Attached to Paper Session
In this paper, I argue that the 10th-century Fatimid Ismaili text k. al-fatarāt wa-l-qirānāt (The Book of Interim Times and Planetary Conjunctions), attributed to the courtier and missionary Ja‘far b. Manṣūr al-Yaman (d. c. 358 AH/969 AD), suggests that the Fatimid mission sought to incorporate the occult sciences into their Ismaili theological framework. The Fatimid dynasty ruled parts of North Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Near East from 296 AH/909 AD to 566 AH/1171 AD and was characterized by its Ismaili missionary apparatus (da‘wa) that held influence across the then largely-Sunni Islamic world. Contrary to prevailing scholarly consensus that there is no demonstrated Fatimid interest in the occult, I show that this text reveals that the Fatimid interpretation of the occult sciences figures the Fāṭimid imam as superior to occult scientists due to his divinely-empowered knowledge of the unseen. The occult sciences thus become part of the esoteric landsape of salvific knowledge.
While the popularity of the occult sciences in the medieval Islamic world has been well-established, Fatimid engagement with astrology, magic, divination, and other associated disciplines has been more difficult to prove. Documentary evidence from the Cairo Geniza, for example, indicates an interest in astrology at a popular level in Fatimid Cairo (see Goldstein and Pingree, "Horoscopes from the Cairo Geniza" and "More Horoscopes from the Cairo Geniza"); however, texts written by Fatimid missionaries have so far seemed devoid of occult themes that pervade philosophical texts of the same time period outside the Fatimid sphere of influence. However, a lack of evidence is not alone sufficient to prove the Fatimids rejected the occult sciences on an ideological basis, and indeed some scholars have speculated Fatimid interest in the occult was more pronounced than current evidence suggests, noting in particular that the Gnostic and Neoplatonic strands running throughout Fatimid Ismaili thought are conducive to an occult-scientific worldview. In addition, primary historical sources such as the chief jurist al-Qāḍī al-Nu‘mān’s (d. 363 AH/974 AD) al-majālis wa-l-musayārāt, a collection of firsthand accounts from the courts of the imams al-Manṣūr and al-Mu‘izz, relay stories of the Fatimid imams’ clearly-stated interest in astrology and its philosophical background. While scholars such as Heinz Halm have suggested the Fatimid imams were too pious to entertain the occult (Empire of the Mahdī, 143), such accounts demonstrate that, as contemporary scholars of the Islamic occult have argued, religiosity and the occult are not mutually exclusive.
The k. al-fatarāt wa-l-qirānāt is a lengthy text of over 350 folios. While most contemporary manuscript catalogues describe it first and foremost as a work on astrology, in reality the majority of the text focuses mostly on stories of the prophets, Neoplatonic cosmology, apocalyptic speculations, and esoteric interpretation (ta’wīl) of scripture. However, interspersed within are short passages on astrology and the science of the letters that reflect a uniquely Fatimid Ismaili approach to these disciplines.
Through conducting a close reading of two relevant portions of k. al-fatarāt wa-l-qirānāt on astrology and science of the letters, respectively, and a brief study of its historical context, I will show that the Fatimid mission did seek to incorporate the occult sciences into its Ismaili framework. I argue that this accommodation was intended to demonstrate that no realm of knowledge escaped the Fatimid imam's mastery, and that the Fatimid imam of the era was superior to occult scientists due to his direct connection with the divine and perfect and immediate apprehension of all phenomena which grant him superior perception. This notion accords with the Shii view that the imam possesses supernatural powers, among which is knowledge of the unseen. However, unlike Imami Shii groups of the time for whom the imam was hidden in occultation, the Fatimid imam was the living and manifest embodiment of the divine principle on Earth, whose presence granted access to hidden salvific knowledge.
It is due to the living imam’s ability to convey these salvific truths that the Fatimid interpretation of the occult sciences follow the logic of ta’wīl, or the interpretation of not only scripture, but also the entire perceivable world as possessing both an apparent, outer meaning (ẓāhir) and an inner, esoteric meaning (bāṭin), the latter accessible only to the imam. Ta’wīl is among the most distinctive and defining elements of Ismaili thought, and its logic underpins much of Ismaili theology. It thus follows that in the Fatimid view of the occult sciences, astrology, divination, and the science of the letters likewise possess an outer meaning available to the general masses, as well as a hidden aspect in which they relate back to the salvific ultimate truths (ḥaqā’iq) that are the cornerstone of Ismaili theology. With respect to astrology, horoscopes for each of the Fatimid imams in the text of k. al-fatarāt wa-l-qirānāt do not contain the mathematical calculation of the positions of the planets, but instead a poetic interpretation of the imams’ relationship to the planets and signs of the zodiac. This poetic interpretation of astrology reflects a level of knowledge accessible only to the imam, who, according to the author, possesses superior knowledge not only of the planets’ locations in the sky, but also of the inner meaning contained within their transits. With respect to the science of the letters, this interpretation follows the view that God first created the letters of the Arabic alphabet, and that these letters are the foundation of all worldly phenomena. However, in addition to their numerical correspondences, the letters, and the words they make up, reveal the hidden salvific truths about the nature of the universe. These correspondences, as with astrology, are only known by the Fatimid imam; if the believer is not granted understanding of these hidden meanings by the imam, then any practice engaging the science of the letters such as divination or talisman-making is rendered ineffective.
The Fatimids thus not only brought the occult sciences into Ismaili thought, but created them anew as part of the Fatimid imam's domain of mastery with the imam as the ultimate possessor of the knowledge of the occult.
Abstract for Online Program Book (maximum 150 words)
While the popularity of the occult sciences in the medieval Islamic world has been well-established, Fatimid engagement with astrology, magic, divination, and other associated disciplines has been more difficult to prove. In this paper, I argue that the 10th-century Fatimid Ismaili text k. al-fatarāt wa-l-qirānāt (The Book of Interim Times and Planetary Conjunctions), attributed to the courtier and missionary Ja‘far b. Manṣūr al-Yaman (d. c. 358 AH/969 AD), suggests that the Fatimid mission sought to incorporate the occult sciences into their Ismaili theological framework. This accommodation was intended to demonstrate that no realm of knowledge escaped the Fatimid imam's mastery, and that the Fatimid imam of the era was superior to occult scientists due to his direct connection with the divine and perfect and immediate apprehension of all phenomena which grant him superior perception of the unseen.