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Department of History


Matthew Melvin-Koushki

Title: Associate Professor
Peter and Bonnie McCausland Fellow of History
Department: History
College of Arts and Sciences
Phone: 803-777-2905
Office: Gambrell, Room 211
Resources: Curriculum Vitae
Matthew Melvin-Koushki


  • M.A., M.Phil., Ph.D. Yale University
  • B.A. University of Virginia

Research Interests:

Early Modern Islamic Intellectual and Cultural History, Occult Sciences, Iran


Matthew Melvin-Koushki specializes in early modern Islamicate intellectual and imperial history, with a focus on the theory and practice of the occult sciences in Timurid-Safavid Iran and the broader Persianate world to the 19th century.

He received his Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from Yale in 2012, and has held postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Oxford and Princeton University. His 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, both equally the West; 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.

Melvin-Koushki’s 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, he argues 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?

He teaches the history of Islamicate civilization from the late antique to the early modern period, with an emphasis on such categories as cosmology and philosophy; mysticism, messianism and millenarianism; science, magic and religion; empire and revolution; monotheism, logocentrism and universalism; intellectual networks; nomadism and sedentarism; historiography, chancery literature and diplomatic practice; early modern orientalism; and connected histories. Regularly offered courses include:

HIST 104: Introduction to Islamic Civilization
HIST 108: Science and Technology in Western History
HIST 300: The Historian’s Craft
HIST 387: Messiahs, Mystics and Rebels in the Islamic World
HIST 389: Science, Magic and Religion
HIST 492: Kabbalah: Science, Religion and Nature in Western History (with Andrew Berns)

Current Activities

Melvin-Koushki is converting his 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 ten unpublished Persian and Arabic treatises by Ibn Turka on the subject of lettrism. Melvin-Koushki is also co-editor of the volumes of proceedings from two international workshops he organized or co-organized, at Princeton in February 2014 and at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in January 2017 respectively. The first, Islamicate Occultism: New Perspectives, was published in fall 2017 as a special double issue of Arabica; the second, Islamicate Occult Sciences in Theory and Practice, is forthcoming from Brill in Spring 2020. Current article-length projects include the role of Islamic neopythagoreanism in history of philosophy and history of science, especially in relation to the celebrated mathesis narrative on the one hand and the emergence of neopythagorean-monist historiography on the other; 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; Qajar and modern receptions of Safavid occultism; the development of anti-Safavid and anti-Shi‘i propaganda by scholars working for the Aqquyunlu, Ottoman and Uzbek Empires; lettrism and philology in/as early modernity; and occultism vs. colonialist modernity. Further details are available on


Selected Publications

Islamicate Occultism: New Perspectives, ed. with Noah Gardiner, special double issue of Arabica, 64/3-4 (2017), 287-693 [link]

“Timurid-Mughal Philosopher-Kings as Sultan-Scientists,” in Maribel Fierro, Sonja Brentjes and Tilman Seidensticker, eds., Rulers as Authors in the Islamic World: Knowledge, Authority and Legitimacy, Leiden: Brill (forthcoming 2020)

“The Occult Sciences in Theory and Experimentalist Practice,” in Sonja Brentjes, ed., assoc. ed. Matthew Melvin-Koushki et al., Routledge Handbook of Scientific Practices in Islamic Societies, New York: Routledge (forthcoming 2020)

“Toward a Neopythagorean Historiography: Kemālpaşazāde’s (d. 1534) Lettrist Call for the Conquest of Cairo and the Development of Ottoman Occult-Scientific Imperialism,” in Liana Saif, Francesca Leoni, Matthew Melvin-Koushki and Farouk Yahya, eds., Islamic Occultism in Theory and Practice, Leiden: Brill (forthcoming 2020)

“The Occult Sciences in Safavid Iran and Safavid Occultists Abroad,” in Rudi Matthee, ed., The Safavid World, New York: Routledge (forthcoming 2020)

“The New Brethren of Purity: Ibn Turka and the Renaissance of Neopythagoreanism in the Early Modern Persian Cosmopolis,” in Aurélien Robert, Irene Caiazzo and Constantin Macris, eds., Companion to the Reception of Pythagoras and Pythagoreanism, 2 vols., Leiden: Brill (forthcoming 2020)

