Sunday, 4 March 2018

Occult Blockbusters of the Islamicate World

This year at the 53rd International Congress on Medieval Studies (May 10-13, 2018 – Kalamazoo, Michigan), there will be two panels on Islamicate occult sciences:

Occult Blockbusters of the Islamicate World I: The Picatrix (A Magical Bestseller)
Saturday, 13:30
Sponsor: Research Group on Manuscript Evidence; Societas Magica
Organizer: David Porreca, Univ. of Waterloo
Presider: Claire Fanger, Rice Univ.

  • "The Goal of the Sage: What’s It Take?" Daniel Attrell, Univ. of Waterloo 
  • "The Latin Picatrix: A New English Translation, A New Assessment," David Porreca 
  • "Me and Pingree: Comprehending the World-View of Maslama al-Qurṭubī’s Ghāyat al-Ḥakīm," Liana Saif, Univ. of Oxford 

Occult Blockbusters of the Islamicate World II: Arabic and Persian
Saturday, 15:30
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 
  • "A Sorcerer’s Handbook: Al-Sakkaki’s Thirteenth-Century Complete Book," Emily Selove, Univ. of Exeter 
  • "'If you don’t learn alchemy, you’ll learn eloquence': The Golden Slivers by Ibn Arfa’ Ra’s," Nicholas G. Harris, Univ. of Pennsylvania 
  • "Kāshifī’s Qasimian Secrets: The Safavid Imperialization of a Timurid Manual of Magic Matthew," Melvin-Koushki

Thursday, 7 December 2017

ENSIE inaugural conference announced

The Call for Papers has been launched for the inaugural conference of ENSIE, "Common and Comparative Esotericisms: Western, Islamic, and Jewish," organized by Fondazione Cini in collaboration with Cetobac, to be held in Venice, 12-14 June 2018.

For details, see

Please share!

Monday, 20 November 2017

Esotericism at MESA

The 2017 annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) included two panels with papers on Islamic esotericism, both well-attended. One, on “The Occult in Islamicate Society: The Cases of Magic and Alchemy” was organised by Pamela Klasova, a PhD student at Georgetown, with Matthew Melvin-Koushki (South Carolina) as discussant. The other was organised by Melvin-Koushki, on “Fashioning Philosopher-Kings in the Post-Mongol Persian Cosmopolis, 13th-19th Centuries.”

The two papers on magic were by Klasova, on “Magical and inspired speech in Early Islam,” and by Emily Selove (University of Exeter) on “Literature as Magic, Magic as Literature.” Looking primarily at the hadith, Klasova showed how Islamic attitudes to magic developed over the first centuries of Islam, negotiating boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable magic, between magic and healing and language. Islam, as she noted, was the heir to earlier Near Eastern magical traditions, as is indicated by references to the use of knots in magic in both Virgil and the Quran, and the Quran and hadith both take magic very seriously. Selove's paper then identified numerous parallels between literary magical language in classical Arab and modern Western literature, notably in nonsense verse.

The two papers on alchemy were by Salam Rassi (Hill Museum and Manuscript Library) on “Syriac, Interest in Late Medieval Alchemy: The Case of One Pseudo-Aristotelian Treatise on the Craft,” and by Nicholas Harris (University of Pennsylvania), on “Alchemy and Economy.” Rassi's Syriac was a Nestorian cleric, Abdisho bar Brikha (died 1318), and his treatise was a little known epistle on alchemy that echoes the famous Sirr al-asrar (Secretum secretorum) in being allegedly by Aristotle and directed to Alexander the Great. Abdisho’s account of the prior transmission of his text linked numerous earlier Nestorian clerics to respected Islamic figures, as for example in the claim that Ali ibn Abi Talib had received a translation of an alchemical text from a Nestorian bishop. The objective, Rassi suggested, was to bolster the reputation of Christians as leading experts on alchemy. Harris's paper examined alchemy and economy in the context of Mamluk Egypt, where a rare surviving mint manual shows that the masters of the Mamluk mint shared both a technical vocabulary and certain techniques with the alchemists. The main difference between the mint manual and alchemical works was that the mint manual was essentially practical, while alchemists were interested not only in what to do but in why it worked. The Mamluk state, Harris pointed out, also saw a connection between minting and alchemy, as certain unfortunate alchemists suffered dreadful penalties for suspected counterfeiting.

Finally, the two papers in the panel on philosopher kings that dealt with esotericism both looked at the role of HurufisNeo-Pythagoreans working with letters—in legitimising kingship in late fourteenth-century Mamluk Cairo and fifteenth-century Transoxania. The papers were by Noah Gardiner, on “Al-Malik al-Zahir Barquq as Millennial Sovereign?” and by Melvin-Koushki, on “Performing (Occult) Philosopher-Kingship in Timurid Transoxania: Ulugh Beg as Sultan-Scientist,” respectively.

