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Reading the Cosmic Scripture: Lettrism from the Thirteenth Century to the Present

Session VIII-10, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
The recent upsurge in research on Islamic occultism has shown the great extent to which Muslim thinkers, major and minor, past and present, embraced the occult sciences cosmologically and technologically as a matter of course. A case in point is lettrism (‘ilm al-huruf), coeval Arabic cognate to Hebrew kabbalah, which was hailed by many as a universal science, organizing various natural, mathematical and religious sciences under its aegis. Technologically, it became the basis for a wide range of magical and talismanic disciplines and a primary means of legitimating them as Islamic. Cosmologically, it was pivotal to the new conceptualization of the cosmos as a second scripture to be decoded, and magically recoded, by the adept reader. The growing popularity of the same concept in contemporary Latinate Europe has been assiduously studied by Europeanist historians as a driver of the early modern “Scientific Revolution.” This panel showcases the equally transformative and enduring importance of lettrism in the Islamic context, from the Maghrib to the Mashriq, and from the thirteenth century to the present. The first paper provides a framework for understanding the massive popularity of lettrism over the last eight hundred years by tracing the reception between Shi‘i and Sunni scholars of the most influential grimoire in Islamic history, pseudo-Buni’s Great Sun of Knowledge (Shams al-ma‘arif al-kubra), together with other seminal texts of occultism — a reception increasingly divergent in the modern period. The second paper takes up the example of the equally seminal but often incomprehensible works of Sa‘d al-Din Hamuya (d. 1252), a major lettrist authority, to show his total textual embrace of the quranic principles of inimitability and radical openness of interpretation as the enactment of saintly authority. The third paper investigates the lettrist cosmology of Hamuya’s student ‘Aziz Nasafi, among the first Muslim thinkers in the Western tradition to formulate a systematic theory of the world as a book, breaking with philosophical precedent. Finally, the fourth paper takes the example of Shaykh Ilyas Akhisari (d. 1559), a prominent Ottoman scholar still well-known for his non-lettrist works today, to show the creative adaptation of this quintessentially Arabic science in a regional, vernacular context, in this case Ottoman Anatolian Turkish, with implications for its spread throughout the many other vernacular cultures of the vast early modern Islamic world generally.
  • This paper will provide a scriptural and historical explanation for differing trajectories of thought among Sunni and Shiʿi scholars with respect to the legitimacy of the construction and use of Islamic occult items, such as talismans. While both Sunni and Shiʿis condemn certain acts of magic (siḥr), today’s Twelver Shiʿi scholars express more latitude with respect to the practice of certain occult or divinatory arts in comparison with some of the stricter views among the Sunni orthodoxy. This paper will argue for the reasons underlying these differences based on differences in scripture (ḥadīth) and exegesis (tafsīr), theology, religious practice, and historical influences, as well as interactions with modernity. In doing so, it will challenge the popular contemporary assumption that “there is no magic in Islam” or that the Sunni-Salafi voice is the only legitimate voice defining what constitutes Islamic orthodoxy. Special attention will be given to attitudes towards historically central occult text Shams al-Maʿārif al-Kubrā, attributed to Aḥmad ibn ʿAlī al-Būnī, which sits awkwardly between the Sunni and Shiʿi traditions, as well as scholarship on the Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, a putatively Ismaʿili Shiʿi text that has struck some as being so outside the purview of their conception of Islam that they deem its ideas to be an inauthentic voice of Islam. Keywords: magic, Islam, talismans, Shams al-Maʿārif, Sunnism, Shiʿism
  • "Real Talk" explores the performative textual strategies of Sa'd al-Dīn Ḥamūya (d. 1252), a Mongol-era Sufi whose arcane treatises on the science of letters and the Seal of the Saints both bewildered and inspired future generations of occultists, mystics, and messiahs. Rather than attempting to excavate a set of hidden meanings beneath Ḥamūya's lettrist formulations, the paper theorizes incomprehensible speech itself as a creative and contextually-legible claim to saintly authority. Building upon Lara Harb's work on Qur'ānic inimitability (i'jāz), "Real Talk" analyzes how the shaykh's lettrist strategies operate in dialogue with contemporary discussions regarding the nature of revealed speech. According to medieval theories of i'jāz, the Qur'ān articulates its message through obscure syntactic forms that defer meaning and subvert audience expectations, sending each reader or listener on an active quest for understanding. Through the subtle interplay between language and audience, the Qur'ān reveals endless layers of intellectual and affective meaning. Through close readings of The Book of the Beloved, I argue that Ḥamūya appropriates and expands the idiosyncratic forms of Qur'ānic meaning making to draw readers into an active process of hermeneutical engagement. As he plumbs the hidden depths of Reality, Ḥamūya amplifies the techniques of i'jāz beyond the level of syntax and into the broader architectonics of his text, forcing his readers into a state of restless aporia. By continually deferring meaning and subverting conceptual resolution, Sa'd al-Dīn projects the experiential and epistemological possibilities of his words off the page and into the bodies of his readers. Ḥamūya thus frees The Book of the Beloved from a totalizing hermeneutical vision, leaving his work radically open to interpretation. As diverse audiences endlessly map (and re-map) the shaykh's language to the physical, emotional, and intellectual dimensions of their own subjective states, they expand the meanings of his words indefinitely. Sa'd al-Dīn's language thus transforms readers' living, breathing, and speaking bodies into sites within which the totality of the Divine Self-Disclosure becomes manifest as dynamic and boundless play. Read against medieval frameworks of Qur'ānic inimitability, therefore, the incomprehensible qualities of Ḥamūya's text become performative strategies that mark his language as revealed speech.
