Abdul Alhazred by Mark Foster (www.hplovecraftart.blogspot.com)
Abdul Alhazred is well known to be the author of the Necronomicon and is sometimes described as the “mad Arab” as he is first mentioned in H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Nameless City.” The Necronomicon (also known as Al Azif) was also first cited in this tale but not specifically by name (The New Annotated Lovecraft by Leslie Kessler, 2014). By name, the Necronomicon was first identified in Lovecraft’s tale “The Hound” (The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories by H.P. Lovecraft, edited and notes by S.T. Joshi, 1999).
A lot has been written about Abdul Alhazred and yet he still remains a mystery. He has been portrayed as the “mad poet” or “mad Arab,” as a monster opening the way to dimensions or entities bent on our destruction, and as a tortured soul who uncovered the existence of the Great Old Ones. Like any person, historical or otherwise, Alhazred was more than likely a mix of these perspectives, which varied and alternated in dominance over his life. However, the one perspective you hear very little of in discussions of Alhazred was the man as a scientist.
Abdul Alhazred on the cover of Necronomicon Press’s History of the Necronomicon from 1980. Artwork by Jason Eckhardt
The exact year Alhazred was born is not known. Some say he was born as early as 655 CE (The Encyclopedia Cthulhiana, 2nd Edition by Daniel Harms, 1998), while other sources have the year as 675 CE (Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft and the Mad Scholars by Keith Taylor found on www.rehtwogunraconteur.com). In contrast, his death or disappearance is well documented to have occurred under very unusual circumstances in 738 CE. While Alhazred was thought of as a wizard or sorcerer, his place is Middle East history, in particular with the development of the sciences, is quite interesting.
In the 8th century AD after much strife and war, Arab Muslims established an empire, founded on the Islamic religion that stretched across the Middle East, from North Africa and into Spain. The capital of this empire was Baghdad (The Great Scientists: From Euclid to Stephen Hawking by John Farndon, 2007). This empire was run by a form of Islamic government called the caliphate where the leader (the Caliph) was considered to be the political and religious successor to the Islamic prophet Muhammad.
Abdul Alhazred (www.rehtwogunraconteur.com)
Approximately 50 years after the death or disappearance of Alhazred the intellectual flowering of the Islamic world occurred. Thus, while most of Europe wallowed in the Dark Ages, intellectual scholarship and knowledge was highly valued in the Islamic World. This included all forms of intellectual thought – to the Arab scholars there was no distinction among varying branches of study, whether it was mathematics or poetry (Farndon, 2007).
While this intellectual scholarship of the early Arab scientists was unparalleled, a large component of their studies had very real world and practical applications. For example, they developed the astrolabe, which was essentially one of the first computers, used to measure the position of the stars and solving problems related to time and space (position of the Sun and the stars). In addition, during this Golden Age of Islamic science, Muslim scholars made major contributions in mathematics, medicine and chemistry. One of the most well-known of these Muslim scholars was Al-Khwarizmi.
An ancient astrolabe (www.hps.cam.ac.uk)
Al-Khwarizmi made several major contributions to science and mathematics, with one of the most well-known being the replacement of Roman numbers with Arabic numbers. Al-Khwarizmi developed a comprehensive system for the representation of numbers, based on a Hindu numbering system from around 500 AD. Replacing the cumbersome Roman numeral system with this Arabic system allowed mathematics to thrive as an intellectual discipline as well as expand its usefulness in solving applied and real-life problems. For example, it is much easier to write this number – 1,421, 369 – in the Arabic system as opposed to the Roman system where the number is represented as MCDXXMCCCLXIX. In addition to this replacement of the numbering system, Al-Khwarizmi created an entirely new type of mathematics called algebra.
Al-Khwarizmi created algebra not for abstract reasons but to provide people with a useful means of conducting relatively easy calculations for projects as varied as digging canals, delineating land ownership, and other various business and legal dealings. Again, like much of the science developed and perfected by the Arab Scientists, much of this focused on practical applications.
Statue of Al-Khwarizmi (www.famous-mathematicians.com)
Al-Khwarizmi had other interests beyond mathematics such as geography and astronomy. He contributed toward developing a map of the world including measuring the circumference of the Earth; Arab scholars did not believe the world was flat. Thus, Al-Khwarizmi’s contribution to modern society is significant, yet largely unknown. His promotion of the Arabic numeral system and invention of algebra alone have had a huge impact on the development of humans as a species, particularly over the last four hundred years.
Al Alhazred may have been one of the pioneering forces in the Middle East in the promotion of the value of knowledge and information and how a civilization can benefit from such endeavors. In Alhazred’s time he was considered a sorcerer but if his investigations occurred half a century later his work may have been revered as much as Al-Khwarizmi’s. Those on the forefront of science and engineering have always had an air of “magic” to them. For example, Thomas Edison was called the “Wizard of Light” and Sound or the “Wizard of Menio Park.” Thus, while the Arabic scientists were key in bridging the gap in science and knowledge between the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, Al Alhazred may have had a hand in initiating this process. Finally, I do want to mention, as many have, that the “madness” of Al Alhazred may have been a result of studying the Old Ones, similar to Marie Currie’s studies on the radium eventually resulted in her death through exposure to radiation. Sometimes there is a great cost in acquiring knowledge.
Next time we will discuss Lovecraft’s Holiday tale “The Festival” from a scientific perspective. Thank you – Fred.
The Madness of Abdul Alhazred by Graf Gunther (www.deviantart.com)