The Brethren of Purity
A secret religious and intellectual society was founded in Basra (in modern-day Iraq) in the second half of the 10th century C.E. Its members called themselves by a variety of names, such as the Lords of Truth, the Possessors of Meanings, the People of Justice and the Loyal Friends, but the main one was the Ikhwān al-Safā. This is usually translated as the Brethren of Purity because, in their work, they referred to those who could not benefit from philosophical proofs and religious thoughts as “brethren of turbidity”. They preached continually on the need to purify the soul from worldly concerns and material dross:
“Know, O brother, – may the most high God help you! – that purity of soul only comes when the soul has reached a state of complete tranquillity in both religious and earthly affairs. […] The man who is not thus cannot be counted as one of the people of purity.”
They gathered their teachings into an encyclopaedia of 51 treatises or epistles (plus a summary) called the Rasā’il. The Brethren of Purity are very important to this history, because their aim was to combine the Neoplatonism of the Islamic philosophers with the religious practice of the Sufis. A brief study of this group should elucidate some of the premises and difficulties of Islamic Neoplatonism, – Neopythagoreanism might be a better label, – which will become the philosophical basis of much Islamic speculative mysticism.
Their influence in the Andalus
A further reason for taking an interest in this group is that it had adherents in the Andalus by the beginning of the 11th century. (The term, al-Andalus, designates that part of the Iberian peninsula under Islamic control at any particular time.) By the eleventh century C.E., most of the Mediterranean and all of its southern, eastern (apart from the Aegean) and western coasts had been under Islamic control for about three centuries. All the communication routes, by land and sea, of the southern part of the Roman Empire had been inherited by the Muslims, who encouraged trade, industry and cultural exchange. Books and ideas were able to travel surprisingly quickly across Islam, and the esoteric influence of the Ikhwān spread rapidly.
One reason why their teaching was so readily assimilated in al-Andalus may be that the path had already been laid, in the 10th century, by a certain Ibn Masarra and his followers, who had gained a reputation for living pious and austere lives in their retreat in the Sierra de Córdoba. There they had studied writings, attributed to Empedocles, the supposed teacher of Pythagoras, which were probably heterodox (i.e. in this case, not strictly compatible with orthodox Islam). Some Masarrī thinkers may later have been attracted to Ismā‘īlī practice. The latter group had a revolutionary programme, which aimed at the overthrow of the political leaders of Islam, seen as usurpers of the rightful line. As a secret non-conformist movement, it was also welcoming to radical and esoteric religious ideas. Ismā‘īlī influence may feature throughout this history, always in the background and always in the shadows.
The syncretism of the Brethren of Purity
The Brethren considered themselves to be upholding the truth of all religions and all philosophies,
“Know, Brother, that nowhere on earth will you find men more dedicated to assisting one another. […] Virtuous scholars and philosophers of all ages have adhered to these maxims from time immemorial.”
They hoped to make a synthesis of the wisdom of all ages and all religions. All revelations were taken on their merits. No one revelation was considered superior. A pupil was advised to seek a teacher, who was intelligent and of good character,
“a lover of knowledge, a seeker after truth, and not a fanatical adherent of any religious doctrine.”
Brethren must be open-minded to all opinions and seek truth from all traditions.
“It befits our brothers that they should not show hostility to any kind of knowledge or reject any book. Nor should they be fanatical in any doctrine, for our opinion and our doctrine embrace all doctrines, and resume all knowledge.”
There is a good example of their eclecticism in Epistle 44 of the Rasā’il where, in a few lines, the brother is advised to climb aboard Noah’s ark of salvation, purify himself with Jesus of the sins of the flesh, escape from Ahriman’s darkness, know Yazdan, and enter into the temple of non-existence, where he will see Plato’s celestial spheres!
They were keen to stress that they were more interested in the esoteric than the exoteric meaning of books and of revelations, and so they may well have been sympathetic to Ismā‘īlī teaching. Their work was certainly used by some Ismā‘īliyya, even though it included a specific rejection of the need for a designated Imāmate. The Brethren’s list of beliefs injurious to the soul included: that the world had two creators (against dualism), that the creator God was the Holy Spirit killed by the Jews (against the Christian doctrine of the Trinity) and that evil-doers in Hell were revived periodically for fresh tortures (an Islamic belief that they strongly rejected). Among these rejected dogmas was the Ismā‘īlī belief that there was always an Imām, hidden but ready to take over.
