Ikhwān Al-Ṣafāʾ

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IKHWĀN AL-AFĀʾ (Brethren of Purity) is a pseudonym assumed by the authors of a well-known encyclopedia of the philosophical sciences who described themselves as a group of fellow-seekers after truth. Members of a religio-political movement, they deliberately concealed their identity so that their treatises, entitled Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-afāʾ (Epistles of the Brethren of Purity), would gain wider circulation and would appeal to a broad cross-section of society.

Authorship and Dating

Over the centuries, the authorship of the Epistles has been ascribed to the Muʿtazilah, to the ūfīs, to Imam Jaʿfar al-ādiq, and to the great astronomer and mathematician al-Majrīī. The assertion of Abū ayyān al-Tawīdī (d. 1023) that the treatises were composed by a group of learned men in Basra during the middle of the tenth century was widely accepted. Al-Qifī (d. 1248), the famous biographer of physicians and philosophers, expressed his skepticism of al-Tawīdī's attribution by acknowledging the prevalence of the belief that the treatises were composed by an ʿAlid imam. In 1932 Husayn Hamdani stated that the Ismāʿīlī Mustaʿlī-ayyibī tradition attributes the Epistles to the hidden imam Amad. He also pointed out marked features of the treatises that are manifestly Ismāʿīlī in character.

The Ismāʿīlī character of the Epistles is therefore no longer in dispute. What is yet to be determined is the precise identity of their authors within the Ismāʿīlī movement. Zāhid ʿAlī and Wilferd Madelung consider the authors to have been Qarāmiah from Basra. On the basis of al-Tawīdī's comments and certain information provided by another contemporary Muʿtazilī author, al-Qāī ʿAbd al-Jabbār (d. 1025), S. M. Stern also implies that the authors were Qarāmiah from Basra. Yves Marquet affirms the Ismāʿīlī authorship of the Epistles and suggests that the composition might have begun under the hidden imams and that the authors mentioned by al-Tawīdī might have been later editors.

Abbas Hamdani has pointed out the weaknesses in al-Tawīdī's assertion and the untrustworthiness of his report and has published the earliest reference to the Epistles found in the Ismāʿīlī literature. He therefore rejects the Qarmati authorship of the Epistles and argues that they were compiled by the Ismāʿīlīyah as an ideological spearhead before the establishment of the Fatimid state in North Africa in 909.

Contents of the Epistles

Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-afāʾ consists of fifty-two philosophical treatises arranged in four groups, a compendium (Al-risālah al-jāmiʿah, ed. Jamīl alībā, Damascus, 1949), and a compendium of the compendium (Risālat jāmiʿat al-jāmiʿah, ed. ʿrif Tāmir, Beirut, 1959). The four sections are (1) "The Mathematical Sciences," fourteen treatises on numbers, geometry, astronomy, music, geography, theoretical and practical arts, morals, and logic; (2) "The Physical and Natural Sciences," seventeen treatises on physics, generation and corruption, mineralogy, botany, the nature of life and death, the nature of pleasure and pain, and the limits of human beings' cognitive ability; (3) "The Psychological-Intellectual Sciences," ten treatises on the metaphysics of the Pythagoreans and of the Brethren themselves, the intellect, the cycles and epochs, the nature of love, and the nature of resurrection; and (4) "The Divine Religious Sciences," eleven treatises on beliefs and creeds, the nature of communion with God, the creed of the Brethren, prophecy and its conditions, actions of the spiritual entities, types of political constitutions, providence, magic, and talismans.

The Brethren attempted to popularize learning and philosophy among the masses. Appealing to a multiplicity of races and religions, they developed a strong strain of interconfessionalism. Their attitude toward other religions is therefore strikingly liberal. They argued that religious differences stem from accidental factors such as race, habitat, and time and do not affect the unity and universality of truth.

The complete text of the Epistles was first published in 13051306/18871889 in Bombay, then in 1928 in Cairo (ed. Ziriklī), and most recently in 1957 in Beirut. However, a critical, reliable edition based on the widely scattered original manuscripts of the treatises has yet to be compiled.