“Magic in Islam between Religion and Science,” review essay on Sebastian Günther and Dorothee Pielow, eds., Die Geheimnisse der oberen und der unteren Welt: Magie im Islam zwischen Glaube und Wissenschaft, Leiden: Brill, 2019, in Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft, 14/2 (forthcoming 2019)

“World as (Arabic) Text: Mīr Dāmād and the Neopythagoreanization of Philosophy in Safavid Iran,” Studia Islamica, 114/2 (forthcoming 2019)

“Pseudo-Shaykh Bahāʾī on the Supreme Name, a Safavid-Qajar Lettrist Classic,” in Jamal J. Elias and Bilal Orfali, eds., Light upon Light: Essays in Islamic Thought and History in Honor of Gerhard Bowering, Leiden: Brill (forthcoming 2019) [pdf]

“Imperial Talismanic Love: Ibn Turka’s Debate of Feast and Fight (1426) as Philosophical Romance and Lettrist Mirror for Timurid Princes,” Der Islam, 96/1 (2019), 42-86 [pdf]

How to Rule the World: Occult-Scientific Manuals of the Early Modern Persian Cosmopolis,” Journal of Persianate Studies, 11/2 (2018), 140-54 [pdf]

Taḥqīq vs. Taqlīd in the Renaissances of Western Early Modernity,” review essay on Dag Nikolaus Hasse, Success and Suppression: Arabic Sciences and Philosophy in the Renaissance, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016; and Sheldon Pollock, Benjamin A. Elman and Ku-ming Kevin Chang, eds., World Philology, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2015, in Philological Encounters, 3/1-2 (2018), 193-249 [pdf]

“Persianate Geomancy from Ṭūsī to the Millennium: A Preliminary Survey,” in Nader El-Bizri and Eva Orthmann, eds., Occult Sciences in Premodern Islamic Culture, Beirut: Orient-Institut Beirut, 2018, 151-99 [pdf]

“Early Modern Islamicate Empire: New Forms of Religiopolitical Legitimacy,” in Armando Salvatore, Roberto Tottoli and Babak Rahimi, eds., The Wiley-Blackwell History of Islam, Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2018, 353-75 [pdf]

“Powers of One: The Mathematicalization of the Occult Sciences in the High Persianate Tradition,” Intellectual History of the Islamicate World, 5/1 (2017), 127-99 [pdf]

“In Defense of Geomancy: Sharaf al-Dīn Yazdī Rebuts Ibn Khaldūn’s Critique of the Occult Sciences,” in Matthew Melvin-Koushki and Noah Gardiner, eds., Islamicate Occultism: New Perspectives, special double issue of Arabica, 64/3-4 (2017), 346-403 [pdf]

“De-orienting the Study of Islamicate Occultism,” introduction to Matthew Melvin-Koushki and Noah Gardiner, eds., Islamicate Occultism: New Perspectives, special double issue of Arabica, 64/3-4 (2017), 287-95 [pdf]

“(De)colonizing Early Modern Occult Philosophy,” review essay on Liana Saif, The Arabic Influences on Early Modern Occult Philosophy, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, in Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft, 12/1 (2017), 98-112 [pdf]

“Conjuncting Astrology and Lettrism, Islam and Judaism,” afterword to special issue “Characterizing Astrology in the Premodern Islamic World,”  Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft, 12/1 (2017), 89-97 [pdf]

“Of Islamic Grammatology: Ibn Turka’s Lettrist Metaphysics of Light,” al-ʿUṣūr al-Wusṭā: Journal of Middle East Medievalists, 24 (2016), 42-113 [pdf]

“Mobilizing Magic: Occultism in Central Asia and the Continuity of High Persianate Culture under Russian Rule,” Studia Islamica, 111/2 (2016), 231-84 (co-author with James Pickett) [pdf]

“Astrology, Lettrism, Geomancy: The Occult-Scientific Methods of Post-Mongol Islamicate Imperialism,” Medieval History Journal, 19/1 (2016), 142-50 [pdf]

“The Occult Challenge to Messianism and Philosophy in Early Timurid Iran: Ibn Turka’s Lettrism as a New Metaphysics,” in Orkhan Mir-Kasimov, ed., Unity in Diversity: Mysticism, Messianism and the Construction of Religious Authority in Islam, Leiden: Brill, 2014, 247-76 [pdf]

“The Delicate Art of Aggression: Uzun Hasan’s Fathnama to Qaytbay of 1469,” Iranian Studies, 44/2 (2011), 193-214 [pdf]


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