Muslim Avicennists in the Andalus
Having considered the impact that Avicennism had on some Sephardim through to the twelfth century, it is time to look more closely at an Islamic Avicennist writer born in Badajoz in 1052 C.E., whose work was much appreciated by Jewish thinkers. Ibn al-Sīd was active at the time that the Almoravid (Murābit) rulers of Morocco were invited in to defeat the Christian forces of Alfonso VI of Léon, after the latter’s capture of the taifa of Toledo (the original Visigothic capital of Spain) in 1085. The Almoravids defeated Alfonso VI, but did not recapture Toledo. They did, however, overthrow all the small Muslim principalities, and united the Andalus under their rule. In 1102, the conquering Almoravids took over Valencia, and at some time after that date, Ibn al-Sīd moved there. As the Almoravids were intolerant fundamentalists, Ibn al-Sīd had to be circumspect about what he wrote. He died in Valencia in 1127 C.E.
His Book of Circles
He wrote on many subjects, including grammar, literary criticism and the religious law. The book that interests this study is his Kitāb al-hadā’iq (The Book of Circles). It is interesting, because it shows that the teachings of the Ikhwān al-Safā and of Ibn Sīnā had been amalgamated and assimilated in the Andalus by the end of the eleventh century. It epitomises Avicennism: God is Necessary Being, the One, from which all created things proceed, like numbers, in a chain of beings which become less and less perfect, the farther they are from their source; there is a hierarchy of ten angelic Intelligences, of which the tenth is the Agent Intelligence, active in the world, able to illuminate any rational soul; the soul has to purify itself from earthly and bodily concerns in order to re-unite with its source, etc. So far, it could make a check-list of Avicennist teachings.
There are 3 decads or circles of 10. The decad is seen as a circle because it returns to its beginning (e.g. 6 add 10 = 16, i.e. back to 6 again). The first decad is composed of the 10 intelligences, 9 for the angelic hierarchy and 1 for the rest of the universe, the Agent Intelligence, making 10. The second decad is composed of the 10 souls, 9 for the celestial spheres and 1 for the rest of the universe, the Universal Soul, making 10. The third decad is that of the world of substance (or existence): 2 kinds of matter (celestial and terrestrial), 4 elements, 3 categories of bodies (mineral, plant and animal), and man, to make 10. The 10th grade in each is therefore held by: the Agent Intelligence, the Universal Soul and man. This can be seen as another circle, linking the three holders of the 10th grade of each decad.
Being is passed down from the intelligences to the souls and so to matter; and then through the material creation, from simple organisms, upwards to the most complicated, man. Man is important, because he has the capacity to free himself – by seeking wisdom and by practising virtue – from his bodily concerns and from his immersion in the material world, and can thus raise himself up to union with the Agent Intelligence. This is seen as closing the circle:
“Man is the completing arc of that circle which returns to its beginning.”
(Ibn al-Sīd has to admit that this does not really complete the full circle, which would return to the First Intelligence, if not to the Creator himself.)
The straight line or ladder of ascension
A particularly interesting part of the book is the section where Ibn al-Sīd introduces a straight line called the ‘ladder of ascensions.’ He is discussing the Universal Soul, which he describes as attached to, and encompassed by, the Agent Intelligence. To emphasise the global reach of the combined Universal Soul and Agent Intelligence, he sets the limits of their activity as the outermost sphere of heaven (the primum mobile which imparts movement to the universe), and the centre of the earth. There are:
“two circles and a straight line. The first circle is contiguous with the [all-] encompassing sphere, the latter being its supernal limit. The second circle is the lowest limit, and its place is the centre of the earth. This is an approximate way of speaking, for intelligible substances cannot be described by the attributes of place and the six directions. The philosophers hold that, between its supernal limit and its lowest limit, there is a line, which connects [the 2 circles], which they call the ‘ladder of ascensions’ (sullam al-ma‘ārij) . It causes [divine] inspiration to reach the pure individual souls, and on it descend [the angels] and ascend the purified spirits to the supernal world.”
Just as it might get controversial, – can this line be one of mystical ascent in this life? is this ascension like Muhammad’s mystical night-journey into the proximity of God, which was also known as the mi‘rāj? – Ibn al-Sīd changes the subject, noting that the philosophers discourse at length on the Universal Soul and the straight path, but that his purpose in this book is quite different. The subject is dropped.
The philosopher and historian, Alexander Altmann, suggests that Ibn al-Sīd’s “philosophers” sound like the Brethren of Purity, whose contribution to Avicennism in the Andalus has already been noted in connection with contemporary Jewish thinkers. A later Latin Avicennist work may throw light on this “ladder of ascensions”, but it must remain for the moment in obscurity. Luckily, the next writer to be studied, who certainly claims to know some mystical secrets, is keen to reveal something of what he has experienced.
