Compiled and annotated by Jenn Zahrt
In our Cancer Sol 2022 issue of The Mountain Astrologer, Sasha Ravitch interviewed J.M. Hamade about the recently translated magical grimoire the Shams al-Ma’arif, or Sun of Knowledge. Together with Dr. Amina Inloes, Hamade worked to bring facets of this text into English for the first time, and provide cultural context — a “Travelogue” of the lunar mansions — for people unaware of the deeply embedded Islamic features of this text. Hamade also provided color illustrations for the book. Print constraints did not allow the entirety of this fascinating interview to hit ink, so the TMA editorial team is releasing some outtakes for you here. Enjoy!
On the inextricable relationship between magic and faith in the Sun of Knowledge
Sasha Ravitch: Faith is so often overlooked in contemporary Western approaches to astrological magic, so I appreciate you also speaking for a moment to the role of faith in al-Buni’s Sun of Knowledge [Shams al’Ma’arif], but also in practicing this cultural cosmology as astrology. In recent times, we’ve seen a passionate revival of the use of grimoires proliferate in the astrological community, even with folks who maybe wouldn’t have been interested in astrological magic several years ago, whether with the Picatrix or the Greek Magical Papyri. We’ve also seen an exponential spike in interest in Islamicate astrology and magic as well. It appears that this astrological magic Geist is growing in the direction of theology, thaumaturgy, devotion, vocation, evocation, and so forth. Do you have any specific thoughts about how the Sun of Knowledge will start to play a role in people’s minds and practices?
J.M. Hamade: This magical revival you speak of is largely in the Anglosphere, and the English-speaking world has existed in primarily a neo-pagan and witchcraft-centered milieu for roughly the past 100 years. The figures who have led this movement have made active attempts to distance themselves from not only Christianity, but the theological components in magic in general, whether that’s through connecting with pagan deities, or through simply downplaying the theology. You can make direct comparisons between that and the Western secular notion of separating church and state. By and large, this is nonexistent in the Islamic world.
I understand people’s aversion, with inquisitions and fundamentalists and everything else. But to take something so inextricably linked to something else [as this magic is to the religion], and to attempt to remove it utterly out of its context is, I think, a mistake. If you want to begin to not only understand this magic, but to have it be practically efficacious, you cannot remove either the faith component or the theological component because they’re all thought to exist within the same structure. Even if that is more of a witchcraft or malefic magical context, that is still a subversion of the structure — that is not saying that the structure does not exist or ignoring the structure altogether.
SR: A heresy but not a blasphemy.
JMH: Exactly. So, I think this emphasis on the specifically Islamic component once again shows us what’s different than what we’ve seen so far in the magical revival. Anglosphere readers are, frankly, not familiar with the specifically Islamic theological components being a tool for cross-cultural analysis, for comparison with the texts we’ve already been working with, and for showing us how we can better use them and look at them.
On the barzakh, the liminal
Sasha Ravitch: I am really moved by your focus on this return to breath, this dissolution of the idea of the imaginal as sheerly representational, toward a lived-in, embodied astral-magical wisdom and practice. Since so many ancient significations of the Moon relate to the body and the way we process, it seems both cohesive and holistic for us to return to this idea of an ensouled astrology.
There is such a verdant and ineluctable connection to the natural world, and to the seasonal cycles, and you could place the celestial phenomena within the context of terrestrial and chthonic experiences. What especially made me think of this was your use of the word “barzakh” to describe the space of liminality, this meeting and perhaps even coalescing of worlds. It appears integral to understanding the unique hermeneutics of the Sun of Knowledge, as well as the esoteric and magical implications of astral magic and mythos in the Islamic world.
J.M. Hamade: The barzakh is the liminal, imaginal realm between the pen and paper. It’s the place that is no-place. Specifically, the term itself references a kind of barrier — not a hard-and-fast one, it’s more conceptual. The term comes up a few times in the Quran, where it is like an invisible division between two seas. These seas could be thought of as bodies of saltwater (death) and freshwater (life) interacting with each other. The barzakh is this liminal space between life and death.
This is also the context that it’s thought of in Islam, and in Islamic folklore, wherein the grave, or the tomb, is barzakh. The open grave specifically is barzakh, but the tomb itself is indistinguishable from this word. The grave as this point of transition between life and death represents a kind of liminality, the same imaginal liminality from which magic emerges, the imaginal being inherently imagistic, and referencing all things that we would consider to be imagistic: art, poetry, music, things that evoke imagery and strong sense and movement toward the interaction between the sensual and the invisible.
I also don’t think that this is too dissimilar from my description of the lunar mansions as porous or open, or even the sky in general, wherein this imagistic dimension is a place that people and their stories and their projections interact with, through a constant shape-shifting poetic artistic dialogue that is always changing, that is always living and breathing, people coming at it from their varied cultural perspectives, as well as their own individual perspectives.
