Al-Buni: Shams al-Ma’arif – The Sun of Knowledge

The Sun of Knowledge (Shams al-Ma’arif): An Arabic Grimoire, by Ahmad Ibn ‘Ali al-Buni, Amina Inloes (Translator), and J. M. Hamade (Illustrator), Revelore Press, 2021, ISBN 978-1947544352

The Sun of Knowledge is Dr. Amina Inloes’ partial translation of a 13th century grimoire, originally written by Ahmad Ibn ‘Ali al-Buni. The author was an Algerian mathematician, philosopher and Sufi, who died in 1225. Not much is known about him or his life, but Noah Gardiner states in his Forbidden Knowledge?1, that al-Buni had a reputation as a miracle worker and was even thought to be a saint. The Shams al-Ma’arif, undoubtedly al-Buni’s most famous work, is one of the main influential texts on divination, talismans, and hemerology of the lunar mansions in the Arab world, yet no full English translation is known to exist.

In the foreword to her translation, Dr. Inloes compares the prominence of the Sun of Knowledge to that of the Gayat al-Hakim, better known as Picatrix. She also discusses why Picatrix gained more prominence in Europe than the Sun of Knowledge. Dr Liana Saif also highlights some of the differences between Picatrix and al-Buni’s work in her paper From Gayat al-hakim to Sams al-ma’arif: Ways of Knowing and Paths of Power in Medieval Islam2, which sheds more light on the matter. She states that: 

“…the star-centric aspiration of the Gaya requires the operator to have deep knowledge of astrology (both technique and interpretation), whereas the God-centric aspiration of the Bunian operator requires that revelatory knowledge be attained through Sufi training.” (p335)

The Sun of Knowledge is a translation of the first eight chapters and also includes excerpts from chapters 17 and 19. The first chapter of the translation, called The Mysteries of the Letters, deals with the Arabic letters, their correspondences, and the construction of magic squares. This is followed by chapters on astrological timings, the 28 lunar mansions, and the twelve signs of the zodiac and the planets. What makes the Sun of Knowledge particularly special is the fact that al-Buni’s treatment of the lunar mansions includes associations with letters, incense, and geomantic forms. It seems that this specific information was never transmitted and is therefore missing in the European corpus of the lunar mansions. Neither Johannes Stöffler (1452 – 1531) nor Johannes Schöner (1477 – 1547) who were amongst the earliest European publishers of lunar mansions pamphlets seem to have had access to a (partial) translation of the Shams.

All in all, there is much highly interesting material to discover in this translation that hasn’t been easily accessible to the English reader so far. I also want to draw attention to the fact that this translation should be of great interest to those who do not only study matters in a purely academic way. The text includes a chapter called A Miscellany of Tried-and-True Talismans, which provides ample material for those who are interested in the practical side.

Also included are helpful appendices on Arabic letters and their numerical values, Arabic-style digits, lunar mansions, stars and asterisms, zodiacal and non-zodiacal constellations.

Dr. Jenn Zahrt of Revelore Press has managed to produce a truly handsome edition which has been greatly enriched by the inclusion of illustrations by J. M. Hamade, who also contributed to the commentary. Particularly the addition of illustrations for each of the 28 ManaziI is groundbreaking and should be of great value for the creation of talismans. I should also mention that Dr. Inloes’ as well as J. M. Hamade’s comments are most elucidating additions to the original text, helping the reader to understand some of the principles and ideas behind the techniques displayed.

A highly recommended, long overdue volume that should become part of any occultist’s or traditional astrologer’s library.

1 Gardiner, Noah: Forbidden Knowledge? Notes on the Production, Transmission, and Reception of the Major Works of Ahmad al-Buni, in Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies, vol.12 (2012): 81-143.

2 Saif, Liana: From Gayat al-hakim to Sams al-ma’arif: Ways of Knowing and Paths of Power in Medieval Islam, in Arabica, vol.64 (2017): 297-345.