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Perso-Mongol Experimentation and the History of (Occult) Science

Panel V-16, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
The story of the Rise of the West pivots on the triumph of Science over Religion and Magic. In this story, modern Euro-American Science is equated with a culture of experiment: the direct, objective observation of Nature, epistemically cleansed of all theological, mystical and magical irrelevancies. Premodern Islamic societies are permitted to participate in the history of science to the limited extent they can be read as prefiguring this experimentalist ethos. Needless to say, this myth was, and is, the engine of Orientalist colonialism. A case in point is the history of Islamic science as a tiny subset of that still Eurocentric field: it continues to focus almost exclusively on astronomy (stripped of astrology), with medicine a distant second, because they are legible as partially proto-experimentalist. Here the Mongol conquest of Asia and half of Islamdom – rational in its irreligion and pragmatic brutality – is frequently held up as driving the greatest, and last, florescence of science in Islam. In Iran, lavish Mongol patronage of the astral sciences in particular was indeed a watershed in the history of science, and the Maragha Observatory stands as ultimate imperial-scientific symbol. But the Mongols patronized empirical star science for “religious” reasons too, together with a wide range of other sciences – many of them occult – deemed equally empirical. To help bring empirical balance to our bizarrely skewed history of science narrative, this panel rereads the Perso-Mongol moment by tracking the venerable Arabo-Persian philosophical concept of tajriba, experience or experimentation, through a broader range of natural, mathematical and religious sciences. Synthesizing Hellenic-Islamic with Indic-Sinic, tajriba was at the heart of the Afro-Eurasian cosmopolitanism that would structure much of early modern Persianate knowing. Its five papers accordingly combine astronomy and medicine with astrology and lettrism, and even messianism, all explicitly experientialist sciences of great vogue during the Mongol era and after. The first tracks the Persian reception of Chinese medicine, whose theologically alien aspects are naturalized as tajribi. The second shows the transformation of messianism into a lettrist discipline subject to rigorous taxonomy. The third investigates the actual practice of astronomy at the Maragha Observatory by reconstructing its social networks and professional routines. The fourth presents the seminal magic manual of Fakhr-i Razi, preeminent philosopher-theologian, as an experimentalist testing of occult tradition. Finally, the fifth synthesizes the sciences of Sufism, lettrism, astrology and medicine as basis for Mongol and post-Mongol Persianate scientific cosmopolitanism.
  • Dr. Elizabeth R. Alexandrin -- Presenter
  • Dr. Mahdi Tourage -- Chair
  • Dr. Matthew Melvin-Koushki -- Organizer, Discussant
  • Mr. Mohammad Amin Mansouri -- Presenter
  • Lillian McCabe -- Presenter
  • Jonathan Brack -- Organizer, Presenter
  • Hadi Jorati -- Presenter
  • Jonathan Brack
    The Tānksūqnāma-yi Īlkhān dar Funūn-i ‘Ulūm-i Khiṭāʾī (The Treasure Book of the Ilkhan [Öljeitü, r. 1304-1316] on Chinese Science and Techniques) is the first book-length translation of Chinese medicine into an Islamic language (Persian). It survives in a single manuscript. The manuscript was copied in Tabriz, likely in Ilkhanid vizier, historian, and theologian, Rashid al-Din’s (d. 1318) scriptorium in the Rabʿ-i Rashīdī, in the hijri year 713 (/1313), that is, during his lifetime. In addition to the work’s translation of an assortment of medical guides dealing with the principles of Chinese medicine, physiology, and traditional pulse theory (sphygmology), it also includes a forty-some folio-preface penned by the vizier that discusses various topics related to China - from the mysteries of Chinese language and script to Chinese print and medical practices. This paper examines this long preface to explore some of the methods Rashid al-Din experiments with to legitimate this translation project which seems to have encountered Muslim resistance. Specifically, the paper examines the scriptural-prophetic argument the vizier makes about the likely existence of Chinese prophets, along with his use of Graeco-Islamic environmental-humoral theory to establish the benefits of translating Chinese medical knowledge. I focus on the way he uses the epistemological category of “experience” or “experiential knowledge” (tajriba) for Chinese (as well as Turkic and Mongol) medicine to “naturalize” Chinese-associated medical practice within an Islamic context, despite its apparent contradictions with Graeco-Islamic physiology and Galenic medical theory and imagery. I argue that tajriba is used to both defuse opposition to the engagement with Chinese medicine, while also relegating Chinese medicine to a subordinate position to Islamic “logic.” Rashid al-Din’s use of tajriba for Chinese medicine finds an interesting parallel in the seventeenth-century European project of translating Chinese medical recipes into Latin.
  • Dr. Elizabeth R. Alexandrin
    Through the lens of Ḥamūyeh’s Kitāb al-Maḥbūb, this proposed paper approaches how the figurations of the Mahdī, the Messiah (Masīḥ), the seal of divine guidance (khātim al-walāyah), and the pole (quṭb) became the scheme of configured hierarchies that open up the question of mystical messianism within Sufism. 13th-century Sufism- in theory and practice- poses different challenges for scholars as they explore vectors of Islamization, intellectual exchanges, and transmissions of Islamic traditions and practices from Central Asia, to Anatolia, and Southeastern Europe. Current scholarship, however, gives very little attention to mystical messianic discourses and mystical sovereignties in 13th-century Sufism. At one level of memory, Ḥamūyeh’s poetic verses stand in relation to both his mysticism and his messianism, prominently in later works authored by Nūrbakhsh (d. 1464 CE), and in both biographical and hagiographical works, such as the Murīd al-Murīdīn, Nafaḥāt al-Uns, and Nigāristān. In the Maḥbūb, Ḥamūyeh’s Sufi graphology points to eschatological registers and inflections of “points” (nuqaṭ) and letters (ḥurūf). As this paper will explore, his is a graphology which alludes to spherical sequences of seven, linked to the figuration of messianic taxonomies, the standing of the pole, and the letter sīn (letter ‘s’) with unfolding the apparition of the Mahdī. Attention will also be given to how, preserved alongside of Ḥamūyeh’s short treatises, in collective manuscripts from 13th CE onward, such as BnF MS. Anciens fonds persan 286, and the short treatises of the Kubravī author Simnānī (d. 1336 CE), Ḥamūyeh’s little-known students speak to a concept of “polarity/poleness” (quṭbiyyah), which was central to their messianic predictions, and the figurations interlocked with prophethood and divine guidance, against which Simnānī argues for a hidden continuity of a hierarchy of unrecognizable poles, and a messianism shaped through soul (nafs), with a permanent and in-actual opening of the End Time. This study therefore will contribute to much of the work that remains to be done on the rise and the elaboration of messianisms during the Mongol period of Islamic history, and what part did Ḥamūyeh’s often-controversial Sufi teachings play in a global shift to mystical messianisms in post-13th-century societies, where many of these taxonomies become a shared discourse of multiple lineages, schools of thought, approaches, and traditions in post-13th-century Sufism, and especially, in the Ottoman period.
  • Hadi Jorati
    Abstract. The observatory at Maragha, founded by the orders of the first Ilkhan of Iran Hülegü Khan, is generally considered a major scientific enterprise of the period. We know it was functional in the latter period of the thirteenth century, it was tasked with producing an updated set of Astronomical Tables (Zīj-i Ilkhani) for the purpose of astrological prognostication, and that it employed mathematicians and astronomers from across the Islamic World. What else can be said about the Maragha observatory and what sources do we have at hand? The Zīj itself has survived; we also have descriptions of the observational instruments built for or used at the observatory; and archaeological studies of the site of the observatory have uncovered more about the buildings at the site. Yet, many details about the day to day scientific activities conducted at the complex or the nature and extent of the scholarly activities at the observatory are not yet fully understood. In this talk we will cast a new look at the scholarly make up of the observatory and try to understand how it operated, the extent of scholarly activities it hosted and the role of experimentation in its roster of activities, and how it functioned as an observatory in the empirical sense. Based on a variety of sources I will draw a picture of the various types of day to day activities at the observatory complex and examine the role of ‘experiment’ in that context.
  • Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī’s (d. 606/1210) Kitāb al-Sirr al-Maktūm (Book of the Hidden Secret) was an immensely popular work on magic comprising sections on astrology, talismans, planetary invocations, incantations, and other occult operations. Unlike authors of other, similar works, al-Rāzī never claims to be a practitioner of the magic that he describes in this text. He instead positions himself as a compiler and a theorist. So how does he know that the operations he includes are effective? What is the role of experimentation and experience (tajriba) in his work? In this paper, I first summarize al-Rāzī’s theory about the sources for knowledge about magical operations as outlined in al-Sirr al-Maktūm. For al-Rāzī, most of this knowledge is rooted in inspiration (ilhām) or revelation (waḥy), but experience (tajriba) still plays an important role in verifying this material. I then examine how al-Rāzī, as a non-practitioner, establishes his authority and positions himself as a compiler and editor. Al-Rāzī’s authorial voice is compared to that of two author-practitioners of similar magical compendia. The first is Abū al-Faḍl Muḥammad al-Ṭabasī, whose Kitāb al-Shāmil fī al-baḥr al-kāmil was a major source for al-Rāzī; the second is Sirāj al-Dīn al-Sakkākī, a younger contemporary of al-Rāzī who cites from al-Sirr al-Maktūm in his own (similarly titled) compendium Kitāb al-Shāmil fī baḥr al-kāmil. Finally, taking three spells as examples, I analyze the role of experimentation, observation, and trial and error in instructions for performing magic spells. I argue that first-hand experience is consistently valued and used as a mark of legitimacy and validity throughout al-Sirr al-Maktūm, despite the fact that it is largely a compilation from other written sources, one that sees inspiration to be the main source for knowledge about magical practice.
  • Mr. Mohammad Amin Mansouri
    ʿAzīz Nasafī (d. 13th century) is a prime example of the vibrant intellectual life of the Persianate Mongol World. While he is often celebrated as a mystic or Sufi, little attention has been paid to his engagement with scientific ideas. A practicing physician, Nasafī had a thorough knowledge of the various branches of science, and he constantly incorporated them into his oeuvre. He particularly used medicine, astrology, and lettrism in his works and drew upon them to articulate his ideas. This presentation looks at ways that he employs these three branches of knowledge to resolve human conflicts and cultivate perfection, serving as primary scientific-cosmopolitan means to achieve universal harmony and peace. Nasafī's reliance on these scientific-occult modes of tajriba characterize his overarching project of universal peace or sulḥ bā hama, paving the way for the early modern Mughal imperialist legacy. I further argue that Nasafī’s scientific cosmopolitanism is best understood with respect to the emergence of Mongol Imperialism and the ensuing radical socio-political changes in the Islamic world.