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Occult Bodywork

Session IV-12, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
This panel extends the recent turn toward the study of Sufi bodies to show occultism as an equally important category for understanding how Muslim – and Jewish – bodies more generally function in early modern and modern societies as sites of contestation and control, healing and entertainment, navigating or transcending various binaries in the process. The first paper investigates the Persianate science of breath (‘ilm-i dam), or yogic breath control, at the intersection of the physical and subtle bodies, as a “foreign,” Indian technology attractive to early modern Muslim ruling elites for its medical and imperial applications alike. Taking a sociological tack, the second proposes a framework – natural selection – for understanding how Sufi narratives of saintly miracles (karamat) evolved over time. The third paper moves to Morocco under French colonialism, proposing talismans and amulets to be a primary site of Muslim-Jewish collaboration – especially medically. Similarly, the fourth paper shows embodied occultist practice to be a nexus between “secular” and “Sufi,” as well as “non-Islamic” and “Islamic,” in the lived experience of Muslim street magicians in India today.
  • This paper analyzes Islamic magical healing amulets collected by French anthropologists and doctors from 1890s to the 1940s, Arabic-language talismans used to cure and prevent sickness, impotence, injury, and sterility, but also to influence others, with love or distress. Islamic theologians often frowned on healing amulets as an instrumentalization of religion and colonial-era anthropologists used these amulets as evidence that Morocco was primitive, prelogical, and incapable of both science and self-government. I suggest that these amulets—and the symbols in them—might be read as a kind of material archive, as circumstantial evidence of a past Kabbalist-Sufi theological exchange. Perhaps we can treat amulets as an archeological dig site where a theological process has left traces. Islamic healing amulets have been studied from the perspective of science, as interventions arising from a premodern cosmological model of the universe, or as vernacular religion, an attempt by believers to channel divine power into objects that one can eat, or drink or wear. This paper embraces both views but adds a historical dimension, how we might use magic amulets as artifacts of a lost history of popular exchange between everyday Muslims and Jews in Morocco. Muslim and Jewish theologians wrote about their borrowings from one other, less is known about how ordinary people lived Muslim-Jewish proximity, especially in mysticism. Theology-adjacent vernacular cultural forms like amulets and the oral traditions One Thousand and One Nights together suggest how religious ideas might have been digested in everyday life. Healing may be the motor of this Judeo-Islamic exchange. Kabbalah and Sufism share the concept of a righteous person who can be a door between the material and divine worlds, the wali in Islam and the tzaddik in Judaism. In practice, Jewish and Muslim Moroccans visited the graves of these persons for prayer and relief from sickness, infertility and psychiatric disorders. Sometimes Jews and Muslims visited the same holy grave. Healing practices may thus be one vector through which healers, patients and pilgrims abstracted symbolism from theology to create magical amulets.
  • Studying occultism involves crossing the boundaries between science and religion, as well as exploring practices shared between different religious communities. In examining “the science of the breath” (Persian: `ilm-i dam), we have to hold two positions as simultaneously true despite their seeming contradictory meanings. One, that `ilm-i dam represents a group of esoteric breathing practices translated from Sanskrit or Hindi into Persian as far back at the mid-14th-century CE. The “Indian-ness” of these practices is consistently preserved in the wide variety of Persian translations, usually in passages where the scribe writes about witnessing these practices “amongst the Hindus/Indians” (hinduvān), or sometimes more specifically the “yogis” (jogiān). Two, that despite the foreignness of these breathing practices, they are still represented as one among the many effective tools available to someone interested in accessing cosmic power. More recent scholarship has argued that rulers (and their advisers) from Persianate imperial regimes in the early-modern period were extremely invested in improving their chances of success in the temporal world through channeling power believed to exist in abundant fashion on the astral plane. Earlier generations of Euro-american scholars relegated Islamicate occultism to the periphery of Sufism, with suspect credentials as “fully” Islamic practices. Despite this pigeonholing, Muslim scholars’ classification of `ilm-i dam easily confounds that assumption, as it is deemed outside of Sufism in numerous Persian encyclopedias, including the Nefais al-funun wa `arayis al-`uyun by Shams al-Din Muhammad Amuli (d. 753/1352) and Abu’l Fazl ibn Mubarak’s ‘Ain-i Akbari (compiled circa 1590 CE). What does it mean that Amuli classified zikr (the “remembrance” of God that contains breath control elements) with the forms of Sufi practice, but `ilm-i dam is part of the natural sciences? Similarly, Abu’l Fazl presents `ilm-i dam using its Sanskrit name, svarodaya, as part of his taxonomy of Indian knowledge traditions. This paper argues that cultivating knowledge of the esoteric, or subtle, body is key to achieving various forms of control or success in the exoteric, or gross, world. The body itself is the conduit through which practitioners of `ilm-i dam channel that breath, attuning themselves to the rhythm of the universe.
