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Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ

The Brethren of Purity: An Islamic Philosophical Fraternity


The Arabic appellation: ‘Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ wa-Khillān al-Wafāʾ’ designates a tenth-century CE (fourth-century AH) esoteric fraternity from Iraq, which was most likely based in the city of Basra while also having an active branch in the capital of the ʿAbbāsid caliphate, Baghdad. This pseudonym may have been coined in order to conceal the identity of the affiliates of this coterie. As a nom de plume it has been conventionally rendered in the English language as ‘The Brethren of Purity and the Friends of Loyalty’ (sometimes referred to in shorter renditions as ‘The Sincere Brethren’). The Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ also referred to themselves occasionally as Awliyāʾ Allāh (‘Righteous Friends of God’) in affirmation of their obedience to the divine decrees and by way of asserting their commitment to a desired ‘reign of goodness’ (dawlat al-khayr). The names used by this urbanite fraternity may have been idiomatically inspired by the ‘amicable doves’ tale in the fable Kalīla wa-Dimna (adapted in Arabic by ʿAbd Allāh ibn al-Muqaffaʿ), it is also plausible that they might have simply followed Arabic classical forms of speech.

The exact chronology of the activities of this group, the identity of its adepts, their creed and affiliations, all are hitherto shrouded with vexing mysteries and continue to be engagingly debated by scholars. Some placed their oeuvres at the eve of the Fāṭimid conquest of Egypt (ca. 358 AH / 969 CE) while others situated them at much earlier epochs (El-Bizri, 2008). The textual legacy of the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ has been handed down over across the generations through their renowned treatises that are grouped as a proto-encyclopaedic compendium under the title Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ (Epistles of the Brethren of Purity).

The controversy over the dating of the composition of the Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ is set around the dividing chronological date of 297 AH / 909 CE that corresponds with the year of the founding of the Fāṭimid caliphate in North Africa. The historian Abbas Hamdani proposed a compositional timeframe between ca. 873 CE and 909 CE (Hamdani, 1984), while the scholar Yves Marquet situated the Rasāʾil compendium within a period stretching from ca. 903 CE (few years prior to the establishment of the Fāṭimid caliphate) to ca. 980 CE (Marquet, 2006; El-Bizri, 2008). Historical narratives that surrounded this corpus entice some scholars to place the redaction in the period ca. 960s–980s CE; with 986 CE as a possible terminus ad quem (El-Bizri, 2008). New lines of inquiry that are emerging through the research of Godefroid de Callataÿ on sources from Andalusia suggest an earlier dating around the first half of the tenth century CE, as also entailed by his recent studies on the alchemical tract Rutbat al-ḥakīm (Rank of the Wise) that is attributed to Maslama ibn Qāsim al-Qurṭubī, which accords with Maribel Fierro’s dating of that opus (Fierro, 1996).

The limitations of this present essay will not allow us to survey the scholarly views regarding the dating and authorship of the Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ as advanced in a vast body of studies by numerous researchers since the late nineteenth century (such as ʿĀdil ʿAwwā, Carmela Baffioni, Alessandro Bausani, David R. Blumenthal, Paul Casanova, T. J. de Boer, Godefroid de Callataÿ, Friedrich Dieterici, Susanne Diwald, ʿUmar Farrūkh, Muṣṭafā Ghālib, Lenn E. Goodman, Abbas Hamdani, Ḥusayn Ḥamdānī, Yves Marquet, Louis Massignon, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Ian Richard Netton, Jamīl Ṣalībā, Samuel M. Stern, ʿĀrif Tāmir, ʿAbd al-Laṭīf Ṭībāwī, Aḥmad Zakī [Pasha], etc.).

Given these disputations and ambiguities, one can more prudently state that the Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ refer grosso modo to a vast collection of manuscripts that display textual variations in content, which ultimately constituted a corpus that may have dated back in part, or in its entirety, to the tenth century CE, with its redactors or compilers working together as contemporaries or in successions of authorship. This compendium was circulated in its early disseminations within the Fertile Crescent, and it was then transmitted in pre-modern times beyond the Levant from Andalusia to India.

