Fans of H.P. Lovecraft will remember how the very mention of the dread Necronomicon, the forbidden book of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, could send chills up the spine. The Necronomicon was supposed to be totally fictional, but today I happened to sit next to a Yemeni woman who told me about a real prohibited book of the occult in Arabic, Ahmad al-Buni’s Shams al-Mar’arif al-Kubra, or “The Sun of Great Knowledge”, that the Necronomicon may be based on.
That is not dead which can eternal lie.
And with strange aeons even death may die.
According to Wikipedia, in a posthumously published back story, Lovecraft said
the Necronomicon was originally called Al Azif, an Arabic word that Lovecraft defined as “that nocturnal sound (made by insects) supposed to be the howling of demons”. Alhazred is described as being from Sanaa in Yemen, and as visiting the ruins of Babylon, the “subterranean secrets” of Memphis and the Empty Quarter of Arabia where he discovered the “nameless city” below Irem. In his last years, he lived in Damascus, where he wrote Al Azif before his sudden and mysterious death in 738. In one short story the Necronomicon was hidden inside a copy of Qanoon-e-Islam, a real book.
Now about the “terrible and forbidden books” — I am forced to say that most of them are purely imaginary. There never was any Abdul Alhazred or Necronomicon, for I invented these names myself. …. As for seriously-written books on dark, occult, and supernatural themes — in all truth they don’t amount to much.
Ah-HA! Lovecraft DID know about some such books.
Al-Buni’s Shams al-Mar’arif al-Kubra and other manuscripts
Details about Ahmad al-Buni are scarce, but sources say he was an Alexandrian Sufi who died in Cairo in the year 622 Hijri / 1225 Gregorian. Unlike the Picatrix, an Andalusian grimoire of the same century (partial translation here) , al-Buni’s Shams al-Mar’arif al-Kubra has not been translated into English. According to the publisher’s description (several pages of this book here):
This is the leading text of Islamic Occultism, written by the mysterious Cabbalistic Sufi Ahmad al-Buni. This work is about the Secrets of the Asma Al-Husna (the 99 “Excellent Names” of God), the mysteries of the Huruf Muqatta’at of the Qur’an (the enigmatic letters appearing at the start of some chapters), and it discusses the influence exercised by the sun, moon and stars at the time of preparing prayer-charts or phylacteries. There is a great deal on magic squares, numerology, alchemy, amulets, many formulae for day-to-day use, and much more. The Shams al-Ma’arif rivals the Picatrix in importance. Most of the “time-tested” books on sorcery in the Muslim world are simplified excerpts from the Shams al-Ma’arif. Both the Picatrix and the Shams al-Ma’arif were probably a model for H. P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon. More intriguing, perhaps, is the similarity between some of the symbols in the Shams al-Ma’arif and the veves of the Voodoo tradition.
Another similar (and I think beautiful) al-Buni manuscript, but with different magic squares, Shemsu al-Ma’arif wa Lataifu al-Avarif, can be seen here. According to this grimoire wish list, the book may also be known as Kitab Shams al-Ma’arif, and the author may also be known as Abu’l ‘Abbas Ahmad ibn ‘Ali ibn Yusuf al-Buni al-Qurashi. Apparently there were several versions of these works all attributed to the same author. A discussion of the al-Buni works “Gazing at the Sun, remarks on the Egyptian al-Buni and his work, the Corpus Bunianum” by Jan Just Witkam is here.