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Arabica 64 (2017) 405-441


Esotericist Reading Communities and the

Early Circulation of the Sufi Occultist Aḥmad
al-Būnī’s Works
Noah Gardiner
Department of Religious Studies, University of South Carolina


The Ifrīqiyan cum Cairene Sufi Aḥmad al-Būnī (d. ca 622/1225 or 630/1232-1233) is a
key figure in the history of the Islamicate occult sciences, particularly with regard to
the “science of letters and names” (ʿilm al-ḥurūf wa-l-asmāʾ). Drawing on textual and
manuscript evidence, this paper examines the role of esotericism—religious secrecy
and exclusivity—in al-Būnī’s thought and in the promulgation and early circulation of
his works in Egypt and environs. It is argued that al-Būnī intended his works only for
elite Sufi initiates, and that, in the century or so after his death, they indeed circulated
primarily in “esotericist reading communities,” groups of learned Sufis who guarded
their contents from those outside their own circles. This tendency toward esotericism,
and the eventual exposure of al-Būnī’s texts to a wider readership, are contextualized
in relation to broader developments in late-medieval Mediterranean culture.


Al-Būnī, esotericism, occultism, science of letters, Ayyūbid, Mamlūk, Egypt, Ibn ʿArabī,
manuscript culture, Arabic manuscripts, Kabbalah


Le soufi ifrīqiyien puis cairote Aḥmad al-Būnī (m. ca 622/1225 ou 630/1232-1233) est
une figure clef de l’histoire des sciences occultes islamiques, en particulier en ce qui
concerne la « science des lettres et des noms » (ʿilm al-ḥurūf wa-l-asmāʾ). En s’appuyant
sur des données textuelles et manuscrites, cet article examine le rôle de l’ésotérisme—

© koninklijke brill nv, leiden, ���7 | doi 10.1163/15700585-12341455

406 Gardiner

le secret et l’exclusivité religieux—dans la pensée d’al-Būnī et dans la promulgation

et la diffusion premières de ses œuvres en Égypte et dans les environs. Il est démontré
qu’al-Būnī conçut ses travaux uniquement à destination de l’élite des soufis initiés et
que, à son époque et dans le siècle qui suivit sa mort, ceux-ci circulèrent principale-
ment dans les « communautés lettrées ésotéristes », c’est-à-dire des groupes de soufis
érudits qui préservaient leur contenu de ceux qui étaient en dehors de leur propre
cercle. Cet engouement pour l’ésotérisme et la propagation des textes d’al-Būnī à long
terme auprès d’un public plus large sont contextualisés à la lumière de l’évolution de la
culture méditerranéenne à la fin du Moyen Âge.

Mots clefs

Al-Būnī, ésotérisme, occultisme, science des lettres, Ayyoubides, Mamlouks, Égypte,

Ibn ʿArabī, culture manuscrite, manuscrits arabes, Kabbale

I have seen the sage and wise and pious who wagged their tongues and
stretched out their hands to write of great and awesome things in their
books and letters. But what is written abides in no cabinet, for often it may
be lost or its owner may die, and the books thus come into the hands of
fools and mockers, and consequently the Name of Heaven is desecrated.
Isaac the Blind1

Introduction: Written Secrets in the Late-Medieval Mediterranean

In a letter written in the mid-1230s CE, the Provençal Kabbalist Isaac the Blind
(d. 1235 CE) angrily warns some disciples that Kabbalistic secrets committed
to writing are prone to exposure despite the best intentions of their authors.
The precise circumstances of his disciples’ transgression are unclear, but Isaac
expresses even greater wrath at the Kabbalists of Burgos, who, he asserts,

1  Quoted in Moshe Halbertal, Concealment and Revelation: Esotericism in Jewish Thought and
Its Philosophical Implications, transl. Jackie Feldman, Princeton, Princeton University Press,
2007, p. 71.

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Esotericist Reading Communities 407

discuss Kabbalistic teachings “openly in the marketplaces and in the streets,”

such that “it is clear that their hearts have turned away from the divine.”2
Kabbalists of Isaac’s mindset were not alone in their concern that holy secrets
committed to writing might be disseminated too freely by some of their peers,
violating what often were claimed to be ancient traditions of secretive, exclu-
sively oral transmission. In roughly the same period, on the opposite side of
the Mediterranean, the great Sufi thinker Muḥyī l-Dīn b. ʿArabī (d. 638/1240),
an Andalusian who had relocated to the eastern Islamicate world, penned
Kitāb al-Mīm wa-l-wāw wa-l-nūn, a brief tract on certain aspects of the myste-
rious “science of letters and names” (ʿilm al-ḥurūf wa-l-asmāʾ)—or “lettrism,” as
scholars recently have come to call it—a body of Koran-inspired cosmological
speculation linked to praxes for the realization of spiritual and material goals
through the powers of the letters of the Arabic alphabet and the names of God.
In it he warns against anything but the most coded and guarded discussions of
lettrism in writing, lest ordinary people misunderstand or abuse this “science
of the saints” (ʿilm al-awliyāʾ).3 He particularly discourages writing about those
aspects of the science through which one can harness the occult properties
(ḫawāṣṣ) of the letters and names in order to operate on the manifest world
through talismans and related means. Meanwhile, however, a contemporary of
Ibn ʿArabī’s, the Ifrīqiyan cum Cairene Sufi Abū l-ʿAbbās Aḥmad b. ʿAlī b. Yūsuf
al-Būnī l-Qurašī (d. ca 622/1225 or 630/1232-1233), was composing works that
addressed many of those operative, occult aspects of lettrism, works for which
he would posthumously come to be (in)famous. Did he fail to share Ibn ʿArabī’s
concerns about the exposure of such knowledge to non-initiates? Or was he,
as some have implied, a mere magician wrapping himself in the pious cloak of
Sufism while peddling popular superstitions?4

2  Ibid.; for another discussion of Isaac’s letter see Eliot Wolfson, “Beyond the Spoken Word: Oral
Tradition and Written Transmission in Medieval Jewish Mysticism”, in Transmitting Jewish
Traditions: Orality, Textuality, and Cultural Diffusion, eds Yaakov Elman and Israel Gershoni,
New Haven, Yale University Press, 2000, p. 176 ff.
3  Ibn ʿArabī, Le Livre du mim, du waw, et du nun [Kitāb al-Mīm wa-l-wāw wa-l-nūn], ed. and
transl. (in French) Charles Gilis, Beirut, Editions Albouraq, 2002, p. 56 ff.
4  Denis Gril insists that al-Būnī “was undoubtedly acting deliberately when he published”
elements of the science of letters that “others either had kept under greater cover or had
limited to oral transmission”; see “The Science of Letters”, in The Meccan Revelations, ed.
Michel Chodkiewicz, New York, Pir Press, 2004, p. 143. Chodkiewicz attempts to distance Ibn
ʿArabī’s lettrism from that of al-Būnī in his introduction to the same volume, p. 25. For typi-
cal mid-20th-c. views on al-Būnī and the quality of his thought, which mostly dismiss him
as a mere magician, see Manfred Ullmann, Die Natur- und Geheimwissenschaften im Islam,
Leiden, Brill, 1972, p. 390-391; Albert Dietrich, “al-Būnī, Abu l-ʿAbbās Aḥmad b. ʿAlī b. Yūsuf

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408 Gardiner

Al-Būnī’s works—and works anachronistically attributed to him, such

as the large occult miscellany Šams al-maʿārif al-kubrā—came to be so
widely copied and imitated that modern scholarship has long regarded
him as a paragon of “popular Islam” and “magic,” and his works as having
been the preserve of street-level occult practitioners and their presumably
mostly-unlettered clientele.5 In a previous article I have argued against some
of these assumptions, demonstrating on the basis of a large survey of Bunian
manuscripts that over the course of the Mamlūk period, particularly from
the mid-eighth/fourteenth-century onward, when copies seem to suddenly
have multiplied, al-Būnī’s works came to find their readership largely among
learned elites, eventually reaching into the households of ruling Mamlūk
officials.6 In this paper I offer an analysis of the earliest phase of the career
of the Bunian corpus—the century or so after al-Būnī’s death, a period from
which only a few manuscripts survive—focusing on the role of esotericism
in the thought and practices of al-Būnī and his early readers. In doing so I
endeavor to draw connections between the content of al-Būnī’s works and
his and his readers’ book-practices, i.e. their ways of teaching, reading, and
transmitting his works, and to demonstrate the importance of attention to
issues of manuscript-culture in studying the spread and reception of lettrism
and other occult-scientific discourses.7 My central arguments are that, des-

al-Ḳuras̲h̲ī al-Ṣūfī Muḥyī l-Dīn,” EI2; Armand Abel, “La place des sciences occultes dans la
décadence”, in Classicisme et déclin culturel dans l’histoire de l’islam, eds Robert Brunschvig
and Gustav Edmund von Grunenbaum, Paris, Éditions Besson, 1957, p. 291-318; cf. John
Spencer Trimingham’s views on magic in late-medieval Sufism in The Sufi Orders in Islam,
New York, Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 28. For a reading of al-Būnī that better grasps
the origins of his thought see Pierre Lory, “La magie des lettres dans le Shams al-maʿārif d’al
Būnī”, Bulletin d’Études Orientales, 39-40 (1987), p. 97-111.
5  E.g. Yahya Michot, “Ibn Taymiyya on Astrology: Annotated Translations of Three Fatwas”,
in Magic and Divination in Early Islam, ed. Emilie Savage-Smith, Aldershot, Ashgate, 2004,
p. 280.
Noah Gardiner, “Forbidden Knowledge? Notes on the Production, Transmission, and
Reception of the Major Works of Aḥmad al-Būnī,” Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies, 12
(2012), p. 81-143.
7  The term “manuscript culture(s)” refers to the socially embedded, physically embodied
writing and reading practices of particular medieval milieux. The study of manuscript
cultures is rooted in part in anthropological studies of the social and cognitive effects of
written media such as Walter Jackson Ong, The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for
Cultural and Religious History, New Haven-London, Yale University Press, 1967; id., Orality
and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, London-New York, Routledge (“New accents”),
2002; Jack Goody, The Domestication of the Savage Mind, Cambridge, Cambridge University
Press (“Themes in the social sciences”), 1977; and id., The Interface between the Written and

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Esotericist Reading Communities 409

pite his modern reputation, al-Būnī intended his written works only for Sufi
initiates, beginning with his own disciples, and that, through the early-eighth/
fourteenth century, his works circulated primarily in groups of learned Sufis
who guarded their contents from those outside their own circles—groups
here termed “esotericist reading communities.”
“Esotericism,” as I employ the term in reference to Islamic culture, is not
intended as a synonym for occultism, as it has been used in some Europeanist
intellectual history.8 Rather, it denotes an epistemic framework in which
three elements figure prominently: the embrace of a Koranic hermeneutics
which posits that the holy text is possessed of both apparent and hidden
(ẓāhir and bāṭin) layers of meaning, the latter intended only for a spiritual
elite; an accompanying rhetoric of elitism and exclusivity, including the
assertion that the majority of Muslims are incapable and/or unworthy of
comprehending the true and complete nature of God’s book; and, of deci-
sive importance, actual practices of secrecy intended both to protect initiates
from the disapproval of the “vulgar” masses and to prevent the exposure of
initiatic knowledge to the same. This constellation of elements is familiar
from trends in Šīʿī and Sufi thought in periods prior to al-Būnī’s,9 as well as

the Oral, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press (“Studies in literacy, family, culture and
the state”), 1987. It is also closely allied to the “New Philology” movement in Europeanist
medievalism. For a number of examples of the early fruits of that movement, see Speculum,
65/1 (1990), an issue dedicated to New Philology edited by Stephen Nichols. For more recent
work in this vein see Brian Richardson, Manuscript Culture in Renaissance Italy, Cambridge,
Cambridge University Press, 2009; Marilynn Desmond and Pamela Sheingorn, Myth,
Montage, & Visuality in Late Medieval Manuscript Culture: Christine de Pizan’s Epistre Othea,
Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2003; Lauryn S. Mayer, Worlds Made Flesh: Reading
Medieval Manuscript Culture, London, Routledge, 2004; and Erik Kwakkel, Writing in Context:
Insular Manuscript Culture, 500-1200, Leiden, Leiden University Press (“Studies in Medieval
and Renaissance book culture”), 2013. In recent years, the study of manuscript cultures has
expanded beyond the boundaries of Europe, for example in the articles by several authors
in Buddhist Manuscript Cultures: Knowledge, Ritual, and Art, eds Stephen C. Berkwitz, Juliane
Sybille Schober, and Claudia Brown, London-New York, Routledge (“Routledge critical stu­
dies in Buddhism”, 52), 2009. The ongoing research currently being conducted by the wor­
king group “Manuskriptkulturen in Asien, Afrika und Europa” (SFB 950) at the University of
Hamburg should also be mentioned.
8  As in the field of “Western esoteric studies” pioneered by Antoine Faivre and currently cham-
pioned by such scholars as Wouter Hanegraaff and Kocku von Stuckrad.
9  Esotericism in much the sense used here is regularly mentioned in studies of Šīʿism and
Sufism, though focused discussions of it are somewhat rare. Maribel Fierro’s concept of
bāṭinism, which also has been taken up by Godefroid de Callataÿ, is essentially coterminous
with “esotericism” as outlined above, though I prefer the latter term for its transconfessional

Arabica 64 (2017) 405-441

410 Gardiner

in some medieval Islamic philosophy. It also played a key role in some classi-
cal-era occult-scientific discourses, such as Ǧābirian alchemy, though almost
none in others, such as astrology. As briefly discussed at the end of this article,
I believe its manifestation in al-Būnī’s corpus can fruitfully be considered part
of a transconfessional efflorescence of esotericism in the Mediterranean of
the sixth/twelfth and seventh/thirteenth centuries, a period the historian of
Jewish thought Moshe Halbertal has described as “the age of esotericism and
its disclosure,”10and which saw urgent debates about the limits of what could
be written.
The term “reading communities” (esotericist or otherwise) reflects the fact
that, as much scholarship on medieval Arab-Islamic manuscript culture has
shown, interactions with books were often communal activities, with books
and book-practices playing important roles not only epistemologically, but
also in the forging and maintenance of various social relationships.11 As Erik
Ohlander puts it:

applicability; Fierro, “Bāṭinism in al-Andalus: Maslama b. Qāsim al-Qurṭubī (d. 353/964),

