Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa’, Epistles of the Brethren of Purity, Ikhwan al-Safa’, encyclopaedia, science, philosophy, Basra, Shi‘a
Table of contents
- Two Types of Classification of Sciences in Rasa’il
- The Science of Language
- Religious and Conventional Sciences
- Philosophical and Real Sciences
- Ikhwan’s Division of Philosophy
- A Comparison of the Two Classifications
It is now generally agreed that the authors of the Epistles were high-ranked men of learning from the Shi‘a community, that they lived in Basra (Iraq) in the course of the 4th century of Islam (10th Century AD) and that they had at least some connections with the Ismaili movement. The encyclopaedia as we know it consists of 51 or 52 epistles, each one roughly dealing with one particular topic of human knowledge, to which one must add a ‘Concluding’ or ‘Comprehensive Epistle’ (Risalat al-jami‘a) at the end of the corpus. The Epistles are visibly classified according to an order designed to follow a step-by-step progression towards the most difficult of human wisdom. The esoteric nature of certain parts of the encyclopaedia, especially the last part of it, is a remarkable peculiarity of the Rasa’il. Another very conspicuous feature of the corpus is the great diversity and considerable eclecticism of its sources, together with the almost unparalleled scope of the matters involved.
In recent times several important studies have been devoted to the sources and contents of the Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa’, most notably by Yves Marquet, Ian Richard Netton and Carmela Baffioni. We also find a few studies in which the Ikhwan’s way of classifying the sciences is briefly discussed or compared to other famous Muslim systems, such as those of al-Kindi (d. 873), al-Farabi (d. 950), Ibn Sina (d. 1037) or Ibn Khaldun (d. 1395). Yet, to the best of my knowledge, no significant attempt has been made so far so as to appraise the originality of the Brethren's own system. It is the aim of this paper to present some results of my current exploration of this topic.
It seems appropriate to begin with the classification of sciences which the authors themselves outline in the second half of Epistle VII. For us, the most important part of this text is the overall presentation of the system, which begins with the following lines:
These preliminary words look like an invitation to merely single out from the entire corpus of sciences one or two particular fields according to one’s tastes. They do not seem to presuppose, as such, any logical or rational sequence of the fields of knowledge that are to be mentioned next. In other terms, they could as well have been part of a typical piece of ‘adab literature like the Epistle on the Sciences (Risala fi’l-‘ulum) of Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi (d. 1023), which is neither a systematic nor an exhaustive enumeration of sciences. But what comes next in Epistle VII clearly demonstrates that the Ikhwan had a well-organised construction in mind. The main structure is tripartite, as the text makes it plain:
In the first place come the sciences which the Ikhwan call the propaedeutic (or disciplinary or training) sciences and which they define as ‘the sciences of education (‘adab) which have been set up mainly for the quest of subsistence and for the goodness of the living in this world’. The Brethren do not despise them, as all these sciences prove to be useful in the terrestrial accomplishment of man, yet their very segregation from the rest makes them clearly felt as inferior to the sciences of the two other groups, whose purpose is not restricted to the life here below.
The Ikhwan were not the first thinkers to speak of propaedeutic or training sciences (‘ilm al-riyadat). In his Epistle on the Number of Books by Aristotle, al-Kindi uses exactly the same words, yet under his pen the expression unambiguously referred to the four mathematical sciences that make up the so-called ‘Pythagorean quadrivium’, namely, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. From Plato at least, the importance of these four mathematical sciences as a prerequisite to any other studies had been endorsed in the West by such great authorities as Nicomachus of Gerasa, Boethius and Isidore of Seville, so as to become a commonplace of any discussion about philosophy and its divisions in the medieval schools of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. This tradition of four liberal arts also went its way through Islam, as we can see from al-Kindi’s treatise on the number of Aristotle’s books but also from countless other evidence. The Pythagorean quadrivium was sometimes enlarged so as to include engineering and other ‘educational sciences’ (‘ilm al-ta‘lim), as al-Farabi calls them in his famous Enumeration of the Sciences. Very often, though, it held its original structure without alteration, as for instance in Avicenna’s Epistle on the Parts of Intellectual Sciences (Risala fi aqsam al-‘ulum al-‘aqliyya). Anyway, what matters most to us here is to see that the Ikhwan al-Safa’ do not range any science of the number among their disciplinary or training sciences. Rather, they choose to range the whole block of mathematics as a specific section of their ultimate group of sciences – the philosophical sciences – to which we shall return later in greater detail. As for the training sciences, their list does, indeed, include a section headed ‘calculations and operations’, but by it the Brethren no doubt refer to a very practical and strictly mundane use of numbers.