 The Question of Affiliation

The most common historical and textual account regarding the alleged identity of the Brethren of Purity is usually grounded on the authority of the littérateur Abū Ḥayyān al-Tawḥīdī (ca. 930–1023 CE), as communicated in his Kitāb al-Imtāʿ wa’l-muʾānasa – Book of Pleasure and Conviviality (al-Tawḥīdī, 1965). In reply to a question addressed to him by Ibn Saʿdān, the vizier of the Būyid governor, Ṣamṣām al-Dawla ibn ʿAḍad al-Dawla, al-Tawḥīdī noted that the leaders of this brotherhood were men of letters known by the names: Abū Sulaymān Muḥammad ibn Maʿshar al-Bustī (nicknamed al-Maqdisī), Abū al-Ḥasan ʿAlī ibn Hārūn al-Zanjānī, Abū Aḥmad al-Mihrajānī (aka al-Nahrajūrī), and Abū al-Ḥasan al-ʿAwfī. Al-Tawḥīdī also claimed that they were the companions of Zayd ibn Rifāʿa who was supposedly a secretarial officer at the governorate of Basra, and a clandestine servant of the Brethren’s ministry. The mu‘tazilī qādī ʿAbd al-Jabbār corroborated al-Tawḥīdī’s story, and so was the case with the conveyance of reports by al-Bayhaqī (d. 1169 CE), al-Khwārizmī (d. 1220 CE), Ibn al-Qifṭī (d. 1248 CE), al-Shahrazūrī (d. 1285 CE), Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1324 CE), and Ḥājjī Khalīfa (aka Kâtip Çelebi; d. ca. 1657 CE), etc. (El-Bizri, 2008).

According to al-Tawḥīdī’s account, Zayd ibn Rifāʿa served the Būyids; and these were the exponents of a Shiʿi tradition that controlled the chancelleries of the ʿAbbāsids bureaucratically and militarily without challenging their suzerainty. Having this in mind, some scholars question the presumed Fāṭimid lineage of the Brethren of Purity. Nonetheless, affirming a connection with the Būyid secretariat is viewed as being in conflict with the Ikhwān’s stance of dissidence in defying the legitimacy of ʿAbbāsid rule. This seeming incongruity leads scholars to cast doubt on the internal coherence of al-Tawḥīdī’s report. It is furthermore believed that the ʿAbbāsids would have been ideologically opposed to underground factions that professed ambivalent and possibly subversive doctrinal teachings that would be akin to those entailed by the thought and praxis of the Ikhwān, as argued for instance by Muṣṭafā Ghālib and ʿĀrīf Tāmir (Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, 1974, 1995; El-Bizri, 2008).

The speculations about the creedal lineage of the Brethren of Purity leads scholars to wonder whether the followers of this fraternity were exponents of Sunni or Shiʿi expressions of Islam, without reaching a consensus over which school or madhhab they adhered to. It is also unclear whether the Rasāʾil displayed Muʿtazilī or specifically Sufi leitmotifs, or hinted at a deeper penchant towards gnosis, as witnessed with Epistle 37 in the ponderings over the essence of mystical love, māhiyyat al-ʿishq (Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, 1957; El-Bizri, 2008). If the Brethren were to be classed as being Shiʿi, as most of the scholars argue, it is still unclear whether they were Ithnā ʿAsharī (Twelvers) or Ismaili. To further complicate the picture, even if the Ikhwān were Ismailis, it is not proven whether they had associations with the Fāṭimids or the Qarmaṭīs, or whether they simply gave expression to pre-Fāṭimid proclivities in Ismailism, as for instance noted by Ismail Poonawala (El-Bizri, 2008). Moreover, the historical reception of the Rasāʾil within Sunni circles regarded the Brethren’s overreliance on ancient Greek sources with some antagonism, and some, like Ibn Taymiyya, considered their views as being non-Abrahamic, and exposed them to the charges of heresy. As Yahya Michot showed (El-Bizri, 2008), Ibn Taymiyya considered the Brethren to be ‘esotericist heresiarchs’ in a clear disapproval of their gnosis and hermetic bāṭinī leanings. Ibn Taymiyya’s critique of the Ikhwān is noted in the context of a broader acrimony that he harboured against Ibn Sīnā, Ibn ʿArabī, Ibn Sabʿīn, Ibn Rushd, and Ibn Ṭufayl, while also displaying great restlessness towards the philosophically oriented propositions of al-Ghazālī.