Author of the Rutbat al-Ḥakīm and the Ghāyat al-Ḥakīm (Picatrix)”, Studia Islamica, 84
(1996), p. 87-112; de Callataÿ, “Philosophy and Bāṭinism in al-Andalus: Ibn Masarra’s Risālat
al-Iʿtibār and the Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ”, Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam, 41 (2014),
p. 261-312. Some other important contributions are Mohammad Amir-Moezzi, The Divine
Guide in Early Shiʿism: The Sources of Esotericism in Islam, Albany, State University of New
York Press, 1994; Etan Kohlberg, “Taqiyya in Shiʿi Theology and Religion”, in Secrecy and
Concealment: Studies in the History of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Religions, eds Hans
Kippenberg and Guy Stroumsa, Leiden-New-York-Köln, Brill (“Studies in the history of
religions”, 65), 1995, p. 345-380; Maria Dakake, “Hiding in Plain Sight: The Practical and
Doctrinal Significance of Secrecy in Shiʿite Islam”, Journal of the American Academy of
Religion, 74/2 (2006), p. 324-355; Annemarie Schimmel, “Secrecy in Sufism”, in Secrecy
in Religions, ed. Kees Bolle, Leiden, Brill (“Studies in the history of religions”, 49), 1987,
p. 81-102; Carl Ernst, “Esoteric and Mystic Aspects of Religious Knowledge in Sufism”,
Journal of Religious Studies, 12 (1984), p. 93-100; James Morris, “Ibn ʿArabi’s ‘Esotericism’:
The Problem of Spiritual Authority”, Studia Islamica, 71 (1990), p. 37-64. Michael Ebstein,
“Secrecy in Ismaʿili Tradition and in the Mystical Thought of Ibn al-ʿArabi”, Journal
Asiatique, 298/2 (2010), p. 303-343; id., “Absent Yet at All Times Present: Further Thoughts
on Secrecy in the Shiʿi Tradition and in Sunni Mysticism”, Al-Qanṭara, 34/2 (2014),
p. 387-413.
10  Halbertal, Concealment and Revelation, p. 5.
11  On the communal nature of book practices, see George Makdisi, The Rise of Colleges:
Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press,
1981; Michael Chamberlain, Knowledge and Social Practice in Medieval Damascus, 1190-
1350, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press (“Cambridge studies in Islamic civiliza-

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Esotericist Reading Communities 411

Alongside the way in which […] texts served as instruments of autho­

rity and repositories of memory in terms of their content, the text as an
object also served as an instrument of authority and legitimacy, for as a
hypostatized repository of learning, a text linked its possessor to both a
physical object (the transmitted text) as well as to a process taking place
in time and space (the event of its transmission). As such, the text could
come to serve as an instrument of affiliation and status, a thing sought
out and asked for, procured and conserved, exchanged, reproduced, and

The notion of reading communities also has methodological utility, insofar

as manuscripts can be approached as the surviving nodes or edges of larger
networks of humans and texts, about which they often convey substantial
information through paratexts and other codical elements. Scholars such as
Konrad Hirschler and Stefan Leder, for example, have utilized methods of
working from names recorded in “audition” (samāʿ) certificates—paratextual
records of formal transmission events, discussed in more detail later in this
article—to analyze the social makeup of specific reading communities. This
method is particularly fruitful in research on the Ayyūbid and Mamlūk periods,

tion”), 1994; Jonathan Berkey, The Transmission of Knowledge in Medieval Cairo: A Social
History of Islamic Education, Princeton, Princeton University Press (“Princeton studies
on the Near East”), 1992; Gregor Schoeler, The Oral and the Written in Early Islam, ed.
James E. Montgomery, transl. Uwe Vagelpohl, London, Routledge (“Routledge studies
in Middle Eastern literatures”, 13), 2006; id., The Genesis of Literature in Islam: From the
Aural to the Read, transl. Shawkat M. Toorawa, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press
(“The new Edinburgh Islamic surveys”), 2009; Stefan Leder, “Spoken Word and Written
Text—Meaning and Social Significance of the Institution of Riwāya”, in Islamic Area
Studies Working Paper Series, 31 (2002), p. 1-18; Shawkat M. Toorawa, Ibn Abī Ṭāhir Ṭayfūr
and Arabic Writerly Culture: A Ninth-Century Bookman in Baghdad, London-New York,
Routledge-Curzon (“Routledge Curzon Studies in Arabic and Middle-Eastern Literatures”,
7), 2005; Konrad Hirschler, The Written Word in the Medieval Arabic Lands: A Social and
Cultural History of Reading Practices, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2012; and
the essays by numerous authors in Andreas Görke and Konrad Hirschler, Manuscript
Notes as Documentary Sources, Würzburg, Ergon Verlag (“Beiruter Texte und Studien”,
129), 2011.
12  Erik Ohlander, Sufism in an Age of Transition: ʿUmar al-Suhrawardi and the Rise of the
Islamic Mystical Brotherhoods, Leiden-Boston, Brill (“Islamic history and civilization”, 71),
2008, p. 53.

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412 Gardiner

when the popularity of audition reached a fevered pitch in the cities of Egypt
and Syria, at least through the eighth/fourteenth century.13
The challenge of working with reading communities as an analytic device
lies in drawing connections between the content of a specific work or body
of works and the manuscript evidence in ways that enhance understanding
of the content and its reception in a specific historical milieu. In what fol-
lows I endeavor to do so by drawing connections between esotericist devices
and sentiments in al-Būnī’s texts and the manuscript evidence regarding the
texts’ early circulation. I discuss al-Būnī’s use of intertextual cross-references
between his various works, which I take as his deployment of the esotericist
writing strategy of “dispersion of knowledge” (tabdīd al-ʿilm), and I consider
ways it compelled readers to collect his works and seek instruction therein.
I also explore parts of al-Būnī’s main lettrist opus Laṭāʾif al-išārāt fī l-ḥurūf
al-ʿulwiyyāt in which he frames the science of letters and names as a hidden
tradition passed down from the prophets, and alludes to the necessity of pre-
venting the knowledge in the book from falling into the wrong hands. I then
turn to paratexts indicative of al-Būnī’s ways of composing and promulgating
his works, particularly through audition before small groups of disciples, and
I also discuss evidence of their further transmission through formal reading
practices. I argue that these practices were used to exert control over the texts,
restricting their circulation to those deemed worthy. Finally, I look at some
late-seventh/thirteenth-century compilatory manuscripts in which Bunian
works appear that shed further light on the communities in which his works
were read and transmitted early-on. In doing so I argue that many of al-Būnī’s
early readers were recent immigrants to Egypt and environs, and would have
found themselves largely outside the networks of patronage on which many
Sufis in Egypt depended. I suggest that their participation in these esotericist
reading communities, and their enactments of the claims to power and secret
knowledge his works convey, were important means through which they made
a place for themselves in the hothouse intellectual scene of late-medieval
Cairo, particularly as it swelled to become the new intellectual capital of the
Sunni world in the wake of the Mongol sack of Baghdad in 656/1258.

13  On audition and its popularity in this period see Georges Vajda, Les certificats de lecture et de
transmission dans les manuscrits arabes de la Bibliothèque nationale de Paris, Paris, Centre
national de la recherche scientifique, 1956; Stefan Leder, Yāsīn Muḥammad al-Sawwās,
and Ma‌ʾmūn al-Ṣāġarǧī (eds), Muʿǧam al-samāʿāt al-Dimašqiyya : al-muntaḫaba min sanat
550 ilā 750 H / 1155 M ilā 1349 M, Damascus, al-Maʿhad al-faransī li-l-dirasāt al-ʿarabiyya,
1996-2000, p. 30.

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Esotericist Reading Communities 413

Al-Būnī and His Works

Little is known of al-Būnī’s life. His nisba suggests that he was a native of the
then Almohad-ruled city of Būna (Roman Hippo, now Annaba) on the Ifrīqiyan
coast, a port in regular communication with al-Andalus.14 His father Abū l-Ḥa-
san ʿAlī was a Koran-reciter, and al-Būnī likely was well-educated in his youth.
As I discussed in a previous article, al-Būnī at some point discipled himself to
a revered Sufi šayḫ in the city of Tunis, ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Mahdawī (d. 621/1224),
who himself was a major disciple of the great Abū Madyan Šuʿayb (d. between
588/1192 and 594/1198).15 Al-Mahdawī also was an important teacher of Ibn
ʿArabī, though there is nothing to indicate that al-Būnī and Ibn ʿArabī knew one
another. Significant conceptual and terminological overlaps in their ideas testify
to their having drawn from a shared pool of intellectual resources peculiar to the
Sufism of the Islamicate west, and al-Mahdawī probably bears some responsibi-
lity for this.
At some point around the turn of the seventh/thirteenth century al-Būnī
migrated to Egypt, also traveling to Mecca at least once, presumably for the
ḥaǧǧ. He mentions having been in Mecca in 621/1224,16 and paratexts discussed
below definitively place him in Cairo later that year and in 622/1225. Ḥāǧǧī
Ḫalīfa (d. 1067/1567) gives his death-date at several places in Kašf al-ẓunūn as
622/1225, and once as 630/1232-1233. Neither date is confirmed or contradicted
by other sources, aside from a highly unreliable tarǧama for al-Būnī by the late-
Mamlūk historian al-Maqrīzī (d. 845/1442) which has him dying in 602/1201,17
a date contravened by the manuscript evidence. Al-Maqrīzī also states that
al-Būnī died in Tunis, though various mentions of al-Būnī’s tomb in Cairo’s
Qarāfa cemetery suggest that this is incorrect as well.18

14  Saïd Dahmani, “Le port de Bûna au Moyen Âge”, in Histoire et archéologie de l’Afrique du
Nord: Spectacles, vie portuaire, religions. Actes du Ve colloque international réuni dans le
cadre du 115e Congrès national des sociétés savantes (Avignon, 9-13 Avril 1990), Paris, Comité
des travaux historiques et scientifiques, 1992, p. 374.
15  Gardiner, “Forbidden Knowledge?”, p. 87 ff.
16  Al-Būnī, Laṭāʾif al-išārāt fī l-ḥurūf al-ʿulwiyyāt, MS Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, Arabe
2658, f. 54b.
17  Taqī l-Dīn al-Maqrīzī, Kitāb al-Muqaffā l-kabīr, ed. Muḥammad al-Yaʿlāwī, Beirut, Dār
al-ġarb al-islāmī, 2006, p. 464. Note that al-Yaʿlāwī attempts to amend the date to 622 to
match that given by Ḥāǧǧī Ḫalīfa, but al-Maqrīzī clearly intended the 602 date, as he esti-
mates al-Būnī to have been born around 520, and states that he was around 80 when he
18  Šams al-Dīn Muḥammad b. al-Zayyāt, Kitāb Kawākib al-sayyāra fī tartīb al-ziyāra, Cairo,
al-Maktaba l-Azhariyya li-l-turāṯ, 2005, p. 268; ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Bisṭāmī, Šams al-āfāq

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414 Gardiner

Scores of works attributed to al-Būnī are extant in hundreds of manuscripts,

and questions of which works are authentic to him are complex due to pseude-
pigraphy and other issues. The topic has been investigated seriously only in my
own scholarship and that of Jean-Charles Coulon, and while we have reached
similar conclusions on many points, there is still a great deal of work to be
done on the matter.19 My comments in this paper touch on only four texts,
all of which Coulon and I both regard as genuine. These are Laṭāʾif al-išārāt
fī l-ḥurūf al-ʿulwiyyāt, an opus dedicated to lettrism that al-Būnī completed
in Cairo between 621/1224 and 622/1225; ʿAlam al-hudā wa-asrār al-ihtidāʾ fī
šarḥ asmāʾ Allāh al-ḥusnā, a major work on the names of God and their use in
spiritual practices, completed in much the same period as Laṭāʾif al-išārāt20;
Hidāyat al-qāṣidīn wa-nihāyat al-wāṣilīn, a work on al-Būnī’s vision of the
Sufi path and the ranks of accomplishment thereupon, composed sometime
before the other two works; and al-Lumʿa l-nūrāniyya fī awrād al-rabbāniyya,
a collection of invocatory prayers apportioned to specific times and goals, the
composition-date of which is obscure.
There are only a handful of extant manuscripts of Bunian works datable to
the century or so after his death (all of which are mentioned in this paper).
This is a paucity compared to later periods, as can be seen in the chart below
(figure 1), which shows the sharp uptick in the number of manuscripts sur-
viving from the eighth/fourteenth century onward. While it of course is true
that, speaking of manuscripts in general, there are fewer surviving codices the
further back in time one goes, it is highly unlikely that this accounts for all of

fī ʿilm al-ḥurūf wa-l-awfāq, MS Dublin, Chester Beatty Library, 5076, f. 16b; and the note
in Latin on the flyleaf of Aḥmad al-Būnī, Šams al-maʿārif wa-laṭāʾif al-ʿawārif, MS Paris,
Bibiliothèque nationale de France, Arabe 2647, discussed in Gardiner, “Forbidden
Knowledge?”, p. 93-94.
19  Ibid., p. 94 ff.; for some revisions to the bibliographical findings in that article see id.,
Esotericism in a Manuscript Culture: Aḥmad al-Būnī and His Readers through the Mamlūk
Period, PhD dissertation, University of Michigan, 2014, p. 19-39; Jean-Charles Coulon,
La magie islamique et le corpus bunianum au Moyen Âge, PhD dissertation, Paris IV—
Sorbonne, 2013, I, p. 447 ff.
20  In my “Forbidden Knowledge?” article of 2012 I followed Brockelmann and others in refer-
ring to this work as ʿI̲l ̲m̲̲ al-hudá rather than ʿAlam. I first saw the title rendered as ʿAlam in
John Martin, Theurgy in the Medieval Islamic World: Conceptions of Cosmology in Al-Būnī’s
Doctrine of the Divine Names, M.A. thesis, The American University in Cairo, 2011. It was
only after this that I noticed the title is indeed vocalized that way in some of the oldest
Būnian manuscripts, and thus was convinced of the correctness of that reading.

Arabica 64 (2017) 405-441

Esotericist Reading Communities 415

the disparity between the early period and those after it.21 Thus these num-
bers almost certainly reflect there having been relatively few copies of al-Būnī’s
works in circulation early-on. This notion is additionally supported by the fact
that, to the best of my knowledge, the earliest mention of al-Būnī in an outside
work is in Ibn Manẓūr’s famous lexicon Lisān al-ʿarab, completed in 689/1290,
with later references not occurring until the eighth/fourteenth century, sugges-
ting that al-Būnī’s name was not widely known until at least several decades
after his death.22 His disciples were thus probably relatively few in number
and, as I argue throughout this paper, discreet in spreading his teachings.

