The Female Alhazred
“From the darkling daughter he is reborn / Iä! In her house dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”
- “The Forbidden Sura,” Kitāb al-‘Uzzá, Aisha bint Suleiman ibn Qaroon al-Azrd
- “The Forbidden Sura,” Kitāb al-‘Uzzá, Aisha bint Suleiman ibn Qaroon al-Azrd
The study of esoteric and occult traditions is not free from the prejudices that plague more traditional areas of academia, and only in recent decades have scholars begun to correlate the contents of disparate libraries of forbidden books, to draw together a more complete picture of the strange beliefs of various and heretic cults, and how they were transmitted down the centuries despite censure public and private, where more than one text was consigned to the bonfire by authorities civil and ecclesiastical. Considerable effort indeed has gone into the study of the history and manuscript tradition of the various Necronomicon texts, the various recensions of the Codex Dagonensis and Unaussprechlichen Kulten, and so illuminated the dim biographies of the men that wrote these works, and probed into the murky background of the occult traditions that they drew on and set down in writing.
Yet for all this effort, scholars have generally overlooked—or ignored—a parallel, complementary occult tradition, one which was by its nature suppressed much more ruthlessly, and perhaps more successfully, than the more familiar mythology, simply because the writers of the various texts mentioned above deliberately omitted much of the material related to it from their own works. I speak of a primarily feminine mythology, whose few survivors—related only where they interact with deities that have a male aspect—include Shub-Niggurath and Mother Hydra, Cthylla and D’numl, Nctosa and Nctolhu, and the ancient cults of Bubastis and Cybele. Lost too are the finer details of their cults, and the men and women that worked rites in their names, and perhaps most especially the female scholars of the mysteries whom because of their gender saw their opportunities limited, their status denied, their writings suppressed, and their lore dispersed and destroyed by the prejudice of both the authorities and their own male counterparts.
As a companion to our work on “The Life Cycle of a Necronomicon” we will be examining the first among those nigh-forgotten authors: Aisha bint Suleiman ibn Qaroon al-Azrd, known somewhat infamously in the Renaissance and early modern period as “the Female Alhazred,” based on the somewhat erroneous belief that she had translated a version of the Necronomicon into Ladino. In truth, al-Azrd was a Mozarab, the daughter of a Syrian Jewish merchant that dealt in books and paper and a middle-class Hispanic Christian woman, and was born in Toledo during the reign of Ad-al-Rahman III (c. 920 CE). Contemporary records state that al-Azrd was a natural polyglot, who by the age of seventeen could read and write Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic, as well as speak Mozarabic and Syrian. Her father took her along with him in his travels throughout the Mediterranean, where she is said to have visited Alexandria, Jerusalem, Mecca, Rome, and Damascus, and in every port she sought out what learning was available to a woman, learning the arts of music and poetry, astronomy and mathematics, and to have memorized the Qur’an, the Talmud, the Peshitta, and the Vulgate. She is said to have passed at different times as Jew, Christian, and Muslim; sometimes posing as a man to obtain entrance into libraries where she would never have been permitted to set foot, and thus learned secrets that men had long sought to keep hidden.
Much of this comes directly from al-Azrd herself; outside of her own surviving work there is scant mention of her, the most notorious and widely-circulated being a description included in certain of the Arabic manuscripts collected by Abraham Hinckelmann as he prepared the Hamburg edition of the Qur’an for print in 1694, which give a broad outline of her as heretic among heretics, supposed to have been “torn apart from within as though giving birth to an abomination, which could not thereafter be found” while disguised as a man and riding a horse in Rome—obviously based on the then-popular legend of Pope Joan, which became popular in the 13th century.
Most of al-Azrd’s fame rests in her sole known work, the Kitāb al-‘Uzzá, of which three manuscript copies and several fragments survive. All of the extant copies date from approximately the same period, around 1000 CE based on dating of the materials and the style of the script, and have the rather uniform appearance of a Persian safinah, a horizontal format (the width was greater than their height), a polyglot work written simultaneously in Arabic and Latin, with several names rendered in Hebrew characters in both sections; the whole book is so written that the Arabic and Latin sections are on opposite pages—Latin on the left, Arabic on the right—so that Arabic readers would read the book right-to-left, and Latin readers would read the book left-to-right. Both of the “first pages” contain al-Azrd’s short biography, including the poignant note on the research that went in to creating her work:
As did Zaid, I have searched and collected the pieces of what was lost, what was written on palm-leaves and dry scapula scraped clean, from parchments and thin white stones, from the memories of women who knew it by heart, until I found the last verse, the Forbidden Sura, with Yogash the ghūl, and I did not find it with anybody other than him.
