Occult Science and Theory in the Middle Ages
Updated: May 11
Several medieval manuscripts from the Muslim world discuss talismans, magic, the zodiac, omens, and the like. It may be argued that the manuscripts discussed in this post were not intended as handbooks for grimoire magic but to discuss the theory and philosophy of magic and aid in understanding theurgy as a science. Despite Islam strictly forbidding magic, astrology, omens, and talismans nevertheless had an undisputable significance in medieval Muslim courts.
Sahil ibn Bishr al-Israeli, often known as Rabban al-Tabari or Haya al-Yahudi, was a Syriac Christian astrologer, astronomer, and mathematician from Tabaristan. He penned the Majmu fi al-aḥkam, a comprehensive Treatise on astrology.
Ibn Washiyya inked a book on Nabataean agricultural practices, in which he mentioned several incantations and prayers. Nabatean Agriculture (Kitab al-Filaha al-Nabatiyya) — perhaps we shall never find out if he meant to document these or transmit them.
He was also the world’s first Egyptologist. Kitab Shauq al-Mustaham Mahrifat Rumuz al-Aqlam is a work of scholarship that discusses several ancient alphabets, in which he deciphered a number of Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Lastly, he penned The Book of Poisons (Kitab al-Sumum). It is not to be confused with Shanaq al-Hindi: Kitab al-Sumum, a book of the same name by al Jahwari. Whilst the book leans more towards toxicology, parts were included as an appendix to a book on magic, the Picatrix.
Here, it is also important to note that toxicology was a fairly important subject in scholarship. Perhaps we shall dive into books on poisons and antidotes someday.
The Complete Picatrix has been called “The most famous grimoire of astrological magic and one of the most important works of medieval and Renaissance magic.” An occult classic, it is a book translated into Latin from Arabic during the time of King Alfonso.
Whilst the text is attributed to Al-Majtiri, historians argue if he truly wrote it. The book is a comprehensive text on hermetical magic, the philosophy of magic, enchantment rituals, talismanic, and natural magic.
The Rutbat al-hakim, a text on alchemy, and the Ghayat al-Hikam, the Goal of the Wise, explain the philosophy & practice of creating talismans. They include DIY instructions on making talismans.
To Al Biruni’s name is a work is Persian, Kitab al-tafhim li-awail sinaat al-tanjim, The Book of Instruction in the Elements of the Art of Astrology.
Al Kindi wrote the “Judgement of the Stars: The Forty Chapters”.
Jabir ibn Haiyyan’s “Great Book on Talismans,” the Kitab al-Ṭilasmat al-Kabir is a profound text which deals with the theory of astrology, demonology, and theurgy.
He also compiled the Kitab Sharh suwar al-Burj wa-afaliha, a Book of that Explanation of the Figures of the Zodiac and Their Activities.
Also to his credit is The Book of the Search, Kitab al-Bahth. The work is also known as The Book of Extracts or the Kitab al-Nukhab. It is dedicated entirely to the philosophical foundations of supernatural action and agency in the human world.
The Book of the King, the Kitab al-Malik, is a short treatise on the effectiveness of talismans, whilst the Kitab al-Jafr al-aswad is a book on Black Magic.
Al Razi’s Fi al-Nubuwwat, a book on prophecies, was later declared a work of heresy.
Ibn Sireen’s Book of Dreams, or Dictionary of Dreams, is a text which allows dives into what dreams may mean, taking inspiration from various religious texts.
It also may be argued that the word “occult” for these books is somewhat misplaced and has a tinge of an underlying orientalist undertone, for the focus is entirely on manuscripts by Muslim scientists and writers. However, for the lack of a better word in English, that is what this blog has been entitled.