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Jinns, donkey kings, angels and demons: MEMO in Conversation with Emily Selove

In an effort to beat the Abbasid Caliph Al-Nasir, the shah of the Khwarezmian Empire turned to magician Siraj Al-Din Al-Sakaki to create a magical statue that would help win the battle. But things took an unexpected turn. Join MEMO's conversation to find out more about the importance of magic in Middle Eastern history

December 27, 2023 at 4:00 pm



Siraj Al-Din Al-Sakaki (1160-1229) is best known for his work on Arabic grammar, which students of the language throughout the world use until this day, but very few know he worked as a magician in both the Khwarazmian and Mongol courts. The author of grimoire, a how-to guide for budding magicians, Al-Sakaki offers instructions to students on how to conjure Jinns, how to draw up contracts with the devil, how to cast love spells and how to inflict a humiliating defeat on your enemies as well as a deep dive into the world of magical donkeys. Al-Sakaki was taken very seriously by the rulers of his day, he even managed to survive a talisman gone-wrong, where he was asked by the shah of the Khwarezmian Empire to create a magical statue that would enable them to beat the Abbasid Caliph Al-Nasir in battle and take Baghdad. Al-Sakaki created the talismanic statue and buried it – however the statue magically changed direction while underground causing the shah to lose the battle. Al-Sakaki takes us into the fascinating world of medieval sorcery popular in Middle Eastern and Islamic societies. MEMO in Conversation is joined by Emily Selove, who is translating Al-Sakaki’s works into English, to help us understand the man and his magic.

Dr Emily Selove is an associate professor in Medieval Arabic Language and Literature at the University of Exeter. She is also the convener of the University of Exeter’s Centre for Magic and Esotericism. Her most recent publication is a short monograph for the Cambridge Elements Series: The Donkey King: Asinine Symbology in Ancient and Medieval Magic. She was the PI of a Leverhulme-funded research project, “A Sorcerer’s Handbook,” (2019-2022) which will create an edition and translation of Siraj Al-Din Al-Sakkaki’s magic handbook, Kitab Al-Shamil wa-baḥr Al-kamil (The Book of the Complete). Her early research focused on the figure of the uninvited guest (or “party-crasher”) in medieval Arabic literature. Her translation of another 11th-century book of party-crashing is titled Selections from the Art of Party-Crashing in Medieval Iraq.  She also co-authored a textbook to introduce beginning students to the city of medieval Baghdad, Baghdad at the Centre of a World: 8th-13th Century,  and has created a collection of cartoons titled Popeye and Curly: 120 Days in Medieval Baghdad to accompany this textbook.