Monday 30 December 2019

Symposium on Orientalisms and Esotericisms in Costa Rica

Just announced: a symposium on Orientalisms and Esotericisms to be held in Costa Rica, October 20-22, 2020, organised by the University of Costa Rica and the Centro de Estudios sobre el Esoterismo Occidental (CEEO-UNASUR).

The following dates have been announced:
  • January 2020: Circular 1.
  • April 2020: Circular 2.
  • July 31, 2020: Registration closing.
  • August 2020: Acceptance letter endorsed by the international scientific committee.
  • September 30, 2020: Delivery of paper for publication.
  • October 20-22 of 2020: International Symposium.
The coordination team consists of:
  • Francisco Rodríguez Cascante, UCR-SRO
  • Esteban Rodríguez Dobles, UCR-EEG
  • Juan Pablo Bubello, University of Buenos Aires and CEEO-UNASUR
  • Gabriel Terol, University of Valencia
  • Ricardo Martínez Esquivel, UCR-SRP and REHMLAC +
The conference language is Spanish, but panel proposals in English will also be accepted.

For further information, contact This is the email address of the Revista de Estudios Históricos de la Masonería Latinoamericana y Caribeña (Journal for the Historical Study of Latin American and Caribbean Freemasonry).

Thursday 12 December 2019

Esoteric Cultures of Scripture Conference

There is an interesting conference on "Esoteric Cultures of Scripture" at the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London on 17th and 18th December 2019, with an impressive caste of scholars.

Most panels pair an Islamic topic with another tradition. On the first day, there are panels on “Neo-gnostic hermeneutics” (Yemenite Ṭayyibism and Medieval Christian Dualism), on “Graphemes and graphics” (Qur’anic and Kabbala), “Somatic approaches” (Yoga and Late Antique Theurgists), and “Lettric dimensions” (Jewish and Nuṣayrī). On the second day, the panels are on “Scriptural adaption in traditions of transformation” (Alchemical Tafsīr, and Commentary in Esoteric Traditions), “Allegory and allegoresis” (Shahrastānī and Judaism), and “Ontological and unitive interpretation” (Shi‘i-Sufi Exegesis and Meister Eckhart).

The full program is available from the IIS website here.

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.

Saturday 21 September 2019

Special issue on Islamic Esotericism

The (open-access) journal Correspondences: Journal for the Study of Esotericism has just published a special issue on Islamic Esotericism (available here), edited by Liana Saif.

It covers

In detail, the special issue contains the following articles:

Liana Saif, "What is Islamic Esotericism?"

This article serves as an introduction to the special issue, and proposes "a theoretical framework for what can be called Islamic esotericism based on etymological and historical justifications." It covers both the tenth to thirteenth centuries and the Traditionalist understanding of Islamic esotericism.

W. Sasson Chahanovich, "Ottoman Eschatological Esotericism: Introducing Jafr in Ps. Ibn al-ʿArabī’s The Tree ofNuʿmān (al-Shajarah al-nuʿmāniyyah)."

Jafr fuses eschatology and esotericism, and the article takes the example of an Ottoman text that was pseudepigraphically attributed to Ibn al-ʿArabī. Chahanovich argues that "eschatological predictions were central to bolstering Ottoman imperial claims to universal sovereignty."

Keith Cantú, "Islamic Esotericism in the Bengali Bāul Songs of Lālan Fakir." 

Lālan Fakir was a nineteenth-century Bengali Sufi poet, and Cantú's article presents, translates and discusses five of his songs. The article ends by arguing that esotericism has "explanatory power outside of domains that are perceived to be exclusively Western."

Michael Muhammad Knight, "'I am Sorry, Mr. White Man, These are Secrets that You are Not Permitted to Learn': The Supreme Wisdom Lessons and Problem Book."

The Supreme Wisdom Lessons are part of the Nation of Islam tradition, and have been used in various ways. Knight places them and a related text, the Problem Book, "within their context of 1930s U.S. esoteric movements, thinkers, and themes."

Biko Gray, "The Traumatic Mysticism of Othered Others: Blackness, Islam, and Esotericism in the Five Percenters."

Gray develops the concept of "traumatic mysticism," and argues that the Five Percenters' "understanding of Islamic terminology, the meaning of the word 'god,' and their dissemination of their thought all articulate radical refusals of categorical distinctions."

Francesco Piraino, "Esotericisation and De-esotericisation of Sufism: The Aḥmadiyya-Idrīsiyya Shādhiliyya in Italy."

The Italian Aḥmadiyya-Idrīsiyya Shādhiliyya owes its origins to the Traditionalist Movement of René Guénon. Piraino shows the ways in which it was originally esoteric, and then argues that in recent years it has been undergoing "de-esotericisation," and that its "sectarian dimensions are gradually fading, allowing a dialogue with other Islamic communities."

Mark Sedgwick, "Islamic and Western Esotericism."

The article argues that there is an Islamic esotericism that matches Western esotericism very closely in terms of discourse and historical sources, but not in terms of structure--of relations with established religious and political power structures.

