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Abdul Alhazred

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Dr. Henry Armitage
Abdul Alhazred is one of the most remarkable and controversial of Arabic writers from the early days of Islam. He was a Pagan standing against the tide of Islam. His poems and his book, Necronomicon, have been hugely influential, widely translated and widely suppressed [1]. Yet today most of his work is lost and his is little known in the Middle Eastern Arabic countries. Previous biographies of the man do exist. The earliest of his biographers was Ibn Khallikan, in the twelfth century, but he gives only rumors and conjectures for most of Alhazred's life. Most other sources seem to be derived from Ibn Khallikan's text [2]. There has, therefore, been a need for a new biography utilizing new archaeological evidence, and modern scientific logic to separate fact from myth. Sadly this biography needs must be brief because we have so very little information.
We have few genuine texts by Alhazred. In addition to the Necronomicon there is a collection of his poems, probably made in the 11th century, and there are six letters from 'Abdul the Pilgrim' to 'Ismail of Damascus' which correspond to Alhazred's visit to Babylon and might well represent the only fragments of Alhazred's own handwriting left (if genuine).
Abdul Alhazred was born in Sanaa, in Yemen, not more than fifty years after the death (or ascendance) of the Prophet Mohammed. The date of his birth is unknown, as is whether he was an only child, but since he died an old man it seems likely that his birth was between A.D. 665 and 670, under the Omayyad Caliphs of Damascus. One of the later sources (19th Century) claims that he was a product of the fabulous tribe of Ad -- one of the four mysterious, little-known tribes of Arabia, which were: Ad -- of the south, Thamood -- of the north, Tasm and Jadis -- of the center of the peninsula [3]. Yet this seems to be a dubious claim. The Ad and the Thamood are the accursed tribes mentioned in the Koran (Ch. 89, etc.) and the writer seems only to be elaborating on Alhazred's dark reputation rather than basing his claim on solid evidence. Instead Alhazred's family appear to be of normal Yemen stock, apparently reasonably prosperous and settled for some generations in Sanaa.
The Omayyads (or Umayyads) were the first of the two great Moslem empires ruling from about A.D. 660 to 750. The name is derived from the family of Umayya, the main part of the clan of Abd-Shans of the Meccan tribe of Quraish. It was this family which surrendered to Mohammed after years of resistance to Islam. The political ideas of the Omayyads were essentially Arab, the basis of their power being the Syrian army, with the dynasty's capital in Damascus.
Alhazred's early years are a mystery, even to Ibn Khallikan. It seems likely that he lead a normal childhood, taking an interest in music and poetry, as well as in the bizarre, suggesting a precocious child. He courted the nobles of his native lands, as a poet and entertainer (called a rawis is Arabic). He certainly became known in Sanaa as a poet of great promise and was able to live a comfortable, if not spoiled, youth. Yet he had a romantic wanderlust which could not be assuaged in Sanaa and its outlying villages, and soon the itch to see the world grew too much.
The Chandler manuscript identifies Abdul Alhazred with Abdullah ibn Kilaba, a Yemenese Bedouin who is said, in the Mu'jam al-Buldan, and in the Muruj al-Dhahab (circa A.D. 950), to have seen Ire, but this is at least speculation made long after Alhazred's death. I can find no contemporary evidence to that effect. *
The source that should be most reliable concerning Alhazred's life, the Necronomicon itself, is, in many respects, the least reliable. It is the largest single source of 'contemporary' information, but the whole style and nature of the book means that we cannot take what it says on trust. Book One contains a series of Narratives which, it is claimed, are accounts of real life activities of the poet. The first of these Narratives tell of Alhazred's journey to Egypt and his becoming the disciple of Yakthoob, a Saracen sorcerer. The depiction of Alhazred as a budding necromancer is completely at odds with other sources. Yakthoob, in the Narratives, is killed in a suspiciously moralistic way and Alhazred inherited the coven, and wandered around being frightened by some relatively minor horrors. Professor Alfred Ward eloquently argued that the Narratives dealing with Alhazred's years of wandering are so full of obvious factual errors that they could not have been written by anyone who had lived that sort of life, even taking into account errors that have crept in over multiple translation of the text [4]. Yet some of the text must be Alhazred's, no matter how small an amount. So what can we draw from these?
