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Abstract

How it all went wrong for Burhān al-Dīn al-Biqāʿī (809–85/1406–80), a fifteenth-century Quran exegete and historian active in Cairo, has been well covered. Modern scholarship has discussed the downward trajectory of his later career from 868/1464, in which his embroilment in two controversies—respectively on the use of the Bible in tafsīr and the poetry of Ibn al-Fāriḍ—so eroded his position in Cairene society that he was forced to flee to Damascus in 880/1475. A third controversy—on the theodicy of al-Ghazālī—incensed the Damascene populace, and he died destitute in 885/1480. While charting his declining fortunes reveals much about the religio-intellectual environment in which he operated, these three episodes all date from after al-Biqāʿī had succeeded in securing himself a position in Cairo as the resident Quran exegete at the Ẓāhirīyah Mosque, and also as first the personal tutor of Sultan Jaqmaq and then as a confidant of Sultan Īnāl. The issue, however, of how it all went right for al-Biqāʿī is relatively overlooked. This article is aimed at two complementary purposes. First, it will provide an overview of how al-Biqāʿī sought to increase the social and cultural capital resources at his disposal to build and expand the social network that underpinned his career in Cairo and that subsequently crumbled under the weight of the later controversies. In doing so, it will outline in more detail al-Biqāʿī’s origins, before moving to discuss the key relationships—particularly his patron-client relationships—he established and how these facilitated his making his way in Cairo. Having done so, it will turn to its second purpose: namely, it will argue that the descriptive reconstruction of al-Biqāʿī’s life and career should be read against the interpretative frameworks employed by the authors of our sources, and that doing so leads to a deeper understanding of not only al-Biqāʿī himself, but of the social contexts in which he operated.

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