This year, the William A. Chaney Lectureship sponsored the lecture “How to Study a Magic Book (When You Didn’t Get into Hogwarts),” presented by Associate Professor and Graduate Coordinator Edgar Francis of the University of Wisconsin—Stevens Point. Francis gave his lecture, which focused on Ahmad al-Buni’s “Great Sun of Gnosis,” in Thomas A. Steitz Hall of Science on Thursday, Feb. 8 at 4:30 p.m.
The William A. Chaney Lectureship brings speakers in the humanities to Lawrence in honor of Chaney’s retirement as the George McKendree Steele Professor of History. The lectureship specifically focuses on areas that former professor Chaney was interested in, such as medieval history, art history, some musicology and poetry.
To begin his lecture Francis spoke about “Arabian Nights” and how it is currently being read in freshman studies. According to Francis, “Arabian Nights” was extremely influential in his decision to study magic. Before studying “Arabian Nights,” he had never thought magic could be a part of serious scholarship
“This is something you find in every society across history,” said Francis when speaking about how he studies magic, and why he studies it. In order to study magic, Francis first had to define what magic is. How he defines magic is that it is the use of ritual applied for practical purposes.
Ahmad al-Buni was a Sufi Muslim from the thirteenth century, and has had many grimoires attributed to him. So when beginning research on magic in Islam, Francis was told that studying al-Buni would be a good place to start. Among the many texts attributed to al-Buni is “Great Sun of Gnosis,” which covers many topics from astronomy and alchemy, to how to command spirits.
Francis also discussed how “Great Sun of Gnosis” describes magic in heavenly bodies and lists the powers and virtues of different Arabic symbols. The book also describes rituals and how to make talismans. “Great Sun of Gnosis” includes many matrices of letters, which Francis described as often showing virtues of specific letters and numbers.
While the content of “Great Sun of Gnosis” is not unique, it has been one of the most popular magical texts since the early twentieth century. “This is a popular text,” stated Francis, which is why he says that it is worth studying.
However, “since 2007 several scholars have conclusively established that the ‘Great Sun of Gnosis’ was not written by al-Buni,” with the earliest known manuscripts being from 1623. “If this is a fake, why bother with it? It’s important because it’s been so popular since 1623,” said Francis. He pointed out that since this information was revealed, it needs to be looked at as a seventeenth century text, instead of a thirteenth century one.
As his last point, Francis discussed the importance of creating an official scholarly version of the “Great Sun of Gnosis” so that scholars can compare work and have reproducible results. Similarly, Francis stressed the importance of working off of a manuscript, as “a manuscript is more than just another version of the text.” There are many aspects that are lost in modern reproductions. These features include text color, watermarks, the material which the text was made out of and doodles in the margins. “Increasingly the scholarship is leading us to think that there is importance in the manuscripts themselves,” concluded Francis, before answering questions from the audience.