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Category: Harrān

Ibn Wahshiyya in Historical Context

“The magic as displayed in Filāha coincides with the common Near Eastern patterns and is in this sense genuine: whether the exact procedures were used by the pagan population —either in the tenth century or earlier, if we agree with Fahd—is another question.

The Aramaic prayers would perhaps seem genuine, but when strongly Neoplatonic formulae occur in the invocations, one may doubt whether the peasants indeed used these prayers. It may be that the material is partly descriptive, describing the religious practices of the rural population, partly prescriptive, i.e. composed by the author, following pre-existing patterns, to invent new formulae.

It may strike many as surprising that there could have been rites like burnt offerings to Zuhal in the countryside, sqwād, of Iraq until the tenth century —if we accept a late date for the Nabatean corpus— but the evidence from Harrān makes this not unprecedented, and the magical procedures throughout history have always retained archaic religious material.

Likewise, the mere existence of Mandaeans shows the tolerance of Islam towards ultimately pagan religions. Had someone translated the Mandaean books into Arabic in the tenth century and circulated them outside the community, the texts would have been just as incongruent with the surrounding Islamic society as the books of the Nabatean corpus.

As the main texts of the Nabatean corpus purport to be translations of old manuscripts, the dating of the religious material in them, if it mirrors real procedures, is of course problematic. But in some cases, like when speaking about the lamentations over Tammūz, Ibn Wahshiyya speaks as himself, adding a translator’s note to the main text.

Thus, at least the pagan rites described in these passages were being performed in the early tenth century.

Although ignored by compilers of biographical dictionaries, Ibn Wahshiyya was much respected by those interested in magic, esoterica and the Nabatean or Sabian inheritance.

Not only was his main work, Filāha, excerpted by persons such as the author of the Arabic Picatrix (Ghāyat al-hakīm) ([pseudo]-al-Majrītī) and later writers of agricultural works —the latter, though, usually showed little interest for the religious and magical material in the work— but he was also profusely used by Maimonides in his Dalāla, from which source, together with Picatrix, the magic of the Nabateans and the Chaldaeans was transmitted into European languages.

Thus, through Ibn Wahshiyya, the magic of the Nabateans diffused throughout the civilized world, and Ibn Wahshiyya became an important link in the world history of magic and esoterica.”

Jaakko Hāmeem-Anttila, “Ibn Wahshiyya and Magic,” Anaquel de Estudios Árabes X, 1999, pp. 47-8.

On Ibn Wahshiyya

“However, it is not my intention to focus on the authenticity of the material in the present context, but to draw attention to the character of Ibn Wahshiyya himself. Even the authorship and existence of Ibn Wahshiyya have been doubted, but with little evidence other than the fact that he is not mentioned in the standard biographical dictionaries.

Yet he is mentioned as the translator of the works of the Nabatean corpus in an-Nadim’s Fihrist—albeit as a little known person—and there are no cogent arguments for claiming him to be a pseudonym for Ibn az-Zayyāt, his student, as has been done by, among others, Theodor Nöldeke (see below). —

The biographical dictionaries are very much Islamic and urban in character, and thus it is no wonder that a parochial author of works of pagan lore is absent from all major compilations.

More fruitful than joining the discussion concerning the authenticity of the íexts and the identity of lbn Wahshiyya would be to start by studying the stand of this person, «Ibn Wahshiyya» (in the following without quotation marks), and his attitude towards the material he is transmitting.

As the date of lbn Wahshiyya can be rather firmly fixed to the early tenth century, we may start with a comment on the general atmosphere of the period. When it comes to the interest of Ibn Wahshiyya in the occult sciences and ancient lore, one might draw attention to the many pseudepigraphical texts which we know from the same period and which also purport to be either translations or transcripts of long-forgotten texts, such as the highly interesting Daniel Apocalypse or the Prophecies of Bābā.

We might also mention the Ismaili movement which was born at about the same time (discounting the traditional narrative of its origin, I find more probable to date it to the time after the minor occultation). The early Ismailis were very much interested in esoteric lore, as can be seen in the collection of the Letters (Rasā’il) of the Brethren of Purity who, if not Ismailis themselves, had close relations with them.

The interest in Sabian, the last remnants of pagans in Harrān and elsewhere, was also growing in the times of Ibn Wahshiyya; in fact, the community he describes might well be labelled as «Babylonian Sabians», in contrast to both Harrānian Sabians and Mandaeans (the Sabians of al-Batā’ih), although the term Sabian is not often used in the works of Ibn Wahshiyya.

The doctrines of the Sabians of Harrān have received some attention both recently and in Mediaeval times: an-Nadim wrote profusely on them in his Fihrist and was able to quote from several, later lost works.

Their later offshoot in Baghdad, it might be mentioned in passing, is a problematic source for any real, living religious practices, as the Baghdadian Sabians were heavily influenced by Neoplatonic philosophy and seem to have freely developed the Harranian religion in the light of philosophical speculation.

This is the background against which we must consider the activities of Ibn Wahshiyya. Early tenth-century Iraq lived through an intensive period of wide interest in different religious phenomena, and especially in Neoplatonic speculations, and Muslim scholars with an indigenous background were eager to dig up the past legacy of their ancestors.

Ibn Wahshiyya himself often disavows ‘asabiyya «national pride» (see e.g. Filāha, p. 358; Sumūm, fols. 6b-7a) but his very refusal to see himself as a Nabatean nationalist shows the tenor of his work, which is remarkably pro-Nabatean.

Ibn Wahshiyya’s works remain unpublished with the exception of the recently edited al-Filāha an-Nabatiyya. Among his works which do not purport to be translations and which thus fall outside the Nabatean corpus, there are tractates on astrology and alchemy, but the Kitāb at-Tilismāt attributed to him is hardly genuine.”

Jaakko Hāmeem-Anttila, “Ibn Wahshiyya and Magic,” Anaquel de Estudios Árabes X, 1999, pp. 41-3.

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