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 Hurufis—Neo-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.