B A C K > MESA Member Profile

Melvin-Koushki, Matthew

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 Studies from Yale in 2012, and has held postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Oxford and Princeton University. His dissertation, “The Quest for a Universal Science: The Occult Philosophy of Sa’in al-Din Turka Isfahani (1369-1432) and Intellectual Millenarianism in Early Timurid Iran,” won the Middle East Studies Association’s Malcolm H. Kerr award for best dissertation in the humanities. This study demonstrates the integrality of occult modes of knowledge to early modern millenarian-universalist projects, whether in the Islamicate heartlands or Renaissance Europe; as a case in point, it focuses on the mainstreaming of lettrism or kabbalistic thought as a preferred vehicle for neopythagorean-neoplatonic philosophy-science in intellectual circles in early 15th-century Iran—some 70 years before the emergence of Christian kabbalah in Italy. Melvin-Koushki’s current research expands on this theme to a) investigate the occult sciences in the context of both history of science and history of philosophy in the Islamicate world, and particularly their interpenetration with “legitimate” sciences such as astronomy or medicine; and b) demonstrate their new function as a primary basis for the universalist imperial ideologies developed in the post-Mongol Persianate world, especially those of the Timurids, Aqquyunlu, Safavids, Mughals and Ottomans. More broadly, he argues that persistent eurocentric, whiggish and occultophobic biases have elided a major problematic in comparative early modern intellectual and cultural history: given that Muslim and Christian thinkers of the 15th-17th centuries were equally committed to decoding the Two Books, nature and scripture, with both contingents heavily investing in lettrism/kabbalah and the other occult sciences to that end, why did “scientific modernity” arise in western Europe but not in the much wealthier and more cosmopolitan Islamicate world? And what were the cultural and political factors that made for such a remarkable degree of Islamo-Christian intellectual continuity—still almost totally unexplored—during the era of globalization?

Islamic Studies   
Central Asian Studies   
13th-18th Centuries   
Iranian Studies   
Central Asia   
History of Philosophy-Science   
Early Modern Persianate Empires   
Occult Sciences   
Arabic (Advanced)   
Persian (Advanced)   
PhD2012Religious StudiesYale University
MPhil2009Religious StudiesYale University
MA2008Religious StudiesYale University
BA2004Asian and Middle Eastern Languages and CulturesUniversity of Virginia
Matthew Melvin-Koushki

Department of History
University of South Carolina
224 Gambrell Hall
Columbia, SC
United States

personal website