Encyclopaedia ArticlesJesus, Christians and Christianity in the Thought of the Ikhwan al-Safa’
This is an online version of the article ‘Ikhwan al-Safa’ which first appeared in Christian-Muslim Relations. A Bibliographical History. Volume 2 (900-1050), ed. David Thomas et al. (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2010); The History of Christian-Muslim Relations, 14; pp. 306-311. The article is reproduced by kind permission from the publishers.
Key words:Ikhwan al-Safa’, Rasa’il, Isma‘ilis, Jesus, Christians, The Gospels, Muslim-Christian relations.
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The pen-name Ikhwan al-Safa’ (‘Brethren of Purity’) was used by the otherwise anonymous authors of the compendium of 52 treatises on various disciplines entitled Rasa’il ikhwan al-safa’ wa-khullan al-wafa’ (‘Epistles of the brethren of purity and friends of loyalty’). The date of the Epistles is not known, but they must have been finished by the middle of the 10th century. Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi, writing in the 980s, attributes them to a group of intellectuals based in Basra in the mid-10th century, and he names them in his Kitab al-imta‘. An alternative theory, held by Marquet and Hamdani, claims that the Epistles, or at least an embryonic form of them, were originated by the 9th-century leaders of the Isma‘ili movement, who were hiding from Abbasid persecution in Syria.
The work is divided into 52 epistles (rasa’il), arranged into four sections (propaedeutical sciences, including mathematics, logic, music and ethics; natural sciences; sciences of the soul and the intellect; theological sciences). They total 1,900 pages in the 1957 Beirut edition. The Epistles are arguably one of the most interesting works in Arabic-Islamic culture regarding Christianity. The attitude towards Christianity of the Ikhwan al-Safa’ must be understood within the context of their respectful regard for all religions: for them, truth is one and it is contained as much in revelation as in philosophy (the aim of both being the same – the purification of the soul from matter), the differences between religions being merely on the level of practice and culture. The Ikhwan al-Safa’ understand prophethood as a series of adaptations of the same inner reality to changing times, with the idea of a progression, each revelation abrogating the ritual practice, but not the essence, of the previous one. Scattered throughout the Rasa’il, there are elements, references and quotations related to Christianity, which can be divided into three groups: the Gospels, Jesus, and Christians and their beliefs.
The Gospels: The Ikhwan al-Safa’ accept the truth of the previous revealed books, and the Gospel takes a place of honour among these scriptures. The Ikhwan al-Safa’ encourage their readers to read the Gospels, and the Rasa’il show a high level of awareness and accurate knowledge of them, and seem to display a preference for that of John. The same interpretive stance (which is closely related to Isma‘ili ta’wil) is applied to the Gospels as to the Qur’an and other scriptures. They suppose that ‘the people of the Torah, the people of the Gospels and the people of the Qur’an’ have different commandments, precepts and parables, but these are all symbolic allusions (isharat) to remind souls of what they have forgotten regarding their origin and their return.
There are numerous mentions of the Gospels in the Rasa’il, and there are also a number of quotations of Jesus’ sayings; some are direct citations from the Gospels, others are reminiscent of them (including apocryphal gospels), yet others are more in line with the Qur’anic account of Jesus, and finally other sayings are not traceable to any surviving Christian sources. Further, reciting a verse from the Gospels is said to be as protective in times of peril as reciting a verse from the Qur’an or the Torah.
Jesus: Jesus figures prominently in the Rasa’il, as one of the exemplars who embodied the views of the Ikhwan al-Safa’: belief in the eternity of the soul and the pursuit of the purification of the soul from matter by detachment from the bodily realm. His life, teachings, death and crucifixion are all referred to in this connection. On some occasions, the authors also quote the sayings of Jesus alongside others, such as Muhammad and Socrates. Jesus’ use of parables is seen in connection with the Ikhwan al-Safa’’s conception of religious language as being fundamentally figurative and allegorical. The life of Jesus basically follows the accounts in the Gospels, with his interaction with the disciples, his preaching, his miracles, arrest, crucifixion and resurrection all being narrated.
By far, the most important element for the history of Muslim-Christian relations, is the Ikhwan al-Safa’’s interpretation of the crucifixion. Unlike most Muslim commentators, who are inclined to interpret Q 4:157 as meaning that someone other than Jesus was killed, the authors of the Rasa’il affirm that Jesus did die on the cross. However, they emphasise that it was only his human reality (nasut) that was killed. The deception into which the Jews fell, and to which the Qur’an refers, was to believe that they had really killed him. The Ikhwan al-Safa’ deny this, since Jesus’ real, spiritual being (lahut) lived on, because the soul is eternal and cannot be killed. Their interpretation of the verse is thus one which is in harmony with their worldview and their conception of the soul. Two things are worth mentioning in this regard. First, that the terms nasut and lahut originate in the Christian debates on the divinity and humanity of the person of Christ, and their use in the Rasa’il probably betrays Nestorian influences. Second, the Ikhwan al-Safa’’s reading coincides with other Isma‘ili authors, among them Abu Hatim al-Razi (q.v.), who had no quandaries about accepting the crucifixion of the body, which in their view highlighted the supremacy of the spiritual over the physical realm. Two further points highlight the affinity that the Ikhwan al-Safa’ feel with Jesus. The first is that he is portrayed as a spiritual healer, capable of curing sick souls of their blindness to spiritual realities, which is the stated aim of the Rasa’il themselves. Jesus is also portrayed as a missionary who counts on the help of his disciples; in the same way, the authors see themselves as a broad movement to harmonise religion and philosophy with a view to educating and advancing the spiritual status of their contemporaries.
