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Ikhwan-us Safa: A Rational and Liberal Approach to Islam

by Asghar Ali Engineer

Ikhwan us Safa - Brethren of Purity

Rasa’il-e-Ikhwan-us Safa (Epistles of Brethren of Purity) have been considered an encyclopaedic work of 3rd or 4th century of Islam. This work consists of 52 epistles (Rasa’il) though there is controversy about the exact number. Some scholars claim they are 50 in number while others maintain 51 and yet others 52 or 53. However, a more authentic number is 52 and the 53rd risala is known as Jami’ i.e. the summation of the earlier rasa’il.

There is a great deal of controversy about every aspect of this pathbreaking encyclopaedic work. Who wrote these epistles and when? There are no easy answers forthcoming as far as scholarly controversies are concerned. Also what was the madhhab (i.e. sect) of the compilers of these epistles? Were they Sunnis or Shi’as? Or if Sunnis were they M’utazilas or Sufis or others? Or if Shi’as were they Ithna ’Asharis (twelvers) or Isma’ilis? Were these epistles written by a single individual or by a group of people?

Some scholars claim that there was a debating society in Basra which met once every week and debated issues of which notes were taken and these notes were later compiled in the form of these epistles. There is no doubt that whosoever they were they were very liberal in their approach and well informed about various sciences including the Greek sciences of their time. There is an attempt to examine various issues, particularly Islamic, in the light of these sciences. Thus the liberal approach is obvious.

We would like to examine, though briefly, some of these controversies. The Isma’ilis (who are so named as they followed Isma’il, the elder son of Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq, as their Imam after Imam Sadiq’s death) claim that the rasa’il were compiled by their 9th Imam Ahmad al-Mastur or some maintain by earlier Imam Abdullah al-Mastur and these epistles were kept in the mosques of Baghdad during the Abbasid period (at the end of 3rd century hijri).

The reason for compilation of these rasa’il is said to be that the Abbasids were transferring the Greek works on various sciences and philosophy into Arabic thereby creating doubts in the minds of believers and the compiler(s) of Ikhwanus Safa met this challenge through this compilation.

One finds references to this work in the Isma’ili sources. Prof. Abbas Hamdani has shown the Isma’ili authorship of these rasa’il in his paper “An Early Fatimid Source on the Time and Authorship of the Rasa’il Ikhwanus Safa” published in Arabica in 1979.

Abbas Hamdani says, “The great encyclopaedic work of medieval Islam, Rasa’il Ikhwanus Safa has been described as Mu’tazilite, Sunni, Sufi, Shi’ite, Isma’ili or Qarmatian. Its Fatimid character (the Isma’ili Imams referred themselves to as Fatimi Imams) is now no longer in dispute. Various dates have been suggested for its appearances ranging from 350/961 to 557/1162. The most tenacious theory about the authorship of the Rasa’il and its time of composition is the one derived from Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi (320-414/932-1023) who supposedly provides a contemporary evidence. I have, however, refuted this theory in a recent article...”

Abbas Hamdani quotes the famous Fatimi da’i (missionary or summoner) Sayyidna J’afar bin Mansur al-Yaman who says in his work ­ the biography of his father Ibn Hawshab (Sira Ibn Hawshab) ­ that Abdallah, the son of Imam Muhammad bin Isma’il, went into seclusion and faced many hardships, his hudud, the hierarchy of the Fatimi D’awah officials, carried on the mission during his absence until his son Ahmad who also remained in concealment took over and he issued the Rasa’il.

Da’i Ja’far is supposed to have lived between 270/883 to 360/970 and died at the advanced age of 80-90 in Maghrib i.e. north western Africa. The Rasa’il, if they are of Fatimid origin, and there is every reason to believe they are, were compiled around the end of third century Hijra i.e. during the life time of his father, Ibn Hawshab. This further strengthens the Fatimid claim that the Rasa’il (epistles) were compiled during the time of Imam Ahmad al-Mastur.

