Manuscripts & their readers: The Sirr al-Asrār & the career of a pseudo-aristotelian treatise


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Hussain, Neelam Shaheen (2022). Manuscripts & their readers: The Sirr al-Asrār & the career of a pseudo-aristotelian treatise. University of Birmingham. Ph.D.

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This thesis is a study of the career of the Sirr al-Asrār. Beginning with its composition in the 4th/10th century, it then covers its transmission, reception, influence and readership up until the beginning of the 14th/20th century. One of the overarching questions this thesis seeks to address is what can the materiality of the manuscripts and patterns of manuscript survival reveal about the history and transmission of the Sirr, and the contexts in which it was copied? It also includes a descriptive Catalogue of Sirr Manuscripts based on the findings of my survey of extant manuscripts, which includes manuscripts not identified in previous lists. The catalogue testifies to the dissemination of the Sirr in regions not documented before. The thesis also includes a working edition of the Short Form of the Sirr.

Part I of the thesis outlines existing scholarship on the cultural influences on the Sirr’s origins and its contents before arguing for a shift in focus to the Arabic-Islamicate context of its character and sources. I consider the intentions of the writer when the authorship of the treatise was attributed to Aristotle framed within the contexts of medieval concepts of authorship and authority, and the learned traditions from which the Sirr emerged. Along with internal textual evidence, I examine the contents and the learned traditions from which the Sirr emerged, to point to the audiences that the writer sought to engage. In Part II of the thesis, I draw on my survey of an extant corpus of more than one hundred manuscript witnesses and read this against references to the Sirr in Arabic works and existing studies to chart the career of the Sirr up until the 14th/20th century. Paying attention to the locative provenance of the different recensions of the Sirr, I argue that contrary to commonly held assumptions that the Sirr was composed in Baghdad or the Islamic East, the Short Form (SF) tradition of the Sirr in eight books emerged from the Islamic West, and the SF in seven books and the Long Form (LF) emerged from Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean. Drawing on the manuscript evidence to map changes in the ways the Sirr was read, this study offers new insights on manuscript owners: how widely the Sirr was circulated; the types of libraries in which copies were kept; and how a shift to the copying of manuscripts of the Sirr for the commercial market, reflects the increasing presence of the Sirr in the libraries of scholars and students rather than royal and elite libraries in the latter part of its career. The manuscript evidence builds a picture of heterogeneous reading communities and the multi-faceted ways in which readers engaged with the Sirr.

This study makes a broader argument for the incorporation of analysing the materiality of manuscripts as an integral part of any study of the reception history of a work. It is also intended as a contribution to Islamic intellectual history, book history, and the study of pre-modern manuscript cultures.

Type of Work: Thesis (Doctorates > Ph.D.)
Award Type: Doctorates > Ph.D.
Licence: All rights reserved
College/Faculty: Colleges (2008 onwards) > College of Arts & Law
School or Department: Theology & Religion
Funders: Arts and Humanities Research Council
Subjects: D History General and Old World > DE The Mediterranean Region. The Greco-Roman World
D History General and Old World > DS Asia
D History General and Old World > DT Africa
P Language and Literature > P Philology. Linguistics
P Language and Literature > PI Oriental languages and literatures


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