Вы находитесь на странице: 1из 3

Summary for lecture to be given at the Warburg Institute, May 1, 2013:

Magic and the Occult Islam: Amad b. ʿAlī al -B ūn ī (d. 622/1225?) and the Shams al- maʿā rif.

by Saiyad Nizamuddin Ahmad

Magic and the occult were far from being a subterranean phenomenon, or merely an aspect of the popular culture and folklore of Islam. Indeed, they were far more central to Islamic civilization than has been heretofore realized or even acknowledged, even though they were somewhat hidden (after all that is what “occult” means!). It was the actual detailed knowledge of such esoteric technologies that remained relatively hidden from the non -initiate, but there was nevertheless quite a widespread awareness of the occult sciences and it was an unquestioned assumption of Islamic society that magic and the occult were “real.” An important distinction must be drawn, however, between “magic” ( si r ) and what we shall call for now, “non - magic.” The practice of the former is universally condemned by scholars of the sacred law of Islam ( sharīʿ a ) as being forbidden ( ar ā m ). However, its study but not its practice was permitted so long as such knowledge was used to protect oneself and others from the infernal effects of magic. What of “non - magic”? By this we mean all the occult sciences which do not resort to demonic means. To elaborate, Muslim scholars have always distinguished between the infer - nal resort to supernatural means which is characterised by the term si r and may accurately be re - ferred to in English by the term “magic” and the supernal or celestial resort to supernatural means based on the ritual use of the Qur ʾā n, thus “non -magic.” The precise nature of the ritual use of the lat - ter is the subject of the second part of the paper devoted to al- B ū n ī as the prime example of both prac - titioner and theorist of Islamic occultism. Our immediate concern however, is to disitinguish such rit - uals completely from sir. Let us begin by suggesting a new term for such rituals: Qur ʾā nic theurgy. Of course, the latter term is of conspicuously Greek origin yet it is unusually well- suited to our con - text, in as much as the original Arabic texts often use the term ʿ amal “work” or “working” for such rituals and theurgy literally means God - work. It should not be forgotten that in Semitic languages cognate to Arabic, such as Hebrew and Syriac the terms for “worship” (i.e. “to serve God”) and “work” were derived from the same roots. 1 In addition to Qur ʾā nic theurgy, “non - magic” would in - clude what we consider to be the subsidiary occult sciences of astronomy/astrology ( ʿ ilm al - hay ʾ a,

ʿ ilm al - tanj ī m, ʿ ilm a k ā m al - nujū m ), the “royal art” of alchemy ( al - k īmiy āʾ ) , the “science of sand” geomancy (ʿ ilm al - raml), and finally the most quintessentially “Islamic” of the occult sciences: ʿ ilm al - jafr , or the science of the symbolism of the Arabic letters in their ideophonic (oral/aural symbol - ism), ideographic (visual symbolism) and arithmological (numerical symbolism) dimensions. 2 The latter is the very pith and marrow of Qur ʾā nic theurgy as well as being thoroughly integrated with all of the other aforementioned subsidiary occult sciences. All of these sciences are best exemplified in the life and writings of Amad al - B ū n ī . Unfortunately, very little is known of his life other than that he was from “Bū na”, present day al - ‘Ann ā ba, in north - eastern coastal Algeria, that he flourished in Egypt and died there most likely in 622 H/1225 CE or even several years thereafter. 3 Although I be -

1. See F. Brown, S. R. Driver and Ch. A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament with an

Appendix containing the Biblical Aramaic based on the Lexicon of Willaim Gesinius as translated by Edward Robinson, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951?, 713–714 דבע , and R. Payne Smith, Thesaurus Syriacus, 2 vols., Oxford: Clarendon Press, vol. 1, 1879, vol.2, 1901; 2:2765–2774 !"# .

2. I have borrowed these three terms from Jean Canteins, “The Hidden Sciences in Islam,” Islamic

Spirituality: Manifestations, Seyyed Hossein Nasr (Ed.), New York: Crossroads, 2001, pp. 447–468 at 451.

