Lecture on Occult Sciences, Islam and the Pre-Islamic Past: The case of Ibn Wahshiyyah
by Dr Isabel Toral-Niehoff, Marie-Curie Senior Research Fellow, ISMC
May 15, 2013
Dr Toral-Niehoff spoke about the vast amount of Medieval Arabic texts that we use to label as “Occult Sciences”, among which is one group ascribed to a mysterious personality from the early tenth century, called Ibn Wahshiyyah. He claimed to be of Chaldean origin and to have translated all these texts from an “Old Babylonian” language, presenting them as pristine, arcane wisdom. However, Dr Toral-Niehoff's paper showed this attribution to be spurious, as philological research has shown: the material used is of much later date and the whole work was composed in Islamic times.
Taking as textual basis two works of the Ibn Wahshiyyah corpus (one geoponic manual and one on mysterious alphabets), the presentation addressed the following questions: What is the function of the pre-Islamic, pagan past in these works? To what kind of cultural authority do they refer? Which textual strategies are used in order to confer plausibility to this “Babylonian” legend? Finally, the paper attempted to establish what the subjacent concepts of “knowledge”, “revelation” and “translation” are.
Dr Toral-Niehoff studied History and Arabic Studies at the University of Tübingen, Germany (PhD 1997), and undertook her "Habilitation" at the Free University Berlin, Germany (2008). Her main fields of publishing and research are: Arabia and the Near East in Late Antiquity; cultural identities and multiculturalism; processes of cultural transfer; Arabic Occult Sciences; Al-Andalus. She is currently Marie-Curie Senior Research Fellow at ISMC.