Certainly Alhazred seems to have left the Yemen aged barely twenty, joining a caravan in February, ostensibly to visit Mecca (he was generally apathetic about orthodox Islam, and occasionally outright hostile). He arrived in Mecca a few months later, and performed those ceremonies which were customary. Interestingly the Necronomicon claims that at the time of his visit Mecca was plagued by a demon, summoned by a secret priesthood. Perhaps some such hysteria sent young and impressionable Alhazred in the direction of Black Magic, or perhaps this is a later invention? Either way, he found no peace in this pilgrimage and joined a caravan heading for Egypt. He arrived in Egypt, circa A.D. 688, and seems to have settled in the region around the alluvia delta of the Nile. It seems likely that he continued to live as a poet until he fell under the influence of a group of Sufi Mystics (or proto-Sufi, since the first records of organized Sufism come about in the 8th century, after Alhazred's death) of which the Saracen Yakthoob was leader [5]. It is possible that this was a particularly heretical Gnostic cult [6], but the Islamic leanings of Alhazred's writings suggest that his cultural upbringing was Islamic, even if he did not believe in the teachings of Mohammed. There is, in fact, considerable internal evidence among Alhazred's writings that he knew something of Sufism and Ibn Khallikan's mention of the term 'tasawwuf' [7] in relation to Alhazred also supports the view that his cult was an extreme branch of the fledgling Sufi movement.
About two years past before Yakthoob died, during which Alhazred learned much about running a cult and ritual magic. With Yakthoob's demise a power struggle ensued (probably against the Ibn Ghazoul mentioned in the Narratives) Alhazred won through to become the next leader of the group.
Ibn Khallikan informs us that Alhazred made many mysterious pilgrimages to the ruins of Babylon and the subterranean secrets of Memphis. It seems likely that the latter he visited at this time (as mentioned in Dr. Dee's edition of the Necronomicon [8]). Under his control the cult drifted south, back toward his native land. Alhazred claims that the move was in response to commands given to him in Memphis' catacombs by a divine being, but more likely it was Alhazred's wish to return to his homeland. Several members of Alhazred's cult mysteriously disappeared during these pilgrimages. Alhazred attributes this to supernatural forces, but it is not inconceivable that he personally disposed of troublesome opponents within the cult.
At this point Alhazred disappears from reliable records and we are forced back on Alhazred's own accounts, and on rumor. Alhazred himself implies that he spent seven years in the desert [9] and claimed to have visited Irem, the city forbidden in the Koran, which Alhazred asserted was of prehuman origin. Here also he claimed to have learned of an obscure and nameless religion of which his studies under Yakthoob had only hinted. The location of Irem is unknown, but one account places it about three weeks out from Damut [10]. However this whole story seems very unlikely. Ibn Khallikan listed this claim to have visited Irem, 'the City of Pillars,' as one of the marks of Alhazred's madness.
When he next appears it is as a lone poet, functioning once more as an entertainer. Presumably there was a breakup with the Cult, possibly due to Alhazred's ruthless elimination of his opponents within the Cult. Alhazred himself explains their absence by having them all killed by a convenient act of God whilst in Irem, but this is smacks of wish fulfillment on his part. By the turn of the Eighth Century he was flourishing as a poet with at least two works to his name: "The Song of My Heart" and "Poems To The Prince". Sadly neither work is thought to have survived, but contemporary reports suggest that the first was a cycle of courtly love poems, while the latter was a cycle of poems of veneration. Some scholars in the Middle Ages suggest that they were riddled with secret double-meanings prefiguring his later work, but this cannot be confirmed. Certainly any mystic significance seems to have been overlooked by the Arabic courts where his poems were recited. Of his sorcerous activities we hear no more, save that his songs have a magical, hypnotic quality to them, and that 'the light from his lamp threw visions of beauty and wonder before the eyes of
caliphs' [11]. No scandal about his dark sorcery is even hinted at in contemporary accounts of court life.
The pressure of growing fame seems to have become too much and he vanished again. According to Alhazred he set out once more into the Empty Quarter. He is also said to have found the ruins of a certain nameless desert town, where he claimed to have found records of things older than mankind. This was his first visit to the nameless city and it was a short stay. The Yemenese tribes remember it like this: Alhazred didn't go straight to that nameless city, so they say. He went on a pilgrimage first, a pilgrimage that changed him in a very peculiar way. He visited something out in the western part of the desert. Something which taught him things and which showed him secrets. Then with this new knowledge he traveled to the Nameless City. Within a few months he had left the desert and was on the road to Egypt once more.
He then traveled to Alexandria, arriving in A.D. 708, and making his living once more by his poetry. Here he seems to have consulted the library of the Ptolemies, which was looked upon as one of the greatest intellectual centers of the world. According to Alhazred's own account he was approached by some Moslems to clear the infamous 'Black Mosque' of its evils [12]. Whatever the truth of the matter he left Alexandria under a cloud of scandal.
Once more he found himself back in his native land of Yemen. Now Alhazred was claiming divine inspiration and became iman of a forbidden Sufi cult, the Shi'a al-Dejjat ("The Cult of the Antichrist") which seems to have gown about him [13].
