Islamicate Occult Sciences in Theory and Practice, edited by Liana Saif, Francesca Leoni, Matthew Melvin-Koushki, and Farouk Yahya

In: International Journal of Divination and Prognostication
Petra G. Schmidl International Consortium for Research in the Humanities, Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg Erlangen Germany

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Liana Saif, Francesca Leoni, Matthew Melvin-Koushki, and Farouk Yahya, eds., Islamicate Occult Sciences in Theory and Practice. Handbook of Oriental Studies/Handbuch der Orientalistik, Section 1: The Near and Middle East 140. Brill: Leiden, Boston 2020. Hardcover €219.00/US$249.00, ISBN: 978-90-04- 42696-2; E-Book/PDF €219.00/US$249.00, ISBN: 978-90-04-42697-9.

To “deliver the latest research on a wide range of issues and perspectives relating to Islamicate occult sciences” (p. 1), as Francesca Leoni and Liana Saif point out in their introductory essay, is the main goal of Islamicate Occult Sciences in Theory and Practice. Published in the series “Handbook of Oriental Studies” and edited by Francesca Leoni, Matthew Melvin-Koushki, Liana Saif, and Farouk Yahya – all well known for their research on different aspects of occult studies in Islamicate societies – the volume clearly documents an increasing interest in this field in recent decades.1 The four editors as well as the authors come from different fields – predominantly archaeology, art history, history, Islamic studies, philosophy, and religious studies – and have different institutional backgrounds (i.e., universities, libraries, and museums). This diversity is reflected in the book’s two topical sections: Its first part, titled “Occult Theories: Inception and Reception,” is devoted to theoretical reflections on the occult sciences in Islamicate societies. The second part, “Occult Technologies: From Instruction to Action,” deals with concrete practices and their material manifestations, mainly amulets and talismans.

Islamicate Occult Sciences in Theory and Practice comprises a collection of fourteen essays dealing with aspects of the “occult sciences,” a term “that reflects the Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, terminology used in historical sources up to the modern era: namely al-ˁulūm al-khafiyya, literally meaning hidden or occult sciences,” as explained in the introduction (p. 2). Most of the essays originate in presentations given during the conference “Islamic Occultism in Theory and Practice” held at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford in 2017, in conjunction with the exhibition “Power and Protection. Islamic Art and the Supernatural.”

Contrary to what the title suggests, the volume has a strong focus on what might be called magic proper – i.e., those occult sciences and practices that, generally speaking, aim to alter the future rather than to predict it.2 Close attention is given to the definition and classification of magic in relation to other sciences, as well as to its philosophical and theological background. Two of its branches figure prominently:

  • Awfāq (literally “harmonies,” often rendered as “magic squares”) with their magic and mathematical connotations,

  • ˁIlm al-ḥurūf wa-l-asmāˀ (literally “science of the letters and names,” sometimes rendered as “lettrism”), which uses letters and numerical values for a wide range of protective, prognostic, and exegetic purposes.

Other fields of scholarly knowledge that one might also define as occult sciences – e.g., alchemy, astrology, geomancy, and further prognostic (particularly mantic or divinatory) practices – rank a poor second. The same is true for practical manifestations, aside from amulets and talismans, such as books or dice used as tools for divinatory practices and devices for alchemic procedures, or recipe-like or instructive texts that allow one to make an object or perform an occult act.

These limitations notwithstanding, the essays provide a plethora of information, much of it based on hitherto unexplored materials, introduced and discussed here for the first time in detail and context and accompanied by abundant references and bibliographies. Their local and chronological frame stretches from the Iberian Peninsula to South-East Asia, from the seventh century until today.

Part I comprises the following seven essays:

  1. In parts, the introductory essay by Francesca Leoni and Liana Saif reads as a polemic calling for the study and research of the occult sciences in Islamicate societies on their own terms. The two authors start by discussing the terminology and classification of the occult sciences in Islamicate societies throughout history, up to their modern-day marginalization and the recent increase of scholarly interest in them. However, they do not otherwise provide a systematic treatment or outline of the occult sciences and their branches in Islamicate societies, a task that is admittedly difficult to accomplish. After mapping the field, they continue with an overview of the state of research and conclude with short summaries of the individual essays.