In the opinion of the historian, S.H.Nasr, their Ismā‘īlī connections were significant, but they would be better described as having Sufi tendencies. The use of safā in their name was meant to emphasise the link. Their ideal brother was described as an East Persian, of Muslim faith, Babylonian education, Christian virtue, Greek scientific knowledge etc. etc., but lastly and especially, a Sufi in his whole spiritual life. They used Sufi love symbolism, calling God the “first Beloved”. Like the Sufis, they looked to the spirit of the law rather than the letter, and re-interpreted, for instance, holy war as self-sacrifice, and the pilgrimage to Mecca as the whole journey through life. As they rejected some of the ghoulish tortures of hell, so they reacted against an over-sensual view of paradise. They condemned the idea that the blessed enjoyed sexual relations with virgins, whose virginity was immediately restored, explaining that Muhammad had preached to rough, uneducated people, and had had to describe paradise in a more physical way, so that they could accept his main message.
An organised tradition
Since they were a closed or secret society, not many details of their organisation were to be made public. In Epistle (Treatise) no.45, On Friendship, friends were counselled:
“to meet one another from time to time at gatherings, which exclude outsiders, to discuss our esoteric sciences and to meditate on their secret knowledge.”
Their esoteric sciences probably included alchemy. Their epistles were full of praise for Hermes Trismegistus as philosopher and prophet. Using Neoplatonic terminology they mentioned, in the treatise on minerals, that the material cause of all minerals was twofold, mercury and sulphur (the formal causes included the movements of the heavens and reactions in the earth). They knew that the most imperfect metal was lead and the most perfect was gold, and that the alchemical work was the perfection of the imperfect. The total number of epistles in their encyclopaedia was 51 (which does not seem to be an obvious choice for a group obsessed with number), but 51 = 17 x 3. The number 17 was a key number in many of the (probably Ismā‘īlī) writings attributed to the most famous Islamic alchemist, Jabīr ibn Hayyān.
It is known that they usually met on three nights a month for prayers, meditation, discussion and a ‘philosophical hymn’ (such as the Prayer of Plato, the Prayer of Idrīs (Hermes) or the Secret Psalm of Aristotle). They celebrated four important feast days during the year: one in spring, the time of hope and renewal; the second in summer, the time of full light and joy; the third in autumn, the time of admonition; and the fourth, “the most difficult to put into practice, the toughest to fulfil”, in the winter, a time of desolation:
“This is the day of our return to the cave of occultation and the discipline of the arcane.”
Whatever those secrets may have been, it is clear that they had regular meetings to pass on those parts of their doctrine which could not be mentioned openly.
There were 4 grades (or stages in development) for Brethren. (The number 4 was important to them.) They were given as age-groups and job descriptions, but that should be taken as symbolical:
- from 15yrs: craftsmen, artisans: “pious and compassionate Brethren”.
- from 30yrs: masters, guardians: “excellent and noble Brethren”.
- from 40yrs: kings (like Solomon): “distinguished and noble Brethren”.
- from 50yrs: prophets: “the Angelic Rank”.
The 4th rank included such figures as Abraham, Pythagoras, Socrates, Jesus and Muhammad.
“May one of our brothers, in whatever class he be, aim at it. Men of this class are completely resigned, they receive the assistance of God and behold Truth.”
This class was presumably able to attain the vision of God.
As they claimed to be good Pythagoreans, their encyclopaedia began with mathematics. Number was important: the whole world was based on mathematical harmony. It explained the relationship of God to the world, how Being (unity) could produce existence (in multiplicity).
“Know, brother, that the Creator, Most Exalted, created as the first thing from his light of Unity the simple substance called the Active Intellect – as 2 is generated from 1 by repetition. Then the Universal Soul was generated from the light of the Intellect, as 3 is generated, by adding unity to 2. Then Hyle (prime matter) was generated by the motion of the Soul, as 4 is generated, by adding unity to 3” and so on.
All the creatures in the immense diversity of the universe were made from a restricted number of chemicals, which could, themselves, be reduced to simpler substances and so on. It was, therefore, reasonable to suppose that they all ultimately emanated from the same source, a single unity, the One (to which everything would probably return at the end). This was a classic Neopythagorean view, which became prevalent among early philosophers in Islam. As big numbers depended on their factors, and ultimately on the number one, so all existing things were connected together, and to their source, in an eternal procession from God the One.
“As one is the root of all number, so the sublime Creator is the root and beginning of all beings.”
Of this hierarchy, the first four beings were all simple, universal beings: God (the Creator); the Universal Intellect (or Mind of God); the World Soul (which was everywhere, informing all individual souls in every living thing); and Prime Matter (the universal matter to which all material things could be reduced). All four could be looked upon as aspects of the divine unity. This gave an interestingly important place to Prime Matter. Beneath these four was the world of becoming, that is to say, our world of generation and growth, of change and decay. Perhaps three of these four should not be considered as pure being, however. They were the Neoplatonic ‘emanations,’ posited to bridge the seemingly unbridgeable gap between being and becoming, between what was eternal and what changed, between unity and multiplicity.
