3 May 2020

Cosmic Magnetism

Last Wednesday we were once again taken by Ibn Mājid on an entertaining and unexpected detour, and once again on occasion of the magnetic compass (or rather on the stone itself, al-maghnātīs, lodestone). Adding to the association with King David, we learnt that according to other sources, the discovery of al-maghnātīs is due to al-Khidr, the enigmatic Qur’anic sage and immortal wanderer who looks after travellers and craftsmen… or according to others, it was discovered by Alexander the Great (Dhu’l-Qarnayn)—and anyway the two of them were cousins!

And then things took a cosmic turn: “For the seven heavens and the earth are suspended (or “held together”) by the Magnet of Power” (maghnāṭīs al-qudrah, but those uppercase letters certainly look appropriate here!). I have tried to find similar images in Islamic or other cosmologies, but so far it seems quite unique. There may be something in Indian or Chinese mythology, and it might shed light on the still debated ultimate origin of the magnetic compass. Suggestions are welcome.
Lodesone picture from the collection at Kenyon College.
Then, to round off his explanation, as if to make sure people get his meaning, Ibn Mājid regales us with the only thing he dared write “on such an uncertain matter”, which happens to be a love poem:
Your house is the magnet of my feet when I walk
And you yourself the magnet of my heart and my eyes.
Now, this was unexpected: like Aristotle, when compelled to make understandable the basic force that holds the universe together, he calls upon love and desire. It is quite something to imagine the audience of Ibn Mājid reading these lines, but perhaps less than taking in the gist of his analogy: that from Ibn Mājid’s feet, to the planets and galaxies, to any little magnetic compass in our hands, the same cosmic force is drawing us and guiding us to our destination. [JA]

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