Early Modern Islamic Occultism & Universalism

A review of The Quest for a Universal Science: The Occult Philosophy of Ṣāʾin al-Dīn Turka Iṣfahānī (1369-1432) and Intellectual Millenarianism in Early Timurid Iran, by Matthew S. Melvin-Koushki.

This erudite tome, 597 pages in total, can only be described as a scholarly labor of love. Its object of devotion is one terribly mistreated and long misunderstood man of letters from Timurid Iran, Ṣāʾin al-Dīn Turka Iṣfahānī (d. 1432), Ibn Turka for short. Descended from a distinguished line of scholars, Ibn Turka, a polymath, was counted among the most learned of the age. Although he served as a Shafiʿi qadi, his primary ambition was quite “literal,” that is, to perfect and promulgate kabbalistic knowledge centered on the letters of the Arabic alphabet.

Ed. Note: At the request of the dissertation author, Matthew Melvin-Koushki, we are happy to include a link to the full version of the dissertation.

Ibn Turka believed that the secrets of the cosmos could be decoded once and for all by studying the occult properties and mystical qualities of Arabic letters, the very signs in which God had revealed his words in the Quran. This lettrist path to knowledge, in Ibn Turka’s estimation, was the only universal one: it was superior to the way of the Sufi, who privileged personal mystical experience, and to the philosopher’s method based on observation and reason. In this intellectual stance he was akin to Giordano Bruno (d. 1600), the accomplished occultist of Renaissance Europe. And much like Bruno, who was burned at the stake for his Hermetical and unorthodox writings, Ibn Turka suffered for his philosophical quest. Timurid authorities arrested, tortured, and exiled him on suspicion of being allied with the subversive and messianic Hurufis (Lettrists), a group that had declared a new Persian millennium, a cycle of time that was post-Islamic. In modern times, Ibn Turka was rediscovered in Iran, but glorified erroneously as an important Shiʿi mystical philosopher. In this meticulously researched and well-written dissertation, Matthew Melvin-Koushki seeks to return Ibn Turka to his rightful place in Islamic intellectual history, and to revive the import of his occult philosophy.

Besides furnishing the background above, the dissertation’s introduction provides a clear definition of terms and a survey of emerging trends in early modern Islamic intellectual history. Most notable in the latter category is the ongoing investigation into the neo-Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ (Brethren of Sincerity), a loose network of intellectuals spread across the Islamic world with important nodes in Egypt and Iran. Ibn Turka participated in this intellectual confraternity, which sought to revive and reconceptualize the neoplatonic-neopythagorean cosmology of the original Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, a group of tenth-century semi-Ismaʿili encyclopedists, as a universal framework for deciphering the divine cosmic plan. It would appear that he anchored the eastern branch of this scholarly web. Ibn Turka was the leading member of the “Isfahan Circle” (p. 16), which included other luminaries such as the author of Timur’s official chronicles, Sharaf al-Dīn ʿAlī Yazdī (d. 1454), and Qāżīzāda Rūmī (d. 1432), an eminent astronomer.

Chapter 1 begins with Ibn Turka’s life and times. It relates how Ibn Turka studied the occult sciences in Mamluk Egypt as an apprentice of the famous thaumaturge and rumored messiah, Sayyid Ḥusayn Akhlāṭī (d. 1397). But instead of focusing on letter magic, alchemy, and the wonderworking feats that Akhlāṭī and some of his followers were known for, Ibn Turka set himself a goal that was more cerebral. He sought to develop a universal metaphysics based on lettrism. Yet his intellectual daring often brought him into conflict with more conservative contemporaries, and he was three times summoned to formal inquisition at the imperial court in Herat. In the apologies he wrote on these occasions, he distinguishes himself from corrupt Sufis, such as the Hurufis, who, according to Ibn Turka, were no more than scam artists for all their messianic claims to power, and also from philosophers who focused on rationalistic categories of limited application instead of approaching the cosmos more holistically. It is this emphasis on the intellectual nature and metaphysical goal of his occult philosophy that leads Melvin-Koushki to label Ibn Turka an “intellectual millenarian.”

Ibn Turka’s extant writings, described comprehensively in chapter 2, tend to support such a view. There survive in all 25 Persian and 19 (or 20) Arabic works, of which 16 concern lettrism and occult philosophy. Besides these books, we have from Ibn Turka a small Persian/Arabic poetry collection (divan), a certificate of study (ijāza) granted to a student, and a set of letters and notes. This chapter categorizes and annotates all these texts and, as an aid to scholars, furnishes their publication and archival details.

