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College of Arts & Sciences
Department of History

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History Course Spotlight

Professor Matthew Melvin-Koushki explores occultism as the central link between science and religion in Western—that is, Islamo-Christian—intellectual and cultural history, from late antiquity to the present.

HIST 389/RELG 362: Science, Magic and Religion

Modern Western culture is far more magical than we generally recognize, modernity far less modern than we may be willing to admit.  As current research shows, occultist forms of thought and practice have played a major role in shaping Western civilization from antiquity to the present.  This course will explore the history of occultism both in its own right and vis-à-vis the advent of modern science and modern forms of religion, exploding many common misconceptions along the way. 

Uniquely among courses that deal with this topic, we here take Western to mean Islamo-Christian.  That is, we will approach the Islamic world and Christian Europe as a civilizational unit, or a single cultural continuum—a continuum, moreover, partially generated by occultist discourses, which acted as a primary vector in the transmission of knowledge from east to west and west to east. 
Our primary objective will be to problematize Enlightenment-era oppositional definitions like astrology vs. astronomy and alchemy vs. chemistry that misrepresent the historical development of the ‘rational’ sciences as a process of emancipation from ‘irrational’ or magical beliefs, a perspective formalized in some social scientists’ reductive, evolutionist argument that humanity ascended to science from magic by way of religion.  To deconstruct this argument, we will attempt a definition of these three protean categories and map their historical interpenetration, even inextricability.  We will also spend considerable time on the question of occultism’s role in the transition to modernity (another slippery category).  Particular attention will be paid to the emergence of sacral power as a hegemonic concept in the premodern Islamic world, with cognates in Christian Europe.  This development had significant ramifications for the practice of politics, the practice of religion and the practice of science.  Thus the great Muslim and Christian empires of the age eagerly used occultist techniques and millenarian doctrines to legitimize and extend their rule; wonderworking Jewish, Christian and Muslim saints put themselves forward as political messiahs; and occult scientists of every stripe asserted their power over nature.  Finally, we will examine the process whereby occultism was repressed in post-Enlightenment Euro-American culture (but not in many contemporary Muslim societies) in favor of a more narrow materialism, resulting in the disenchantment of the world and the death of meaning.  While the occult sciences are no longer considered to be scientific, however, modern scientific, cultural and political discourses continue to be profoundly religious, even magical, in their orientation.