4 was a key number, as was 10. There is, of course an important relationship between these two numbers: 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 = 10. Their hierarchy of being has been schematised by S.H.Nasr as:
1. The Creator: because that is simple, eternal unity, or Being.
2. The Universal Intellect: because intellect is of 2 kinds: innate and acquired (or see footnote 35).
3. The Universal Soul: because there are 3 species of soul: vegetative, animal and rational (i.e. human).
4. Matter: because there are 4 grades of matter: prime, universal, natural and artificial (see n.35).
5. Nature: because there are 4 elements for the world + 1 unknown celestial element for heaven.
(Nature here means the scope of physics and chemistry.)
6. Body: because it has 6 directions: up and down, right and left, front and back.
(Body here refers to the norms of biology and geology.)
7. Sphere: because there are 7 planetary spheres.
8. Elements: because there are 4 elements (fire, air, water and earth) each combining 2 elemental qualities (wet, dry, hot, cold): 4 x 2 = 8.
9. The beings of this world, in 3 kingdoms (animal, vegetable and mineral),
each divided into 3 parts: 3 x 3 = 9.
On the soul
The third emanation in the hierarchy of being was the Universal Soul. This may need some explanation. The Brethren were quite typical of their contemporaries in their Neoplatonic doctrine of the soul. The Universal Soul, or World Soul, seems to be what gives life to living things. It is in every part of creation, in a species as the soul of that species, and in an individual as an individual soul (e.g. in horses as the soul of equinity (horsiness), and in an individual horse as its individual equine soul).
There are three kinds, or layers, of soul. All living things have a vegetative (sometimes called concupiscible) soul, which controls movement, nutrition, reproduction etc. All animals are also given an animal (sometimes called irascible) soul, which gives them sense perception and emotions: they can now respond with sadness, greed, anger, aggression etc. Humans are given a third layer of soul, the rational soul, which allows them to think and to understand; it is this rational soul which can reach up to God and which may yearn to be reunited with God. It is this soul that is being tested during our life on earth.
At the birth of a human being, a particle of the World Soul, containing that person’s vegetative, animal and rational soul, was believed to attach itself to a body. It was due to his possession of a rational soul, that man was positioned midway between the beasts and the angels, between the terrestrial and celestial worlds. The 46th Epistle noted that there were 15 circles (of paradise) above man and 15 circles (of hell) beneath him.
A central theme of the Rasā’il was the need for the purification of the soul, ready for the after-life of eternal bliss. For this you had to have a pure soul and keep to the straight path. All people, including pagans, were capable of doing this. For the sake of your immortal soul, you should devote yourself, with Socrates, to the intellect and, with Christ, to loving your neighbour. The body also had to be cared for, because it held the soul until it could reach its full development.
“Therefore, wise men who want to open the doors of Wisdom and unveil its secrets, must first discipline and cultivate their pupils’ souls, until they are pure.”
“Come and join us, dear Brother, if you have decided to seek excellence in spiritual and secular affairs, and to live in accordance with the Sunnah and the Law! Join your virtuous Brethren and your generous friends; we will assist one another with sincere and conscientious advice…”
so that “the Soul, after its separation from the body, will never again be reunited with impure matter.”
The aim was for the soul to pass the rigorous test, which had been set for it by its being born, and thus to escape from the corporeal world.
If you had to be as wise and good as a Brother of Purity for your soul to escape from its body, what happened to all the other souls? If the soul was not purified, it could not leave this material world. It had to be reborn in another body. This theory of metempsychosis was not a usual tenet of Neoplatonism, although it was very Pythagorean.
The souls of those who lived a good life and grasped the hidden meanings of the scriptures (i.e. those who had cultivated wisdom as well as right behaviour) would be separated from their bodies and would join the angels. The souls of those who only lived a good life would live on “in human form” (presumably they came back for a second round). Those who had not obeyed the laws, who had not lived well,
“will be reduced to various degrees of bestiality and hurled down into the Abyss.”
(They would come back as animals or lower life forms, until they improved.) The Brethren believed in reincarnation as a judgement on human life. All souls climbed up the hierarchy of being towards God, through preparation, good works and knowledge; or were cast down the hierarchy of being towards the Abyss, as a punishment. The goal of life was the release of the rational soul by spiritual preparation which raised it up towards God.
The re-ascent of the soul towards the World Soul
Treatise 20 devoted quite a bit of space to the wanderings of the soul from the celestial sphere down into the world of matter and its return to the World Soul. This was compared to the pilgrimage to Mecca.
The 22nd Treatise described this descent and return through the different spheres/layers of the universe (down, and then back up, the chain of being):
“We have explained in one of our epistles that the forces of the Universal Soul, when coming-to-be, immediately penetrate to the bottom of the bodies from the highest level of the encompassing sphere down to the centre of the earth. Having penetrated the spheres, the stars, the elements and places of birth, and having reached the centre of the earth as the utmost extension of their limit and as their farthest extreme, they then turn in reverse direction toward the encompassing [sphere], and this is the Ascent, and the Arousing, and the great Resurrection.”
