Week 4: Magic in Islam

This week’s videos were devoted to how Magic was perceived in Islam. Similarly to Europe, Islam had a long history with magic, or sihr, before it was deemed ‘unorthodox’. The Qur’an itself mentions sihr 60 times.  Prophets have been called sahir, which means sorcerer, by their opponents, and have all been accused of bewitching their own people.  This shows that some attituded toward magic was that it was untrustworthy.  But, the Qur’an does not explicitly condone or forbid magic, so it is not easy to say whether the people of Medieval Islam felt strongly about it one way or another. However, like in Europe, the theologists of Islam warn against the dangers of sihr. White magic was divine, and reserved for prophets, while sorcerers use satanic forces to carry out black magic.  It is confusing to think about, for at times it seems like the church/religion does not accept magic, and yet divine magic for prophets was ok?  In the videos, I got the sense that attitudes toward magic were similar to those felt in Europe.  That being said, it appears that those in Islam viewed many topics as science instead of magic.  


For example, there was a group of thinkers who called themelves Ikwan al Safa, or Brethren of Purity, who wrote an encyclopedia concerning science and knowledge. This encyclopedia was written in a way that would allow the reader to progress through the noble sciences, and eventually get to the most ineffable wisdom. Although this book claims to be a book about science, most of it’s contents are about magic. In fact, there was a major prophecy written in Epistle 36, Cycles and Revolutions. This Epistle was written about astrology, and tracked the movement of the stars and planets. The Brethren read the sky, and created a theory that the history of the world is made of a series of 7 cycles of 7000 years each. Every millennium would be divided by a prophet. There are 6 they documented: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Mohammad, and the seventh one, who has not yet arrived. They named the seventh, Qa’im of Resurrection. The brethren published their encyclopedia anonymously on purpose, because they were well aware that many readers would become outraged by this theory. This encyclopedia is very much dedicated to the ideas of the occult.


Another type of magic that was popular in Islam was the science of letters, or the classification of letters. The idea behind this is that words (and therefore letters) not only provide information about things, but also refer to the things’ inner nature. Knowing the name of the thing means knowing the thing itself. So, there were a few methods people could classify letters; the best known is according to four elements: Fire, Air, Water, and Earth. There are 28 letters in the semitic alphabet, giving each element 7 letters. There were numerical classifications in which all letters are assigned a number, and the letters in words would add up to a specific quantity. People would then categorize objects by their numerical value. Another method was by properties: the four properties were hot, cold, dry, and wet- 28 leters, 7 letters to each property.


The elixir theory was made out of this last classification; since the names of things reflect their nature, it could be possible to know the exact composition of a thing thanks to its name. This is the beginning of Arabian Alchemy. Alchemy was a mixture of technical practices mixed with philosophical doctrine. Alchemy dates back to Hellenistic Greece, but soon, new experiments were being attributed to Arabic alchemists. The idea of alchemy was to change a ‘vile’ metal, such as lead or copper, into a noble metal, such as silver or gold. From the names of these materials, the alchemist could learn the proportions of elements living within the object. How much fire, air, water, or earth was in the item. So, once you KNOW what you have, and you know what you want to have, the alchemist would calculate how much was needed of a certain substance to transform the original into a noble metal. Once that was done, they would take what is called a ‘stone’, but it didn’t have to be an actual stone. It was just a third, basic material of which the alchemist could extract the elements. The Alchemist would distill the ‘stone’ into its basic parts, whether it was pure heat, pure cold, pure dry, or pure wet, and add the correct proportions to the original material. While this seems like it would definitely not work, alchemists did discover things like hydrochloric acid. It was all based on the premise: if I can see an object’s proportions, I could theoretically change the proportions of the thing, and transform the object into whatever I want!



    • Gerald Ardito
      Gerald Ardito


      I learned so much about the course you chose from your blog posts.

      What I took away was a sense of how dominant cultures deal with non-dominant cultures and how the Other is perceived and, at times, reviled.i am also struck by your intellectual curiosity and openness, all of which reminds me that learning environments are about much more than content.

      • Michelle Raspanti
        Michelle Raspanti

        It was a topic out of left field, but I was interested and really learned a lot of things about medieval culture.  I love art history, so some of this information ties back to what I already knew and gave me a broader sense of what life was like during that time.  I know I loved learning about this, but throughout the course, I felt a little guilty picking a topic so unrelated to blended learning... But throughout this last semester of grad school, I think it gave me an amazing "brain break" ... I was still learning about something, but I gave myself a break from the education world.  If I hadn't, my thoughts would have become consumed by one thing only, and I would have probably gone insane. So.. ultimately, thank you for the opportunity to pick a topic and take a course online in anything!! 

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