The book itself is organized as a tafsir, an exegesis of the text of the Qur’an, and immediately enters controversial territory by discussing the so-called “Satanic verses” referring to the worship of the three daughters of Allah (Manāt, al-Lāt, and al-ʿUzzā, for whom the book is named) that existed in Mecca prior to the advent of Islam, and which according to the hadith were briefly included in the Qur’an (though modern scholars dispute the historicity of the work, it was fairly common in the early tafsir literature). Al-Azrd then expands on this theme to discuss the influence of that religion on the development of the Qur’an, citing as sources certain very obscure, foreign, and even pagan works (of which the very least is the Kitāb al-Așnām, the Book of Idols written by Hisham Ibn Al-Kalbi); this work gradually expands in scope, revealing the fundamental origins of the monotheistic practices of Islam and Judaism in polytheistic practices that worship male-female deific pairs—presaging much contemporary archaeological research, which finds parallels between the polytheistic elements of early Hebrew religion and other religions in the Near East.
From there, the Kitāb al-‘Uzzá descends into ground at once familiar and unfamiliar to scholars of the esoteric, as she unveils a reconstruction of the rites and worship that lay behind and bellow the common dross of Arabic legendry. Scholars of the Necronomicon will appreciate the sketchy re-telling of the coming of Cthulhu, and the prophecies associated with his return, but will perhaps be surprised that this focus is on his wives, sisters, and daughters, who enable and empower his struggle, and their own expanded roles in the cosmic conflict, and where they were imprisoned, and the spells to charge the obscene eidolons of Idh-yaa, and the talismans of Cthylla and Cthaeghya; Shub-Niggurath in her various guises is laid bare in great detail, and the terrible series of sexual sins whereby libertines may be initiated into her service; and the secret names of the ghūl-mother for the ritual psychodrama of hideous necrophilia and more hideous maternity, where the corpse of the devil-bought is made to quicken and bear once more. Fittingly blasphemous secrets indeed for the “the female Alhazred,” and her notorious work—which, if it is not the equal to the Necronomicon in sheer size, at least offers a different and long-forgotten view on that notorious mythology and occult system.
How many copies of Kitāb al-‘Uzzá were made, or for what purpose, and to whom they were given or sold, we do not know; not even the records of their destruction survive, although as Hinckelmann’s manuscripts reveal, al-Azrd and her work were known to at least a few scholars, and certain Christians in particular seemed to have seized on the first portion of the manuscript as a weapon against Islam. Robert of Ketton is said to have read a copy while translating the Qur’an in Toledo in the 1140s, and abandoned a project to include the first chapter as an appendix to that work. It is rumored that the pope ordered the burning of the first printed Koran—the Venice edition of 1537/38—because Alessandro Paganini had included suras from the Kitāb al-‘Uzzá. Ludovicco Maracci and George Sale are also supposed to have read it, with a letter from Sale still surviving about a “queer text by a female Mohammedan” that had been bound with a Spanish copy of the Gospel of Barnabas, although all mentions of this text were excised from the final edition of The Preliminary Discourse to the Koran (1734). A catalogue at the British Museum lists the Kitāb al-‘Uzzá among the books produced at the Arabic press in Khenchara in 1736, although this may have been more of an advertisement than evidence that an actual printed version of this work exists.
What we do know of the Kitāb al-‘Uzzá is primarily by its absence. There is no mention of it in any recension of the Necronomicon, though some of the later printings and translations include elements and prayers that also occur in the Kitāb, but not in any surviving manuscript of the Greek text. Similarly, Von Junzt makes no mention of the Sapphic or necrophilic cults that al-Azrd gives in the regions he travels, but he replicates some of the invocations to Shub-Niggurath under some of her many names without giving their source. Cultes des Goules at least gives mention to certain chthonic and pagan cults in the Pyrenees who use a book “longer than it is tall, and which may be read from the left or from the right, by those who know one tongue or the other,” though it is doubtful d’Erlette actually read one of these copies, or else he would have incorporated more material from that work; as it is, he gives a fairly accurate portrayal of the “Feast of Ghouls” from the Kitāb (albeit the incantations seem to be a hopelessly corrupted version of Sabir, rendered phonetically). Perhaps because of its very obscurity it appears to have largely escaped the notice of cataloguers and bookmen, students of the occult and scholars of esoteric theology who have that strange mythology as their primary focus—or then again, perhaps they simply did not wish to acknowledge this one book, which is after all focused so much on the female aspect of religion and occultism, and its author who, if she truly existed and did the things she claimed, would have stood above so many other scholars of the period.