SUMMARY:This roundtable showcases the preliminary findings of the Islamic Occult Studies working group, which is meeting online monthly over the course of 2021. With over 100 Islamicists as regular participants — from historians of science, of religion and of literature to art historians and anthropologists — the group encapsulates an interdisciplinary field on the rise. Its meetings deliberate on both broad methodological questions and specific sciences, manuscripts and artifacts as cases in point. As participants in this roundtable, nine members of the group will briefly summarize these findings to date through the lens of their own specializations as an impetus for further research.
We first investigate the unusual potential of occult science as both an emic and an etic category for promoting interdisciplinary research; indeed, perhaps we should push our boundaries further to involve practitioners, artisans and re-enactors, who may provide historians and anthropologists with unexpected leads. Likewise on the theme of boundary work, we discuss the occult sciences as a productive site for such work with respect to premodern classifications of the sciences generally, troubling as they do our neat distinction between science and religion. We then argue for the incorporation — long overdue — of occultism into mainstream history of Islamic philosophy and theology, with attention to the classic examples of Ibn Sina and Fakhr al-Din Razi, both of whom were later received as occultists. Moving to specific occult sciences, we interrogate alchemy and astrology respectively from a similar science-and-religion angle, seeking to show why these disciplines are indispensable to any history or sociology of Islamic science, and why merely psychologizing interpretations of their historical success are misleading, anachronistic or simply false. Similarly, the study of jinn should not be marginalized as a tiny subset of Islamic studies, but seen as integral to the field more generally. Finally, we discuss the case for the centrality of manuscript studies to Islamic intellectual and cultural history, despite the institutional barriers militating against such study when it comes to matters occult, and end with an inquiry into philology as a simultaneously humanist, cosmological and occultist discipline in the surviving premodern sources.