The Arabic Influences on Early Modern Occult Philosophy – Liana Saif



Liana Saif: The Arabic Influences on Early Modern Occult Philosophy (Palgrave Historical Studies in Witchcraft and Magic), Palgrave Macmillan, London 2015. ISBN: 978-1137399465


In her new book, Dr. Saif  provides the reader with a thorough introduction to Arabic medieval astrological and magical theories. Here her main focus is on Abu Ma’shar’s Great Introduction to the Judgments of the Stars, al-Kindi’s De radiis, and the Picatrix. In the following chapters, she investigates the influence of these theories on early modern occult philosophy, particularly in the works of Ficino, Pico dells Mirandola, and John Dee.

Dr. Saif’s work will be of great interest to traditional astrologers, as it discusses and provides answers to some of the fundamental problems of astrology. There are many gems to be unearthed, but I will leave the interested reader to discover them in their own time, only mentioning a few highlights in this review. Throughout the book, Dr. Saif addresses the age-old  the debate if the heavens were to be treated as signs or causes and, based on her in-depth study of Abu Ma’shar, et al, comes to a fascinating conclusion. She states that:

“Arabic natural philosophers, astrologers and magi devised an astral casualty that was physical and psychic, compatible with a semiological approach to nature and the heavens.” (p4)

She then continues to show that this view was adopted by occult philosophers in Europe between the 13th and the 16th centuries. Groundbreaking work was done by the so-called Twelfth Century Translators. This was a group of individual translators, living in Spain or Italy, who translated important source texts from Arabic into Latin. John of Seville, the most famous of them, translated many astrological texts by Mash’allah, Zahel, al-Quabisi and Abu Ma’ shar, which guaranteed the transmission of Arabic proto-texts and teachings into Europe. The availability of these translations to 13th century scholars, like Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon, was crucial and formed a link to the works of occultist like Marsilio Ficino or John Dee. Here the book explores in great detail how causality was reconciled with astrological hermeneutics, Neoplatonic emanationism and Platonic eschatology.

Another main issue, that of astral determinism and free will, is also discussed by Dr. Saif. She finds that the Arabic theories of astral influences in general, and Abu Ma’ shar’s theories in particular, are based on the philosophy of Aristotle, which indicates a causal connection between the celestial and the terrestrial world. But she also establishes that:

“Abu Ma’shar […] is careful not to describe their internal conditions of the rational soul as predetermined” and that “The souls’s powers of deliberation and choice are free to act according to or against the findings of astrological consultations.” (p22)

The book’s final chapter is dedicated to the exploration of the nature and role of celestial souls and cosmic daemons. I would recommend this scholarly brilliant but also highly readable summary of the subject of angels and daemons as a starting point of discovery to anybody who is interested in the subject.

It is refreshing to see that, throughout her book, Dr. Saif takes a deliberate step away from the positivistic approach most academics have adopted in their works over the past 50 years or more. She critically explores the findings of scholars like Keith Thomas, Frances Yates, or Wayne Shumaker, to name only a few, and puts the record straight, if necessary. It is needless to say that her views are always based on impressive depth of knowledge and impeccable scholarship. There is hope that this book heralds a new academic approach to the subjects of astrology and natural magic.

Before I leave with my highest recommendations for this book, I would like to quote another paragraph, which is typical for Dr. Saif’s approach of the subject matter. She writes:

“From the perspective of the twenty-first century, being ‘co-present’ should inspire us because it allows us to re-enchant our world. It shifts the emphasis from empirical probability to personal potentiality that subsumes all modes of experiences […]” (p199)