Philosophising the Occult: Michael Noble on The Hidden Secret of Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī
[We apologise for the poor sound-quality on this one. Well worth the effort of listening!]
فخر الدين راز/Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (1149/50-1210 CE) was a Persian intellectual with deep interests not only in kalam, philosophy, and how the two disciplines might work together, but also in the occult sciences of his day and, needless to say for a Sunni intellectual of the thirteenth century, in Tasawwuf. He is best known nowadays for his 32-volume Qur’anic exegesis Mafātiḥ al-Ghayb (Keys to the Unseen), a.k.a. al-Tafsīr al-Kabīr (The Great Commentary) on account of its size, but in this interview concentrate on an earlier, much shorter, and quite anomalous work, al-Sirr al-Maktum (The Hidden Secret).
Al-Sirr presents itself as a reportage of the views of the ‘Sabians’, a notional group of people whom al-Rāzī considers to be masters of astral talisman-making, as well as non-Abrahamic astral worshippers. He discusses their views (he identifies three different ‘sects’ of Sabians), their practical talismanic arts, and also expounds a fascinating theoretical system explaining how these arts might function in terms of a theory of the human mind based in Ibn Sina’s psychology, but with important differences.
In this fascinating interview we cover:
- The basic intellectual biography of al-Rāzī, with special attention to his engagement with Ibn Sina’s thought,
- The long-standing questions over authorship of the Sirr al-Maktum, which many Islamic authorities have been reluctant to attribute to a theological authority as eminent and ‘mainstream’ as al-Rāzī,
- Rāzī’s construction of ‘the Sabians’, the groups whose talismanic ritual material he is reporting on: there are three distinct groupings of Sabians according to Rāzī, corresponding to different takes on the ontological status of the planets vis à vis god and the lower world,
- The theory of what talismans are and how talismans work, especially interesting because of Rāzī’s integrating faculties of the soul into the picture – the practitioner’s wahm or ‘estimative faculty’ is able, when of the right sort and properly trained, to affect the external world and ‘do magic’ – leading to a long discursus on the Avicennan soul-faculties and Rāzī’s take on them,
- The curious doctrine of the tib‘a al-tamm, the ‘perfect nature’, a higher spiritual being, associated with a planetary sphere or a planet, which is:
- the cause of each individual human (so everyone is the son or daughter of one planetary spirit or another),
- the explanation for why human beings differ, being divisible into groups (which explains how prophets can be of an ontologically higher nature than other humans, something which Ibn Sina denied), and
- the first astral nature with which one must forge a connection before undertaking the planetary ascent-ritual,
- Some fascinating discussion of Ibn Sina’s psychology and the uses to which Rāzī puts it, including an account for how true dreams can both be inspired by celestial intelligences AND be deeply subjective at the same time, and
- Finally, we discuss the details of the fascinating ritual of planetary, self-talismanic ascent (it’s crazy) and the thorny problem of how we might interpret this ritual.
Michael Noble is a postdoctoral researcher at the Ludwig-Maximilians Universität in Munich working on the Heirs to Avicenna project. His PhD research at the Warburg Institute resulted in a fascinating thesis, and now the fascinating book Philosophising the Occult: Avicennan Psychology and ‘The Hidden Secret’ of Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, published by De Gruyter.
Works Cited in this Episode:
The works of Rāzī, as with so many Islamicate thinkers, are not for the most part available in critical editions. See Noble 2021, pp. 283-4 for the manuscript and printed primary sources used by Michael in his work on Rāzī.
Dorian Greenbaum. The Daimon in Hellenistic Astrology: Origins and Influence. Leiden/Boston, MA: Brill, 2016.
- Abrahamov, Binyamin. Religion versus Philosophy— the Case of Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī’s s Proofs of Prophecy. Oriente Moderno 80/3 (2000): 415–25.
- al-Akiti, Afifi. The Three Properties of Prophethood in Certain Works of Avicenna and al-Ghazālī. In Interpreting Avicenna: Science and Philosophy in Medieval Islam, ed. Jon McGinnis, 189–212. Islamic Philosophy, Theology and Science: Texts and Studies 56. Leiden: Brill, 2004.
- Amin, Wahid M. ‘From the One, Only One Proceeds’: The Post-Classical Reception of a Key Principle of Avicenna’s Metaphysics.” Oriens 48 (2020): 123–55.
- Aoyagi, Kaoru. Spiritual Beings in Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī’s s Cosmology with Special Reference to his Interpretation of the Mi‘rāj.” Orient 41 (2006): 145–61.