Tabdīd al-ʿilm and the Challenges of Reading al-Būnī

Whatever the impression given by the pseudo-Bunian Šams al-maʿārif

al-kubrā, al-Būnī’s authentic works are hardly recipe-books for newcomers
to the occult arts or, for that matter, Sufism. They are densely populated with

21  The issue of the survival rate of medieval Arabic manuscripts has never been addressed
systematically. With the current state of bibliography it is difficult even to approximate
how many Arabic manuscripts have survived to the present day, much less how many
once existed. However, scholars of medieval European manuscripts have addressed the
survival rates of codices from the Latin West, and their insights can provide at least food
for thought. Bernhard Bischoff has suggested on philological grounds that around one-
in-seven codices have survived from a ninth-century CE Carolingian workshop, and J.L.
Cisne’s 2005 study that employs statistical methods and catalog data for copies of three
of the Venerable Bede’s works to construct a stochastic model of the codices’ “birth and
death” rates corroborates Bischoff’s estimate. On both researchers’ findings see the lat-
ter’s article “How Science Survived: Medieval Manuscripts’ ‘Demography’ and Classic
Texts’ Extinction,” Science, 307/5713 (2005), p. 1305-1307. A more extensive and detailed
statistical study of the production and loss rates of medieval Latin manuscripts is Eltjo
Buringh’s 2011 monograph, though he takes pains to point out that his findings cannot
be unproblematically ported to medieval Arab-Islamic milieux. Bearing this caveat in
mind, and drastically simplifying Buringh’s extremely rich data, I would at least note
that his findings suggest an increased survival rate for fourteenth century manuscripts
over thirteenth-century ones of no more than 100%, and then only with regard to cer-
tain locales, others showing significantly lower disparities; see Eltjo Buringh, Medieval
Manuscript Production in the Latin West: Explorations with a Global Database, Leiden, Brill
(“Global economic history series”, 6), 2011, passim. This is to say that, while we can assume
that age-difference is a factor in why there are fewer seventh/thirteenth-century Būnian
manuscripts than eighth/fourteenth-century ones, it almost certainly cannot explain the
difference entirely.
22  Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān al-ʿarab, Beirut, Dār Ṣādir, 1990, I, p. 14-15.

Arabica 64 (2017) 405-441

416 Gardiner

unexplained technical terminology, and assume an audience already pos-

sessed of an advanced familiarity with Sufi thought and practices. Even when
techniques such as the making of talismans are discussed, a topic confined
mostly to Laṭāʾif al-išārāt, numerous points of their construction and use are
left unexplained. Indeed, it is a less than straightforward process to construe
al-Būnī’s teachings on most matters, as most of his works are laced with inter-
textual cross-references by which the reader is regularly referred to another
of al-Būnī’s works for a fuller explanation of some issue. As I have discussed
previously, I regard this web of cross-references as his implementation of the
esotericist writing strategy of “dispersion of knowledge” (tabdīd al-ʿilm), the
intentional scattering of a body of teachings across several works so as to
conceal its full contours from all but the most determined readers. The tech-
nique is best known from the large corpus of Šīʿism-infused alchemical wri-
tings attributed to the second/eighth-century alchemist Ǧābir b. Ḥayyān.23 Ibn
ʿArabī employed it as well, particularly in scattering discussions of a sensitive
topics throughout his massive al-Futūḥāt al-makkiya, as did the Jewish philo-
sopher Maimonides (d. 1204 CE).24 Scholars have noted that the technique is
intended to require the reader to put great effort into finding the necessary
works and piecing together the intended lessons, and that it strongly indicates
the necessity of a teacher to guide the reader through the textual maze.
That al-Būnī’s readers sought to gain access to as many of his works
as possible—in part, no doubt, to wend their way through his dispersed
teachings—is suggested by a number of bibliographical paratexts found in
medieval manuscripts that attempt to list al-Būnī’s works. The earliest of these
can be found in the oldest dated manuscript of a Bunian work, a copy of Laṭāʾif
al-išārāt fī l-ḥurūf al-ʿulwiyyāt produced in Egypt in 669/1270 (Berlin MS or. Fol.
80). This demonstrates that readers were engaged in this quest from early-on in
the career of the corpus, and suggests that al-Būnī’s use of tabdīd al-ʿilm helped
encourage the formation of reading communities as individuals sought out his
works and deeper instruction in the methods to which they allude.

23  On its use in the Ǧābirian corpus see Paul Kraus, Contributions à l’histoire des idées scien-
tifiques dans l’Islam: Volume I, Le corpus des écrits jābiriens, Cairo, Imprimerie de l’Institut
Français d’Archéologie Orientale, 1943, I, p. xxvii-xxxiii; Ǧābir b. Ḥayyān, Dix traités
d’alchimie: Les dix premiers traités du Livre des Soixante-dix, ed. and transl. Pierre Lory,
Paris, Sindbad, 1983, p. 53, 242 ff.; Syed Nomahul Haq, Names, Natures and Things: The
Alchemist Jābir ibn Ḥayyān and His Kitāb al-Aḥjār (Book of Stones), Dordrecht, Kluwer
(“Boston studies in the philosophy of science”, 158), p. 6-7, 14.
24  Morris, “Ibn ʿArabi’s ‘Esotericism’ ”, passim; David Bakan, Maimonides’ Cure of Souls:
Medieval Precursor of Psychoanalysis, Albany, State University of New York Press, 2009,
p. 76-77.

Arabica 64 (2017) 405-441

Esotericist Reading Communities 417

In another bibliographical paratext which probably dates from latter part

of the seventh/thirteenth century, one Ibn al-Ḥaddād notes that he obtained
or purchased (malaka) a copy of al-Būnī’s ʿAlam al-hudā wa-asrār al-ihtidāʾ fī
šarḥ asmāʾ Allāh al-ḥusnā, then read it under the formal instruction of his mas-
ter, Abū l-Faḍl ʿAbbās al-Ġumārī, who had been taught by al-Būnī himself in

I obtained this book and read it in the presence of my master, the distin-
guished Abū l-Faḍl ʿAbbās al-Ġumārī (may God benefit him). He [Abū
l-Faḍl] met the author in Alexandria and he [al-Būnī] bestowed upon
him the meanings of the path and the secrets of certainty, and I drew
benefit from my master ʿAbbās, praise be to God.25

The statement, which is followed by a list of other titles attributed to al-Būnī,

bears witness to the perceived need for a teacher in reading al-Būnī’s works,
ideally one in a direct line of transmission from al-Būnī himself, such as Abū
l-Faḍl ʿAbbās. Note that Abū l-Faḍl ʿAbbās’ nisba, al-Ġumārī, is a Maġribī tribal/
toponymic marker, suggesting that he was of western origin, a characteristic
that likely was shared by many of al-Būnī’s early readers. Ibn al-Ḥaddād’s sta-
tement also stands a reminder that, at least in this period, to engage with a
given Sufi work could be taken as an initiatic process in itself, one that poten-
tially could be hazardous to the reader if undertaken without the benefit of a
master.26 As discussed below, there is much in the content of al-Būnī’s texts to
encourage such an attitude.

‫ق‬ ‫ت‬ ‫ذ‬ ‫ق‬

‫ا �ل�ل�ه‬ ��‫ل�ا ب� و�رات��ه ع��لى �مولا �ي� ا �ل��ف���ا ض���ل ا ب�ي� ا �ل��ف�� ض�����ل �ع ب���ا ��س ا �ل غ�����م�ا ر �ي� ن���ف‬ ��‫�� ت� �ه�� ا ا � ك‬ ‫و��د �م��ل ك‬
‫� ا ن�ا �م��ن‬ ‫��ه �ل��ق�� ا �ل���م ؤ�ل��ف� �ا لا ��س� ن�ك��د ��ة ا ف��ا د ه ف� �م�ع�ا �ن ا �ل��س��ل ك الا ��س ا ا ��ل�ق������ن���ة ا ����ست�� ف���د ت‬
‫ي� ي� و و ر ر ي ي ي و‬ ‫ري و‬ ‫ب و ي� � ب‬
‫�مولا �� �ع ب���ا ��س و�ل�ل�ه ا �لح‬
.‫��م�د‬ ‫ي‬
 Al-Būnī, ʿAlam al-hudā wa-asrār al-ihtidāʾ fī šarḥ asmāʾ Allāh al-ḥusnā, MS Istanbul,
Süleymaniye Kütüphanesi, Hamidiye 260.1, f. 239b, gloss in bottom margin. The codex
itself was copied in Damascus in 772/1370; however, Ibn al-Ḥaddād’s statement is in a
gloss copied from the exemplar, and thus predates the codex. Given that his teacher
al-Ġumārī met al-Būnī, we can surmise that Ibn al-Ḥaddād probably authored the state-
ment no later than the turn of the eighth/fourteenth century.
26  A debate on the need for a teacher in reading Sufi works would erupt in the Islamicate
west in the mid-eighth/fourteenth century, on which see Muhsin Mahdi, “The Book
and the Master as Poles of Cultural Change in Islam”, in Islam and cultural change in
the Middle Ages: Giorgio Levi Della Vida Biennial Conference, May 11-13, 1973, Near Eastern
Center, University of California., Los Angeles, ed. Speros Vryonis, Wiesbaden, Harrasowitz
(“Giorgio Levi Della Vida biennal Conference publications”, 4), 1975, p. 3-15. Ibn al-Ḥaddād,

Arabica 64 (2017) 405-441

418 Gardiner

Esotericism and Lettrism

That practical concerns might have driven al-Būnī and his readers to be highly
circumspect in the circulation of his works is suggested by certain of Ibn
ʿArabī’s comments in his aforementioned Kitāb al-Mīm wa-l-wāw wa-l-nūn. Ibn
ʿArabī cautions that, though truly a Sufi initiate (a member of the ahl al-kašf
wa-l-wuǧūd), the adept who writes about the occult powers of the letters risks
being lumped together by ignorant readers with the sorcerers and heretics. He
may even be accused of being an unbeliever for speaking of secrets that God
has concealed within the created things, as the people (al-nās) will assume
that the author intends their use for sorcerous acts (al-afʿāl). What is more,
he warns, the author may be accused of charlatanry, owing to the fact that in
order to perform a given lettrist operation, the practitioner must have detailed
knowledge of the proper ways of combining letters (ṣuwar al-tarkīb), as well as
of the timing (awqāt), special scripts (aqlām),27 and other elements requisite
to such procedures. Inevitably, therefore, some unworthy individual who has
failed to duly attend to these intricacies, and thus failed to achieve the desired
result, will attempt to vindicate himself at the author’s expense by saying:
“Someone [i.e. the author] lied, for I did what he said and obtained no effect
thereby.”28 These were not idle concerns, as Mamlūk-era commentators such
as Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328), Ibn al-Naqqāš (d. 763/1361), and Ibn Ḫaldūn
(d. 808/1406) indeed attacked al-Būnī posthumously as a sorcerer and here-
tic on the basis of his writings.29 With regard to charges of charlatanry, Ibn
al-Naqqāš accused al-Būnī of having fabricated all manner of “rubbish” regar-
ding the letters, such that it was a subject the knowledge of which, he insists,
could lead nowhere “but the fire.”30 We can surmise that al-Būnī may have
faced similar charges during his lifetime if his writings had come to attention

however, writing earlier and in the east, clearly still felt the need to document his having
studied the work with a teacher.
27  Aqlām here is almost certainly a reference to cryptographic scripts, such as the qalam
marmūz bi-hi Ibn ʿArabī himself offers in his Kitāb ʿAnqāʾ muġrib; see Gerald Elmore,
Islamic Sainthood in the Fullness of Time: Ibn al-ʿArabī’s Book of the Fabulous Gryphon,
Leiden-Boston-Köln, Brill (“Islamic philosophy and theology”, 32), 1999, p. 574-579.
28  Ibn ʿArabī, Le livre du mim, du waw et du nun, p. 56.
29  Ibn Taymiyya, Maǧmūʿ fatāwā šayḫ al-Islām Aḥmad b. Taymiyya, ed. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b.
Muḥammad b. Qāsim, n.l., Maṭbaʿat al-muḫtar al-islāmī, 1979, X, p. 251; Ibn Ḫaldūn, The
Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, transl. Franz Rosenthal, New York, Pantheon,
1958, III, p. 181; Ibn al-Naqqāš is quoted by al-Saḫāwī (d. 902/1497) in al-Qawl al-munbī fī
tarǧamat Ibn al-ʿArabī, ed. Ḫālid b. al-ʿArabī Mudrik, M.A. thesis, Umm al-Qurā University,
2001, II, p. 317.
30  Ibid.

Arabica 64 (2017) 405-441

Esotericist Reading Communities 419

of authorities of Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn al-Naqqāš’s ilk, though no record exists
of this having occurred.
Self-protection is not the only motive Ibn ʿArabī invokes. Of greater impor-
tance is the risk that knowledge of operative lettrism could be highly dangerous
in the hands of the unworthy. Total forbearance on the topic is best, he declares,
as it is forbidden (ḥarām) for adepts to discuss the “operative spiritual sciences”
(al-ʿulūm al-ʿamaliyya l-rūḥāniyya) in ways comprehensible to both the elite (i.e.
the Sufi adepts) and the vulgar, lest the immoral utilize them to ill ends. His own
extensive writings on lettrism—in Kitāb al-Mīm and other works, including his
magnum opus al-Futūḥāt al-makkiyya—he defends as falling within these res-
trictions, asserting: “The limit at which we stop ourselves in our own books is to
address only our fellow adepts [aṣḥābunā], in such a way that no-one but them
can understand that to which we allude, and so that no-one who is not among
them can attain to it.”31 There can be little doubt that Ibn ʿArabī would have
sharply disapproved of some of al-Būnī’s writings, particularly his lettrist opus
Laṭāʾif al-išārāt fī l-ḥurūf al-ʿulwiyyāt.
Though all of al-Būnī’s works make reference to the letters, Laṭāʾif al-išārāt
fī l-ḥurūf al-ʿulwiyyāt is the only one to take lettrism as its central topic, tra-
versing both theoretical and operative aspects of the science. In it al-Būnī
outlines a complex emanationist cosmology in which Ādam plays a central
role as the microcosmic mirror of the universe, with the letters of the Arabic
alphabet being sown into his body as the fundamental links between man
and macrocosm. In doing so al-Būnī provides a conceptual framework for
various operative lettrist exercises that are prescribed in the work, including
those often labelled “magical” or “theurgic,” such as the use of talismans and
other methods for the attainment of advanced spiritual states and preterna-
tural powers. Among the work’s most striking features is a series of elaborate
diagrams—quite unusual for Arabic manuscripts of this period—which are
claimed to facilitate visionary access to the invisible worlds underlying mate-
rial reality when used in combination with the proper regimens of ḏikr, fasting,
and seclusion—actions best undertaken under the guidance of an expe-
rienced master. Some of these figures also are said to function as talismans
ensuring the protection and sustenance of the adept when inscribed on the
proper materials and at the appropriate times.
At the heart of lettrism, al-Būnī insists, is the goal of apprehending
the “nobility” (or “sublimity,” šaraf) of the Koran, with an understanding
that encompasses even its most arcane aspects: hidden forces—at once
linguistic and numerical—at work in the letters of the text. He briefly ranks
the predominant methods of interpreting the Koran and the scholars who

