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

In: Arabica
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  • 1 Department of Religious Studies, University of South Carolina

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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.