Last year there were a number of fascinating sessions on magic and occultism in the Islamicate medieval world. I’m still gathering up deep background on this topic for future fiction projects, and this one really caught my eye.
Occult Blockbusters of the Islamicate World II: Arabic and Persian
Sponsor: Research Group on Manuscript Evidence; Societas Magica
Organizer: Matthew Melvin-Koushki, Univ. of South Carolina
Presider: Liana Saif, Univ. of Oxford
Fakhr al-Din al-Razi’s Hidden Secret and Islamic Occult Soteriology Michael Noble, Warburg Institute
Speaking about an early 13th century scholar. His studies included astrological themes and the creation of talismanic objects that synthesized three disciplines of natural philosophy: astrology, medicine, and spiritual discipline? [I missed the third--I’m having a little trouble hearing the speaker]. The practitioner must first establish a balanced spiritual discipline to create a connection with [???] then the following of a number of rituals to establish a connection with the desired astrological entity, then a talisman is created from materials attuned to the particular heavenly bodies being invoked. The completion of the ritual represents perfection of the soul. In theory, this discipline was not tied to any particular theology. Razi was interested in the basis for human psychic connections with the celestial spheres that enabled this process to achieve magical outcomes. This understanding draws on Avicennian philosophy regarding mystical visions. Access to these sorts of visions or abilities can be innate or can be achieved through spiritual training.
A Sorcerer’s Handbook: Al-Sakkaki’s Thirteenth-Century Complete Book Emily Selove, Univ. of Exeter
The speaker suggests a modified title for the book is “The book of the Complete One.” Al-Sakkhaki is better known as a grammarian, but this handbook ties together magical aspects of language to his better known reputation. There are questions about authorship as the book is in Middle Arabic rather than scholarly Arabic, though this could be explained by its nature as an informal handbook. The contents are an assortment of spells to create effects or control supernatural beings, including the summoning of demons. An example is shown of a spell that is functionally a cookbook recipe for a stuffed chicken, but with added requirements: a black chicken and signs included to create the magical effect (I missed the details but something like achieving a desire?).The text includes diagrams for talismanic spells -- such as one to cause hatred between friends. In three manuscripts specific talismanic diagrams are reproduced with extreme faithfulness. [This paper seems to be something of an informal guided tour through the manuscript rather than a specific thesis about it.] We get a digression about how excerpts from these spells are circulating on the internet, evidently describing current folk-magic use. The avoidance of Al-Sakkaki’s magical pursuits when discussing his work, it is suggested, is due to embarrassment about the magical field in general. We now digress into imagery about paradisical banquets in the afterlife and rituals involving cups and beautiful young boys. [I’m losing the thread here.] A discussion of how the omission of Arabic diacritics (the vowel marks -- not sure about the technical term) renders a book of spells difficult to decipher, but may also be to render them “safe” on the page? More on connections between historic magical texts and modern magical practice found in online contexts. [The manuscript sounds fascinating, but I felt the presentation was more in the mode of “look at all this weird medieval stuff”.]
“If you don’t learn alchemy, you’ll learn eloquence”: The Golden Slivers by Ibn Arfa’ Ra’s Nicholas G. Harris, Univ. of Pennsylvania
This is a lengthy poetry collection that was considered both an example of poetic excellence as well as a collection of alchemical wisdom. 43 odes, successively using every letter of the Arabic alphabet as a rhyme letter. The meter is formal, one typically used for epics. Alchemical poetry was an established poetic genre, crossing multiple themes and forms. Commentaries and expansions on the work speak to its reception, and a repeated theme is that even if you fail to learn alchemy from the poem, you will definitely learn eloquence and poetry. In the 14th century, the works of al-Jildaki created a “bottleneck” in the Arabic alchemical tradition, whereby most writing subsequent to him is based on his work., including his commentaries on earlier works such as the one considered here, which Jildaki praised highly. Currently a critical edition of this text is being prepared and will be available soon. We conclude with some questions about the author of the work. He seems to have been mentioned and praised by a number of contemporaries as a preacher and Quranic expert, but his poetic works seem to be mentioned only after his death. (?) But the early 15th century historian Ibn Khaldun, known for his anti-occult opinions, muddies the waters by deriding Ibn Arfa’ Ra’s as an alchemist, while praising him under another name for his religious scholarship, leading to theories that they were two different people.
Kāshifī’s Qasimian Secrets: The Safavid Imperialization of a Timurid Manual of Magic Matthew Melvin-Koushki
We’re concerned here with two of the “blockbusters” of the Islamic magical world in the 15-1th century. With a brief digression on modern political magic movements to bind and block the actions of certain contemporary figures, we come to the topic of what “political magic” means in a medieval context. For example a spell “to remove any ruler you wish.” You inscribe a verse on one side of an object, a picture of the target on the other side, then bury it. But the verse is oddly non-Quranic but is rather anti-Trinitarian in form, using the rejection of Christian theology as the medium of rejecting the ruler. In the relevant historic period, Islamic sovereigns were seeing a unified way to control the world, while scholars sought means for controlling the sovereigns. At the same time, Western cultures turned to the task of rooting out and eliminating occult forces in politics, in contrast to a more aligned east/west approach in previous eras. Another distinction is the shift to printed occult treatises in the west, whereas the Islamic world viewed manuscript as an essential aspect of the social role of books. [A slide lists eight titles which were “blockbusters” of the Islamic magical literary world.] The texts considered here concern numerology and lettrisim (the alphabetic equivalent of numerology). These texts transcended conflicts between Islamic sects, being written by Sufi Sunni authors, but used by Shi’a rulers as the basis for imperial political occultism. [I think we’re going to get more details of Islamic historical political conflict than I’ll be able to follow.] The political nature of these texts include spells to control and influence rulers, controlling the emotions and reactions of kings, and elevating the reputation and influence of the practitioner within the political sphere, with an expectation that the practitioner will be a courtier or member of the bureaucracy.