(The ascent is in Arabic al-mi‘rāj, reminding readers of Muhammad’s night journey, when he was taken up into close proximity to God. The resurrection is “the rising of the soul from its grave, which is the body,” reminding readers of Christ.)
This ascent, this return to union with God, depended on the actions of the individual human:
“Consider, now, my brother, how thy soul should depart from this world to that place, for it is one of those forces that were dispersed from the Universal Soul which penetrates the world. It had already reached the centre [of the earth] and had departed from, and escaped, existence in minerals, plants and animals.”
The soul, having reached the level of humanity, now needed the individual to purify it and despatch it back to its home. The Golden Verses of Pythagoras:
“But observe my laws, abstaining from the things
Which thy soul must fear, distinguishing them well;
Letting intelligence o’er thy body reign;
So that, ascending into radiant ether,
Midst the Immortals, thou shalt be thyself a God”
were quoted four times in the Rasā’il, to underline the need for purity, the importance of spiritual understanding and the bliss of achieving the ascent to God.
This ascent was not confined to the after-life. Because God was in everything, those who understood this truth could find God within themselves:
“But the friends of God, who are the saints, and who are His holy ones, and the wise, who are gnostics, possessed of insight, see Him and contemplate Him in all their mystic states and conditions by night and day. […] Not the particle of an atom, in the heavens, nor on the earth, is remote from Him, nor anything smaller even than that, nor larger, but He is present with them, wherever they are. God opens the hearts of His saints, and makes them assured of the truth of their gnosis, and He gives light to their eyes, and takes the veil away from them, so that they see Him and contemplate Him with their eyes, just as they have known Him in their hearts.”
(Gnosis means a mystical knowledge, in which the knower and the known are united in a revelation.)
Since the World Soul is within all humans as the soul of humanity, it seems highly likely that the Brethren taught their followers to seek illumination from the divine World Soul within:
“The Divine Law is a sacred disposition, which manifests itself in the individual soul through an intellectual force which flows into it. This force originates from the Universal Soul, in accordance with God’s Will.”
All communities needed a leader (imām), and the Brethren’s imām was Reason, which was to be found within.
There was no need for any other imām for those who were directly inspired by the Lawgiver himself:
“The intelligence and spiritual power of the Lawgiver are a sufficient substitute for a leader or Imām. So, dear Brother, let us follow the Law, and make it our Imām in whatever we decide to do.”
This was followed by a discussion of the revelations of the Qur’ān, as if that was the only Lawgiver, that was in question here; but then the author added:
“But the esoteric truths and hidden meanings therein are accessible only to the very few.”
The Brethren certainly expected their followers to aim at a spiritual experience, such as Muhammad must have had. The Brother was told to stay awake
“to witness Muhammad the Messenger journeying to Heaven,”
so that “you will join those who are allowed to be near to God,”
and “with the spiritual eye you will know the inner truth of these mysteries.”
The Brother would then no longer be afraid of the death of his body, because he would know that his soul was immortal. He would have become a “friend of God”.
This was followed by lots of stories of spiritual leaders, who had sacrificed the body for the sake of the eternal life of the soul. All this talk of the willing acceptance of death could be given an esoteric interpretation, as death to the old life and rebirth in the new life of the spirit. As ever, the Rasā’il are ambiguous and seem to point to both meanings.
Secrecy: safety: success
This mixture of Islamic, Neopythagorean, Hermetic and Neoplatonic elements must have contained much that would have been unacceptable to the orthodox of Sunnī Islam. Whenever the Brethren considered that a subject was becoming potentially dangerous, they were adept at smothering it with quotations from the Qur’ān or, if they wished to air a questionable opinion, they would put it into the mouth of an animal.
That there is no record of any of the Brethren suffering persecution is, according to the historian, I.R.Netton, a tribute to the skill with which they disguised some of the unorthodox implications of their philosophy.
They knew how to treat the four – always 4 – categories of people:
- those who had no faith and no knowledge: they were easily corrupted by desire for the goods of this world;
- those who had faith but little knowledge: e.g. ordinary Muslim believers;
- those who had knowledge but little faith, and so remained blind to the esoteric meaning of the prophetic mission: they were well educated but not interested;
- those who had knowledge and faith: they were fit to join the Brethren.
“Come to us, Brother, and join the assembly of your noble, just, wise, loving and sincere Brethren, so that you may hear their sayings, see their good qualities and penetrate their secrets. […] You will observe with the inner eye, just as they do, and see with the light of the heart, just as they do.”
This is an invitation that will be taken up in different ways by several individuals of a philosophical and religious bent, not all of them Muslim.