Having noted that, the Brethren did nonetheless openly praise the sovereignty of the Khulafāʾ al-rāshidīn (‘the righteous caliphs’) and displayed an admiration of the Ṣaḥāba (‘the Prophet’s Companions’), along with esteem toward ʿĀʾisha (Epistles 9, 42, 52; Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, 1957). Such sentiments can be seen as being akin to Sunni parlance and temperament, albeit, these apparent signs of openness to the ways of Ahl al-Sunna wa’l-jamāʿa can also be attributed to a taqiyya practice of precautionary dissimulation, as argued by Muṣṭafā Ghālib and ʿĀrīf Tāmir (Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, 1974, 1995). In the same context of mentioning al-Khulafāʾ al-rāshidīn, the Brethren offered high praises to the Ahl al-Bayt (The Prophet’s Household), and celebrated the Ghadīr Khumm festival (Epistles 50, 52; Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, 1957). It is clear that the more widely accepted affiliation of the Brethren of Purity is linked to Shiʿi ancestry and provenance. It is also obvious that the Ikhwān venerated the persona of the Imam ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib, and that they heeded the progeny of the Prophet Muḥammad (Epistles 17, 33; Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, 1957) as ‘guided Imams’ (al-aʾimma al-muhtadīn). The Brethren were also pained by the massacre of Karbalāʾ and commemorated ʿĀshūrāʾ (Epistle 50; Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, 1957). Despite these significant indicators of Shiʿi orientations, such sentiments can be also ecumenical in spirit and shared with other confessional expression from within the Islamic faith. One has to also take into account that the Ikhwān implicitly criticised the Twelver Shiʿi doctrine of the awaited Imam, which is associated with the eschatological figure of al-Mahdī (al-imām al-fāḍil al-muntaẓar al-hādī); thusly indicating that this spiritual guide did not remain concealed (Epistle 42; Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, 1957), which in itself expresses a view that resonates with Ismaili beliefs.

While the Rasāʾil are generally seen as being part of Shiʿi traditions in literature, the connection with Ismailism, which gained many advocates historically and in more recent times, is still confronting scholars with dilemmas (Marquet, 1985). The accounts of Ismaili missionaries (duʿāt), such as Jaʿfar ibn Manṣūr al-Yaman (d. ca. 957 CE) and the Ṭayyibī Mustaʿlī dāʿī ʿImād al-Dīn Idrīs ibn al-Ḥasan (d. 1468 CE), entice some scholars to accentuate a pre-Fāṭimid Ismaili provenance of the Rasāʾil (Ibn al-Ḥasan, 2007). Some attribute this textual legacy to the early Ismaili Imams Aḥmad ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Muḥammad ibn Ismāʿīl ibn Jaʿfar (or, al-Taqī [al-Mastūr]), or his father, ʿAbd Allāh ibn Muḥammad ibn Ismāʿīl ibn Jaʿfar (or, Wafī Aḥmad), while hinting that the Rasāʾil were disseminated in mosques during the reign of the ʿAbbāsid caliph al-Maʾmūn (d. 833 CE); however, while this thesis was challenged by Aḥmad Zakī Pasha (Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, 1928), scholars such as Muṣṭafā Ghālib and ʿĀrīf Tāmir argued in support of it (Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, 1974, 1995). Some handed down over oral accounts even suggest a dating of the compilation of the Rasāʾil to the times of the Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq (d. 765 CE), whilst emphasising a continuation in redaction across the era of concealment and dissimulation (dawr al-satr wa’l-taqiyya), specifically under the authorial contributions of successive hidden Imams, al-aʾimma al-mastūrīn (El-Bizri, 2008). The Ismaili leitmotifs also relate to the views of the Brethren of Purity on religion (ʿilm al-dīn), and to the way they pictured the sacred scripture as having an exoteric qua manifest aspect (ẓāhir jalī) and another that was esoteric qua concealed (bāṭin khafī), and in the manner this respectively necessitated a hybrid approach in interpretation that combined exegesis (tafsīr) with hermeneutics (taʾwīl), as noted in Epistle 42 (Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, 1957). Nonetheless, even when affirming an Ismaili affiliation of the Ikhwān, there is no agreement whether this faction had Fāṭimid leanings, or Qarmaṭī filiations, or whether it simply embodied pre-Fāṭimid intellectual expressions of early Ismailism.

