Ibn Masarra, Muhammad ibn 'Abd Allah (883-931)

Muhammad ibn Masarra is said to be responsible for the first structuring of Andalusian Spanish Muslim philosophy. The thrust of his philosophy was to show the agreement between reason and revelation. The two paths taken by honest philosophers and prophets lead to the same goal of reaching the knowledge of the oneness of God. We can only know that God exists but not what His nature is. Ibn Masarra held that the divine attributes of knowledge, will and power are a distinct aspect of the simple and ineffable essence of God, and the Neoplatonic theory that all beings have emanated from him through the First Intellect and are either invisible or apparent. There are two sciences, one of the invisible, transcendental world, the other of the apparent and sensible world. The inner meanings in the sciences can be learned through the science of letters. By studying the enigmatic letters at the beginning of the Qur'anic surahs, one can decipher the secret knowledge of the truth symbolized by them.

  1. Life and times
  2. Doctrines
  3. God's attributes
  4. God's creation
  5. Esoterism and mysticism

1. Life and times

Muhammad ibn 'Abd Allah ibn Masarra was born in Cordoba, Spain, in ah 269/ad 883 and died in ah 319/ad 931. In a hermitage he had founded for his friends and disciples in the Sierra of Cordoba, Ibn Masarra undertook to instruct them in his doctrines, to initiate them into the use of esoteric knowledge and to practice zuhd (asceticism) through acts of penance and devotion. His success came from a Socratic style of pedagogy as well as a charismatic personality and skill in communication. After his death the jurists carried out a veritable persecution of his disciples; who had formed themselves into an ascetic order, the Masarriya, in Cordoba and later in Almeria.

Two of Ibn Masarra's four works, Kitab al-i'tibar (On Reflection) and Kitab khawass al-huruf (Characteristics of Letters), were published in 1982. Both are short tracts which have provided a better understanding of his thought, but because of their conciseness they raise new questions. It is still not possible to reconstruct his philosophical system until the remaining works are found, especially his Tawhid al-muqinin (The Certain Profession of the Oneness of God), where he discussed God's attributes.

2. Doctrines

M. Asín Palacios, the Spanish scholar who first reconstructed an integral account of Ibn Masarra's life and thought, concluded that he was the first Andalusian to structure Spanish Islamic philosophy (hikma) and that he conveyed his doctrines in a series of batini (inward) esoteric images and symbols (Asín Palacios 1972). The centrepiece of Asín's thesis, however, was the elaboration of a whole theory of Ibn Masarra's inspiration from a pseudo-Empedocles, who had developed a peculiar form of Plotinian ideas on the One and the five eternal substances of Primal Matter, Intellect, Soul, Nature and Secondary Matter. According to Asín, Ibn Masarra was the founder of a philosophical-mystical school which influenced Jewish, Christian and Muslim medieval philosophers. Andalusian Sufism from Isma'il al-Ru'ayni (d. ah 555/ad 1268) to Ibn al-'Arabi by way of Ibn al-'Arif (d. ah 536/ad 1141) sprang from the Masarri school.

The thrust of Ibn Masarra's philosophy is to demonstrate the agreement of reason and revelation. Each takes a different path leading to the same goal, al-tawhid, the knowledge of the oneness of God. By using 'aql, the intellect with which God endowed human beings, they reflect on God's signs and rise step by step to the knowledge of the Truth. Those who ascend by way of reason proceed from the bottom up and discover the same truth the Prophets have brought down from on high. In fact, the Qur'an invites us to reflect on the signs of his creation. Reflection (i'tibar) only confirms prophecy; what is learned by authority (sama') is confirmed by investigation. Ibn Masarra admits, however, that the philosophers and the ancients had attained the knowledge of the true One well before the age of prophecy and without its mediation, a position not acceptable to the religious scholars.

Ibn Masarra conceives of two sciences both created by God. One, the science of the invisible and intelligible reality ('ilm al-ghayb), which cannot be grasped by the senses, is created whole, entire and at once. The other is the science of the apparent and sensible reality ('ilm al-shahada) (Surah 6: 73). The Qur'an, the speech of God, is one whole in its divine essence, but diversified (mufassal) with respect to creation. It displays three aspects, each the subject of a different science: the science of divinity (rububiya), its signs, evidences and certainty; the science of prophecy with its demonstrative arguments, signs and necessity; and the science of tribulation (mihna) with its laws, promises and threats.

3. God's attributes

God transcends all human thought and all we can know about his nature is that he exists. His attributes are distinct from him, that is, from his essence (dhat). They are, however, related to each other. Strangely enough, Ibn Masarra concludes from that relationship the finitude or creation of the attributes. Like many Mu'tazilite theologians of his time in the East, he distinguished between the attributes of the essence, which are eternal, and the attributes of action, which are created. This was a way to which the Mu'tazilites resorted in order to assert the oneness and ineffability of God while maintaining human free will and responsibility. God's knowledge is only of universals; were he to know particulars, his oneness would be jeopardized and our moral responsibility denied.