However, there are some references in the Rasa’il which indicate their Sunni origin. At one place there is a praiseworthy reference to al-Siddiq, al-Farouq and Dhu’l Nurayn i.e. Abu Bakr, ’Umar and ’Uthman. A later Isma’ili writer tries to explain it away. But then there is also insistence in the Rasa’il on the esoteric interpretation of the Qur’an (i.e. its ta’wil) which is a Shi’a, particularly Isma’ili concept.

At another place a hadith is related from Hazrat ’Ayisha (I, 358) which no Shi’a would ever do, unless the introduction of ’Ayisha’s name is an editorial interpolation. Also, at two places (III, 489 and IV, 408) there are references to al- khulafa al-rashidun i.e. the first four Caliphs which again is a Sunni belief.

But also here are references to the sufis and praise for sufism. In fact one of the sections is devoted to love i.e. fi mahiyyat al-ishq (III, 269-286). Also there is one section on Wajd (an inner spiritual sufi experience) (I, 240). Both these sections are full of sufi terminology. In fact an ideal person is described as al-sufi al-sira (i.e. possessing the sufi character). (see II, 376).

Sayyid Husayn Nasr would, however, consider this to be a Shi’a Sufi instead of a Sunni Sufi tendency, agreeing with A.L. Tibawi who says “The Ikhwan al-Safa’ may be taken as symbolising the Shi’a attempt, while al-Ghazali represents the Sunni attempt at a synthesis. Susanne Diwald on the other hand would consider the Rasa’il just Sufi, not Shi’a, thus implying its Sunni character.”

Philip K. Hitti says about Brethren of Purity in his well known work History of Arabs, “About the middle of the fourth century (ca. 970) there flourished in al-Basrah an interesting eclectic school of popular philosophy, with leanings toward Pythagorean speculations, known as Ikhwan al-Safa’ (the brethren of sincerity). The appellation is presumably taken from the story of the ringdove in Kalilah wa-Dimnah in which it is related that a group of animals by acting as faithful friends (ikhwan al-safa) to one another escaped the snares of the hunter.”

However, Hitti also accepts the Isma’ili origin of the Rasa’il when he observes, “The Ikhwan, who had a branch in Baghdad, formed not only a philosophical but also a religio-political association with ultra-Shi’ite, probably Isma’ilite, views and were opposed to the existing political order, which they evidently aimed to overthrow by undermining the popular intellectual system and religious beliefs. Hence arises the obscurity surrounding their activities and membership. A collection of their epistles, Rasa’il, arranged in encyclopaedic fashion survives, bearing some obscure names as collaborators.” (History of Arabs, London, 1988, p-372-73).

He further observes, “The epistles number 52 and cover mathematics, astronomy, geography, music, ethics, philosophy, embodying the sum-total of knowledge that a cultured man of that age was supposed to acquire. The first 51 epistles lead up to the last, which is summation of all sciences. The language of the epistles shows that Arabic had by that time, become an adequate instrument for expressing scientific thought in all its various aspects. Al-Ghazali was influenced by the Ikhwan’s writings and Rashid al-Din Sinan ibn-Sulayman, the chief of the Assassins in Syria, used them diligently.” (P-373)

But it is difficult to agree with Hitti when he says that Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi (1023), the famous Mu’tazilite who with al-Rawindi and al Ma’arri (1057) formed the trinity of arch heretics in Islam, was a pupil if not an active member of the fraternity. In fact the historians and scholars have often relied on Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi’s version of the origin of Ikhwan al-Safa Rasa’il which is difficult to stand critical scrutiny. If the Rasa’il are of the Isma’ili origin which Hitti himself thinks probably is, Mu’tazili association with it is unlikely. The Isma’ilis and Mu’tazilis, though both liberal and rational in their approach, had very different views on theological and philosophical matters. On most of these matters they totally disagreed with each other.