 The Legacy of Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ

With a distinguishable openness to otherness that neutralises fanaticism, the Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ adaptively integrated diverse ancient and monotheistic teachings. Believing that there is ‘veracity in every religion’ (al-ḥaqq fī kull dīn mawjūd), and affirming that knowledge was ‘pure nourishment for the soul’ (Epistle 42; Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, 1957), the Brethren of Purity associated the attainment of happiness and the soteriological hope for salvation with rational pursuits. They promoted a ‘friendship of virtue’ amongst their brothers, and practised a form of syncretism that was not reducible to a mere mode of eclecticism. The Brethren aspired eschatologically to found a spiritual sanctuary for their co-religionists, and endeavoured intellectually to overcome the sectarian discord plaguing their era. In a religious inclination in thinking, the Brethren heeded the Torah of Judaism and the canonical Gospels of Christianity, besides having a pious observance of the Qurʾan, the hadith and the lessons derived from the prophetic sīra and the reported comportment of Ahl al-Bayt. The Brethren’s propensity towards ecclesiastic ecumenism is noticeable primarily in their interpretive approaches to the question of prophecy (al-nubuwwa), and in their effort to accomplish some form of harmony between ‘faith and reason’. This is also manifest through their intellectual penchant to reconcile Abrahamic monotheistic revelation with Greek philosophy, in a manner reminiscent of classic oeuvres by al-Fārābī (Alfarabius, d. 950 CE), Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna, d. 1037 CE), and Ibn Rushd (Averroes, d. 1198 CE).

Besides being influenced by ancient Sabian, Babylonian, Indian, and Persian traditions (and by Buddhist, Manichaean, Zoroastrian teachings, etc.) the Ikhwān incorporated the fundamentals of Greek science and philosophy into their epistles. They also aimed at assimilating the range and essence of the thought of figures such as Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Ptolemy, Nicomachus of Gerasa, Galen, Hermes Trismegistus, Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus, Proclus, etc. Moreover, the compilation of the mathematical and scientific contents of their corpus was clearly indebted to the scholarship of polymaths from the generation of al-Kindī (d. 873 CE) onwards, along with the unfolding of research associated with the School of Baghdad as it evolved after the founding of the Bayt al-Ḥikma (House of Wisdom) across the ninth and tenth centuries CE.

Oriented by the classic microcosm/macrocosm analogy, and guided by related antique fourfold schemata (the longstanding belief in a correspondence between the four humours, the four temperaments, the four elements, the four seasons, the four qualities, etc.), the Ikhwān apprehended the human being as a micro-cosmos (al-insān ʿālam ṣaghīr; Epistle 26; Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, 1957) and the universe as a macro-anthropos (al-ʿālam insān kabīr; Epistle 34; Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, 1957). They also enthusiastically attempted to reinstate what they believed would amount to an equipoise between the psychical directives of the soul and their ‘correlative’ cosmological impulses. Their analogical thinking echoed Neo-Pythagorean numerological explications of the ‘layered ordering’ of the visible universe. They also adopted Neo-Platonist accounts of ‘generation by way of emanation’ in expression of their onto-theology and its cosmological bearings, whilst surpassing the fundamental Plotinian triad of ‘the One, the Intellect, and the Soul’, by positing nine levels in the hierarchy of being; as analysed in this regard by Ian Richard Netton (Epistles 29, 32, 38; Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, 1957; El-Bizri, 2008). They were furthermore attracted to the Delphic cum Socratic injunction ‘Know Thyself!’ whilst imparting to it an Abrahamic monotheistic significance in construing this maxim as a sapiential call from within Islam to follow the pathway to knowing God.

In arithmetic, they primarily relied on Nicomachus of Gerasa and on Euclid. In geometry, they mainly appealed to the Euclidean Elements. In astronomy and geography, they were chiefly based on Ptolemy. In music, they were principally influenced by Pythagorean theories of harmonics; believing in this context that the underlying numerical constitution of music is analogical to the structure of the cosmos, and, furthermore, that it offered the means through which the human soul can potentially ‘glimpse the beauties of the higher orders’.