In making the distinction between God's essence and his action, Ibn Masarra established three hierarchical attributes, the highest of which is connected to God's essence and the other two to his actions. These are divinity (aluhiya), royalty (mulk) and grace (ni'ma) or creation (khalq), through which God the Artificer (al-sani') is manifested. This hierarchy is reflected in the way human society is organized.

4. God's creation

All beings are divided into four categories, some nobler than others in accordance with the following scheme. First, there is the Being, or essence of God (dhat), separate, unique, ineffable, infinite and motionless; it is the ultimate, the visible and the invisible. The remaining beings are the signs that point to Him. Second is the Universal Intellect (al-'aql al-kulli), which is the conception or idea of things. It is spiritual by nature and permanent. It is the Mother of the Book (umm al-kitab) (Surah 3: 6), and the Preserved Tablet (al-lawh al-mahfuz) (Surah 85: 21) on which all things are inscribed. The totality of what is in the Book is the idea (mithal, Eidos) of the universe, whatever was, is or shall be. It is also the Throne (Surah 10: 2) which incites motion in response to God's volition and will. The relationship of the Intellect to God is similar to the relation of the sun's light to the sun. Third is the Great Soul (al-nafs al-kubra) that carries the body of the universe. The relation of the Soul to the Intellect is like the light of the moon to that of the sun. Through this Soul, immersed in materiality, Royalty (mulk) is constituted and the celestial spheres are held. To Royalty are predicated government and politics. Finally, lower than the Great Soul is the Physical Soul (al-nafs al-tabi'iya), which is completely immersed in corporeality and is the efficient cause of corporeal beings. The Throne encloses the invisible world ('alam al-ghayb) and the Great Soul encloses the visible ('alam al-shahada).

The origination of the cosmos has been achieved in time by the command 'Be' (kun), expressing the volition and will according to knowledge. When the One wants to do something, he causes it to appear in the Preserved Tablet. This in itself is the command (amr) to set the idea into action by his willing. God, according to him, is concealed from creation by two veils from the perspective of his creation, inasmuch as nothing can conceal him from the perspective of his essence. Motion is then set by the Throne, since no action ad extra can be attributed to the One.

Unlike the pseudo-Empedocles, who conceived of love and discord as the driving force of creation, Ibn Masarra talked about capacity and power designating them as truth (haqq) (Surah 2: 72). In the final analysis God is the Aristotelian unmoved mover, but in Neoplatonic style all creation emanates from him. Unlike Plotinus, Ibn Massara finds that the processes of emanation and creation are the results of God's will (irada) and deliberate action. Both he and Plotinus agree on the intermediary roles played by the Intellect and the Soul in the creation of the material world, but whereas Plotinus believed in involuntary emanation, Ibn Massara retained the Islamic view of voluntary creation (see Neoplatonism; Neoplatonism in Islamic philosophy).

The principles from which all creatures have come are fourteen in number, ten of which are in the sublunar world: chaos (al-'ama'), primordial dust (al-haba'), which is considered by some as the materia prima, air, wind, atmosphere, water, fire, light, darkness and clay. The remaining four, the Pen (qalam), the Tablet, the Command and the Spiritual locus (makan) exist in the world above. From the fourteen are made the Throne, paradise, hell, the seven heavens, the earth, the angels, the jinn, human beings, animals and vegetation.

5. Esoterism and mysticism

In his work Kitab khawass al-huruf (Book of the Characteristics of Letters), Ibn Masarra appears as an esoteric (batini) philosopher investigating the esoteric meanings of the nuraniya, the fourteen separate letters which introduce certain surahs of the Qur'an, basically following the tradition of Islamic gnosis. The mysterious letters, according to the Batini school, represented the universe so that its entirety is a book whose letters are God's words. The 'science of letters' followed by Ibn Masarra had nothing to do with divination or magic; it is merely a path to the discovery of the truths hidden behind the symbols. In this he was inspired by the work of Sahl al-Tustari (d. ah 283/ad 896), the author of a similar work on the science of letters.

Reflection (i'tibar) allows us to decipher the principles of all beings. The basic idea is to show that the different degrees that constitute beings in general correspond to the surah's fawatih (opening letters) as well as to the order of being. The letters are twenty-eight in number, equal to the length of the lunar phases. Fourteen are exoteric and the remaining fourteen are esoteric. These are used by God to manifest his knowledge: their secret meanings have been bestowed upon the Prophet Muhammad as expressed in the Qur'an, and consequently the Qur'an is the source of all knowledge, old and new. The steps leading to paradise and salvation are equal in number to the Qur'anic verses and to the number of God's beautiful names, excepting the great name of Allah.

