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 Epistles Of The Brethren Of Purity Rasail Ikhwan Al Safa Pdf
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Nader EI-Bizri
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Epistles of the Brethren of Purity – This bilingual series consists of a multi-authored Arabic critical edition and annotated English translation of the Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa (ca. tenth-century Iraq). – Nader EI-Bizri-


The Brethren of Purity (Ikhwan al-Safa) were the anonymous members of a fourth-/tenth-century1 esoteric fraternity of lettered urbanites that was principally based in the southern Iraqi city of Basra while also having a significant active branch in the capital of the Abbasid caliphate, Baghdad.

This secretive coterie occupied a prominent station in the history of scientific and philosophical ideas in Islam owing to the wide intellectual reception and dissemination of diverse manuscripts of their famed philosophically oriented compendium, the Epistles of the Brethren of Purity (Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa).

The exact dating of this corpus, the identity of its authors, and their doctrinal affiliation remain unsettled questions that are hitherto shrouded with mystery.

Some situate the historic activities of this brotherhood at the eve of the Fatimid conquest of Egypt (ca. 358/969), while others identify the organization with an earlier period that is set chronologically around the founding of the Fatimid dynasty in North Africa (ca. 297/909).

The most common account regarding the presumed identity of the Ikhwan is usually related on the authority of the famed litterateur Abu Hayyan  al-Tawhidi  (ca. 320-414/930-1023), who noted  in his Book of Pleasure and Conviviality (Kitab al-Imta’ wa’ l- mu1anasa ) that these adepts were obscure  ‘men of letters,: Abu Sulayman  Muhammad  b. Mashar al-Busti (nicknamed al-Maqdisi); the qadi Abu al-Hasan (Ali b. Harun al-Zanjani; Abu Ahmad al-Mihrajani (also known as Ahmad al-Nahrajuri); and Abu al-I:Iasan al-‘Awfi. Abu Hayyan also claimed that they were the senior companions of a secretarial officer at the

1 All dates are Common Era, unless otherwise indicated; where two dates appear (separated by a slash), the first date is hijri (AH), followed by CE.

 Buyid regional chancellery of Basra, known as Zayd b. Rifa’a, who was reportedly an affiliate of the Brethren’s fraternity and a servant of its ministry.

Even though this story was reaffirmed by several classical historiographers in Islamic civilization, it is not fully accepted by scholars in terms of its authenticity.

Furthermore, some Ismaili missionaries (du’at) historically attributed the compiling of the Epistles to the early Ismaili Imams Ab.mad b. ‘Abd Allah (al-Taqi [al-Mastur]) or his father, cAbd Allah (Wafi Ab.mad), while also suggesting that the Rasa’il compendium was secretly disseminated in mosques during the reign of the (Abbasid caliph al-Ma>mun (r. 198-218/813-833).

Encountering ‘veracity in every religion’, and grasping knowledge as ‘pure nourishment for the soul’, the Ikhwan associated soteriological hope and the attainment of happiness with the scrupulous development of rational pursuits and intellectual quests. Besides the filial observance of the teachings of the Qur’an and hadith, the Brethren also reverently appealed to the Torah of Judaism and to the Gospels of Christianity.

 Moreover, they heeded the legacies of the Stoics and of Pythagoras, Hermes Trismegistus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Nicomachus of Gerasa, Euclid, Ptolemy, Galen, Proclus, Porphyry, and Iamblichus.

The Brethren promoted a convivial and earnest ‘companionship of virtue’. Their eschatological outlook was articulated by way of an intricate cyclical view of ‘sacred’ history that is replete with symbolisms and oriented by an uncanny hermeneutic interpretation of the microcosm and macrocosm analogy: believing that the human being is a microcosmos, and that the universe is a ‘macroanthropos’.

The multiplicity of the voices that were expressed in their Epistles reflects a genuine quest for wisdom driven by an impetus that is not reducible to mere eclecticism; indeed, their syncretism grounded their aspiration to establish a spiritual refuge that would transcend the sectarian divisions troubling their era.

In general, fifty-two epistles are enumerated as belonging to the Rasa’il Ikhwan al-$afif, and these are divided into the following four parts: Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, Sciences of the Soul and Intellect, and Theology.

The first part consists of fourteen epistles, and it deals with ‘the mathematical sciences’, treating a variety of topics in arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, geography, and music.

It also includes five epistles on elementary logic, which consist of the following: the Isagoge, the Categories, the On Interpretation, the Prior Analytics, and the Posterior Analytics. The second part of the corpus groups together seventeen epistles on ‘the physical or natural sciences’.

It thus treats themes on matter and form, generation and corruption, metallurgy, meteorology, a study of the essence of nature, the classes of plants and animals (the latter being also set as a fable), the composition of the human body and its embryological constitution, a cosmic grasp of the human being as microcosm, and also the investigation of the phonetic and structural properties of languages and their differences.