Husayn Marwah, a noted Marxist philosopher from the Arab world has also written extensively in his Al-Naz’at al-Maddiyah f’il Falsafat al-’Arabiyah al-Islamiyyah (Beirut, 1981) on Ikhwan al-Safa Rasa’il. Al-Marwah quotes Jamal al-Din Qifti from his Akhbar al-’Ulama’ fi Akhbar al-Hukama’ that the group of Ikhwan al-Safa compiled the Rasa’il containing wisdom of knowledge but they concealed their names and people differed about their names and origin and everyone said what they thought according to their guess. Some maintain that this group belonged to the Imams from the progeny of Ali ibn Abu Talib. But they differed about the name of the Imam. And some maintain that these Rasa’il are the compilation of some M’utazilites.

Thus it will be seen that al-Qifti also admits that it might have been compiled by an Imam from the progeny of Ali ibn Abu Talib. No historian or scholar, it seems, can ignore the claim of Isma’ili Imam to compilation of this great work though no one seems to be sure about it. If it had been the work of Mu’tazilites there is no reason why they should have concealed the name of the compiler. Mu’tazilites were not an underground organization. Quite a few of their works were being circulated around that time with the names of their authors.

The Isma’ilis, on the other hand, had set up an underground organisation as they were fighting against the Abbasid empire and were aspiring to establish their own rule. Thus the Isma’ili Imams were in concealment and had perfected an underground organisation. Thus they had every reason to conceal the name of the author(s) of the Rasa’il. Thus it looks quite probable that the Rasa’il in all probability were authored by an Isma’ili Imam.

There is also the question of the period when the Rasa’il were written or compiled. The noted scholar Abbas Hamdani who has authored several research papers on Ikhwanus Safa says:

“The questions relating to the identity of the authors of the Rasa’il and their madhhab are largely dependent on the question of the date of the composition of the Rasa’il. A later chronology may suggest a composition of the encyclopaedia over a long period, by several authors living at different times and several revisions and re-arrangements of the component tracts. It can also accommodate the internal allusions of a much later period.

“An earlier chronology would pre-suppose a shorter period of composition, the minimum of rearrangements and revision and a committee of authors writing at the same time under a coordinator or an editor and working on a planned sequence of composition. Internal references to a later period would have to be proved as interpolations. ”

Abbas Hamdani then comes to the conclusion about the year of publication of the Rasa’il and says, “To my mind, the dividing line between these two chronologies is represented by the year 297/909, that is, the establishment of the Fatimid caliphate. In fact, in much of the scholarly argument about the dating of the Rasa’il, this has proved to be the battle line. Having taken their stand on the date of the composition of the Rasa’il, scholars have argued whether its authors were Sunnis or Shi’as; if Sunnis, whether they were Mu’tazili or Sufi; if Shi’as, whether they were Zaydi, Ithna ’Ashari, Fatimid or Qaramatian. The later chronology is the easier and safer of the two and is generally accepted. I have, however, preferred the earlier and the more difficult and have argued the case for it in previous articles.” (Journal of Semitic Studies, Spring 1984, P-98)

There is lot of internal evidence which shows the Shi’a inclination of the author(s). We find in (IV, 460) the Prophet’s saying “I am the city of knowledge and ’Ali is its gate.” So also is emphasised the love (walaya) of the Prophet’s household (ahl al-bayt) (IV, 375). Also, it is said that the Prophet is reported to have said to ’Ali, “I and you are the parents (abawa) of this community (umma)” (I, 385).

We also notice salawat for ’Ali (II, 59 and III, 211). Generally this benedictory expression is reserved by Sunnis only for the Prophet. The Rasa’il also refer to the progeny of the Prophet as the ‘rightly-guided Imams’ (al-a’immat al-Hudat) (II, 377). We also find emphasis on imamah and also that imamat of prophesy belong to the prophet’s family as opposed to the imamat of domination which might belong to others.

