Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Sultan's Sex Potions - apart from the orientalizing title, what else is wrong with this?

I was recently sent a copy of a new book purporting to be a short work on aphrodisiacs by the famed philosopher-scientist Naṣīr al-dīn al-Ṭūsī (d. 1274). Many thanks to the publisher for bringing this to my attention. The editor and translator Daniel Newman is an Arabist known for his translations and professor at Durham University. The book, while aimed at a somewhat semi-popular audience - signalled by its publication by al-Saqi, contains an short and useful introduction on Arabic erotic literature, on the purported author, as well as an edition of the Arabic based on three manuscripts and an annotated translation of the English. The contemporary interest in sexualities in the Middle East is clearly the impetus for this work as the preface makes clear. The translated text is relatively short - only 40 odd pages out of the book of about 210 pages. The same text was in fact edited and translated into German for a PhD at Erlangen in 1974 - the editor there also attributed the text to Ṭūsī without any discussion (as I have been told since I have not consulted it myself). The orientalising framing is a problem - why Arab aphrodisiacs in the Middle Ages? 

The edition is based on three manuscripts: Berlin Staatsbibliothek 6383 dated 1208/1793 used as a base in the German edition and as the base here as well, Glasgow University Hunter 144.4 in a medical majmūʿa undated and as the editor suggests probably based on the Berlin one (which seems to have been the assessment of the German editor as well), and Cairo Dār al-kutub Ṭibb 582 dated 1224/1809 which is incomplete. The editor says there is also an Istanbul Şehit Ali Paşa 2068 which he did not consult.

But a number of issues suggest that the attribution to Ṭūsī is questionable - and it is clear that the editor does not know much about him, even if his brief excursus on his life is broadly defensible (I am not familiar with him being described as al-muʿallim al-thālith though it is possible someone might have).

1) All three manuscripts are late - around 1800 - and at least two of them have a number of phrases, as the editor admits, in Egyptian Arabic. The Cairo manuscript has a heading attributing it to Ṭūsī.

2) The proemium states that the author is writing/transmitting a book or set of concoctions put together by Abū-l-Barakāt Khwāja Nāṣir al-dīn Ṭūsī for the 'sulṭān Qāzān' or 'sulṭān Ghāzān'. The editor reads this as 'caliph of Qāzān' whom he identifies as Ābāqā Khān (1234-1282). However, it certainly reads as if it says Ghāzān Khān (1271-1304) who was Ābāqā's grandson and as a child of three at Ṭūsī's death could not have been the sulṭān to request such a book. I am also not familiar with this form of Ṭūsī's name and laqab being given in texts. 

3) The editor ponders why Ṭūsī would be asked to write a book for an ailing child of the Khān which is actually on aphrodisiacs. It is possible that such a book on medicine was commissioned - but how did it end up being only about aphrodisiacs? Surely there is a problem here.

4) The author of the text does not seem to be Shiʿi - neither the formulation of salutations on the Prophet nor on ʿAlī later in the text match the Shiʿi form. This may just be due to the copyist. But Sunni copyists do not tend to change the form. 

The text is designed as a self-help work - the introduction makes clear that these are tried and tested - arranged in 18 chapters. 

Now writing on medicine and sexology was fairly common and even part of the circle of Ṭūsī. It is quite possible that this book may be based on some element of oral teaching. If it were a significant work, then surely there would be an earlier manuscript tradition. It seems more likely to me that the text fits a late 18th century interest in such matters, and due to the fame of Ṭūsī as philosopher and scientist was attributed to him to lend an air of authority. And as such tells us more about the social and intellectual (and even sexual interests) of people in Egypt around 1800, and concomitantly how they received and understood the status of Ṭūsī. 

No comments: