For the past week or so, I’ve been working on an interesting project that turned out to be much larger than I intended it to be. One of the unsolved questions surrounding the compendium of medieval legends about Egypt known variously as the Akhbar al-zaman (History of Time) and the Digest of Wonders is the question of who wrote it. The manuscripts of the book give two different authors with no great certainty that either is the actual author. The first attribution is to al-Mas‘udi, an early medieval historian who wrote a book called the Akhbar al-zaman, but which appears to have had almost completely different content. The second is Ibrahim ibn Wasif Shah, also known as al-Wasifi or in the West as Alguazif, about whom almost nothing is known except that he lived two centuries too late to have written the book that otherwise passes under his name. The situation has not changed since Baron Bernard Carra de Vaux translated the Akhbar al-zaman into French in 1898 and found himself unable to name an author:
From all of this, it follows that the two best-founded assumptions about the origin of our book are that which would attribute it to al-Mas‘ūdī and that which would attribute it to Ibrāhīm ibn Waṣīf Shāh al-Ustād. The first has going for it manuscript A—with the proviso that the work cannot be the famous Historical Annals, which are a much more important work and of a much more serious character—the manuscript M, the two best, a pseudonym on manuscript C, and small quotations. The second has going for it the long quotations of al-Maqrīzī, some similar quotations in other authors such as Abu’l-Maḥāsin, and the manuscripts B and N, if one wishes to recognize Ibrāhīm ibn Waṣīf Shāh al-Ustād in the simple words al-Ustād and Ibrahim. (my trans.)
Carra de Vaux noted the equally unpleasant facts against both authors, that al-Mas‘udi never wrote anything like it, and evinced no knowledge before or after of its stories, and that ibn Wasif Shah lived too late to have been the first author of the book. Nevertheless, later historians, including al-Qifti, Qalqashand, and above all al-Maqrizi, cite the stories found in the Akhbar al-zaman as the work of ibn Wasif Shah. I agree with Carra de Vaux that “Al-Maqrīzī was able to find in Ibn Waṣīf Shāh what he, in turn, had already found and taken from another.” As Mark Pettigrew reported in 2004, the current consensus view among the (very) small number of people who have ever thought about or considered this is that the first half of the Akhbar al-zaman is derived from al-Mas‘udi, but revised and abridged by another hand, while the second half is the work of ibn Wasif Shah. I don’t quite agree with that.
I base my view on the project I foolishly undertook to read and translate the fragments of ibn Wasif Shah found primarily in al-Maqrizi. I say foolish because I didn’t expect them to total more than 30,000 words—about two-thirds of the Egyptian section of the Akhbar al-zaman, which they reproduce verbatim about 95% of the time. What surprised me the most was the differences—and it is surprising that I could not find scholars who addressed these variations.
First, though, a disclaimer: As I have mentioned many times, I can’t read Arabic, so the texts I have read are French translations. Therefore, there is always the possibility that some of the differences are due to the choices made by Carra de Vaux in translating the Akhbar al-zaman and U. Bouriant in translating al-Maqrizi’s Al-Khitat. Indeed, at times Bouriant expressed doubt over some of ibn Wasif Shah’s quoted words, providing them in transliteration rather than translation, which even I, who cannot read Arabic, still recognized as specialized Hermetic and alchemical terminology later adopted by Western occultists. Therefore, some differences might be due to translation issues rather than differences in the Arabic.
But where it was clear that the differences were in the underlying text and not the translation, they were both strange and telling. In every case where they differ, Ibn Wasif Shah has the inferior reading, with jumbled lines, mixed-up names, and garbled stories. It is, in short, a fairly bad copy. Look here at how a surveyor named Marhun building towers for King Sa becomes something very different. The Akhbar is on the left and the quoted text of ibn Wasif Shah is on the right:
“Banah” is a Hebrew term for construction. A “governor of Banah” is quite transparently a mistake for “overseer of constructions.” Whose fault that is—ibn Wasif Shah’s, al-Maqrizi’s, or Bouriant’s, I cannot say.
Al-Maqrizi is known for the fidelity of his quotations and the care he took in copying his sources—evidence in citations of works that still exist to check against his quotations—so it seems unlikely that he is the source of the differences. Therefore, it appears that ibn Wasif Shah was himself the censor who cut out of the stories Enochian and Hermetic material, removed references to Abu Ma‘shar’s astrological works, and stripped out Greek astrological terminology in favor of Arabic.
For example, “Abd Kronos” becomes “’Abd Zahil,” subbing in the Arabic name of Saturn for the Greek. Some of the (fake) names of the Pharaohs, too, have been altered from transliterated Greek to a more Semitic form, though this might be more of an issue with the translators’ choice of rendering Arabic consonants. Most strange of all is that ibn Wasif Shah has removed references to magical lighthouses and replaced them with towers and boundary markers, even where the story requires a lighthouse to make sense.
Consider the difference right at the beginning of the second half of the Akhbar al-zaman, the half dealing with Egypt. The Akhbar is on the left and the quoted text of ibn Wasif Shah is on the right:
Aside from the inferiority of ibn Wasif Shah’s text, there are some key differences. First, he has removed all reference to Giants. And this isn’t the only time. In every case where the Akhbar speaks of the Nephilim, he has stripped it out and replaced it with some generic term like “mighty” or “powerful,” even when the context requires great height. He has also removed the angel Darabil and replaced him with Dawil, a legendary king of Babel, either intentionally rationalizing the story or else garbling it. He also has greatly reduced the lifespan of Philemon, who in the Akhbar lives from the dawn of Egypt until after the Flood, but here is a mere interpreter of knowledge in the time right before and after the Flood.
Once you notice the differences, it starts to become obvious that the quotations al-Maqrizi provides come from a redacted and censored text, one that has been copied somewhat inaccurately from the Akhbar al-zaman or a text very much like it but revised to suit the author’s point of view, which, to judge by the surviving fragments, was much less open to Enochian and Hermetic material and, within the confines of medieval imagination, attempted to be more historical and focused on the human.
The alternative, which can’t entirely be ruled out, is that the Akhbar is a revision of a lost original that purposely added Hermetic and Enochian material, while ibn Wasif Shah preserved something closer to the original. I think that the fact that Murtada ibn al-Afif, who wrote almost at the same time as ibn Wasif Shah is presumed to have written, knows the same versions of the stories as the Akhbar and follows it where it differs from ibn Wasif Shah suggests that this alternative is less likely.
What it all means, I can’t really say. It’s interesting, especially since the Akhbar itself is believed to be a rebuttal to Mesopotamian Hermetic writers by recontextualizing stories of Hermes, the Flood, and astrology in an Egypt-centered context. Ibn Wasif Shah’s version, which is not the same, looks to be another step down the process of cutting occult material out of the narrative.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.