Greek Principles of Ikhwan al-safas’ Thought

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Even the most cursory reading of the Epistles highlights the Brethren’s devotion to number. It good that one study mathematics and number before other (higher) branches of knowledge like physics, logic and divinity (R, 1:49). The Brethren held “the Pythagorean belief that the nature of created things accords with the nature of number” and stated: “This is the school of thought [madhhad] of our Ikhwan” They also followed the Pythagoreans in their devotion to certain number four, a reverence which transcended the sphere of pure mathematics: they drew attention, for example, to the four seasons, four winds, four directions and four Empedoclean elements. There were four natures and four hum ours. The lute had four strings and even matter was divisible into four types. The reasoning behind such veneration for this particular number is not hard to find: God created “most things in groups of four and ….nature matters are arranged in fours principally to correspond to, or harmonise with, the four spiritual principles which rank above them, consisting of the Creator, the Universal Intellect, the Universal Soul and Prime Matter”.

For the Brethren one could learn about God’s unity by knowing something of number and they stated that Pythagoras held that the second led to the first (R,3: 200) .Yet with all their devotion to number the Brethren managed to avoid the prime Pythagorean error, noted by Aristotle, in which a number and the thing (s) numbered were confused. They also rejected Pythagorean notions of transmigration, holding rather that purification achieved in a single life on earth gained humans admission to Paradise.

Despite some references there is no deep discussion of, or involvement with, the Platonic Forms or “Ideas” (ideai) in the Epistles of the Brethren of Purity. There Epistles can in way be described as Platonic. What the Brethren do stress very powerfully, however, is their conception of the Platonic philosopher as hero. In passages which show some familiarity with at least the outlines of the Phaedo and Crito dialogues, Socrates is held up for admiration and respect as a great philosopher who knows how to die bravely. It is also interesting that the Brethren orient their description of Socrates’ death scene towards their own doctrines. Terminology is put into Socrates’ mouth which is heavily reminiscent of the Brethren’s own chosen hierarchy. Plato’s own view that the body was an impediment to the achieving of spiritual perfection was also shared by the Brethren of Purity, but the latter rejected Plato’s epistemology with its suspicion of sensory perception. The Brethren “explain carefully that the method of instruction should be through the senses, then by the intellect and finally by logical deduction, but without the senses one can know nothing” (R, 3:424). The contrast between this view and that of Plato could not be more apparent.

Loosely speaking, from a philosophical point of view, we can say that the Epistle of the Brethren of Purity rest on own foundations: Aristotlianism and Neoplatonism. What must be enunciated and stressed right at the beginning however, in any coverage of either the Aristotlianism or the Neoplatonism of the Brethren is that they used the doctrines of Aristotle and Plotinus and shaped them in accordance with their own beliefs, not always producing a hybrid which either Aristotle or Plotinus would have recognized.

That the Brethren respected Aristotle is not hard to prove: Quite apart from the influence of the Stagirite on the content and terminology of the Epistles, the Brethren produced “ a story about Muhammad in which the Prophet claims that, had Aristotle lived to know the Islamic message brought by him, the Greek philosopher would have undoubtedly been converted to Islam”.

Apart from direct references to, and Epistles based upon, several of Aristotle’s major treatises. the primary contribution of Aristotle to the writings of the Brethren was in the field of metaphysical terminology, an area frequently invaded by the terminology of Neoplatonism. Thus we find substance and accident, matter and form, potentiality and actuality, and many other Aristotelian terms being peddled throughout the text of he Brethren. Two examples must suffice here of the way in which to Aristotle’s Classical four causes:

Of the causes of plants, two recognizably Aristotelian:the material cause of plants is the …..four elements while the final cause is the provision of nourishment for animals, but the efficient cause is the powers of the Universal Soul and the formal cause is linked with astral reason involving a lengthy explanation. (R,2:155)

My second example illustrates what the Brethren did with Aristotle’s categories. If hierarchy, division and emanation may be said to the key features of Neoplatonism, then the first two at least are apparent in full measure in the following: Substance divided first into its corporeal [jusmani] and spiritual [ruhani] aspects. Corporeal Substance then further divided into that which pertained to the celestial sphere [falaki] and the natural sphere [tabi’i], and so on outwards until a final division into animals born from the womb, those born from an egg, and those born from decayed matter, was reached. Quantity [kamm] was similarly divided into separate [munfasil] and the liked [muttasil]. (R,1:408-9)

Most extraordinary perhaps of the metamorphoses which overtake Aristotle’s terms in the following, in which form is described in terms of substance: The Ikhwan wrote: Know that form [al-surah] is of two kinds: constituting [muqawwimah] and completing [mutammiah]. The scholars called constituting forms substances [jawahir] and completing form accidents [a’rad].

The principal focal point in any study of the Rasa’il Epistles of the Brethren of the Purity must be their Neoplatonism which pervades the entire text. A survey of the Brethren’s use the main features of this doctrine will therefore here conclude this chapter.

Both emanation and hierarchy, those key features of classical Neoplatonism, figure prominently in the thought of the Brethren of Purity. Making use of sun simile, which has analogies with an earlier comparison employed by Plotinus, the Brethren tell
how the generosity and virtues which were in God emanated [afadah] from Him “by the necessity of wisdom [bi-wajib] al-hikmah]” in the same fashion that light and brightness emanated from the eye of the sun. The first product of this unbroken emanation [fayd] was called the Active Intellect, from which emanated, in turn, the Passive Intellect [al-Aql al- munfa’il] or Universal Soul, from the latter emanated Prime Matter.

However, a major difference between Plotinus and the Brethren of Purity is instantly perceptible in the latter’s hierarchy of being. Plotinus postulated a relatively “simple” structure, at least in its compositions of not in its theological elaboration, of One, Intellect and Soul. The Brethren enlarged this hierarchy of being into a nine fold emanationist structure comprising:
The Creator

The Intellect]

[The Soul

Prime Matter


The Absolute Body

The Sphere

The four Elements

The Beings of this World
(mineral, plant & animal)

It seems that in such complexity and multiplication of hypostases, the spirits of the later Neoplatonic masters like Iamblichus (c.A.D.250- c. 326) and Proclus (A.D.412-85) are abroad. And it is clear from the briefest study of the Epistles of the Brethren of Purity that the concepts of emanation and hierarchy dominate the entire text in profound and penetrating fashion, even invading and “Neoplatonizinig” Aristotle’ own categories. As for their view of God, it is obvious that the Brethren perceived Him in two different and unharmonized ways: on the one hand, God takes on many of the classical Neoplatonic characteristics like unknowableness, on the other, elsewhere in the text, He is the traditional Qur’anic Deity, acting in a recognizable Islamic fashion. No specific attempt is made by the Brethren to reconcile what are often opposing or contradictory views of Divinity (see Netton).

The Neoplatonism of the Epistles produced by the Brethren of Purity cannot be overemphasized. Its permeation of these writings, together with the Aristotelian and other elements, makes their corpus one of the most syncretic known in the history of the intellectual development of Islamic thought. That said however, we must not leave their writings giving the impression that they constitute a total unoriginal syncretism and nothing else. The Epistles are not simply a sum total of influences and no more. The reality is much more subtle, as I hope will be apparent from the concluding paragraphs. The syncretism probably explains some of the contradictions in their text, but their intention highlights their true originality.


History of Islamic philosophy – seyyed Hossein Nasr- pages:224to229


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