Sunday, 19 May 2019

Postdoctoral Research Fellow Needed to Participate in “Sorcerer’s Handbook” Project

Guest post by Emily Selove

The Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter wishes to recruit a Postdoctoral Research Fellow to participate in “A Sorcerer’s Handbook: Medieval Arabic Magic in Context,” a research project awarded to Dr Emily Selove. This Leverhulme Trust funded post is available starting in the autumn of 2019. The successful applicant will transcribe and create draft translations of manuscripts of Sirāj al-Dīn al-Sakkākī’s Arabic grimoire, write scholarly articles about this subject, and aid the PI in editing a co-authored volume of essays about Sakkākī’s work.

Sakkākī was an influential rhetorician born in Khwarazm in 1160 CE. His Miftāḥ al-‘ulūm (Key to the Sciences) was one of the most influential books on Arabic grammar and rhetoric. Besides being an expert of language, Sakkākī was also known as a competent magician; some biographers tell us that his powers gained him a position in the court of the Mongol emperor Chaghatai Khan (r. 1227-42 CE), where he is said to have performed feats such as capturing birds out of the sky using inscriptions; a contemporary account credits him with influencing a power struggle between the Abbasid caliph and the Khwarazmian Shah with a buried enchanted statue. One 19th-century biography (Khwānsārī’s Rawḍāt al-jannāt) describes a work of Sakkākī on the subject of magic and talismans as being "of significant power and enormous gravity" (kitāb jalīl al-qadr wa-'aẓīm al-khaṭar). Modern scholarship about Sakkākī, however, often focuses on his role as a scholar of language, largely ignoring his reputation for magic. His Kitāb al-Shāmil wa-baḥr al-kāmil (The Book of the Complete and Sea of the Perfect) has not been edited or translated.

The translation of the title as The Book of the Complete is informed by a reading of the compiler’s introduction, which refers to the “perfect” scholars of the ancient world on which it purports to base its information, hence, “The book of the Perfect/Complete person”; it is possible that the title is a play on the similarly-titled 11th century book of magic al-Shāmil fī al-baḥr al-kāmil (Complete Book of the Perfect Sea) by al-Ṭabasī. Sakkākī’s handbook is written in a mixed formal and colloquial register that could be described as a type of Middle Arabic. The language is very unlike that of his Miftāḥ al-'ulūm; this is possibly because it is in fact the collected notes of his students, as the frequent attributions at the beginning of sections of the book seem to suggest (e.g. qāl mawlānā jāmi' al-kitāb shaykh Sirāj al-Dīn al-Sakkākī... ("Our master, the compiler of the book, Shaykh Sirāj al-Dīn al-Sakkākī said...")). It includes a mixed and varied collection of texts dealing with occult matters, including instructions for creating talismans in tune with their various astrological sympathies, instructions for contacting and controlling the jinn, instructions for curing epilepsy and other magical afflictions, and magical speeches to call upon the power of each of the planets (among other topics).

The “Sorcerer’s Handbook” project will bring together scholars from a wide range of disciplines and backgrounds to illuminate the broad context of this work in a volume of essays. The work of the PI will centre on the assumption that both Sakkākī’s linguistic and magical interests show his fascination with the power of language, and these interests will inform her literary style of translation of Sakkākī’s mysterious grimoire.


Thursday, 16 May 2019


The ESSWE 7 program, including our three panels, is now online here.

ENSIE meeting
The last item on the ESSWE 7 program, at 18.15​ on the Thursday, is "Students’ Round Table and ESSWE Network Meetings​." It is proposed that the ENSIE planning meeting held in that slot, and that those who are interested then go out to eat. But if many people will not be able to make it, the meeting might have to be moved to another time, so could anyone who will NOT be able to make 18.15​ on the Thursday (but will be at ESSWE otherwise) please email Mark Sedgwick at

Communications issue
An email with much the same text as this blog post was sent out on May 13 to the ENSIE Google group, but in some cases was caught by spam filters. This may indicate a problem in the way ENSIE communicates that will need to be addressed. Anyone who is a member of ENSIE and gets this blog post but did NOT get the Google group is therefore asked to email Mark Sedgwick at and let him know.

Monday, 11 February 2019

New ENSIE member: Bink Hallum

Bink Hallum writes:

I am very pleased to join ENSIE. I am Curator of Arabic Scientific Manuscripts at the British Library and Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in the Department of Classics and Ancient History, University of Warwick. I have a background in Classics and Material Culture (BA [Wales] Archaeology/Classical Studies, MA [London] Classics) and a strong interest in the history of science (especially the occult sciences) and the social dynamics of the sciences within and between cultures.

