Ikhwan Al-Safa’

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The of group epistles entitled Ikhwān al-Safāʾ, often called Encyclopedia of the Brothers of Purity, is a compendium of all the sciences known in the tenth century and the first complete exposition of the Ismaili philosophical system. The Shiites sought to prove that the imams—divinely appointed successors of Muhammad in the line of ʿAlī—are alone entitled to rule the Muslim community, and that their authority should be seen in the context of a cosmic mission. Toward this end they adopted the Neoplatonic doctrine of emanation. The Ismaili further systematized and integrated with the Hermetic and astrology of the Harrānians.

According to the Ismaili schema, God created the universe through a series of emanations originating with Himself, each giving rise directly to its successor. The series consists of the Intellect and its archetypes, and Soul, in turn, fragmented into innumerable faculties or souls, which gave prime matter its forms. First came the nine celestial spheres, by means of which the lower world is governed, and then the four elements, the lowest point reached by the souls in their descent. The souls then began a rescent, a sort of test in which they must progressively pass through all the stages through which they had descended. This process gave rise to the minerals, then the plants, then the animals, and finally man, who stands at the border of the two worlds. But the only souls that can cross this threshold into the celestial spheres ae those that,purified by morality and knowledge, have been liberated from the prison of matter.

Just as there is a hierarchy of all beings, a hierarchy is established among human souls; the ignorent who are of good will remain at the same level, while the wicked fall to the rank of animals of even lower. This is way the very ling life of the universe id divided into cycles of 7,000 years, which are determined by astrological cycles. Toward the end of a cycle, the souls that have not yet been chosen are judged. Those found unworthy of escaping from a cycle are reinvarnated in the next and will again have to try their luck. In the long run, the most wicked will become cemons tortured by carnal appetites.

But God, the theory promises, sustains men through the intermediary of the imams and, especially, by the prophets He sends. The first is Adam, and the sixth is Muhammad, who will also be the qāʾimof the Resurrection in the seventh millennium. Within each millennium there are successive series of seven imams, who, in accordance with the astrological cycles, pass althernetely from concealment to public view. The ascent of the souls takes place in the context of the Spirtrual city (inspired by Plato’s Republic—as seen in the light of Neoplatonusm—like the Virtuos City of al-Fārābī). In absolute terms the Spiritual City is the archetypal soul of humanity (celestial Adam) and is therefore constituted of all the Spiritual City is the archetypal constituted of all the chosen souls of the past and of the future—notably the souls of the Messengers, who bring a new revealed Law, and of the imans.

On earth the City is ruled by the prophet sent by God or by the imam of the moment. He is assisted by the initiated, a mystical hierarchy through which the influx descends from on high and which consists of four ranks, corresponding to the levels of reason (instinctive of practical reason; acquired reason, demonstration, and free will; philosophy and inspiration; revelation). Opposed to it is an inverted hierarchy—that of the fiends, headed by the anticapiph and oriented toward the center of the earth. The Ikhwān present at lenght a theory—;likewise inspied by Plato—of the hierarchy of the sciences. (It is the sciences that prepare the souls for rising through the sequence of stages.) The Ikhwān also offer a detailed theory of proselytism and of propaganda. The doctrine is identical with that of the proto-Ismaili, and the Spiritual City reflects the initial organization of the Ismaili daʿwa. the epistles were, in face, one of the principal—if not the principal—means of spreading propaganda for the daʿwa.

The doctrine described here represents a new syncretism. Its chief component is an earlier Hellenistic syncretism in which the views of Aristotle, Euclid, Ptolemy, and others are subordinated to a mixture of Platonism and Neoplatonism recast in the form of a Pythagorean Hermeticism. To this amalgam are joined Hindu, Persian, and Christian elements. Finally, the whole is integrated with the doctrines of Islam.

The Ismaili attributed the epistles to the sixth imam, Ja ʿfar al-Sādiq, or to three of his successors, the secret imams (765–909), as well as to four propagandists. including ʿAbd Allah ibn Maymūn al-Qaddāh. On the other hand, al-Tawhīdī (d. 1023[?]; cited by F. H. Dieterici, Die philosophie der Araber, 142) and the great Mu ʿtazilite judge of Rayy, ʿAbd al-Jabbār al-Hamadāni (936–1025; cited by S. M. Stern, “New Information about the Authors of the ʿEpistles of the Sincere Brethren’”), give the names of several inhabitants of Basra who, they say, are the authors. Three of these names are mentioned by both Tawhīdī and ʿAbd al- Jabbār; the judge Abu’l Hasan ʿAli ibn Hārūn al-Zanjānī (whom Twahīdī considers “the author of the doctorine” and a dangerous Ismaili), Abū Ahmad Al-Nahrajūrī, and al-ʿAwfī. Further, Tawhīdī and ʿAbd al-Jabbār both cite Zayd ibn Rifā ʿa. According to ʿAbd al- Jabbār, he is ine of the authors; but Tawhīdī sees him as only one of their friends. Only Tawhīdī includes among the authors a certain Abū Sulatmān ibn Ma ʿshar al-Bustī al-Maqdisī (whom Tawhīdī’s teacher thought to be the pricipal author); and only ʿAbd al-Jabbār mentions a secretary and astrologer named Abū Muhammad ibn Abīʾ l-Baghl.

