The significance of the epistles on a range of intellectual disciplines by the group of scholars known as the Brethren of Purity (Ikhwān al-ṣafāʾ) has been known for some time, although one might argue that their significance for a proper assessment of Islamic intellectual history has been neglected. The first two epistles published here by Nader el-Bizri in one volume are part of an exciting new project initiated by the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London to re-edit the whole text with critical, analytical translations and annotations undertaken by a number of specialists around the world. For those of us who specialise in Islamic intellectual history and need texts to use in the classroom, this is an excellent development to be welcomed, especially since the volumes that I have seen are well rendered into English. The companion volume edited by el-Bizri that attempts not only to make sense of who the Ikhwān were but also assess their impact demonstrates that their significance was recognised by later traditions even when it was occluded - and even when they were severely misunderstood as the contribution on Ibn Taymīya in that volume suggests. One small quibble about the whole project – it would have been good to see the Arabic and English on facing pages, which may have been logistically problematic. As it is, it makes the comparison of the original text with the English a bit more difficult. In this way the Islamic Translations Series at Brigham Young University is a much better and user-friendly method of presenting the text.
The two epistles translated here are the first in the sequence, and constitute part of the first section of the Rasāʾil on the mathematical and propaedeutical sciences (al-ʿulūm al-riyāḍīya [wa-]l-taʿlīmīya). [Note: it may well be that riyāḍī and taʿlīmī are just two different translations for mathemata and hence it might not be useful distinguishing the two; the mathemata are what constitute the quadrivium] The translator, who happens to also be the editor of the whole series, Nader el-Bizri is a historian of philosophy and science in the world of Islam and has in recent times focused on the history of geometry, mathematics, and optics, publishing widely on Ibn al-Haytham (d. 1040). El-Bizri has also written on Avicenna and written a pioneering Heideggerian study of Avicenna and the Seinsfrage. The two epistles form part of the ancient quadrivium that constituted a more advanced stage of study associated with Boethius (d. 524) and based upon the mathematics of Nicomachus of Gerasa, a Neopythagorean of the first century CE: training in arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy considered to be the very heart of a scientific education. After the first two epistles, epistle 3 deals with astronomy, 4 with cosmography, 5 with music (published in a masterful edition and translation by the eminent musicologist Owen Wright) and 6 with proportions (that ties the quadrivium together) – and that is before they move onto the next set of propaeduetics, namely the logical organon beginning with epistles 7 and 8 on the theoretical and practical arts that provides a classification of the sciences on which the approach to holism is based. From these latter epistles, we can clearly see where the Ikhwān differ from their contemporaries who had a greater impact on later Islamic philosophy such as al-Fārābī (d. 950). The volume comprising the organon has been published by Carmela Baffioni and is a real contribution which has one surprising blindspot: the absence of a serious discussion of the Hellenic background and the role of both the commentators on Aristotle and the early reception from Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ (d. c. 757) onwards. Incidentally it is worth commenting here that because the Hellenic legacy is important - although I certainly would not wish to reduce the achievements of those in the ʿAbbasid period to mere transmission - it is a serious desideratum to have a proper database of what was translated, by whom, when and where and for whom and include multiple versions of translations, paraphrases, Galenic epitomes and so forth. Given that there is hardly anyone out there who masters all the relevance languages and fields of inquiry such a collaborative database would help us all.