Thursday 11 July 2019

After ENSIE at ESSWE 7

The ENSIE panels at ESSWE 7 in Amsterdam went well (see photo of audience for first panel), though there were some cancellations for the third panel. An extra paper was added to this: Daniel Joslyn on "No Ordinary Fanatics," reporting the vicissitudes of the first ever trip to the US by Middle Eastern Sufis.

There was also an ENSIE meeting, at which it was reported that ENSIE now has 67 members, 58% of whom are based in Europe, most of the remainder being in the Americas. ENSIE only has 8 members based in the Middle East, but this may change.

Publications deriving from the ENSIE panels at ESSWE 6 in Erfurt and from ENSIE 1 in Venice are progressing satisfactorily. It is hoped to put together a special issue of a suitable journal based around a selection of the ESSWE 7 papers.

Plans for ENSIE 2--the second ENSIE conference, to be held in 2020--were discussed, and a proposal to hold the conference in Marseille was enthusiastically accepted. More details soon!

Sunday 30 June 2019

The Symbolism of Precious Stones in Islam

A new article by Luca Patrizi, “‘A Gemstone Among the Stones’: The Symbolism of Precious Stones in Islam and its Relation with Language,” has just been published in Historia Religionum 10 (2018), pp. 107-126, The article is based on a paper that was presented at the inaugural conference of the ENSIE at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini in Venice in June 2018.

Abstract: The recourse to the symbolism of precious stones is attested in different religious contexts. While several specialists of Judaism and Christianity analyzed this symbolism in the context of the Old and New Testaments, as in the Jewish and Christian exegetical literature, its presence and nature in the Islamic sources so far did not gain the attention of the scholarly world. Yet in Islamic literature, this symbolism already occurs in its two main sources, the Qu- ran and the sayings of the prophet Muḥammad. Precious stones appear likewise in the title of a number of Islamic literary and religious texts, and some of these texts have been even structured according to the gemstones’ names. Their symbolism is used in particular in the Islamic esoteric literature, exerting in this way a strong influence on Western Hermetic and Alchemical doctrines. Numerous examples are to be found in Sufi literature, including in the works of two of its most important authorities, al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) and Ibn al-ʿArabī (d. 1240). The symbolism of precious stones, as it is the case for the Jewish and Christian contexts, appears moreover in Islamic sources as closely related to the idea of language, as we intend to show in this article.

Monday 24 June 2019

ENSIE meeting at ESSWE 7

Network Meetings at ESSWE are now on Wednesday 3 July 8:00-8:45 (rather than 18.15​ on the Thursday as previously announced). ENSIE will be meeting in room C1.17.

Sunday 19 May 2019

Postdoctoral Research Fellow Needed to Participate in “Sorcerer’s Handbook” Project

Guest post by Emily Selove

The Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter wishes to recruit a Postdoctoral Research Fellow to participate in “A Sorcerer’s Handbook: Medieval Arabic Magic in Context,” a research project awarded to Dr Emily Selove. This Leverhulme Trust funded post is available starting in the autumn of 2019. The successful applicant will transcribe and create draft translations of manuscripts of Sirāj al-Dīn al-Sakkākī’s Arabic grimoire, write scholarly articles about this subject, and aid the PI in editing a co-authored volume of essays about Sakkākī’s work.

Sakkākī was an influential rhetorician born in Khwarazm in 1160 CE. His Miftāḥ al-‘ulūm (Key to the Sciences) was one of the most influential books on Arabic grammar and rhetoric. Besides being an expert of language, Sakkākī was also known as a competent magician; some biographers tell us that his powers gained him a position in the court of the Mongol emperor Chaghatai Khan (r. 1227-42 CE), where he is said to have performed feats such as capturing birds out of the sky using inscriptions; a contemporary account credits him with influencing a power struggle between the Abbasid caliph and the Khwarazmian Shah with a buried enchanted statue. One 19th-century biography (Khwānsārī’s Rawḍāt al-jannāt) describes a work of Sakkākī on the subject of magic and talismans as being "of significant power and enormous gravity" (kitāb jalīl al-qadr wa-'aẓīm al-khaṭar). Modern scholarship about Sakkākī, however, often focuses on his role as a scholar of language, largely ignoring his reputation for magic. His Kitāb al-Shāmil wa-baḥr al-kāmil (The Book of the Complete and Sea of the Perfect) has not been edited or translated.

The translation of the title as The Book of the Complete is informed by a reading of the compiler’s introduction, which refers to the “perfect” scholars of the ancient world on which it purports to base its information, hence, “The book of the Perfect/Complete person”; it is possible that the title is a play on the similarly-titled 11th century book of magic al-Shāmil fī al-baḥr al-kāmil (Complete Book of the Perfect Sea) by al-Ṭabasī. Sakkākī’s handbook is written in a mixed formal and colloquial register that could be described as a type of Middle Arabic. The language is very unlike that of his Miftāḥ al-'ulūm; this is possibly because it is in fact the collected notes of his students, as the frequent attributions at the beginning of sections of the book seem to suggest (e.g. qāl mawlānā jāmi' al-kitāb shaykh Sirāj al-Dīn al-Sakkākī... ("Our master, the compiler of the book, Shaykh Sirāj al-Dīn al-Sakkākī said...")). It includes a mixed and varied collection of texts dealing with occult matters, including instructions for creating talismans in tune with their various astrological sympathies, instructions for contacting and controlling the jinn, instructions for curing epilepsy and other magical afflictions, and magical speeches to call upon the power of each of the planets (among other topics).

