The Rasail Ikhwan as-Safa

The Abbasid caliph Mamun (d. 218/833) also patronized philosophy and professed Mutazalism. It was an interesting trend among the educated elite to drift towards Greek philosophy and ultimately a bulk of the contradictions raised among the Muslims in interpretating Islamic practices. It must be known on this juncture that the intellect is an indispensable faculty in man, but despite this, its power of penetration has a definite limit. It may enjoy apparent supremacy and mastery in certain fields, but there are many things which are baffling and incomprehensible to it. The intellect cannot grasp a thing as a whole and its entirety. Its range of operation is limited, and therefore a true spiritual master is needed to guide a proper method.

When the independent philosophical trend was perceived a threat to the Islamic Shariah from liberal sciences, a knot of earnest thinkers began to flock in a house in Basra at a fixed season to reconcile the philosophy and religion. They were the Ikhwan most probably an agency or organ of the Ismaili mission. They tried to evolve a new synthesis in order to save Islamic teachings from being swept away by the new flood of knowledge. Sayed Amir Ali writes in "The Spirit of Islam" (London, 1955, p. 432) that, "It was at this epoch of travail and sorrow for all lovers of truth that a small body of thinkers formed themselves into a Brotherhood to keep alive the lamp of knowledge among the Muslims, to introduce a more healthy tone among the people, to arrest the downward course of the Muslims towards ignorance and fanaticism, in fact, to save the social fabric from utter ruin. They called themselves the Brothers of Purity, Ikhwan-as-Safa."

The Arabic phrase "Ikhwan as-Safa" has been variously translated by orientalists as "Brethren of Purity" (R.A. Nicholson), "The Pure Brethren" (H.A.R. Gibb), "Sincere Brethren" (W. Montgomery Watt), "Sincere Friends" (G.E. Von Grunebaum), "die lauteren Bruder" (C. Brokelmann), "die treuen Freunde" (ibid), "die aufrichtigen Bruder und treuen Freunde" (G. Flugel), or "les Freres de la Purete" (A. Awa). The full name of the association was Ikhwan al-Safa wa Khullan al-Wafa wa Ahl al-adl wa abna al-Hamd (i.e., "The Brethren of Purity, the Faithful Friends, the Men of Justice and the Sons deserving praiseworthy Conduct"), a name which was suggested to them by the chapter of the "Ring-Necked Dove" in Kalimah wa Dimnah. Different explanations are offered for the appellation, Ikhwan as-Safa. Nicholson and Levy write on the authority of Ibn Qifti (d. 646/1248) that its title is derived from their declaration that the Islamic Shariah in their time had become defiled with ignorance and adulterated with errors, and the only way to purify it was by means of philosophy. Tibawi rather than Goldziher was therefore closer to the truth when he observed that the name "Ikhwan as-Safa" was chosen as an imitation of the Sufi tendency to associate their name with safa (purity).

It is said that the members of the Ikhwan as-Safa formed a sort of Masonic Lodge, who lived in the Lower Mesopotamian river port of Basra; debating on literature, religion, philosophy and science. The association or club kept their proceedings concealed, and none were admitted. They were classed into four grades according to their moral and age, rather elevation of soul. The first grade consisted of young men between 15 and 30 years of age, who were initiated into complete obedience to their teachers. The second grade included men between 30 and 40 years, who were given secular education and awareness of philosophy as well. To the third grade belonged men between the ages of 40 and 50 who had a more adequate knowledge of divine law working in the universe. The fourth grade comprised men over 50 years, who were supposed to have an insight into the reality of things. Their philosophical meetings took place three evenings each month at the start, middle and sometimes between 25th and the end of the month. They also celebrated three major feasts in the year, and both the meetings and feasts were closely related and coincided with the entry of the sun into three Zodiacal Signs of the Ram (Aries), the Scorpion (Cancer) and the Balance (Libra). These feasts were also co-related with the Islamic feasts of Id al-Fitr, Id al-Adha and Id al-Ghadir. They also held special gathering (majlis), each one on every twelve days. This secret association has left behind a standing monument of its achievements in an encyclopaedia, known as "Ikhwan as-Safa", comprising of 52 epistles (rasail) with the following topics:-

	14 epistles on Mathematics.

	17 epistles on Natural Sciences.

		10 epistles on Psychological and Rational Sciences.

	11 epistles on Theological Sciences.

It also classified the science in three major groups as under:-

          	a)	Mathematics: includes theory of number, geometry, astronomy, geography, music, theoretical and practical arts, ethics and logic.

          	b)	Physics: includes matter, form, motion, time, space, sky, generation, minerals, planets, animals, human body, senses of life and death, microcosm, pleasure, pain and language.

	c)	Metaphysics: divided into psycho-rationalism and theology.

		i)	psychics, rationalistic, being, macrocosm, mind, love, resurrection and causality.

		ii)	belief, faith, divine law, prophethood, etc.

