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A sorcerer’s handbook: medieval Arabic magic in context

1 January 2019 - 12 December 2022

PI/s in Exeter: Associate Professor Emily Selove

Research partners: Dr Luca Patrizi

Sponsor(s): Leverhulme Research Project Grant

Project webpage(s)

A sorcerer’s handbook: medieval Arabic magic in context

About the research

This project focuses on a collection of magical texts attributed to an influential medieval scholar of the Arabic language, Sirāj al-Dīn al-Sakkākī (d. 1229 CE). In producing an edition and translation of his neglected book of magic, accompanied by a volume of essays, we will do more than illuminate the world of medieval Arabic occult literature; we will also show the connections between the so-called East and West, and between the disciplines of science, literature and religion, complicating our picture of the ‘rational West’ and remembering its Arabo-Islamic intellectual heritage.

Kitāb al-Shāmil (The Book of the Complete) is a technical manual containing a mixed collection of magical recipes and rituals. It includes instructions for creating talismans, for controlling jinn and devils, for causing sickness, for curing such magically caused afflictions and for calling upon the power of each of the planets. The power of God and phrases from the Qur’an are frequently invoked, but the texts in this collection claim to originate from famous Greek thinkers like Ptolemy and Hippocrates. Such Arabic texts concerned with astrological matters as well as the hidden properties of objects in the natural world were influential on European literary and scientific traditions. The translation of the title as The Book of the Complete is informed by a reading of the compiler’s introduction, which refers to the “perfect” scholars of the ancient world on which it purports to base its information, hence, “The book of the Perfect/ Complete person”; it is possible that the title is a play on the similarly titled eleventh-century book of magic al-Shāmil fī al-bahr al-kāmil (Complete book of the Perfect Sea) by al-Tabasī.

Previous research on Sakkākī tends to centre on his influential book on language, Miftāh al-‘ulūm (The Key to the Sciences), often ignoring his reputation as a magician. Nevertheless, early biographical literature describes his life as a magician in the Mongol court, crediting him with the power to, for example, strike cranes down in mid-flight with a magical inscription. Both Sakkākī’s linguistic and magical interests show his fascination with the power of language and these interests will inform the literary style of translation of Sakkākī’s mysterious grimoire.