Now let us proceed with the Ikhwan’s division of philosophy. As is well-known, Aristotle had distinguished physics, mathematics and metaphysics as the three parts of what he called theoretic philosophy, whose purpose is the study of intelligible beings. Physics, he said, deals with those objects which cannot exist nor being conceived of as separate from matter and motion. At a superior level of abstraction, mathematics is concerned with beings which can be rationally isolated from matter and motion, but which nevertheless require both so as to exist. The highest level of abstraction falls to metaphysics, which deals with those intelligible beings that are not only conceivable as separate from matter and motion, but which can also exist without them. The Aristotelian division of speculative philosophy was transmitted to the Western Middle Ages by Boethius who in his De Trinitate spoke of those three parts as ‘philosophia naturalis’, ‘mathematica’ and ‘theologica’. In Islam, the threefold scheme was taken up by al-Kindi and his successors in the science of philosophy, the only point of discussion being the places in the sequence ascribed to physics and mathematics respectively. According to the ontological point of view, the sequence just mentioned should evidently be preferred. Yet from what has been said earlier we may also understand why the mathematical sciences, that is, ultimately, the Pythagorean quadrivium, could be regarded as a type of propaedeutic learning of its own.
This, we may note, seems to be the case of our text, where mathematics come before physics and metaphysics. With the Ikhwan, that other rational – and quite common – sequence is broken up by the incorporation of logic into the whole system. This is, however, nothing to be amazed at. In the footsteps of the Alexandrian commentators of Late Antiquity, the Arabs had for long been accustomed to regard the whole set of Aristotle's logical sciences as a prerequisite tool (Gr. organon) for the study of every rational science. As a result, logic and mathematics could both be viewed as necessary preliminaries to the general study of philosophy.
This table calls for a few explanations. Aristotle’s legacy is, of course, paramount. Not only the general structure, but even each part of entire sections such as logic or physics is purely Aristotelian in its very appellation. They will not retain our attention here. Nor shall I come back to the mathematical quadrivium of the first section, as I think enough of it has been said before. Definitely the most original section – and therefore the most interesting to look at – is the last one, which immediately strikes the reader with its non-Aristotelian elements. First of all, we learn that there is no such thing as one divine science, something to be validly compared with Aristotle’s ‘science of the beings as beings’ or with the ‘philosophia prima’ of medieval scholasticism. Instead, what we are faced with here is no less than five different disciplines, including politics and eschatology, which do not seem to have much in common at first sight. What is more perceptible, it would seem, is a kind of circular movement which has its origin in the most ineffable of beings – significantly enough the Ikhwan speak of the ‘knowledge’ and not of the ‘science’ of the Creator – which goes back to the same point – whence, the ‘Science of Return’ – after a step-by-step descent through other divine entities such as the angels, the souls and the spirits which pervade the universe. As it looks, a very curious place has been devoted to politics in the continuation of the Neoplatonic theory of emanation, especially as the further subdivisions of that science appear to be, for the most part of it, completely out of place in this section of divine sciences. For one part, indeed, the last three subdivisions of politics, i.e. the public, the domestic and the private, appear to agree rather well with the three parts of Aristotle’s practical philosophy, that is, politics, economics and ethics respectively. But, then, why did the Ikhwan not simply choose to take up this Aristotelian scheme of practical philosophy as yet another group of sciences of its own? Yet, more puzzling still is to find that the two other subdivisions of politics, i.e. the prophetic and the royal, are part of philosophy at all, whereas they would seem to fit much more easily in the group of religious sciences as described just above in the same passage?
It is at this stage, I think, that we may bring forward the list of the 51 or 52 Epistles that make up the corpus of the Ikhwan as it has come down to us. Table 3 in the Appendix displays the titles of sections and of individual epistles as they have been actually preserved in the manuscript tradition. As may be seen, some of these titles have a much flourished tone.
In the introduction of his La Philosophie des Ikhwan al-Safa’, Yves Marquet attempted to find out, in various passages of the encyclopaedia, the evidence for concluding that ‘our Epistles keep the traces of a certain vagueness, both in the order of chapters, and in the number of Epistles in each section.’ Bringing forward a certain number of indisputable indications from the text itself, the French scholar could draw the following inferences:
- At the time when the first epistle of the group of physical sciences was written – that is, the one on matter, form, etc. – only five epistles of Section I, and seven of Section II had already been compiled.
- Some epistles from Sections I and II were later modified, whether it be by amplification or by splitting of their contents. In a former state, there was, for instance, only one epistle on logic.
- Each one of the four Sections was subsequently extended or completed with the incorporation of new epistles.
