Mastering Nature and Soul: Contemplations on Magic and Talismans in Islam

The following is a guest post by Liana Saif (Ph.D. University of London, 2012), a research associate at the Warburg Institute (London) and Université catholique de Louvain (Belgium). She is an intellectual historian specializing in medieval Islamicate occult sciences and Islamic esotericism, and also conducts research on the entanglement and exchange of esoteric and occult ideas and practices between the Latin-West and the Islamicate world in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Fig. 1: Necklace of 49 glass beads resembling eyes, worn to overt the Evil Eye, from Hebron, Palestine, 1880-1930. Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

 A blue disk with a nucleus of white and black concentric circles, the Nazar, is used against the malice of the Evil Eye. It has become a ubiquitous adornment, charming the necks of Coachella revellers, decorating the make-believe rooms of IKEA, and more recently, a design element on masks worn to ward off Covid19. Whether appropriative or appreciative, ornamental or functional, this object still takes hold of people and spaces as something hyper significant. You look at it, it looks back. 

Fig. 2 One example of masks available for sale with the Nazar as motif of protection.

Talismans can take many forms: some are plates of carefully chosen metal inscribed with figures and magic scripts at astrologically opportune times; others are pieces of paper folded over sigils, magic squares and verses of the Qur’an. Some are held close to the body; others are washed and ingested. These are very intimate objects with a real and  living tradition that cuts across class and creed, with myriads of uses that project and channel human anxieties and desires: for labour pains, love, wealth, health, protection, revenge, and success. Yet to many these days, such magical objects are archaic tokens of the irrational, the device of the desperate. The talisman is much more than this. It is an object possessing layered meanings and functions that have been reduced by the hegemonic power of modern science into a practice concocted by “superstitious” minds. From this perspective, talismans are labelled, at best, a “pseudo-science”, like astrology (as a precursor to astronomy) and alchemy (as the ancestor of chemistry). But the talisman’s very power lies in its disturbance of accepted epistemologies, as well as the ambiguity it demands from those who make it, use it, and study it.  It is a “technology of the self”, to use Foucault’s term, whereby things, volition, planets and stars are mobilised to develop knowledge about one’s universe and society, body and soul, for the attainment of happiness, wisdom and perfection.  

Fig. 3: “Preparation for a Noon-Day Meal,” Folio from a Divan (Collected Works) of Mir ‘Ali Shir Nava’i. Calligrapher: Qasim ‘Ali of Shiraz. Date: 1580. The man in the bottom left corner appears to be stretching noodles. Metropolitan Museum, New York (public domain)

At its very basis, the medieval talisman is an exercise of understanding action at a distance. For the polymath Yaʿqūb ibn Isḥāq al-Kindī (801-873), talismans work through astral rays that make up the fabric of the cosmos, binding and actualizing not only the actions of talismans, but also prayers and even animal sacrifices. Concerning the latter, al-Kindī argues that the “unnatural” death of an animal results in the sudden burst of the animal’s own radial-hub causing a ripple, a disturbance, in the very fabric of the cosmos and thus affecting the natural world. By creating a talisman, one manipulates the forces of the universe. 

It is not only observable things that produce and respond to rays; desire and action are astrally active; their rays are channelled through two instruments: speech (invocations) and craft (talismans, images, sacrifices). Imagination impresses purposeful actuality on sensible things through these rays, linking one’s volition to the stars. Resolve, stars, and things are the fundamentals of talismanry, but also of ordinary action. In the tenth-century magic tome the Ghāyat al-ḥakīm (the Goal of the Sage), the Andalusian occultist and esotericist Maslama al-Qurṭubī explains: 

“Every creator and maker of a thing … first aims to make the components which make up the generated thing until these components become a prepared prime material that can accept a second form. This is similar to when you observe the maker of starch from [raw] foodstuff (alṭaʿām), “noodles” (aṭriya) from starch, and [the maker of] all the things that are derived from various sweets (ḥalwā). Likewise, the maker of pickles, cheese, and butter from milk; also, the maker of threads from cotton, and everything that is made through such operations”.

Fig. 4: Pendant with Lion and Scorpion. Date: 10th century. Geography: Iran, Nishapur. Cast bronze. Metropolitan Museum, (public domain)

The quotidian is magical with the right resolve. Think of this the next time you are baking bread or putting scorpions to flight as the Sabian from Ḥarrān, physician, and astronomer Thābit ibn Qurra (836-901) recommends

“When you want to operate with this, you should begin when Scorpio is ascending, and you should make the talisman of a scorpion from copper or tin or lead or silver or gold, if you wish. And you should carve on the image the name of the ascendant and its master and the lord of the hour and the lord of the day and the name of the Moon; and let the Moon be in Scorpio. […] And when you have done this, you should bury it upside down, and you should say whilst you bury it: ‘This is the burial of such and such, so that it does not enter into such and such a place’.”

As “artificial actions imitating natural actions” – according to Kitāb al-Nukhab, a work attributed to Jābir ibn Ḥayyān – talismans reproduce the very act of creation. We are told in the Ghāya that “the subject of talismans is spirit-in-body”; therefore, it is an act of ensouling a selected or fabricated body. Consider the following image:

Fig. 5: Models of a man and woman for the purpose of bringing them together. From: Dhakhīrat Iskandar, London, British Library, IO Islamic 673, fol. 50r.