The first letter, alif, is the alpha and omega of all letters inasmuch as it represents the principle of all things. It is the first manifestation of God and his will; it is a metaphor for the production of things (takwin), the emergence of justice and the permanent and unchanging primordial decree (al-qada' al-awwal). It never rests and continuously causes generation and corruption. This decree has two aspects. A prior aspect (sabiq) is connected to the Preserved Tablet, the tablet of the Universal Intellect where all things are inscribed. This is a decree that does not respond to invocation. The second aspect, the diversifier (mufassil), particularizes all things that are not permanent. Like the other attributes, the two decrees manifesting God's knowledge and power are other than God, although they are not created in time. The concept of huduth, or coming to be, is realized only in time; but God's knowledge, according to Ibn Masarra, whether it is knowledge of the universals or particulars, is not in time. Coming to be in time is the particularization of beings found in a locus performed by that decree that particularizes things and responds to invocation.

Human salvation can be achieved through either the via reflectiva or the via prophetica, an idea considered heretical by most Muslim theologians (see Islamic theology). In both cases, individuals have to follow certain rules in order to free their souls from the bondage of materiality. Ibn Masarra distinguishes clearly between the soul (ruh) and spirit (nafs), with the latter being the prototype (mithal) of the first.

There is a tradition in Andalusian literature to the effect that Ibn Masarra enjoyed great respect and veneration in spite of the fact that his teachings were criticized and refuted. On the other hand, his disciples were persecuted. Transformed into an ascetic society, his disciples first in Cordova and later in Almeria put into practice his Sufi and esoteric teachings. He is certainly one of the first mystical-philosophical Andalusians. His Sufi teachings as well as his works continued to circulate and to be studied for centuries. His influence on Ibn al-'Arabi is attested by the many references to him in the latter's works and by similarity in a number of ideas, especially in the continuous use of similes of light and illumination to describe the essence of God.

See also: Ibn al-'Arabi; Mystical philosophy in Islam; Neoplatonism in Islamic philosophy

Copyright © 1998, Routledge.

List of works

Ibn Masarra (883-931) Kitab al-i'tibar (On Reflection), ed. M.K. Ja'far, Min al-turath al-falsafi li-ibn Masarrah: 1. Risalat al-i'tibar, 2. Khawass al-huruf, Cairo, 1982. (One of Ibn Massara's two surviving works.)

Ibn Masarra (883-931) Kitab khawass al-huruf (Characteristics of Letters), ed. M.K. Ja'far, Min al-turath al-falsafi li-ibn Masarrah: 1. Risalat al-i'tibar, 2. Khawass al-huruf, Cairo, 1982. (One of Ibn Massara's two surviving works.)

References and further reading

Addas, C. (1992) 'Andalusi Mysticism and the Rise of Ibn Arabi', in S.K. Jayyusi (ed.) The Legacy of Muslim Spain, Leiden: Brill. (A well-written study on Sufism in Spain including a sizeable section on Ibn Masarrah's mystical teachings.)

Asín Palacios, M. (1972) The Mystical Philosophy of Ibn Masarra and His Followers, trans. E.H. Douglas and H.W. Yoder, Leiden: Brill. (Still the major work on Ibn Masarra, although some of the conclusions have been challenged.)

Arnaldez, R. (1960) 'Ibn Masarra', in The Encyclopedia of Islam, 2nd edn, vol. 3: 868-72. (Concise account of Ibn Masarra's life and thought.)

Cruz Hernández, M. (1981) 'La Persecución anti-Masarri durante el reinado de 'Abd al-Rahman al-Nasir li-Din Allah según Ibn Hayyan' (The Anti-Masarri Persecution During the Reign of 'Abd al-Rahman According to Ibn Hayyan), al-Qantara II (182): 51-67. (An analysis of the account of Ibn Hayyan's al-Muqtabas concerning the persecution of the disciples of Ibn Masarrah, concluding that it does not differ substantially from that of Asín.)

Goodman, L. (1996) 'Ibn Masarra', in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman (eds) History of Islamic Philosophy, London: Routledge, ch. 20, 277-93. (The role of Ibn Masarra in creating a distinctive philosophy and form of mysticism in al-Andalus.)

Stern, S.M. (1983) 'Ibn Masarra, Follower of Pseudo-Empedocles - An Illusion', in F. Zimmerman (ed.) Medieval Arabic and Hebrew Thought, London: Variorum. (A criticism of Asín's theory.)

Ternero, E. (1993) 'Noticia sobre la publicación de obras inéditas de ibn Masarra' (Review of the Publication of Ibn Masarra's Unedited Works), al-Qantara XIV: 47-64. (A summary of the two works of Ibn Masarra, published for the first time in 1982.)

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