Powers of One: The Mathematicalization of the Occult Sciences in the High Persianate Tradition

In: Intellectual History of the Islamicate World
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  • 1 University of South Carolina

Occultism remains the largest blind spot in the historiography of Islamicate philosophy-science, a casualty of persistent scholarly positivism, even whiggish triumphalism. Such occultophobia notwithstanding, the present article conducts a survey of the Islamicate encyclopedic tradition from the 4th–11th/10th–17th centuries, with emphasis on Persian classifications of the sciences, to demonstrate the ascent to philosophically mainstream status of various occult sciences (ʿulūm ġarība) throughout the post-Mongol Persianate world. Most significantly, in Persian encyclopedias, but not in Arabic, and beginning with Faḫr al-Dīn Rāzī, certain occult sciences (astrology, lettrism and geomancy) were gradually but definitively shifted from the natural to the mathematical sciences as a means of reasserting their scientific legitimacy in the face of four centuries of anti-occultist polemic, from Ibn Sīnā to Ibn Ḫaldūn; they were simultaneously reclassified as the sciences of walāya, moreover, which alone explains the massive increase in patronage of professional occultists at the Safavid, Mughal and Ottoman courts in the runup to the Islamic millennium (1592 CE). I argue that the mathematicalization, neopythagoreanization and sanctification of occultism in Ilkhanid-Timurid-Aqquyunlu Iran is the immediate intellectual and sociopolitical context for both the celebrated mathematization of astronomy by the members of the Samarkand Observatory in the 9th/15th century and the resurgence of neoplatonic-neopythagorean philosophy in Safavid Iran in the 10th/16th and 11th/17th, whereby Ibn Sīnā himself was transformed into a neopythagorean-occultist—processes which have heretofore been studied in atomistic isolation.

  • 8

    See e.g. Dallal, Islam, pp. 144–145. For an examination of the anti-occultism arguments of Ibn al-Qayyim and Ibn Ḫaldūn see Melvin-Koushki, “Defending Geomancy.”

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  • 9

    Mir-Kasimov, “Conflicting Synergy of Patterns,” pp. 11–13.

  • 13

    Muhanna, “Encyclopædism,” pp. 44–45.

  • 17

    Gardiner, “Esotericism,” pp. 145–160. The Black Death epidemics, which began recurring in Egypt from the mid-8th/14th century onward, created an apocalyptic mood at all levels of society and inaugurating a chaotic period of social leveling, and hence were almost certainly a significant factor in this connection.

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  • 18

    Gardiner, “Esotericism,” pp. 281–293. Al-Nuwayrī clearly conceives of lettrism as a natural science, though his classification scheme is strictly implicit. In the Nihāyat al-arab, at the end of the fourth book on plants, the three subsections of the eleventh and final subchapter of its fifth chapter cover the activation of occult properties of substances (ḫawāṣṣ). Its first subsection covers matters pertaining to women, sex and marriage; the second talismans; and the third lettrism (ḫawāṣṣ al-ḥurūf wa-l-asmāʾ), consisting almost entirely of a series of excerpts from al-Būnī’s Laṭāʾif al-išārāt. Similarly, al-Qalqašandī classifies under the rubric of the natural sciences magic (ʿilm al-siḥr), lettrism and magic squares (ʿilm al-ḥarf wa-l-awfāq), talismans, physiognomy, oneiromancy, judicial astrology (aḥkām al-nuǧūm) and geomancy (ʿilm ḍarb al-raml), the last being the speciality of bedouins (al-ʿarab) (Gardiner, “Esotericism,” pp. 283, 292).

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  • 19

    Gardiner, “Esotericism,” pp. 75–77. On Barqūq’s court as hotbed of occultist practice, with Aḫlāṭī as ringleader, see Cornell Fleischer’s forthcoming translation of ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Bisṭāmī’s Durrat al-āfāq fī ʿilm al-ḥurūf wa-l-awfāq.

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  • 22

    Gardiner, “Esotericism,” p. 265; Melvin-Koushki, “The Quest,” p. 164.

  • 27

    Saliba, “A Sixteenth-Century Arabic Critique”; idem, “Ḵafri, Šams-al-Din,” EIr. For a synthetic overview of Ragep’s and Saliba’s arguments that rather emphasizes the scientific continuity obtaining from Bīrūnī and Quṭb al-Dīn Šīrāzī to Qūščī and Ḫafrī, see Dallal, Islam, pp. 58–89.

