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Ikhwanus Safa: A Rational and Liberal Approach to Islam

by Asghar Ali Engineer

Rasa'il-e-Ikhwanus 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 Arabia 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 the 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)

posted on the Donmeh West news list
Fri, 5 Feb 1999





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page uploaded 4 October 1999, last modified 6 September 2004