[P5585] Magical Materialities: Toward A History of (Occult) Technology in the Islamicate World from the 13th to the 21st Century

Created by Taylor M. Moore
Friday, 11/15/19 5:00pm


Where do magical objects—and the superhuman beings or metaphysical forces that might animate them—fit in histories of technology that concentrate on the Middle East and North Africa? Since Timothy Mitchell’s Rule of Experts (2002), the history of science, technology, and techno-politics is on the rise in Middle East Studies. Scholars have utilized “technology” as an analytical lens to understand the dynamic processes between techno-scientific developments and political practices in the early modern and modern periods. Yet, these efforts remain confined to the realm of worldly actors—whether technocratic experts, peasants, animals, or pests—largely taking part in or being affected by the rational sciences. The Islamicate occult sciences—despite their respected status as a subset of the natural and mathematical sciences in the premodern Arabo-Persian encyclopedic tradition—remain aggressively marginalized in the current history of science, and excluded entirely from the history of technology. This panel seeks to rectify this oversight and bring Islamicate occultism studies into conversation with the ontological turn.

Magical objects (such as amulets, talismans, and grimoires) and super-, non-, or posthuman beings (like jinn, ghosts, and angels) were critical technologies in the everyday lives of populations in the Islamicate world in the medieval and early modern periods, and have remained so until the present day. With papers ranging geographically from Egypt to Iran, and temporally from the medieval to the contemporary, this panel engages scholarship in science and technology studies and new materialism to explore the “material” intellectual histories of the occult sciences in the Islamicate world. The first paper provides a theoretical and methodological introduction to occult technologies and ontologies, using as case studies a selection of amulets and talismans from late Ottoman Egypt and Palestine. The remaining four papers explore the thin line between materiality and textuality in medieval Arabic occult-scientific texts, which must be read as technology; post-Avicennan alchemy, not as proto-chemistry, but as a time-accelerating technology that both harnessed and transcended the natural order of things; talismans that functioned as “magical machines” in the early modern Persianate world, with emphasis on their utilization for medical and military purposes; and “the materiality of jinn” and the methods of their physical detection in contemporary Iran.

Taken together, the papers of this panel ask: What might a “material” intellectual history of science and technology in the Islamicate world that includes occult objects look like? How might this history allow scholars to highlight women, racial minorities, and other human and/or superhuman actors as producers of techno-scientific knowledge that may have previously been rendered invisible by solely text-based intellectual histories? Finally, this panel examines the possibilities and challenges that methodologies from the Islamicate world can offer to the ostensibly globalizing field of history of science and technology.


Anthro; Hist




Matthew Melvin-Koushki

(University of South Carolina)
Matthew Melvin-Koushki (PhD Yale) is Associate Professor and McCausland Fellow of History at the University of South Carolina. He specializes in early modern Islamicate intellectual and imperial history, with a focus on the theory and practice of the...
Panel Participating Role(s): Presenter;