31  Ibn ʿArabī, Le livre du mim, du waw et du nun, p. 58.

Arabica 64 (2017) 405-441

420 Gardiner

engage with them. The lowest are those who interpret the holy text through
opinion (ra‌ʾy) and analogy (qiyās), and who are damned to perdition as a
result. Second from bottom are the scholars of the tafsīr tradition, i.e. those
who rely on philological techniques and transmitted traditions. Next are the
people of ta‌ʾwīl, a method briefly defined as a product of divine guidance and
mediation (al-hidāya wa-l-tawfīq). The greatest adepts are the masters of the
science of letters. They are the “people of true understanding” (ahl al-fahm),
“the people of the esoteric meaning” (ahl al-bāṭin), and those with whom
God communicates through angels (muḥaddaṯūn).32 For al-Būnī, the Koran
is far more than just a source of legal and moral guidance. Throughout Laṭāʾif
al-išārāt and his other works he approaches the holy text and its constituent
parts, particularly the names of God and the letters of the alphabet, not just
as God’s speech qua semantic communication, but rather as quasi-angelic
forces constitutive of the very fabric of the created worlds. They are at once
the instruments of God’s will in a continuously remade cosmos—conceptua-
lized by al-Būnī along Neoplatonic lines—and the means by which, through
various “spiritual exercises” (riyāḍāt), including operative lettrist techniques,
an elect class of human actors could ascend the ladder of being toward the
divine while serving as God’s agents on earth.
That al-Būnī shares Ibn ʿArabī’s esotericist sentiments regarding lettrism, at
least in principle, is demonstrated in the introduction (ammā baʿd) to Laṭāʾif
al-išārāt. There he adduces a series of prophetic ḥadīṯs and reports of other
seminal figures in Islamic myth and early history, including Ādam, ʿAlī b. Abī
Ṭālib (d. 40/661), ʿAlī’s martyred son al-Ḥusayn (d. 61/680), the early convert
and proto-Sufi Abū Ḏarr al-Ġifārī (d. 32/652-653), and others. As arranged by
al-Būnī, these reports suggest the existence of a tradition of secret teachings
on the letters, one rooted in the divinely-inspired knowledge of the long line
of prophets from Ādam to Muḥammad, transmitted from Muḥammad to ʿAlī,
and thence to some number of the other Šīʿī Imāms before passing into the
guardianship of the Sufi tradition. Taken together they comprise an apologe-
tic vision of the origins of the science of letters that validates lettrism as an
ancient, sanctified, and powerful means of engaging with divine revelation.
They also serve to emphasize the need for secrecy. At one point he narrates:

Know that the science of letters is among the most sublime of the sciences
of the accomplished adepts. Such is what reaches us on the authority of
al-Ḥusayn (peace be upon him), [who said] that a man asked him about

32  Al-Būnī, Laṭāʾif al-išārāt fī l-ḥurūf al-ʿulwiyyāt, MS Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France,
Arabe 2658, f. 4a.

Arabica 64 (2017) 405-441

Esotericist Reading Communities 421

the meaning of kāf-hāʾ-yāʾ-ʿayn-ṣād.33 He [al-Ḥusayn] said: “If I explained

it to you then you would walk on water, except that, due to its mysteries, it
would be incomprehensible to one who lacks understandings illuminated
by the light of enlightenment and the guidance of the lamp of certainty. For
if the secrets of God the Highest were made plain to the common people it
would be the cause of their disunion and destruction.”34

Shortly thereafter, al-Būnī evokes ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib in order to emphasize the
alterity of these secret teachings in relation to the norms of the Muslim

It is like that which has reached us about ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib (may God be
pleased with him), that he said, If I gathered a hundred people from
among the best of you, and from morning to evening transmitted to you
what I have heard from the mouth of Abū l-Qāsim [Muḥammad] (peace
be upon him), you would all flee from me, saying: “Verily ʿAlī is among the
most egregious of liars and the most iniquitous of sinners.”35

The implication is that only the truly elect are worthy of the science of let-
ters and names, while exposure of it to the masses would result in chaos and
catastrophe. Thus, in al-Būnī’s framing, lettrism is the esoteric tradition par
excellence at the very heart of Sufism and Islam.
Having come of age in Ifrīqiyā, al-Būnī almost certainly was raised according
to the Mālikī maḏhab, though he likely was exposed to Almohadism as well.
His references to such central figures of Šīʿism as ʿAlī and al-Ḥusayn should
not lead to the conclusion that he was a Šīʿī in any confessional sense, though

‫ّ �أّ �أ‬ ‫�أ‬ ّ ‫�أ‬

33  Kor 19, 1.
‫ل��س�لا �م ن��ه ��س� �ل�ه ر ج�� �ع��ن‬
‫ل‬ � ‫ح��سي���ن ع� ي�ل��ه ا‬� ���‫حرو�ف� �م��ن �ش��ر�ف� ع��لو�م ا �ل���م‬
�‫ح��ق����ق��ي���ن ك‬
‫�م�ا ب���ل غ�� ن���ا �ع��ن ا �ل‬ �‫وا ع��ل ن� ع��ل ا �ل‬
‫�أ‬ ّ ‫ّ �أ‬ ‫م م ف‬
�‫���ن ا � تّ�ل����صري� ب� ك‬ ‫��س ت��ه�ا �ل�ك �ل� ش‬ ّ �‫ف‬
‫��ل ��سرا ر �ه�ا‬ ‫��م����ي�� ت� ع��لى ا �ل���م�ا ء �إ لا ن��ه لا �ي���م ك‬ � ‫ر‬ ‫و‬‫﴿��ك�هي���ع���ص﴾ ���ق���ا ل �ل‬
‫� ت‬ ‫�ت �ة ش �ة ق �ن ئ ّ ت ح�أ‬ ‫�ت �ة‬ ‫�أ ف‬
‫ى‬ ‫ل‬ ‫ا‬
�‫ع‬�� ‫�ه‬‫ل‬�‫ل‬ ‫ا‬ ‫��ا ا �ي�ل���ي�� و��ل��لا �ب��د وا ر ر‬
‫ا‬ ‫�س‬� �‫�� ي��� ب����م��� ك‬ ‫�ل�ع�د �م ال ����ه�ا �م ا �ل���م��س� ن���ير ب�ن�ور ا ��ل�ه�د اي��ة ا �ل���م����س� ���ض‬
‫� �ّ �ة ف� ن ً ف �ن‬
‫�و� ��س�ب� ب��ا �ل����ت��� ت���ه��م و�ه�لا��ك�ه��م‬ ‫ ل��ل�ع�ا م� ي�� ك‬.

Al-Būnī, Laṭāʾif al-išārāt fī l-ḥurūf al-ʿulwiyyāt, MS Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France,

‫�أ ّ ق‬ ‫�أ‬
Arabe 2658, f. 4a-b.
ّ ‫ئ�ةً ف‬ ‫ض‬ ّ ��‫�م�ا ���ل غ�� ن���ا �ع��ن ع‬
�‫���أح�د ث� ك‬
‫�م‬ � ‫�م �م�ا‬�‫� ا �ب�ن ب�ي� ط�ا �ل� ب� ر��ي� ا �ل�ل�ه �ع ن���ه ن��ه ��ا ل �لو ج��م�ع� ت� �م��ن �خ�ي���ا رك‬ ‫ل‬ ‫ك� ب‬
‫�أ‬ ‫ي‬
‫ن‬ ‫�خ‬ ‫ق‬ ‫ف‬ ‫�غ �ة‬
‫�م��ن �د و �إ لى ا �ل�ع ش���ى �م�ا ��س���م�ع� ت� �م��ن �ي� ب�ي� ا �ل�����ا ��س��م ع� ي�ل��ه ا �ل��س�لا �م �لت�����ر�ج�و� �م��ن �ع ن���د �ي� وا ن��ت��م‬
‫� ذ�� � ا �ل ك� �ذ �ن �أ ف ق ف ق‬ ‫�أ‬
‫�س�����ن‬ ‫ت ق ن نّ ًّ �ن‬
‫��ا ب�ي�� و ���س� ا �ل�����ا � ي‬ ‫ �����و�لو� �إ � ع� ي�ل��ا �م� ك ب‬.

Ibid., ff. 4b-5a.

Arabica 64 (2017) 405-441

422 Gardiner

one mid-twentieth century researcher did hold this view.36 The notion that the
members of the ahl al-bayt were the inheritors and transmitters of a body of
arcane and powerful knowledge passed down from the prophets but kept back
from the general mass of Muslims is a not-uncommon theme in Sufi writings
prior to al-Būnī.37 In the case of lettrism, however, it might be taken as reflec-
tive, if only in a highly stylized way, of the discourse’s genuinely Šīʿī pedigree.
Classical-era Sufi thought—and Sunni thought generally—devoted signi-
ficant attention to mystical meanings of the letters, particularly with regard
to the Koranic muqaṭṭaʿāt (the “disconnected” letters at the heads of several
suras)38; however, as Denis Gril, Pierre Lory, Michael Ebstein, and others have
discussed, the distinctly cosmologically-oriented and Neoplatonized strain of
lettrism in which al-Būnī’s (and Ibn ʿArabī’s) thought participates originated in
the thought of early Šīʿī “exaggerators” (ġulāt) and Ismāʿīlī theorists.39 In the

36  Mohamed El-Gawhary, whose 1968 Bonn dissertation was the first book-length treatment
of al-Būnī by a modern scholar, posited that al-Būnī was a Šīʿī, apparently on the basis of
the Twelver Šīʿī Imāms listed in the first chain of teachers attributed to al-Būnī at the end
of Šams al-maʿārif al-kubrā, and the listing of that text in a modern catalog consisting
largely (though not entirely) of Šīʿī works; El-Gawhary, Die Gottesnamen im magischen
Gebrauch in den al-Būnī zugeschriebenden Werken, PhD dissertation, Bonn, Rheinische
Friedrich Wilhelms-Universität, 1968, p. 14. For the isnād in question see (pseudo-)Aḥmad
al-Būnī, Šams al-maʿārif al-kubrā, Birmingham, Antioch Gate, 2007, p. 119; also the discus-
sion of “Pedigree A” in Jan Just Witkam, “Gazing at the Sun: Remarks on the Egyptian
Magician al-Būnī and his Work”, in O Ye Gentlemen: Arabic Studies on Science and Literary
Culture, In Honour of Remke Kruk, eds Arnoud Vrolijk and Jan Pieter Hogendijk, Leiden-
Boston, Brill (“Islamic philosophy, theology, and science”, 74), 2007, p. 119. The catalog in
question is Āqā Buzurg al-Ṭihrānī’s al-Ḏarīʿa ilā taṣānīf al-šīʿa.
37  For several examples see Hamid Algar, “Imām Mūsā al-Kāẓim and Ṣūfī Tradition”, Islamic
Culture, 64/1 (1990), p. 1-14.
38  For a concise discussion of Sunni exegetes’ grapplings with the muqaṭṭaʿāt, see Martin
Nguyen, “Exegesis of the ḥurūf al-muqaṭṭaʿa: Polyvalency in Sunnī Traditions of Qurʾānic
Interpretation”, in Journal of Qurʾānic Studies, 14/2 (2012), p. 1-28. On the letters in the
classical-era Sufi tradition see Gerhard Böwering, “Sulamī’s Treatise on the Science of
Letters (ʿIlm al-ḥurūf)”, in In the Shadow of Arabic: The Centrality of Language to Arabic
Culture, Studies Presented to Ramzi Baalbaki on the Occasion of His Sixtieth Birthday, ed.
Bilal Orfali, Leiden, Brill (“Studies in Semitic languages and linguistics”, 63), 2012, p. 339-397.
On the differing traditions of lettrism see Michael Ebstein and Sara Sviri, “The So-Called
Risālat al-Ḥurūf (Epistle on Letters) Ascribed to Sahl al-Tustarī and Letter Mysticism in
al-Andalus”, Journal Asiatique, 299/1 (2011), p. 230-232.
39  On the history of lettrism prior to al-Būnī and Ibn al-ʿArabī’s period see Denis Gril, “La
­science des lettres (analyse du chapitre 2 des al-Futuḥāt al-makkiyya),” in Ibn ʿArabī, Les
illuminations de la Mecque. Textes choisis présentés et traduits, ed. Michel Chodkiewicz,
Paris, Sindbad (“La bibliothèque de l’Islam”), 1989, p. 385-438; transl. as “The Science of
Letters,” in The Meccan Revelations, ed. Michel Chodkiewicz, New York, Pir Press, 2004,

Arabica 64 (2017) 405-441

Esotericist Reading Communities 423

fourth/tenth century it seems to have been taken up by Sufis in the Islamicate

west, a development probably linked to the Cordovan thinker Ibn Masarra
l-Ǧabalī (d. 319/931) and his later followers, as well as to the reception of Rasāʾil
Iḫwān al-ṣafāʾ and related Ismāʿīlī texts. This distinctly Sufi lettrism was free of
overtly Šīʿī elements such as Imamic apologetics, though its promulgators were
sufficiently attached to the notion of an invisible hierarchy of Sufi saints as to
cause later critics such as Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Ḫaldūn to accuse them of a
crypto-Šīʿism that traded Imams for saints.40
Western-Sufi lettrism also embodied a focus on the divine names largely
lacking in Šīʿī lettrism, as is evident in al-Būnī and Ibn ʿArabī’s works, as well
as in the Šarḥ Asmāʾ Allāh al-ḥusnā of their Sevillan predecessor Ibn Barraǧān
(d. 536/1141), a major figure in twelfth-century western Sufism who is some-
times said to have been murdered by the Almoravids as a perceived threat
to their rule.41 Sufis in the Islamicate west often clashed with ruling elites,
and, though the history of the development of lettrism between Ibn Masarra
and the sixth/twelfth century is obscure, the claims of its practitioners to extra­
ordinary sanctity and occult power may have been linked to these struggles.
When al-Būnī, Ibn ʿArabī and others of their western-Sufi cohort migrated
to Egypt and points further east around the turn of the seventh/thirteenth cen-
tury, their distinct strain of lettrism seems to have been unknown in their new
environs, as were many aspects of western Sufism. The cautionary notes both
sound in their lettrist works as to the need for discretion suggests that both
knew their teachings could arouse controversy. At the same time, the novelty

p. 103-219; Pierre Lory’s various essays on the topic collected in the volume La science
des lettres en islam, Paris, Éditions Dervy, 2004; Michael Ebstein, “The Word of God and
the Divine Will: Ismāʿīlī Traces in Andalusī Mysticism”, Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and
Islam, 39 (2012), p. 247-302; id., Mysticism and Philosophy in Al-Andalus: Ibn Masarra, Ibn
al-ʿArabī and Ismāʿīlī Tradition, Leiden-Boston, Brill (“Islamic history and civilization”,
103), 2014; and the first volume of Coulon’s La magie islamique.
40  Regarding Ibn Taymiyya, see Yahya Michot, “Misled and Misleading… Yet Central in Their
Influence: Ibn Taymiyya’s Views on the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʼ”, in Epistles of the Brethren of
Purity: The Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ and Their Rasāʾil: An Introduction, ed. Nader El-Bizri, Oxford,
Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 146. For Ibn Ḫaldūn’s charges along these lines, see Ibn
Ḫaldūn, The Muqaddimah, III, p. 92-93.
41  For Ibn Barraǧān’s work, see Šarḥ asmāʾ Allāh al-ḥusnà = Comentario sobre los nombres más
bellos de Dios, ed. Purificación de la Torre, Madrid, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones
Científicas, 2000. On his alleged fate at the hands of the Almoravids see Claude Addas,
“Andalusi Mysticism and the Rise of Ibn Arabi”, in The Legacy of Muslim Spain, ed.
Salma Khadra Jayyusi and Manuela Marín, Leiden-New York-Köln, Brill (“Handbuch
der Orientalistik. 1. Abt., Der Nahe und der Mittlere Osten”, 12), 1992, p. 919-929. For a
counterargument that calls this narrative seriously into question, see Yousef Casewit’s “A
Reconsideration of the Life and Works of Ibn Barrajan”, forthcoming in Al-Abḥāṯ.

