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Science, Prophecy, and the Occult from the 10th to 12th Centuries

Panel II-26, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, November 2 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
  • In this paper, I argue that the 10th-century Fāṭimid text k. al-fatarāt wa-l-qirānāt, attributed to the courtier and missionary Ja‘far b. Manṣūr al-Yaman, suggests that the Fatimid mission (da‘wa) sought to incorporate the occult sciences into their Ismā‘īlī theological framework. While the popularity of the occult sciences in the medieval Islamic world has been well-established, the Fāṭimid mission's engagement with astrology, magic, divination, and other associated disciplines has been more difficult to prove. Documentary evidence from the Cairo Geniza, for example, indicates an interest in astrology at a popular level in Fāṭimid Cairo; however, texts written by Fāṭimid missionaries have so far seemed devoid of occult themes. A lack of evidence is not alone sufficient to prove the Fāṭimids rejected the occult sciences on an ideological basis, and indeed some scholars have speculated Fāṭimid interest in the occult was more pronounced than current evidence suggests, noting in particular the Gnostic and Neoplatonic strands running throughout Ismā‘īli theology. Through conducting a close reading of k. al-fatarāt wa-l-qirānāt and a study of its historical context, as well as its connections with other Fāṭimid missionary texts such as r. al-mudhhiba, I will show that the Fāṭimid mission did seek to incorporate the occult sciences; further this accommodation was intended to demonstrate that no realm of knowledge escaped the Fāṭimid imam's mastery, and that the Fatimid imam of the era was superior to occult scientists, as his connection with the divine and perfect and immediate apprehension of all phenomena granted him superior abilities to know the unseen. I further argue that the Fāṭimid version of the occult sciences follow the logic of ta'wīl, or the interpretation of not only scripture, but also the entire perceivable world as possessing both an apparent, outer meaning (ẓāhir) and an inner, esoteric meaning (bāṭin), the latter accessible only to the imam. Ta'wīl is among the most distinctive and defining elements of Ismaili thought, and its logic underpins the bulk of Ismā‘īlī theology. Accordingly, in the Fāṭimid view of the occult sciences, astrology, divination, and the science of the letters likewise possess an outer meaning available to the general masses, as well as a hidden aspect in which they relate back to the salvific ultimate truths (ḥaqā'iq) that are the cornerstone of Ismā‘īlī theology. The Fāṭimids not only brought the occult sciences into Ismā‘īlī thought, but created them anew as part of the Fāṭimid imam's domain of mastery.
  • What must the world be like, to host natural laws as well as their violations? If miracles⁠ are to be understood as violations of nature, then it is difficult to make sense of such events within a natural account of the cosmos and its causal relations. Must one choose between a scientific worldview and a world with a God with untrammeled power and agency over the natural world? The following considers how philosophers of the Islamic world have negotiated these competing concerns. I explore the relative pay-offs and trade-offs in going one way or the other in the development of their theories of the natural and the divine.⁠ Specifically, I lay out an interesting strategy in Ibn Sina that attempts to preserve causal powers of nature as well as the possibility of the divine in overriding them. Ibn Sina introduces into the cosmos an extraordinarily powerful agent, a human nonetheless, who functions as a kind of “soul for the world”. Just as our souls influence our own bodies, the soul of a mystic and prophet is said to influence bodies other than its own. By working miracles into his system in this way, Ibn Sina’s theory of prophecy, I argue, brings together his scientific worldview as expressed in his thoroughgoing philosophical works, such as Kitāb al-Nafs of the Shifāʾ, with his more esoteric views expressed in his writings on mysticism, magic and the occult, such as the final part of his Ishārāt wa Tanbīhāt. My entry point into these issues will not be the usual one — i.e. Ghazālī’s reprimand of the philosophers for denying miracles (muʿjizāt). I begin instead with Ghazālī’s less known endorsement of the falsafa account of how prophets are able to enact miracles. Contrary to received views, Ghazālī’s critique is not that the philosophers plainly deny miracles, but that their theory of causation places undue limits on God’s power by excluding certain categories of events from the realm of possibility.⁠ Exploring the tension between the miracles they affirm and the miracles they deny might tell us something about how far a world with natural causes can be pushed to accommodate the miraculous, and where and why various philosophers of the Islamic world draw the line where they do. More broadly, the paper suggests that Ibn Sina’s philosophy cannot be properly understood in isolation from his “non-philosophical” works.
