Surprise! The Kitab al-Bulhan

Magic and the occult are one of the simultaneously most widespread and least talked-about phenomena of the Muslim world. Its roots go back to the pre-Islamic Arabian desert, where soothsayers — kuhhan, etymologically cognate to the Hebrew word for an Aaronic priest, kohen — would use divination to settle tribal disputes and predict the outcome of battles. The poetry of that time also depicts instances of an apparition (ghul, the source of the English word “ghoul”) manifesting in the desert and a disembodied voice (hatif) calling out in the night. Pre-Islamic bedouin belief in jinn (the source of the word “genie”) and other unseen spirits are attested by Qur’an and epigraphic evidence.

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Zodiac chart from the Kitab al-bulhan

With the coming of Islam, these traditions, beliefs, and practices continued in an array of divination techniques using the Qur’an (fal), the stars (tanjim), the earth (raml), and letters (`ilm al-huruf), as well as the design and use of talismans and amulets. In particular, the continued allure of such “occult sciences” (`ulum al-ghayb, “arts of the Unseen”) in the medieval Islamic world is evinced by a relatively obscure work called Kitab al-bulhan by Abu Ma`shar al-Balkhi (d. 886), a Persian astronomer whose works were known throughout the Middle East and Europe (his name is Latinized as “Albumasar”). In terms of the title, the root of bulhan, b-l-h, means “someone with little knowledge of uncommon things,” which is why Stefano Carboni translates Kitab al-bulhan as “The Book of Surprises” (the information provided here comes mainly from Carboni’s work).

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The Waq Waq tree and its human fruit

The Bulhan is best known from a 14-century illustrated manuscript in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University as well as two copies made in Turkey, one now housed at the Pierpoint Morgan Library in New York, the other at the French National Library in Paris. These codices feature a series of fascinating illustrations about astronomy and astrology, including the twelve Zodiac signs, the planetary stations, and the climates and seasons. There is a section on various categories of jinn — male and female — each associated with a day of the week, plus images that refer to man-made wonders like the Lighthouse of Alexandria. Finally, there are many illustrations that depict the tales of the 1,001 Nights and travel lore like Waq Waq island, whose female-only population was continually perpetuated by a tree that grew women as fruit.

But in addition to preserving obscure facts and folklore, the Bulhan may also have been a kind of grimoire, a book of spells. Strewn throughout the striking illustrations are symbols that can be interpreted as talismanic, which Carboni connects to the prolific writings — over 40 books in total, most of which are now lost — of North African occultist Ahmed al-Buni (d. 1225). His manual of talismans and divination, Shams al-ma`arif al-kubra (The Great Sun of Gnosis), outlines the use of many different designs whose influence can be seen in the pages of Abulmasar’s Bulhan. Whether and how these works were used for practical ends is debatable, but what is clear is that astrology, magic, and lore played a central role in the medieval Middle East, and they remain an important element in Muslim society even today.

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