Matthew Melvin-Koushki specializes in early modern Islamicate intellectual, religious and cultural history, with a focus on the theory and practice of the occult sciences in Iran and the Persianate world.
He received his Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from Yale in 2012, and has held postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Oxford and Princeton University. His dissertation, “The Quest for a Universal Science: The Occult Philosophy of Sa’in al-Din Turka Isfahani (1369-1432) and Intellectual Millenarianism in Early Timurid Iran,” won the Middle East Studies Association’s Malcolm H. Kerr award for best dissertation in the humanities. This study demonstrates the integrality of occult modes of knowledge to early modern millenarian-universalist projects, whether in the Islamicate heartlands or Renaissance Europe; as a case in point, it focuses on the mainstreaming of lettrism or kabbalistic thought as a preferred vehicle for neopythagorean-neoplatonic philosophy-science in intellectual circles in early 15th-century Iran—some 70 years before the emergence of Christian kabbalah in Italy.
Melvin-Koushki’s current research expands on this theme to a) investigate the occult sciences in the context of both history of science and history of philosophy in the Islamicate world, and particularly their interpenetration with “legitimate” sciences such as astronomy or medicine; and b) demonstrate their new function as a primary basis for the universalist imperial ideologies developed in the post-Mongol Persianate world, especially those of the Timurids, Aqquyunlu, Safavids, Mughals and Ottomans. More broadly, he argues that persistent eurocentric, whiggish and occultophobic biases have elided a major problematic in comparative early modern intellectual and cultural history: given that Muslim and Christian thinkers of the 15th-17th centuries were equally committed to decoding the Two Books, nature and scripture, with both contingents heavily investing in lettrism/kabbalah and the other occult sciences to that end, why did “scientific modernity” arise in western Europe but not in the much wealthier and more cosmopolitan Islamicate world? And what were the cultural and political factors that made for such a remarkable degree of Islamo-Christian intellectual continuity—still almost totally unexplored—during the era of globalization?
He teaches the history of Islamicate civilization from the late antique to the early modern period, with an emphasis on such categories as cosmology and philosophy; mysticism, messianism and millenarianism; science, magic and religion; empire and revolution; monotheism, logocentrism and universalism; intellectual networks; nomadism and sedentarism; historiography, chancery literature and diplomatic practice; early modern orientalism; and connected histories. Regularly offered courses include:
HIST 104: Introduction to Islamic Civilization
HIST 300: The Historian’s Craft
HIST 386: Islamic Institutions and Traditions
HIST 387: Messiahs, Mystics and Rebels in the Islamic World
HIST 389: Science, Magic and Religion
Melvin-Koushki is converting his dissertation into three books: Occult Philosophers and Philosopher Kings in Early Modern Iran, an examination of the thought and fraught career of Ibn Turka, the foremost occult philosopher of early 15th-century Iran, as index of larger intellectual and sociopolitical developments that shaped the early modern Persianate world; The Occult Science of Empire in Aqquyunlu-Safavid Iran: Two Shirazi Lettrists, which extends the scope of the first book to the end of the 16th century by way of two case studies, with a focus on Shiraz as a major center for Persianate occultism from the 13th century onward; and a critical edition and translation of nine unpublished Persian and Arabic treatises by Ibn Turka on the subject of lettrism. Melvin-Koushki is also editing the volume of proceedings from a workshop he organized at Princeton in February 2014; entitled Islamicate Occultism: New Perspectives, this volume is forthcoming in 2016 as a special issue of Arabica. Current article-length projects include several case studies of prominent Iranian geomancers from the Ilkhanid period to the Safavid; the pivotal role of astrology, lettrism and geomancy in the inception of the Ottoman-Safavid conflict in the early 16th century, including their ideological and military deployments on both sides; and the development of anti-Safavid and anti-Shi‘i propaganda during the same period by scholars working for the Aqquyunlu, Ottoman and Uzbek Empires. Further details are available here.
“The Occult Sciences in Safavid Iran and Safavid Occultists Abroad,” in Rudi Matthee, ed., The Safavid World, New York: Routledge (forthcoming)
“World as (Arabic) Text: Mīr Dāmād and the Neopythagoreanization of Philosophy in Safavid Iran,” in Sajjad Rizvi, ed., Philosophy and the Intellectual Life in Shīʿah Islam, Leiden: Brill (forthcoming)
“Powers of One: The Mathematicalization of the Occult Sciences in the High Persianate Tradition,” Intellectual History of the Islamicate World, 4 (2016) (forthcoming)
“Mobilizing Magic: Occultism in Central Asia and the Continuity of High Persianate Culture under Russian Rule,” Studia Islamica (co-author with James Pickett, forthcoming)
“Early Modern Islamicate Empire: New Forms of Religiopolitical Legitimacy,” in Armando Salvatore and Roberto Tottoli, eds., The Wiley-Blackwell History of Islam and Islamic Civilization, Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell (forthcoming)
“Astrology, Lettrism, Geomancy: The Occult-Scientific Methods of Post-Mongol Islamicate Imperialism,” Medieval History Journal, 19/1 (2016) (invited essay in dialogue entitled “Cosmos and Power,” forthcoming)
“Safavid Iran: Lettrism,” in Hani Khafipour, ed., Empires of the Near East and India: Sources for the Study of Safavid, Ottoman and Mughal Societies, New York: Columbia UP (forthcoming 2016)
“Defending Geomancy: Sharaf al-Dīn Yazdī Rebuts Ibn Khaldūn’s Critique of the Occult Sciences,” in Matthew Melvin-Koushki and Noah Gardiner, eds., Islamicate Occultism: New Perspectives (forthcoming 2016 as a special issue of Arabica)
“Persianate Geomancy from Ṭūsī to the Millennium: A Preliminary Survey,” in Nader El-Bizri and Eva Orthmann, eds., Occult Sciences in Premodern Islamic Culture, Beirut: Orient-Institut Beirut/ American University of Beirut Press (forthcoming 2016)
“The Occult Challenge to Messianism and Philosophy in Early Timurid Iran: Ibn Turka’s Lettrism as a New Metaphysics,” in Orkhan Mir-Kasimov, ed., Unity in Diversity: Mysticism, Messianism and the Construction of Religious Authority in Islam, Leiden: Brill, 2014, 247-76
“The Delicate Art of Aggression: Uzun Hasan’s Fathnama to Qaytbay of 1469,” Iranian Studies, 44/2 (March 2011), 193-214