In 1876 Diterichi noted several circumstances in support of his opinion that the epistles were written between 961 and 986. Specifically, he cited the presence of verses by Mutanabbī and Tawhīdī mention of the presumed authors in a conversation that he had with a vizier in 981. L. Massignon agreed with his dating, pointing out a mathematical fact and the presence of verses by Ibn al-Rūmī. One may also cite allusions to the polemic between Mu ʿtazilites and Ash ʿarites, together with an explicit mention of these latter, as well as an allusion to the theory of modes proposed by Abū Hāshim al-Jubbāʾī. Neverthless, several passages mentioning the conjuction of Saturn and Jupiter allude ot to the date foreseen for the definitive triumph (abotu 1047) but, rather, to that which, 119 years earlier, inaugurates the period of ascension (about 928). And the success predicted is very probably the establishment of the Fātimid caliphat in Ifrīqiyya. These passages, therefore, should be dated earlier than 909. The writing may, hwoever, have extended over a long period. Accordingly, there may well be some truth in the Ismalili tradition concerning the authorship of the epistles. Ja ʿfar al-Sādiq may have been the originator of the doctorine, which was then developed by the secret imams. Finally, the great propagandists may have continued the writing under the auspices of the Fātimid caliphs of Ifrīqiyya. (One of the epistles purports to have been written by an imam, but otherwise the writers mention their common effort.)

The epistles probably did not receive their definitive form until after the conquest of Egypt (969), when the Ismaili were already active in Iraq in anticaiption of the conjunction of 1047. There is evidence supporting the Mesopotamian origin of certain of the authors. The Basrians named by Tawhīdī and ʿAbd al-Jabbār may therefore have been among the latter authors, although, this is not certain. On the other hand, they were undoubtedly important propagandists who were at the height of their activity around 981 and who used the epistles, which were then completed, as an instrument of propaganda. The necessity of secret activity accounts for the inconsistency in the assertions of Tawhīdī and of ʿAbd al-Jabbār (whom the propagadnists had perhaps at first believed to be receptive to their ideas, the first as a philosopher and the second as a supporter of the idea of free will). A person working in secret must sometimes risk revealing himself while protecting his companions; it was natural that these people allowed some doubt to exist concerning the scope and the origin—whatever it may have been—of the epistles.

The tenth century has been called the century of Shiism. The justice of this assertion is attested by the activity of the Karmathians and of the Fātimids, the infiltration of the administration by the imamates, and the guardianship of the caliphate instituted by the Buwayhids. It was also the time in which al-Fārābi perhaps attempted (with greater success than Plato had with Dionysius the Younger of Syracuse) to convince the Hamdanid soevreign of Aleppo, Sayf al-Dawla, to make real his conception of the Virtuous City. The Ismaili Fātimids made it real in their organization, and the epistles undoubtedly played a not unimportant role in their historic successes.


See F. H. Dieterici, ed., Die Philosophie der Araber, 16 Vols. (Leipzig-Berlin, 1858-1891); and Die Abhandlungen der Ichwān as-safāʾ in Auswahl zum resten Malaus arabischen Handschriften herausgegeben (Leipzig, 1886); Y. Marquet, La phiosophie des Ikhwān al-safāʾ: De Dieu í I’homme (LIlle, 1973), a doctoral dissertation presented in 1971; and “La philosophie des Ikhwān al-safāʾ: L’ iman et la Société,” in Travaux et documents du Départment d’ arabe, Faculté des letters, Universite de Dakar, no. 1 (1973); S. M. Stern, “New Information About the Authors of the ʿEpistles of the Sincere Brethren, ’” in Islamic Studies, 3 (1964), 405–428; and A.L.Tibāwī, “Jamā ʿat Ikhwān as safāʾ,” in Journal of the American University of Beirut(1930–1931),1–80; and “Ikhwān as safāʾ and Their Rasāʾil,”in Islamic Quarterly, 2 (1956),28–46.

Yves Marquet