Is the Shams al-Ma’arif the Necronomicon?

I’ve come across a couple sites this morning stating that the Arabic book of magic Shams al-Ma’arif, which we discussed previously, is (or could be) the inspiration for the Necronomicon.  Most of the reasoning seems to be the typical sort I’ve seen many times before – Book X has certain characteristics, the Necronomicon has the same characteristics, therefore Book X inspired the Necronomicon.

The reasoning is flawed, of course, and there are some substantive reasons against it.  First, a proponent would have to prove that not only are the books similar, but that Lovecraft knew about them.  I’ve yet to see any passages describing the Shams al-Ma’arif to which HPL would have had access.  In addition, Lovecraft never mentions the book in any of the letters I’ve read, and no scholar has noted such a link in his unpublished correspondence.  This is hardly as airtight a rationale as we might want, as the appearance of a new source or letter could open up the possibility.

Even more troubling for the theory is Lovecraft’s actual use of the book in his work.  Earlier stories such as “The Hound” and “The Festival” use the Necronomicon as a source for mystical information – specifically, as Joshi observes, about the survivals of the dead – and not a work of incantations.  That characterization only appears in later tales, such as “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” and “The Dunwich Horror”, only to be swept aside in the science fiction stories later in which the mad Arab speaks of the past pre-human civilizations of our planet.

It simply doesn’t make sense that Lovecraft, having heard of an Arabic book on magic, would use that information to create an Arabic book not dealing with magic which he turned back into a book on magic later.

Published in: on January 19, 2009 at 10:45 am  Comments (13)  

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  1. I’m no Lovecraft scholar, if there is such a thing, but I find the idea totally plausible. Lovecraft is clearly familiar with university libraries as well as the bookshelves of esoteric scholars, as they are common motifs in his books. That he said MOST of the “terrible and forbidden books” were purely imaginary, leads me to conclude that he was aware of some that were not. And when he said that “in all truth they don’t amount to much”, it seems he didn’t find them scary enough to put into a book as they were. I don’t find the very idea of magic squares, astrology, or even polytheism to be particularity shocking, but I’m not going to say so in front of a Koran study group. But the idea that a pious Muslim would mention this book as being particularly scary/forbidden as soon as I mention the Necronomicon, which she had never heard of before (it’s considered to be heretical) makes me think this is the one. What else could it be? Lovecraft wouldn’t be interested in the actual content of the book either. He regarded it as a prop to set a scary mood.

  2. Sorry, Nijma, but it’s quite the jump from “Lovecraft was familiar with esoteric literature” to “Lovecraft could have based the Necronomicon on this particular book” – especially one, like the Shams al-Ma’arif, that’s infamous in the Arabic-speaking world and barely known outside of it.

    In fact, Lovecraft confessed three years after he created the “Necronomicon” that he didn’t really know that much about esoteric literature and asked his friends for help with finding relevant sources. The most likely source would have been Waite’s Book of Ceremonial Magic. The quote you have about the books came from a letter to Willis Conover near the end of his life, well after he had done some reading on occult topics.

  3. I’m not entirely convinced, danharms. The fictional origin of the Necronomicon was specifically the Arab dessert, and the book was written by the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred, in Damascus in the Middle East. The real writer of the real Shams al-Ma’arif, Ahmad al-Buni, was also an Arab writing in the Middle East.

    We don’t know a whole lot about what was actually inside the fictional book, but mostly that the mere mention of the book inspired dread and awe. There are a number of magical and heretical traditions available to the west, like the Hermetic tradition, the search for the philosopher’s stone that would change lead to gold, various astrology traditions from the Chaldean area, and the whole body of work that came out of medieval Spain/al-Andalus, with it’s mingling of traditions of three major religions and the resulting blossoming of mysticism in all three traditions, but none of these is particularly scary to westerners. I would have to admit that I don’t find tentacled creatures to be very scary either, unless I find them in my pasta sauce, in which case they should probably be returned to the kitchen. I would class Waite in this non-scary group. After all, he did not publish any spells in their entirety that could actually be used–his book was meant as a reference. By that time all the big heresies were pretty much a non-issue in Europe, and contacting the dead was more of a parlor trick and a matter for curiosity.

    So what is both Arab and scary? Not the Picatrix–it had a very pious introduction. Only Shams al-Ma’arif was heretical. You should have seen the reaction of my Moslem acquaintance. It was exactly the reaction of horror that Lovecraft evoked with his description of his fictional book.

    Whether Lovecraft actually had access to this book I think is unimportant. After all, I did not see the book myself, or even know the complete name of it when I saw the reaction it was capable of causing. If Waite was English and his work was capable of being known in New England, it is entirely possible that the Shams al-Ma’arif, which is in the Durham library in England, was also known in New England literary circles.

