Das Kitab Sidrat al-muntaha des Pseudo-Ibn Wahsiya: Einleitung, Edition und Ubersetzung eines hermetisch-allegorischen Traktats zur Alchemie.
If museums are academic trend spotters and popularizers, two recent exhibitions will be received with interest and delight in the small but growing community of scholars concerned with alchemy in the premodern Islamic world. In the summer of 2017, an exhibition in Berlin's Kulturforum, "Alchemy: The Great Art," framed alchemy as a creation myth parallel to the artist's creativity. Divided into sections on creation, creator, and creature, the show put objects from about three millennia on display. In 2016, Oxford's Ashmolean Museum opened its exhibition "Power and Protection," which offered a rare engagement with the relationship between the supernatural and the arts in the Islamic world, especially astrology, magic, and talismans.
This appreciation of the artistic dimension of the occult in human history may be related to current critiques of the Enlightenment and of narratives of secularization, modernization, and the rise of science. Such narratives, on this reading, account in part for the very limited attention scholars have conventionally paid to the occult sciences in Islamic history. From the traditional point of view, they are not sciences but forms of superstition, and for historians of science committed to the idea of progress, the ostensible lack of contributions from alchemy, astrology, and magic disqualifies them as appropriate chapters in the history of science.
Lamenting this fact constitutes a commonplace in scholarship about these intellectual and cultural traditions. The book under review, however, illustrates that the situation is changing. It follows two other text editions and German translations of premodern Arabic alchemical texts published within the last five years by the firm of Klaus Schwartz: Juliane Muller's Zwei arabische Dialoge zur Alchemie (2012) and Georg Leube's Die Rezepte der Freiburger alchemistischen Handschrift des 'Abd al-Gabbar al-Hamadani (2013).
The text presented here, Kitab Sidrat al-muntahd (Book of the Ziziphus tree of the furthest boundary; the title is a Quranic reference), attributed to the great esoteric authority Ibn Wahshiyya, tells the story of the discovery of a table of Hermes, which offers a mythological introduction to alchemy and its principles. The treatise is preserved in one manuscript only: ms. Gotha orient. A. 1162 (Arab. 1697). The edition follows clear and common principles, although some readers will object to the introduction of modern punctuation. The unannotated German translation is also by and large clear. It follows the Arabic fairly closely, but is at times awkward or clumsy; it is also not always entirely easy to relate personal pronouns to antecedents. Overall, however, the edition and translation allow readers access to a remarkable document.
The treatise is interesting for a number of reasons, some extending well beyond the circle of scholars specializing in alchemy. First of all, there is its peculiarly complex literary format. As the editor-translator, Christopher Braun, points out, it features a frame story and an embedded treatise about the mythological history of alchemy. The frame story itself is presented as a report of Ibn Wahshiyya in which the scholar recounts an encounter and discussion with a man from the West with the curious name of al-Maghribi al-Qamari. After an exchange about the relationship between alchemy and different religions and about the cultural origins of alchemy, the "Western moon man" tells Ibn Wahshiyya that he had obtained a book by Hermes about alchemy from his shaykh. The book had been found in Memphis and was then translated into Arabic from its original language, which was no longer understood by the Copts. It is this Arabic translation that Ibn Wahshiyya presents in what follows.
According to the Neoplatonic-Gnostic mythology, the creation of the world began with "the tree at the furthest boundary," and thereupon a conflict unfolded between soul and intellect. The latter created the human as a microcosm, thereby defeating soul. Intellect then approached God and inquired about the medical benefits of humans, a passage that leads to an account describing how to make gold with the help of the elixir contained in humans. In further exchanges between intellect and God, the great benefit of knowledge of the elixir is emphasized, as is that this knowledge should be kept secret by those scholars initiated into it. The mythology is followed by a discussion between Ibn Wahshiyya and al-Maghribi about obscure elements in this account and about potential tensions with Islamic principles.
The text bears many stylistic hallmarks of alchemical literature: the format of the dialogue in both frame story and embedded treatise; the trope of the discovered table; the pseudo-epigraphy (both Hermes and, presumably, Ibn Wahshiyya); the allegorical style; and the emphasis on secrecy. Although Braun identifies some of these in his introduction, the text warrants a more extensive formal and literary analysis. Braun himself has explored some aspects in '"Who Began This Art? From Whence Did It Emerge?': A Hermetic Frame Story on the Origins of Alchemy in Pseudo-Ibn Wahshiya's The Book of the Ziziphus Tree of the Furthest Boundary" Al-Qantara 37.2 (2016): 373-98, which also presents much of the description and discussion of the German introduction of the present book in English.
