Unfortunately there is still far much by way of conjecture, innuendo, ahistoricity, ideology and basic guess-work in the study of Islamic philosophy and mysticism, at least in what passes for historical studies of these intellectual traditions. But as we have seen the serious study of intellectual history particularly in the Graeco-Arabic period and in classical Islamdom flourish, so too has attention upon those critical intersections between disciplines and bodies of knowledge. It is no longer the case that one can argue for the Neopythagorean roots of a particular intellectual tradition or make the case that the ‘esoteric’ doctrine of a thinker is due to his ‘hermeticism’. The publication of a revised version of Kevin van Bladel’s Yale doctoral dissertation is a wonderfully solid historical masterpiece that greatly contributes to our understanding of certain strands of intellectual transmission in the late antique Near East as well as disabusing us of many a myth about the presence of Hermes and hermeticism in classical Islamic learned culture. Hermetic manuscripts on the occult, on alchemy, on the esoteric doctrine of the soul of course abound, within collections of Sufis works and without; what is critical is to make sense of why they exist where they are found and a deeper sense of what constitutes the Arabic Hermes in the same way that we now understand far better the Arabic Plato and the Arabic Aristotle. The historical transmission of texts and ideas is of course not just an obsession of the positivist pedant but rather to avoid woolly thinking on cross-cultural relations and their possibilities, exigencies and lacunae. It is true that unless texts were available to translators and adaptors, they could not have emerged in an Arabic form; but we should not insist too much on strict historical orthographical trails since orality did figure as a medium of transmission (no doubt partly influenced by Platonic logocentrism) and texts sometimes disappeared and reappeared over the ages. Nonetheless, the story of how early Muslims appropriated Hermes is a case in point of how ideas and figures were taken from their Hellenic (or Hellenizing Near Eastern, or maybe even orientalising Hellenic) contexts and naturalisation within an Arabic idiom. Van Bladel rather carefully avoids the use of the terms Hermeticist and hermeticism because we have an absence of evidence of continuity of communities engaged in hermetic learning and practice from late antiquity into classical Islam.
Van Bladel’s study is divided into two parts, the former on the background and the intellectual formation of the Arabic Hermes located in the tripartite history of Islamic learned culture located in Hellenic late antiquity, Sasanian Iran, and those elusive Sabeans of Harran; the latter examines the shift from the concept of Hermes Trismegistus, the thrice-Hermes of the doxographies to the notion of Hermes-Idris as the Prophetic sage and teacher and the proliferation of wisdom sayings associated with him, some of which are extracted and adapted (though not many) from the Greek Hermetica, which in itself survives due to its existence with Gnostic corpora in late antique Egypt, not least the Nag Hammadi codices. What is, however, missing from this picture is one important element of what passed for Hermetic texts in Arabic, namely the alchemical and astrological (and generally occult) works that have interested Charles Burnett and his many students at the Warburg Institute in London for some years. The question which still remains to be considered is the relationship between the alchemical and the philosophical-mystical. Chapter one on the Hellenic heritage and the context of the translation movement does not actually tell us much about the transmission because we have so little evidence of direct translations from what we know as the Greek Corpus Hermeticum into Arabic. Chapter two moves onto the Sasanian context. The skill with which van Bladel demonstrates the existence of a middle Persian hermetica, primarily in alchemy and astrology shows the value of training in ancient Iranian languages for those studying late antiquity and early Islam. Chapter three on the Sabeans engages with a thorny debate on the transmission of modes of learning in late antiquity with the likes of Michel Tardieu arguing for a vibrant school in Syria that bore the Alexandrian tradition of Neoplatonism as well as hermeticism and which bridged the suppression of philosophy in the sixth century to its revival in ‘Abbasid Baghdad. It seems that Sabeans in Baghdad islamicized their doctrines and in pursuit of a prophet for their religious community and dispensation adopted Hermes. This may well have been one of the sources for the appropriation of Hermes into a ‘prophetic chain of philosophical initiation’. What emerges from part I is that there are elements of fragmentary evidence but unlike the transmission of Plato and Aristotle, little actual historical evidence from the Hellenic, Iranian and Syrian background to Islamic learned culture.
Part II engages with the construction of the Arabic Hermes. Chapter four deals with the confused understanding of Trismegistus and the idea that there were in fact three Hermeses. In fact, the early Muslims merely seemed to have perpetuated the notion that there were multiple Hermeses and did not misunderstand the term trismegistus as previous scholars argued. Once again the analysis is based on careful consideration of the texts. The final chapter analyses the prophetic appropriation of Hermes drawing on existing Judaeo-Christian patterns. Ismailis incorporated the prophetic teachings of Hermes as did compilers of wisdom sayings such as Mubashshir ibn Fatik. It is disappointing that so little of this chapter is devoted to the famous text the Zijr al-nafs which had widespread fame in philosophical and Sufis circles in medieval Islamdom. Ultimately van Bladel’s book seems like a prolegomenon – a solidly historical foundation on the basis of which a serious study of what constitutes ‘hermeticism’ in medieval thought needs to be undertaken.