The third part of the compendium comprises ten tracts on ‘the psychical and intellective sciences’, setting forth the ‘opinions of the Pythagoreans and of the Brethren of Purity’, and accounting also for the world as a ‘macroanthropos’.

In this part, the Brethren also examined the distinction between the intellect and the intelligible, and they offered explications of the symbolic significance of temporal dimensions, epochal cycles, and the mystical expression of the essence of love, together with an investigation of resurrection, causes and effects, definitions and descriptions, and the various types of motion.

The fourth and last part of the Rasa’il deals with ‘the nomic or legal and theological sciences’ in eleven epistles.

These address the differences between the varieties of religious opinions and sects, as well as delineating the ‘Pathway to God’, the virtues of the Ikhwan’s fellowship, the characteristics of genuine believers, the nature of the divine nomos, the call to God, the actions of spiritualists, of jinn, angels, and recalcitrant demons, the species of politics, the cosmic hierarchy, and, finally, the essence of magic and talismanic incantations.

Besides the fifty-two tracts that constitute the Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa’, this compendium was accompanied by a treatise entitled al-Risala al-jami’a (The Comprehensive Epistle), which acted as the summa summarum for the whole corpus and was itself supplemented by a further abridged appendage known as the Risa/at jami’at al-jam(a (The Condensed Comprehensive Epistle).

In spite of their erudition and resourcefulness, it is doubtful whether the Brethren of Purity can be impartially ranked amongst the authorities of their age in the realms of science and philosophy.

Their inquiries into mathematics, logic, and the natural sciences were recorded in the Epistles in a synoptic and diluted fashion, sporadically infused with gnostic, symbolic, and occult directives.

 Nonetheless, their accounts of religiosity, as well as their syncretic approach, together with their praiseworthy efforts to collate the sciences, and to compose a pioneering ‘encyclopaedia’, all bear signs of commendable originality.

In terms of the epistemic significance of the Epistles and the intellectual calibre of their authors, it must be stated that, despite being supplemented by oral teachings in seminars (majalis al-‘ilm),

the heuristics embodied in the Rasa’il were not representative of the most decisive achievements in their epoch in the domains of mathematics, natural sciences, or philosophical reasoning. Moreover, the sciences were not treated with the same level of expertise across the Rasa’ii.

Consequently, this opus ought to be judged by differential criteria as regards the relative merits of each of its epistles.

 In fairness, there are signs of conceptual inventiveness, primarily regarding doctrinal positions in theology and reflections on their ethical-political import, along with signs of an intellectual sophistication in the meditations on spirituality and revelation.

The Rasii’il corpus is brimming with a wealth of ideas and constitutes a masterpiece of mediaeval literature that presents a populist yet comprehensive adaptation of scientific knowledge.

It is perhaps most informative in terms of investigating the transmission of knowledge in Islam, the ‘adaptive assimilation’ of antique sciences, and the historical evolution of the elements of the sociology of learning through the mediaeval forms of the popularization of the sciences and the systemic attempts to canonize them.

 By influencing a variety of Islamic schools and doctrines, the Brethren’s heritage acted as a significant intellectual prompt and catalyst in the development of the history of ideas in Islam. As such, their work rightfully holds the station assigned to it among the distinguished Arabic classics and the high literature of Islamic civilization.

The composition of this text displays impressive lexical versatility, which encompasses the technical idioms of mathematics and logic, the heuristics of natural philosophy, and the diction of religious pronouncements and occult invocations, in addition to poetic verses, didactic parables, and satirical and inspirational fables.

Despite the sometimes-disproportionate treatment of topics, the occasional hiatus in proofs, irrelevant digressions, or instances of verbosity, the apparent stylistic weaknesses disappear, becoming inconsequential when a complete impression is formed of the architectonic unity of the text as a whole and of the convergence of its constituent elements as a remarkable oeuvre des belles lettres.

Modern academic literature on the Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa’ is reasonably extensive within the field of Islamic studies, and it continues to grow, covering works dating from the nineteenth century up to the present, with numerous scholars attempting to solve the riddles surrounding this compendium.

 The academic rediscovery of the Rasa’il in modern times emerged through the monumental editorial and translation efforts of the German scholar Friedrich Dieterici between the years 1861 and 1872.

Several printed editions aiming to reconstruct the original Arabic have also been established, starting with the editio princeps in Calcutta in 1812, which was reprinted in 1846, then a complete edition in Bombay between 1887 and 1889, followed by the Cairo edition of 1928, and the Beirut editions of 1957, 1983, 1995, and their reprints.2

Although the scholarly contribution of these Arabic editions of the Rasa’il is laudable, as they valuably sustained research on the topic, they are uncritical in character, and they do not reveal their manuscript sources.

Consequently, the current printed editions do not provide definitive primary-source documentation for this classical text.

Given this state of affairs, the Institute of Ismaili Studies (IIS) in London has undertaken the publication (in association with Oxford University Press) of a multi-authored, multi-volume Arabic critical edition and annotated English translation of the fifty-two epistles. In preparation

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