Lettrist Confluence and Divergence in the Fifteenth-Century Eastern Mediterranean

Tuesday, December 19, 2023 - 17:00
Guy Burak

You are cordially invited to the upcoming lecture in the Nafi Baba Sufism Talks Series titled 'Lettrist Confluence and Divergence in the Fifteenth-Century Eastern Mediterranean' by Guy Burak. Please find attached the announcement poster.

The talk is scheduled to be held online on December 19 at 17:00, accessible via the following link: bit.ly/NafiBaba.

Guy Burak is the Librarian for Middle Eastern, Islamic and Jewish Studies at New York University's Elmer Holmes Bobst Library. He is the author of The Second Formation of Islamic Law: The Hanafi Legal School in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2015). Burak has published many articles on the intellectual, political-legal and visual histories of the Islamic world in the post-Mongol period.

Lettrist Confluence and Divergence in the Fifteenth-Century Eastern Mediterranean

The Islamic tradition of the talismanic attributes of different alphabets/scripts (aqlam) developed a sophisticated matrix of compatible scripts whose letters have parallels in the Arabic abjad alphabet. The talismanic attributes of these scripts is derived from a cosmology of scripts that is made intelligible through revelation. Importantly, many of the alphabets/scripts represented in treatises on alphabets are scripts that modern readers would identify as 'Hebrew' or 'Greek' alphabets, to name two concrete examples. Among the authors who were interested in and compiled treatises about the attributes of scripts was the renowned lettrist and scholar 'Abd al-Rahman al-Bistami (d. Ca. 1455), an influential member of the second Brethren of Purity network.

Recently, I came across two pages written in Arabic in Hebrew script (so-called 'Judeo-Arabic') from a Jewish 'kabbalistic' manuscript (NYPL Ms. Heb. 190, copied ca. 1466 in the Eastern Mediterranean) dealing with the talismanic attributes of certain alphabets/scripts. The scripts mentioned, such as the 'Syriac Script' and 'the Script of the Chinese', also appear in Muslim treatises on the script (including in Bistami's). As opposed to the Islamic treatises, in the Jewish treatise, the letters of the different alphabets are attached to letters from the Hebrew alphabet. The shared interest of Jewish and Muslim lettrists in the same alphabet is intriguing because the alphabets are embedded in particular revelatory cosmologies. My talk will explore the dynamics of confluence and divergence of the lettrist traditions of the fifteenth-century eastern Mediterranean (and, specifically, the Ottoman lands).