3. See John D. Martin III, “Theurgy in the Medieval Islamic World: Conceptions of Cosmology in al - B ū n ī ’s

Doctrine of the Divine Names”. MA diss., American University in Cairo, Dec. 2011, 33; and Noah Gardiner,

lieve there is evidence to suggest that he lived sometime thereafter, we simply cannot say with cer - tainty. 4 What we can say with certainty, is that he authored a number of works of theurgic praxis based on the Divine Names and verses of the Qur ʾā n. The most siginificant of these texts is known as the “Sun of Knowledge” Shams al - ma ʿārif. 5 This work may be likened to the Three Books of Occult Philosophy of Henry Cornelius Agrippa von Nettesheim (d. 1535 CE) 6 in its scope and subject matter. The Shams al - ma ʿā rif continues to be the text of choice for modern occultists in the Muslim world and I have seen translations in Urdu, modern Turkish and Indonesian. It was this work and not the so - called Picatrix ( Gh ā yat al -ḥ ak ī m ) of pseudo- Majrīṭī 7 that has held pride of place in Islamic occultism since the 6th and 7th century of the Hijra. We will examine how al- Bū n ī ’s Qur ʾā nic theurgy was em - ployed in the construction of talismans. The use of talismans was not mere restricted to the “uneducat - ed” but was resorted to by even the highest levels of society, namely by rulers. Much light has been shed on this dimension of Islamic society since the pioneering studies of Cornell Fleischer 8 and his “school,” namely by scholars such as Kathryn Babyan, 9 I. Evrim Binba ş , 10 and Matthew S. Melvin - Koushki. 11 All of these studies have examined figures and events that bear an intimate connection

“Forbidden Knowledge? Notes on the Production, Transmission, and reception of the Major Works of A mad al - B ū n ī ,” Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies 12 (2012): 89–94.

4. Noah Gardiner, Ibid.

5. The various recensions of this work and the relationship they bear to the larger Corpus Bunianum have been

dealt with by us in another study: “Navigating the ‘Corpus Bunianum.’ A Survey and Analysis of Key MSS ascribed to A mad al - Bū n ī (d. 622/1225),” to be published (pending peer review, submitted on Jan. 22, 2013,) in the next issue of Journal of Islamic Manuscripts .

6. See Henry Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim, Three Books of Occult Philosophy , Trans by James Freake,

Ed. and annotated by Donald Tyson (Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn, 2010). It is said that he also authored a “fourth book” as well, but to my knowledge experts in the field reject this ascription. See Henry Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim , The Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy , Trans by Robert Turner, Ed. and annotated by Donald Tyson, Woodbury (MN: Llewellyn, 2009) .

7. See Pseudo-Ma ǧ r īṭī das Ziel des Weisen, Herausgegeben von Hellmut Rittter, Studien der Bibliothek

Warburg Herausgegeben von Fritz Saxl, (Leipzig und Berlin: B. G. Teubner, 1933).

8. Cornell Fleischer, “The Lawgiver as Messiah: The Making of the Imperial Image in the Reign of

Süleyman” in Süleyman the Magnificent and his Time Ed. by Gilles Veinstein, Acts of the Parisian Conference, Galeries nationales du Grande Palais, 7 - 10 March, 1990, Paris: Documentation française, 1992; “Seer to the Sultan: Remmal Haydar and Sultan Süleyman” in Cultural Horizons: A Festschrift in Honor of Talat S. Halman , v. 1, Ed. by Jane Warner Istanbul and Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2001; “Shadows of Shadows: Prophecy in Politics in 1530s Istanbul,” International Journal of Turkish Studies 13 (2007 ); “Ancient Wisdom and New Sciences: Prophecies at the Ottoman Court in the Fifteenth and Early Sixteenth Centuries,” M. Farhad and S. Bagci (Eds.), Falnama: The Book of Omens (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2009): 231–244.