Great to see esotericism at MESA, and great to see how much interest there was in it.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

New Age in Iran

See Religion Dispatches for an interview with Alireza Doostdar about his new book The Iranian Metaphysicals: Explorations in Science, Islam, and the Uncanny (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017/18). Sounds amazing!
In the mid-2000s, the New Age really took off in urban centers in Iran. Yoga studios sprung up everywhere, as did all manner of seminars on Eastern spirituality, meditation, techniques of mind, lucid dreaming, clairvoyance, telepathy, astral projection, and so on. But when I began to look into the New Age scene and studied its history, I realized something that surprised me even more: I had assumed that the New Age was new to Iran in the 21st century; but in fact, its European esotericist precursors had been around for at least a century earlier.
The table of contents and introduction can be downloaded here.

Friday, 14 July 2017

City of Mirrors: Songs of Lalan Sai

Post by Keith Cantú

A new compilation is being published this summer of the Bengali poet Fakir Lālan Sāi’s songs that would likely be of interest to students of Islamic esotericism. Examples of relevant material in the songs and their annotations include lengthy discussions of ẓāhir / bāṭin, Nur Muhammad, Arabic alphabet symbolism, Manṣūr Ḥallāj, fanā’, the manzils (sharī‘a, ṭarīqa, ḥaqīqa, and ma‘rifa), the maqāms (nāsut, malakūt, jabarūt, and lāhūt), angels (Azrael, Israfel, Michael, and Gabriel), and much else besides. While much of Lālan’s poetry also contains references to what are typically considered non-Islamic beliefs and practices (e.g. Hindu and Buddhist yoga, tantra, and alchemy), Lālan is famous across Bangladesh and West Bengal, India for harmonizing these with their perceived Islamic equivalents.

The late scholar Carol Salomon devoted over thirty years to researching Lālan’s songs using both philological and ethnographic methods, and the results of her research were compiled and edited by Keith Cantú and Saymon Zakaria. More information can be found on the Oxford University Press (South Asia Research Series) website for the book here:

Monday, 10 July 2017

ENSIE blog goes live

The ENSIE members who met during the ESSWE6 conference in Erfurt decided to set up an ENSIE blog, and this is it.

The purpose of the blog is to share information between members of ENSIE, especially about new publications, projects, and conferences. It is hoped that the blog will also be of interest to members of ESSWE who are not members of ENSIE, to the wider academic community, and to other interested persons. To receive daily updates of posts, simply enter your email in the top right-hand corner.

Anyone wishing to post should send their material to Mark Sedgwick, Any member of the ENSIE who wants to make regular posts should contact Mark and ask to be given access to post directly.

A few back posts have been added to get the blog going.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

The Mathematicalization of the Occult Sciences in the High Persianate Tradition

A new article has been published by Matthew Melvin-Koushki, "Powers of One: The Mathematicalization of the Occult Sciences in the High Persianate Tradition," Intellectual History of the Islamicate World 5 (2017), pp. 127-199:
Occultism remains the largest blind spot in the historiography of Islamicate philosophy-science, a casualty of persistent scholarly positivism, even whiggish triumphalism. Such occultophobia notwithstanding, the present article conducts a survey of the Islamicate encyclopedic tradition from the 4th–11th/10th–17th centuries, with emphasis on Persian classifications of the sciences, to demonstrate the ascent to philosophically mainstream status of various occult sciences (ʿulūm ġarība) throughout the post-Mongol Persianate world. Most significantly, in Persian encyclopedias, but not in Arabic, and beginning with Faḫr al-Dīn Rāzī, certain occult sciences (astrology, lettrism and geomancy) were gradually but definitively shifted from the natural to the mathematical sciences as a means of reasserting their scientific legitimacy in the face of four centuries of anti-occultist polemic, from Ibn Sīnā to Ibn Ḫaldūn; they were simultaneously reclassified as the sciences of walāya, moreover, which alone explains the massive increase in patronage of professional occultists at the Safavid, Mughal and Ottoman courts in the runup to the Islamic millennium (1592 CE). I argue that the mathematicalization, neopythagoreanization and sanctification of occultism in Ilkhanid-Timurid-Aqquyunlu Iran is the immediate intellectual and sociopolitical context for both the celebrated mathematization of astronomy by the members of the Samarkand Observatory in the 9th/15th century and the resurgence of neoplatonic-neopythagorean philosophy in Safavid Iran in the 10th/16th and 11th/17th, whereby Ibn Sīnā himself was transformed into a neopythagorean-occultist—processes which have heretofore been studied in atomistic isolation.