Better than Sufi Sex: Ibn Turka on the Superiority of Lettrism to Sufism as Model of Occult Islamic Humanism

Matthew Melvin-Koushki


Early modern Christianate intellectual culture is characterized by a powerful perennialist turn, whereby the wisdom of the ancients was textually revived, or simply invented out of whole cloth. In the case of western Europe, we call this turn “the Renaissance.” But a similar turn was equally definitive of contemporary Islamicate and especially Persianate intellection, and seems to have begun in Iran several decades before it did in Italy. At its forefront stood Ibn Turka (1369-1432), preeminent occult philosopher of Timurid Iran; he was responsible for systematizing lettrism (ʿilm al-ḥurūf), Hebrew kabbalah’s coeval Arabic twin, as both proof of the occult-scientific superiority of the Moderns to the Ancients and apotheosis of the Solomonic-Pythagorean legacy. While the lettrist wave he started would continue to swell for centuries after his death, permeating many aspects of Persianate elite and popular culture alike, Ibn Turka’s project was vehemently challenged in his own lifetime and immediately after by more conservative scholars, and he was thrice subjected to inquisition at the imperial capital in Herat on charges of being a radical or failed sufi.
But Ibn Turka was not slow to retort, and in 1425 dedicated a Persian treatise to the same theme: The Conclusion; or, Sufism versus Lettrism (Anjām, yā Taṣavvuf va ḥurūf). This work is of particular salience for early modern Western intellectual and cultural historians, who have to date ignored the astonishing parallelism between Latinate and Persianate developments. It is likewise instructive for Islamicists, who still tend to reflexively lump sufism and occultism together under the rubric of “esotericism” or, worse, “mysticism”—the better to disappear Islamicate occult science from the history of science altogether. As Ibn Turka contends to the contrary, however, his simultaneously natural, mathematical and scriptural science must never be confused with sufism. For the first is the royal road to enlightenment, the ultimate form of intellectual sex; the second is a worthy but emphatically lesser path of self-improvement for intellectual prepubescents. Given its typological usefulness for Islamicists and Europeanists alike, and especially historians of Western esotericism, I first contextualize Ibn Turka’s treatise within his oeuvre and biography specifically and early modern Western (Helleno-Islamo-Judeo-Christian) intellectual and cultural history generally, then provide a translation as basis
for comparative study.

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