Islamic Alchemy and Magic

In Islam, artistic representation of living beings is prohibited, a stance also reflected in the treatment of magical objects. Notably, the Holy Quran does not explicitly forbid such depictions; rather, it is the Prophetic Tradition (Hadith), a compilation of the Prophet Muhammad’s sayings and actions, that warns against attempting to emulate God’s creative power, suggesting that such imitators will be tasked with breathing life into their creations on the Day of Judgment.

Central to Islamic magical theory is the concept of the universe as an interconnected organic entity, influenced by celestial bodies, zodiacal signs, elements (earth, water, air, fire), and qualities (cold, warm, dry, humid). These ideas, inherited from Late Antiquity, link to Arabic letters, planetary spirits, and days of the week in magical thinking.

Astrology and alchemy, sharing concepts with magic, contribute to a comprehensive understanding of the cosmos. Alchemical treatises, embodying ancient symbolism like the ouroboros, connect the mundane with the Divine Art, emphasizing unity geometrically through concentric circles, spherical representations, and magic squares.

In the magical worldview, the universe is structured under the dominion of various classes of angels and spirits, accessible for requests or coercion to bring about desired changes. Magical practices address misfortunes or pursue positive goals, viewing disturbances as disharmony in the world caused by factors like the evil eye and jinn.

Ritual acts, sometimes involving materials like iron or precious stones, seek contact with supernatural forces to restore harmony or achieve specific goals. Amulets, inscribed with written spells, offer perpetual protection and are worn or carried as a means of establishing a connection with spiritual forces.

Magical amulets and artifacts

The term “amulet” originates from the Latin “amuletum,” signifying a prophylactic force. The word “talisman,” rooted in the Greek “telesma,” relates to magic rites. Arabic terms like “hijab,” “hirz,” “ta widha,” and “tamima” express prophylactic properties, embodying notions of covering, refuge, invocations, and perfection.

Magical Talisman

Despite the Islamic prohibition of gold for household items, magical objects, including golden artifacts, have emerged. Specific materials, colors, and shapes, such as cylindrical, rectangular, or triangular amulet holders, contribute to their efficacy. Iron, associated with strength in the Quran, is favored for its perceived ability to ward off evil demons.

Magical artifacts often incorporate precious stones and colors for their symbolic significance. Official Islam acknowledges the existence of magic, evident in the Quranic mention of the term “sihr” over 50 times.

A significant passage in Surah Al-Baqarah underscores the teaching of sorcery by evil demons and the caution against using it to harm others without God’s permission.

In adherence to Islamic principles, the practice of magic for malevolent purposes is strictly prohibited, rendering black magic illegitimate. Another crucial condition dictates that practitioners should seek help from God rather than invoking entities. Suspicion arises when spirits with unintelligible names (nomina barbara) are summoned and coerced to assist in fulfilling the petitioner’s wishes.

Despite these prohibitions, magical handbooks often overlook these restrictions, featuring demons with unknown names whose aid is consistently sought. This practice, as observed by Muhammad al-Fulani al-Kishnawi, extends beyond Muslims to include Jews, Christian Copts, and Arabs, who, in their pursuit of desired outcomes, employ words of unknown meaning and seek the assistance of angels.

In addition to amulets, the entire Quran is considered a potent prophylactic, with specific chapters and verses holding special significance. Verses such as the ‘Opening’ (Fatiha), the ‘Throne Verse’ (Ayat al-Kursi), and others are favored for their purported ability to break magical spells.

Magical calligraphy

Islamic magical non-figurative elements encompass squares (wifą) composed of numerals, letters, and words, as well as magical symbols and signs. Numerical squares, a distinctive feature of Islamic magic, do not serve mathematical purposes but visually demonstrate the organic unity of the world.

The use of the 99 Most Beautiful Names of God, God’s Greatest Name, and Prophet Muhammad’s Seal of Prophethood are prominent in magical treatises. Sophisticated letter squares, combining letters with numerical values, have emerged as a result.

Figurative elements, such as human beings, demons, and animals, appear alongside symbols like the fish (symbolizing fertility) and basic motifs of the hand, eye, and crescent in magical representations.

Calligraphy, both figurative and non-figurative, gained popularity in the 18th to 20th centuries, with Sufi circles contributing to the mystic use of script.

The representation of the Prophet’s qualities (hilya) in calligraphic panels became widely popular, attributed to Hafiz Osman. This non-figurative pattern, detailing the Prophet’s characteristics, achieved similar importance for Muslims as pictures of saints for Christians.

Sufism and Magic

The Sufis, whether Sunni or Shiite, played a significant role in the realm of magic. They propagated magical ideas, commercialized magical activities, and contributed greatly to the popularization of amulets and magic books, particularly in the last centuries.

