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Francis (2017 Congress)

Edgar Francis IV
(University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point)

“Approaching Shams al maʿārif al kubrá
through Early Manuscripts:
MSS. Arabe 2650–51
in the Bibliothèque nationale de France”

Abstract of Paper
To be Presented at the 52nd International Congress on Medieval Studies
(Kalamazoo, 2017)

Session on “Islamic Magic:  Texts and/as Objects”
Co-sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence and
the Societas Magica
Organized by Liana Saif
2017 Congress Program

Abstract of Paper

[Published on 21 April 2017]

One of the most popular Arabic grimoires is Shams al maʿārif al kubrá (The Long Recension of the “Sun of Gnosis”). While attributed to the thirteenth-century Sufi Aḥmad al Būnī, recent scholarship indicates the text was first written down in the seventeenth century CE (eleventh century AH). Even though it may not be the work of al Būnī himself, this grimoire is worthy of ongoing study precisely because of its popularity — so long as we approach it as a seventeenth-century text.

In my presentation, I will explain how reading early manuscripts of Shams al maʿārif al kubrá can further this goal. Specifically, I will introduce a pair of manuscripts (MS. Arabe 2650 and MS. Arabe 2651 at the Bibliothèque national de France) which comprise one of the earliest complete versions of the text.

Even though many printed editions of Shams al maʿārif al kubrá text exist, there are two major advantages to using these manuscripts.

First, such a study holds the promise of consistency and the ability for scholars to easily refer back to the original source. Since no critical edition for the entire text exists, previous scholarship on Shams al-maʿārif al-kubrá has referred to printed editions of varying quality. With no reference other than a page number to an obscure and difficult-to-locate edition of the text, it has been nearly impossible to check the work of other scholars or to build significantly on such work. While referring to a single manuscript pair is not perfect, it will be much easier for other scholars to check work on the text, since it is relatively easy to obtain microfilms of manuscripts held at the Bibliothèque nationale.

At the same time, studying the manuscripts themselves as objects can provide additional insights. In his own work on the “corpus Būnianam,” Noah Gardiner has illustrated how paratextual information, such as certificates of ownership or audition, can tell us a great deal about the history of a manuscript as an object, and through it the transmission of the ideas contained in that book. I believe that an investigation of these manuscripts hold the potential to give us a great deal of this kind of information about Shams al maʿārif al kubrá.


WebEditor’s Note:

We thank Edgar Francis IV also for his advice about the Arabic in our copyright font Bembino and for his papers for earlier co-sponsored Sessions at the International Congress on Medieval Studies:

  • “The Printed, Popular, and Problematic Manuscripts of a Medieval Muslum Magician: Issues in the Study of Shams al-ma’arif and Other Writings Attributed to al-Buni” at the 2009 Congress
  • “Qur’anic Symbols and Influence in the Corpus of Ahmad Ibn ‘Ali Al-Buni (d. 622 A.H. / 1225 C.E.)” at the 2007 Congress.