The Epistles of the Ikhwan occupy a place in the first rank of Arabic literature. It is also the great treasure house of Sufic thought. For example, it says: "Know, O brother, that your soul is potentially an angel, and can become One in actuality if you follow the path of the prophets and the masters of the divine laws." (Rasail 4th vol., p. 122), and also "All creation will ultimately return to Him since He is the source of their very existence, substance, immortality and perfection" (Rasail 3rd vol., p. 285).

The Epistles were distributed in various mosques of Baghdad. It played an important role by attempting a creative synthesis of Greek philosophy and the doctrines of Islam, giving a new dimension to the religion. It attracted the best intellectuals of its time and saved Islam from the heritical inroads that were preying upon it. It aimed to impart that if the tawil is carefully studied similarities with philosophical tools, the essence of the Islamic teachings can be easily discovered logically. It must be known that it greatly impacted the rationalists and after 270/850, even the Mutazalites became more and more a small coterie of academic theologians cutt off from the masses of the people and exercising no more influence on the further course of Islamic thought.

The compiler of Ikhwan as-Safa concealed his identity so skillfully that modern scholarship has spilled much ink in trying to trace the members of group. Using vivid metaphor, the members referred to themselves as "sleepers in the cave" (Rasail 4th, p. 18). In one place they gave as their reason for hiding their secrets from the people, not fear of earthly rulers nor trouble from the common populace, but a desire to protect their God-given gifts (Rasail 4th, p. 166). Yet they were well aware that their esoteric teachings might provoke unrest, and the calamities suffered by the successors of the Prophet were a good reason to remain hidden until the right day came for them to emerge from their cave and wake from their long sleep (Rasail 4th, p. 269). To live safely, it was necessary for their doctrines to be cloaked. Ian Richard Netton, however writes in "MusIim Neoplatonists" (London, 1982, p. 80) that, "The Ikhwan's concepts of exegesis of both Quran and Islamic tradition were tinged with the esoterism of the Ismailis." Strangely enough, in dealing with the doctrines of Qadariya and Sabaeans of Harran, the Epistles do not mention the Ismailism. Yet it was the Ismailis, perhaps more than any other, which had the most profound effect on the structure and vocabulary of the Epistles. Almost the average scholars have attempted to show that the Ikhwan (brothers) were definitely Ismailis. A.A.A. Fyzee (1899-1981), for instance, writes in "Religion in the Middle East", (ed. by A.J. Arberry, Cambridge, 1969, 2nd vol., p. 324) that, "The tracts are clearly of Ismaili origin; and all authorities, ancient and modern, are agreed that the Rasail constitute the most authoritative exposition of the early form of the Ismaili religion." According to Yves Marquet, "It seems indisputable that the Epistles represent the state of Ismaili doctrine at the time of their compositions" (vide, "Encyclopaedia of Islam", 1960, p. 1071) Bernard Lewis in "The Origins of Ismailism" (London, 1940, p. 44) was more cautious than Fyzee, ranking the Epistles among books which, though "closely related to Ismailism" may not actually have been Ismaili, despite their batini inspiration. Ibn Qifti (d.646/1248), reporting in the 7th/13th century in "Tarikh-i Hukama" (p. 82) that, "Opinions differed about the authors of the Epistles. Some people attributed to an Alid Imam, proffering various names, whereas other put forward as author some early Mutazalite theologians."

Tibawi in "Ikhwan as-Safa and their Rasail" (p. 37) has aptly linked their content to the draft of deliberations by a learned society composed by a well educated secretary, and this could be very close to the truth. It is certainly possible that the Epistles could be the work of one author only, for there are significant lapses from the usual plural mode of address into the first person singular. It also appears that the Epistles were not completely authored by a specific person, but it was the outcome of the intellectual deliberations of the learned thinkers inspired from the close directive of the specific person. It may also be possible that the specific author had been referred the deliberations in writing for approval, who had edited and deleted the irrelevant portions, and projected into different Epistles. When the Epistles had been circulated widely, the secret club founded in Basra and its branches were liquidated with a view that their secret mission had been accomplished.

Among the Syrian Ismailis, the earliest reference of the Epistles and its relation with the Ismailis is given in "Kitab Fusul wa'l Akhbar" by Nurudin bin Ahmad (d. 233/849). Another important work, "al-Usul wa'l-Ahakam" by Abul Ma'ali Hatim bin Imran bin Zuhra (d. 498/1104), quoted by Arif Tamir in "Khams Rasa'il Ismailiyya" (Salamia, 1956, p. 120), writes that, "These dais, and other dais with them, collaborated in composing long Epistles, fifty-two in number, on various branches of learning." It implies the Epistles being the product of the joint efforts of the Ismaili dais.