Arabica 64 (2017) 405-441

424 Gardiner

of their teachings, couched as it was in claims to be an ancient wisdom tradi-

tion, obviously held great appeal to some of their new peers. Indeed, the very
secrecy with which these teachings were surrounded would have enhanced
their value as “cultural capital.” If al-Būnī’s writings on operative lettrism vio-
late Ibn ʿArabī’s dicta against committing such teachings to books, this should
be taken not as indication of al-Būnī having abandoned the esotericist ethics
he invokes in his own works. Rather, when taken in combination with the prac-
tices of promulgating his texts discussed in the following section, it suggests
that he pursued a different strategy for deploying this valuable and quasi-il-
licit body of knowledge than the exclusively oral transmission prescribed by
Ibn ʿArabī, i.e. that of guarded circulation of texts. In the course of time this
strategy had consequences that al-Būnī likely never anticipated, namely his
posthumous fame as a magician, but it seems to have sufficed for at least a cen-
tury in ensuring the survival of his teachings without triggering their careless

Promulgation and Transmission of al-Būnī’s Works

Evidence regarding al-Būnī’s promulgation of his own works, their transmis-

sion, and the nature of the communities in which they circulated can be found
in the handful of manuscripts which survive from the seventh/thirteenth and
early eighth/fourteenth centuries, as well in paratexts from al-Būnī’s lifetime
and somewhat after that were reproduced or referenced in certain codices
from later in the Mamlūk period. Items from the latter category provide the
best evidence of al-Būnī’s own practices for putting his works into circulation,
showing al-Būnī in 621/1224 and 622/1225 in the Qarāfa cemetery, the great
“city of the dead” then on the outskirts of Cairo, completing and “auditio-
ning” Laṭāʾif al-išārāt and another of his most important works, ʿAlam al-hudā
wa-asrār al-ihtidāʾ fī šarḥ asmāʾ Allāh al-ḥusnā.
ʿAlam al-hudā concerns the names of God and the means of ascending
through the “stations” (maqāmāt) of the names toward union with the divine,
particularly through taḫalluq—a term William Chittick glosses as “adoption
of the divine nature”—via contemplation and invocation of the divine names
in supererogatory spiritual exercises.42 Laṭāʾif al-išārāt and ʿAlam al-hudā

42  Regarding taḫalluq as “the adoption of the divine nature” (or theomimesis) and Ibn
al-ʿArabī’s ideas on the matter see Gerald Elmore, “Shaykh ʿAbd Al-ʿAzīz Al-Mahdawī, Ibn
Al-ʿArabī’s Mentor”, Journal of the American Oriental Society, 121 (2001), p. 609; William C.
Chittick, The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al-ʿArabi’s Metaphysics of Imagination, Albany,
State University of New York Press, 1989, p. 21-22.

Arabica 64 (2017) 405-441

Esotericist Reading Communities 425

cross-reference each other extensively, and the latter must too be conside-
red an integral part of al-Būnī’s writings on the science of letters and names,
albeit with the emphasis on the names rather than the letters. It is al-Būnī’s
lengthiest surviving work, averaging about 220 folia in length, and an autho-
rial colophon that appears in some eighth/fourteenth-century copies informs
us that he “began it in the first third of ḏū l-qaʿda in the year 621/mid-to-late
November 1224 and […] finished it on the morning of Monday the seventeenth
of ḏū l-ḥiǧǧa of the same year/the end of December 1224 […] on the outskirts
of Miṣr [Cairo].”43 Though the period noted seems desperately short for such
a lengthy work, it probably reflects only the time in which the fair copy was
penned. The work likely grew out of al-Būnī’s oral teachings in years previous,
and it is quite possible that he employed an amanuensis in committing it to
paper. Ibn ʿArabī is known to have used such methods,44 and a work of Abū
l-Ḥasan ʿAlī l-Ḥarāllī (d. 638/1240), another important western-Sufi lettrist of
the period, is recorded as having been created this way in Cairo in 629/1231-
1232.45 This location at the edge of the city in which al-Būnī mentions having
worked was almost certainly the Qarāfa cemetery, as we will see in a moment.
The first set of paratexts I will discuss come from a copy of ʿAlam al-hudā
in two parts: Süleymaniye MS Reşid efendi 590.1 and 590.2 (currently bound
as a single volume). According to the scribal colophon, the set was copied in
Cairo by Maḥmūd Šāh b. Sallār b. Dāwūd al-Āfī [?], who completed it on the
tenth of raǧab 798/April 1396 in Cairo. The most important paratexts from
this volume are two muqābala (collation) statements, one at the end of each
part, i.e. statements recording the text of the codex having been checked for
accuracy (collated) against another copy. These collations were conducted by
one Ayyūb b. Quṭlūbak al-Rūmī l-Ḥanafī, only months after the copying of
the volumes was completed, the first being collated in šawwāl 798/July 1396,
and the second in ḏū l-ḥiǧǧa/September of the same year. The collation state-
ments are extraordinary in that, like a Russian doll set, they contain a recessed
series of paratexts from previous copies of the work, such that they provide
information on both the older codex against which the surviving codex

43  Al-Būnī, ʿAlam al-hudā, MS Istanbul, Süleymaniye, Hamidiye 260.1 (copied in Damascus
in 772/1370); Beyazid, 1377 (copied in 773/1371), and Süleymaniye, Kılıç Ali Pas̨a, 588 (cop-
ied in 792/1390).
44  Addas, Quest, p. 128.
45  This is noted in the opening lines (fol. 1b) of al-Ḥarāllī, Kitāb al-Lamḥa fī maʿrifat al-ḥurūf,
MS Istanbul, Süleymaniye, Fatih, 3434, in which it is stated that the text is based on his
lectures over a period of months in 629/1231-1232 at the Ǧāmiʿ al-ʿAtīq in Cairo (Miṣr)
which were preserved through the “dictation of his speech and his editing of it [i.e. the
transcript] at the time of dictation.”

Arabica 64 (2017) 405-441

426 Gardiner

was collated, a non-extant copy completed in Alexandria or before ṣafar of

738/1337, and the yet-older copy against which that intermediate copy was
collated, which apparently was auditioned in the presence of, and signed by,
al-Būnī himself.
Below is the collation statement from the end of the first part (Reşid efendi
590.1), which appears directly under the scribal colophon. Note that Ayyūb b.
Quṭlūbak, the collator and the author of this statement, quotes from a colla-
tion statement in the 787/1337 exemplar from which he worked, as he indicates
by marking the end of the quote with the word intahā. I have separated out the
quoted portion with paragraph-breaks:

The collation of this volume (daftar) from beginning to end was com-
pleted from a sound copy of the text with a collation note at the end:
The most insignificant servant of God the Highest Yaḥyā b. Aḥmad
al-Ḫalīlī l-Šāfiʿī l-Ṣūfī inscribed it [the codex]. He [Yaḥyā] collated it—
against a copy which had a certificate of audition before the author (may
God have mercy on him) that carried his [al-Būnī’s] signature—on the
fourth of ṣafar in the year 738/September 1337 while he [Yaḥyā] was at a
gathering of Sufi brothers at al-Ḫānqāh al-Muḥsiniyya in Alexandria.
The collation of this section against the aforementioned copy of the
text [i.e. that collated by Yaḥyā] was completed and finalized at the hand
of the weakest servant of God and most needful of His mercy and forgive-
ness Ayyūb b. Quṭlūbak al-Rūmī l-Ḥanafī (may God treat him with mani-
fest and hidden kindness) near al-Madrasa l-Ṣuyurġutmušiyya in Cairo
the [city] protected [by God] (may God the Highest guard her from
plagues and preserve her from diseases) on the date of the twelfth of the
blessed [month] šawwāl of the year 798/July 1396.46

‫ف �أ‬ ‫آ‬
.‫ح��ة �م��ق���ا ب��ل��ة �م�ت�ك�وب��ة �ي� �خ�ر�ه�ا‬ ‫ب���ل غ��� ت� �م��ق���ا ب��ل��ة �ه ذ�� ا ا �ل�د ف�ت��ر �م��ن ا ّو�ل�ه لى � �خ�ره �م��ن �ن��س���خ���ة �ص‬

���‫ح��ي‬ ‫�إ‬
ّ ‫�أ‬
‫�ة‬ ‫�خ‬ ‫�ن‬ ‫ق‬ ‫ش ف � ف‬ ‫�خ‬ �‫��س��طره ق�� �ع��بي���د ا �ل�ل�ه �ت�ع�ا لى ي‬
‫ح�ى �ب�ن ا �م�د ا �� ي�ل���ل� ا �ل����ا ���ع� ا ل���صو ي� و��ا ب���ل�ه�ا ب����س���� ع��ل ه�ا ��س� م�ا‬
� ‫ل‬� ‫ح‬ �
‫ي��� �� ع‬ ‫ي‬ ‫ي‬ ‫ي‬ ‫ل‬
‫� �ة ال �خ� �ة‬ �‫كا ن� ب‬ ‫�ة‬ ‫ن‬ ‫�ة‬ ‫ف‬ �‫ا �ل���م����صنّ�� ف� ب‬
‫ح� �ض�� ر �إ و‬ � ‫�خ��ط�ه رح�م�ه ا �ل�ل�ه �ي� را ب� � فص��ر ����سن��� ث����م�ا � و ث�� ث�ل�ي���ن و����سب���ع���م�ا ي� و‬ �
‫�خ ن ق � � �ن‬ ‫ا �ل���صوف�يّ����ة ب�ا �ل‬
.‫ح��س� يّ���ة ب�ث� غ��ر الا ��س� ن�ك��د ري��ة ا ن�ت���هى‬ ��‫��ا ������ا ه ا ل���م‬
‫��م����ا ر �إ ��لي���ه�ا ا ع�لا ه ع��لى ي��د ض���ع��� �ع��بي���د ا �ل�ل�ه‬ ‫ت ف ق ف �غ � �ن ق �ة ذ �ل‬
‫�ج�ز ء ع��ل ا �ل��ن��س���خ���ة ا �ل� ش‬
‫وا ������ ا �ل����را ع� �م�����ا ب��ل� �ه�� ا ا � ى‬
‫�ل�خ ف‬ ‫ف �ل‬ ‫�نف‬‫���ه��م لى رح�مت���ه و�غ� ��ف��را ن��ه ا �يو� �ب�ن ق���ط��لو��ك ا �لروم� ا �ل‬ � ‫وا‬
�‫ح����ي� ع�ا �م�ل�ه ا �ل�ل�ه ب��ل��ط�����ه ا �ج���لي� وا �����ي‬ ‫ي‬ ‫ب‬ ‫ب‬ ‫حو ج� �إ‬
‫ت‬ ‫� ت ل � �ن ال �ف‬
� ‫�رو��س� ح�م�ا �ه�ا ا ل�ل�ه ��ع�ا ى ع� ا �ا‬
‫�ة‬ ‫�ة‬ ‫ق‬ ‫�ة‬ ‫ف� � ا ا �ل���م�د ��س� ا �ل���ص�� � ��ت� ش‬
‫��م�����ي��� ب������ا �هر �م���صر ا �ل���م��ح‬ ‫�غ‬ ‫�ة‬
‫ير‬ ‫ر‬ ‫ي� �ج و ر‬

Arabica 64 (2017) 405-441

Esotericist Reading Communities 427

The second collation statement is at the end of Reşid efendi 590.2, winding
sideways and upside down along the bottom and right margin of the final folio.
It repeats much of the information from the previous statement, but quotes
a different collation statement from the 738/1337 codex, which perhaps also
was in two parts. This quoted statement again mentions the copy auditioned
before al-Būnī, but goes into slightly greater detail about that audition session.
Unfortunately, it does not reproduce the text of the original certificate. Here
I include only the statement quoted by Ayyūb b. Quṭlūbak from the 738/1337

This [copy] was collated to the extent possible at a gathering of the

brothers—the Brethren of Purity and Friends of Sincerity—at al-Ḫānqāh
al-Muḥsiniyya in Alexandria. The copy it was written from has in it a cer-
tificate of audition before the author, and his signature. The audition was
in sessions [i.e. it took place over multiple sessions] the last of which was
on the twenty-third of rabīʿ al-awwal [in the] year 622/early April 1225.
The original copy of the text (nusḫat al-aṣl) that was being transmitted
was completed in al-Qarāfa l-Kubrā on the outskirts of Miṣr on Monday
the seventeenth of ḏū l-ḥiǧǧa [in the] year 621/the end of December 1224,
and the start of its composition was at the beginning of the month ḏū
l-qaʿda. God bless and grant salvation to our master Muḥammad, his fam-
ily, and his companions.47

The information in the collation statement reproduced from the 738/1337

copy thus corroborates the dates of composition for ʿAlam al-hudā given in

‫ع��� �م��ن �ش�� ّ ا ل ا �ل���م���ا ك �م��ن �ش���ه ع�ا �م ث����م�ا ن� �ت��س�ع���ن‬

‫ش‬ ‫ت ت �خ ث ن‬ ‫�ف ظ‬
‫و ي‬ ‫�ر‬ ‫بر‬ ‫و‬ ‫� ر‬ �‫ح���������ه�ا �ع��ن ا �ل�ع�ا �ه�ا � ب���ا ري� ا ��ل��ا �ي‬ ‫و‬
‫�ة‬ ‫ه‬� ‫�ة‬
. �‫و����سب���ع���م�ا ي� �ج�ري‬

