Oddcast episode

Noah Gardiner on Aḥmad al-Būnī and Islamicate Lettrism

Image from a Paris manuscript (BnF 2657 Fol. 26b) of al-Būnī’s Laṭāʾif al-ishārāt

We are delighted to speak with Professor Noah Gardiner about Aḥmad al-Būnī, widely known (where he’s know at all) as ‘the most famous representative of magic in Islam’, but actually much more interesting than that (and that’s already pretty interesting).

Topics discussed include:

• The little we can say about al-Būnī in a reliable, historicist way (he lived in the 7th/13th century, was probably from north Africa – most likely modern-day Algeria – studied under the Sūfī shaykh ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Mahdawī [who also taught Ibn ʿArabī!], travelled to Egypt, and lived, wrote, and finally died at Cairo c. 622/1225 or 630/1232-1233),

• His works, including:

  •  ʿAlam al-hudā wa-asrār al-ihtidāʾ fī sharḥ asmāʾ Allāh al-ḥusnā, (‘The Banner of Guidance and Secrets of of the Most Beautiful Names of Allah’), an exhaustive discussion of the names of god (framed as a piece of esoteric Qur’ānic exegesis for the win!),
  • Laṭāʾif al-ishārāt fī l-ḥurūf al-ʿulwiyyāt (‘Subtleties of the Allusions Regarding the Superior Letters’), a work on the occult properties of the Arabic letters,
  • Shams al-ma‘arif wa laṭa’if al-awārif (‘The Sun of Knowledge and Subtleties of the Knowers’), a cosmological work outlining the emanatory process whereby the creation flowed out from Allah via various invisible worlds and so forth,
  • al-Lumʿa l-nūrāniyya fī awrād al-rabbāniyya (‘The Flashes of Light and the Prayers of the Lord’), a book of invocatory prayers keyed to different names of god and seemingly to relevant planetary hours, probably at least partly by al-Būnī, perhaps written by students to his dictation (with some extra magic-squares material and whatnot sometimes added to different versions), and
  • The famous magical work, Shams al-maʿārif al-kubrā (‘The Great Sun of Wisdom’), perhaps the most influential Islamicate magical miscellany, not by al-Būnī, but which has travelled under al-Būnī’s name for many centuries until our interviewee and Jean-Charles Coulon more or less simultaneously shewed that it was a compilation of the work of many authors.

• Some discussion of the rich manuscript record of al-Būnī’s works, which Gardiner argues shows a process whereby the genuinely esoteric writings of the sūfī master underwent a process of popular dissemination,

• al-Būnī’s Nachleben within Islām from his times until the modern period, and

• His seminal role in the development of Arabic ‘ilm al-hurūf (the science of the letters or just ‘Lettrism’), with a major discursus on that science more broadly.

Interview Bio:

Noah Gardiner is Professor of Religious Studies at University of South Carolina in Columbia. He is currently working on two book projects, one on the 13th-century Sufi occultist Aḥmad al-Būnī and the other on the broader occult renaissance in Cairo and environs in the 14th and 15th centuries; most of his earlier publications can be found on his academia page. Noah is also co-organizer on the ongoing international online workshop, “Islamic Occult Studies on the Rise,” a forum for emerging scholarship on Islamic esotericism and occult sciences, and administers the website islamicoccult.org, which hosts papers emerging from these fascinating talks.

Works Cited in this Episode:


Michael Ebstein and Sara Sviri. The So-Called Risālat al-Ḥurūf (Epistle on Letters) Ascribed to Sahl al-Tustarı̄ and Letter Mysticism in al-Andalus. Journal Asiatique, 299(1):213–70, 2011.


Juan Acevedo. Alphanumeric Cosmology from Greek into Arabic. Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen, 2020.

Pablo Beneito and Stephen Hirtenstein. The Prayer of Blessing (upon the Light of Muhammad) by ’Abd al-’Aziz al-Mahdawi. Journal of the Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi Society, 34:1–57, 2003.

Faris Casewit. Harmonizing Discursive Worlds: The Life and Times of Abū al-Ḥasan al-Ḥarrālı̄ (d. 638/1241). PhD thesis, Harvard University, 2019.

Jean-Charles Coulon 2013, see Recommended Reading below.

Albert Dietrich, “al-Būnī, Abu l-ʿAbbās Aḥmad b. ʿAlī b. Yūsuf al-Ḳuras̲h̲ī al-Ṣūfī Muḥyī l-Dīn,” Encyclopedia of Islam 2.

Noah D. Gardiner. Esotericism in a Manuscript Culture: Aḥmad al-Būnı̄ and his Readers through the Mamlūk Period. PhD thesis, University of Michigan, 2014.

