Skip to content
Give readers a window on the world. Click to donate.
from the December 2009 issue


One of the earliest accounts of the magical arts practiced in the Islamic world is found in the fourteenth-century work the Muqaddimah of Ibn Khaldun, acknowledged as the first work on the philosophy of history and the social sciences. Ibn Khaldun devoted several pages to the definition of magic, from which we learn that its practice is viewed in the Islamic tradition as a science—not based in pagan rituals of sacrifice to gods and goddesses but requiring instead a command of a number of physical and occult sciences.

These sciences were used in different combinations to create magic. In the Urdu oral narrative tradition from South Asia, the special combination of occult sciences used to create a magical world, or tilism, is called himia. Different sources offer different definitions of himia. It is generally described as the science of conquering planetary forces and enslaving jinns, and is a combination of at least four occult sciences: simia, kimia, limia, and rimia. Simia is the science of creating illusions and transferring spirits between bodies. It manipulates the imagination and presents non-existent and imaginary things to the human eye. Kimia is the science of the transmutation of physical properties of elements, of bringing them to the highest pinnacle of their essence. Limia is the science of runes—letters or words that cause super-natural effects through interaction with the function of heavenly bodies. Rimia is the science of configuring and exploiting the inherent physical forces of the Earth to create extraordinary marvels.

The following are three excerpts from the translation of Tilism-e-Hoshruba, the world's first magical fantasy epic. When we consider that the word "magic" is interchangeable with "science," we realize that the magic fairy and magic slave are both automatons except that the magic slave is an intelligent robot. The magic claw is a flying machine that also acts as a drone and a conveyance, etc. The first section offers a brief history of the land and the tilism of Hoshruba where the story is set. The second is an episode that describes the imprisonment of Amir Hamza's followers by the sorceress Princess Bahar of Spring Quarter, who enchants her opponents with a magical science that creates the spring. It would be difficult to find such a mixture of baroque sensuousness, nature, and science in the literature broadly classified as science fiction. The final section describes a scene in which the Emperor of Sorcerers Afrasiyab visits the mausoleum of a powerful sorcerer to acquire a magical gift to use against his adversaries. In this scene, the flesh sacrifice to the god of sorcerers takes place within the scientific construct of the tilism of Hoshruba. —Musharraf Ali Farooqui

Section 1. Of the Tilism called Hoshruba and the Master of the Tilism, Emperor Afrasiyab

We are told that in the bottom of the untold past a group of sorcerers met to create a magical world or tilism by using occult sciences to infuse inanimate matter with the spirits of planetary and cosmic forces.

In the tilism the sorcerers exercised powers that defied the laws of God and the physical world. They created illusions, transferred spirits between bodies, transmuted matter, made talismans, and configured and exploited the Earth's inherent physical forces to create extraordinary marvels.

Once the tilism was created the sorcerers named it Hoshruba.

A sorcerer named Lachin ruled Hoshruba in its early years. Then one of his deputies—the cunning sorcerer Afrasiyab—deposed his master and usurped the throne. Afrasiyab became the Emperor of Hoshruba and the Master of the Tilism.

Afrasiyab and his sorceress wife Empress Heyrat now ruled over Hoshruba's three regions, named Zahir the Manifest, Batin the Hidden, and Zulmat the Dark. These regions were also tilisms and each contained countless dominions and smaller tilisms—filled with thousands of buildings, enclosures, gardens and palaces—governed by sorcerer princes and sorceress princesses.

The ordinary citizens of Hoshruba lived in the region of Zahir the Manifest. Empress Heyrat and the emperor's ministers, peers and confidants made their abode in Batin the Hidden. Zulmat the Dark was a secluded region of Hoshruba that few could access. It was inhabited by two of Hoshruba's most powerful sorceresses.

An enchanted river called the River of Flowing Blood divided the regions of Zahir and Batin. A bridge stretched over it that was made of smoke and guarded by two smoke lions. It was called the Bridge of the Magic Fairies and from it a three-tiered tower rose to the skies. On the lowest tier of this tower, magic fairies stood alert holding trumpets and clarions to their lips. From the second tier another group constantly tossed pearls in the river to fish that swam carrying them in their mouths. On the topmost tier gigantic Abyssinians arrayed in double rows skirmished together with swords. The blood that flowed from their wounds poured into the water below and gave the River of Flowing Blood its name.

Emperor Afrasiyab moved freely between the three regions of Hoshruba. Whenever anyone called out his name in the tilism, Afrasiyab's magic alerted him to the call. The emperor's fortune revealed itself in the palms of his hands. His left hand warned him of inauspicious moments and the right hand revealed auspicious ones. He possessed the Book of Sameri, which contained an account of every event inside and outside the tilism. He had a magic mirror which projected his body into his court during his absence, and many magic doubles who replaced him when he was in imminent danger. Besides sorcerers and sorceresses, Afrasiyab also commanded magic slaves and magic slave girls who fought at his command and performed any and all tasks assigned them.