  • Scholarly works dealing with the classification of sciences often reflect their authors’ understanding of true knowledge (al-‘ilm al-ḥaqīqī). Al-Farabi’s (d. 339/950) Enumeration of the Sciences, a pioneering work of the genre, excluded, for example, medicine and occult sciences on the basis of the author’s demonstrative notion of true knowledge. Al-Farabi subscribed to Aristotle's perspective that regarded true knowledge as being universal, necessary, and certain. In his short epistle on the classification of the sciences, Divisions of Philosophy, Avicenna (d. 428/1037) went beyond the purview of demonstrative knowledge to include medicine and a number of other disciplines. Unlike al-Farabi, Avicenna allowed for the consideration of accidents and essential concomitants in scientific inquiry when the causes were unavailable. Avicenna’s Divisions not only included new fields of knowledge but also proposed a distinct framework for the relationship between reason and revelation, which diverged from al-Farabi’s Enumeration. My presentation aims to show that these significant points of divergence have contributed to the success of Avicenna's epistle. In analyzing the success of Avicenna’s epistle in comparison with that of al-Farabi, I draw on biographical dictionaries, manuscript traditions, and scholarly discussions. As a missing link, I consider a contemporary classificatory epistle, written by Abu Sahl al-Masihi (d. after 416/1025), a neglected figure from Avicenna’s close milieu. Al-Masihi's classification included, for instance, medicine, found in Avicenna, but not in al-Farabi. I contend that the success of Avicenna’s epistle lies in the new dimensions it integrated into the Aristotelian and Farabian models. This epistemological opening, which provided a broader framework for explaining a variety of phenomena, ensured the positive reception of Avicenna’s epistle in later periods. In his Key to Happiness, the Ottoman scholar Tashkoprizade (d. 968/1561) cited no other work than this “subtle epistle” (risāla laṭīfa) under the science of classifying the sciences. Until recently, there was no critical edition of Avicenna’s epistle, although it has long been known to scholars. Nor has any study been devoted to analyzing Avicenna’s divergence from al-Farabi in view of their reception history. By conducting a comparative analysis of the contents and reception of major classifications of the sciences in Islam, this paper contributes to the study of the history of knowledge in the medieval and early modern period.
  • The 11th century astronomical text Kayhān Shinākht (“Knowledge of the Cosmos”) was written in Central Asia by the noted polymath Qaṭṭān al-Marwazī (1072/1073 – 1153 CE). Like other pre-eminent scholars of his era Marwazī produced works on literature, medicine, engineering, and astronomy, all of which, with the exception of Kayhān Shinākht, appear to have been lost. Surviving in a single manuscript copy, this work is remarkable for having an extant Arabic translation of the original Persian, as well. The only known witness of the Arabic text is an incomplete manuscript dating from the 19th century, and one which, judging from the script, was produced in North Africa. The presence of this rare technical work, written in Persian and subsequently translated into Arabic, raises questions about the transmission of scientific knowledge across the Islamic world. Why was an Arabic translation of this rather elementary Persian text deemed desirable in the first place? Where, when, and by whom was the translation carried out? How did this work find its way so far from its place of origin? Which features in the work recommended it as a text suitable for copying as late as the 19th century? Evidence from the texts themselves is used to explore these questions. The Arabic text is characterized by a remarkable fidelity to the original. The discrepancies that can be observed between the two texts appear to stem in part from their individual transmission histories, in addition to a recognition by their creator(s) of the need to tailor the text to a specific audience. Taken together the two works highlight the remarkable instance of the transmission of scientific knowledge across periods, cultures, and locales.
  • Pharmaceutical treatises are a rich untapped source for the social and cultural history of women in the medieval Islamic world. Originally influenced by the medical treatises of Greek physicians such as Hippocrates and Galen, this genre gained popularity for its practical uses, and many Arabic works achieved a broader reception in Persian and Turkish translations. Most scholarly attention has focused on these texts’ scientific significance, while social and cultural historians have approached them primarily for their views on sexuality. Rather than pure lists of pharmaceutical recipes, these texts often incorporate stories and narrations about how these concoctions are to be used and in what circumstances. Thus, while focusing on the sexual health of women and men, these works offer a collection of narrative scenarios in which women are shown to exercise agency. By reading these works with women in mind, they can be used to recover details of medieval women’s daily experiences. A treatise known as al-Īḍāḥ fī asrār al-nikāḥ (The Explanation of the Secrets of Marriage), written by the twelfth-century Syrian physician, poet, and judge ‘Abd al-Raḥmān b. Naṣr b. ‘Abdallāh al-Shayzarī, is an exceptionally popular specimen of this genre. This work is dedicated to the sexual health of men and women and is divided into two sections: one entitled Asrār al-rijāl (The Secrets of Men) and the other Asrār al-nisā’ (The Secrets of Women). This paper examines this work from two different perspectives. First, I analyze the work itself, reading its anecdotes against the grain to reveal ways in which women wielded agency. Second, I examine the long afterlife of this text, including its translations into Persian and Turkish. Although originally written in Arabic, Shayzarī’s Īḍāḥ had a lasting influence, especially in the Ottoman Empire, and analysis of its contents and its reception may demonstrate both how cultural attitudes toward women changed over time, as well as the interconnectedness of the Arabic, Persian, and Turkish literary traditions.