Al-Būnī, ʿAlam al-hudā, MS Istanbul, Süleymaniye Kütüphanesi, Reşid Efendi, 590.1,
f. 64b, bottom of page.
‫�ن ّ�ة‬
���‫ا �ل���م‬
��‫ح��س� ي‬ ‫ح� �ض�� ر�ة ال �خ�وا ن� �خ�وا ن� ا �ل��� فص���ا ء و خ�� ّلا ن� ا �لو ف�ى ب�ا �ل‬
‫�خ�ا ن���ق���ا ه‬
� �‫��ا ن� ب‬
� � �‫وق�وب��ل� ت‬
�‫ح����س� ب� ال�إ �م ك‬
47   ‫�إ‬ ‫�إ‬
‫ن ّ�ة �ن �خ �ة ت �ت‬
‫ف� م‬ ‫نّ ف �خ‬ ‫ن‬ �‫ب�ث� غ��ر ال�إ ��س��ك��د ري� وا �ل���س���� ا ��ل�� �ك‬
‫�� ب��أ�م����ه�ا ع��لي���ه�ا ��س���م�اع ا �ل���م����ص��� و���ط�ه وا �ل��س���م�اع ي� �ج��ا �ل��س‬ ‫ي‬
‫ع��� ��ن ����س��ت� م�ا �ة ن ا �ل��ف�� ا�غ �م��ن �ن��س���خ���ة‬ ‫ش‬ ‫�ن‬ ‫ع��� ن �م��ن �� ال ّ ل ����سنّ����ة ث�ن‬ ‫ش‬ ‫ث ث‬ ‫آ �خ‬
‫ي و � ر‬ ‫ا‬
� � �� ‫�إ ي و ري و‬ � ��
� ‫� �ر�ه�ا ا ��ل��ا �ل�� وا �ل� رو� ربيع و‬
‫ح�� ّ���ة‬ ‫�أ‬
‫� �ج‬ ‫ع���ر �م��ن �ذ �� ا �ل‬ ‫��� � ��ظ���ا �ه �م���ص � �م ال ث�ن����ن ا �ل��س�ا � � ش‬ ‫ق ف�ة‬
‫ال �ص�ل ا �ل���م����ول �م����ه�ا ب�ا �ل����را �� ا �ل �ك بر ى ب ر ر يو �إ ي‬
‫ن‬ ‫نق‬
‫ي‬ ‫بع‬
‫ق د�ة‬ ‫ت �ن ف �أ ّ ش �ذ‬ ‫ع��� ��ن ����س��ت���م�ا ��ة � ن ت‬ ‫ش‬ ‫نّ�ة‬
‫كا � ا ب���د ا ء ����ص� ي����ه ول �����هر �ي� ا �ل�����ع� و�ص��لى ا �ل�ل�ه ع��لى‬ ‫ي و‬ ‫����س��� �إح�د �ى و � ري و‬
‫ن م آ‬
.‫��م�د و� �ل�ه‬
‫����سي���د �ا ح‬

Al-Būnī, ʿAlam al-hudā, MS Istanbul, Süleymaniye Kütüphanesi, Reşid Efendi, 590.2,
fol. 130b, bottom and right margin.

Arabica 64 (2017) 405-441

428 Gardiner

the authorial colophon discussed above, adding the detail that the place “at
the outskirts of Miṣr” where it was composed was al-Qarāfa l-Kubrā. It further
provides the date of the last of the sessions (maǧālis) at which ʿAlam al-hudā
was auditioned before al-Būnī: the twenty-third of rabīʿ al-awwal 622. I have
elsewhere discussed the extraordinary datum that this Alexandrian Sufi rea-
ding community is here referred to as “the brethren of purity and friends of
sincerity” (a none-too-subtle reference to the oft-maligned group of Šīʿī intel-
lectual provocateurs from fourth/tenth-century Iraq whose Epistles contain
some of the most extensive classical-era discussions of the occult sciences),
and that this Alexandrian community may well be related to a turn-of-the-
ninth/fifteenth century community of occultists who went under the same
The second piece of paratextual evidence relating to al-Būnī’s time at the
Qarāfa is found near the end of BnF MS arabe 2658, a handsome copy of
Laṭāʾif al-išārāt that, according to the colophon, was copied by Muḥammad
b. Muḥammad, imām of al-Ǧāmiʿ al-Yūsufī in the Fayyūm, and was comple-
ted at the famous al-Azhar mosque in Cairo at the end of muḥarram 809/July
1406. Just after the explicit and prior to the colophon—under the heading,
“Among what was found at the end of this book” (mimmā wuǧida ʿalā āḫir

48  The ninth/fifteenth-century group was centered around an enigmatic figure known
as Sayyid Ḥusayn al-Aḫlāṭī (d. 799/1397), who served for a time as a physician to the
Mamlūk sultan al-Mālik al-Ẓāhir Barqūq (d. 801/1399). It included such luminaries as the
Tīmūrid occult philosopher Ṣāʾin al-Dīn Turka Iṣfahānī (d. 835/1432), the Tīmūrid histo-
rian Šaraf al-Dīn ʿAlī Yazdī (d. 858/1454), the anti-Ottoman rebel Badr al-Dīn al-Simāwī
(d. ca 821/1418), the aforementioned ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Bisṭāmī, and others. For the most
extensive treatment of this group see İlker Evrim Binbaş, Intellectual Networks in Timurid
Iran: Sharaf al-Dīn ʿAlī Yazdī and the Islamicate Republic of Letters, Cambridge, Cambridge
University Press (“Cambridge studies in Islamic civilization”), 2016, p. 114-164; cf. Denis
Gril, “Ésotérisme contre hérésie: ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Bisṭāmī, un représentant de la sci-
ence des lettres à Bursa dans la premiere moitié du XVe siècle”, in Syncrétismes et hérésies
dans l’Orient seldjoukide et ottoman (XIVe-XVIIIe siècle): Actes du Colloque du Collège de
France, octobre 2001, ed. Gilles Veinstein, Louvain-Paris, Peeters (“Collection Turcica”, 9),
2005, p. 183-195; İhsan Fazlıoğlu, “İlk dönem Osmanlı ilim ve kültür hayatında İhvânu’s-
safâ ve Abdurrahmân Bistâmî”, Dîvân: İlmî Araştırmalar, 1 (1996), p. 229-240; Cornell
Fleischer, “Ancient Wisdom and New Sciences: Prophecies at the Ottoman Court in the
Fifteenth and Early Sixteenth Centuries”, in Falnama: The Book of Omens, eds Massumeh
Farhad and Serpil Bağcı, London-Washington, Thames & Hudson-Freer Gallery of Art,
2009, p. 231-244; Matthew Melvin-Koushki, The Quest for a Universal Science: The Occult
Philosophy of Ṣāʾin al-Dīn Turka Iṣfahānī (1369-1432) and Intellectual Millenarianism in
Early Timurid Iran, PhD dissertation, Yale University, 2012, p. 11-12, 25. See also Melvin-
Koushki's contribution to this volume.

Arabica 64 (2017) 405-441

Esotericist Reading Communities 429

hāḏā l-kitāb)—it contains an audition certificate reproduced from the exem-

plar from which the copyist worked. The text of the certificate is:

The most just and virtuous judge, the ascetic, the judge of the poor ones
[i.e. Sufis] and support of the pious ones ʿUmar b. Ibrāhīm al-Rabaʿī and
his son Ibrāhīm (may God make them both suitable) heard the book
Laṭāʿif al-išārāt fī l-ḥarf [sic] al-ʿulwiyyāt. That was in the first third of
the month rabīʿ al-awwal of the year 622/mid-March 1225, at al-Qarāfa
l-Kabīra on the outskirts of Miṣr (may God protect her). This was the site
of its composition.49

Though the name of the šayḫ presiding over the audition is elided here, there
is no doubt that it was al-Būnī himself, as the date given is only a few weeks
prior to the auditioning of ʿAlam al-hudā referenced in the collation state-
ments discussed above. In short, al-Būnī auditioned the two works—the texts
and topics of which are so intertwined—in nearly back-to-back sessions in
the cemetery.
Audition was a practice for transferring the authority to teach and further
transmit written texts. It entailed a live reading of a work in the presence
of its author or of someone in a direct line of transmission from the author
via previous audition sessions, with the outcome that listeners were granted
the authority to further transmit the work, along with other social and spiri-
tual benefits. It also served as a means of proofreading new copies of a text.
Auditions were recorded in certificates inscribed in a copy of the text used for
the session, usually on the final leaf of the text, and a certificate licensed both
the attendees it named and the codex itself. A codex containing a certificate
often was considered the most reliable copy of a work; for this reason, copies
of works made from exemplars with certificates will often make reference to
that fact, as in the case of Reşid efendi 590, or even reproduce the certificate,
as in the case of BnF 2658. Audition practices have been the subject of a fair
amount of scholarship in the past few decades, usually with regard to their

‫ق ض‬ ّ ‫ش ت ف� �ل� �ف‬ ‫ت‬

��� ‫��ا‬
‫� �ل �ز‬ ��‫ت � ق ض‬ ‫ك � ئف‬
‫��س���مع ��ا ب� ل��ط�ا ���� ال�إ ����ا را � ي� ا حر� ا �ل�ع��لوي�ا � ا ل�����ا ي� الا ع�د ل ا ل���ص�اح ا �ل ا �ه�د ي‬
‫ش‬ ‫ف‬ ‫�ذ‬ ‫فق‬ ‫ا �ل��ف����ق�� ا ء �ع�م�د�ة ا �ل���ص��ل��� � ب�ن‬
‫ح�ا ء ع�مر � �إ �برا �هي����م ا �لر�ب�عي� وو�ل�د ه �إ �برا �هي����م و�������ه���م�ا ا �ل�ل�ه و �ل�ك �ي� ا �ل�ع���ر‬ ‫ر و‬
‫�ظ‬ ‫�ة‬ ‫�ة‬ ‫ف‬ ‫ق‬ ‫�ذ‬ ‫�ة‬ ‫�ة‬ ّ ‫�أ‬ ‫�أ‬
� ‫�ت‬ ‫�ن‬ ‫ش‬ ‫�ن‬ ‫ن‬ ‫ث‬ ‫ن‬ ‫ش‬ ‫ّ �ن‬
‫ال ول �م� �����هر رب�ي�ع ال ول ����س��� ا ��ي�� و�ع���ر�ي و����س� ���م�ا ي� و �ل�ك ب�ا �ل����را � ا �ل�ب�ك���ير ب����ا �هر �م���صر‬
.‫ح�م�ا �ه�ا ا �ل�ل�ه ��ع�ا لى و�هو �مو ض�� ت�ا �ي�ل� ف���ه‬

Al-Būnī, Laṭāʾif al-išārāt fī l-ḥurūf al-ʿulwiyyāt, MS Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France,
Arabe 2658, f. 90a, bottom half of page.

Arabica 64 (2017) 405-441

430 Gardiner

use for transmitting written hadith collections and works in related genres,
in which they are most commonly found. Konrad Hirschler, Stefan Leder, and
others have found that auditions of such texts often were highly public affairs
that afforded opportunities for the wide “publication” and publicizing of texts.50
I will suggest, however, following Claude Addas, that Sufis sometimes utilized
the practice in different settings and for rather different purposes than their
peers among the muḥaddiṯīn.
The use of audition in the circulation of Sufi texts seems to have been rare,
though the topic has yet to be addressed systematically. Most evidence of it
comes, unsurprisingly, from the seventh/thirteenth and eighth/fourteenth
centuries when audition practices were at the peak of their popularity. Erik
Ohlander has noted that Abū Ḥafṣ ʿUmar al-Suhrawardī (d. 632/1234)—the
prominent Baghdad Sufi whose ʿAwārif al-maʿārif would become a standard
manual of ṭarīqa Sufism—made use of audition in the transmission of his own
works, and that he explicitly paralleled the formal transmission of written texts
with the imparting of initiatic Sufi knowledge, such as a prayer formula (talqīn
al-ḏikr) or the “mantle of discipleship” (ḫirqat al-irāda).51 The most abundant
collection of audition certificates in Sufi works, however, is in Osman Yahia’s
1964 analytical catalog of manuscripts of Ibn ʿArabī’s works, in which Yahia
records the contents of 187 certificates from thirty-one works in manuscript
(some in multiple copies).52 Given their shared teacher, and the similarities
and differences previously discussed in Ibn ʿArabī and al-Būnī’s statements on
esotericist knowledge transmission, the former’s use of the practice is fertile
ground for comparison with al-Būnī’s.
There are reasons to think that Ibn ʿArabī—and perhaps al-Būnī as well—
did not take up the use of audition until after having emigrated from the west,
where the practice seems to have been less common in the period in ques-
tion.53 Gerald Elmore makes no mention of a certificate being present in Berlin

50  See, for example, Konrad Hirschler, “Reading Certificates (samaʿat) as a Prosopographical
Source: Cultural and Social Practices of an Elite Family in Zangid and Ayyubid Damascus”,
in Manuscript Notes as Documentary Sources, eds Konrad Hirschler and Andreas Görke,
Würzburg, Ergon Verlag (“Beiruter Texte und Studien”, 129), 2011, p. 73-92; Stefan Leder,
“Understanding a Text through Its Transmission: Documented samaʿ, Copies, Reception”,
in the same volume, p. 59-72.
51  Ohlander, Sufism in an Age of Transition, p. 53-55.
52  For Yahia’s overview of the certificates he recorded see Osman Yahia, Histoire et classifica-
tion de l’œuvre d’Ibn ʿArabī: étude critique, Damas, Institut français de Damas, 1964, p. 76 ff.
53  So far as I know, the use of audition in the Islamicate west has not been studied, so this is
merely an impression. Given, however, that the study of uṣūl al-fiqh and the concomitant
interest in hadith transmission came rather late to the Mālikī-dominated western ter-

Arabica 64 (2017) 405-441

Esotericist Reading Communities 431

MS or. 3266, a copy of ʿAnqāʾ muġrib that apparently was made in 597/1201,
while Ibn ʿArabī was yet in the Maghrib.54 To the best of my knowledge the
earliest certificates for any of his works appear in University of Istanbul MS
79a, a copy of Rūḥ al-quds fī munāṣaḥat al-nafs. This work was composed in
Mecca in 600/1203-1204 and framed as an epistle to his and al-Būnī’s teacher
in Tunis, ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Mahdawī. It contains nine certificates, the earliest of
which are from Mecca in 600/1203-1204, Baghdad and Mosul in 601/1204-1205,
Hebron (al-Ḫalīl) in 602/1205-1206, and Cairo in 603/1206-1207, and thus tracks
some of Ibn ʿArabī’s early travels in the east. Other certificates in the codex are
from as late as 628/1230-1231, recorded in his adopted home of Damascus.55 If
Ibn ʿArabī and al-Būnī indeed began recording audition certificates only after
coming east, it likely was because they found these practices useful in building
a network of peers and disciples in a new environment where these practices
were popular.
The evidence collected by Yahia shows us that Ibn ʿArabī auditioned nume-
rous works between the turn of the seventh/thirteenth century and his death
in 638/1240. As Addas has pointed out, he seems to have employed the practice
for the achievement of two rather distinct purposes: in some cases the public
dissemination of a work (as largely was the norm in the ḥadīṯ-oriented para-
digm of audition), but in other cases for the discrete and restricted—which is
to say esotericist—transmission of his decidedly initiatic works that too easily
might have shocked the sensibilities of non-adepts.56 The major example of
Ibn ʿArabī’s relatively public-oriented use of audition comes in the final decade
of his life, in relation to his massive summa, al-Futūḥāt al-makkiyya. A holo-
graph of the work in thirty-seven volumes, Süleymaniye MSS Evkaf Müzesi
1736-1772, contains a total of seventy-one certificates. The majority of these
record a series of sessions performed between 633/1235-1236 and 636/1238-1239
in which Ibn ʿArabī served as the presiding šayḫ. The final fourteen document
sessions conducted after the šayḫ’s death, performed under the authority of
two of his closest disciples, Ismāʿīl b. Sawdakīn al-Nūrī (d. 646/1248) and Ṣadr

ritories, as Vincent Cornell has discussed, it is hardly unexpected that audition practices
would not have flourished there to the same degree as in the east. On the late rise of
interest in uṣūl al-fiqh in the west, see Vincent J. Cornell, Realm of the Saint: Power and
Authority in Moroccan Sufism, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1998, p. 15-16.
54  Elmore, Islamic Sainthood, p. 197-199; cf. Rudolf Sellheim and Ewald Wagner, Arabische
Handschriften, Wiesbaden, Franz Steiner (“Verzeichnis der orientalischen Handschriften
in Deutschland”, 17), 1976, no 94.
55  Yahia, Histoire et classification, p. 446 ff. (entry no 639).
56  Addas, Quest, p. 264-267.