Emperor Afrasiyab was among the seven immortal sorcerers of Hoshruba who could not be killed while their doppelgangers lived.

But every tilism had a fixed life-span and a tilism key that contained the directions for its unravelling. The conqueror of the tilism was the one who would use that key to unravel the tilism at the appointed time. In time the whereabouts of of Hoshruba's tilism key were forgotten. As the life of Hoshruba neared its end, Emperor Afrasiyab resolved to defend his empire and tilism, and foil the conqueror when he appeared.

Unbeknownst to Emperor Afrasiyab, the Master of the Tilism, events were already unfolding outside Hoshruba that would soon test his resolve.

The false god Laqa—an eighty-five-foot-tall, pitch-black giant—was in flight after suffering fresh defeats at the hands of the Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction Amir Hamza, whose armies and spies hotly pursued him.

Each day brought Laqa and Amir Hamza a little nearer to Hoshruba.

Section 2. The Sorceress Bahar of Spring Quarter Casts Her Spell

As Mahrukh busied herself with plans to ward off Bahar's magic, a cold breeze like the breath of the Messiah wafted in. Mahrukh's entire camp broke into shouts of "Spring is here! Spring has come!" Mahrukh and the commanders of her army involuntarily came out of their pavilions. They saw Bahar's magic peacock with emerald feathers preening outside the camp and the sorceress princess in the saddle.

All the soldiers and commanders of Mahrukh's camp came out of their tents and pavilions and gathered in one place to gaze on Princess Bahar's resplendent face and her world-adorning beauty. Bahar recited a spell and clapped, causing clouds to rise from every direction. Mahrukh and her sorcerers recited counter spells and clapped to ward off the magic but to no avail. The next moment a yellow dust blew up from the ground and everyone in Mahrukh's camp closed their eyes. When they opened them, they saw expansive, luxurious orchards wherever they looked, orchards in which the breeze wafted intoxicatingly. They beheld a yard-high crystal wall that stretched for miles on end.

After Mahrukh's army had closed its eyes Princess Bahar took out a paper, pen, and ink-well from her sorcerer's sack and wrote a tilism on the paper to create a garden with properties that would enchant anyone who stepped into its bounds. Since the garden was a tilism, tricksters could not enter it to rescue their companions once they entered it and became its prisoners.

When Mahrukh's camp saw Princess Bahar fly on her peacock into the garden, all of them followed her inside. They beheld a luminous crystal platform that seemed to be made of light. A canopy of strung pearl rose over the platform. An ermine carpet was spread on the floor. Beautiful, moonlike cupbearers were gathered with goblets and ewers. They regarded Princess Bahar seated on a jewel-encrusted throne with lamps and bouquets placed before her. She wore a luxurious dress covered with jewels and held a jewel-enchased stick in her hand. If the rosy-cheeked beauties of the Garden of Life had beheld Bahar's beauty they would have sacrificed their lives a thousand times for her. Even the beautiful Zulaikha had never seen such grace in her dreams. Bahar's beauty was so astonishing that even charming fairies were fit only to be her slavegirls. Her hair was a net for the birds of lovers' souls; it entrapped the hearts of her admirers helplessly in its locks.

Her tongue was the keeper of celestial secrets
Her mouth the custodian of mysteries divine
The bright lobe of her ear made the morn of doomsday shy away
Its dark mole the dark mark on the heart
The swelling of her double-chin was luminous like the sun
And the crease under her chin an image of the crescent
The jasmine bushes bearing their bouquets
Expressed the fervor felt by the flower garden
Her soft jasmine bosom and her dainty walk
Disclosed a bold shyness, a timid audacity
Such were her shoulders, arms, wrists and hands that
The worshippers of beloveds would swear to them their life's allegiance
Had the connoisseurs of beauty regarded the fine sheen,
Of her breasts, and the dark knobs of her nipples
‘Because her bosom is clear as the mirror
It reflects the pupils of her eyes' they'd have exclaimed
When she dewed it smelled of rose essence
Before the refulgence of her stomach the moon hid its face
The shining navel of that inestimable pearl
Was like the face of Venus on the face of Earth
Like the line of sight is hidden in the eyes
Her waist existed and yet it did not
So remarkably cast were her thighs
Even the glance of imagination could find on them no purchase
Why her shank should not rival the Light of Tur
The soles of her feet rivalled the cheeks of houris

Witnessing the garden's bloom and Bahar's lovely aspect, everyone including Mahrukh Magic-Eye and all the companions and commanders of her army cried out, "O Princess Bahar, we are your admirers and followers; we are ready to sacrifice ourselves like moths on the burning taper of your resplendent aspect. Show us favor in our miserable condition. Admit us into your servitude, O princess! Augment our honor by allowing us to wait upon you."

