Ikhwan as-Safa (Brethren of Purity) and their ideas on the formation of civil society

Ramazon Nazariev


Abstract of the Presentation given at the 37th Congress of the International Congress of Asian and North African Studies (ICANAS), 16-21 August 2004.


This paper discusses the emergence of Ikhwan as-Safa and highlights some of the particularities of their vision, different from other theological and philosophical schools of Islam. The focus of the paper is, however, on the illustration of the social issues and goals that underlined the Ikhwan's use of the allegorical interpretation and metaphorical tools. As a basis of his argument, the author analyses the famous 22nd risala (epistle) of the Ikhwan as-Safa, called the "Complaint of Animals for the Deeds of Humans". In this risala, allegory and metaphorical language are used to discuss vital social issues of medieval societies that have relevance for contemporary societies (e.g., expression of discontent and free thinking, protection of citizens' rights, fairness in treating various groups in society, adverse consequences of totalitarianism and despotism, undermining the sanctity of life, state corruption, disregard for science, scholars and the intellect, etc.). The debate on these issues also highlights obligations of human beings, as masters of the material world, to find a workable compromise between various groups in society while protecting the rights of minorities (represented in the allegory by various categories of animal life such as insects, sea creatures, etc.). Participation of these groups in such discussions allows them to contribute to decision making in society and state governance. The author argues that the Ikhwan as-Safa's creatively lies in their discussion of issues within the existing medieval societies using allegories. In developing their social and political philosophy, they appropriated ideas from classical Greek philosophical thought as well as existing alternatives from within Islamic societies of their time.