El-Bizri provides a scholarly introduction that locates the work of the Ikhwān in the historical context of the creative 'school of Baghdad' that developed the mathematical ideas of Nicomachus, and the wider tradition associated with Archimedes of Syracuse (d. 212 BCE) and Apollonius of Perga (d. 190 BCE), analyses the contents of the epistles (he does a sterling job of tracing influences and noting lacunae thereof) and comments on the manuscript tradition and the process of editing and translating. I note later the main manuscript upon which much of the editions are based. The introduction and the translations are well supported by scholarly annotation that indicates lines of research for those interested. His own tastes for Ibn al-Haytham are clear – and he points out some of the gaps in the work of the Ikhwān, notably the neglect of algebra that was well established through the work of al-Khwārazmī (d. c. 846) and Qusṭā ibn Lūqā’s reception of the arithmetic of Diophantus of Alexandria (3rd century CE). The explanatory summary of the epistles focuses on the historical contextualisation of the ideas – but only briefly touches upon the question of the Neopythagorean influence of theological and mathematical mysticism, although he suggests that there might be a link with Iamblichus’ approach to mathematics, philosophy and mysticism. If there were any evidence (finding Iamblichus in Arabic is notoriously difficult apart from possibly the commentary on the so-called Golden Verses and perhaps some docta in the doxographical literature), it would be worth engaging. El-Bizri also suggests that the approach to mathematics is more Platonist than Pythagorean – again one would like to see what that means. The conceptualisation of the relationship of mathematics to metaphysics to natural philosophy seems to be based on the homologies between the human as the microcosm and nature as the macrocosmic manifestation of the human but this certainly needs some further analysis as most previous specialists on the Ikhwān have stressed the importance of this theme. The epistle on geometry draws heavily upon Euclid – as one would expect and we know his work became canonical throughout the empire – as well as Pythagorean readings of works such as Plato’s Timaeus. It also indicates other applications of geometry such as magic – and refers to epistle 52 (which has already been translated and published in the current series). A number of earlier specialists such as Ian Netton pointed to the influence of Pythagoreanism; however, the volumes in this series that I have read suggest the actual citation and influence of Pythagoras is far lesser than specialists have thought so far. Given the commitment of the Ikhwān to theosis, the notion that the practice of philosophy as a way of living entails a desire to become ‘god-like’ (the locus classicus is in Plato’s Theaetetus 176), it would be interesting to see how that relates to their consideration of mathematics. The further interesting question for historians looking for the transmission of ideas and networks would be to consider whether the organisation and constitution of the epistles actually denoted the pedagogy and curriculum for a group of thinkers in southern Iraq in the period. And if that were the case, why did it die out? Was it because of the success of alternative methodologies and pedagogies at the imperial centre in Baghdad?
The introduction to each of the epistles shows the awareness of how the sciences link together to form an epistemic whole and the role of the two particular disciplines within that process. Epistle 1 begins with a statement that the aim of the Ikhwān is to study all the sciences that pertain to existent things (mawjūdāt) and into their arrangement, order and principles. One has to start with the propaedeutics – and the first step is arithmetic (using a transliteration of the Greek term), on the path to acquiring wisdom following the way of the Pythagoreans. Given this last statement, the translator might have wished to comment further on this. The classic fourfold division of the sciences follow – propaedeutics (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy), logic, natural sciences, and theological-metaphysical. This is the arrangement of the Rasāʾil on the whole. This is prefaced by a key statement about the nature of this quest: ‘The beginning of philosophy is the love of the sciences, the middle of it is the knowledge of the true nature of existent things by virtue of human ability and the end is speech and action that is in accord with knowledge’ (p. 66). That is to say: one begins with a desire to learn, then one acquires theoretical understanding of reality, and then one acts ethically based on what one knows. I would therefore take issue with part of this phrase translated – the phrase bi-ḥasabi l-ṭāqati l-basharīya should be ‘insofar as is humanly possible’ as it is a standard formulation of the limits of knowledge that goes back to the ancients. The remaining 23 chapters of the epistle deal with different aspects of the Ikhwān’s number theory.
The epistle on geometry that is broadly based on Euclid’s Elements is divided into 27 chapters. Although the earliest translation of the Elements seemed to have been completed by the early ninth century, the translation of Ḥunayn b. Iṣḥāq (d. 873) in the edition of Thābit b. Qurra (d. 901) are probably the ones available to the Ikhwān [Note: it has been pointed out to me by Sonja Brentjes whose critical review I look forward to that it is more likely that they had one of the version done by al-Ḥajjāj b. Yūsuf b. Maṭar (d. c. 830)]. The introduction to this epistle repeats the description of the propaedeutics and defines geometry as the ‘science that inquires about magnitudes, distances, and the quantity of their kinds’ (p. 104). Although much of the epistle deals with axioms and their like, a few chapters stand out for their implications on applications and also on a more reflective approach to geometry. Chapter 15 on surveying makes it clear why the theoretical study of geometry is useful in the wider world. Chapters 16 and 17 that follow then stress the need for a collaborative approach to the study of the sciences in order to avoid errors that might arise out of individual calculations. Collaboration for the good is necessary for humans to transcend the illness and crisis that humans face in this world as a result of ‘the offence committed by our father Adam’:
‘To secure your success and salvation from this world, which is the realm of generation and corruption, and from the sufferings of hell and the company of demons and Iblīs’ soldiers, and by way of ascending to the domain of the celestial spheres and the vastness of the heavens, to the abode of the lofty ones, and by way of neighbouring the angels of the Compassionate One who abide in His proximity, you need the help of those who are brothers to you, who are counsellors to you and virtuous friends, and who are knowledgeable about the articles of the faith and are knowers of the truths of things…They will guide you on the pathway of the afterlife and the way to reach it, in order to be saved from what has entrapped us all because of the offense of our father Adam!’ (pp. 138-39).
