The Concept of Khurafa in the Medieval Islamic Sources

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Khurafa (Superstition) in the Medieval Islamic Sources” examines the concept of superstition (Khurafa) in the medieval Islamic civilization. Kheraf  or “the absurdity of the mind” is something false but melodious to people’s minds (Ibn Manzur, 1987, V. 9, p. 66).

This article addresses the concepts of science in relation to concepts of wisdom and khurafa in medieval Islamic sources to determine the exact boundaries between superstition and science.

Kheraf means “corruption of mind because of exaggeration”. The subject of the story is Khurafa who is from Bani Ozra or Johaina. After going among jinns, he tells a lot of stories about them. These tales have been known as “tales of Khurafa”. These tales are not in accordance with realities so the word Khuraf and Khurafa mean fiction and lying but interesting (Ibn Manzur, 1889, v 9, p. 66). In the Arabic language, the word khurafa refers to nonsense speech (Adnani Qarifi, 1991, v. 4, p. 350). Asmar or historical and love stories and delusions are other meanings behind the concept of khurafa.

This article explores the position of khurafa in the epistemic system of medieval times besides science, wisdom and, knowledge. To detect the boundaries between “khurafa and science” can determine the scope of wisdom in the Islamic civilization. This article explores the position of khurafa in the epistemic system of medieval times besides science, wisdom and, knowledge.

 Regarding the concept of khurafa in the 10th to 13th centuries, the paper reviews the process of rationalism developed in this era to determine the boundaries between science and superstition in astronomy, history, geography, medicine, and alchemy.

Regarding the collective wisdom of different societies, khurafa has different meanings and references. For example, Abu Rayhan indicates some superstitious viewpoints in the Indian traditions which are considered rational in the Indian collective wisdom. This is true about rationalists (kheradgera) and narrative based scholars (naql-gera) who regard the viewpoints of each other as superstition. Referring to some examples this paper examines whether there is a common belief about the concept and instances of superstition among different nations (p. 144).

Science in mind and reality is a pure problem whose nature is gradually influenced by social and human issues. Astronomy and mathematics are two exact fields of science. However, astronomy, for example, is affected by philosophical traditional, and human issues. Being intertwined with unscientific problems like prophesying and determining lucky (sa’d) and unlucky (nahs) days has reduced its purity. To give another example, physics and chemistry are two main exact fields of science. But when chemistry is integrated with Alchemy i.e. a combination of chemistry and philosophy of life, it would degenerate.

Methodological confusions in empirical and religious sciences and the application of philosophical methods in experimental sciences are challenging problems in medieval times. This situation was common in Greece, Alexandria India, and the Islamic world. Unlike Muslim and Indian scholars, Greek thinkers had determined some boundaries between different fields of science and so they somehow managed to resolve these methodological confusions. Even though Muslims distinguished empirical and philosophical sciences, their methodological confusions led to unreliable results. Even now, sciences have challenging methodological problems.  

To examine the concept of superstition, the following sources are reviewed:

Historical sources: Bal’ami (2001, V.1, 370), Ibn Miskawayh (2006, v.1, p.75), Mojmel al-Tawarikh (2010, p.38), Beihaqi (V.1, p.341), Ibn Asir (2006, V.1 p. 66), Yaqut Hamawi (2001, V.1, pp. 459-460; V.2, p. 436-437). Narrating three tales about the death of Moses, Bal’ami specifies them as khurafa (Bal’ami, V. 1, p. 370). Ibn Miskawayh regards the Iranian myths and epics about kings as khurafa (Ibn Miskawayh, 2006, V. 1, 75). The anonymous author of Mojmal al-Tavarikh also specifies some accounts about the Iranian kings as khurafa (Mojmal al-Tavarikh, p. 38). Bayhaqi one of the great medieval historians criticizes the previous historical works because of the superstitious accounts as historical sources (Beihaqi, 2004, V. 3, p. 1099)

Astronomy in sources: Tabarsi (1996, p.295), Musa Ibn Meimun (2006, p. 614), Al-Mata’ va al-Mo’anesa (pp. 163-164). Khurafa seems to be more common in issues about magic and astronomy. The inaccessibility of astronomy, its magnitude, and impacts on earth led to extraordinary beliefs among Muslims. Tabarsi in A’lam al-Vara has criticized the Shia Isma'ili Muslims for applying astronomical issues to prove their Imam doctrine (Tabarsi, 1996, p. 295).

Hadith sources: Al-Masa’el Al-Jarudia (p.35), Asqalani (2006, v.2, p. 438), Alam al-Hoda, (1985, p. 85, 156, 160),Revelation of Sufism: Ibn Kasir, (v. 13, p. 298).

The author concludes that superstitious viewpoints have their impacts on all fields of science including religion, geography, history, and zoology.  Many viewpoints considered as principles of science in medieval times have changed into examples of superstition in modern times (p.146).

Rasoul Jafarian

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