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Reviewed by:
  • Magic and Divination in Early Islam
  • Robert Irwin
Emilie Savage-Smith , ed. Magic and Divination in Early Islam, The Formation of the Classical Islamic World 42. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2004. Pp. lii + 394.

The Frankfurt-school philosopher Theodor Adorno memorably described occultism as "the metaphysics of dopes." Study of the history of occultism is difficult and perhaps a little depressing. Occultism makes itself hard to study. Its practitioners are simultaneously boastful and secretive. Its literature is compounded of pseudepigrapha, forgeries, imaginary ancestors, gibberish, and, frankly, quite a lot of tedium. Medieval Islamic occultism and divination is peculiarly difficult to study, as there often seems to be a mismatch between the surviving literature and what was actually practiced. For example, Emilie Savage-Smith notes that medieval seal books are almost completely useless for deciphering actual occult seals and Venetia Porter observes that, although many magical bowls have survived, medieval Arabic writings never refer to their use. Occultists, even the most famous ones, hardly ever appeared in medieval Arabic biographical dictionaries, as these were devoted first to pious dignitaries and second to kings and officers.

Magic and Divination in Early Islam is a collection of ten previously printed articles on extremely diverse aspects of occultism. There is, as far as I know, no general survey of Islamic occultism in print. In the meantime, the fifty-two page introduction specially written for this book by Savage-Smith will do very well, particularly as there is a fairly comprehensive bibliography, as well as copious referencing in the footnotes. Precisely because it is such a full and useful bibliography, I want to add a few items that it misses. First and [End Page 104] foremost, the crazed genius Paul Kraus's amazing two-volume Jabir ibn Hayyan, Contribution a' l'histoire des ide'es scientifiques dans l'Islam (Paris, 1942). Evidently an editorial decision was made to exclude articles on alchemy from the selection of articles in the volume under review, but this seems to me to be a mistake, as alchemy cannot be corralled off from rest of Islamic occultism. As Kraus showed, the vast Jabirian corpus is full of all sorts of recipes and procedures that are not remotely alchemical, but are spells or divinatory techniques. For example, it includes spells for producing insomnia, killing snakes, and repelling flies. (The late-ninth- and early-tenth-century corpus also includes encoded religious and political messages, astrological speculation, industrial processes, tips for rearing pigeons, recipes for generating monsters, horror stories, and much else besides.) Then again, the thirteenth-century occultist Abu al-Qasim al-Iraqi was a magician, conjuror, and alchemist, and it does not seem that he thought of these activities as being in separate compartments. And while on the subject of conjuring, Stefan Wild's two articles on juggling and fraudulent Sufis might have been listed in the bibliographical notes, as there was no dividing wall at all between magic, juggling, and conjuring in late medieval Egypt.

The thirteenth-century "sorcerer" al-Buni is such an important phenomenon in the history of Islamic occultism that Mohammed al-Gawhary's dissertation Die Gottesnamen im magischen Gebrauch in den al-Buni zugeschrieben Werken (Bonn, 1968) should be listed. Finally, Ronald Hutton's chapter on "Paganism in the Lost Centuries" in Witches, Druids and King Arthur (London, 2003) examines the pagan tradition as represented by the Harranians in late antiquity and its eventual transmission to Renaissance Europe.

At one point in her introduction Savage-Smith suggests that firasa, or divination from physiognomy, was originally a Sufi practice (and Toufic Fahd in La divination arabe has indeed argued that firasa was a foreign import that was first taken up within Islam by the Sufis). But it seems intrinsically more likely that firasa, whose trilateral root is the same as that for faras, a horse, developed out of Bedouin tracking and horse-trading skills. There is plenty of modern evidence for feats of detection and intuition on the part of nomads in the Arabian Peninsula that are so astounding that they verge on the supernatural. Moreover, in The Arabian Nights, in the story of "The King Who Kenned the Quintessence of Things," firasa is associated...


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