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Lecture | LUCIS What's New?! Series

Between Admiration and Repulsion: The ‘Witch’ in Medieval Islam

Thursday 12 May 2022
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What's New?! Spring Lecture Series 2022
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden

The study of the Islamic occult sciences has developed rapidly with impressive outcomes in the last 10 years. In addition to ground-breaking research, these include critical editions of overlooked texts that are essential to our knowledge of the occult sciences, and Islamic philosophical and scientific enterprise. The analysis thus far has confirmed the dominance of “maleness” as the paradigm of sagacity, ability, and authority. In this lecture, I will look at the place of women in the history of Islamicate medieval magic on two levels: 1) the theorisation of women’s magical practices in the works of authors and commentators on magic such as Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ (‘The Brethren of Purity’) and Ghāyat al-ḥakīm by Maslama al-Qurṭubī (both tenth-century productions), and 2) the presence of magical women in bio-bibliographical sources and historical narratives such as al-Masʿūdī’s Murūj al-Dhahab (‘The Meadows of Gold’) and Ibn Khaldūn’s Muqaddima and Tārīkh (‘Prolegomena’ and ‘History’, respectively) among others. I will show that despite insisting on the inferiority of the epistemological foundations of women magical practices, the power some witches (sāḥirāt and ḥakīmāt) yielded not only fascinated authors and medieval historians but were crucial for devising “sensational” catalyses that constructed an ancient heritage and an Islamic historical imaginary.

About Liana Saif

In 2021, Liana Saif (PhD, 2012) joined the Centre for the Study of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents at the University of Amsterdam as Assistant Professor in the History of Esotericism in the Middle Ages. Prior, she was a research associate as the Warburg Institute and the Université Catholique de Louvain, and held the British Academy post-doctoral fellowship at The University of Oxford (St Cross). Saif’s work focuses on Islamic esotericism and the occult sciences, with a special interest in the exchange of esoteric and occult knowledge between the Islamic and Latin ecumenes. Her book The Arabic Influences on Early Modern Occult Philosophy was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2015. She is currently preparing a long-awaited critical translation from Arabic into English of Maslama b. Qāsim al-Qurṭubī’s (d. 964) Ghāyat al-ḥakīm, known in its Latin translation as the Picatrix. She has conducted research on the tenth-century secret brotherhood Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ (The Brethren of Purity), the pseudo-Aristotelian Hermetica, and Jābir ibn Ḥayyān (Geber in Latin). She also worked as a project curator at the British Museum, deepening her interest in the material and artistic manifestations of the occult and the esoteric.

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