Arabica 64 (2017) 405-441

432 Gardiner

al-Dīn al-Qūnawī (d. 672/1274), both of whom had attended many of the earlier
sessions as listeners. Most of the sessions presided over by Ibn ʿArabī occurred
at his home, but were nonetheless sizable, with some accommodating more
than forty listeners. More than 125 participants are named in these certificates,
with a core group of around twenty-five attending regularly. Many of these
can be identified as having been among Ibn ʿArabī’s devoted disciples, and
their names appear on certificates in numerous other works as well. The other
attendees, however, must be accounted as having been among local notables
whose favor Ibn ʿArabī sought in inviting them, those who sought his in atten-
ding, or those who came in search of baraka and for pious motives generally.
To these readings of al-Futūḥāt and the community they instantiated can
be contrasted a number of auditions of some of Ibn ʿArabī’s most initiatic
works. These, as Addas has noted, bear certificates recording gatherings that
were far more exclusive. To be sure, al-Futūḥāt contains much material that
can be described as initiatic—including a great deal on theoretical aspects
of the science of letters—but, as discussed previously, such materials are so
“dispersed” as to hardly be apprehendable on the basis of a single hearing. As
Addas observes, among the šayḫ’s works it “was least susceptible to criticism
thanks to its sheer size and the diversity of themes it covers, scattered over
thousands of pages.”57 The texts belonging to this second category, however,
are more focused in their content, arguably were more susceptible to criticism,
and were auditioned only to small groups of listeners, all of whom were Ibn
ʿArabī’s close disciples. In the most extreme cases, such as Fuṣūs al-ḥikam58—
the work that incited some of the most severe critiques of Ibn ʿArabī once it
came to circulate more widely59—and the enigmatic ʿAnqāʾ muġrib,60 the sole
listener was the šayḫ’s close disciple and son-in-law Ṣadr al-Dīn al-Qūnawī. In
other cases, such as the auditionings in 621/1224 of the works that comprise
Süleymaniye MS Şehit Ali Paşa 2813—including the lettrist treatises Kitāb
al-Alif (sometimes called Kitāb al-Aḥadiyya), the aforementioned Kitāb al-Mīm
wa-l-wāw wa-l-nūn, and other works dedicated to esotericist understandings
of the Koran—the listeners comprised a small, consistent group of three dis-
ciples: Badr al-Dīn Ayyūb al-Muqriʾ, Ibrāhīm b. ʿUmar al-Qurašī, and Ibrāhīm

57  Ibid., p. 267-268.

58  Yahia, Histoire et classification, p. 240 ff. (no 150).
59  Knysh, Ibn ʿArabī in the Later Islamic Tradition, p. 121-122, 124-128, and elsewhere indicated
in the index.
60  Yahia, Histoire et classification, p. 157 ff. (no 30).

Arabica 64 (2017) 405-441

Esotericist Reading Communities 433

b. Aḥmad al-Qurṭubī.61 Other groupings that similarly consisted of his intimate

followers can be identified as well. As Addas points out, these gatherings of
close disciples were no doubt also occasions for the šayḫ to elaborate orally on
his writings—including, perhaps, on operative aspects of lettrism and other
topics that he kept out of his texts in accordance with his own esotericist dicta.
The paratextual evidence for al-Būnī’s use of audition—of which the
paratexts discussed above are, to the best of my knowledge, the entirety—
is obviously far more limited than the wealth of Akbarian certificates.
Nonetheless, some pertinent observations can be made, particularly by using
the evidence of Ibn ʿArabī’s practices as a basis for comparison. Primary among
these is that al-Būnī’s use of audition seems to have mirrored Ibn ʿArabī’s eso-
tericist use of the practice. The copied certificate for Laṭāʾif al-išārāt in BnF MS
arabe 2658 names only two listeners, the qāḍī l-fuqarāʾ wa-ʿumdat al-ṣulaḥāʾ
ʿUmar b. Ibrāhīm al-Rabaʿī and his son Ibrāhīm, individuals about whom I have
been able to find no additional information. ʿUmar’s title, “judge of the poor
ones” (i.e. Sufis), is unusual; it may mean he was in fact a judge who was identi-
fied as a Sufi. The small number of listeners is reminiscent of Ibn ʿArabī’s most
restricted circles of listeners. That, taken together with the operative lettrist
content of Laṭāʾif al-išārāt, strongly suggest the event was in no way “open to
the public.” Indeed, it is a reasonable assumption that ʿUmar was a close dis-
ciple of al-Būnī’s. If he was a judge, and thus somewhat highly placed socially,
he may have been a patron as well.
The fact that al-Būnī auditioned Laṭāʾif al-išārāt and ʿAlam al-hudā in
the Qarāfa is significant. By the late Ayyūbid period the Qarāfa already was
somewhat built-up with mosques, ribāṭs, and inhabited tomb-shrines in
which Sufis and other travelers frequently lodged. Nonetheless the cemetery,
located physically at the edge of the city beneath the Muqaṭṭam hills, was (and
is) something of a liminal zone. It was a place where rich and poor inhabi-
tants of the city went to visit the tombs of relatives and saints and to appeal
to the latter’s intercessionary powers for the fulfillment of invocatory prayers
(sing. duʿāʾ), and was also a site of festive celebrations with music, feasting,
and dancing, activities all of which frequently were condemned by “conser-
vative” jurists among the ʿulamāʾ.62 The non-specificity of the location within

61  For the two lettrist works see ibid., p. 151 ff. (no 26), p. 382 ff. (no 462). On this group of three
disciples see Addas, Quest, p. 268.
62  Tetsuya Ohtoshi, “Cairene Cemeteries as Public Loci in Mamluk Egypt,” Mamluk Studies
Review, 10/1 (2006), passim; Christopher Schurman Taylor, In the Vicinity of the Righteous:
Ziyāra and the Veneration of Muslim Saints in Late Medieval Egypt, Leiden-Boston, Brill
(“Islamic history and civilization”, 22), 1999, p. 56-58.

Arabica 64 (2017) 405-441

434 Gardiner

the Qarāfa at which the auditions were held suggests that it took place at some
minor, private site rather than a well-known one, the name of which would
have merited mentioning. Al-Būnī himself eventually was buried in the Qarāfa,
if Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad b. al-Zayyāt’s (d. 815/1412) grave visitation guide,
al-Kawākib al-sayyāra fī tartīb al-ziyāra fī l-Qarāfatayn al-kubrā wa-l-ṣuġrā, is
to be believed. The inclusion of al-Būnī in that work indicates that his tomb,
by Ibn al-Zayyāt’s time, was favored by some as a visitation and prayer site—
a locus of power, albeit one of many in a crowded field.63
A further clue as to the nature of these sessions is that the collation sta-
tement from ʿAlam al-hudā mentions the work having been auditioned over
the course of some number of sessions (maǧālis). This is not unusual given
the length of the work, but enlightening in that it indicates that the sort of
speed-reading that sometimes was utilized in auditions of hadith works
(when conferral of the license to transmit was the overriding concern) was not
employed.64 This suggests that these were genuine teaching sessions in which
al-Būnī guided readers through the text, expanded on key points and issues of
bodily practice, etc., and thus strengthens the notion that the proceedings were
intended for close disciples. It is likely that the auditioning of Laṭāʾif al-išārāt
a few weeks earlier was performed similarly, a key point given the numerous
talismans that populate the work. The work includes a number of cryptogram-
matic talismans (awfāq, sing. wafq), i.e. grids with letters and/or numbers in
each square, as well as far more visually and textually complex compositions.
In many cases these are given on the page with little or no additional descrip-
tion in the text, suggesting that they would have been transmitted visually, a
task that would have required a somewhat intimate setting.
What, finally, are we to make of this extraordinary few months in the Qarāfa
during which al-Būnī seems to have composed and auditioned two of his most
important works? Was he a Sufi master at the height of his powers trying to
expand his base of followers? Or, taking into consideration the 622/1225 death
date Ḥāǧǧī Ḫalīfa gives for al-Būnī, were these the acts of someone aware of his
impending death and trying to impart his knowledge to posterity? Whatever
the case, his use of audition shows that he was composing and promulgating his
works within a distinctly medieval paradigm of the book, according to which
books were not meant to stand alone as independent sources of knowledge,

63  Ibn al-Zayyāt, al-Kawākib al-sayyāra, p. 268. See also the other references to al-Būnī’s
burial in the Qarāfa mentioned in footnote 18, supra.
64  On speed-reading and other idionsyncrasies of late-medieval audition practices, see Eerik
Dickinson, “Ibn al-Salah al-Sharazuri and the Isnad”, Journal of the American Oriental
Society, 122 (2002), p. 481-505.

Arabica 64 (2017) 405-441

Esotericist Reading Communities 435

but rather were to be bound tightly to human šayḫs and reading communi-
ties. Given Ibn ʿArabī’s warnings regarding the possible repercussions of books
such as al-Būnī’s, and al-Būnī’s own declarations of the need to prevent lettrist
knowledge from falling into the hands of the vulgar, admission to this circle of
readers must certainly have been limited to a chosen few.
Al-Būnī no doubt intended his works to continue to be transmitted exclu-
sively through such formal practices, and under similarly restricted condi-
tions, and there is limited evidence that formal transmission continued for
a period of time. The aforementioned statement by Ibn al-Ḥaddād that he
read ʿAlam al-hudā with Abū l-Faḍl ʿAbbās al-Ġumārī, who himself had stu-
died with al-Būnī, is the most concrete sign of this. Another hint along these
lines comes from one of al-Būnī’s most important later interpreters, ʿAbd
al-Raḥmān al-Bisṭāmī (d. 858/1454), who reports having read al-Būnī’s al-Lumʿa
l-nūrāniyya fī awrād al-rabbāniyya in Cairo in 807/1404-1405 under the super-
vision of ʿIzz al-Dīn Muḥammad b. Ǧamāʿa (d. 819/1416-1417), member of a
well-known dynasty of scholar-Sufis. Relatedly, al-Bisṭāmī also claims that two
other known figures “took” from al-Būnī: Kamāl al-Dīn Muḥammad b. Aḥmad
b. Ṭalḥa (d. 652/1254), a Damascene bureaucrat turned mystic who authored
the apocalyptic work al-Durr al-munaẓẓam fī l-sirr al-aʿẓam; and Abū l-ʿAbbās
Aḥmad b. ʿUmar al-Mursī (d. 686/1287), the Andalusian émigré to Alexandria
(by way of Tunis) who was the premier disciple and spiritual successor to the
great Abū l-Ḥasan al-Šāḏilī (d. 656/1258), eponym of the Šāḏiliyya order.65 It is
possible that al-Bisṭāmī fabricated these claims, though there is concrete proof
that some relatively early readers of al-Būnī were familiar with Ibn Ṭalḥa’s
work, since an important piece of early Bunian pseudepigrapha combines
portions of al-Būnī’s works with parts of al-Durr al-munaẓẓam.66 As discussed
next, other manuscript evidence indeed demonstrates that there were points
of connection between readers of al-Būnī and early Šāḏilīs in late-seventh/
thirteenth-century Cairo. Finally, al-Bisṭāmī himself formally transmitted
al-Būnī’s al-Lumʿa l-nūrāniyya to various readers over the course of the first

65  Al-Bisṭāmī, Šams al-āfāq fī ʿilm al-ḥurūf wa-l-awfāq, MS Dublin, Chester Beatty Library,
5076, f. 16b. On Ibn Talḥa, see Mohammad Masad, The Medieval Islamic Apocalyptic
Tradition: Divination, Prophecy and the End of Time in the 13th Century Eastern
Mediterranean, PhD dissertation, Washington University in St. Louis, 2008.
66  This is the quasi-pseudepigraphic medieval work that was widely circulated under the
title Šams al-maʿārif wa-laṭāʾif al-ʿawārif, on which see Coulon, La magie islamique, I,
p. 479-499.

