Ikhwan al-Safa'

The philosophy of the group of Arab philosophers of the fourth or fifth century ah (tenth or eleventh century ad) known as the Ikhwan al-Safa' (Brethren of Purity) is a curious but fascinating mixture of the Qur'anic, the Aristotelian and the Neoplatonic. The group wrote fifty-two epistles, which are encyclopedic in range, covering matters as diverse as arithmetic, theology, magic and embryology. Their numerology owes a debt to Pythagoras, their metaphysics are Aristotelian and Neoplatonic and they incorporate also a few Platonic notions into their philosophy. The latter, however, is more than a mere synthesis of elements from Greek philosophy, for it is underpinned by a considerable Qur'anic substratum. There are profound links between the epistemology and the soteriology (doctrine of salvation) of the Ikhwan, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that the former feeds the latter. In the history of Islamic philosophy the Ikhwan illustrate a group where the Aristotelian and the Neoplatonic clash head-on and where no attempt is made to reconcile competing and contradictory notions of God, whom the Epistles treat in both Qur'anic and Neoplatonic fashion. The final goal of the Ikhwan is salvation; their Brotherhood is the ship of that salvation, and they foster a spirit of asceticism and good living accompanied by 'actual knowledge' as aids to that longed-for salvation.

  1. Life and works
  2. Metaphysics
  3. Epistemology
  4. Soteriology

1. Life and works

The Arabic name Ikhwan al-Safa' has been translated as both 'Brethren of Purity' and 'Brethren of Sincerity'. Both are possible, though the former is probably to be preferred because of the emphasis throughout the group's writings on the concept of purity achieved via a life of asceticism and virtuous living.

Little firm information is available about their exact identities, their lives and the precise time during which they flourished. Most scholars agree, however, that they lived in Basra in the fourth or fifth century ah (tenth or eleventh century ad); beyond that there has been much diverse speculation. Their own thought and philosophy is enshrined in fifty-two epistles (rasa'il) of varying lengths which are encyclopedic in their scope and cover a vast number of topics. Formally, these epistles divide into four major sections: the first fourteen deal with the mathematical sciences, the next seventeen are on the natural sciences, a further ten deal with the psychological and rational sciences and the final eleven come under the heading of theological sciences. It should be noted that the Ikhwan's usage of these divisions is much broader in range than might be expected at first sight. For example, the last of the epistles grouped under the heading 'theological sciences' deals with magic and related subjects. What may broadly be said to link all the epistles, however, is a mixed Aristotelian and Neoplatonic substratum, though it must be stressed here that the epistles of the Ikhwan al-Safa' are more than just a synthesis of Aristotelian and dominant Neoplatonic themes. The incorporation by the Ikhwan of syncretic philosophical and theological themes, motifs, elements and doctrines in their writings was done with a particular soteriological purpose (see §4). Their eclectic borrowing was done with a view to bolstering the doctrine of purity which their name so neatly reflects.

2. Metaphysics

The metaphysics of the Ikhwan al-Safa' are built upon those of Aristotle and Plotinus, though it must be emphasized that it is a Middle Eastern version of Aristotelianism and Neoplatonism which we encounter when we read the rasa'il of the Ikhwan. In the first place, their terminology is infused with such terms as matter and form, substance and accidents, the four causes and potentiality and actuality. Their usage of such terms, however, does not always adhere to the classical Aristotelian paradigm or usage. The development of terminology is often in a Neoplatonic direction. For example, the Ikhwan held in one place that substance was something which was self-existent and capable of receiving attributes. We recognize here a description akin to Aristotle's usage of the word 'substance' in the Metaphysics. But elsewhere, confusingly, form is divided into two kinds, constituting and completing; constituting forms are called substances and completing forms are called accidents. Similarly, the Ikhwan adopted a fourfold terminology of causes - material, formal, efficient and final - but the shades of astrology and Neoplatonism hang heavily over at least two of the examples of these four causes which they provide. They say that the material cause of plants is the four elements of fire, air, water and earth, and that their final cause is to provide food for animals: both of these ideas are recognizably Aristotelian in their orientation, but the Ikhwan then go on to suggest that the efficient cause of plants is the power of the Universal Soul and that their formal cause has complicated astral elements!

