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.

Monday, 5 June 2017


ENSIE sponsored two panels at ESSWE6 in Erfurt:

Deviance and Orthodoxy in Islamic Esotericism 

  • Liana Saif: "Bātinism as Deviance in Medieval Islam&nbsp"
  • Mark Sedgwick: "Sufism as Deviance and Orthodoxy in Early Modern Islam"
  • Francesco Piraino: "Negotiating Orthodoxy and Deviance among Sufi Orders in Milan"
  • Michael Asbury: "Orthodox Islam and New Age Spirituality: Adaptive Strategies of Naqshbandi Sufism in the West"

Contemporary Turkish Esotericism: Neither Deviant nor Secret(ive)? 

  • Alexandre Toumarkine: "The Construction of Deviance in Contemporary Turkish Esotericism and Its Transformations" (read in absentia)
  • Till Luge: "Mainstream but Deviant? On the Relationship between Esotericism and Otherness in Modern Turkey"
  • Dilek Sarmış: "Esoteric Secrecy? Esotericism as the Yet to Be Revealed, Discovered, or Decoded"
  • Laurent Mignon: "An Exotericized Esotericism? On the Reception of Dion Fortune in Turkey"

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Shi'i Esotericism: Its Roots and Developments

A new collection on Shi'i Esotericism: Its Roots and Developments has just been published, in English and French by Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, Maria De Cillis, Daniel De Smet, and Orkhan Mir-Kasimov:
Together with the notion of secrecy, the core of Shi'i esotericism gravitates around the ẓāhir/bāṭin dualism. This dialectical relationship between the visible and the hidden, which has been inherited from Late Antiquity, buttresses the main doctrines of esoteric Shi'ism which include a dualistic worldview, doctrines of emanation, the contrast between the people of knowledge and of ignorance, the soterial nature of knowledge and of the Guide who possesses it, the two levels of the Scriptures, the need for hermeneutics, and initiatory knowledge and practices. It is true that the birthplace of Shi'ism was Iraq, which had been the central province of the Sassanid Persian Empire until the advent of Islam. This region and its main cities were home to the many intellectual and spiritual traditions of Late Antiquity, including various Jewish, Christian, Judeo-Christian, Mazdean, Manichean, Neoplatonic and Gnostic movements, with these traditions living on for several centuries after the advent of the religion of the Arabs. The articles in this collection, written by recognised scholars in the field, are divided into three sections covering a very wide period of time: the "prehistory" of these doctrines before Islam, early esoteric Shi'ism and its developments in both Shi'i and non-Shi'i Sufism, occult sciences and philosophy.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Islamic Occultism in Theory and Practice

The international conference of “Islamic Occultism in Theory and Practice” was held at the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford), 6-8 January 2017, coinciding with the final week of an exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum titled “Power and Protection: Islamic Art and the Supernatural.”

More informaiton and a copy of the program is available at

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

The Occult Challenge to Islamic Mysticism at the AAR

A panel on The Occult Challenge to Islamic Mysticism was organized by the Study of Islam Section and Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion 2016 annual meeting.

The panel abstract was
From medieval Andalusia to contemporary Iran, the occult sciences have thrived in Muslim intellectual circles. Yet scholars of Islam have belatedly and hesitatingly developed theoretical lenses and discursive tools for representing the relationship of occult thought and ritual to traditions of piety, communal authority, and sectarian identity. Drawing together a diverse array of temporalities, this panel will help direct the vitality and interest behind Islamic occult studies. By exploring the contested intellectual terrain of pre-modern Muslim communities we hope to show how typologies of Muslim knowledge and artificial academic taxonomies have served as a hindrance to understanding occultism in its own terms. The large and amorphous category of “Islamic mysticism” appears as the consequence to this uncritical amalgamation of various strands of occultism. After situating the occult in historical terms, each panelist will respond to the overarching disciplinary question of how we may better integrate occultism within our scholarly practice.

The papers were:

Patrick D'Silva, University of North Carolina: Do Sufi Occultists Dream of Electric Sheep? Magical Constructions of Muslim Authenticity in a 19th CE Persian Manuscript
This paper uses a 19th century Persian manuscript, purchased by Orientalist E.G. Browne in 1887, to confront the constructed nature of categories such as religion, magic, and occultism. At the heart of the matter lies the relationship between these categories of academic analysis on the one hand, and Islam and Sufism on the other. While scholars in recent decades have paid increased attention to the ways in which the former set of concepts are constructed, they continue to treat the latter set largely as self-evident. Rather than maintaining these two groups of categories as distinct entities, this paper proposes specific manuscript as evidence of the ways in which these “two hands” are more accurately described as interlacing fingers clasped together. Doing so opens up new possibilities for connectivity between scholars of Islam, Sufism, religion, magic, occultism, and those who study objects and ideas tied to each.

Matthew Melvin-Koushki, University of South Carolina: Islamic Philosophy as Occult Practice: The Case of Safavid Iran
Occultism was the primary mode of philosophical practice in Safavid Iran, a natural consequence of its strong neoplatonic-neopythagorean bent; and the practical applications of the quest for theosis were expressly political. Yet this simple fact has been resolutely ignored in the scholarship for the last half century. This peculiar case of scholarly blindness is attributable to persistent positivism and occultophobia on the one hand and the Corbinian insistence on disappearing occultism into the uselessly flabby, apolitical category of “esotericism” on the other—a combination that has made impossible a history of the practice of Safavid philosophy. I endeavor to explode this dual bias by means of several short case studies of leading Safavid philosophers, who feature in contemporary and traditional sources as professional occultists in service to the Safavid ruling elite, master talismanists responsible for protecting the realm from plague and invasion and letter-magically directing its political course.

Hunter Bandy, Duke University: Imam ‘Ali as Master Magician: Occultism in the Twilight of the Deccan Sultanate
While Shi‘a Islam’s most noteworthy imperial power under the Safavid empire is widely studied, the corollary religious history of the Shi‘a Deccan Sultanates remains almost completely invisible. As in their Iranian counterpart, Shi‘i occultism thrived in Deccan courts, received the highest levels of patronage, and directed its magical powers towards the protection of rulers. Central to much of the discourse on magic in this era was its explicit authorization by Imam ‘Ali b. Abi Talib. As the Safavids enthusiastically reauthorized religious and non-religious sciences in accordance with newly discovered collections of Imamic akhbar, texts like the Nahj ul-balagha served as the ideological firmament upon which much occult knowledge was based. ‘Alid magic was reinforced by incorporating a wider pre-Islamic and Hellenic pantheon of sages. Ultimately, I argue that reducing occult production to the level of ‘mysticism’ would greatly misread the predominant chains of authority enchanting the Deccan Muslim imagination.

Torang Asadi, Duke University, presided. Responding: Maria Massi Dakake, George Mason University, and A. Azfar Moin, University of Texas​.