This being said, it remains that the Ikhwan’s assertion that they have dedicated a specific epistle to each one of the subdivisions is, to a very large extent, valid. The encyclopaedia opens with the four sciences of the quadrivium (arithmetic in I, geometry in II, astronomy in III and music in V). The only peculiarity is that a risala on geography has now been intercalated between astronomy and music, but this is hardly surprising since geography may indeed be conceived of as a sort of natural appendix to astronomy. The titles of the five rasa’il on logic correspond, not to the five sciences mentioned in Epistle VII (that is, poetics, rhetorics, topics, analytics and sophistics), but rather to the famous Book of Demonstration – in other words, the ‘Second Analytics’ (XIV) and to its four indispensable preliminaries, namely: the ‘Isagogue’ (X), the ‘Categories’ (XI) the ‘Peri Hermeneias’ or ‘De Interpretatione’ (XII) and the ‘First Analytics’ (XIII). The section of natural sciences is, as we have said, the one for which the sequence has been best preserved. Each of the seven parts of physics is, indeed, the place for a specific risala (from XV to XXII), with only one intercalation to be mentioned, namely the one on the quiddity of nature in XXII.
Clearly the most remarkable feature of our comparison concerns the last section, where the variations can no longer be perceived as negligible. Thus, apart from the epistle on the spiritual beings which we may indeed find in XLIX, the only other science to be found as such in the encyclopaedia is the last one, the ‘Science of Return’, but we notice immediately that this risala, which is number XXXVIII, has been placed in the third, not the fourth section. As for the science of politics and its own subdivisions, it would certainly be a mistake to assimilate it too quickly to what the Ikhwan report in their epistle L, on the species of politics.
So, how could these seeming oddities be accounted for? Well, at the risk of being a bit disappointing I would argue that these are typically matters which are best left unsolved for the time being. Surely, one could put forward chronological reasons, and assume, for instance, that a certain lapse of time must have separated the writing of Epistle VII – with its systematic and carefully reflected classification of the sciences – and the overall compilation of the Rasa’il. Those who, like Marquet, favour a longer chronology could certainly pretend that the authors of Epistle VII and those who put the final touch to that global undertaking were possibly not the same Ikhwan al-Safa’. In the present state of our information, one could even surmise that the arrangement of the Rasa’il in the form as we know it should not be ascribed to the authors themselves, but to later partisans or scholars. Yet all this is largely conjectural, and bound to remain so until we get a much clearer picture of the social, historical and epistemological context in which our Epistles began to be produced, collected and dispatched. As for so many other vexed questions about the Ikhwan, this kind of speculation will have much to gain from the forthcoming edition, on a truly scientific basis, of all the Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa’.
At any rate, the perfect correspondence between the classification of Epistle VII and the sequence of Epistles making up the actual corpus should be considered an unrealistic expectation from the very moment one is willing to admit that the Rasa’il are but the most visible part of the undertaking. In many places, the Brethren refer or allude to their secret meetings known as majalis al-‘ilm (literally, ‘sessions of science’) and make it very clear that the highest degrees of their teaching programme are not committed to writing. As Marquet rightly summarised in the book mentioned above, ‘the Epistles are at the same time the master’s book and the student’s handbook, yet a handbook which must be completed with some oral teaching’. In this regard, we may add, it is significant that the section of our encyclopaedia for which the discrepancies with the classification of Epistle VII are especially thick on the ground is precisely the last one and that containing the highest level of esotericism.
- writing and reading;
- language and grammar;
- calculation and operations;
- poetic and prosody;
- auguries and auspices, and the like;
- magic, talismans, alchemy, tricks and the like;
- professions and crafts;
- sale and purchase, trades, cultivation and breeding;
- biographies and histories.
II. The religious and conventional (sciences), that is, the sciences which have been set up for the healing of the souls and for the quest of the hereafter, are of six kinds:
- science of revelation;
- science of interpretation;
- narratives and reports;
- jurisprudence, norms and laws;
- recollection, exhortations, asceticism and mysticism;
- interpretation of dreams.
The learned in the science of revelation are those who read the Qur’an and know it by heart. The learned in the science of interpretation are the imams and the successors of the prophets. The learned in the narratives are the specialists of the Tradition. The learned in the laws and the norms are the jurists. The learned in the recollection and the exhortations are the worshippers, ascetics, monks and the like. The learned in the interpretation of dreams are the interpreters.
III. The philosophical sciences are of four kinds:
- natural sciences;
1. Mathematical sciences
2. Logical sciences
3. Natural sciences
- science of corporal principles
- science of the heaven and the world
- science of coming-to-be and passing-away
- science of atmospheric events
- science of minerals
- science of plants
- science of animals
4. Divine sciences
- knowledge of the Creator
- science of spiritual beings
- science of psychic beings
- science of politics (with 5 subdivisions: prophetic, royal, public, domestic, private)
- science of Return
Section I: the mathematical sciences (14 epistles)
- Epistle I: On the number.