We find further proofs of shades of Shi’as in the Rasa’il. They describe the four festivals of the philosophic year (IV, 267-272) the third of which is the ’Id Ghadir al-Khumm, the day on which the Prophet designated, according to the Shi’a tradition, ’Ali as his successor, but, the Rasa’il maintain, the “joy (of the occasion) was marred because it was mixed with the breaking of (the covenant) and treachery” (IV,268). The last festival, ’Id al-musiba (the day of calamity) is one described as the day of the Prophet’s death and also as the day of the battle of Kerbala (10th of Muharram when Imam Husein was martyred) which is also described as the day of ‘disgrace of Islam’ (IV, 269). This is all unmistakably Shi’ite.

There are also references in III, 511-514 to the esoteric meaning of the Qur’an i.e. ta’wil which is also a distinct Shi’ite belief. The manifest meaning of the Qur’an (zahir) is described as the lower level of knowledge and it is meant for ’awamm (i.e. the common people) who prefer taqlid (i.e. blind imitation) and the higher form of knowledge is batin (esoteric, concealed) which is meant for the elite (khwass). This is distinctly a Shi’ite position. Thus we find in the 3rd section, page 379 that “Among people there are groups of intellectuals who would not be satisfied with taqlid but would demand proofs and the uncovering of truths (haqa’iq) and the seeking of ’illah (i.e. purpose or the reason of the religious law).”

Again the important question is to what sect of Shi’a the compilers or authors of Ikhwanus Safa Rasa’il belong. Obviously they could not be Zaidis as the Zaidi theology does not accord what is generally maintained in the Rasa’il. Now let us examine the possibility of the authors being the Ithna ’Asharis. There is clear statement in the Rasa’il which rules out this possibility also. For example we find in (III, 523) that “So also is considered (erroneous a group) that believes that the great and guiding awaited Imam is hidden and does not appear because of the fear of the opponents. Know that the holder of such opinion remains all his life expectant of the Imam’s appearance, wishful of his coming, eager for his advent. He, then, wastes his life and dies in despair and sorrow, not having seen his Imam, nor having known his person.”

The Ithna ’Asharis believe till today that Imam Mahdi is yet to appear whereas the Isma’ilis or Fatimids believe that Imam Mahdi (Abdullah al-Mahdi) appeared in the west (North Africa) in early 9th century and founded the Fatimid empire. The above passage does not accord with the Ithna ’Ashari belief about the hidden Imam. Thus if we eliminate the Zaidis and Ithna’Asharis, the only conclusion is that the Brethren of Purity belonged to the Isma’ilis.

The liberal attitude of the Brethren is obvious from various passages of the Rasa’il. There is also emphasis on the youth rather than the old. Thus we find in one of the epistles, “Do not occupy yourself with reforming of old men who have kept since their childhood false ideas, bad habits and evil qualities, for they will weary you and will not be changed. If they do change, it would be very little and of no avail. Your concern is with young men of sound heart who incline towards letters, begin to study the sciences, seek the path of truth and the other world, believe in the day of reckoning, make use of the religious codes of the Prophets, study the secrets of their books, renounce passion and polemic and are not fanatical in matters of doctrine.” (IV, 161-168)

As pointed out earlier the Ikhwan had very liberal outlook. It is borne out by the following passage also. “Know that”, the Brethren state, “the truth is found in every religion (din) and is current in every tongue. What you should do, however, is to take best and to transfer yourself to it. Do not ever occupy yourself with imputing defects to the religions of people; rather try to see whether your religion is free from them.”(III, 501).

Also, “Acquire knowledge, any type of knowledge, philosophical, legal, mathematical, scientific or divine. All that is nourishment for the soul and life for it in this world and the hereafter.” (III, 538).