  • Various aspects of ʿilm al-ḥurūf or science of letters has become subjects of recent scholarly works, which have increasingly identified it as lettrism, a major subset of Islamic occult sciences (e.g., Melvin-Koushki 2016, 2019; Gardiner 2021; Saif 2017). Matthew Melvin-Koushki defines lettrism as a method “centered on letters as keys to deciphering (and manipulating) all levels of physical, imaginal and spiritual reality” (2014, 250). Lettrism as a whole, thus, seeks to read cosmological letters, words, and signs, and decipher the world as a book of God. It is not an overstatement to say that lettrism would become the most “Islamic” of all occult sciences as its premises would be readily justifiable with various Qurʾanic verses. Focusing on the work of the 13th-century Muslim mystic, ʿAzīz al-Dīn Nasafī, I examine how Qurʾan and lettrism intersect and cross-fertilize one another, which provides unbeatable authority for lettrism as a science that is rooted in the sacred scripture. Nasafī has been largely absent from ongoing conversations on Islamicate occult sciences. I argue that he extensively draws on two Qurʾanic terms, the tablet (lawḥ) and the pen (qalam) (e.g., 68:1), to demonstrate that the world in its entirety is a book of God. Earlier Muslim philosophers and thinkers had often argued that the pen and the tablet refer to the First Intellect (ʿaql al-awwal) and the Universal Soul (nafs al-kullī). Nasafī also incorporates them in his cosmology. However, he offers a series of arguments to prove that these terms cannot be restrained to these two ontological realities. He argues that these terms are best understood as universal apparatuses that constantly write the world from above to below. In this sense, the pen and the tablet are applicable to various cosmological planes and the hierarchy of being, and they identify the universal writing of God across the universe.
  • The history of lettrism in Ottoman Rūm features so many fascinating characters that it becomes easy to ignore the "less interesting" ones. Perhaps the most famous of the latter is Ilyās b. ʿIsā Aḳḥiṣārī (d. 1559) of the Bayrami order. On the surface, Aḳḥiṣārī appears not to have been ignored by scholars, of course, to the contrary some of his works have been published, while the rest are generally well-known and have been studied. Ottomanists who do not necessarily work on the occult are also often aware of the Aḳḥiṣārī corpus and cite the scholarly studies about them, which is hardly the case for many other lettrists of the sixteenth century. And yet Sheikh Ilyās is rarely, if ever, considered alongside or in conjunction with developments in the wider Islamic world, specifically in the context of lettrism. This strange disconnect, between the generalist knowledge about his works and the specialist indifference about his person, is the starting point of the talk. One obvious reason for the disconnect is that Aḳḥiṣārī is too Rumi: his writings are entirely in Turkish, which no doubt contributed to the unusual (considering the subject matter) number of scholarly studies on them, mostly in Turkish academia. Sheikh Ilyās might also strike the historian of the Islamic occult as too provincial, as unlike his father, he seems to lack the obvious transregional connections that also render the scholarly study of fifteenth-century lettrists both exciting and important. This talk will be a preliminary assessment of Ilyās b. ʿIsā himself, his person and his milieu, in an effort to put the corpus he left behind in communication not only with his intellectual background, but also with the intellectual history of occult sciences. In doing so, particular attention will also be given to the Bayramiye’s sixteenth-century history, during which time the order (like many others in the Ottoman world in this period), was experiencing important transformations.