Ariela Marcus-Sells, "Sorcery or Science?: Contesting Knowledge and Practice in West African Sufi Texts" (Pennsylvania State UP, 2022)


In Sorcery or Science? Contesting Knowledge and Practice in West African Sufi Texts (The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2022) Ariela Marcus-Sells examines two Sufi Muslim theologians, known as Kunta scholars, who rose to prominence in the western Sahara Desert in the late eighteenth century. Sīdi al-Mukhtār al-Kuntī (d. 1811) and his son and successor, Sīdi Muḥammad al-Kuntī (d. 1826), influenced the development of Sufi Muslim thought in West Africa. Through textual analysis of their devotional aids, such as prayers and magic squares, we are provided a picture of their understanding of “the realm of the unseen” and the resulting practices of the “sciences of the unseen.” Marcus-Sells captures how Kunta scholars engaged with contested Sufi and Islamic praxis that contained cosmology, metaphysics, magic, sorcery, and occultism. The study also contextualizes these magical and Sufi practices within social and political context of the Saharan desert, such as Transatlantic slavery, while mapping the broader legacies of these devotional practices within Hellenistic and Arabo-Islamic worlds. The book further invites a methodological intervention in the study of religion, in terms of how scholars construct boundaries around emic and etic terminologies of magic, especially in Islamic Studies and broadly in religious studies. This remarkable book will be of interest to those who think and write about Africana religious studies, Islamic occultism, magic, Sufism, and Islam.

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Shobhana Xavier

Shobhana Xavier is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Queen’s University. More details about her research and scholarship may be found here and here. She may be reached at You can follow her on Twitter via @shobhanaxavier.

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