The final Avicennist writer to be studied here is Abū Bakr ibn Tufayl. Born in the early years of the twelfth century in Guadix, to the north-east of Granada, and well educated in Granada and Sevilla, he became, in later life, an honoured physician and civil servant to the new Almohad (Muwāhhid) rulers, who had ousted the Almoravids from the Andalus in the middle of the 12th century C.E.. Ibn Tufayl died at Marrakech in Morocco in the 1180s. A new and wider geographical term is now going to be needed: the Maghrib – to denote the western region of Islam, because the Andalus was now ruled as part of a Moroccan empire. Unfortunately the Almohads were just as intolerant as their predecessors, persecuting Jews and stamping on anything which seemed at all novel or unorthodox. They were, however, supportive of pious Sufis, particularly if they came from a North African tradition. Ibn Tufayl was careful to put his ideas into a fictional setting, on a desert island.
He had certainly read some of the Recitals attributed to Ibn Sīnā, and he assumed, in the tale that he wrote, that his readers had some knowledge of them too. His own tale is called Hayy ibn Yaqzān, and recounts the life-story of Hayy who, without any outside help – because he is on a desert island – reaches the summit, not only of philosophical, but also of mystical, knowledge. In the second part of the book, he meets a good, practical, ordinary believer, Salāmān, who clings to the outward aspects of his religion, and Absāl, a philosopher and a contemplative, who looks inward for the real meaning of religious truth. This book is important, because it shows that, in the 12th century Maghrib, Avicennism was still associated with the practice of mystical religion.
Ibn Tufayl’s introduction to his book
According to the book’s introduction, it was written in answer to a request, to reveal the secrets of the illuminative philosophy, which had been veiled by that prince of philosophers, Ibn Sīnā. (This is probably a reference to his ‘oriental philosophy’.) Ibn Tufayl’s religious purposes in this book seem to be:
a) to encourage others to seek mystical experience,
b) to show that Islamic mysticism (Absāl) is compatible with universal intuitive knowledge gained from the Agent Intelligence within (Hayy),
c) to compare the conventions of normal religious society (Salāmān) with the insights of direct religious experience.
He says in the introduction that he has taken his characters from sheikh Abū ‘Alī (i.e. Ibn Sīnā), but he also uses a few incidents (birth without parents, withdrawal to a cave etc.) from the original Hermetic version of the Salāmān and Absāl story. As an influence upon his work, he also mentions Ibn Bājja, a compatriot, probably from Zaragoza, a scientist and philosopher who died in 1138 C.E. He also names with gratitude the influence of al-Ghazālī (1058-1111), a Persian teacher and writer, who was very critical of philosophers but a great champion of the Sufi way. Ghazālī had been promoted to a position of eminence in Baghdad, but he had given it up, in order to return to the practice of the simple religious life, as a teacher in his birthplace of Tūs. (Ibn Tufayl’s knowledge of al-Ghazālī is one example among many of the Maghrib’s continuing intellectual links to the Middle East.)
Ibn Tufayl gives as one of his reasons for writing this tale that, having had an extraordinary, ecstatic experience himself, he feels compelled to broadcast the possibility of such delight and fulfilment to everyone else. He is, however, aware of the difficulties that can arise from the expression of ecstatic feelings. He mentions Sufis who may have fallen into that trap, quoting al-Bistāmī’s “How great is My Glory”, and “I am the Creative Truth” attributed to al-Hallāj. (His book will chronicle the path followed by Hayy, but will not describe his final experience.)
When talking of his own experience, he quotes the lines on what are usually taken to be the 4th and 5th stages of the mystical ascent in the Ishārāt of Ibn Sīnā. He presumably believed that he had reached the levels of illumination and quietude. In Morocco, Ibn Tufayl became famous as a Sufi sheikh. A Sufi who died in 1230, al-Tādilī, claimed that his Sufi master, Abū’l-Qāsim Ahmad ibn Yazīd, had had as his Sufi guide, Abū Bakr ibn Tufayl. An interesting suggestion, made by the historian, Vincent Cornell, is that Ibn Tufayl, in addition to his own Sufi experience, may also have had a particular Berber Sufi in mind, when creating this story. The Sufi in question was the ascetic hermit, spiritual alchemist and illuminist follower of the Moroccan Nūrīya tradition, Abū Ya‘za Yalannūr (this name means ‘possessor of light’), who died in 1177.