It is, however, the Neoplatonic elements which dominate the articulation of all thought in the writings of the Ikhwan al-Safa' and their metaphysics are no exception. The latter are imbued in particular with the Neoplatonic concepts of emanation and hierarchy. By contrast with the simple triad of Plotinus, which comprised the three hypostases of The One or The Good, Intellect and Soul, with the lower eternally emanating from the higher entity, the Ikhwan elaborated this into an emanationist hierarchy of nine 'members', hypostases or levels of being, as follows: the Creator, the Intellect, the Soul, Prime Matter, Nature, the Absolute Body, the Sphere, the Four Elements and the Beings of this world in the three divisions of mineral, plant and animal. In such a hierarchical profusion we can perhaps see the ghosts of Iamblichus and Proclus, who also multiplied the hypostases about which they wrote. It is noteworthy that for the Ikhwan, and in contrast to the view of Plotinus, matter becomes a full part of the emanationist hierarchy and is regarded in a positive light. Furthermore, and this time in a very Neoplatonic way, God in the Ikhwan's scheme entrusts the movement of the world and the spheres to the Universal Soul, and it is the latter which channels God's gifts finally into Matter itself (see Neoplatonism).

The Neoplatonic dimensions of the thought of the Ikhwan have profound implications for their view of God. The picture which they present of the deity in their epistles is a confused and ultimately contradictory one. No attempt is made to reconcile what is in fact irreconcilable. On the one hand, the Ikhwan present a God at the top of a complex emanationist hierarchy who is unknowable in the classic Neoplatonic sense. On the other hand, the Ikhwan present a Qur'anic God who is a guide and a help, and who is invoked at the end of many of the epistles as one who will grant success in correct action and show his people the path of righteousness. The majority of epistles also invoke God with the traditional Islamic basmala, 'In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate'. However, God's power, as noted above, seems to be 'shared' in some way when it is exercised via the Universal Soul. To what extent, one may reasonably ask, does that compromise the traditional Islamic view of God? Furthermore, to what extent do the recognizably Islamic features in the Ikhwan's portrait of God prevent that deity being considered as a total mirror of Plotinus' One?

The metaphysics of the Ikhwan al-Safa' must therefore be regarded as sui generis. Their mixing of Aristotelian and Neoplatonic elements had profound implications both for their theology and the coherence of their philosophy. Contradictions abound; if reasons be sought for this, it is worth remembering one theory, promulgated by A.L. Tibawi (1955), that the epistles are akin to the minutes taken during the deliberations of a learned society, meeting on many occasions over a period of years. This would account for both contradiction and repetition. We know from the epistles themselves that the authors urged their brothers to meet specially at set times, in closed sessions.

3. Epistemology

Thus far in this article, nothing has been said about the impact of Platonic thought on the epistles of the Ikhwan. This is because the Brethren revere the Platonic hero rather more than they revere purely Platonic philosophy. Socrates is admired as a great and wise philosopher who knew how to meet death bravely. However, some Platonic imagery does permeate the epistles (see Platonism in Islamic philosophy). The most notable image is that of the body constituting a prison for the soul. The Ikhwan indeed compare the soul in the body to the state of a man imprisoned inside a lavatory: the body's blemishes and sins are like the filth in the lavatory. It is clear that the Ikhwan were familiar with Plato's doctrine of Forms or ideai, since they quote a speaker saying that the different types of animal in the world simply mirror those in the world of the spheres and the heavens (see Plato). However, this is not a doctrine for which the Ikhwan seem to have had much use, for they neither discuss nor elaborate upon it.

It is, therefore, unsurprising that the Ikhwan's epistemology differs quite radically from that of Plato. The latter looked forward to a state of real knowledge achieved when the soul was separated from the body; but in the soteriology and epistemology of the Ikhwan, one could gain some knowledge of the divine in this world to help one reach Paradise. Indeed, they present their epistles to the world as a body of just such knowledge. For them, learning was much more than mere recollection or reminiscence. They held that the soul was 'potentially knowledgeable' and, with instruction, could become 'actually knowledgeable'. That instruction should be via the senses, the intellect and logical deduction, and they stressed that we could know nothing without the senses. This is indeed a far cry from Plato's well-known suspicion of evidence or knowledge gleaned via the senses, and his overwhelming exaltation of the intellect.

