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.