Sorcery or Science?

Sorcery or Science?

Islamic Thought and Sources

Sorcery or Science?
Contesting Knowledge and Practice in West African Sufi Texts

Author(s): Ariela Marcus-Sells

Reviewed by: Imran H Khan Suddahazai



Published by: The Pennsylvania State University Press, Pennsylvania, 2022. 214pp. ISBN: 9780271092294.

In this outstanding pioneering study on ideas and practices relating to magic within the Islamic tradition, Ariela Marcus-Sells traverses along a eld of study with narrow ledges of understanding and tolerance with tremendous aplomb. She addresses a contested subject matter whereby the etic appears to deny the emic from both the secular European and orthodox Muslim traditions. Her re ective research conducted through an anthropological lens is therefore a bravura for its sound methodological analysis and commentary, as it opens doors and windows into a realm of great mystery, a historical period of much uncertainty and the formation of conflicted memories through tremendous upheaval across the Muslim world.

Marcus-Sells navigates through this magical journey by developing a double helix like dialogue, which binds and flows through the underlying narrative. The focus of her study are the works of influential West African [Su ] Muslim scholars Sidi al-Mukhtar al-Kunti (d. 1811) and his son, Sidi Muhammad al- Kunti (d. 1826) who both lived, taught, and wrote in the West African Sahara Desert in what is now Northern Mali in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. These early Kunti scholars, composed numerous manuscripts across several elds of study, which included the arts of sorcery (sihr), a topic of enormous taboo and censorship within orthodox Muslim belief. Marcus-Sells effectively builds an argument to supports Sidi al-Mukhtar al-Kunti’s position on the matter. She does this by informing the reader through a wonderful array of textual and traditional sources on his rationalistic and scholarly argument that ‘sihr’ should be considered “the sciences of the unseen ([ulum al-ghayb), which are related to a vast unseen realm ([alam al- ghayb) that surrounds, and interpenetrates, the visible world.”

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