    The one thing that I would find very convincing is if Lovecraft had ever had a conversation with a Moslem. While Moslems must have been pretty rare in New England at that time, it is reasonable to think that if there had been any, that they might have gravitated towards a scholarly community, and that any scholars, especially scholars asking around to see if any of their friends had ever heard of any unusual books to use in a fictional account, would have sought out any such unusual people and had a little chat.

  4. I’m sorry, Nijma, but right now your argument only has two points:

    1) The Necronomicon, like the Shams al-Ma’arif, was originally written in Arabic.

    2) One person who heard the book’s name expressed great fear in it.

    There’s not much there. It would be quite simple for someone to create the common trope of a book of black magic and attribute it to an Arabic author, all without knowing of the Shams al-Ma’arif. As to your second argument – I’ve seen people react that way to Silver Ravenwolf’s books, so it doesn’t impress me. These reactions are largely based on a book’s reputation rather than their content, anyway.

    To support your position, you’d have to find evidence from Lovecraft’s life or history. Your current assertions about Lovecraft being involved in a “scholarly community” or “New England literary circles” really don’t reflect either Lovecraft’s letters or what we know about his life. Lovecraft was very much outside of those circles, save for the field of amateur journalism, which I’d describe as neither. Further, asking a Muslim detailed questions about his practices really doesn’t coincide with what we know of either Lovecraft (who was a racist who bypassed some interesting encounters because of it) or his surroundings (Providence was a provincial backwater at the time).

    If you’d like to continue this debate, that’s your next task.

  5. Re: danharms opening post on this thread: One of the sites linked to in the “a couple of sites” hotlink is the Antioch Gate site which sells an eBook copy of the entire work.

    Contrary to what he says in the post, the Antioch Gate site states in the 2nd opening paragraph on the Shams al-Ma’arif: “Both the Picatrix and the Shams al-Ma’arif were probably a model for H. P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon.”. Note the word “probably” – therefore danharms cannot debunk the site for saying that the Necronomicon was modelled on the Shams al-Ma’arif, when the site didn’t actually say that.

  6. The site does indeed say “probably” – but it’s a poorly-thought out theory, no matter how it’s framed. If someone can come up with a plausible theory for this source of inspiration, I’ll look at it again.

  7. What are the odds of there being any similarity at all between the Shams al-Ma’arif and the Necronomicon, purely through chance? That coupled with the Shams al-Ma’arif being an archetype of Islamic-Era magic would make one wonder if the the Shams were not an archetype of the Necronomicon, but one would still hold reservations, and the original quote did show at least token reservation.

    Also, one has to allow certain leeway for a publisher to magnify their publications.

  8. The odds that there might be a real book of magic and a fictional book of magic in the same widely-spoken language, you mean?

    I at least expect a publisher to know something about the book they’re writing and to check to see if what they’re saying about it is actually true. I’d be tempted to pick up their edition, even if it is in Arabic, but I simply don’t trust them at this point.

  9. Shams al-Ma’arif al-Kobra by Ahmad Al-Buni 2 original manuscripts written in Al-Koufa on 997 Hijri were never on magic. The two volumes will be produced in a facsimile form and available in London the end of May 2009 published By Far Publications Ltd.

    • Hey hi there is it possible for you to tell me where i culd read this book in english or in Urdu?

  10. hi can any one plz inform me how can i download Shams al Maarif free in Urdu,.?

  11. Can any body tell me from where i can buy or download Shams al Maarif in Urdu

  12. In response to Raouf’s comment, I would like to clarify something. Shams al- Ma’arif of Buni, among many other things, contains invocations to angelic powers, talismanic inscriptions, magic squares, etc, and uses ineffable Names of God to attain either love, knowledge, or other personal gains. Which is actually very much similar to magic, the only difference being that magical practitioners may use other powers instead of Islamic God names and surah passages, for example a practitioner of Celtic Reconstructionist Craft might call upon a Celtic god or godesses for similar aim. I have in my possession some few different versions and partial copies of the Urdu translation of Shams al Ma’arif and I am familiar with it. It is hard to find a full Urdu translation as most stores don’t carry it here in United States, and I haven’t been to Pakistan myself but had asked my dad to hunt down copies of it for me the last time he was in Pakistan. He had a hell of a hard time finding a full translation of it there and he brought me a few partial translations, beautifully bound but not containing the full book. I was almost desperate enough that I considered hunting down the full Arabic text so I can muddle through it and translate it myself using Urdu/Arabic dictionary (which would be a tedious and daunting task while I am a college student and working on getting my nursing degree), but then I came across some blog on the net where I found that Sayid Nizamuddin Ahmad, an assistant Professor at American University in Cairo, is doing an English translation of Shams al- Ma’arif. He presented his lecture on the work he has done so far at Warburg Institute on 2013. I will post a link to that lecture vid.

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