Brethren of Purity

(Ikhwan al-Safa’)
   Designating themselves with the Qur’anic sobriquet ‘Sleepers in the cave of our father Adam’, the Brethren of Purity were a secretive and mysterious group of philosophers centred on the cosmopolitan city of Basra. Their actual membership is still a matter of dispute, as are their exact religio-political commitments (some scholars believe they were Isma‘ilis). The only thing that is relatively certain is that they lived and wrote in either the fourth/tenth or fifth/eleventh centuries and collectively produced fifty-two remarkable Epistles (Rasa’il) that ranged over mathematics, astronomy, geography, music, logic, the natural sciences, magic, astrology, psychology, metaphysics and religious law. The Brethren offered up a syncretic system that drew from diverse Greek philosophers, the Qur’an, and even divergent systems of belief such as Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism. They employed Aristotelian concepts in their metaphysics (matter and form, substance and accidents, the four causes, actuality and potentiality), but wove them into an elaborate Neoplatonic hierarchy in which being emanated from the Creator, to the intellect, to the universal soul, and on down through prime matter, nature, the absolute body, the spheres, and the four elements to the beings of our world. With such a hybrid philosophy, it is hardly surprising to encounter certain tensions in the Brethren’s writings; what is surprising is that they make little effort to reconcile explicit contradictions (e.g. between the unknowable, impersonal God of Neoplatonism and the concerned, guiding God of the Qur’an). However, the Brethren did not pursue ‘actual knowledge’ as an end in itself; for them it ultimately served a practical, soteriological function. In conjunction with asceticism, mutual assistance and virtuous living, it purified the soul, helping the Brethren and their interlocutors to free themselves from the body and ascend from the material world to Paradise. The Brethren thus presented themselves as a ‘ship of salvation’, and in fact their eclecticism and tolerance was a deliberate strategy in the salvation of the soul, seizing upon practically effi- cacious wisdom wherever they found it.
   Further reading: Brethren of Purity 1978; Nasr 1964/93; Nasr with Aminrazavi 2001; Netton 1982/91, 1989/95

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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