Reading the Book of Creation in the Miftāḥ al-Asrār of Āẕarī Isfarāyinī

Zach Winters


While Āẕarī Isfarāyinī (d. 866/1461-2) is best known for serving as a court poet for Shāhrukh b. Tīmūr in Herat and Aḥmad Shāh Bahmanī in Bīdar, he has received considerably less attention for his work as a dedicated occult scientist. Āẕarī composed at least two full length prose works on the occult sciences, the Miftāḥ al-Asrār (The Key of the Mysteries) and the Javāhir al-Asrār (The Gems of the Mysteries). While the Javāhir has been the subject of a handful of preliminary studies, the Miftāḥ has been largely untouched. As a figure who served in prominent posts at two major courts of the 9th/15th-century Islamic World, such a text should shed greater light on the thought of an intellectual who was active in the courts of the Persianate world at a time when skills in the esoteric sciences were in great demand.
The paper discusses selections from Āẕarī’s first major compendium, the Miftāḥ, completed in in 830/1426-27, just before he traveled to the Deccan to serve at the court of Aḥmad Shāh Bahmanī. Structured as a series of commentaries on the arcane “mysteries” behind, for example, the sayings of the Prophet Muḥammad or the teachings of the Ṣūfī shaykhs, the first section of the text, dar asrār-i kalām Allah (On the mysteries in the Word of God), is an in-depth analysis of the Muqaṭṭaʿāt, the Disconnected Letters present at various points throughout the Qurʾan. After a brief discussion of the biography of Āẕarī, the paper considers his occult discourse on the Muqaṭṭaʿāt themselves. What emerges in this first section of the Miftāḥ is an approach to esoteric analysis – concerned with the significance of the heavenly spheres, devoted to study of the Muqaṭṭaʿāt, and employing a framework of the “Two Books” of the holy scripture and the created world – which was en vogue among such loose intellectual networks of his time as the ahl-i kashf va taḥqīq (the People of Unveiling and Verification) and the Neo-Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ. The use of the occult sciences in this manner places the work of Āẕarī in conversation with that of other occult-minded intellectuals of the 9th/15th century, and adds a new dimension to his service at Timurid and Bahmanid courts.

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