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  • 32

    See Melvin-Koushki, “The Quest,” pp. 41, 50 f., 111, 146 f., 225, 441, 569 f.; Eichner, “Afḍal al-Dīn Turka,” EI 3; Ragep, “Ḳāḍī-zāda Rūmī,” EI 2. Ibn Turka and Qāżīzāda seem to have been friends from childhood, having studied together in Samarkand under the former’s older brother Ṣadr al-Dīn, an eminent scholar of hadith, tafsir, jurisprudence and uṣūl al-dīn, during the first phase of their education. More significantly, Qāżīzāda, like Ibn Turka, is reported to have been a disciple to Aḫlāṭī in Cairo (Kamāl al-Dīn Ḥusayn Gāzurgāhī (fl. 909/1504), Maǧālis al-ʿuššāq, p. 189; ʿAbd al-Razzāq Kirmānī (fl. 900/1495), Taẕkira dar Manāqib-i ḥażrat-i Šāh Niʿmat Allāh Valī, pp. 70 f.). In 829/1426 Ibn Turka dedicated his lettrist work Šarḥ al-Basmala to Uluġ Beg and sent a copy to Qāżīzāda Rūmī, suggesting his friend’s continued interest in matters lettrist; the strength of their association is confirmed by the astronomer’s warm letter of thanks to Ibn Turka for sending this work (transcribed in Melvin-Koushki, “The Quest,” pp. 569 f.). Qāżīzāda opens this letter with tones of great respect, including descriptive phrases emphasizing Ibn Turka’s mastery of the whole of the Islamic tradition (ḥażrat-i šarīʿat-šiʿārī-yi ṭarīqat-dis̱ārī-yi ḥaqīqat-ās̱ārī) and spiritual perfection (valāyat-šiʿārī-yi virās̱at-dis̱ārī-yi ḫatmī-yi atammī), and expresses his great desire to see him—the alchemical matrix of everlasting life and eternal collyrium (kīmiyā-yi ḥayāt-i abadī u tūtiyā-yi bīnāʾī-yi sarmadī)—in person; he then mentions meeting Ibn Turka in Herat and reminds him of his promise to visit him in Samarkand. In brief, the two thinkers were hardly passing acquaintances, but rather close associates during their lifetimes and remembered as such until at least the early Safavid period.

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  • 33

    Binbaş, Intellectual Networks, p. 65; Monfared, “Sharaf al-Dīn ʿAlī Yazdī.”

  • 34

    Fazlıoğlu, “The Samarqand Mathematical-Astronomical School,” p. 27.

  • 36

    See Melvin-Koushki, “Maḥmud Dehdār Širāzi,” EIr ; idem, The Occult Science.

  • 37

    Saatchian, Gottes Wesen, pp. 51–54.

  • 40

    Pourjavady and Schmidtke, “An Eastern Renaissance?” pp. 258–260. On Aristotle as a primary authority on astrological magic see Burnett, “Arabic.”

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  • 46

    Lemay, “L’ Islam historique,” pp. 20–22; and see below.

  • 50

    Artun, “Hearts,” p. 141. As Artun elsewhere notes, alchemy and lettrism also become increasingly inextricable, a notable feature of the Ǧābirian tradition as a whole (ibid., pp. 101 f.).

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  • 53

    Vesel, Les encyclopédies, p. 37.

  • 55

    Vesel, Les encyclopédies, p. 12. As Dimitri Gutas notes, the Dānišnāma-yi ʿAlāʾī is also the first philosophical work of any kind to be written in New Persian, and so Ibn Sīnā must be credited with singlehandedly fashioning modern Persian philosophical prose (Avicenna, p. 381). Given his anti-occultism, it is no coincidence that Ibn Sīnā is also hostile to neopythagorean doctrine. Gerhard Endress remarks in this connection: “[H]is is not a mathematician’s philosophy; and contrary to all of his predecessors, he leaves out all aspects of mathematical science where observational practice meets demonstrative method” (“Mathematics,” p. 142).

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  • 56

    Vesel, Les encyclopédies, p. 24.

  • 60

    Vesel, Les encyclopédies, pp. 27–31. Šahmardān Rāzī, a secretary and accountant, also wrote an important Persian introduction to astrology, Rawżat al-munaǧǧimīn; see Storey, Persian Literature, vol. 2, pt. 1, p. 45, no. 81.

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  • 61

    Vesel, Les encyclopédies, pp. 17–19; Yavāqīt al-ʿulūm, pp. 67–78.

  • 63

    Vesel, Les encyclopédies, pp. 35–39.

  • 64

    Biesterfeldt, “Encyclopedias,” p. 97.

  • 76

    Pourjavady and Schmidtke, “An Eastern Renaissance?” p. 252.

  • 80

    Vesel, Les encyclopédies, pp. 39–42.

  • 81

    Vesel, Les encyclopédies, p. 41.

  • 94

    Melvin-Koushki, “The Quest,” pp. 321–324. On these terms and their centrality in early modern Christianate occultism, as well as their divergent connotations, see Hanegraaff, Esotericism, pp. 5–12.

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  • 96

    Melvin-Koushki, “The Quest,” pp. 315–320, 330 f.

  • 105

    See Easton, Roger Bacon, p. 7; Hackett, “Reception,” pp. 149–162.