There is a long epistle (No.22) on Animals and Birds (II, 178-377) which is of great interest. In fact it is an allegory in which man’s qualities are compared to those of animals, birds and the jinn (a hidden being referred to in the Qur’an). Representatives of different species and nationalities speak in a Conference of Creation. At the end an ideal individual addresses the Assembly. The description of this ideal individual clearly indicates the liberalism and openness of the Brethren.

This individual is described as “excellent, intelligent and possessing insight, (as if) he is Persian in origin, Arab in faith, a hanif (inclined towards straight path) in religion, an Iraqi in manners, a Hebrew in tradition, a Christian in conduct, a Syrian in devotion, a Greek in knowledge, an Indian in vision, a mystic (sufi) in his way of life (sira), an angel in his morals, a divine (rabbani) in opinion, godly (ilahi) in gnosticism (ma’arif) and of everlasting qualities.” (III,376)

This is the proof of commendable liberalism of the Ikhwan which we find post-modernist in character today. In the above passage there is respect for all religions and plurality of culture is accepted. This was written in the 9th century A.D. when such liberalism could not be thought of. Such liberalism is rare even in modern society. Narrow sectarianism often prevails and more often than not politics is also based on such sectarianism. This is what we witness in most of the countries today. The Ikhwanus Safa could be described as the manifesto of the Isma’ili movement.

It is important to note here that the Isma’ili movement at that time was a revolutionary movement and was subversive of the establishment, particularly of the Abbasid empire. It was also trying to attract the support of various sections of society, the nobles, the learned, the peasants and the merchants. Thus we find a passage in the epistle which says, “Know O brother, may God aid you and us with His Spirit, that we have brethren and friends among the noble and gracious people, spread out in different places; among them is a group of the sons of kings, amirs, wazirs, secretaries, and governors; among them are sons of notables, the dihqans (rich peasants), small holders and merchants; and among them is a group of the sons of ’ulama, men of letters (udaba’), jurists and religious men; and among them is a group of the sons of craftsmen, local headmen and leaders of crafts and professions. We have delegated to each group of them a brother from our brethren, whose knowledge and insight we approve, to represent us in their service by counseling them with fellow-feeling (rifq), kindness and affection.” (IV, 188)

This clearly shows that the Brethren were leaders of a revolutionary movement who established cells among different sections of society who could coalesce together to overthrow the coercive and exploitative establishment. It is also important to note in the above passage that the Brethren appointed one brother to be associated with one or the other group described above so as to lead them. Such a brother had to be properly chosen for his qualities, experience and knowledge. The revolutionaries carefully chose their group leaders. They were supposed not only to prepare these groups for revolutionary change but also play part in it.

A study of these Rasa’il clearly shows that the author(s) had a grasp over all available knowledge of their times. As pointed out above they have written epistles on mathematics, philosophy, politics, religion (including comparative religion), music, ethics, morality, astronomy, physics and other sciences. No one could be more informed in contemporary knowledge then the Brethren of Purity.

Husayn Marwah, the noted contemporary Arab philosopher, referred to above, quotes observations of a 4th century hijra scholar Zaid bin Rifa’ah who was supposed to have met the Brethren of Purity and served them for long, about these epistles. Ibn Rifa’ah says that (the authors of the epistles) had wide knowledge of prose and poetry, had expertise in mathematics, communication, history, religions, and had vision of comparative religion.

The Brethren of Purity, as we have seen, were revolutionaries and wanted to overthrow the Abbasid regime which they considered oppressive and exploitative. They describe the Abbasids as oppressors and usurpers of the rights of du’afa and ’masakin (i.e. the weaker sections). They maintain that the Abbasid do not deserve to be khalifah. Those who defy the Divine Will to Adam are what the Ikhwan describe as ’khalifat al-iblis (i.e. the deputy of Satan). The Abbasids were khalifahs as people accepted them to be khalifahs, not because they deserve to be so. The Abbasids, the Brethren maintain, killed the friends and children of prophets. (II,303)

It is interesting to note that the Ikhwan al-Safa predict the downfall of the Abbasids on the basis of astronomical calculations. They calculate the coming together and parting of certain stars and this period which according to astronomical calculation is two hundred and forty years and hence they predict that the Abbasid downfall will occur in 240 years from the beginning of their rule. And to whom this rule will be transferred from the Abbasids?