During this period he wrote his short story "Al Jeldah" ('The Scourge'). Like the poems the text is thought to be lost, but we do have quite a detailed description of its structure: it was arranged in six hundred and sixty-six lines and comprised seventy-seven sentencies, running to a total of 2100 words. The story contains seven characters, the plot has three movements and there are ten separate events. Most remarkable is that it supposedly is a completely original plot. Legend has it that Nizam ul Mulk related the tale to Omar Khayyam, and it greatly influenced his philosophy. Others have suggested that it anticipates Shelly's poem "Ozymandias" and some of Aleistair Crowley's writings (although this seems unlikely). It is believe to be the only outright "story" Alhazred ever wrote.
Either inspired or exhausted by this spree of creativity Alhazred appears to have abandoned civilization once more and around A.D. 710 he set out on a strange pilgrimage. By his own account, in the First Book of the Necronomicon, he spent ten years alone in the devil-haunted and untrodden waste of the great southern desert of Arabia, the Rub' al-Khali (Alhazred's 'Roba El Khaliye') or 'Empty Space' of the ancients and the 'Dahna' or 'Crimson Desert' of the Modern Arabs. Of this desert many strange and unbelievable marvels are told by those who pretend to have penetrated it. This area seems to have been inhabited by the Hymarites -- robbers and bandits among the few Arab tribes -- which may explain such legends. During this period Alhazred wrote his famous couplet, later included in the Necronomicon (Kitab al Azif):
That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange Æons even death may die. [14]
There is a quaint rumor that he dreamed of the nameless city before writing the couplet. It was probably also during this pilgrimage that he formulated the religious ethics he was to embody in his book. An indifferent Moslem, he worshipped beings whom he called Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu. The relationship between this religion and the tales of demons in the Empty Quarter is not clear, but is worth noting.
Alhazred's ethical system revolved around the Pagan belief in the Jinn. According to Alhazred these jinn, or 'Old Ones' as he calls them, once ruled the Earth, but they warred among themselves until they were overthrown by a rival group (equivalent to the Afrit). Conditions on Earth were change so they could not live, but neither could they die. Thus they slept until the stars came right and their bodies could live again. But their spirits (or One Spirit -- embodied in the Soul of Chaos, Nyarlathotep) lived 'Outside' or 'between' the spaces we know of. Once freed from the 'laws' of nature they will plunge the universe into Chaos. Alhazred's religion is a kind of Ultimate Anarchy in which even the laws of physics are violated.
Alhazred did not spend all of the ten years in the Nameless City itself. I believe the reference to 'seven years' in the Nameless City refers to his second visit (see note 8) and to only mark the time within the city. The remaining three years he spent elsewhere in the desert. So, if this is true, in A.D. 717 he left the Nameless City. He seems to have headed west until he struck the caravan routes between Mecca and Saudi Arabia, then headed north along them, probably to the eastern coast. During this period the events related in Narratives Six and Seven are supposed to have taken
place [15]. He experimented with narcotic drugs. By A.D. 719 he had established a dwelling in 'the Valley of the Tombs.' The location of this place is unclear. Here he claimed to have met the Chaldean Sargon. Sargon was almost the last link in the chain of Alhazred's learning. From Sargon, in that lonely necropolis, Alhazred learned the arts of necromancy.
From here, after Sargon's death, he journeyed towards Babylon, passing through Basrah and Kuwait. He spends some years in and around Babylon before his wanderlust got the better of him. In a letter to Ismail of Damascus [16] he mentions his intention of seeing the wonders of the Byzantine Empire, then on the brink of collapse and domination by the Arabs. After departing from Babylon he seems to have headed further north into the mountains of Kurdistan, then turned west toward the Byzantine Empire, but once more he vanishes for years from our records. Again we can speculate that he spent time in Kurdistan and Constantinople, and might even have traveled to Europe and Asia (which would explain some of his knowledge of Britain ['the Isle of Mist'], Europe ['the Pool'], Tibet ['the Plateau of Leng'] and China ['the Thrang Grotto of Tartary']). He might have traveled under another name, or merely traveled incognito. We next reliably find him skirting the mountains that boarder Syria. He paused at Kuthchemes and the Black Mountain (whose exact location is unclear, but which seems to be the mountain of Karatepe near Kadirli in modern Turkey). He claims that the Black Mountain had a religious significance to the Cult of Yog-Sothoth. He also mentioned a strange tribe known as the Nameless Ones, who, it would seem, are now extinct [17].
