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  • Author or Editor: Matthew Melvin-Koushki x
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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.

In: Intellectual History of the Islamicate World


The Ottoman imperial ideology developed under Süleymān the Magnificent (r. 926–974/1520–1566) was strongly occult-scientific in tenor, as is well known, and especially lettrist; less well known is the fact that Selīm the Grim (r. 918–926/1512–1520) too patronized the kabbalistic science of letters (ʿilm al-ḥurūf) for purposes both ideological and military-strategic. Taking as a representative example a short lettrist treatise ostensibly written by the acclaimed polymath-jurist Kemālpaşazāde Aḥmed (d. 940/1534) to urge his royal patron to invade Mamluk Egypt, this article traces the development of early Ottoman occult-scientific imperialist discourse on the basis of Mamluk-Timurid-Aqquyunlu precedent, which first incorporated pointedly lettrist arguments in support of competing claims to Islamic imperial universalism. Such is the immediate scholarly context in which Kemālpaşazāde’s curious little work is to be read—and constitutes, I argue, a new and distinctive form of Neopythagorean historiography. The Ottoman lettrist imperialism that is such a definitive feature of the expansive and transformative Süleymānic era is thus a product of inner-Persianate scholarly circulation and competition between Egypt, Iran, and Anatolia over the course of the equally transformative ninth/fifteenth century, and Selīm thus a key exponent of early modern Western imperial expansionism and experimentalism—and occult philosopher-kingship.

In: Islamicate Occult Sciences in Theory and Practice
In: Arabica


The late 8th/14th century saw a renaissance of high occultism throughout Islamdom—a development alarming to puritan scholars. This includes Ibn Ḫaldūn (d. 808/1406), whose anti-occultist position in the Muqaddima is often assumed to be an example of his visionary empiricism; yet his goal is simply the recategorization of all occult sciences under the twin rubrics of magic and divination, and his veto persuades more on religious and social grounds than natural-scientific. Restoring the historian’s argument to its original state of debate with the burgeoning occultist movement associated with the Mamluk sultan Barqūq’s (r. 784/1382-791/1389 and 792/1390-801/1399) court reveals it to be not forward-thinking but rather conservative, fideist and indeed reactionary, as such closely allied with Ibn Qayyim al-Ǧawziyya’s (d. 751/1350) puritanical project in particular; and in any event, the eager patronage and pursuit of the occult sciences by early modern ruling and scholarly elites suggests that his appeal could only fall on deaf ears. That it also flatly opposed the forms of millennial sovereignty that would define the post-Mongol era was equally disqualifying. I here take Šaraf al‑Dīn ʿAlī Yazdī (d. 858/1454), Ibn Ḫaldūn’s younger colleague and fellow resident in Cairo, as his sparring partner from the opposing camp: the Timurid historian was a card-carrying occultist and member of the Iḫwān al-Ṣafāʾ network of neopythagorean-neoplatonic-monist thinkers then gaining prominence from India to Anatolia via Egypt. I further take geomancy (ʿilm al-raml) as a test case, since Yazdī wrote a tract in defense of the popular divinatory science that directly rebuts Ibn Ḫaldūn’s arguments in the Muqaddima. To set the stage for their debate, I briefly introduce contemporary geomantic theory and practice, then discuss Ibn Ḫaldūn’s and Yazdī’s respective theories of occultism with a view toward establishing points of agreement and disagreement; I also append a translation of Yazdī’s tract as a basis for this comparison.

In: Arabica