Most of the book's introduction is devoted to a survey of the contents of the treatise, which is part summary, part comment, with occasional references to Greek and Arabic alchemy, and to a history of the text. It is here that both potential for further research and room for improvement become obvious. Braun situates the origins of Arabic alchemy in the context in which Greek knowledge was transmitted, specifically in Egypt and among the Copts. (Although not discussed in the book, this presents an interesting counterweight to the common focus primarily on Baghdad and secondarily on Umayyad Syria. Patronage is not mentioned in this introduction and neither is George Saliba's theory of an Umayyad caliphal interest in alchemy, which he lays out in his Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance [Cambridge, MA, 2011].) Alchemy itself, like many esoteric traditions, is said to have Egyptian roots, although such a claim is easier to substantiate in the case of alchemy than of magic, for example. The author makes a case for continuity from this early history to the copying of the manuscripts, which indeed happened at the hand of a Coptic scribe in 1000/1592 in Manfalut.
That such a case for continuity can be easily made, however, is highly questionable. In the introduction, it comes at the price of some chronological conflation. It remains unclear, for example, whether Coptic monks are meant to be intermediaries in the transmission of knowledge and other cultural traditions from the Byzantine to the Islamic period, or whether their function as such intermediaries is meant to extend beyond the Byzantine period into Hellenistic and Pharaonic times, even before the beginning of the common era. Egyptian history appears here as an amorphous past. Similar problems affect the recourse to the argument that Coptic alchemical works have been influenced by Greek and Arabic, as Tonio Sebastian Richter has demonstrated. (Braun references an article about tenth-century Coptic literature, long after the watershed of the Islamic conquest, in which Richter actually discusses the likely possibility that the texts in question were translated from Arabic into Coptic.) While the evidence presented in the introduction may certainly point to an interesting multireligious milieu, the line of transmission of knowledge is not clearly or persuasively drawn.
Chronological problems also mar the section on the reception of Kitab Sidrat al-muntaha. Braun cites as the earliest reference Hajji Khalifa's (d. 1067/1657) Kashf al-zunun; he then mentions as the second source Von Hammer-Purgstall's 1806 edition of Kitab Shawq al-mustaham on secret alphabets, also attributed to Ibn Wahshiyya. Von Hammer-Purgstall, however, only seems to serve as a source for a reference to Kitab Sidrat al-muntaha in Kitab al-Durr al-nazim, a mid-fifteenth-century compilation based on Ibn al-Akfani's (d. 749/1348) Kitab Irshad al-qasid. (In the introduction it is unclear whether Ibn al-Akfani's work itself contains that reference; Braun did not have access to the unedited Kitab al-Durr al-nazim.) Given that this appears to be the earliest reference to Kitab Sidrat al-muntaha and therefore critical for dating the text, it would have been important to present more extensive documentation in a clearer manner.
The problems with the chronology in the introduction affect the argument made for the dating of the text. Braun dismisses the attribution to Ibn Wahshiyya, a man who may have lived sometime in the third to fourth/ninth to tenth century but whose historical existence remains controversial, on account of his noticing too many differences between Kitab Sidrat al-muntaha and the body of literature commonly attributed to Ibn Wahshiyya, notably the absence of Nabatean references in the former. (There is a certain circular argument here--the corpus determines the nature of the alleged author, and the purported author determines the nature of the corpus.) In his article in Al-Qantara, Braun posits briefly the possibility that the embedded table constitutes an older layer, but this is not pursued. While Kitab Sidrat al-muntaha may have been composed between the fourth and ninth/tenth and fifteenth centuries, he argues for the first half of this long period since pseudo-epigraphical works decreased in popularity during that time. While this is by and large plausible, more attention could have been paid to related texts (even within the small body of accessible alchemical texts) as well as to Ibn Wahshiyya's mysterious interlocutor.
Al-Maghribi al-Qamari might be an allegorical "man of the moon," but, as Braun only mentions in passing, the Muslim West too was widely associated with esotericism. The popularity of Neoplatonism and Gnosticism among Western mystics, especially the prominence of the Ikhwan al-safa' in those circles, would have been worth a discussion. This is especially the case for their forty-second epistle on religious beliefs and divisions (ara' wa-diyanat). Michael Ebstein, for example, has recently made a case for a profound Ismaili influence on Ibn Masarra (d. 319/931) in his Mysticism and Philosophy in al-Andalus: Ibn Masarra, Ibn al-'Arabi and the Isma'ili Tradition (Leiden, 2014). This edition and translation of Kitab Sidrat al-muntaha will allow others to explore these connections.
GRADUATE CENTER, CUNY
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|Publication:||The Journal of the American Oriental Society|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2019|
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