  2. The first part of the volume starts with an essay by Charles Burnett, who discusses the three divisions of magic as presented by Maslama al-Qurṭubī (d. 964), the author of the Ghāyat al-ḥakīm (The goal of the sage) also known by its Latin title Picatrix. They comprise alchemy, talismans, and nīranjāt, “a magical practice that includes a combination of mixing and processing ingredients, invoking spiritual beings, burning incense (suffumigation), and making figurines to manipulate spiritual forces.” (pp. 50–51)

  3. Next Bink Hallum provides an overview of the early Arabic awfāq literature. He begins by searching for pre-Islamic developments in China, Greece, and India, and in the second part introduces new evidence, such as newly discovered treatises written before the thirteenth century.

  4. Then follows Liana Saif’s study of the Risālat al-sīḥr (Letter on magic) in the longer version (no. 52b) by the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāˀ (Brethren of Purity), a scholarly group in tenth-century ˁIrāq whose Rasāˀil (Letters) deal with all branches of knowledge. Saif discusses the differences to the shorter version (no. 52a),3 namely “the dominance of astrological theory and practical instructions” (p. 187). An overview of the variety of contents in different manuscripts is followed by a discussion of the term siḥr (magic), whose ambiguity is reflected in the subsequent headings “Astrology as Magic” (p. 171), “Magic as Salvation” (p. 174), “Magic of Prophets and Sages” (p. 178), “Magic as Medicine” (p. 184), and others.4 The study concludes with a discourse on the influence of the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāˀ’s Risālat al-sīḥr, whose first traces are found in Maslama al-Qurṭubī’s Ghāyat al-ḥakīm.

  5. Next, Michael Noble delves into the soteriological aspects of Sabian astral magic, taking a closer look at the Sirr al-maktūm (The hidden secret) by Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 1210) and the Kitāb al-Milal wa-l-niḥal (“The book of the religions and sects”) by his predecessor ˁAbd al-Karīm al-Sharastānī (d. 1153).

  6. Subsequently, Noah Gardiner investigates the Naẓm al-sulūk fi musāmarat al-mulūk (Regulation of conduct: On the edification of kings) by ˁAbd al-Raḥmān al-Bisṭāmī (d. 1454), a treatise that he places at the intersection of occult sciences, namely lettrism, and historiography.

  7. Finally, Maria Subtelny introduces the Asrār-i qāsimī (Qasimian secrets) by Kāshifi (d. 1504/05), a manual of the occult sciences, whose author, together with his son Fakhr al-Dīn ˁAlī Ṣāfī (d. 1532/33), played “a key role in the popularization of Persian literature on the occult sciences” (p. 267).

Seven further essays make up part II of the volume, which starts with a discussion of two textual sources of evidence before continuing with material examples.

  1. The first treatise, the Kitāb Sharāsīm al-hindiyya (The book of Sharāsīm, the Indian) is presented by Jean-Charles Coulon. After describing the seven preserved manuscripts, he discusses the author’s possible identity and the treatise’s probable time and place of origin, illuminates its importance among the occult sciences, and addresses the question of its sources. Furthermore, he discusses the term simiyā (simply put, a branch of magic) and complements his article with Arabic text and English translation of the introduction of the Kitāb Sharāsīm al-hindiyya.

  2. The second textual example, provided by Matthew Melvin-Koushki, deals with a treatise by Kemālpaşazāde Aḥmad (d. 1534). This author uses lettrism to “scientifically prove the Ottoman sovereign’s [Selīm I. (d. 1520)] conquest of the Mamluk capital [Cairo] to be cosmically inevitable” (p. 383) in order to further his courtly career.

  3. Next, Maryam Ekhtiar and Rachel Parikh present examples of arms and armor that are “talismanic in nature” (p. 420), documenting the human need for encouragement and protection when faced with the threat of war and death. They discuss the materials used – in particular, gemstones that possess “magical and medicinal properties” (p. 422) – and list talismanic motifs and symbols, such as the seal of Solomon or the hand of Fāṭima.

  4. Following some reflections on the talismanic properties of calligrams (i.e., graphically arranged script, often in the form of an animal), Farouk Yahya discusses the case of the Lion of ˁAlī in South-East Asia. His study provides insights into Sunnī and Shīˁī adaptions of the motive and its alteration in a Muslim society in contact with Buddhist traditions and sheds light on the efficacy attributed to objects inscribed with this calligram.

  5. Next, Francesca Leoni presents a stamped talisman (late nineteenth or early twentieth century) whose rich collection of inscriptions and diagrams provides a nearly encyclopedic reference text of talismanic contents used in Islamicate societies.

  6. Finally, Christiane Gruber introduces a recent development in Turkey: talismanic cards and magnets for sale in the markets of Istanbul today. Her essay not only stresses the relevance of the topic to this day but also points out current changes of the political setting in Turkey and its neighboring states, which are reflected in these objects.