My PhD (Warburg Institute, 2008) research focussed on the Graeco-Arabic translations of the 9th-11th centuries and the Arabic/Islamic reception of writings attributed to the Roman-Egyptian alchemist Zosimus of Panopolis (fl. ca 300 AD). My first post-doctoral position (Warwick) was as a researcher on a project on Islamic medicine and the Arabic tradition of Galen’s commentary on the Hippocratic Epidemics. After this I moved to the British Library, where I spend most of my time cataloguing manuscripts containing Arabic texts on a wide range of sciences in preparation for digitisation for the Qatar Digital Library.

My Wellcome Trust Fellowship project is titled ‘Alchemy, Medicine, and Pharmacology in Medieval Islam: Rāzī's Twelve Books’. I aim to collect all extant manuscript copies of Abū Bakr Muḥammad b. Zakariyā al-Rāzī’s alchemical magnum opus, the Twelve Books, to produce a critical edition and annotated English translation. The project will also explore the Arabic, Persian, Latin and Hebrew reception of Rāzī’s Twelve Books and its influence amongst alchemists, physicians and physicists (!) from the 4th/10th to roughly the 9th/15th century.

Apart from alchemy and medicine, I have a interest in Islamicate number magic – particularly the talismanic use of awfāq (magic squares) – and I am working (with Rosa Comes and Emilia Calvo, Universitat de Barcelona) on a study of literary traditions of the 7 planetary awfāq talismans, for which I will produce an edition and annotated translation of Ibn al-Zarqālluh’s (AKA al-Zarqālī, Abū Isḥāq Ibrāhīm b. Yaḥyā al-Naqqāsh al-Tujībī al-Ṭulayṭilī [d. 493/1100]) treatise on the 7 planetary awfāq talismans along with a historical study of related writings in this genre.

In relation to my research on awfāq, I wonder if any ENSIE members can help me identify a certain Muḥammad al-Shāfiʿī al-Ḥanafī al-Khalwatī, to whom is attributed a short text called al-Sirr al-maẓrūf fī ʿilm basṭ al-ḥurūf, published in 1951 in Cairo by Sharikat Maktabat wa-Maṭbaʿat Muṣṭfā al-Bābī al-Ḥalabī wa-Awlādihi along with a few works by al-Būnī and one attributed to Alī b. Muḥammad al-Ṭandatāʾī, who is said to have finished the work in 1003/1594. İsmail Paşa mentions the al-Sirr al-maẓrūf in his Īḍāḥ al-maknūn, but offers no further information about its author. The Muḥammad al-Khalwatī I’m looking for may or may not be the author of Nūr al-sāṭiʻ wa-al-sirr al-qāṭiʻ fī ʻilm al-awfāq. I’d be grateful for any information leading to a proper identification. At the moment, all I’ve got is an ever increasing list of treatises on awfāq attributed to Muḥammads (and Maḥmūds) al-Khalwatī!

Sunday, 27 January 2019

ENSIE at ESSWE 7--registration

Registration is now open for ESSWE 7 (2-4 July 2019, Amsterdam), where ENSIE has three panels. Registration information is available here, and details of the ESSWE panels are available here.

Friday, 23 November 2018

Sirāj al-Dīn al-Sakkākī’s Complete Book and a Fragment of Spells

Thursday, 29 November, 2018 – 17:15 to 18:45 at Cambridge University, rooms 8 & 9, Faculty of Asian & Middle Eastern Studies.

Dr. Emily Selove, "Literature as Magic, Magic as Literature: Sirāj al-Dīn al-Sakkākī’s Complete Book and a Fragment of Spells."

Handbooks like that ascribed to the famous 13th-century scholar of language and magic, Sirāj al-Dīn al-Sakkākī’s Kitāb al-Shāmil wa-baḥr al-kāmil, do not themselves invite literary readings. This grimoire often displays all the literary charms of an ungrammatical cookbook; it is a technical manual—a mixed collection of magical recipes and rituals. It includes instructions for creating talismans, for contacting both jinn and devils, for causing hatred and sickness, for curing such magically caused afflictions, and for calling upon the power of each of the planets. As for previous research on Sakkaki, such studies tend to center on his influential book on language and rhetoric, Miftāḥ al-‘ulūm (The Key to the Sciences), often ignoring his reputation as a magician. Nevertheless, early biographical literature credited him with the power to, for example, strike cranes down in mid flight with a magical inscription. I will argue that both Sakkaki’s linguistic and magical interests show his fascination with the power of language. The power of language to alter the mind or create effects in the physical world is described as a kind of bewitchment in occult literature as well as in studies of language, not to mention in love poetry, and my own strategy in approaching magical texts is to read them with the techniques applied to poetry. I will also discuss some evidence of the practise of magic today, focusing on a mysterious 6-folio fragment of spells in Yale’s Beinecke library.

Sunday, 16 September 2018