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​.