  7. The second part is concluded by Travis Zadeh’s postscript, which takes up the thread of the introductory essay and, in a more general way, once again reflects on occult studies in Islamicate societies, e.g., theory and practice.

Despite individual differences, most of the essays follow a similar organizational pattern by starting with an introductory part of a more general character including theoretical reflections. They then integrate the topic into an often broadly defined context and conclude with a case study of high quality. Short abstracts, or at least some keywords at the beginning of each essay, might have made it easier for the reader to grasp the gist of the content presented. Quotations are provided in original language and script, followed by an English translation, where appropriate. In some essays, a table summarizes the content and presents it more clearly. As a rule, foreign-language terms – e.g., in Arabic – are translated or briefly explained. Concise additional information is provided for persons, dynasties, places, events, etc. All essays are accompanied by numerous figures and comprehensive bibliographies.

Frequently recurring topics are discussions of terminological and classificational issues, the interdependencies of reason, religion, and superstition, differences in Shīˁī and Sunnī attitudes towards the occult sciences, the coherencies of Sufism and occult sciences, and the transfer of knowledge. The Rasāˀil of the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāˀ and Maslama al-Qurṭubī’s Ghāyat al-ḥakīm feature repeatedly. Further subjects of the fourteen essays can be easily accessed via the well-made index.

The substantial volume with its more than 700 pages measures ca. 16 × 24 × 5 cm and weighs nearly 1.5 kg. It is typeset in a layout familiar from other volumes in the series and other books by this publisher, printed in a comfortably legible font and size, on quality paper, and with solid binding.

Islamicate Occult Sciences in Theory and Practice is well worth reading not only for all those involved in the research of the cultural and intellectual history of the Islamicate societies but also for all those interested in prophecy, prognostication, and prediction with their manifold aspects, since the volume presents, so to speak, the flipside of the coin of occult studies, namely magic. In addition to providing access to hard-to-find or unpublished materials, one merit of the book lies in its two-pronged approach. The method of considering the theoretical and epistemological foundations alongside the study of the material manifestations paves the way for further research. Another, somewhat less obvious, benefit is the broad approach to different theories of occult studies and their application, e.g., in different regions, locales, and periods, as well as in different scholarly fields, which is an antidote to a monolithic view of the occult sciences in Islamicate societies.

Islamicate Occult Sciences in Theory and Practice is a big step forward in the research on occult studies. The volume, however, clearly documents how much work still lies ahead.


“Islamicate” is a term coined by Marshall Hodgson who “invented the term in response to the confusion surrounding such terms as ‘Islamic,’ ‘Islam,’ and ‘Muslim’ when they are used to describe aspects of society and culture that are found throughout the Muslim world. Hodgson used the term to describe cultural manifestations arising out of an Arabic and Persian literate tradition, which does not refer directly to the Islamic religion but to the ‘social and cultural complex historically associated with Islam and the Muslims, both among Muslims themselves and even when found among non-Muslims …’” (R. Kevin Jaques, “Islamicate Society,”, accessed June 2, 2022,


To illustrate the complexity of the term siḥr, often rendered as “magic,” cf. the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāˀ’s epistle on magic that “begins with a declaration that ṣiḥr has many meanings in Arabic. Generally, however, magic is ‘clarifying and revealing the reality of a thing and causing it to manifest, [it is also] speed and precision in action …’” (Liana Saif, “A Study of the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ’s Epistle on Magic, the Longer Version (52b),” in Saif et al., eds., Islamicate Occult Sciences in Theory and Practice, 162–206 , here 171.) Cf. also the attempt at a definition in the handbook Prognostication in the Medieval World: “In general, one might define prognostication as all methods, procedures, practices and manifestations that aim at predicting the future and the arcane, while magic seeks to alter it, but this definition falls short, since they often go hand in hand …” (Petra G. Schmidl, “Introductory Surveys: Medieval Traditions of Prognostication in the Islamic World,” in Prognostication in the Medieval World: A Handbook, ed. Klaus Herbers, Matthias Heiduk, and Hans-Christian Lehner (Berlin: De Gruyter: 2021), 189–242, here 201.)


Godefroid de Callataÿ and Bruno Halflants, Epistles of the Brethren of Purity. On Magic: An Arabic Critical Edition and English Translation of Epistle 52a, I (Oxford: Oxford University Press in association with the Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2011).


See also note 2.

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