Ariela Marcus-Sells publishes article in journal History of Religions

The article by the assistant professor of religious studies examines an Arabic text written by a Sufi Muslim scholar named Sīdi Muḥammad al-Kuntī, who lived in the Sahara Desert in the 19th century. The article argues that this scholar based his family's claim to social authority on their control over powerful practices that they called "the sciences of the unseen." 

Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Ariela Marcus-Sells published an article entitled "Science, Sorcery, and Secrets in the Fawāʾid Nūrāniyya of Sīdi Muḥammad Al-Kuntī" in the journal History of Religions (University of Chicago Press):

Her article examines a set of practices described by a Sufi Muslim scholar named Sīdi Muḥammad al-Kuntī in an Arabic manuscript text entitled the Fawāʾid Nūrāniyya. Sīdi Muḥammad was the leader of a family network called "the Kunta," which controlled extensive trade routes, and asserted social and religious authority within the Sahara Desert in the late 18th and early 19th century.  

The Fawāʾid Nūrāniyya provides instructions on how to use the letters of the Arabic alphabet, the names of God, and in particular the greatest name of God, to perform a variety of practices intended to produce material results in the world—from healing the sick, to protecting a house, to exerting total control over the universe. Marcus-Sells then turns to another text by the same author to show that Sīdi Muḥammad acknowledged that other Muslim scholars might consider these practices to be acts of sorcery (siḥr); however, he argues against this classification, and instead positions the sciences of secrets as a form of legitimate Muslim devotional practice and refers to them as "the sciences of the unseen." 

Ultimately, Marcus-Sells argues that Sīdi Muḥammad atttempts to limit access to the sciences of the unseen even as he presents explicit instructions for their use. His arguments for the legitimacy of the sciences establishe them as not only Muslim, but specifically Sufi, devotional practices, and thus place them under the control of Sufi leaders, including the leaders of his own family. In this fashion, by limiting and directing access to “the sciences of the unseen,” Sīdi Muḥammad attempted to shape the Saharan society in which he lived by establishing his authority over the devotional lives of other Muslims.

This study thus adds to scholarship on sorcery and other contested practices in Islamic history while also highlighting the role of African Muslims in contributing to these debates.