Sources of the Epistles

The Epistles draw on a variety of sources. The Greek element has been dominant throughout; for example, Ptolemy in astronomy, Euclid in geometry, Hermes Trismegistos in magic and astrology, Aristotle in logic and physics, Plato and Neoplatonists in metaphysics. Another pervading influence is that of the Pythagoreans, especially in arithmetic and music. Of the Neoplatonists, Plotinus and Porphyry exercised the strongest influence. In astrology there are traces of Babylonian and Indian elements. There are also stories of Indian (Buddhist) and Persian (Zoroastrian and Manichaean) origin, and quotations from the Bible. Despite these diverse sources the authors have achieved a remarkable overall synthesis.

Parables and the Animal Story

The Brethren employ fables, parables, and allegories to illustrate and prove their doctrine while concealing their own identities; as a result, much of their doctrine remains hidden from the careless reader. The reason they give for hiding their secrets from the people is not their fear of earthly rulers, but a desire to protect their God-given gifts. To support their contention they invoke Christ's dictum not to squander the wisdom by giving it to those unworthy of it.

The dispute between humans and animals (part of the twenty-second epistle, entitled "On How the Animals and Their Kinds Are Formed") is an allegorical story in which the animals complain to the just king of the jinn about the cruel treatment meted out to them by human beings. In the course of the debate, the animals refute humanity's claim of superiority over them by denouncing the rampant injustice and immorality of human society. This fable is a good example of the Brethren's sociopolitical criticism of Islamic society couched in animal characters. The most severe criticism is leveled against the wealthy (who go on amassing fortunes without caring for the needy), the privileged, and the ruling classes. The point is rendered more explicitly in the compendium (Al-risālah al-jāmiʿah), wherein it is stated that the animals in the story symbolize the masses who blindly follow their rulers, and the humans represent "the advocates of reasoning by analogy" (those who deduce legal prescriptions from the Qurʾān and the sunnah by reasoning and by analogy), the disciples of Satan, the adversaries of the prophets, and the enemies of the imams.

The story enjoyed wide popularity among the masses. It was translated into Hebrew during the fourteenth century and was rendered into Urdu-Hindustani by Mawlavī Ikrām ʿAlī (Calcutta, 1811). In modern times it was translated into English by L. E. Goodman as The Case of the Animals versus Man before the King of the Jinn (Boston, 1978).

Philosophical System

The philosophical system of the Epistles is a synthesis of reason and revelation wherein the cosmos is viewed as a unified, organic whole. The philosophical structure and the cosmology are derived from Neoplatonism and Neo-Pythagoreanism. Eclectic in nature, the system draws on various faiths and philosophies, with a strong undercurrent of rationalism. The Brethren offered a new political program under the aegis of an ʿAlid imam, and their utopia, referred to as al-madīnah al-fāilah al-rūānīyah ("the spiritual, virtuous city") or dawlat ahl al-khayr ("the government of virtuous people"), was to be governed by a lawgiving philosopher-prophet. The organization and arrangement of the Epistles and their classification of the sciences reflect this ultimate objective.

God is described as absolutely transcendent, beyond all thought and all being. He is the One, the originator and the cause of all being. He is unique in every respect, and nothing can be predicated of him. The universe, which is quite distinct from the divine unity, is related to God by its existence (wujūd), permanence (baqāʾ ), wholeness (tamām ), and perfection (kamāl). The universe is derived by emanation (fay), whereas creation, when it is spoken of, is understood as a form of adaptation to theological language.

The superstructure of the hierarchy of beings originates with the intellect emanating from God. The intellect, therefore, is described as the first existent being that emanates from God's munificence (jūd). It is a simple spiritual substance with the qualities of permanence, wholeness, and perfection. It contains the forms of all things and is in fact the cause of all causes. Second in the hierarchy is the soul, which emanates from the intellect. It is a simple spiritual substance with the qualities of permanence and wholeness but lacking the quality of perfection. Third in the hierarchy is prime matter, which emanates from the soul. It is a simple spiritual substance that has permanence but lacks wholeness and perfection. It is also susceptible to form.

