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  • AfterwordConjuncting Astrology and Lettrism, Islam and Judaism
  • Matthew Melvin-Koushki

Islam, Judaism, kabbalah, lettrism, astrology, Neopythagorean science, Neoplatonic philosophy, Marla Segol, Noah Gardiner, A. Tunç Şen

Language is a virus from outer space.

—William S. Burroughs

These three papers represent a new turn in the intellectual historiography of the Islamic world: eschewing both positivism and the equally ideologically pernicious religionist reaction thereto, both of which have dominated the historiography throughout the twentieth century and to the present, they investigate their science—Islamic and Judeo-Islamic astrology—with evenhanded empiricism. Which is to say, they simply ignore the science-magic-religion triad as the nineteenth-century colonialist-orientalist-vivisectionist construct it is—for all that that triad still structures history of Islamic science in particular as an academic field.

As a case in point: in 2016, egregiously, it was still possible to dismiss astrology out of hand as pseudoscience in specialist surveys of that field, and to ignore its interpenetration with other mainstream occult sciences like lettrism, alchemy, and geomancy altogether.1 Such has long since ceased to be possible in Europeanist historiography of science, which in recent decades has become overtly occultophilic, especially that treating of the early modern period; but its Islamicist cognate remains largely positivist and teleologically Eurocentric to a shocking degree, and equally blatantly occultophobic. There the reigning (and hence usually implicit) narrative is one in which Arabic [End Page 89] astrology historically but functioned as cement shoe dragging Arabic astronomy, epitome of True Science, down into the miasmic depths of Unscience, where it finally perished, the valiant efforts of Muslim heroes of science—few and far between—all notwithstanding.2 The only question is as to whether Islamic science met its sorry end as late as the sixteenth century or as early as the eleventh.3 Either way, the civilizational torch was unquestionably passed from Islamdom to Christendom by the early modern period; and it was the terminal Islamic addiction to occultism that made Europeans alone the heirs of Western rationalism, the sole architects of hegemonic scientific modernity.

This narrative, expressly whiggish and Neomanichean, must be exploded; and our occultophilic authors calmly accomplish just that. To this end, and despite covering very different times, places, and scholarly communities—Segol on a series of rabbinical authorities in Iran, Iraq, and Italy from the sixth to the tenth century, Gardiner on an esotericist Sufi reading community of thirteenth-century Ifriqiya and Egypt, Şen on the religious-scholarly elites of sixteenth-century Ottoman Istanbul—, their articles converge in one remarkable and perhaps surprising respect: all three marry astrology to lettrism.

As an intellectual historian whose work centers precisely on the latter Neopythagorean science, I must emphasize the unprecedentedness and subversiveness of this strategy in the field. I should also note that I too participated in the 2015 "Characterizing Astrology" conference at the University of Chicago from which the present special issue derives; and I too focused my analysis on the increasing interdependence of astrology and lettrism, this in Arabic and Persian classifications of the sciences produced over eight centuries. That all four of us found it empirically necessary to take the same tack, without conspiring beforehand and hailing from very different academic bailiwicks (my own speciality is Timurid-Safavid Iran and the broader Persianate world during the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries), suggests the integrity of our findings, and indeed marks the beginnings of a new narrative of Islamic and Judeo-Islamic intellectual history—one featuring lettrism as indispensable pivot. Due to its unusual length and highly specialized nature, I have published the resulting article elsewhere;4 but I will here summarize its central argument, as it proposes a new macroscopic analytical framework for the [End Page 90] historical development of occult science in Islam (and Judaism by extension) over the millennium of Western intellectual history covered by our authors, and into which their articles slot quite nicely.

Based on the first survey of the Islamic encyclopedic tradition from the tenth to the seventeenth century, with emphasis on Persian classifications of the sciences (sg. taṣnīf al-ʿulūm), I there demonstrate the ascent to philosophically and sociopolitically mainstream status of various occult sciences (ʿulūm ghar...


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