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Name:                            Neelam Hussain

PhD:                               English Literature (P/T)

Thesis Title:                  From Kitāb Sirr al-Asrār to Secretum Secretorum: The Transmission & Dissemination of a Pseudo-Aristotelian Text


Thesis Description:    

With over six hundred manuscripts attesting to its dissemination, the pseudo-Aristotelian Secretum Secretorum became one of the most popular and widely read texts across medieval Europe. From the fourteenth century, the Secretum was also translated into most European vernaculars, including English. Notwithstanding its strong European literary tradition, the Secretum is in fact a translation of the Arabic treatise Kitab Sirr al-Asrar, produced in Baghdad during the tenth century - at a time of philosophical and scientific enlightenment following the Graeco-Arabic translation movement of the preceding two centuries. Copies of this Arabic text then travelled west including to the Iberian peninsula, the location of another major translation movement, where its first contact with Europe was made. Originally received as a genuine addition to the developing Aristotelian corpus at the newly emerging European universities, it was later regarded as an important Mirror for Princes and an encyclopaedic work on popular ‘sciences’ from health, diet and herbal to alchemy, astrology, numerology and physiognomy. The diversity of its contents and various vernacular versions would ensure a sustained readership from a variety of interests well into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. 

The core research questions of my research are: How did the historical and intellectual context within which the Arabic and Latin traditions were formed influence the reception and career of this pseudo-Aristotelian text? Why does it survive even after the authenticity of Aristotle’s authorship is questioned? To what extent can this popularity be attributed to Aristotle's supposed authorship or, alternatively, to the increased demand for political/governance literature during dynamic political circumstances? 

My research will begin by examining the Arabic origins of the Kitab Sirr al-Asrar and placing it within its historical intellectual, literary and cultural context. Previous research has emphasised the Greek, specifically Aristotelian, ideas of this treatise in an attempt to justify its acceptance as part of the Aristotelian corpus. I will attempt to place the work in the wider intellectual context of late tenth century Baghdad and follow the journey of its transmission and dissemination across cultures and traditions. The research aims to demonstrate that the formation of both the Arabic and Latin West traditions was influenced by the historical and intellectual climate of the time, including the Graeco-Arabic and Arabic-Latin translation movement, the rise of rationalism/philosophical enquiry and the study of the Aristotelian corpus. The authorship of Aristotle was indeed very significant in its appeal to readers and provided a sense of authority to the text. However, its endurance and popularity as a work was due to its contents and its ability to be reconfigured as an advice text/mirror for princes at a time when this genre of writing was being developed and increasing in popularity. In order to assess the Sirr / Secretum's  readership, impact and influence, my work will include detailed research of Arabic and English manuscripts as case studies, with comparisons to other literature of the same genre in each tradition. 

Supervisors and Institution(s):

                                       Prof. Wendy Scase, Geoffrey Shepherd Professor of Medieval English Literature, University of Birmingham

                                       Dr Richard Todd, Lecturer in Islamic Studies,  University of Birmingham


Publications (please include full details with page nos. or web links):



Scholarly / Public Engagement Activities:


  • Coordinator and programme-lead for The Islamic & Middle Eastern Studies (TIMES) Post-Graduate Forum.
  • Committee chair for TIMES Forum Symposium on 18th May 2017 and lead-applicant for M3C CDF bid.
  • Research Associate, Mingana Collection of Islamic manuscripts, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.
  • A distance course on Islamic Art at the University of Oxford.
  • Presented paper at the British Association of Islamic Studies (BRAIS) Conference, 11th-13th April, University of Chester, on 'Kitāb Sirr al-Asrār and the Virtues of a Ruler' as part of a panel on 'Approaches to the Virtues in the Arabic Tradition.'
  • Presented workshop on developments in Islamic book arts and Islamic intellectual history through Mingana Collection of Islamic manuscripts as part of the TIMES Forum Symposium, University of Birmingham, 18th May 2017.
  • Presented PhD research at the Research Relay in the Midlands3Cities Research Festival on 25th May 2017.
  • Presented several workshops as part of UoB's outreach programme: 'Dark Ages or the Golden Ages?' on the influence of Islamic intellectual tradition and the Arabic-Latin translation movement on medieval Europe and contemporary education.
  • Delivered training on archival research with Islamic manuscripts for post-graduate student in the Department of Theology & Religion at UoB.
  • Delivered a training session on the Mingana Collection for staff at Cadbury Research Library. 
  • Supervising projects with volunteers on the Persian manuscripts in the Mingana Collection and a project on Arabic palaeography.
  • Exhibition lead for the exhibition facilitators the Birmingham Qur'an exhibition at the UK-Qatar Business Forum hosted by the UK Department of International Trade at the ICC, Birmingham.
  • Preparation of a University of Birmingham MOOC on the Birmingham Qur'an and the Mingana Collection.
  • Preparation for exhibition in the UAE in the autumn of 2017 and hosting the UAE ministerial delegation from the Department of Culture & Knowledge Development.



  • Presented Paper, 'Cultural Encounters of the Arabic Book' as part of a session sponsored by collaboration between University of Birmingham and University of Illinois, Urabana-Champaign, at the International Medieval Congress, Leeds.
  • Cataloguing officer, Mingana Collection of Islamic-Arabic manuscripts, Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.
  • Co-ordinator and programme-lead for TIMES Post-Graduate Forum.
  • Established The Islamic & Middle Eastern Studies (TIMES) Post-Graduate Forum at University of Birmingham: for PGTs and PGRs across the Midlands whose interests relate to the Islamic world.
  • Exhibition Facilitator for the Birmingham Qur'an Exhibition at University of Birmingham, displaying Mingana 1572a - one of the oldest Qur'an fragments in the world.
  • Training 2 interns at the Cadbury Research Library on the material culture of Islamic manuscrupts and supervising their survey of Islamic manuscripts.
  • Post-Graduate Teaching Assistant delivering weekly seminars on core English Literature module on Prose to first-year undergraduate students, University of Birmingham.


  • Post-Graduate tutor for the Academic Writing Advisory Service (AWAS) delivering workshops to final year undergraduate students, University of Birmingham.
  • Post-Graduate Teaching Assistant delivering weekly seminars on Critical Practice and Literary Aesthetics Before 1800 to first-year undergraduate modules, University of Birmingham.
  • Presented paper, 'The Secretum Secretorum in Late Medieval England: A Story of Changing Contexts', at the international Conference of the Early Book Society 2015.


  • Delivered workshops on the 'Dark Ages or the Golden Ages?' about the influence of the Arabic-Latin translation movement on medieval science and culture.
  • Presented paper, 'Secretum Secretorum: The Secrets of Science & Statecraft', at the annual national conference of The British Society for Literature & Science, University of Surrey (April 2014)
  • Presented paper, 'Secretum Secretorum: A Medieval Book of Secrets', at the EMREM Post-Graduate Symposium, University of Birmingham (May 2014)


  • Delivered workshops on the 'Dark Ages or the Golden Ages?' about the influence of the Arabic-Latin translation movement on medieval science and culture. 


Other Research Interests:

  • Comparisons: Medieval Arabic and English literature
  • Islamic intellectual history and the transmission of philosophical, scientific and political thought: Graeco-Arabic and Arabic-Latin translation movements. 
  • History of the book, manuscript traditions, and material culture
  • Mirrors for Princes / political advice texts
  • History of Science


Social Media Presence:

  • Twitter: @N_S_Hussain



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