[P4878] The Occult in Islamicate Society: The Cases of Magic and Alchemy

Created by Pamela Klasova
Sunday, 11/19/17 3:30pm


The occult has long been central to Western theories of religion and society: The founding figures of modern anthropology, sociology, psychology, and religious studies such as Tylor, Mauss, Durkheim, Freud, Malinowski, and Weber engaged in debates about the occult, mainly as a means of theorizing religion. In the Islamic contexts, however, the occult has largely remained outside the main scholarly debates. This panel brings together papers that—building on the studies of Islamicists such as Savage-Smith, Bürgel, and Lory—demonstrate the prominence of the occult in Islamicate societies, with special emphasis on magic and alchemy.

The first paper explores the relationship between speech and magic in early Islam. It starts with debates that Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani (d. 1449) recorded in his commentary on al-Bukhari’s Sahih and complements them with material from fiqh, adab, and historical sources. It argues that despite a consensus among medieval commentators that speech can only be metaphorically magical, the hadiths themselves and their organization hint at speech’s real magical dimension and inspired nature in the early Islamic period. The second paper takes the discussion about magic, speech, and literature into the medieval period and places it into a broader literary perspective by utilizing the theories of Robert Elliot and Jonathan Culler. Setting magical texts side-by-side with more ‘mainstream’ literature, this paper blurs the boundaries between the genres and shows that the occult was in fact an integral part of the learned culture of the day. The third paper discusses alchemy in the context of the Syro-Arabic Translation Movement. It examines an unedited Pseudo-Aristotelian epistle on alchemy which was translated from Syriac into Arabic by Abdisho bar Brikha (d. 1318), a Nestorian churchman and polymath. By analyzing Abdisho’s lengthy preface to the translation, this paper argues that he engages in a form of communal narrativization and apologetics in order to place the Church of the East at the fore of alchemical production in the Islamicate world—thereby attesting to the prestige of alchemy in the Ilkhanid period. The fourth paper explores the neglected relationship between alchemists and the metallurgic arts in Mamluk society. Surveying the alchemical literature, in particular the works of the Egyptian alchemist ‘Izz al-Din Aydemir al-Jildaki (d.1342), as well as historical accounts about alchemists, it aims to determine probable connections between alchemy and the minting of coinage, while shedding light on the role of both within the larger economy of the Mamluk state.


Middle East Medievalists (MEM)





Nicholas Harris

(University of Pennsylvania)
Panel Participating Role(s): Presenter;

Salam Rassi

(American University of Beirut)
Panel Participating Role(s): Presenter;

Antoine Borrut

(University of Maryland)
Antoine Borrut specializes in early Islamic history and historiography. He is the author of Entre mémoire et pouvoir: l’espace syrien sous les derniers Omeyyades et les premiers Abbassides (v. 72-193/692-809) [Between memory and power: the Syrian space...
Panel Participating Role(s): Chair;

Matthew Melvin-Koushki

(University of South Carolina)
Matthew Melvin-Koushki specializes in early modern Islamicate intellectual and imperial history, with a focus on the theory and practice of the occult sciences in Timurid-Safavid Iran and the broader Persianate world. He received his Ph.D. in Islamic...
Panel Participating Role(s): Discussant;

Pamela Klasova

(Georgetown University)
Panel Participating Role(s): Organizer; Presenter;

Emily Selove

(University of Exeter)
Panel Participating Role(s): Presenter;