MESA Banner
Translating Takwīn: Theories of Artificiality in the Jābirian Corpus between Texts and Translations
Takwīn is a term central to the alchemical, philosophical, and occult-scientific corpus of Jābir ibn Ḥayyān, as it represents the furthest end of the Jābirian science of balance: crafting new and unique lifeforms in an alchemical laboratory. The term is also central to how scholars read the Jābirian corpus: takwīn is customarily translated as “artificial generation”, and the idea of “artificial generation” has in turn structured understandings, valuations, and meanings of the Jābirian corpus on whole. Takwīn’s translation, however, begets a question: how does the Jābirian corpus itself theorize artificiality, and do the corpus’ own internal theorizations challenge the interpretive work implied in traditional translations of takwīn? I argue that the Jābirian use of takwīn belies a fundamental theorization of concepts of artificiality within the Jābirian corpus that differs from that used in modern scholarship on the same corpus, and that translating takwīn as ‘artificial life’ imposes an anachronistic theoretical framework upon Jābirian texts. To demonstrate this, I conduct a close reading of the word takwīn throughout Jābirian texts, supplementing this style of analysis with methods from the history of science, gender and sexuality studies, and Islamic studies. Briefly examining how translations of takwīn as “artificial generation” guide readers to particular expectations of Jābirian texts, I then direct my focus to the Jābirian K. al-tajmīʿ which describes the construction of machines for takwīn and operations that it terms tawallud, relating to ‘natural’ or ‘spontaneous’ generation. I give special attention to the issue of the machine’s analogy to a uterus and what implications that has for understanding takwīn conceptually as an ‘artificial’ endeavor. I discuss not only the ideas of generation and reproduction harnessed in discourse on the machine, but also the intertextual religious components operating in takwīn​. I additionally compare the theorization of takwīn described in the K. al-tajmīʿ with theories around fermentation and leavening described in the yet-untranslated Jābirian K. al-khamā’ir al-kabīr. Through a close analysis of takwīn, the Jābirian corpus offers its own sophisticated theories of artificiality that complicate a translation of takwīn as “artificial generation”. I offer new insights into how the Jābirian corpus theorizes artificiality, provide new readings on previously studied and presently unstudied Jābirian texts, and highlight problems of translation structuring fundamental understandings of the Jābirian corpus. This paper therefore displays the necessity of attentiveness to the politics of (un)translation and the possibilities present in drawing conceptual language from outside of Euro-American theory.
Religious Studies/Theology
Geographic Area
Central Asia
Fertile Crescent
Islamic World
Mediterranean Countries
The Levant
Sub Area