The two little platforms under the figures indicate their manufactured nature. They are shaped from the wax of a melted wedding candle. They represent a man and a woman whose passion for each other is to be aroused by a Venusian spell. Incense is burned and spiritual forces, or rūḥāniyyāt, are invoked, together infusing the objects with life. The mage is instructed to bring them together in a lusty embrace, fold them in green silk cloth, and then bury them. The seven genitals on both figures signify the intent by means of hyperbole that renders the objects almost monstrous. The talisman maker thus creatively moulds the objects to incite her own focus, making them legible to the earth in which they are buried, and which communicates their latent forces to the air, ether, and stars.   

What makes crafting a talisman –  or pickles –  a magical process is the spiritual agency that each requires. Maslama al-Qurṭubī tells us that in making talismans four “rūḥāniyyāt”, are at work: the rūḥāniyya of the world which acts through astral rays; the rūḥāniyya of the instrument; the rūḥāniyya of intention; and the rūḥāniyya of manual labour. The rūḥāniyyāt are not translatable: they are neither spirits nor demons but rather agents of astral influences. They form a network of volitional causation that encompasses the celestial and terrestrial worlds and put to action the will of God and humans. They are immanent principles – beings manifesting divine plenitude and profusion, the core of the universe’s non-mechanistic efficiency. They exist somewhere between the universal and individual, at an intersection between the amorphous and palpable. Maslama says: “The rūḥāniyya may appear in the spiritual world [of the mage] as a person who converses with him and teaches him what he desires, it may endear him to kings and sultans, tie and unravel any matter he wills … Talismans are the most powerful choice”. 

Rituals are performative transactions that presume human prerogative to demand and receive favours from the celestial world. Yet, we are anxious about the invisible, so tangibility becomes a coveted assurance that our actions are seen and admitted. The effectiveness of many invocations prescribed in the Ghāyat al-Ḥakīm is signalled by the appearance of the rūḥāniyya. Following a supplication to the Moon midst incense-laden airs, a serene-looking well-dressed person appears. In another to Jupiter, the sign of success is the appearance of a lit candle in front of the supplicator. The Cosmos is listening.

Fig. 6: The Moon by the author.

As a “technology of sign systems”, the creation of any efficient magical object requires the mage’s attention to the ways purpose, stars, and all things semiotically relate to each other. She must know natural-astral correspondences and rules of sympathy and antipathy. One can’t reach for Mars if one seeks love, and one can’t use hot and dry scammony for the excesses of the cold and wet phlegm. Wisdom is the condition of cosmic hermeneutics. Plotinus himself exclaims that the influences of the heavenly bodies proceed from their ‘symbolic power’, adding: “we may think of the stars as letters perpetually being inscribed on the heavens  . . .  all teems with symbol, the wise man is the man who in any one thing can read another”. This is not far from the Qur’anic call for devotional hermeneutics: ‘In the creation of the heavens and the earth, in the rotation of night and day, are sure signs for those people possessed of inner insight’ (Q.3:190). 

With knowledge comes power. Returning to the Jābirian Kitāb al-Nukhab, we are told that the meaning of the talisman is gleaned from its Arabic name ṭillasm reversed, musallaṭ, meaning that which is authorized to have control over something else. In the Ghāya, which transfers this very definition, Maslama adds that this is because “it is, in essence, coercion and subordination, acting on that for which it is constructed by way of domination and coercion, as well as by means of numerical ratios and celestial secrets placed in specific bodies at suitable times, and [with] incenses that strengthen and bring about the rūḥāniyya of this talisman”. 

The object itself, with its transitive effects, is merely the core of its sphere of power; it extends to the prestige of knowledge that renders the scholar (ʿālim) a mage; the mage, a sage (ḥakīm); the sage, a queen, the queen an angel. The tenth-century secret brotherhood of esotericists, the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ (‘The Brethren of Purity’) write in their Epistle on Magic (Risāla fī al-siḥr) that acquiring “knowledge of this necessitates that the learner attains human excellence, that is, receiving angelic forms after death,” which is the objective behind their encyclopedic discourse as a whole. The greatest magic of all is transforming one’s self into a talisman by aligning resolve with auspicious celestial configurations, having a body in complete harmony with soul, brought together by ḥikma (wisdom).

According to the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ and Maslama al-Qurṭubī, enlightenment gives the individual the privilege of becoming a leader of the Muslim community. “Great magic” is the manifestation of power received directly by divine inspiration, and they see the Macrocosmic Human as a khalīfa, God’s deputy in the created world. This recalls the notion of khilāfa in the Qurʾan: “Your lord said to the angels, ‘I will make upon the earth a khalīfa’” (Q 2:30). For the Ikhwān, “grand deputyship” is divine and bestowed upon Adam, the prophets, and the imams. The governance (riyāsa) of this divine deputyship is contrasted with the leadership (siyāsa) of terrestrial and temporal deputyship. Therefore, true caliphate, prophecy, and imamate result from and even constitute the “Great Magic”. 

The talisman then embodies the polyfocal possibilities that result from being cognizant of the different epistemological approaches the creator may adopt: utilitarian, scientific, and mystical. The talisman is the ultimate technology of the self. In al-Wāridat wa al-Taqdīsāt (“The Divine Effusions and Consecrations”), attributed to the Persian philosopher and mystic Shihāb al-Dīn Suhrawardī (1154-1191), the subject is enjoined: “Read your own inscription O Human Talisman (ayyuhā al-ṭillasm al-basharī), for your inscription is God’s Preserved Tablet in all exactness. Sanctify God when the Major Luminary (the Sun) is in one of the horizons, and make sincere your dhikr (recitations), for the stations of dhikr are witnessed by the Helpers.” So, gentle reader, whether you are rolling noodles or churning butter, remember that you too are a talisman in the making.

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