- Epistle II: The epistle entitled jumatriya, dealing with geometry (handasa), and account of its quiddity.
- Epistle III: The epistle entitled asturunumiya, dealing with the science of the stars and the composition of the spheres.
- Epistle IV: On geography (al-jughrafiya).
- Epistle V: On music (al-musiqa).
- Epistle VI: On the arithmetical and geometrical proportions with respect to the refinement of the soul and the reforming of the characters.
- Epistle VII: On the scientific arts and their aim.
- Epistle VIII: On the practical arts and their aim.
- Epistle IX: Where one accounts for characters, the causes of their difference and the [various] species of the evils which [strike] them; anecdotes drawn from the educational rules of the Prophets and cream of the morals of the sages.
- Epistle X: On the Isagogè (isaghuji).
- Epistle XI: On the ten categories, that is, qatighuriyas.
- Epistle XII: On the meaning of the Peri Hermeneias (baramaniyas).
- Epistle XIII: On the meaning of the Analytics (anulutiqa).
- Epistle XIV: On the meaning of the Second Analytics (anulutiqa al-thaniya).
Section II: The sciences of the body and of nature (17 epistles)
- Epistle XV: Where one accounts for the hylè, the form, the motion, the time and the place, together with the meanings of those (things) when they are linked to one another.
- Epistle XVI: The epistle entitled ‘the heavens and the world’, with respect to the reforming of the soul and the refinement of the characters.
- Epistle XVII: Where one accounts for the coming-to-be and the passing-away.
- Epistle XVIII: On meteors.
- Epistle XIX: Where one accounts for the coming-to-be of the minerals.
- Epistle XX: On the quiddity of nature.
- Epistle XXI: On the kinds of plants.
- Epistle XXII: On the modalities of the coming-to-be of the animals and of their kinds.
- Epistle XXIII: On the composition of the bodily system.
- Epistle XXIV: On the sense and the sensible, with respect to the refinement of the soul and the reforming of the characters.
- Epistle XXV: On the place where the drop of sperm falls into.
- Epistle XXVI: On the claim of the sages that man is a ‘micro cosmos’.
- Epistle XXVII: On the modalities of birth of the particular souls in the natural human bodily systems.
- Epistle XXVIII: Where one accounts for the capacity of man to know, which limit he [can] arrive at, what he [can] grasp of the sciences, which end he arrives at and which nobility he raises to.
- Epistle XXIX: On the wisdom of death and birth.
- Epistle XXX: On what is particular to the pleasures; on the wisdom of birth and death and the quiddity of both.
- Epistle XXXI: On the reasons of the difference in languages, graphical figures and expressions.
- Epistle XXXII: On the intellectual principles of the existing beings according to the Pythagoreans.
- Epistle XXXIII: On the intellectual principles according to the Brethren of Purity.
- Epistle XXXIV: On the meaning of the claim of the sages that the world is a ‘macranthropos’.
- Epistle XXXV: On the intellect and the intelligible.
- Epistle XXXVI: On revolutions and cycles.
- Epistle XXXVII: On the quiddity of love.
- Epistle XXXVIII: On resurrection and anastasis.
- Epistle XXXIX: On the quantity of kinds of motions.
- Epistle XL: On causes and effects.
- Epistle XLI: On definitions and descriptions.
Section IV: The nomic, divine and legal sciences (11 epistles)
- Epistle XLII: On views and religions.
- Epistle XLIII: On the quiddity of the Way (leading) to God – How Powerful and Lofty is He!
- Epistle XLIV: Where one accounts for the belief of the Brethren of Purity and the doctrine of the divine men.
- Epistle XLV: On the modalities of the relations of the Brethren of Purity, their mutual help and the authenticity of sympathy and affection (they have for one another), whether it be for the religion or for what is pertaining to this world.
- Epistle XLVI: On the quiddity of faith and the characteristics of the believers who realise [those things].
- Epistle XLVII: On the quiddity of the divine nomos, the conditions of prophecy and the quantity of characteristics (the Prophets); on the doctrines of the divine men and of the men of God.
- Epistle XLVIII: On the modalities of the call (to go) to God.
- Epistle XLIX: On the modalities of states of the spiritual beings.
- Epistle L: On the modalities of the species of politics and their quantity.
- Epistle LI: On the modalities of the arrangement of the world as a whole.
- Epistle LII: On the quiddity of magic, incantations and the evil eye.