Sunday 17 November 2019

Amulets, magic, alchemy, and theory at MESA

Among the many panels at the 2019 meeting of the Middle East Studies Association in New Orleans that has just ended was one of special interest for members of ENSIE. This was the panel on "Magical Materialities: Toward a History of (Occult) Technology in the Islamicate World from the 13th to the 21st Century," organized by Taylor M. Moore (Rutgers).

The panel had four papers. It started with Moore on "Occult(ed) Ontologies," talking about her PhD project, which revisits old collections of amulets as a way to access the healing practices of non-literate (and generally female) practitioners in Egypt. Many interesting issues were raised, including issues of racialization.

Then came Noah Gardiner (USC), asking "Are Islamic Books of Magic Magical Books? Materiality and Textuality in Medieval Arabic Occult Texts." The question was raised by the observation made in Western contexts that books of magic are also often themselves magical. Gardiner argued convincingly that while there are certainly magical books in Islam, they are not books about magic, and that books about magic are non-magical. Even the talismans drawn in them are not active in that form.

Nicholas Harris (U Penn) was not present in person, but his paper on "Becoming a Time-Lord: Later Islamicate Alchemy as a Technology of Time" was read in his absence. The paper focused on responses to Ibn Sina's views on alchemy, and at a broader level helped connect the history of alchemy with that of philosophy in Islam.

The panel ended with two papers primarily addressing issues of theory, one by Matthew Melvin-Koushki (USC) on "Talismans as Technology: The Construction and Operation of Magical Machines in Early Modern Persian Grimoires and Chronicles," and the other by Alireza Doostdar (Chicago) on "Sensing Jinn."

The panel was one of the best attended of the whole conference, which was interesting and encouraging, given that MESA panels on Sufism (for example) often attract an audience that is dedicated, but small.