The Sufi perspective on the world is characterized by the belief that reality, ultimately the Divine Reality or God, is concealed (batin) behind the observable (zahir) world. To unveil this reality, one must free the soul from the constraints of physical perception.

This entails purifying the heart, symbolizing the soul imprisoned in the body, to receive divine light. Similar to the regular polishing of mirrors, the heart requires cleansing. Ordinary sight is insufficient for perceiving the hidden, as emphasized in Quranic verses (K 6,103-104):

Sight does not reach Him, but He reaches sight.
He is the Gentle and the Informed.
Clear proofs have come to you from your Lord.
Those who see clearly benefit,
while those who remain blind are at a disadvantage.

Quran 6,103-104

Divine inspiration is essential for realizing the unveiling (kashf) of the hidden, allowing one to comprehend the inner meaning of things. The Sufi’s yearning for a divine encounter after a spiritual journey finds symbolic expression in the bird confined in a cage — a metaphor for the human soul striving to escape material bonds.

Among the metaphorical soul-birds, the parrot, falcon, peacock, nightingale, dove, partridge, and stork hold privileged positions. Paradise, symbolizing the Divine Beloved, represented by flowers like the rose, serves as the ultimate destination. The theme of the nightingale longing for the rose is a recurring motif in the works of Hafiz, the Persian poet and mystic.

Sufis are inclined to create calligraphic representations to convey the dual nature of the world. Zoomorphic or anthropomorphic figures composed of calligraphic texts, as well as micrography, are considered significant graphic representations. These convey the distinction between outer form and inner meaning, adapting to the onlooker’s level of comprehension.

The lion, a symbol of Ali, gained prominence in zoomorphic calligraphy, with calligraphic lions and elephants often created using the “Call Ali” text. Birds, associated with speech as mentioned in the Quran (K 27,16), are privileged messengers. The idea of birds longing to return to their Lord, symbolizing humanity’s quest for God, is poetically captured in “The Conference of the Birds” by Farid ud-Din ‘Attar.

On a personal level, Sufis bridge the gap between believers and real religious experience through practices like remembrance (dhikr). Dhikr exercises involve swaying and whirling around with music and recitation, aiming to induce ecstasy (wajd) and provide a sense of the Divine.

The Sufi pursuit of the invisible world and their unique methods make them predisposed to magical activities. Sufi devotional rituals involve mortificatory exercises, fasting, seclusion, and continuous prayers. These rituals share similarities with magical procedures, emphasizing invocations, and the use of amulets for protection.

Certain Sufi objects and ceremonies, such as the mantle, headwear, stick, mendicant’s bowl, and prayer rug, have become emblems of Sufi identity. Trees and floral motifs in art objects are also significant, reflecting the Sufi understanding of the world as an organic unity. This worldview is expressed not only in representations of human beings but also in objects and magic squares.

Magical Vessels

Beyond amulets, it is essential to highlight a unique category of magical artifacts known as magical bowls. These bowls, commonly referred to as “fear cups” or tasat al-khadda in contemporary Arabic, gained widespread popularity in the Islamic world from the 11th to the 12th century.

Magical squares

Primarily utilized for medicinal purposes, such as treating scorpion stings, snake bites, poisoning, hydrophobia, and colic, these bowls featured religious and magical texts, figures, and symbols. The belief was that drinking water from these bowls would transmit the healing properties inscribed on them to the patient.

The spherical shape of the bowls made them particularly apt for representing cosmological concepts. Through their structural design, decoration, and inscriptions, a set of these bowls symbolized the universe. They effectively amalgamated ancient geocentric theories based on the spherical nature of the cosmos with Islamic cosmological ideas.

This worldview, shaped by Sufi scholarship, found its expression through two key elements: the incorporation of the “Throne Verse” (K 2,255), which references the Divine Throne encompassing the heavens and the earth, and a graphic representation of the planets and zodiacal signs symbolizing the cosmic spheres.

This synthesis harmonized fundamental Islamic concepts like the ‘Unity of God’ (tawhid) and the Sufi idea of the “Oneness of Being” (wahdat al-wujud) with the Ptolemaic geocentric perspective. The bowls also served as tools for divination, inviting dream visions.

The representation of the entire Universe signified to practitioners that they possessed the necessary knowledge to rectify any disharmony in the world, which they believed could stem from personal afflictions. In cases of divination requests, they sought universal insight to obtain answers that considered all possibilities.

Starting from the 16th to the 17th century, intricate Sufi invocations began to prominently feature among the inscribed texts on these bowls, highlighting the profound involvement of Sufi practices in their creation, utilization, and dissemination.

Source article and copyright images: "Sufism and Magic: Amulets from the Islamic World" by Alexander Fodor. This book contains the detailed descriptions and pictures of 68 Islamic amulets and other items related to magic from the collections of the Tareq Rajab Museum, Kuwait.

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