The echoes of the Platonic tradition especially the very first chapter (mīmar) of the Theologia Aristotelis on this text seem very clear – as well as the explicit reference that follows to the Kalīla wa dimna, another major cultural artefact of the time. The relationship between the circle of the Brethren and the Kindī circle in Baghdad that produced the Theologia would be worth investigating further in detail. The final two chapters of the epistle indicate further uses of geometry: given that numbers and their arrangements and quantities have an effect on the soul, they describe briefly the use and construction of talismanic squares and refer the reader to epistle 52 for further detail. So in some ways the propaedeutics already refer the initiate to magic that is part of the theological and metaphysical sciences that lie at the culmination of one’s education.
Turning to the volume on the natural sciences: one does not need to repeat the oft-stated observation that this project to edit and translate the epistles of the Brethren of Purity (Ikhwān al-ṣafāʾ) is a major undertaking to be welcomed and will greatly enhance our understanding of the intellectual history of the philosophical sciences in the pre-Avicennan period. Baffioni, senior research fellow at the Institute of Ismaili Studies the sponsors of the project, is one of the leading specialists on the Brethren, having spent an illustrious career at Naples (twenty-five items in the bibliography constitute her major contributions to the study of the Brethren alongside the editions and translations that she has contributed to this series). She has already edited and translated the epistles on logic in an earlier volume of this series – those epistles come immediately before the seven that are published here (out of the seventeen epistles that comprise the second section on the natural sciences) and are the culmination of the first section on the mathematical sciences. The volume immediately after on epistle 22 on animals has been published many times and is arguably one of the most famous of the Epistles: The Case of the Animals versus Man before the King of the Jinns (published in this series in the translation of Lenn Goodman and Richard MacGregor). With this, another highly useful and impressive volume, she has made a major contribution to the project. This large volume (around 1,000 pages of English and Arabic) comprises a foreword by the general editor of the project, Nader el-Bizri, an introduction that does an excellent job of contextualising the work, a technical introduction that discusses the manuscripts especially Atif Efendi 1681 which is the oldest existing manuscript, followed by the translation of the five epistles along with 3 appendices that include material added from some manuscripts on epistles 15, 20 and 16. The Arabic editions of the epistles come after at the end – something I have commented on before: surely it would be better for a user of the volume to have the Arabic facing the English translations. Alongside some of the early kalām works, these epistles constitute some of the earliest Arabic investigations into natural philosophy taken up not just themes in Aristotelianism but also elements of their more Ismaili angelology and cosmology.
The introduction, as if to compensate for the absence of any discussion of Greek antecedents in her volume on logic, engages the Hellenic background extensively: the influence of Aristotle’s De Caelo, doctrines on matter and form, the four causes, the spherical nature of the earth, motion, the Platonic notion of the human as microcosm as well as philosophy as the imitation of God (theosis), and Hippocrates. She also introduces the elements that are taken from scripture. The real question is, of course, what constitutes the Brethren’s own conceptualisation of natural philosophy starting with the important Ismaili elements in the text; she stresses creationism, the idea that God created the cosmos in space and time, their eschatology which tends towards the spiritual, a belief in cosmic sympathy as an expression for the divine plan, and the importance of astrology. Given the privileging of the spiritual over the material, the study of natural phenomena are supposed to reveal spiritual realities that lie beyond them. Baffioni notes that elements of the Brethren’s cosmology seems to prefigure the later Ismaili philosopher Ḥamīd al-Din Kirmānī (d. 1021), and that their notion of the evolution of the human anticipates the idea of substantial motion and transformation (ḥaraka jawharīya) in the thought of the Safavid thinker Mullā Ṣadrā Shīrāzī (d. 1635). The latter would not be surprising not least because Carlos Steel’s study of late Neoplatonism of Iamblichus, Priscianus (d. 518) and Damascius (d. c. 538) among others presents a picture of a soul in transformation that seems to be similar to Mullā Ṣadrā some centuries before the Brethren already. There are strong parallels in the forms of Pythagorean Neoplatonism found in the work of the Brethren and those much later in the Safavid period including Mullā Ṣadrā. This discursive introduction is then followed by the technical introduction that presents the codicological details of the manuscripts used especially the base Atif Efendi and outlines Baffioni’s editing method with an extensive list of corrected readings in order of the epistles. She also notes mistakes, ellipses and particularities in orthography. The critical apparatus on readings and variants in the footnotes to the Arabic edition supplement and clarify this method.
