Conference Paper

Al-Biqāʿī’s Self-Reflection: A Preliminary Study of the Autobiographical in his ʿUnwān al-zamān

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When discussing the life of Burhān al-Dīn al-Biqāʿī (809/1406–885/1480), a fifteenth-century Qurʾān exegete and historian, modern scholarship has primarily focused on the three controversies in which he became embroiled (on the use of the Bible in tafsīr, the poetry of Ibn al-Farīḍ, and the theodicy of al-Ghazālī) and which defined the downward trajectory of his later career from 868/1464 until his death. The sole exception to this is the work of Li Guo, who has discussed the role which the autobiographical played in al-Biqāʿī’s Iẓhār al-ʿaṣr li-asrār ahl al-ʿaṣr. By analysing al-Biqāʿī’s treatment of three episodes in his life–his infamous divorce case, the harem politics of his concubines, and the premature deaths of his children–Guo provides ample insight into how al-Biqāʿī integrated elements from his own life into his salvation history project. Nevertheless, all three of these episodes date from after al-Biqāʿī’s establishment in Cairo; there is therefore an overall tendency to focus primarily on al-Biqāʿī as a more mature member of the Cairene intellectual elite. In the case of al-Biqāʿī, however, we are in the fortunate position of having an earlier autobiographical notice, which is contained within his ʿUnwān al-zamān bi-tarājim al-shuyūkh wa l aqrān. Al-Biqāʿī states that he began the notice in 841/1437: that is, the year before he received his first appointments as Sultan Jaqmaq’s ḥadīth teacher and as the Qurʾān exegete at the Ẓāhir Mosque. As it provides us with a snapshot of how al-Biqāʿī perceived the progress of his formative years, this notice is a useful corrective to the later perspective which has thus far dominated discussion of al-Biqāʿī’s life. This paper will discuss al-Biqāʿī’s self reflection on his journey from his peasant origins to student and protégée of Ibn Ḥajar al ʿAsqalānī. It will focus in particular on what the ʿUnwān al-zamān reveals about how he went about establishing the social network which launched his career in Cairo, and which subsequently crumbled under the weight of his later controversies.

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