁī adaptions of the motive, its alteration in a Muslim society in contact with Buddhist traditions, and on the efficacy of objects inscribed with this calligram. 

 11) Francesca Leoni (Ashmolean Museum) follows this with a presentation of a stamped talisman (late 19th, early 20th c.) whose rich collection of inscriptions and diagrams provides a nearly encyclopaedic reference text of talismanic contents used in Islamicate societies. 

12) The final paper written by Christiane Gruber (University of Michigan) introduces a recent development in Turkey, talismanic cards and magnets offered for sale in today’s Istanbul markets. Her essay stresses not only the relevance of the topic up to today but also points to actual changes of the political settings in Turkey and its neighbourhood that are reflected in these objects. 

The papers mostly begin with a general introduction integrating the topic in an often broadly defined context and concluding with a high-quality case study. The papers do not have an introductory abstract, which would probably have been an aid to the potential reader. They do, however, have extensive footnotes and all papers close with comprehensive bibliographies. 

Most quotes are provided in their original languages and script accompanied by an English translation. A great number of figures accompanies the essays. In particular, the practice papers include some very beautiful full colour illustrations. In the essays now and then a table is also included that summarizes the contents and presents it in a more neatly arranged. Usually, terms, e.g., in Arabic, are translated or shortly explained, concise information added to persons, dynasties, places, events and the like. 

Frequently reappearing topics are discussions of the terminological and classificational issues, the interdependencies of reason, religion and superstition, differences in Shīˁī and Sunnī attitudes towards the occult sciences, the coherencies of Sufism and occult sciences and the transfer of knowledge. Repeatedly featured are the Rasāˀil of the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāˀ and Maslama al-Qurṭubī’s Ghāyat al-ḥākim. Other subjects appearing in the fourteen essays can be easily accessed via the well-elaborated index. As to be expected from Brill, the physical presentation of the book is first class, good quality paper, very readable font, and solid binding. Though, of course, being Brill the list price, at €219/$249, is well beyond the financial capabilities of many potential readers. 

This book should interest all those working in occult studies, in particular, of course, those active in the cultural and intellectual history of the Islamicate societies. Its greatest strength is its inclusion of both the theoretical and epistemological basics but also considering the material manifestations, indicating a route for future research. If the book has a deficit, it is the very strong emphasis in the collected papers on magic and the comparative paucity of content on astrology and alchemy. Maybe a future conference and subsequent volume of collected papers could even out this deficit. 

[1] Leoni, Francesca; Melvin-Koushki, Matthew S.; Saif, Liana; Yahya, Farouk (eds.): Islamicate Occult Sciences in Theory and Practice(Handbook of Oriental studies. Section One, Ancient Near East / Handbuch der Orientalistik 140). Brill: Leiden, Boston 2020

1 Comment

Filed under Book Reviews, History of Alchemy, History of Astrology, History of Magic

One response to “Occult studies towards a modern approach.

  1. John Kane

    I must admit I was expecting your “normal” acerbic review.

    Not an area I have any interest in, but the book sounds exemplary. If nothing else, the inclusion of original texts is fantastic.

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