  • 108

    Omodeo, “Perfection,” p. 94. That the Copernican heliocentric doctrine was seen to be fundamentally neopythagorean is suggested by Athanasius Kircher’s (d. 1680) dissimulating dismissal of Kepler’s mathematical physics as a “Copernico-Pythagorean contrivance” (Rowland, “Athanasius Kircher,” p. 192).

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  • 116

    Melvin-Koushki, “The Quest,” pp. 52, 88–90.

  • 120

    On this occult title see e.g. Moin, Millennial Sovereign, pp. 36–60.

  • 122

    Melvin-Koushki, “The Quest,” pp. 336, 359. The Latin term was first introduced by Nicholas of Cusa (d. 1464), Ibn Turka’s later contemporary; see e.g. Martin, “The Dialectical Process.” In his Religion after Religion Stephen Wasserstrom offers a penetrating and wide-ranging discussion of the concept in the History of Religions movement and in the context of poetics, politics and ethics; as he shows, Gershom Scholem, Mircea Eliade and Henry Corbin were all great advocates of the principle, as was Carl Jung, who preferred the term complexio oppositorum (see e.g. his Mysterium Coniunctionis); and Freud attempted to explain the union of opposites in language and religion in his essay “The Antithetical Sense of Primal Words.”

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  • 123

    Binbaş, Intellectual Networks, pp. 215–216. Specifically, Temür is there shown to be the messianic āḫir al-zamān on lettrist grounds.

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  • 128

    Melvin-Koushki, “The Quest,” p. 308.

  • 132

    See Melvin-Koushki, “The Quest,” pp. 247–255. This manual is edited, translated and contextualized in Melvin-Koushki, The Occult Science.

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  • 134

    Melvin-Koushki, “The Quest,” pp. 16–19, 54 f.

  • 163

    Fazlıoğlu, “Between Reality and Mentality,” p. 35. On Mīrim Çelebi, and particularly his contributions to astrology, see Ahmet Tunç Şen’s forthcoming University of Chicago dissertation.

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  • 164

    Melvin-Koushki, “The Quest,” pp. 64, 67; see Shiraz Sheikh’s forthcoming University of Toronto dissertation, “Molla Fenari and the Akbarian Tradition in the Early Ottoman State.” On the astronomical interests of the Fanāri circle see Ragep, “Astronomy,” which discusses the Unmūḏaǧ al-ʿulūm of Mullā Fanārī’s son Muḥammad Šāh Fanārī (d. 839/1436), teacher of Qāżīzāda Rūmī. This work, which reflects the first phrase of the Ottoman astronomical tradition in its treatment of planetary theory (hayʾa), follows the Maragha school in the main, especially Ṭūsī; but Muḥammad Šāh’s approach here is atomistic, and he does not attempt to resolve the tension between mathematical and natural-philosophical principles as identified by Bīrūnī and Šīrāzī.

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  • 179

    Isl. Ms. 680, pp. 179–189. Cf. the Riyāż al-qulūb, a Persian compendium of eight sciences produced by one Šukr Allāh Širvānī Munaǧǧim (d. after 910/1505) for Bāyezīd II (r. 886–918/1481–1512) and surviving in unicum form, which treates of sufism, logic, planetary theory, astronomy-astrology (nuǧūm), calculation, physiognomy (qiyāfa), poetry (shiʿr) and logogriphs (muʿammā); most notably, Širvānī therein declares astrology to be the noblest of all sciences, with the exception of theology. Such a statement closely tracks Bāyezīd’s own celestial interests: he employed an unprecedented number of munaǧǧims at court and commissioned numerous astronomical-astrological texts and instruments (Şen, “Reading the Stars”).

  • 181

    Schmidt, “The Occult Sciences,” p. 221. Birgili’s stern orthodoxy notwithstanding, however, it should be noted that his view of the rational sciences was highly nuanced, and his rejection of astrology was counterbalanced by his approval of astronomy (El-Rouayheb, Islamic Intellectual History, pp. 13–18).

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  • 187

    Lemay, “L’ Islam historique,” p. 20. Kennedy, for instance, habitually refers to astrology as a pseudoscience, worth studying only because it involves non-trivial mathematical skill, and wholly ignores closely related sciences like geomancy; see e.g. “The Astrological Houses,” p. 535.

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  • 188

    Brentjes and Morrison, “The Sciences,” p. 564.

  • 196

    See e.g. Saliba, Islamic Science, pp. 233–255.

  • 203

    Pourjavady and Schmidtke, “An Eastern Renaissance?” pp. 254–259.

  • 205

    Melvin-Koushki, “The Quest,” pp. 437, 573 f.

  • 211

    Endress, “Ein-Band-Bibliotheken,” pp. 35–56. Cf. the similar pairing of alchemy and kabbalah in contemporary Europe (Forshaw, “Cabala Chymica”).

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  • 214

    Kripal, Authors, p. 17.

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