- Black, Deborah. Estimation (Wahm) in Avicenna: The Logical and Psychological Dimensions. Dialogue 32 (1993): 219–58.
- Idem. Imagination and Estimation: Arabic Paradigms and Western Transformations. Topoi 19 (2000): 59–75.
- Burnett, Charles. “Tābit ibn Qurra the Ḥarrānian on Talismans and the Spirits of the Planets. La Corónica 36 (2007), 13–40.
- Davidson, Herbert. Alfarabi, Avicenna and Averroes on Intellect: Their Cosmologies, Theories of the Active Intellect and Theories of Human Intellect. New York, NY/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
- Green, Tamara. The City of the Moon God: Religious Traditions of Harran. Leiden: Brill, 1992.
- Griffel, Frank. Al-Ghazālī’s s Concept of Prophecy: The Introduction of Avicennan Psychology into Ashʿarite Theology. Arabic Sciences and Philosophy 14 (2004): 101–44.
- Idem. On Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī’s Life and the Patronage He Received. Journal of Islamic Studies 18/3 (2007): 313-44.
- Hall, Robert. The Wahm in Ibn Sīnā’s s Psychology. In Intellect et imagination dans la philosophie médiévale: Actes du XIe Congrès International de la Société Internationale pour l’Étude de la Philosophie Médiévale (S.I.E.P.M.). Vol. 1, eds. Maria Cândida Pacheco and José Francisco Meirinhos. Turnhout: Brepols, 2006, 533–49.
- Janos, Damien. Moving the Orbs: Astronomy, Physics and Metaphysics, and the Problem of Celestial Motion According to Ibn Sīnā. Arabic Sciences and Philosophy 21 (2011): 167–84.
- Idem. Intuition, Intellection, and Mystical Knowledge: Delineating Fakhr al-Dīn Rāzī’s s Cognitive Theories. In Islam and Rationality: The Impact of al-Ghazālī. Papers Collected on his 900th Anniversary. Vol. 2. Islamic Philosophy, Theology and Science 98, ed. Frank Griffel. Leiden: Brill, 2016, 189–228.
- Kukkonen, Taneli. Faculties in Arabic Philosophy. In The Faculties: A History, ed. Dominik Perler, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015, 66–96.
- Marmura, Michael. Avicenna’s Psychological Proof of Prophecy. Journal of Near Eastern 49–56. Studies 22 (1963): 49–56.
- Idem. Avicenna’s Theory of Prophecy in the Light of Ash’arite Theology.” In The Seed of Wisdom: Essays in Honour of T.J. Meek, ed. William Stewart McCullough. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1964, 159–78.
- Melvin-Koushki, Matthew. Powers Powers of One: the Mathematicalization of the Occult Sciences in the High Persianate Tradition. Intellectual History of the Islamic World 5 (2017): 127–99.
- Miller, Isabel. Occult Science and the Fall of the Khwārazm-Shāh Jalāl al-Dīn.” Iran 39 (2001): 249–56.
- Noble, Michael. The Avicennan aestimatio (al-wahm) in Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī’s s Theory of Talismanic Action at a Distance. Bulletin de Philosophie Médiévale 59 (2018): 79–89.
- Idem. Philosophising the Occult: Avicennan Psychology and ‘The Hidden Secret’ of Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī. Berlin/Boston, MA: De Gruyter, 2021.
- Saif, Liana. From Ġāyat al-ḥakīm al-ḥakīm to Šams al-maʿārif: Ways of Knowing and Paths of Power in Medieval Islam.” Arabica 64 (2017) 297 – 345.
- Shihadeh, Ayman. From al-Ghazālī to al-Rāzī: 6th/12th Century Developments in Muslim Philosophical Theology. Arabic Sciences and Philosophy 15 (2005): 141–79.
- Idem. The Teleological Ethics of Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, Islamic Philosophy, Theology and Science 64. Leiden, Boston, MA: Brill, 2006.
- Idem. Aspects of the Reception of Avicenna’s Theory of Prophecy, Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association: Philosophy in the Abrahamic Traditions 86, edited by R. Edward Houser (2012): 23–32.
- Idem. Al-Rāzī’s (d. 1210) Commentary on Avicenna’s Pointers: The Confluence of Exegesis and Aporetics. In The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Philosophy, eds. Khaled El-Rouayheb and Sabine Schmidtke. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017, 296–325.
Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali, Addressative Magic, Astral Magic, Astrolatry, Cosmic Ascent, Esoteric Hermeneutics, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, Hypnagogy, Ibn Sina, Interview, Islam, Jinn, Sabians, Shihab al-Din Suhrawardi, Talismans, Tantra, Thābit ibn Qurrah