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Islamagic?

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By Kirsty McHugh, OUP UK

Adam Silverstein is University Research Lecturer in Near and Middle Eastern Studies and a Fellow of The Queen’s College, Oxford, and Fellow in Jewish-Muslim Relations at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. His new book, Islamic History: A Very Short Introduction, examines the story of Islamic history, the controversies surrounding its study, and the significance it holds for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. In the original blog post below, he draws parallels between the study of Islamic history and performing magic. You can see a video of Adam talking about his book on the Meet the Author website.


“You’re a member of The Magic Circle?!” – It’s the first thing colleagues who have read my book ask and I must admit that this is something of a disappointment. After all, having invested blood, guts, and 38,000 words attempting to infect readers with my enthusiasm for Islamic history and civilization, all these readers remember is the last line of the ‘about the author’ blurb on the book’s back flap.

And yet, the fact that my membership of the Magic Circle raised eyebrows at all got me thinking about the relationship between researching Islamic history and performing Magic. Even disregarding superficial or tenuous connections – such as the fact that in the Islamic tradition Pharaoh also had conjurers engage in a magic-duel with Moses; or the fact that magicians and historians are both widely considered geeks – there are grounds for comparing the work of a magician with that of an historian of Islam. For the benefit of those of you who cannot read minds, here’s what I’m thinking.

First, both Magic and Islamic History have been heavily shaped by ‘Orientalism’. Western scholars of Islamic history in the 19th and early-20th century were often fascinated by the exotic ‘Orient’, attracted to the region by images – real or imagined – of opulent, sensual courts and bazaars; the edginess of winding alleyways where swindlers in fezes prey on gullible passersby and snake-charmers with crazy eyes somehow eke out a living. It has been forcefully argued that such stereotypical preconceptions about ‘the Orient’ have tainted the study of Islamic history. What is Islamic History VSIless well-known is that western magicians have also been guilty of Orientalism and I’m not just thinking here of Tommy Cooper’s fez. Since the Middle Ages, magicians have been ‘going East’ in search of magic and exploiting the Orient’s mystique to add allure to their acts. Marco Polo famously described a performance of the Indian Rope Trick (as did the 14th century Muslim traveler, Ibn Battuta, who claims to have witnessed the trick while travelling through China) and the Canadian illusionist Doug Henning (1947-2000) is actually thought to have travelled to India to learn the real secrets of levitation (in case you’re wondering, gravity won the day). Similarly, the shocking death of illusionist Chung-Ling-Soo on stage, during a botched attempt at the infamous ‘bullet catch trick’, was compounded by the stunning discovery that ‘the marvelous Chinese conjurer’, as he was known, was actually an American by the name of William Ellsworth Robinson (1861-1918) who – like many other western magicians at the time – disguised himself as an ‘Oriental’ conjurer to pander to and exploit western stereotypes about the mysterious East. Some magic tricks do originate in China, India, or the Middle East, and playing cards themselves – on which everyone’s favourite ‘Uncle Al’ depends to perform his card tricks – reached Europe via the Mamluk sultans of the medieval Islamic world. But there is little doubt that ‘Orientalism’ of the fictional sort has played a significant role both in the study of Islamic history and in the performance of magic; thinking historians and magicians alike have had to grapple searchingly with this reality.

Second, both magic and history are executed poorly when trading on the fact that the expert knows something that the non-expert doesn’t. A bad historian (be it of Islam or anything else) seeks to show off his credentials by stressing the knowledge-gap between himself and others. Padding footnotes allows insecure academics to give a [false] impression of erudition, while unnecessary jargon, polysyllabic words, and convoluted arguments are an academic’s ‘smoke-and-mirrors’. Similarly, most magicians – especially young ones – go through what I call the “na-na-na-na-na! phase” of performing: they buy a trick, learn the secret, show it to their friends, and then gloat that they know how the trick works and their friends don’t – “na-na-na-na-na!” One of the strengths of the VSI series is the fact that the authority of its authors in their respective fields and the compact nature of its volumes reduce the need for academic misdirection, as it were.

Third, when executed properly, magic and academia are about the same things, namely: challenging preconceptions and pushing the boundaries of received wisdom, while refusing to take ‘facts’ for granted simply because they’re repeated a lot. Magic tricks only work because they appear to demonstrate the impossible: dropping an apple to the floor is not magic since nothing unexpected happens (unless of course gravity strikes one as magical). Conversely, suspending an apple in mid-air causes lots of head-scratching and wonderment. What magic does is to force people to test their preconceptions and, if they are indeed stumped by the trick, to accept the entertainment value of the performance. Spectators need not be convinced that the laws of nature have indeed been broken to appreciate the cleverness of a trick. Historians, too, must always challenge received wisdom by subjecting our sources and evidence to close analysis. Demonstrating to students and colleagues that traditional versions of history are indeed correct does not represent an original contribution to scholarship (again, since ‘nothing unexpected happens’); rethinking the status quo through reasoned reinterpretations of our evidence is what advances historical enquiry. Even if other historians wish not to accept an historian’s original conclusions, they might still appreciate the cleverness of the argument.

Finally, some of the same issues, namely the role of women and terrorism, are heatedly and controversially debated amongst magicians and historians of Islam alike. Just as women’s rights, veil-wearing, and other issues excite controversy amongst students and scholars of Islam, magicians have begun asking themselves questions about the role and portrayal of women in magic. Why do we almost never see a female magician sawing a man in half? (Note both the explicit violence against women and the implicit dominance of men over them.) And why, for that matter, are there so few female magicians altogether? Is magic inherently misogynistic?

And ‘Magic terrorism?!?!’ you ask? Oh yes (sort of). In the past, just as wars were fought on battlefields between armies and magic was performed on stages to paying audiences – both expected arenas and expected participants – nowadays both warfare and magic have been visited upon unsuspecting (and reluctant) populations. Magic’s equivalent to terrorism is what is known as ‘Street Magic’. Basically, this involves a plain-clothed magician (note the lack of a traditional magician’s ‘uniform’) accosting a random passerby and ‘attacking’ them with a magic trick (the street magician of course believes that he – and it is almost always a he – is offering the ‘target’ the gift of his magical entertainment, but it is often clear that the recipient of this ‘gift’ feels vicitimized). Both Jihadis and practitioners of street magic represent a small minority amongst serious Muslims and magicians (and there are good grounds for arguing that they skew the essence of Islam and magic respectively), and in both cases their ranks consist of disaffected youths, who cannot relate to the models of out-of-touch earlier generations – old-fashioned magicians with their waistcoats and bad-jokes, or old-style Muslim leaders who have failed to square Muslim societies with the attractions and distractions of Westernization. Just as scholars and students of Islam continue to debate the role of martyrdom and violent-Jihad in Islam, magicians continue to contextualize the new genre of guerilla magic.

Bearing all this in mind, it is clear that magic and Islamic history overlap far more than one might expect. Now please go and buy my book – or I will turn you into a frog.

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