IKhwan al- safa as Syncretism

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The Brethren of Purity, or Ikhwan al-Safa’ as they are called in Arabic, hold a certain place in the affection and interests of those who have studied the intellectual of Arabic, and Islamic thought. They are particularly beloved by the Isma’ili who claim them as their own. They continue to intrigue because of the synthetic quality of their thought and the mystery of their identity and place of origin. Their thought is indeed worthy of more than superficial study, for the Brethren are as famed in the Middle East as Hegel, Kant and Voltaire in the West. Their self-designation as “Sleepers in the cave of our father Adam” (R, 4:18), clearly deriving from the Qur’an and Seven Sleepers of Ephesus legend, certainly reflects the mystery of their identity. And while there are some things that do remain unclear about their thought – for example, were they, or were they not, Isma’ilis?- there is much that much be said with satisfaction and positive conviction about that thought. In particular, while it would be unfair and unjust to characterize it as a total syncretism, there is no doubting the impact of the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, and especially Plotinus, on the philosophy of the Brethren of Purity.

Basrah as IKhwan al-Safa’s motherland
A useful starting point in any analysis of his philosophy is the City of Basrah in southern Iraq. Like that philosophy it was –and is –open to much outside contact and influence. In the forefront of the news in recent times because of the 1980 s Iran-Iraq War and 1991 Persian Gulf War, it famed in the Middle Ages as a cradle of Arabic philology, It was home to a huge variety of immigrants from areas as diverse as Sind, India and Malaya. Its commercial and financial acumen made it the medieval equivalent of London or Tokyo today with all the cosmopolitan overtones which mention of such cities implies. And we start with reference to the city of Barash because most scholars believe that this was the Brethren’s home. “The rest”, as I have put it elsewhere, “must be conjecture. Arabic sources differ over their individual names and perhaps it is a successful measure of the secrecy which they sought for themselves in their age that we know so little about their lives in our own. Like the deserted camp of the beloved in the early Arabic poetry, the traces of their passage have becomes faint and showy”

We will not, therefore, agonize here over the identities of these philosophers, nor their Age beyond situating them loosely in the tenth from the start the extraordinary idea that the real author of the writings of the Brethren of the Purity, their Epistles (Rasa’il), was the fourth Islamic Caliph Ali ibn Abi Talib (d. 40/661), or the sixth Imam Ja’far al- Sadiq (d.148/765)

IKhwan al-Safa’s encyclopedia
The Brethren of Purity produced as their magnum opus what was gathered into a veritable encyclopedia, a corpus of fifty –two Epistles of varying length and quality which survey a huge range of subjects ranging from music to magic. They are heavily didactic in tone and highly eclectic in content, providing both a pedagogical and a cultural mirror of their Age and its diverse philosophies and creeds. The Epistles themselves neatly divide into four main parts: fourteen focus on the mathematical sciences, seventeen deal with the natural sciences, ten with the psychological and intellectual sciences, and eleven conclude the latest four- volume Arabic edition by concentrating on what are called metaphysics or the theological sciences. A key aspect of the Epistles is its central sciences featuring a long debate between humans and delegates from the animal kingdom, this fills much of the twenty-second Epistles while goes by the name of On How the Animals and their Kinds are Formed. It has been magisterially surveyed, analysed and translated by L. E. Goodman (1978).

Textual and non- textual sources of IKhwan al-Safa’s
Seyyed Hossein Nasr (1978: 39) has warned that “ the sources of the Ikhwan should not, however, be considered solely as historically texts.” He translates part of a passage (R, 4: 42), in which “they themselves in form the reader of the universality of their sources, which include Revelation and Nature in addition to written texts”, as follows:

We have drawn our knowledge from four books. The first is composed of the mathematical and natural sciences established by the sage and philosophers. The second consists of the revealed books of the Torah, the Gospels and the Qur’an and the other Tablets brought by the prophets through angelic Revelation. The third is the books of Nature which are the ideas [suwar] in the Platonic sense of the forms [ashkal] of creatures actually existing, from the composition of the celestial spheres, the division of the Zodiac, the movement of the stars, and so on… to the transformation of the elements, the production of the members of the mineral, plant and animal kingdoms and the rich variety of human industry …..The fourth consists of the Divine books which touch only the purified men and which are the angels who are in intimacy with the chosen beings, the noble and the purified souls…

IKhwan al-Safa’s diversity of sources and materials related to thought
We should not, therefore, lose sight of the sheer diversity of source material drawn upon by the Brethren of Purity, even thought in this chapter we will restrict ourselves to the more “philosophical” elements of those source. Moreover, all that follow presupposes a background or, to put it another way, a cauldron of syncretism, Middle Eastern milieu familiar with the thought of both Aristotle and Plotinus which it absorbs but dresses in its own forms, not without some change, form much (but by no means all) of the translated Aristotelian corpus. We note, finally, the existence in the background of pseudo- Aristotelian texts, like the notorious Theologia Aristotelis, which had far more in common with the philosophy of Plotinus than of the Stagirite (12-13). With all this, it is small wonder that the Epistles of the Brethren of Purity have been characterized as syncretic.

purity and Salvation as the major goal of IKhwan al-Safa
What the Brethren of Purity were really intent upon, and the goal towards which they employed every Islamic and un-Islamic doctrine which they could muster, was salvation to be achieved by purification in this life.

They were Neoplatonic teachers intent on, and infatuated with, the propagation of a doctrine of purity, achieved through asceticism, self –denial and righteous living, as a passport for entry to the Islamic Heaven. The pillars of this doctrine were tolerance, mutual help [ta’awun] and a philosophy of eclecticism which utilised any text which might bolster their own teaching
(my italics: Netton (1982): 108)

IKhwan al-Safa as “wisdom muslims”
Perhaps a neat way of characterizing them, or summing them up, is to describe the Brethren as “Wisdom Muslims”. They had an immense veneration for knowledge and wisdom. Revering the intellect they often despised the body in a truly ascetic and Platonic fashion. Their desire for thoroughness in thought, and support for their ideas, led them to a through eclecticism which sometimes embraced the Christian and the Indian as well as the further reaches of mathematics. Were they really philosophers or mere intellectual magpies without a system? If one define a philosopher according to the actual etymological sense of that words, then the answer must be a resounding “yes. They may not have produced a single “tidy” system but neither did Wittgenstein! Their text may appear sometimes to be shot through with contradictions but there is no doubting that it is underpinned genuine philosophical and theological stance, that of salvation via asceticism and widom.

Sources

History of Islamic philosophy – seyyed Hossein Nasr- pages:222to229

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