Talismans as Technology: The Construction and Operation of Magical Machines in Early Modern Persian Grimoires and Chronicles

By Matthew Melvin-Koushki
Submitted to Session P5585 (Magical Materialities: Toward A History of (Occult) Technology in the Islamicate World from the 13th to the 21st Century, 2019 Annual Meeting
India; Iran;
13th-18th Centuries; History of Science; Iranian Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The Islamicate occult sciences — despite their respected status as a large and coherent subset of the natural and mathematical sciences in the premodern Arabo-Persian encyclopedic tradition — have been aggressively marginalized in the current history of science; but they have been utterly disappeared from the history of technology. Such acts of historiographical prestidigitation, however, merely reflect the bizarre persistence in Islamic Studies of the 19th-century colonialist definition of Magic as a doomed and delusional attempt to control the world, and hence bad Science, bad Religion and bad Technology in equal measure. But to accept this positivist dogma is to exchange empiricism for ideology. As a vast textual and material record testifies, a large percentage of Muslims historically depended on occult technologies to further their scientific endeavors or improve their daily lives—and continue so to do. Their histories too must therefore be written.

As empirical corrective, this paper presents as test case several representative occult-technological operations detailed in a selection of early modern Persian grimoires, naturally unpublished, many of which are explicitly imperial in tenor. The emphasis will be on Timurid and Safavid manuals, and particular attention will be paid to those talismans built for military and medical purposes — two fields of undeniable technologicity. While these magical machines obviously did not always work (like machines today!), at times they did, according to contemporary observers. A comparative study of those talismans reported to be successful by persophone historians and the methods of their construction and operation as detailed in relevant grimoires thus promises to be instructive. Most crucially, it is only by studying such cases that we modern, reflexively positivist historians can finally explain why, in the early modern Arabo-Persian scientific-technological tradition, such applied disciplines as engineering (‘ilm al-hiyal), war machines (alat al-harb) and even agriculture (‘ilm al-filaha) could be legitimately classed as occult sciences.