The “Sorcerer’s Handbook” project will bring together scholars from a wide range of disciplines and backgrounds to illuminate the broad context of this work in a volume of essays. The work of the PI will centre on the assumption that both Sakkākī’s linguistic and magical interests show his fascination with the power of language, and these interests will inform her literary style of translation of Sakkākī’s mysterious grimoire.


Thursday 16 May 2019


The ESSWE 7 program, including our three panels, is now online here.

ENSIE meeting
The last item on the ESSWE 7 program, at 18.15​ on the Thursday, is "Students’ Round Table and ESSWE Network Meetings​." It is proposed that the ENSIE planning meeting held in that slot, and that those who are interested then go out to eat. But if many people will not be able to make it, the meeting might have to be moved to another time, so could anyone who will NOT be able to make 18.15​ on the Thursday (but will be at ESSWE otherwise) please email Mark Sedgwick at

Communications issue
An email with much the same text as this blog post was sent out on May 13 to the ENSIE Google group, but in some cases was caught by spam filters. This may indicate a problem in the way ENSIE communicates that will need to be addressed. Anyone who is a member of ENSIE and gets this blog post but did NOT get the Google group is therefore asked to email Mark Sedgwick at and let him know.

Monday 11 February 2019

New ENSIE member: Bink Hallum

Bink Hallum writes:

I am very pleased to join ENSIE. I am Curator of Arabic Scientific Manuscripts at the British Library and Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in the Department of Classics and Ancient History, University of Warwick. I have a background in Classics and Material Culture (BA [Wales] Archaeology/Classical Studies, MA [London] Classics) and a strong interest in the history of science (especially the occult sciences) and the social dynamics of the sciences within and between cultures.

My PhD (Warburg Institute, 2008) research focussed on the Graeco-Arabic translations of the 9th-11th centuries and the Arabic/Islamic reception of writings attributed to the Roman-Egyptian alchemist Zosimus of Panopolis (fl. ca 300 AD). My first post-doctoral position (Warwick) was as a researcher on a project on Islamic medicine and the Arabic tradition of Galen’s commentary on the Hippocratic Epidemics. After this I moved to the British Library, where I spend most of my time cataloguing manuscripts containing Arabic texts on a wide range of sciences in preparation for digitisation for the Qatar Digital Library.

My Wellcome Trust Fellowship project is titled ‘Alchemy, Medicine, and Pharmacology in Medieval Islam: Rāzī's Twelve Books’. I aim to collect all extant manuscript copies of Abū Bakr Muḥammad b. Zakariyā al-Rāzī’s alchemical magnum opus, the Twelve Books, to produce a critical edition and annotated English translation. The project will also explore the Arabic, Persian, Latin and Hebrew reception of Rāzī’s Twelve Books and its influence amongst alchemists, physicians and physicists (!) from the 4th/10th to roughly the 9th/15th century.

Apart from alchemy and medicine, I have a interest in Islamicate number magic – particularly the talismanic use of awfāq (magic squares) – and I am working (with Rosa Comes and Emilia Calvo, Universitat de Barcelona) on a study of literary traditions of the 7 planetary awfāq talismans, for which I will produce an edition and annotated translation of Ibn al-Zarqālluh’s (AKA al-Zarqālī, Abū Isḥāq Ibrāhīm b. Yaḥyā al-Naqqāsh al-Tujībī al-Ṭulayṭilī [d. 493/1100]) treatise on the 7 planetary awfāq talismans along with a historical study of related writings in this genre.

In relation to my research on awfāq, I wonder if any ENSIE members can help me identify a certain Muḥammad al-Shāfiʿī al-Ḥanafī al-Khalwatī, to whom is attributed a short text called al-Sirr al-maẓrūf fī ʿilm basṭ al-ḥurūf, published in 1951 in Cairo by Sharikat Maktabat wa-Maṭbaʿat Muṣṭfā al-Bābī al-Ḥalabī wa-Awlādihi along with a few works by al-Būnī and one attributed to Alī b. Muḥammad al-Ṭandatāʾī, who is said to have finished the work in 1003/1594. İsmail Paşa mentions the al-Sirr al-maẓrūf in his Īḍāḥ al-maknūn, but offers no further information about its author. The Muḥammad al-Khalwatī I’m looking for may or may not be the author of Nūr al-sāṭiʻ wa-al-sirr al-qāṭiʻ fī ʻilm al-awfāq. I’d be grateful for any information leading to a proper identification. At the moment, all I’ve got is an ever increasing list of treatises on awfāq attributed to Muḥammads (and Maḥmūds) al-Khalwatī!

Sunday 27 January 2019

ENSIE at ESSWE 7--registration

Registration is now open for ESSWE 7 (2-4 July 2019, Amsterdam), where ENSIE has three panels. Registration information is available here, and details of the ESSWE panels are available here.