A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
About the author of the book:
Mohammed Atbuosh is a young Yemeni scholar interested in philosophy and Islamic thought. Over the past three years, he has published two titles: Scientific Miracles: The Crisis of Religion and Science and Magical Thought in Islam.
Often there are books that oscillate between clever and daring, but Magical Thought in Islam clearly belongs to the latter category. Recently published by Dar al-Rafidain in Lebanon, the text expands on a research paper published by Mominoun Without Borders in 2017.
The boldness of the book lies not only in the fact that it touches on a taboo subject but also that it expresses more than it initially suggests. Throughout the book, the main statement remains unspoken, and this absence is in fact its operative and what – presumably in the reader’s opinion – needs to be uttered. Reading Atbuosh, we face another ‘Da Vinci Code’, in which the facade, as calm as it appears, is only a cover for a more turbulent background. The book itself is a play of hints and revelations.
But where exactly is the code of Magical Thought in Islam? It lies, above all, in the title itself. ‘Magic’ claims to be philosophical, just as “superstition claims to be scientific” (p. 398), according to the phrase he quotes from Thorndike at the end of the book. And so the book ends where it begins, and between the beginning and the ending lies an untold story that traces the path that leads us to this schizophrenic condition.
Let us begin with Atbuosh.
Following an anthropological discourse, Atbuosh opens Magic Thought in Islam by talking about magic in ancient and primitive cultures before moving on to Islamic culture.
In the context of analyzing the relationship between Islam and magic, he writes that Islam “broke away from all these [magical] doctrines, and enacted the death penalty for anyone practicing it”.It rejected all magical beliefs to the point of “absolute denial” (p. 49).
In spite of Islam’s position towards magic, which is supported by a number of Quranic verses, Atbuosh identifies some parallel spiritual beliefs, as well as magical talismans, found in other Quranic texts. “In some verses the narrative addresses inanimate objects such as fire, earth, sky and thunder; as well as animals and insects, such as hoopoe birds and ants. These beings show an understanding of the words addressed to them and respond by showing obedience and submission” (p. 62). This means that Islam, particularly some Quranic texts, following the witch-hunt, turns around and “firmly establishes the belief in magic” (p. 69).
In fact, the duality of the Quran’s position towards witchcraft applies to the Prophet himself, who prohibited healing through magical practices, “but later withdrew his decision” (p. 259). Additionally, historical biographies of the Prophet often depict him as a magician in reference to his own miracles, but also as a figure affected by magical spells cast by others.
As time progressed this duality took root, reflecting a level of hypocrisy that extends beyond a duality in speech to a duality in culture.
Later, a number of Islamic scholars eventually “approved the practice of magic” (p. 228) and authorized its use and learning. However, many others continued to believe that “the practice of magic is forbidden in Islam” (p. 229). These opposing positions created an urgent need to “reconcile the sciences of Islam” (p. 252).
The position towards magic is not far from some of the early positions towards medicine, which was still considered a magical science. For some, “abandoning the practice of medicine was a sign of religious devotion” (p. 266), whereas al-Shafi’i considered medicine as one of the noblest sciences “after the study of Islam” (p. 268).
With Ibn Khaldun, the last spark of Arab-Islamic civilization, duality continued to dominate the discourse. The author of al-Muqaddimah, who acknowledged the supremacy of science, was soon to wash his hands of them, because “matters of nature do not concern our religion or our earthly life therefore they should be abandoned” (p. 334).
We conclude with this example. Starting from Atbuosh’s first words to his last, there was no other narrative that could determine an otherwise logical course for the development of these ideas.
What Atbuosh left unspoken, but exposed through these chronological ramifications, is that there is a paradox that lies within the Quran, which is widely responsible for the birth of a civilization at odds with itself – and the “Islamic sciences are limping along” (p. 196). Eventually this already immobilized civilization came to a standstill.
Paradoxically, the linguistic root of the Arabic word (ق ع د) allows us to talk about a civilization that ceased, that is, an immobilized or paralyzed civilization. Isn’t the paradox of the decline of the Arab-Islamic civilization also a language paradox?
Maykel Atallah is a blogger interested in philosophy.