On rulership and the 10th lunar mansion, Al-Jabhah
SR: In your “Travelogue,” your discussion of the 10th lunar mansion, Al-Jabhah, which famously nestles the fixed star Regulus, deeply grabbed my attention. You speak to the requisite acknowledgement of the ancestral throne upon which all rulership in this world is aggregated and constructed, and how that power is borrowed and built upon. How did engaging with al-Buni’s material feel complimentary to the auspices of this mansion for you?
JMH: In the introduction [to Sun of Knowledge], I write about the tenuous nature of the dead in Islam. Once again, this notion of barzakh, the liminality between life and death, evokes this tension that the dead hold, or don’t hold, in an Islamic context, both religiously and folklorically (although in folklore, the place of the dead tends to be worked out by the particular culture that adopted Islam as a religion, as opposed to just taking on whatever the religion says about the dead, which is very little in the Quran itself). But, the nature of the dead still remains a tense one.
Thinking about the 10th lunar mansion in its Vedic context, as the nakshatra Mugha, and its association with the pitri or ancestral dead had me questioning how this manifests in the lunar mansion. The fixed star Regulus has been associated with kingship and rulership somewhat cross-culturally, and in the context of rulership, this is always the dead built upon the dead, and the living built upon the dead. You cannot have rulership, kingship, royal families, leadership with familial continuity, without speaking about the dead and those who have come before us and those who ruled before us.
So, I found that there was a way of looking at that without talking about the dead as if we are working directly with them in a necromantic context, just observing the way that rulers rule, or the way that dynasties are built upon the thrones of the dead (the throne being a symbol of the nakshatra Mugha), as well as looking at the magical associations, the 10th lunar mansion being not only the healing of the body and the physical constitution, but also birthing, which in itself speaks to lineage, familial continuity, and the like — these being the magical associations in the Arabic lunar mansions.
This also led me to think about a type of familial transmission in Sufic context, which is called a silsila, a chain of transmission between Sufi teacher to student, this being the way that mystical knowledge is moved between the generations. Our legendary mage Ahmad al-Buni was not only a Sufi, but a Sufi who taught this same material found in the Shams [Sun of Knowledge] in the necropolis in Egypt, on the tombs of Sufi saints in his lineage, actively reminding all those who are there that the reception and transmission of this knowledge is fundamentally based on a chain going back to the world of the dead — who, whether explicitly stated or not, are the root of this power. In an Islamic folk–magical context, you could even say going back to the Ahl al-Bayt, the family lineage that goes back to the Prophet (peace be upon him, himself, and his family). The ability to trace it back through these lines of the dead gives much of this magic its efficacy.
This begs the following questions: What are these different forms of transmission? Are some more valid than others?
In speaking about the text itself, and those who have added to the text, as well as people such as myself, who have come to not only work with it, but bring it into new cultural contexts, new discussions, new languages, it’s important to talk about how people who do not belong to those initial chains of transmission can then transmit the text. We’ve reached a point wherein we can more openly acknowledge that there are ways that this kind of information can be transmitted that don’t necessarily rely upon the older master-student forms of transmission. One isn’t necessarily more valid than the other.
SR: And that, in so many ways, the heart of the lion is fortified by the growing of the kingdom.
JMH: Exactly. That it isn’t something that perhaps once was reserved for the so-called elect, the aristocratic. But in the same way that we speak about observational astrology, and access to the different means necessary to enact these forms of astral magic, the text itself shows us that these different streams are open to a variety of perspectives and interpretations, wherein how efficacious or not they might be can only be borne out through practice itself, or can only be borne out through the ways that the text itself chooses to manifest in the world. I think that, perhaps, can be seen in this move from the very highfalutin royal courts of esotericists who had that initial grasp on the text, to something more democratic, or open-source, that exists and is still durable and enduring in the age of the internet.
SR: And perhaps it also allows for people to put a priority on faith again, which is something that you don’t need to have a royal allotment or a title for, and perhaps that is essentially even more important than what access to certain clubs someone may have, or what ability someone may have for the resource of a master.
JMH: Exactly. To not only be engaged with the material, but to live the material is to embody the cosmology they’re in, and to embody the cosmology of the text is to have faith in God, and to have faith in God allows one the ability to approach magic, to approach a text such as this, and gives one a kind of guidance or compass in interacting with a text like this. Just simply taking the magic and abstracting it to focus on the data or the particulates, you lose touch with the guidance that faith can give you, not only in approaching life, but in approaching a book of magic as vast and oftentimes complicated as the Sun of Knowledge.
If you enjoyed these outtakes, please see their entire interview in the Cancer Sol 2022 issue of The Mountain Astrologer.
Copies of the Sun of Knowledge can be found in most online bookshops and at the publisher’s website: revelore.press