In their study of logic, the Brethren followed Aristotle and Porphyry. They also exhibited a restrained taste for occultism, following the tradition of Hermes Trismegistus, whilst moreover deploying a parlance that has alchemical connotations, and possibly inspired by the transmissions of the corpus of Jābir ibn Ḥayyān, Geber (Marquet, 1988). It is also purported that their fascination with forms of astrological and cosmological symbolism originated in Mesopotamian sources and teachings under the influence of the Sabians of Harran, and by way of emulating antique interests in cosmic orderings and in decoding the communicative meanings that underpinned the observable astral constellations and the appearances of stellar configurations.

While eruditely synopsising the sciences and wisdoms of the Ancients and the Moderns of their time, which, in their eyes, embodied true propositions about the ultimate principles behind the realities of the world and its ontological underpinnings, the Ikhwān were also motivated by an entrenched belief in the astrological initiation of a new cycle of time that would result in immense political and social changes. This conviction may have been the result of talismanic interpretations of stellar conjunctions, which supposedly encouraged the Ikhwān to anticipate the ‘radical weakening’ of the ‘reign of the age’ (ʿAbbāsid caliphate), as well as pointing to the rise of a colossal competing centre of power in Islam. This outlook was identified by some scholars as being none other than a prediction about the emergence of the Fāṭimid dynasty in North Africa, or the instating of its reign in Egypt, or as a concrete organisational pre-Fāṭimid contribution towards such founding efforts. One might detect herein the political implications of the Ikhwān’s call for the lived pursuit of happiness in this world, and relegating the salvation of the soul to the hereafter, and in aiming at regaining the original purity of the self in its worldly and after-worldly journey back to its Lord. This spiritual trajectory required the translation of acquired knowledge into a practice of good deeds, as embodied in the Brethren’s actions to promote an ethical and earnest companionship of virtue, and counselling their coreligionists with kindness and affection (Epistles 9, 48; Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, 1957). The Ikhwān understood proper governance as that which aims at the utopian ideal of instating dawlat al-khayr (‘reign of goodness’); namely, as a spiritual polity that represents their own intellective vision of the ‘virtuous city’ (al-madīna al-fāḍila). While some scholars have argued that the Ikhwān would have been influenced in this regard by the political theory of al-Fārābī (Epistle 47, ‘On the Essence of the Divine Law’; Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, 1957), others maintained that it is more likely that they were simply inspired by adaptations of Plato’s Politeia (Republic), or associated commentaries by Galen on this opus. It is also clear that the comparative connection with the legacy of al-Fārābī in this context (Baffioni, 2002) constitutes an aspect of scholarly inquiry that can be further illuminated by the continuing debates over the chronology of the redaction of the Epistles, since these would assist in unravelling additional analytic and historical criteria under which such textual comparisons can be undertaken.

In accentuating the political import of their beliefs, the Ikhwān encouraged their followers not to acquiesce under the pressures of power or authority when these accommodate forms of injustice. They avowedly noted that their brothers and friends came from all stations and classes in society, grouping aristocrats and commoners, the sons of ‘kings, emirs, viziers, secretaries, tradesmen, and workmen’ (Epistle 47; Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, 1957). They furthermore pictured the ideal human being as being a noble who is graciously ‘Persian in breeding, Arab in faith, Ḥanīf in jurisprudence, Iraqi in culture, Hebrew in tradition, Christian in comportment, Syrian in piety, Greek in knowledge, Indian in contemplation, and Sufi in intimation and lifestyle’ (Epistle 22; Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, 1957, 2009).

Although many scholars tended to bestow an unquestioning praise upon the Ikhwān’s spirit of pluralism, tolerance, moderation, openness, and their expressions of classical forms of liberalism and humanism in Islam, nonetheless, some strict old inquirers with traditionalist leanings regarded the contents of the Rasāʾil with theological suspicion; and an extreme expression of this critique is witnessed within the works of Ibn Taymiyya as shown by Yahya Michot (El-Bizri, 2008). Accordingly, the Ikhwān’s ‘excessive’ syncretism was grasped as being a tendency that compromises the centrality of the Islamic directives, and may result in judging the articles of faith in Islam as being equivalent to those that are derivable from other monotheistic traditions, or from the teachings of antique pagan sources.

 Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ

In general, fifty-two epistles are enumerated as belonging to the Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ (Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, 1887–1889, 1928, 1957, 1995), albeit, they are sometimes counted as fifty-one or even as just fifty, depending on the manuscripts and the manner certain tracts are joined (such as the Prior and Posterior Analytics). The actual classification of the sciences in most of the manuscripts of this corpus displays some discrepancies with what was proposed by the ‘Ikhwān’ redactors themselves in Epistle 7, as shown by Godefroid de Callataÿ in his analysis of the epistolary headings (Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, 1957; de Callataÿ, 2005; El-Bizri, 2008). Despite these seeming incongruities, the compendium of the Rasāʾil in all its extant textual forms is apportioned according to four divisions in the following didactic-epistemic order: Riyāḍiyya taʿlīmiyya (Mathematical/Propaedeutic), Jismāniyya ṭabīʿiyya (Natural sciences qua Physics), Nafsāniyya ʿaqliyya (Sciences of the Soul and Intellect), and Nāmūsiyya ilāhiyya (Nomological and Theological).

The first division (Riyāḍiyya taʿlīmiyya), which consists of fourteen epistles, deals with the mathematical/propaedeutic sciences, treating a variety of topics in the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy with geography, and music (the Arabic critical editions and annotated English translations of Epistles 1-2 on arithmetic and geometry were published by Nader El-Bizri, and of Epistle 5 on music by Owen Wright; see Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ 2010a, 2012). It also includes five epistles on elementary logic, which consist of: the Isagoge, the Categories, On Interpretation, the Prior Analytics, and the Posterior Analytics (the Arabic critical editions and annotated English translations of Epistles 10-14 on logic were published by Carmela Baffioni; see Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ 2010b).

The second division of the Rasāʾil (Jismāniyya ṭabīʿiyya), which groups together seventeen epistles, addresses the physical qua natural sciences (the Arabic critical editions and annotated English translations of Epistles 15-21 on the sciences of nature were published by Carmela Baffioni; see Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ 2013). This division treats themes on matter and form, generation and corruption, metallurgy, meteorology, a study of the essence of nature, the classes of plants and animals (the latter being also set as an ethical-ecological Aesopian fable; the Arabic critical edition and annotated English translation of Epistle 22 that contains the fable was published by Lenn E. Goodman and Richard McGregor; see Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, 2009). The natural sciences division contains also tracts on the composition of the human body, its embryological constitution, along with the conception of the human being as microcosm (al-insān ʿālam ṣaghīr; Epistle 26; Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, 1957), in addition to the investigation of the phonetic and structural properties of languages and the quantity of their differences.

The third division of the corpus (Nafsāniyya ʿaqliyya) comprises ten epistles on the psychical and intellective sciences. Here the Ikhwān set forth, in their own words, the ‘opinions of the Pythagoreans and of the Brethren of Purity’, and they account for the world as a ‘macranthrope’ (al-ʿālam insān kabīr; Epistle 34; Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, 1957). They also examined the distinction between the intellect and the intelligible, as well as explicating the symbolic significance of temporal dimensions and epochal cycles, together with the mystical consideration of the essence of love (ʿishq), an investigation of resurrection, the various types of motion, causes and effects, definitions and descriptions.

The fourth and last division of the Rasāʾil (Nāmūsiyya ilāhiyya) deals with the nomic qua legal and theological sciences in eleven epistles that carry metaphysical bearings. These address the differences between the varieties of religious opinions and sects, as well as delineating the ‘Pathway to God’, the virtues of the companionship of the Brethren of Purity, the characteristics of genuine believers, the nature of the divine nomos (al-nāmūs), the call to God, the actions of spiritualists, of jinn, angels and recalcitrant demons, the species of politics, the layered ordering of the world, and, finally, the essence of magic and talismanic incantations (the partial Arabic critical edition and annotated English translation of the lengthy Epistle 52 on magic has been published by Godefroid de Callataÿ and Bruno Halflants; Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, 2011).

The Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ compendium was also accompanied by a treatise entitled al-Risāla al-jāmiʿa (The Comprehensive Epistle; Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, 1949–1951), which acted as the summarium et summae for the whole corpus, and was itself supplemented by an abridged appendage known as the Risālat jāmiʿat al-jāmiʿa (The Condensed Comprehensive Epistle; Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, 1974). It is worth noting in this regard that Jamīl Ṣalībā refutes the claim that al-Risāla al-jāmiʿa was authored by the Andalusian mathematician Maslama al-Majrītī, as had been suggested in some manuscripts of this epistle which he used in establishing the Arabic critical edition (Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, 1949–1951); as for Muṣṭafā Ghālib, he argues that the Risāla al-jāmiʿa was authored by the Imam Aḥmad ibn ʿAbd Allāh (Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, 1974).

In spite of their commendable erudition and resourcefulness, it is doubtful whether the Brethren of Purity can be impartially ranked amongst the authorities of their epoch in the realms of science and philosophy based on what has been handed down over of their textual legacy. It is unclear how much elaboration would have figured in their oral teachings within gatherings in seminars, which would have displayed a more specialised level in knowledge. Based on their textual heritage, their inquiries into mathematics, logic, and the natural sciences were synoptic and descriptive, whilst sporadically being infused with spiritual, gnostic, symbolic, and occult directives. Nonetheless, their accounts of religiosity, as well as their ecumenical syncretism, together with their praiseworthy efforts to collate, classify, and canonise the sciences of their epoch, and to compose a pioneering ‘proto-encyclopaedic’ compendium, all bear signs of originality in expressing the eruditions of their age.

In terms of the epistemic significance of the Epistles, and the intellectual calibre of its authors, it must still be stated that, despite being supplemented by oral teachings in seminars (majālis al-ʿilm), its embodied heuristics were not representative of the most decisive achievements in their epoch in the domains of mathematics, the natural and exact sciences, or in philosophical reasoning (El-Bizri, 2006, 2008). Moreover, the various classical traditions in science, philosophy, art and religion were not treated with the same level of expertise and thoroughness. Consequently, this textual corpus ought to be judged by differential criteria regarding the relative merits of each of its epistles in comparison with the corresponding intellectual activities on the subject matter they treated and studied. Nonetheless, and in fairness, there are clear signs of conceptual inventiveness in the Epistles, primarily regarding doctrinal positions in theology (conceived broadly as an intellective and reasoned approach to religious matters and questions), and in reflections on their ethical-political import, along with hints at intellectual sophistication in the meditations on the nature of spirituality and its relation with revealed religion. Nonetheless, there have been ancient and modern controversies surrounding the interpretation and reception of the Brethren’s philosophical orientations and syncretic approaches to divinalia, to eschatology, prophetology, and angelology.

It is evident that the Rasāʾil compendium brims with a wealth of ideas, and constitutes a masterpiece of mediaeval literature that presents an erudite and populist adaptation of scientific knowledge and philosophical wisdom. This corpus is informative in terms of investigating the transmission of knowledge in the historical lands of Islam, and of the transformative and ‘adaptive assimilation’ of ancient sciences in an Islamic intellectual milieu. It also offers textual material for the investigation of the evolution of elements in the sociology of learning through pre-modern forms of the popularisation of the sciences and the systemic attempts to canonise them. The classification of the sciences in the Epistles is unique in its gnostic and philosophical proto-encyclopaedism, and it differs in this regard from al-Fārābī’s Enumeration of the Sciences (Iḥṣāʾ al-ʿulūm). By influencing a variety of Islamic schools and doctrines, the Ikhwān’s textual heritage and transmitted oral teachings, all acted as significant intellectual prompts and catalysts in the unfurling of the history of ideas in Islam, and, as such, the Rasāʾil corpus rightfully deserves the station that has been assigned to it amongst the distinguished Arabic classics and the high literature of pre-modern Islamic cultures.