We find answer in the Rasa’il themselves again on the basis of astronomical calculations. They say this will happen when the dawr al-falki (i.e. one revolution of skies) takes place and enters the house of Scorpio which takes, according to the Brethren, 330 years and four months. At that time the power will pass onto the hands of the Brethren and the period of their rule will be 159 years. (See al-Risalh Jami’ah, II, p-129-130). According to the Brethren these changes (in political power) keep on taking place and it is transferred from one group to another.

The rule of Ikhwan al-Safa is described as dawlah ahl al-khayr i.e. the regime of people of good-will. This regime began with the people of knowledge and wisdom (’ulama wa hukama) and meritorious people of goodness who evolve consensus and agree on one creed and religion (I, p-131). And those who will establish this regime of goodness and benevolence are knowledgeable about the religious matters, have intimate knowledge of the mysteries of prophets and well disciplined in the philosophical matters. (IV, p-198). The Brethren also declare that their religion, opinion and knowledge is inclusive of all religions and knowledge. (IV, p-5). The Brethren also advise the people not to pick holes in others religion but to see whether such defects are not there in ones own religion. (IV, p-37-38)

The Brethren also invite the people to be critical of all religions, including the one they have inherited, without exception. But it should be attempted with due caution. The Shari’ah, according to them, have two aspects zahir and batin i.e. exoteric and esoteric, manifest and hidden. What is manifest is for common people through which they find cure for their diseased souls and those who are people of strong intellect feed themselves on deeper wisdom and philosophy, on the esoteric aspects. (IV, p-46).

For 'ibadat (worship) also the Brethren say they are of two types: one the Shari’i normative mode of worship and the other is what the Brethren call ­ ’ibadat al-falsafiyah al-ilahiyyah (i.e. philosophical divine worship) (IV, P-301 and what follows). Those who follow the Shar’i worship obey all the exoteric laws of Shari’ah and all the rules laid down by it. But those who are disposed towards philosophical worship are what the Holy Qur’an calls are al-Rasikhun fi’l ‘ilm (i.e. great pillars of divine knowledge). They know the real meaning of the Qur’anic verses and its esoteric essence. They possess the ’ilm al-batin.

Thus it will be seen that the Brethren of Purity, though they emphasised the importance of Shari’ah for common people and thought it necessary for them to abide by its rule, they accorded higher position to those al-rasikhun fi’l ’ilm who were immersed in higher philosophical knowledge and knowledge of ultimate reality ­ ’ilm al-haqiqah. Again, according to the Ikhwan al-Safa the lower souls cannot extricate themselves from the materialistic world and remain sunk in the sea of this world. It is knowledge, philosophy and wisdom (hikmah) which liberates human soul and accords it higher position in the divine hierarchy.

It would thus be no exaggeration to say that the Brethren of Purity summed up all available knowledge of their time in their epistles and left a deep and permanent imprint on the world of learning. The Abbasids tried to popularise the Greek knowledge through translations into Arabic. All they did was to make Greek knowledge available in Arabic to Muslim intellectuals (a great achievement by itself, no doubt) but what Ikhwanus Safa did was to synthesise the Greek knowledge with Islamic one and this synthesis was a very creative synthesis indeed. The Brethren upheld Islamic knowledge as well as the Greek one. A much greater achievement for the world of Islam.

Web Curator's Note: The author is a member of the Ismaili Bohoras, as compared to Nizari Ismailis, a split that occured after the death of Imam Mustansir Billah.

Rasail Ikhwan al Safa - Susanne Diwald's work reviewed by Hamdani
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