Das Kitab Sidrat al-muntaha des Pseudo-Ibn Wahsiya: Einleitung, Edition und Ubersetzung eines hermetisch-allegorischen Traktats zur Alchemie. By CHRISTOPHER BRAUN. Islamkundliche Untersuchungen, vol. 327. Berlin: KLAUS SCHWARTZ, 2016. Pp. 160. [euro]39.80 (paper).
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...