An Interview with Dr Liana Saif on the Present and Future Study of Islamic Esotericism

In this, the first in what we hope will be a long and fruitful series of interviews exploring the contemporary academic study of western esotericism, we talk with Dr Liana Saif, currently of the Warburg Institute and the University of Oxford.

One of the most exciting aspects of the study of western esotericism at the moment is the incredible work which is being done on its neglected Islamic component. We begin by discussing the inaugural meeting of the ENSIE, the European Network for the Study of Islamic Esotericism (or ‘Islam and Esotericism’ – the name is still under discussion, as we discuss in the interview). The conversation then moves on (as we all hoped it would) to Islamic esotericism more generally, and to some of the historical circumstances which make the study of Islamic esotericism central to the study of western esotericism.

This interview traces current developments in scholarship, but also provides quite a good historical introduction to Islamic esotericism. Those who find themselves asking the question ‘What has Islam got to do with western esotericism?’ will find a good preliminary answer here.

Interview Bio:

Liana Saif works on Islamic esoteric thought and the occult sciences, in addition to the intercultural exchange of occult and esoteric ideas between the Islamicate world and Europe in the medieval and early modern periods. Liana’s approach to the occult sciences privileges the text as a source of our evaluation of their place in the intellectual and scientific activity in Islamicate societies. She focuses on how their practitioners and authors created theories that negotiated epistemological shifts which informed and were informed by political, religious, and scientific disciplinary frameworks and institutions.

In 2014, she received the British Academy postdoctoral fellowship at the Institute of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford, to undertake the project ‘On the Margins of Legitimacy: Magic in Medieval Islam’. She engaged in a comprehensive analysis of magical practices in medieval Islam (from pseudo-Aristotelian Hermetica to Aḥmad al-Būnī), their cosmological frameworks, and the epistemological shifts that transformed them. As part of the project, she is currently preparing a critical translation from Arabic into English of the Ghāyat al-ḥakīm by Maslama b. Qāsim al-Qurṭubī. In 2016, she joined the project ‘Speculum Arabicum: Objectifying the contribution of the Arab-Muslim world to the history of sciences and ideas: the sources and resources of medieval encyclopaedism’, based at the Université Catholique de Louvain. In this context she has undertaken collaborative research on Epistle 52b (the long version of the last epistle – ‘On Magic’) of the Rasā’il Ikhwān al-Ṣafā’. She continues to work with the UCL, in collaboration with the Warburg Institute, as a postdoctoral researcher in the ERC PhilAnd project. Her objective is to provide an in-depth analysis of the understudied Kitāb al-Baḥth attributed to Jābir ibn Ḥayyān, and to gauge its influence in al-Andalus. She will produce a critical edition and translation into English of the text.

Recommended Reading:

Liana Saif’s work is pretty much all of interest to lovers of western esotericism, and she has published a major monograph which handily provides a perfect launching-place for those with no familiarity with Islamicate materials:

  • Arabic Influences on Early Modern Occult Philosophy (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

And check out her many articles:

  •  ‘What is Islamic Esotericism? Contouring a New Field’, Correspondences: Journal for the Study of Esotericism, special issues ‘Islamic Esotericism/s’, (forthcoming, 2019).
  • ‘A Study on Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ’s Epistle on Magic, the Longer Version (52b)’, Islamic Occult Sciences: Investigations of Theory and Practice, eds Liana Saif, Francesca Leoni, Farouk Yahya and Matthew Melvin-Koushki, Islamic Philosophy, Theology and Science Series (Leiden: Brill, forthcoming 2018).
  • Entries on ‘Divination’  and ‘Magic’ for the third edition of the Encyclopedia of Islam (Leiden: Brill, forthcoming).
  • ‘Physiognomy and Chiromancy’ in The Routledge Handbook on Scientific Practices in Islamicate Societies (8th-19th centuries), ed. Sonja Brentjes (New York: Routledge, Forthcoming).
  • ‘Magic and Divination Lost in Translation: A Cairene in a Maltese Inquisition,’ in Magic: The Slave Sellem and the Inquisition in Early Modern Malta, eds Alex Mallett, Catherine Rider, Dionisius A. Agius (Brill, forthcoming 2018).
  • ‘Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ’s Religious Reform and Magic: Beyond the Ismā ͑īlī Hypothesis’, Journal of Islamic Studies (2018), pp. 1-36.
  • ‘Islamic Astrology’ and ‘Abū Maʿshar’ in Astrology through History: Interpreting the Stars from Ancient Mesopotamia to the Present, ed. William E. Burns (ABC-Clio, 2018).
  • ‘From Ġāyat al-ḥakīm to Šams al-maʿārif wa laṭāʾif al-ʿawārif: Ways of Knowing and Paths of Power in Medieval Islam,’ Arabica, vol. 64, (2017), pp. 297-345.
  • ‘The Cows and the Bees: Arabic Sources and Parallels for Pseudo-Plato’s Liber vaccae (Kitāb al-Nawāmīs),’ Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institute, (December, 2017), pp. 1-47.
  • ‘Demonic Ætiology and Spiritual Therapeutics in Medieval Islam,’ in Demons and Illness: Theory and Practice from Antiquity to the Early Modern Period (Studies in Ancient Medicine Series), (Leiden: Brill, 2017), pp. 313-338.
  • Co-author with Venetia Porter and Emilie Savage-Smith, ‘Amulets, Magic, and Talismans,’ in A Companion to Islamic Art and Architecture, eds Finbarr Barry Flood, Gülru Necipoğlu (NJ: Wiley, 2017), I: pp. 521-556.
  • ‘The Universe and the Womb: Generation, Conception, and the Stars in Islamic Medieval Astrological and Medical Texts,’ Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies, vol. 16 (2016), pp. 181-198.
  • ‘Astrology: Homocentric Science in a Heliocentric Universe,’ in Astrology in Time and Place: Cross Cultural Questions in the History of Astrology, Nicholas Campion and Dorian Gieseler Greenbaum eds. (Bath: Cambridge Scholars, 2016), pp. 159-72.
  • ‘The Arabic Theory of Astral Influences in Early Modern Medicine,’ Renaissance Studies Journal, vol. 25, issue 5 (November, 2011), pp. 609-626.