The translations of the epistles are clear and supplemented with scholarly footnotes that identify passages in Aristotle, for example, from which the Brethren are drawing as well as commenting further on the material in the text. Epistle 15 on matter and form (al-hayūla wa-l-ṣūra) comprises 14 chapters on issues of hylomorphism and constituents of natural bodies. It also discusses the nature of place, motion and time and ends with a section that explains the subject matter of the epistles that follow (since this is the first of the section on the natural sciences). An overarching theme of the epistle is the idea of alchemy as a process of transforming bodies, both natural and celestial and especially souls, as well as the notion of spiritual and cosmological hierarchy that places Prophets and successors above the generality of those in the world of generation and corruption as more perfect manifestations of the universal soul. Epistle 16 moves onto their De Caelo and includes the Brethren’s argument for creationism against the eternity of the cosmos and comprises 29 chapters, the longest epistle in this volume. It introduces the theme of the homology of the human and the cosmos – the latter as a ‘macroanthropos’ and the former as a microcosmos. The celestial bodies are spheres in rotation, types of motion are discussed as well as heliocentrism. Two chapters are of particular theological significance: chapter 19 on the analogy of the circumambulation (ṭawāf) of the Kaʿba during pilgrimage applied to the rotation of the spheres, and the (symbolically important) final chapter on resurrection of souls at death that are linked to the higher celestial souls. Epistle 17 is on generation and corruption (al-kawn wa-l-fasād), features of this world and includes 14 short chapters. The final chapter here again is theological poignant dealing with the nature of the human body as one of those things that undergo generation and corruption: they repeat their refrain to ‘arise from the slumber of ignorance’ and recognise one’s innate spiritual nature that transcends the body. Epistle 18 comprising 17 chapters is on meteorology and includes some of their presentation of astrology, broadly following books I-III of Aristotle’s Meteorology. It ends with a chapter that recalls the Qurʾanic notion of the spheres and the celestial bodies as signs on which to ponder. Beginning with an affirmation of the Qurʾanic account of creation ex nihilo, they move onto discussing the horizontal hierarchy in the world. A key chapter 12 returns to the theme of eschatology that runs throughout and the spiritual nature of those perfected in the afterlife. Epistle 19 on minerals includes 13 chapters and follows book IV of the Meteorology. Epistle 20 moves onto a discussion on nature but not in the Aristotelian sense of ṭabīʿa/phūsis and is relatively short including 13 chapters; in fact it discusses angelology and prophetology. Much of this epistle is taken with an affirmation of astrological principles of how the higher bodies and souls affect the lower ones and how the angels associated with the spheres have a spiritual power. A central chapter 7 returns to the motif of the symbolism of the pilgrimage and the circumambulation of the Kaʿba. Epistle 21 discusses plants in three chapters, on which no work of Aristotle’s has survived. It includes descriptions and uses of various plants including palms, figs and almonds. The appendices deal with additional material: appendix A deals with some issues on motion and place that supplements epistle 15 and includes the Arabic edition and translation with a brief commentary; appendix B supplements epistle 20 by discussing the nature of physicians and how they are similar to and different from prophets; and finally appendix C supplementing epistle 16 demonstrates the Ismaili cosmology of the Brethren.
Baffioni has produced a serious, academic and worthwhile contribution that is a pleasure to read and use and testifies to the value of the series. Once read alongside the early translations of Aristotle, Galen and other Hellenic authors and the production of the Kindī circle and the Baghdad Peripatetics, it will allow us to understand the different trajectories of thinking on the natural sciences that were inherited by the classical period starting with Avicenna and moving onto the medieval period. It demonstrates to us that from an early period one finds a holistic approach to the sciences that means that when we encounter the occult in the medieval period as a science, we should not be surprised and realise that the juxtaposition of astrology, alchemy and magic with physics, logic, and mathematics has a long pedigree. This volume is a major achievement worthy of the highest praise. On the whole, this series continues to produce contributions that will radically inform our intellectual history of the course of philosophy in the world of Islam.