September 6, 2023
Noah Gardiner on the Pseudo-Bunian Shams al-maʿārif al-kubrā and the Corpus Bunianum
[Thanks to Yale University for the above image, from a fully-digitised manuscript. Unfortunately, the MS is still attributed to Aḥmad al-Būnı̄ there; those librarians need to listen to this interview]
‘You can make an argument that mnemo-Būnī – the Būnī of memory – is more influential than this weird sufi ever was.’
The Kitāb shams al-maʿārif wa latā’if al-‘awarif (The Sun of Knowledge and Subtleties of the Higher Things) or just Shams al-kubrā (‘The Greater Sun’) has the reputation of being the supreme magical text in Arabic. We begin by discussing this reputation: in the mainstream, modern Sunni world its reputation is fearsome, as a kind of dark grimoire, the very reading of which might damn one irreparably to the flames, and al-Būnī’s reputation has thus become that of a necromancer or dark magus. In modern orientalist scholarship until recently its reputation (and thus al-Būnī’s reputation) has been as a piece of ‘popular magic’, and thus
A: fundamentally un-Islamic and
B: not worth reading.
However, the Shams al-Kubrā
A: was never by al-Būnī in the first place (we discuss how Būnī’s name came to be attached to this magical compendium, and how our interviewee and colleagues discovered this now-obvious fact of redaction) and
B: is very much worth reading (in all its many remixed versions, each of which tells us much about the culture of the time in which it was written and about the kinds of things Islamicate magicians were trying to do in different eras).
A fascinating discussion follows, centred around the modern Islamic project of forgetting the actual history of Islām, in all its messy, polyvalent, and sometimes occult glory, and the curiously-parallel process of forming a scholarly canon of ‘Islamic studies’ which also often occludes or ignores the occult side of things.
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
Thomas Bauer. A Culture of Ambiguity: An Alternative History of Islam. Columbia University Press, New York, NY, 2021.
Alireza Doostdar. The Iranian Metaphysicals: Explorations in Science, Islam, and the Uncanny. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2018.
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.
Aḥmad Ibn ‘Alı̄ al-Būnı̄, Amina Inloes, and J.M. Hamade. The Sun of Knowledge: An Arabic Grimoire: A Selected Translation = Shams Al-Ma‘arif. Revelore Press, Olympia, WA, 2021.
Jean-Charles Coulon. La magie islamique et le corpus bunianum au Moyen Âge. PhD diss., Paris IV – Sorbonne, Paris, 2013.
Pierre Lory. La magie des lettres dans le Shams al-ma‘arif d’al Būnı̄. Bulletin d’Études Orientales, 39-40:97–111, 1987.
Liana Saif. From Ġāyat al-ḥakīm and Šams al-maʿārif wa laṭāʾif al-ʿawārif: Ways of Knowing and Paths of Power in Medieval Islam. Arabica, 64(3-4):297–345, 2017. Liana also has a great online article on the modern occultural reception of the Shams in the Arabic sphere and beyond. See this whole double issue of Arabica, originally intended as an edited volume with the title Islamic Occultism: New Perspectives, for a larger framework for understanding the [Pseudo-]Bunian reception.