Among the Yamenite traces, the earliest reference of the Epistles is found in "Sirat-i Ibn Hawshab" by Garar bin Mansur al-Yamen, who lived between 270/883 and 360/970, and writes, "He (Imam Taqi Muhammad) went through many a difficulty and fear and the destruction of his family, whose description cannot be lengthier, until he issued (ansa'a) the Epistles and was contacted by a man called Abu Gafir from among his dais. He charged him with the mission as was necessary and asked him to keep his identity concealed." This source not only asserts the connection of the Epistles with the Ismailis, but also indicates that the Imam himself was not the sole author (sahibor mu'allif), but only the issuer or presenter (al-munsi). It suggests that the text of the philosophical deliberations was given a final touching by the Imam, and the approved text was delivered to Abu Gafir to be forwarded possibly to the Ikhwan in Basra secretly. Since the orthodox circles and the ruling power had portrayed a wrong image of Ismailism, the names of the compilers were concealed. The prominent members of the secret association seem to be however, Abul Hasan al-Tirmizi, Abdullah bin Mubarak, Abdullah bin Hamdan, Abdullah bin Maymun, Sa'id bin Hussain etc. The other Yamenite source connecting the Epistles with the Ismailis was the writing of Ibrahim bin al-Hussain al-Hamidi (d. 557/1162), who compiled "Kanz al-Walad." After him, there followed "al-Anwar al-Latifa" by Muhammad bin Tahir (d. 584/1188), "Tanbih al-Ghafilin" by Hatim bin Ibrahim (d. 596/1199), "Damigh al-Batil wa haft al-Munazil" by Ali bin Muhammad bin al-Walid al-Anf (d. 612/1215), "Risalat al-Wahida" by Hussain bin Ali al-Anf (d. 667/1268) and "Uyun'l-Akhbar" by Idris Imaduddin (d. 872/1468) etc.

Virtually, nothing is known in detail about the Ismailis during the veiled era, and it seems that most of the renowned Ismailis had adopted taqiya. According to "Ikhwan as-Safa" (Rasail 21st., p. 166), "Know, that among us there are kings, princes, khalifs, sultans, chiefs, ministers, administrators, tax agents, treasurers, officers, chamberlains, notables, nobles, servants of kings and their military supporters. Among us too there are merchants, artisans, agriculturists and stock breeders. There are builders, landowners, the worthy and wealthy, gentlefolk and possessors of all many virtues. We also have persons of culture, of science, of piety and of virtue. We have orators, poets, eloquent persons, theologians, grammarians, tellers of tales and purveyors of lore, narrators of traditions, readers, scholars, jurists, judges, magistrates and ecstatics. Among us too there are philosophers, sages, geometers, astronomers, naturalists, physicians, diviners, soothsayers, casters of spells and enchantments, interpreters of dreams, alchemists, astrologers, and many other sorts, too many to mention."

The preceding inventory suggests that the Ismaili faith had been penetrated privily in the people of all walks of life. Joel Carmichael writes in "The Shaping of the Arabs" (London, 1969, p. 386) that, "The Ismaili sect seems to have elaborated its doctrines in such a way as to attract a great part of the social discontent into its own channels and to have had immense appeal for the common people who were suffering so much from the social afflictions of the period. Beginning with the substantial peasant support and gradually infiltrating the urban workers, especially the craftsmen, with their revolutionary ideas, the Ismailis seem to have created some of the Islamic craft guilds."

During dawr-i satr, the Ismaili dais preached that an Imam in the descent of Jafar Sadik would manifest in near future as a promised Mahdi. The fragment of this prediction is also sounded in "Ikhwan as-Safa" (2nd vol., p. 290) that: "We hope that there will appear from our community the Imam, the Mahdi, who is the expected one (al-muntazar) from the house of Prophet Muhammad."

Prof. Masudul Hasan writes in "History of Islam" (Lahore, 1987, 1st vol., p. 486) that, "Al-Habib (Taqi Muhammad) had his headquarters at Salamiah near Hims in Syria, and from there he sent missionaries in all directions to propagate the Ismaili creed and enrol adherents."

The period of Taqi Muhammad is also noted for the several skilled exponents of Sufi thought, such as Harith Muhasibi, Dhun al-Nun Misri (d. 243/859), Bayazid Bustami (d. 260/874), Junaid Baghdadi (d. 298/910), etc.

Taqi Muhammad exercised taqiya during the period of his Imamate to escape the snares of the Abbasids. A rhetorical reference to him is found in "Rasail Ikhwan as-Safa" (Rasail 4th, p. 199), indicating that the veiled Imam was apparent in reality.

Taqi Muhammad is reported to have died in 225/840 in Salamia after bequeathing the office of Imamate to his son, Hussain surnamed, Radi Abdullah. His another son, Muhammad surnamed Sa'id al-Khayr, whose posterity were living in Salamia and killed at the hands of the Qarmatians in 290/902.

To Next Paragraph
To Previous Paragraph
To This chapter's index
ToNext Chapter
To Previous Chapter
To Main Index
To Home Page