The first part of the Tale of Hayy ibn Yaqzān: his spiritual progress
Hayy grows up alone on a desert island, is suckled by a gazelle, has to find out everything for himself by observing nature, and invents his own tools. By age 21, he has mastered all the practical arts. Now he works out, by rational thought, that all material things must share a common origin in prime matter! He desires to know the First Cause that created the universe. From age 28, he studies the movement of the heavens, and works out the relationship of heaven to earth; and he comes to understand that the universe is a macrocosm and man a microcosm. He marvels at the beauty of the creation. By age 35, he has come to realise that God is Necessary Being, perfection, absolute beauty etc.
Hayy wonders how he is able to perceive God, the incorporeal Being, when he is so obviously corporeal himself, so utterly dependent on using his body’s senses. He concludes that there must be a part of this Being in himself, and that
“what had brought him his awareness of this Being would be his true self.”
He realises that his body is not his true essence, but that his true essence is divine. He determines to turn his attention to cultivating the vision of God (or Necessary Being). He understands that the Being, with which he hopes to unite, is absolute unity, and that he is shackled to a material world of multiplicity. He therefore tries to separate himself from material preoccupations and to concentrate on prayer. He does not use that word, but he confines himself in a cave, with his head bowed and his eyes shut,
“oblivious to all objects of the senses and urges of the body, his thoughts and all his devotion focused on the Being Whose Existence is Necessary, alone and without rival.”
He finds it very difficult, but eventually manages to “die to himself”.
The climax of the tale: his mystical experience
When his efforts are rewarded and everything passes away as if scattered in fine dust, so that only God remains, the writing becomes choked with Qur’ānic quotations. Ibn Tufayl is aware that he is on very dangerous ground and, in any case, he cannot describe this state, only its consequences:
“Hayy understood his words and ‘heard’ the summons they made. Not knowing how to speak did not prevent him from understanding. Drowned in ecstasy, he witnessed ‘what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man to conceive’.”
He urges the reader not to expect anything explicit,
“For it is dangerous to make pronouncements on the ineffable, and the margins in which I work are narrow.”
Having dealt with some of the problems that Hayy’s experience of God might cause, Ibn Tufayl signals to the reader that the climax of the book has been passed:
“Do not ask me to add anything more in words. That would be next to impossible. But I will tell you the rest of his story.”
The second part of the tale: with Absāl and Salāmān
By this time, Hayy is 49 years old. In the following year, his solitude is ended, when Absāl lands on the island, imagining it to be uninhabited. As a contemplative, he hopes to live as a hermit, devoting himself to study and ascetic discipline. Hayy learns Absāl’s language and they discuss religion. Absāl realises that everything in his religion, its laws, its teachings about prophets, the day of judgement, the life to come etc., are all symbols of what Hayy has understood intuitively. The religious tradition in which Absāl has been raised is never named, but it is clearly Islam.
After Hayy has expounded his rational, mystical religion, Absāl is thrilled to find that his own tradition can easily be aligned with it:
“The eyes of his heart were unclosed. His mind caught fire. Reason and tradition were at one within him. All the paths of exegesis lay open before him. All his old religious puzzlings were solved; all the obscurities, clear. Now he had a ‘heart to understand’.”
Hayy has many criticisms of Absāl’s religion. Why does it not describe God as he really is; why does it make up stories about future rewards and punishments; why does its law allow people to amass power and property beyond their personal needs; why is there so much emphasis on rituals etc. etc.? Absāl takes Hayy to his island, where Salāmān is prince. Here Hayy finds that the ordinary people cannot cope with his intelligent but rigorous precepts; and he comes to appreciate that Salāmān is doing a good job, in fostering a religion, which takes account of their incorrigible ignorance, their superficial passions and their worldly preoccupations. The two return to the desert island where, with Hayy’s encouragement, Absāl eventually attains to his companion’s level of sublime contemplation.
It is clear that Salāmān’s religion for the many (Islam), while absolutely necessary, is inferior to Hayy’s universal mystical religion, although that is only for the few. Even the perceptive Muslim, Absāl, has to be helped to reach the highest levels of wisdom by Hayy ibn Yaqzān, – who must represent the individual spirit, united to the universal Spirit or Active Intelligence. The inner, universal religion of experience is shown to be superior to the outward, imperfect institution of Islam, of which, however, it is the foundation and fulfilment.
“And this – may God give you spirit to strengthen you – is the story of Hayy ibn Yaqzān, Absāl and Salāmān. […] It belongs to a hidden branch of study, received only by those who are aware of God, and unknown to those who know Him not.”
Ibn Tufayl’s work testifies to the presence of an Avicennist tradition of speculative mysticism in the 12th century in the Andalus. Ibn Tufayl was certainly in contact with many of the Sufis of his time. The next part of this history will look at the religious practice of 12th-century western Sufis, who were at the illuminist and pantheist end of the Sufi spectrum.