The cause of the intellect's existence is God's munificence, which emanates from him. The intellect accepts God's munificence and virtues (permanence, wholeness, and perfection) instantaneously, without motion, time, or exertion, on account of its proximity to God and its utmost spirituality. Because of its perfection it overflows with munificence and virtues into the soul. But as its existence is through the intermediacy of the intellect, the soul is deficient in receiving the virtues, and thus its status is below that of intellect. To procure goodness and virtue, it turns sometimes to intellect and at other times to matter. Consequently, when it turns to intellect for goodness, it is distracted from doing good to matter, and vice versa. Being imperfect, the soul becomes attached to matter, which lacks not only the virtues but also the desire to receive them. The soul, therefore, turning to matter, takes special care in its advancement by acting on the matter and by making manifest the virtues inherent in it. Hence the soul is afflicted with exertion, hardship, and misery in reforming and perfecting matter. When matter accepts the virtues, it attains wholeness, while the soul achieves its own perfection. When the soul turns to the intellect, is attached to it and united with it, it attains tranquillity.

The process of emanation terminates with matter. As the soul acts on matter, the matter receives its first formthe three dimensions (length, breadth, and depth)and thereby becomes absolute body (al-jism al-mulaq ) or universal matter (hayūlā al-kull). Thenceforth begins the realm of the composite (ʿālam al-murakkabāt ). Next, absolute body takes its first form, which is circular because that is the best form. Thus, the spheres and the stars are formed from absolute body. Subsequently come the nine spheres beginning with the outermost sphere, which encompasses all spheres. Next to it is the sphere of fixed stars, followed by the spheres of Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the sun, Venus, Mercury, and the moon. The higher the position of the sphere, the purer and finer its matter. The spiritual force that directs and manages each sphere is called the particular soul of that sphere.

Under the sublunar world comes the physical matter (hayūlā al-abīʿah ) of the four elements, fire, air, water, and earth. The earth, being farthest from the One, is the coarsest and darkest kind of physical matter. The active force of the soul that operates on the four elements through heat, cold, dryness, and wetness is known as "the nature of generation and corruption." It moreover produces the generated beings that form the three kingdoms of minerals, plants, and animals. The active force operating on each of these generated beings is called the particular soul. Thus, the process wherein the soul mixes the elements to various degrees and thereby produces the generated beings terminates with man, who is the culmination of that process. Humanity is therefore the noblest of all creation, and the rest of the three kingdoms have been made subservient to it. The unity and complexity of the human being's soul and body make him or her a microcosm. Humans, by virtue of their position, are the central link in the long chain of beings; below them is the animal kingdom and above them is the world of angels, and they are connected to both. In the Perfect Human Being, who has realized his divine origin, the process of generation in descending order comes to an end and the reverse journey in ascending order starts. The human being, therefore, fulfills the purpose of creation.

The Epistles occupy a unique position in the history of Islamic thought and exercised a great influence on the Muslim elite. The existence of a large number of manuscript copies of the text scattered throughout the Muslim countries is an eloquent witness to their popularity and influence.


To the extensive bibliography provided by Yves Marquet in his article "Ikhwān al-afāʾ," in The Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed. (Leiden, 1960), the following studies should be added: Abbas Hamdani's "Abū ayyān al-Tawīdī and the Brethren of Purity," International Journal of Middle East Studies 9 (1978): 345353, and "An Early Fatimid Source on the Time and Authorship of the Rasaʾil Ikhwān al-afā ʾ," Arabica 26 (February 1979): 6275; Hamid Enayat's "The Political Philosophy of the Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-afāʾ," in Ismaili Contributions to Islamic Culture, edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr (Tehran, 1977); and Ian R. Netton's Muslim Neoplatonists (London, 1982).

Ismail K. Poonawala (1987)