Recommended Reading:

Armand Abel. La place des sciences occultes dans la décadence. In R. Brunschvig, editor, Classicisme et déclin culturel dans l’histoire de l’islam, pages 291–318. Editions Besson, Paris, 1957.

Jean-Charles Coulon. Orthodoxie religieuse et magie dans l’oeuvre d’al-Būnı̄. In Jean- Marie Durand and Antoine Jacquet, editors, Magie et Divination dans les cultures de l’orient, number 3 in Cahiers de l’Institute du Proche-Orient Ancien du Collège de France, pages 213–230. Editions Jean Maisonneuve, Paris, 2010.

Idem. La magie islamique et le corpus bunianum au Moyen Âge. PhD thesis, Paris IV, Sorbonne, 2013.

Idem. Building al-Būnı̄’s Legend: The Figure of al-Būnı̄ through ‘Abd al-Rah.mān al-Bisṭāmı̄’s Shams al-āfāq. Journal of Sufi Studies, 5(1): 1–26, 2016.

Idem. Magie et politique : événements historiques et pensée politique dans le Šams al-ma‘ārif attribué à al-Būnı̄ (mort en 622/1225). Arabica, 64(3-4):442–486, September 2017. URL https://brill.com/view/journals/arab/64/3-4/article-p442 4 42.xml.

Mohamed El-Gawhary. Die Gottesnamen im magischen Gebrauch in den Al-Būnı̄ zugeschriebenden Werken. PhD thesis, Rheinische Friedrich Wilhelms-Universität, Bonn, 1968.

Gerald Elmore. Shaykh ‘Abd Al-‘Azı̄z Al-Mahdawı̄, Ibn Al-‘Arabı̄’s Mentor. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 121:593–613, 2001.

Edgar Francis. Islamic Symbols and Sufi Rituals for Protection and Healing: Religion and Magic in the Writings of Ahmad b. Ali al-Buni (d. 622/1225). PhD thesis, University of California, Los Angeles, 2005.

Noah Gardiner. Forbidden Knowledge? Notes on the Production, Transmission, and Reception of the Major Works of Aḥmad al-Būnı̄. Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies, 12:81–143, 2012.

Idem. Esotericism in a Manuscript Culture: Aḥmad al-Būnı̄ and his Readers through the Mamlūk Period. PhD thesis, University of Michigan, 2014.

Idem.  “ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Mahdawī”, in: Encyclopaedia of Islam, THREE, Edited by: Kate Fleet, Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas, Devin J. Stewart. Consulted online on 28 August 2023. First published online: 2016.

Idem. Stars and Saints: The Esotericist Astrology of the Sufi Occultist Ahmad al-Buni. Journal of Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft, 12(1):39–65, 2017a.

Idem. Esotericist Reading Communities and the Early Circulation of Aḥmad al-Būnı̄’s Works. Arabica, 64(3-4):405–41, 2017b.

Idem. Ibn Khaldūn Versus the Occultists at Barqūq’s Court: The Critique of Lettrism in Al-Muqaddimah. E.B. Verlag, Berlin, 2020.

Idem. Diagrams and Visionary Experience in al-Būnı̄’s Laṭā’if al-ishārāt fı̄ al-ḥurūf al-‘ulwiyyāt. In Giovanni Maria-Martin, editor, Visualizing Sufism, pages 16–50. Brill, Leiden, 2023.

Sebastian Günther and Dorothee Anna Maria Pielow, editors. Die Geheimnisse der oberen und der unteren Welt: Magie im Islam zwischen Glaube und Wissenschaft. Number Volume 158 in Islamic history and civilization. Brill, Leiden/Boston, MA 2018.

Pierre Lory. La magie des lettres dans le Shams al-ma‘ārif d’al Būnı̄. Bulletin d’Études Orientales, 39-40:97–111, 1987.

Pierre Lory, Jean-Charles Coulon, and Saı̈d Benjelloun. Talismans: le soleil des connaissances. Orients éditions, Paris, 2013.

Dorothee Pielow. Die Quellen der Weisheit: Die arabische Magie im Spiegel des Usūl al-ḥikma von Aḥmad Ibn ‘Alı̄ al-Būnı̄. Georg Olms Verlag, Hildesheim, 1995. Band 8.

Jan Just Witkam. Gazing at the Sun: Remarks on the Egyptian Magician al-Būnı̄ and his Work. In O ye Gentlemen: Arabic Studies on Science and Literary Culture, In Honour of Remke Kruk, pages 183–200. Brill, Leiden, 2007.


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