  • A narrative of karāma (saintly miracle) embedded in Islamic hagiographies is the only access to a miraculous event to which some witnesses have testified. I see these karāma narratives as representing living heritage, passed down from generation to generation, undergoing evolution on its generational descent. That is, through a process of natural selection, those features of the narrative that brought benefits, power, and survival of the society grow stronger while the more idle parts fade away. I investigate these narratives and the sociological function they served in broader Medieval Muslim societies. When karāma was considered an indication of a Shaikh’s veracity, a Shaikh with more karāma, I argue, was Shaikh-er. Consequently, devotees and descendants who were living by their karāmāt-owning Sheikh had a worthy cause to narrate their Shaikh’s karāmāt. They recorded, preserved, and remembered narratives that were beneficial for them and meaningful through their relationship to the social context. According to the tradition of Hadith transmission, they became part of the I-heard-one-said-that-another-said chain, i.e., their names were recorded along with the name of the Shaikh. The more credit they gave to their Sheikh, I claim, the more credit they gained, and this process evolves a narrative
  • This paper will investigate how ideas of jadoo and jadu-tona are both understood and performed in modern India from the perspectives of traditional Muslim street magicians who are popularly known as jadoowallas, but call themselves madaris. It will also consider questions of spectatorship from an audience point of view, and ways that images of jadoo and jadu-tona have permeated into popular culture, including theater, advertisements, and Bollywood films. Previous work on traditional Indian street magicians has focused on them as syncretic figures who eclectically draw on a variety of mystical traditions in their performances, but not taken their Islamic identities seriously when considering slippages between secular and occult modes of performing and viewing their magic. The magicians readily admit that jadu is ‘haram’ according to Islamic laws, yet assert that it is their ancestral occupation they do to earn their livelihoods and support their families. The paper will focus on the question of how the performers of jadoo view the relationships between magic as a skilled folk performance art ‘kala’ based on techniques like sleight of hand ‘haath ki safai’ and misdirection ‘nazar bandi’ versus a powerful occult/mystical art ‘jadoo-tona’. Both Western and East Asian magic make clear distinctions between performances of occult magic and performances of secular magic for entertainment, but Indian madaris slide easily between the two forms in their performances. They will perform a show that they will explicitly say is a performance art, not begging as it is considered in Indian law. After a show, if a spectator lingers on to consult with them about a personal question or concern, they slip into the role of a mystical occult problem solver who can sell them magic charms to ward off snakes, cure health problems, or procure love or wealth. The slippages between these two modes of presentation on the part of both spectator/clients and performer/practitioners suggest an understanding of the relationship between these two forms of magic performance that differ from the clear occult/secular magic distinctions common in both the western and eastern worlds, and may be based on Islamic understandings with roots in Shia or Sufi mystical practices. The paper will also attempt to unpack religious worlds of the madaris themselves to understand where they go when they are seeking divine intervention in their worldly affairs.