Encyclopaedia Articles

Brethren of Purity

Key words:
Esoteric, Basra, Baghdad, compendium, mathematics, music, logic, astronomy, physical sciences, natural sciences, soul, ethics, revelation, spirituality, philosophy, Ikhwan, Shi‘ainfo-icon, Ismaili, Fatimid, Qur’aninfo-icon, Abrahamic monotheism, Torah, Canonical Gospelsinfo-icon, ancient Indian and Persian classics, Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Euclid, Ptolemy, syncretism, history of ideas in Islam, Muslim civilisation.
Ikhwan al-Safa’

Ikhwan al-Safa’ (the Brethren of Purity) were the affiliates of an esoteric coterie that was based in Basra and Baghdad around the last quarter of the tenth century CE. The learned adepts of this fraterni­ty authored a compendium, Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa’ (The Epistles of the Brethren of Purity), which was structured in the form of an encyclopaedia. This voluminous work grouped fifty-two tracts that treated themes in mathematics, music, logic, astronomy, and the physical cum natural sciences, as well as explor­ing the nature of the soul and investigating associated matters in ethics, revelation, and spirituality. This series offered synoptic elucidations of the classical traditions in philosophy and science of the ancients and the moderns of the age. It was also accompanied by a dense treatise titled al-Risala al-jami‘a (The Comprehensive Epistle) and further complemented by an appendage known as Risalat.jami‘at al-jami‘a (The Condensed Comprehensive Epistle).

The precise identity of the authors of this monumental corpus and the exact chronology of its composition, remain unsettled matters of scholarly debate in the field of Islamic studies. Although the Ikhwan’s writings have been described as being affiliated to Sufi, Sunni, or Mu‘tazilite teachings, it is more generally accepted that their line in literature belonged to a Shi‘iteinfo-icon legacy that had strong connections with the Ismaili tradition. While some scholars assert that the Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa’ are attributable to early Fatimid sources, others maintain that this textual legacy transcended sectarian divisions in Islam and, in its spirit of open­ness, should consequently lead us to treat its authors as free-thinkers who were not bound within the doc­trinal confines of a specific creed. Moreover, besides founding their views on the Qur’an and the teachings of Islam, the Ikhwan did not hesitate to appeal in their Rasa’il to the other scriptures of Abrahamic monotheism, such as the Torah of Judaism and the Canonical Gospels of Christianity.

The Ikhwan were also implicitly influenced by Ancient Indian and Per­sian classics, and they were enthusiastically inspired by the Greek legacies of the likes of Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Euclid, Ptolemy, Porphyry, and Iamblichus. Finding “truth in every religion” and seeing knowledge as the pure “nourish­ment for the soul,” the Ikhwan associated the pursuit of happiness and the hope of salvation with the scrupulous unfolding of rational and intellectual quests. They furthermore promoted a friendship of virtue among their companions and gave a venerable expres­sion to the liberal spirit in Islam. Their syncretism, which is not reducible to a mere form of eclecticism that may have been partly influenced by Mesopota­mian Sabaean practices and beliefs, did ultimately ground their eschatological aspiration to found a spiritual sanctuary that would prudently assist their co-religionists in overcoming the sectarian discords that plagued their era.

Oriented by a literal interpre­tation of the classical microcosm and macrocosm analogy, as it was primarily noted in their conception of the human being as a microcosm and of the uni­verse as a macroanthropon, the Ikhwan did avidly attempt to restore the sense of harmony and equipoise between the psychical order and its correlative cosmo­logical shaping forces. Their analogical thinking was furthermore inspired by a Pythagorean arithmetic grasp of the structuring orderliness of the visible uni­verse, and they moreover adopted a Neoplatonist explication of creation by way of emanation in a creditable attempt to reconcile philosophy with reli­gion.

Drafted in an eloquent classical Arabic style, the Ikhwan’s epistles displayed a remarkable lexical adaptability that elegantly covered the language of mathematics, logic, and natural philosophy, as well as encompassing the intricacies of theological deliber­ation and occultist speculation, while also giving expression to a poetic taste that was ingeniously em­bodied in resourceful fables and edifying parables. In terms of the scholarly significance of the Rasa’il and the cognitive merits of the Ikhwan’s views, it must be stated that, despite being supplemented by oral teach­ings in seminaries, their textual heritage was not rep­resentative of the most decisive of achievements made in the domains of mathematics, and the natural and psychical sciences of their epoch.

Nonetheless, the Ikhwan’s intellectual acumen becomes most evident in their original and sophisticated reflections on matters related to spirituality and revelation, which did compensate the ostensible scholarly limitations that may have resulted from the diluted nature of their investigations in classical philosophy and science. However, in spite of these traceable short­comings, their corpus remains exemplary of medieval masterpieces that represented erudite popular adapta­tions of proto-scientific knowledge. Assimilated by many scholars across a variety of Muslim schools and doctrines, the Ikhwan’s textual heritage acted as an important intellectual catalyst in the course of development of the history of ideas in Islam, rightful­ly deserving the station that it has been assigned amid the Arabic classics that constituted the high literature of the medieval Muslim civilisation.

Primary Sources

Ikwan al-Safa’. Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa’ wa Khullan al­ Wafa’. Beirut: Dar Sadir, 1957.

Further Reading

‘Awa, Adel. L’esprit Critique des Frères de la Pureté : Encyclopédistes Arabes du IV/X siècle. Beirut: Imprimerie Catholique, 1948.

De Callatay, Godefroid. Ikwan al-Safa’. Les révolutions et les Cycles (Épîtres des Frères de la Pureté, XXXVI). Beirut: al-Buraq, 1996.

Farrukh, ‘Umar. ‘Ikhwan al-Safa’’. In A History of Mus­lim Philosophy. 3 vols. Edited by M. M. Sharifinfo-icon. Wiesba­den: O. Harrassowitz, 1963-1966.

Goodman, Lenn E. The Case of the Animals versus Man before the King of the Jinn: A Tenth-Century Ecological Fable of the Pure Brethren of Basra. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978.

Hamdani, Abbas. “A Critique of Paul Casanova’s Dating of the Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa’.” In Mediaeval Isma’ili History and Thought. Edited by Farhad Daftary. Cam­bridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Marquet, Yves. La Philosophie des Ihwan al-Safa’. Algiers: Société Nationale d’Édition et de Diffusion, 1975.

Marquet, Yves. “Ikhwan al-Safa’.” In The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Volume III. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1960.

Netton, Ian Richard. Muslim Neoplatonists: An Introduc­tion to the Thought of the Brethren of Purity. London: Allen and Unwin, 1982.

Tibawi, Abdul-Latif. “Ikhwan as-Safa’ and their Rasa’il: A Critical Review of a Century and a Half of Research.” Islamic Quarterly 2 (1955): 28-46.

This is an edited version of an article which was originally published in Medieval Islamic Civilization, an Encyclopedia, Vol. I, p. 118-119, ed. Josef W. Meri, Routledge (New York-London, 2006)