4. Soteriology

The mass of information - philosophical, theological and other - adumbrated in such an encyclopedic manner in the epistles of the Ikhwan al Safa' is probably incomprehensible as a totality unless one bears in mind the driving force which lies at the heart of the epistles themselves. The Ikhwan did not compile the epistles from a pure love of knowledge and for no other reason. The magpie eclecticism with which they surveyed and utilized elements from the philosophies of Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus, and religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism, was not an early attempt at ecumenism or interfaith dialogue. Their accumulation of knowledge was ordered towards the sublime goal of salvation. To use their own image, they perceived their Brotherhood, to which they invited others, as a 'Ship of Salvation' that would float free from the sea of matter; the Ikhwan, with their doctrines of mutual cooperation, asceticism and righteous living, would reach the gates of Paradise in its care.

What, then, did it mean for the Ikhwan al-Safa' to 'do philosophy'? It did not mean to throw off the religious constraints of the Qur'an and to become pure rationalists. Though they often use the Qur'an as a cloak to disguise their Neoplatonism, one cannot ignore the massive Qur'anic substratum elsewhere in their writings, which has no such intent. 'Doing philosophy' did not mean either the uncritical acceptance of the data from a variety of sources such as Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle, not to mention Plotinus, even though they were profoundly influenced by at least three of these four ancient masters and it is no misnomer to describe the Ikhwan as 'Muslim Neoplatonists'. Philosophy, for the Ikhwan, was still the handmaiden of a precise theological goal: salvation for the soul. Their eclecticism and tolerance provided them with a unique methodology for the achievement of that goal. Thus they searched out the texts of other creeds and the philosophies of non-Muslim sages in search of materials which might bolster their own ethics of purity and asceticism. Their intellectual heroes were Socrates and Jesus as well as Muhammad. Above all, knowledge and philosophy were always soteriological tools and never ends in themselves.

See also: Islamic theology; Mystical philosophy in Islam; Neoplatonism in Islamic philosophy

Copyright © 1998, Routledge.

References and further reading

Diwald, S. (1975) Arabische Philosophie und Wissenschaft in der Enzyklopädie Kitab Ihwan as-Safa' III: Die Lehre von Seele und Intellekt (Arab Philosophy and Science in the Book of the Brethren of Purity III: Teachings on the Soul and the Intellect), Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz. (A German translation of the third section of the Rasa'il with extensive notes.)

Goodman, L.E. (1978) The Case of the Animals versus Man Before the King of the Jinn, Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers. (An English translation of a major portion of the second section of the Rasa'il with extensive introduction and notes.)

* Ikhwan al-Safa' (1957) Rasa'il Ikhwan al-Safa' (Epistles of the Brethren of Purity), Beirut: Dar Sadir, 4 vols. (The complete text of the fifty-two epistles in the original Arabic.)

Marquet, Y. (1975) La philosophie des Ihwan al-Safa' (The Philosophy of the Brethren of Purity), Algiers: Société Nationale d'Édition et de Diffusion. (A major study by France's leading expert in the field.)

Nasr, S.H. (1978) An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines, revised edn, London: Thames & Hudson. (Contains a major section on the cosmology of the Ikhwan.)

Netton, I.R. (1982) Muslim Neoplatonists: An Introduction to the Thought of the Brethren of Purity (Ikhwan al-Safa'), London: Allen & Unwin; paperback edn, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991. (A major introduction in English to the thought of the Ikhwan.)

Netton, I.R. (1996) 'The Brethren of Purity', in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman (eds) History of Islamic Philosophy, London: Routledge, ch. 15, 222-30. (Concise and clear outline of their views.)

* Tibawi, A.L. (1955) 'Ikhwan as-Safa' and Their Rasa'il: A Critical Review of a Century and a Half of Research', Islamic Quarterly 2 (1): 28-46. (A very useful and neat survey of Ikhwan scholarship up to 1955.)

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