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436 Gardiner

half of the ninth/fifteenth century, as he documents in his autobiographical

Durrat tāǧ al-rasāʾil wa-ġurrat minhāǧ al-wasāʾil.67

Early Compilations Including Bunian Works

The final line of inquiry I will discuss concerns evidence that, within a bit more
than half a century after al-Būnī’s death, the reading communities in which his
works circulated also were engaging with texts by other lettrist authors. This is
seen in two compilatory codices of the latter decades of the seventh/thirteenth
century in which works by al-Būnī are included: Chester Beatty MS 3168 and
Süleymaniye MS Carullah 986.
Chester Beatty MS 3168 is a compilatory codex copied in Cairo between
686/1287 and 687/1288 by one ʿUṯmān b. Yūsuf b. Muḥammad b. Arsalān
al-Ḥanafī. It is an important codex for the study of lettrism, in that among
the seven treatises included in it is not only the oldest dated copy of al-Būnī’s
prayer manual al-Lumʿa l-nūrāniyya, but also two short works that, in 1972, were
identified by Muḥammad Kamāl Ibrāhīm Ǧaʿfar as the only surviving writings
of the aforementioned Andalusian thinker Ibn Masarra l-Ǧabalī, a key figure
in the history of lettrism. The codex also includes a treatise on the letters that,
in 1974, the same scholar attributed to the great Sufi theorist Sahl al-Tustarī,
though this identification has been compellingly called into question recently
by Michael Ebstein and Sara Sviri.68 It additionally contains a collection of
sermons attributed to Abū l-Ḥasan al-Šāḏilī, who had died in Alexandria only
thirty years previously.69

67  Al-Bisṭāmī, Durrat tāǧ al-rasāʾil wa-ġurrat minhāǧ al-wasāʾil, MS Istanbul, Süleymaniye
Kütüphanesi, Nuruosmaniye, 4905. See especially the sixth bāb, in which al-Bisṭāmī pro-
vides a roughly year-by-year account of his activities as an author and as a transmitter of
works written by others, ff. 21b ff., but particularly ff. 24b-37b.
68  Ebstein and Sviri, “The So-Called Risālat al-Ḥurūf”, passim.
69  The full contents of Chester Beatty 3168 are: 1) Natāʾiǧ al-qurba wa-nafāʾis al-ġurba, by Faḫr
al-Dīn Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad b. Ibrāhīm b. Aḥmad al-Ḫabrī l-Fārisī (d. 622/1225),
ff. 1-64, dated 687/1288; a treatise on the Sufi path. 2) Ḫawāṣṣ al-ḥurūf wa-ḥaqāʾiquhā
wa-uṣūluhā, by Ibn Masarra l-Ǧabalī, ff. 65-83b, n.d.; a treatise on the meanings and cos-
mic functions of the muqaṭṭaʿāt. 3) Risāla fī l-ḥurūf, attributed by some to Sahl al-Tustarī,
ff. 83b-87, n.d.; a brief work on topics similar to the previous one. 4) Risālat al-iʿtibār, by
Ibn Masarra l-Ǧabalī, ff. 88-95, n.d.; a treatise on the relationship between the inferior and
superior worlds, and on ascending from the former to the latter. 5) al-Lumʿa l-nūrāniyya,
by al-Būnī, ff. 96-125, dated 686/1287. 6) Nuzhat al-qulūb wa-buġyat al-maṭlūb, attributed
to Abū l-Ḥasan al-Shāḏilī, ff. 126-153, dated 686/1287; consisting of sermons and prayers
gathered by an anonymous disciple. 7) al-Faṣl al-rābiʿ, no author given, ff. 154-160, dated

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Esotericist Reading Communities 437

The presence of Ibn Masarra’s works in the codex is strongly indicative of

the esotericist nature of the reading community of which this codex was a pro-
duct. Ibn Masarra was controversial even during his life, and so-called masarrī
groups in al-Andalus were denounced as heterodox and persecuted at various
points in the period between Ibn Masarra’s death in 319/931 and the end of the
seventh/thirteenth century. Ibn Masarra’s works even were ordered burned in
his native Cordoba on at least one occasion.70 For the only known surviving
copies of his works to reside in an Egyptian codex alongside one of al-Būnī’s
suggests that this reading community included some number of western Sufi
participants. Ibn ʿArabī referred approvingly to Ibn Masarra in some of his
works—including citing him as an authority on lettrism in Kitāb al-Mīm wa-l-
wāw wa-l-nūn—which supports the notion that other western Sufi émigrés with
esotericist leanings had access to Ibn Masarra’s works. However, given the radi-
cal dearth of surviving copies of his works, they obviously were not in common
circulation, and likely were traded exclusively among specialists—which is to
say members of lettrist circles such as this reading community. The collection
of al-Šāḏilī sermons is further indication that westerners participated in this
group. The codex was copied right around the time of Abū l-Ḥasan al-Mursī’s
death, which is quite early to contain a Šāḏilite work, possibly even predating
the doxographic efforts of al-Mursī’s chief disciple Ibn ʿAṭāʾ Allāh al-Iskandarī
(d. 709/1309). This should not be taken to mean that the reading community
was exclusively composed of westerners, as the copyist of the codex likely
hailed from well east of Cairo, given his Ḥanafism and his great-grandfather’s
resoundingly Turkic name. What we see, rather, is signs in this community of
the gathering of actors from the edges of the Arab-Islamicate world to Cairo, as
so greatly reshaped the city after the fall of Baghdad.
The second compilatory volume of the period in which we find al-Būnī is
Süleymaniye MS Carullah 986, the first work of which is a copy of al-Būnī’s
Hidāyat al-qāṣidīn wa-nihāyat al-wāṣilīn (though in this volume titled Bidāyat

687/1288; part of a work on Arabic phonetics. For some further notes on the MS see Arthur
John Arberry, The Chester Beatty Library: A Handlist of the Arabic Manuscripts, Dublin,
Emery Walker, 1955, I, p. 68-69; Pilar Garrido-Clemente, “Edición crítica del K. Jawāṣṣ
al-ḥurûf de Ibn Masarra”, Al-Andalus Magreb, 14 (2007), p. 54 ff.
70  On Ibn Masarra and his later followers see Maribel Fierro, La heterodoxia en al-Andalus
durante el período omeya, Madrid, Instituto Hispano-Arabe de Cultura, 1987, p. 167-168;
id., “Bāṭinism in al-Andalus”, p. 98 ff; Sarah Stroumsa and Sara Sviri, “The Beginnings
of Mystical Philosophy in al-Andalus: Ibn Masarra and His Epistle on Contemplation”,
Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam, 36 (2009), p. 201-253; Pilar Garrido Clemente, “The
Book of the Universe: On the Life and Works of Ibn Masarra al-Jabali”, Ishraq: Islamic
Philosophy Yearbook, 1 (2010), p. 379-403; Ebstein, Mysticism and Philosophy, passim. The
full bibliography on Ibn Masarra is much longer.

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438 Gardiner

al-qāṣidīn wa-nihāyat al-wāṣilīn), followed by thirty works by Ibn ʿArabī, many

of them written after he migrated east. The manuscript is neither dated nor
signed by the copyist, but Yahia asserts that it was copied during Ibn ʿArabī’s
lifetime. Though this cannot be confirmed, certainly it was copied no later
than the turn of the eighth/fourteenth century. It is a large volume, with forty-
three lines per page in small Maġribī script, suggesting that the copyist was
a western Sufi who had come east during the seventh/thirteenth century.
Whoever he was, the copyist must have been well-integrated with the com-
munities in which Ibn ʿArabī’s works circulated. Scholars of Ibn ʿArabī regard
the texts in the volume as highly accurate, and it contains a copy of Fuṣūs
al-ḥikam, which, as mentioned earlier, was closely guarded by the šayḫ’s early
disciples, and which only very rarely was included in compilations of his
Later interpreters of al-Būnī frequently discussed his works and ideas
in combination with those of Ibn ʿArabī, and this codical pairing of the two
authors is evidence that this had already begun by the late seventh/thirteenth
century, among some of the earliest generations of Ibn ʿArabī’s disciples. Early
Šāḏilite groups also took up many aspects of Ibn ʿArabī’s teachings,72 and it is
not difficult to imagine that works by al-Būnī, Ibn ʿArabī, al-Šāḏilī, and even Ibn
Masarra sometimes all were read together in such laboratories of early-Mamlūk
Sufism as the reading communities that produced the two manuscripts to
hand. These codices bear witness to a process in which the teachings of various
western šayḫs were synthesized by groups that included many newcomers to
Egypt and environs. Given the bold alterity of western Sufism relative to the
norms of Egypt at the time, I would suggest that this process took place largely
behind closed doors, at least until the stage where these outsiders successfully
integrated themselves with, and to some degree overmastered, the eastward-
looking tradition of conspicuously šarīʿa-minded, ḫānqāh-centered Sufism
that had come to dominate Egypt during the Ayyūbid period.


The esotericist nature of al-Būnī’s writings and methods of promulgating

his works, and the similar inclinations of the reading communities in which
they circulated in the century or so after his death, are of interest in that they
help shed light on how such theologically risqué materials gained a foothold

71  Personal correspondence with Stephen Hirtenstein of the Muhyiddin Ibn ʿArabi Society.
72  Richard J.A. McGregor, Sanctity and Mysticism in Medieval Egypt: The Wafāʾ Sufi Order and
the Legacy of Ibn ʿArabī, Albany, State University of New York Press, 2004, p. 28 ff.

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Esotericist Reading Communities 439

in Egyptian Sufism and, eventually, Mamlūk learned culture more broadly.

Moreover, they assist in locating al-Būnī and the eventual success of his
teachings in the context of a wider trend toward esotericism in late-medieval
Mediterranean learned culture.
As mentioned at the beginning of this paper, Moshe Halbertal has argued
that the sixth/twelfth and seventh/thirteenth centuries were a time in which
a wave of esotericism gradually came to the fore in various Jewish learned
discourses, manifesting in the complex array of doctrines and praxes that fell
under the umbrella of Kabbalah, as well as in the works of such diverse thinkers
as Abraham b. Ezra (d. between 1164 and 1167 CE) and Maimonides. This trend
originated largely in the Islamicate western Mediterranean and spread around
the sea and beyond before slowly dissipating in the fourteenth and fifteenth
centuries as many of the discourses became so widely accepted in Jewish
culture as to render gestures at secrecy superfluous.73 In Halbertal’s analysis,
this esotericism stemmed from a crisis of dissatisfaction with the limitations
of traditional religious thought, and was an outlet for intellectual creativity
in that it “expand[ed] the receptivity of authoritative texts to new meanings”
while also endowing radically novel understandings of scripture with “the
privileged status of the internal foundation of religion” by claiming them as
secret traditions of the highest authority.74 In many cases, as in the works of
Abraham b. Ezra and some strains of Kabbalah, this entailed the use of scriptu-
ral hermeneutics to engage with occult-scientific and philosophical discourses
that were otherwise considered beyond the pale.75 Al-Būnī’s lettrism, which
al-Būnī frames as a secret exegetical tradition passed down from the prophets,
imāms, and saints, and which blends quasi-Neoplatonic metaphysical and
cosmological speculation rooted in Ismāʿīlī thought, Sufi notions of sanctity
and miracle, spiritual exercises such as ḏikr and ḫalwa, and occult-scientific
practices such as the making of talismans, certainly parallels the synthetic dis-
courses Halbertal discusses. To note this is not to follow Ullmann and others
of his generation in dismissing al-Būnī as a naive bricolateur. While some of
this synthesis likely was al-Būnī’s own creative concoction, his discipleship to
al-Mahdawī and his ideas’ resonance with those of Ibn ʿArabī, Ibn Masarra,
and others clearly indicates that he was immersed in the unique strains of
western-Sufi thought that had been fostered over preceding centuries in the
shadow of the dominating Mālikī divines of the Almoravid period and the
barely more-tolerant Almohad authorities. In coming east, al-Būnī and other
of his western-Sufi compatriots were the bearers of this creative body of lettrist

73  Halbertal, Concealment and Revelation, passim.

74  Ibid., p. 138.
75  Ibid., p. 34-48.

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440 Gardiner

thought and praxis, which they proceeded to adapt to their new surroundings.
The genuine intellectual and spiritual appeal of these novel doctrines for many
Sufis in Egypt and elsewhere in the East should not be underestimated.
Halbertal’s analysis is not entirely intellectualist, and neither should our
understanding of al-Būnī’s esotericism be. Along with other scholars of late-me-
dieval Jewish thought, he notes that Kabbalah and other esotericist discourses
were also means by which entrenched structures of socioreligious authority
were challenged, most often by savants whom whatever circumstances of birth
or politics had excluded from positions of the highest prestige—i.e. secondary
or tertiary elites.76 Thus Kabbalists and other esotericists of the period were
by no means anarchists, but rather were seeking to gain advantage without
entirely upending the epistemological basis of a social order that favored the
learned. As such, if the fear of being prosecuted as heretics was one impetus
for their secrecy, then the need to maintain boundaries against total freedom
of speculation was another. Indeed, I would posit that the catastrophes that
Isaac the Blind, Ibn ʿArabī, and al-Būnī hint would transpire if the secrets they
guarded were freely revealed to the vulgar masses can be read as intimations of
the threat to their own authority as religious specialists that a total loosening
of restrictions on scriptural hermeneutics would have represented. Facing
fluid challenges in needing to build and maintain networks of peers and
patrons without undermining their own position in society, esotericists adop-
ted various approaches in different milieux. It is in this light that I would argue
that al-Būnī’s decision to transgress certain limits by writing about operative
aspects of lettrism should not be regarded as throwing caution to the wind, but
as strategic relative to his need to establish himself in his adopted homeland,
a calculation that the risk of some degree of exposure was outweighed by the
value of written texts as “instrument[s] of affiliation and status.”77
The numbers of surviving Bunian manuscripts suggest that the volume of
copies of Bunian works in circulation increased beginning in the first half of
the eighth/fourteenth century. It is in the same period that al-Būnī’s works
began to be referenced with greater frequency in outside literature, such as
in al-Nuwayrī’s (d. 733/1333) encyclopedic Nihāyat al-arab, in which tidbits of

76  Ibid., p. 69 ff; Wolfson, “Beyond the Spoken Word”, passim; Moshe Idel, “Transmission in
Thirteenth-Century Kabbalah,” in Transmitting Jewish Traditions: Orality, Textuality, and
Cultural Diffusion, eds Yaakov Elman and Israel Gershoni, New Haven, Yale University
Press, 2000, p. 138-165.
77  Ohlander, Sufism in an Age of Transition, p. 53.

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Esotericist Reading Communities 441

instructions for talismans are excerpted from Laṭāʾif al-išārāt,78 or in a fatwā

from the Ḥanbalī firebrand Ibn Taymiyya on impermissible forms of prayer, in
which al-Būnī and his al-Lumʿa l-nūrāniyya are condemned for promoting star-
worship.79 The combination of the greater number of manuscripts and literary
references such as these shows that his works by then had begun to escape the
confines of the esotericist reading communities discussed in this paper, and to
circulate more freely among the sort of learned Syro-Egyptian elites at whom
works such as al-Nuwayrī’s were aimed—however much to the dismay of cer-
tain critics from among the ʿulamāʾ. This devolution of the secrecy and exclu-
sivity that originally surrounded al-Būnī’s works can be taken as a sign of his
readers’ successes in insinuating themselves into Sufi hierarchies in Egypt and
environs. This development can in turn be seen as part of the larger process
of Sufism’s expansion during the Mamlūk period to become an integral part
of both learned culture and popular piety, though the fact that the timing of it
roughly tracks the waning of Jewish esotericism’s potency in Halbertal’s chro-
nology suggests that transconfessional, pan-Mediterranean cultural dynamics
were at work rather than just Islamic and Syro-Egyptian ones.

Figure 1 Dated Mamlūk-era Bunian MSS by half-century, based on the author’s survey of the

78  Al-Nuwayrī, Nihāyat al-arab fī funūn al-adab, Cairo, Dār al-kutub al-miṣriyya, 1935, XII,
p. 226-228.
79  Ibn Taymiyya, Maǧmūʿ, X, p. 251. Ibn Taymiyya in fact refers to al-Būnī’s work as al-Šuʿla
l-nūrāniyya, but šuʿla being a synonym for lumʿa strongly suggests that he was referring to
al-Lumʿa l-nūrāniyya.

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