November 30, 2011

in Islam Encyclopedia


Ikhwan al-Safa, literally "Brethren of Purity" or more broadly the "Fellowship of the Pure," is a term used to designate a group of Muslim intellectuals who compiled the well-known encyclopedia of learning called the Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa. Many of them lived in the tenth century, constituting a collaborative forum for discussion, debate, and writing that led to the composition of fifty-two epistles of the Rasa’il.

The consensus of modern scholarship is that the philo­sophical attitudes and ideas reflected in the Rasa’il are consis­tent and have much in common with views developed by Shi’ite Isma’ili thinkers of the same period. Their writings reflect clearly a vibrant philosophical orientation, strong familiarity with the major sciences, religious and intellectual traditions, and a critical stance toward what they perceived to be the cultural and political stagnation of the time. The evidence in the text, as well as references to them in early Isma’ili writings suggest that the philosophy reflected in the Rasa’il was closely affiliated with Isma’ili aspirations of the pre-Fatimid period.

Intellectual Approach

Beyond what initially appears to be an encyclopedic work, there is a far-ranging and comprehensive program of intellec­tual and educational reform. Such an agenda of reform was founded on three assumptions.

First, the Ikhwan acknowledged the existence of "sciences and wisdoms," some divinely inspired, which had been pro­duced by past faith communities, individuals, and learned societies. This base of knowledge represented a foundation for developing a synthesis, appropriate to a new time and circumstances. Such a synthesis would harmonize Qur’anic and Muslim values and ideals with the best that all other religious philosophical systems had to offer.

Second, the ultimate goal of such a synthesis, taught and properly applied to life and society, was a moral one. It was the advancement of human beings in their material life and conditions and their spiritual lives here and in the hereafter. Such an objective was best fulfilled through personal moral and intellectual growth and spiritual development through sound teaching and learning. This, however, assumed a foundation of knowledge, pedagogy, and the capacity to synthesize and assimilate existing resources through the ap­plication of intellectual and moral discipline. This personal commitment and emphasis on character development re­ceives a great deal of emphasis in the Rasa’il. Piety, compas­sion, gentleness, and humility are prerequisites to wisdom and virtue. The attainment of such wisdom is the highest quality of Muslim learning, hikma, a religious and philosophi­cal wisdom.

Third, the acquisition of knowledge as a virtue that fosters moral character created in turn a society with a common set of civic values and behavior. Thus, the individual, social, and religious goals intersected in the Ikhwan’s vision. The build­ing of this foundation of learning drew upon the following major sources:

Mathematical and natural sciences Scriptures revealed through prophets Nature and the environment Inspiration vouchsafed to purified souls

Each source was capable of being converted into a series of disciplines, further formalized into a curriculum, directed at students through sessions involving reading, study, and dis­cussion. These were divided into four broad areas:


Mathematics and deductive subjects, including, inter­estingly enough, music

Physical and natural sciences, including the study of biology of living things and culture

Psychology and intellectual inquiry

Religious science and knowledge, including ethics and governance

The hermeneutical approach of the Ikhwan, and their blending of knowledge traditions, reflects the growth and diversity of learning in the Muslim world of the ninth and tenth centuries. In particular, the translation of the ancient heritage of Greece and the Mediterranean world had made available to Muslims tools from philosophy and science that could serve to underpin an interpretation and explanation of Qur’anic principles. The Ikhwan like other Muslim philoso­phers or rationalist groups, such as the Mu’tazila, were committed to building such an intellectual framework, but in the process they wished to affirm a commitment to core notions such as tawhid, the unity of God, the necessity of religious faith, law, and salvation, which they perceived, quoting the Qur’an (89:26), as the return of the contented soul to the God of Unity.

Just as the symbolic significance of numbers and mathe­matical values reflected their methodological approach to science, so with regards to the Qur’an, whose verses they considered as having an interior, symbolic meaning (batin) that required a rational interpretation and a hermeneutical approach.

The Rasa’il also contains many references to Christian and Jewish scriptures and traditions, acknowledging respect and recognition of the commonalities the Abrahamic traditions share and the affirmation that an ecumenical spirit is a prelude to knowledge and appreciation of the other. In addition, the Ikhwan draw from the literature of ancient Iran, India, and Buddhism. They used well-known stories and parables, such as the legend of Bilawhar and the Debate of the Animals, which suggest the diverse milieu of the time, but are also indicative of the Ikhwan’s efforts to broaden and deepen Muslim discourse by engaging it with the intellectual strands of the time. Their approach thus reflects the ethos of the period—a time of debate, intellectual ferment, and synthesis in many fields of Muslim thought, including philosophy, theology, law, and politics.

By and large their work was read by and influenced many later Muslim thinkers. The Rasa’il were translated into many languages and transmitted all over the Muslim world. Their writings have also attracted the attention of Muslim and other scholars in modern times, and their approach and commit­ment to education as the most constructive vehicle for change appears to have stood the test of time

See also Falsafa; Shi’a: Isma’ili.


Nanji, Azim. "On the Acquisition of Knowledge in the Ras’il Ikhwan al-Safa." Muslim World 66 (1976): 262-271.

Nasr, Sayyed Hossein. Islamic CosmologicalDoctrines. London: Thames and Hudson, 1978.

Netton, Ian. Muslim Neoplatonists: An Introduction to the Thought of the Brethren of Purity. London: George Allen and

Unwin, 1982.

Poonawala, Ismail. K. "Ikhwan al Safa." In Vol. 7, The Encyclopedia of Religion. Edited by Mircea Eliade, et al. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987.

Azim Nanji

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