By A.D. 730 he was a renowned author and poet. But his madness was by this time manifest. Of his madness many things are told. Most are insubstantial and unworthy of repetition here. In his last years Alhazred dwelt in Damascus, where his most famous work, the infamous Kitab al Azif, was written (later called, and better known as, the Necronomicon). The Arabic name being the world used by the Arabs to designate that nocturnal sound (made by insects) which was believed to be the howling of demons. The name Kitab al Azif, literally means 'The Book of the Howling of the Jinn.' The book was the product of Alhazred's old age. He probably started writing the book in A.D. 730 and spent the next years of his life compiling it until the final draft was finished about A.D. 735. A lifetime of study, meditation and experimentation was poured into its rambling pages. It seems likely that he used a number of scribes to produce the three original copies claimed to have been made under Alhazred's direct guidance [18].
In A.D. 738 Alhazred died or disappeared, the information is conflicting [19]. According to contemporary historians, Alhazred's death was both tragic and bizarre, since it was assured that he was eaten alive by an invisible monster in the middle of the marketplace. How much trust can be placed in these accounts is questionable. Ibn Khallikan repeats this tale, while others give variants on the theme of 'wicked El-Hazred's pitiful doom' [20]. One such is that he was carried off into the desert by demons, possibly even carried back to Irem. While others claim that he died screaming in his bed.
Yet these tales can be viewed as propaganda for the Orthodox Islamic faith. The heretical alchemist texts, and the earlier biographers, speak of Alhazred retreating into the mystery of the Empty Quarter and speak of his expected return as 'The Mahdi of Yog-Sothoth' [21]. His cult endured in secret, suppressed by the Islamic Ayatollahs, but guarding the Necronomicon, coping and distributing it until it was widely known both in Europe and the Middle East prior to the Greek translation.
This is effectively a summery of what we know of the man. Yet even on this little information we can make some educated guesses about Abdul Alhazred.
There is considerable evidence that Alhazred was mentally unstable at the time of writing the Necronomicon. The very nature of his book; the account of his death, with its echoes of epileptic seizures; and his surviving poems, suggest an unhealthy mind. Indeed it seems likely that he suffered several 'fits' during his years of wandering during which he received his 'insights.' As is the case with such things, fits were mistaken for being possessed by demons, a condition most apposite to Alhazred. Likewise his hearing of voices 'whispering' to him reminds the modern psychologist of schizophrenia.
Another theory, also by Professor Ward, is that St. Photius the First's reference to the writings of an unknown author called Damascius, who wrote 'three-hundred fifty-two chapters of incredible fictions ... fifty-two chapters of extraordinary tales of the gods ... sixty-three chapters of extraordinary tales of souls appearing after death, [and] one hundred five chapters of extraordinary phenomena,' [22] was in fact a corrupt reference to Abdul Alhazred and his Necronomicon. According to Ward St. Photius mistakenly assumes the name of Alhazred's dwelling, Damascus, is that of the book's author, and latinizes it as 'Damascius.' Possibly scholars of the period would refer to it was "that book of the Damascan's," or even, "Damascius" to avoid confusion with the Christian Damascans. However a note of caution must be made. St. Photius is the only source of knowledge about Damascius, and his book, which Ward cities as evidence that "Damascius" is an error on St. Photius' part. But we know so little about the man that it is difficult to refute or confirm this. It is also an unhelpful theory as far as enlightening us about Alhazred's life, though it might throw light on the minor mystery of 'Damascius.'
It is safe to say that Abdul Alhazred remains largely as much a mystery today as he always was.
Chronology for Abdul Alhazred A.D. c.665-670Abdul Alhazred born.c.680Becomes known as a poet.c.686Alhazred leaves Sanaa.c.687Arrives in Mecca. Leaves for Egypt.c.688Becomes disciple of Yakthoob.c.690Yakthoob dies.c.691Visits Memphis.c.693Reportedly opens gate in Irem.c.696-705Flourishes as poet. Pens "Song of My Heart" and "Poems To The Prince".c.706First visit to Empty Quarter and Nameless City.c.708Trip to Alexandria and Black Mosque.c.709Writes "The Scourge".c.710Second visit to Nameless City.c.717Leaves Nameless City. Wanders desert.c.718Encounter with Abdullah of Basrah.c.719Dwells in the Valley of Tombs. Meets Sargon.c.720Sargon dies. Leaves Empty Quarter.c.721Visit to ruins of Babylon.c.726Spends some time in Kurdistan and Byzantium (possibly elsewhere).c.729At Black Mountain, Turkestan.c.730Arrives in Damascus. Writes the Necronomicon.c.735Necronomicon finished, scribes make three copies.c.738Alhazred dies or disappears under suspicious circumstances despite great age. No known tomb.
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