Review: Magic in Islam by Michael Mohammed Knight

This is an old capsule review I wrote a few years ago. I have been busier than usual and not writing at all, so I decided to post some old reviews..


A hot mess of a book, but still worth reading. Michael Knight is now a postmodern conventionally educated scholar, and that is beginning to show. He has obviously read VERY widely and the book contains countless extremely interesting tidbits about magic and magical ideas in Islamicate tradition. But all of this wonderful research is embedded within a curious postmodern framework that can be off-putting and irrelevant to the story. The story he COULD have told is the story of magic and related ideas in the history of Islam and Islamicate culture. THAT story would have been a fascinating and interesting tour through a history that is not well known, especially to outsiders and Western-educated Muslims (like us). And he provides some of that and that is why the book is worth reading. But he is also eager to “correct” our supposed misconceptions about religion and history and too much pleading takes up too much space in this book. Then again, many people seem to want that kind of “mandatory re-education/rectification of names”, so maybe you will like that part too. But personally, I would have preferred more historical details, fewer lectures about orientalism and “the clash of civilizations”.
Best new bit of information for me: that Ibn ul Arabi claimed he had sex with the Arabic letters in paradise. I wish i knew more about the context of that particular quote. But like many fascinating little details in the book, Michael mentions it and moves on. He has clearly read a lot, I wish he had spent more time presenting the information he has collected and less time lecturing us about how “opening space for new fields of knowledge potentially decenters traditions of jurisprudence, even forcing increased opening of an Islam outside normative Muslim legal traditions” and suchlike. Sure, that would be nice. But let us hear the story first, then we can figure out what it means for magic to be (as he describes it) “deconstructive”.
Not that I disagree with his project of “engagement and deep intersection”, just that I wanted more of the facts, less of the postmodern interpretation.