Research Programs: Fellowships

Period of Performance

6/1/2019 - 12/31/2019

Funding Totals

$35,000.00 (approved)
$35,000.00 (awarded)

What is Magic? Debating 18th-Century Science, Sorcery, and Secrets in West African Sufi Texts

FAIN: FEL-262805-19

Ariela Marcus-Sells
Elon University (Elon, NC 27244-9423)

Research and writing a book on two Sufi Muslim scholars working in Africa in the eighteenth century.

In the late eighteenth century, a Sufi Muslim scholar from the Southern Sahara desert named Sidi al-Mukhtar al-Kunti rose to prominence, gained control over crucial trans-Saharan trade routes, and established a vast pedagogical network across the region. He and his son, Sidi Muhammad al-Kunti left a vast and influential corpus of Arabic manuscript texts. I am proposing an academic book project that will investigate descriptions of contested practices in the works of Sidi al-Mukhtar and Sidi Muammad. These practices included performing numerological operations on the names of God, constructing amulets, and communicating with spirit beings. These scholars both provided instructions for these practices, and argued against their classification as acts of sorcery. This book project will demonstrate how the Kunta scholars understood the relationship between these practices and their own social authority and interrogate the nature and role of what scholars have called "magic."

Media Coverage

Interview with the New Books Network Podcast (Media Coverage)
Author(s): Ariela Marcus-Sells, Shobhana Xavier
Publication: New Books Network
Date: 5/27/2022
Abstract: Shobhana Xavier interviews Ariela Marcus-Sells about her new book, Sorcery or Science? Contesting Knowledge and Practice in West African Sufi Texts.
URL: http://

Interview with Voice of America's Daybreak Africa (Media Coverage)
Author(s): Ricci Shryock, Ariela Marcus-Sells
Publication: Voice of America's Daybreak Africa
Date: 10/31/2021
Abstract: Interview begins at 18m15s

Associated Products

Sorcery or Science? Contesting Knowledge and Practice in West African Sufi Texts (Book)
Title: Sorcery or Science? Contesting Knowledge and Practice in West African Sufi Texts
Author: Ariela Marcus-Sells
Abstract: Sorcery or Science? examines how two Sufi Muslim theologians 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), decisively influenced the development of Sufi Muslim thought in West Africa. Known as the Kunta scholars, Mukhtār al-Kuntī and Muḥammad al-Kuntī were influential teachers who developed a pedagogical network of students across the Sahara. In exploring their understanding of “the realm of the unseen”—a vast, invisible world that is both surrounded and interpenetrated by the visible world—Ariela Marcus-Sells reveals how these theologians developed a set of practices that depended on knowledge of this unseen world and that allowed practitioners to manipulate the visible and invisible realms. They called these practices “the sciences of the unseen.” While they acknowledged that some Muslims—particularly self-identified “white” Muslim elites—might consider these practices to be “sorcery,” the Kunta scholars argued that these were legitimate Islamic practices. Marcus-Sells situates their ideas and beliefs within the historical and cultural context of the Sahara Desert, surveying the cosmology and metaphysics of the realm of the unseen and the history of magical discourses within the Hellenistic and Arabo-Islamic worlds.
Year: 2022
Primary URL:
Primary URL Description: Link to book on the publisher's website
Access Model: purchase only
Publisher: Pennsylvania State University Press
Type: Single author monograph
ISBN: 978-0-271-0922
Copy sent to NEH?: No