9. Kathryn Babyan, Mystics, Monarchs, and Messiahs. Cultural Landscapes of Early Modern Iran,

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002; “The Cosmological Order of Things in Early Modern Safavid Iran,” M. Farhad and S. Bagci (Eds.), Falnama: The Book of Omens (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2009): 245–255.

10. I. Evrim Binbaş , Sharaf al - Din ʿ Al ī Yazdī (ca. 770s 858/ca. 1370s1454): Prophecy, Politics, and

Historiography in Late Medieval Islamic History , Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 2009.

11. Matthew S. Melvin- Koushki, “The Quest for an Universal Science: The Occult Philosophy of Ṣāʾ in al - D ī n

Turka I fah ā n ī (1369–1432)”and Intellectual Millenerism in Early Timurid Iran,” Ph.D. diss., Yale University,

with the occult ouvre of A mad b. ʿ Al ī al - B ū n ī particularly the text known as the Shams al - ma ʿā rif wa la ṭāʾ if al -ʿaw ā rif,. 12 The importance of occult knowledge especially as the basis for the occult technology involved in the construction of talismans, 13 talismanic shirts, 14 and other processes of a telestic nature 15 was not only seen as pivotal for prognostication and prophecy but also for the preser- vation and propagation of political power. This was a truism not only for the so - called “gunpowder empires” of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals but also for earlier Islamicate dynasties, such as the Mamluks. Interestingly, it seems that al - B ū n ī himself was associated with the Ayyubid Prince who would become al - Malik al -Ṣāli Najm al - D ī n Ayy ū b b. K ā mil Mu ammad (rg. 637 - 647). 16 However, none of the above - mentioned studies has shed any light on the cosmological ideas behind such talis - mans and what went into constructing them. Al - B ū n ī speaks at length of his cosmology in the Shams although he does not go into too much detail about how to construct these talismans. It is nevertheless possible to get a very good idea of how this was done through a careful reading of what he does tell us in the Shams and other works and thus “reverse engineer” the process. We will demonstrate this using selected talismans from the opening section of the Shams relying exclusively on manuscripts we have studied. 17


12. On the various recensions of this work and the relationship the bear to the larger Corpus Bunianum have

been dealt with by us in another study, “Navigating the ‘Corpus Bunianum.’ A Survey and Analysis of Key MSS ascribed to A mad al - B ū n ī (d. 622/1225),” to be published (pending peer review, submitted on Jan. 22, 2013,) in the next issue of Journal of Islamic Manuscripts.

13. See Tawfik Canaan, “The Decipherment of Arabic Talismans,” Berytus 4 (Beirut 1937): 69–110; 5 (Beirut

1938): 141–151; reprinted in Emilie Savage -Smith, Magic and Divination in Early Islam , Aldershot: Ashgate:

2004, 125–177. On Canaan seeVera Tamari, “Tawfik Canaan— Collectionneur par excellence : The Story Behind the Palestinian Amulet Collection at Birzeit University,” in S. Mejcher - Atassi and J. P. Schwartz (Eds.), Archives, Museums and Collecting Practices in the Modern Arab World , Aldershot: Ashgate: 2008, 71–90.

14. See Hülya Tezcan, Topkapı Sarayı Müzesi Koleksiyonundan Tılsımli Gömlekler , İ stanbul: Timaş , 2011.

15. From the Greek telestike τελεστικη . A term from late Platonism referring to theurgy and hieratic rituals

especially the animation of statues. The latter is akin to the “empowerment” of a talisman and thus I have

borrowed this term. See Algis Už davinys, Philosophy as a Rite of Rebirth, Wiltshire: Prometheus Trust, 2008,


16. John D. Martin III, “Theurgy in the Medieval Islamic World, 45.

17. A detailed list of our manuscripts, fifteen in all, appears in our “Navigating the ‘Corpus Bunianum’” cited