Chapters 3 and 4 provide the intellectual history of Ibn Turka’s lettrist project. Upon his return from Egypt to Iran, Ibn Turka quickly found patronage among the Timurid princely elite for his occult philosophy and began composing treatises on lettrism. However, his fortunes declined along with those of his key patron, Mīrzā Iskandar (d. 1415), who lost his life in a Timurid power struggle. Subsequently, Ibn Turka withdrew from court life and wrote his major lettrist summa, the Kitāb al-Mafāḥiṣ (Book of Inquiries). To underscore the import of Ibn Turka’s work, Melvin-Koushki provides a detailed history of ʿilm al-ḥurūf (science of letters) in Islam. We learn of its origin in the cosmological speculations of early messianic-gnostic Alid groups and Ismaʿilis, and of its use by various Sufi thinkers: in practical magic by Abū l-ʿAbbās al-Būnī (d. 1225?); in metaphysical theory by Muḥyī l-Dīn Ibn ʿArabī (d. 1240); and in esoteric speculation by Saʿd al-Dīn Ḥamuvayī (d. 1252). Ibn Turka notes the influence of the last two men on his own work. Lettrism was not limited to gnostics and Sufis, however. Philosophers like Ibn Sīnā and alchemists like Jābir ibn Ḥayyān also had a keen interest in it. Indeed, lettrism is better understood as an aspect of several practical and speculative branches of knowledge, spanning the division between natural and religious sciences marked by medieval Islamic encyclopedists. Ibn Turka challenged these divisions and created a new hierarchy of knowledge in which lettrism was foundational, universal, and all-encompassing: “neither Sufism or philosophy, natural or otherwise, contain or give rise to lettrism, but as distinct, non-universal sciences are rather themselves encompassed by lettrism” (p. 217).

The second half of the dissertation has two goals, namely to demonstrate the historical relevance of lettrism and to provide an extensive translation of and commentary on Ibn Turka’s lettrist works. Chapter 5 discusses the application of jafr and other types of lettrist political divination in Islamic history. Of note is the famous prediction by Ibn Barrajān (d. 1141), based on the Quran, of Saladin’s reconquest of Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187 (pp. 292-302). This successful act of divination continued to inspire later Muslim occultists, including Ibn ʿArabī and Ibn Turka. Also included in this chapter are relevant case studies from the Timurid and Aqqoyunlu contexts.

The popularity of lettrism engendered a great deal of collaboration and competition. This is the focus of Chapter 8, which discusses Ibn Turka’s dealings with the major Sufi masters and gnostic strivers of his time. For instance, he was on especially good terms with Niʿmat Allāh Valī (1430), founder of the Niʿmatullāhiyya order, and with Qāsim-i Anvār (d. 1433), a poet and important Sufi shaykh in Herat associated with the Ṣafaviyya order. A generation later, however, another Sufi shaykh of Herat, the Naqshbandi poet Jāmī (d. 1492), criticized Ibn Turka and his circle, declaring them to be failed Sufis (p. 424). These relationships reveal how Ibn Turka’s intellectual project was inextricably tied to the central religio-political concerns of the day: wilāya/walāya (sanctified power) and ḥaqīqa (absolute reality).

While Ibn Turka’s oeuvre is presented throughout the dissertation, Chapters 6 and 7, the whole of part 2, and the appendices are especially devoted to this task. Here the reader will find large extracts from Ibn Turka’s major and minor works, most still in manuscript form, along with commentary. The translations are fluent, the analyses insightful, and the Persian and Arabic selections in the appendices well-edited.

Overall, this study opens up a unique window onto early modern Islamic intellectual and cultural history. Ibn Turka, who served as qadi of Isfahan and Yazd, believed his central contribution to be the systematization and promotion of an all-encompassing science of letters. His friend and collaborator, Qāżīzāda Rūmī, was the head professor of a madrasa but also the chief astronomer in Ulugh Beg’s observatory in Samarkand. These and other leading Muslim intellectuals of the fifteenth century were deeply immersed in branches of knowledge that are dismissed today as marginal, and rarely discussed in monographs and seminars on Islamic history and culture. With his study of Ibn Turka’s occult philosophy and quest for a universal science, Melvin-Koushki makes a strong case for why this needs to change.

A. Azfar Moin
Clements Department of History
Southern Methodist University

Manuscript Sources

Majlis Library, Tehran, Iran
Malik Library, Tehran, Iran
Central Library, Tehran University, Iran
Süleymaniye Library, Istanbul, Turkey
Beyazıt Library, Istanbul, Turkey
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA

Dissertation Information

Yale University. 2012. 597 pp. Primary Advisor: Gerhard H. Böwering.


Image: Detail from Ibn Turka – Kitab al-Mafahis – MS Majlis 10196 f. 63a. Photograph by Matthew Melvin-Koushki.

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