Occasionally verbose, and beset at times by circumlocution and a sense of entrancement with symbolism and assertions that rest on occultism, the Rasāʾil compendium is nonetheless composed in an eloquent literary style that gives elegant expression to the niceties and lucidity of the classical Arabic language. Moreover, the composition of this textual corpus displays commendable lexical adaptability, which encompasses the technicalities of mathematics and logic, the heuristics of natural philosophy, and the diction of religious invocations, in addition to poetic verses, didactic parables, and satirical fables. Despite the sometimes disproportionate treatment of topics in learning and knowledge, or the occasional hiatus in proof, the irrelevant digression, or the instance of verbosity, such stylistic weaknesses become almost inconsequential when a more comprehensive impression is formed of the architectonic unity of this textual collection, and of the convergence of its constituent fragments as a noteworthy oeuvre des belles lettres (El-Bizri, 2008).

 Manuscripts and Editions

The principal Arabic editions of Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ compendium (Epistles of the Brethren of Purity) that are available in whole in print consist of the following: Kitāb Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ wa-Khullān al-Wafāʾ, ed. Wilāyat Ḥusayn, 4 vols. (Bombay: Maṭbaʿat Nukhbat al-Akhbār, 1887–1889); Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, ed. Khayr al-Dīn al-Ziriklī, with two separate introductions by Ṭāhā Ḥusayn and Aḥmad Zakī Pasha, 4 vols. (Cairo: al-Maṭbaʿa al-ʿArabiyya bi-Miṣr, 1928); Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, ed. Buṭrus Bustānī, 4 vols. (Beirut: Dār Ṣādir, 1957); Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, ed. ʿĀrif Tāmir, 5 vols. (Beirut: Manshūrāt ʿUwaydāt, 1995). These printed texts were not based on critical editions (Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, 1887–1889, 1928, 1957, 1995), and they were preceded historically by the editio princeps of Calcutta in 1812 (reprinted in 1846).
The academic rediscovery of the Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ in modern academia emerged through the monumental editorial and translation efforts of the German scholar Friedrich Dieterici (Dieterici, 1858–1872). Decades later, this large-scale venture was followed by renditions of the Rasāʾil into Hindustani and Urdu, with subsequent partial translations into Italian, French, and English (whilst Hebrew and Latin pre-modern renderings of certain epistles preceded these). The establishment of the first complete Arabic critical edition and annotated full English translation of this proto-encyclopaedic corpus is being undertaken through a bilingual book series that is published by Oxford University Press in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies in London. Numerous volumes in this Epistles of the Brethren of Purity series have been published to date, including a large number of epistles that figure in the mathematical/propaedeutic and natural science divisions (Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, 2009, 2010a, 2010b, 2011, 2012, 2013).
The vastness of the manuscripts tradition of the Rasāʾil (over one-hundred; El-Bizri, 2008) displays signposts of its textual evolution, reconstruction, fragmentation, multiplicity of lineage and transmission channels. The oldest extant manuscript (Istanbul, MS Atif Efendi 1681, dated 578 AH / 1182 CE; El-Bizri, 2008) is disjoined from ‘the original collection of epistles’ by about two to three centuries, which further confronts scholars with the laborious task of accounting for the history of the compilation of this corpus, and of approximating a stemma codicum of its labyrinthine manuscript traditions. Certain manuscripts carry traces of random scribal interventions, or are possibly marked by deliberate interpolations, ornamental additions, and misinformed omissions. This complicates the establishment of the Arabic critical edition and adds to the mysteries surrounding the dating of the corpus and the creed and affiliation of its redactors, the genealogy of its compilers, glossators, etc. This renders the description of its contents, its organisational structure, and the conditions of their epistemic connections and distinctions, all open to further long-term inquiries. This state of affairs ought to be taken into account when reading a classical textual collection like that of the Epistles, whilst being aware of the tall order that faces those who endeavour to decode the multiple ‘voices’ that are witnessed within its folds, and reconstruct its textual puzzles with approximation. The distance that separates us from this textual corpus is not solely measurable by the methods and biographical-bibliographical instruments of historiography, philology, or codicology; it is rather also scalable in essence by way of hermeneutic means.



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How to cite:
Nader el-Bizri, «Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ: An Islamic Philosophical Fraternity », in Houari Touati (ed.), Encyclopedia of Mediterranean Humanism, Spring 2014, URL =