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Matthew Melvin-Koushki


University of South Carolina


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.

Short bio

Currently Assistant Professor of History at the University of South Carolina, I hold degrees in Islamic Studies from Yale University (PhD, MPhil, MA) and a BA in Middle Eastern Languages and Literatures (Persian and Sanskrit) from the University of Virginia, and completed postdoctoral appointments at the University of Oxford and Princeton University. My 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.

My 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, I argue 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?

I have produced a series of articles addressing these themes (see my page), and am presently converting my 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. I am also editing the volume of proceedings from a workshop I 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.


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