Princess Bahar showed them not the least favor and picked a bouquet and flung it toward them. Again all of them closed their eyes. The bouquet dispersed and every single flower petal was transformed into a garland. When Mahrukh's companions opened their eyes they found these garlands around their wrists.

Under Bahar's spell they all importuned her, and cried, "Forgive us, O Princess for we were led astray by Amar Ayyar the sly thief and trickster. Now pardon our trespasses and lead us before Emperor Afrasiyab." Bahar said, "Very well! Follow me! I will take you to the emperor." With a leap she mounted her magic peacock and headed out of the garden. Her prisoners followed her like a frenzied crowd, passionately reciting love couplets. The tilism garden disappeared after Bahar stepped out of its bounds.

Section 3. Emperor of Sorcerers Afrasiyab Makes a Pilgrimage to Jamshed's Grave

Afrasiyab crossed the Desert of Being, and forded the River of Fire to arrive near the mausoleum of Jamshed. Hundreds of thousands of sorcerers were stationed there in gruesome and dreadful magical guises. A palace made entirely of jewels was suspended in the air. Thousands of bells hung from as many domes. The palace was appointed with seven swings where Jamshed's seven handmaidens sat.

As Emperor Afrasiyab approached flying, the bells of the palace began to ring, creating a din. The handmaidens of Jamshed jumped off the swings and came toward him. Afrasiyab stood on one leg while he prayed to Jamshed and then cut a piece of flesh from his leg to place as an offering on the palace dome.

Upon receiving admittance, as Afrasiyab stepped inside the palace, the seven handmaidens saluted him, and asked, "O Emperor of Hoshruba, what brings you here this day?"

He answered, "I am headed for the mausoleum of Lord Jamshed." The handmaidens answered, "The mausoleum of Lord Jamshed still lies a long distance away, but its boundaries start here. You can receive the gifts of the tilism even at this place. Tell us the purpose of your visit."

Afrasiyab answered, "I seek Lord Jamshed's mantle in my fight against a plague of opponents. Amar Ayyar who is denounced by the gods in the Book of Sameri has entered the tilism. Thousands of sorcerer disciples of Lord Jamshed have been killed and mutinies brew in Hoshruba."

Jamshed's handmaidens replied, "Lord Jamshed's mantle is yours for the taking since you are the Emperor of Hoshruba and may do as you please. But you will not find here his ring, necklace, and other souvenirs for they lie in the neighboring Tilism Nur-Afshan of Dazzling Light. Alas, you caused the destruction of your lands and now you are eyeing the souvenirs of the tilism. Lord Jamshed foretold that the last Emperor of Hoshruba would be an incompetent bungler; he would lose his writ over the tilism, and cause the destruction of all its souvenirs and marvels. It appears, indeed, that you are the one described. It seems our end is near too, for you would one day also order us to fight at your side. The chest in which you will find Lord Jamshed's mantle lies before you. You may take it for all we care!"

With these words one of the handmaidens flung the key to the chest towards Afrasiyab.

Tears welled up in Afrasiyab's eyes at this speech and he said to them, "I will not take Lord Jamshed's mantle if it displeases you. I have made every possible effort not to battle Mahrukh. That was the reason I indulged her even when she committed unforgivable offences. It is still my desire that the rebels should return to my allegiance. I seek the mantle only to overpower and arrest them, and restore them to honor after a quick reprimand."

The handmaidens answered, "When you made all these preparations why did you not send the trickster-girl Sarsar the Swordfighter and her companions against Amar Ayyar? She would have guarded the sorcerers you sent, and Amar and his tricksters would not have had the field to themselves." Afrasiyab answered, "You speak true. Upon my return I will dispatch the trickster-girls against those of the enemy."

Afrasiyab then picked up the key to the chest in which Jamshed's mantle lay. When he opened its lid, a flame leaped out of it and scorched Afrasiyab. He cut open a vein and made an offering of his blood, which extinguished the flame.

Afrasiyab saw Jamshed's jewel-embroidered silken mantle lying inside, filled with the soil from his grave. The mantle was proof against all magic, and rendered useless even the powerful magic of mighty sorcerers like Afrasiyab. When it was snapped into the wind against a rival army they fell unconscious, no matter how powerful the sorcerers or how numerous their horde.

Read more from the December 2009 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.