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Esotericist Reading Communities and the Early Circulation of the Sufi Occultist Aḥmad al-Būnī’s Works

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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.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—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 principalement 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.This article is in English.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Religious Studies, University of South Carolina


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