Christians: The Ikhwan al-Safa’ admire the attitude of Christian monks towards this world, abstaining from its pleasures and devoting their lives to the contemplation of the eternity of the soul. They exalt monasticism (tarahhub) as ‘the Christian way’, as much as they praise asceticism (tazahhud), tasawwuf, the pondering of divine matters of the Socratic school, and the religion of the hunafa’. They describe the ideal person (a description containing a series of traits related to particular regions or groups), among other things, as ‘Christian in conduct and Syrian in devotion’. There is no doubt that the Ikhwan al-Safa’ knew Christians very well. Among the different Christian denominations, they cite the Nestorian (Nasturi), Jacobite (Ya’qubi) and Melkite (Malkani). They refer to the hierarchy of the church as being composed of monks (sing. rahib), priests (qissis), deacons (shammas) – in that order – archbishops (mutran) and patriarchs (jathiliq), who are specified as people who should not be killed in warfare. The Ikhwan al-Safa’ were also familiar with the ambiance inside churches, which they describe as being ‘lit with candle lamps, illuminated with images, filled with crosses’, with ‘priests and monks dressed in coarse wool habits’, with belts tied around their waists, swinging censers with their hands, spreading incense perfumed ‘with costus (qust)̣ and frankincense (kundur)’, reciting words in praise of God and ‘chanting them repeatedly’. This is all described as seen in a dream, in which ‘a group of bishops (asaqifa)’ appear ‘with goblets full of wine’, holding in cloths the sacramental loaves ‘which they divided for the people and made them taste from that wine’.
Christian beliefs: Even though the general attitude towards Christians is largely positive, there are points of belief of which the Ikhwan al-Safa’ disapprove. Thus, they reject the attitude of the monks who indulge in misery and suffering in their ascetic practices. Belief in the Trinity (or ‘the third of three’) is criticised in passing, as is the eating of pork and the worship of the cross. The Rasa’il also condemn those who believe that their God was the holy spirit whose nasut was crucified by the Jews.
The main significance of the Rasa’il for Christian-Muslim relations is the acceptance they show of the universality of the Gospels and the message of Jesus. Moreover, the interpretation they give of the Qur’anic verse on the crucifixion, in view of their philosophy and their acceptance of the actual historical death of Jesus, may prove to be fertile common ground between Christianity and Islam, especially in their more esoteric interpretations.
a) On Christianity in the Rasa’il:
T. Lawson, The crucifixion and the Qur’an: A study in the history of Muslim thought, Oxford, 2009, esp. pp. 85-88
I.R. Netton, Muslim Neoplatonists: An introduction to the thought of the Brethren of Purity (Ikhwan al-Safa’), Edinburgh, 19912, esp. pp. 53-71
A. Bausani, ‘La figura di Cristo nella enciclopedia musulmana del X secolo “Epistole dei Fratelli Sinceri”’, in V. Lanternari, M. Massenzio and D. Sabbatucci (eds), Scritti in memoria di Angelo Brelich promossi dall’Istituto di Studi storico-religiosi dell’Universita degli studi di Roma, Rome, 1982, 33-43
Y. Marquet, ‘Les Ihwan al-Safa’ et le Christianisme’, Islamochristiana 8 (1982) 129-58
L. Levonian, ‘The Ikhwan al-Safa’ and Christ’, MW 35 (1945) 27-31 (repr. in F. Sezgin [ed.], Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa’ wa khullan al-wafa’ (2nd half 4th/10th cent.). Texts and Studies, 2 vols, Frankfurt am Main, 1999)
E.E. Elder, ‘The crucifixion in the Koran’, MW 13 (1923) 242-58
b) On the Rasa’il
Al-Tawhidi, Kitab al-imta‘ wa l-mu’anasa, ed. A. Amin and A. al-Zayn, 3 vols in 1, Cairo, 1939-44, ii, pp. 3-11
‘Abd al-Jabbar, Tathbit, pp. 610-11
N. El-Bizri (ed.), The Ikhwan al-Safa’ and their Rasa’il: An introduction, Oxford, 2008
G. de Callatay, Ikhwan al-Safa’: A brotherhood of idealists on the fringe of orthodox Islam, Oxford, 2005
Y. Marquet, La philosophie des Ihwan al-Safa’, 2nd ed., Paris, 1999
I. Netton, ‘The Brethren of Purity (Ikhwan al-Safa’)’, in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman (eds), History of Islamic philosophy, London, 1996, pp. 222-30
I. Netton, Muslim Neoplatonists: An introduction to the thought of the Brethren of Purity (Ikhwan al-Safa’), London, 1982
A. Bausani, L’enciclopedia dei fratelli della purità. Riassunto, con introduzione e breve commento, dei 52 trattati o epistole degli Ikhwan as-Safa’, Naples, 1978
A. Awa, L’esprit critique des ‘Frères de la Pureté’, Encyclopédistes arabes du IV/ Xe siecle, Beirut, 1948
H.F. Hamdani, ‘A compendium of Isma‘ili esoterics’, Islamic Culture 2 (1937) 210-20
There are also numerous studies in Arabic.
There are more than a hundred catalogued MSS of the Rasa’il.
The oldest dated MS is Istanbul, Atif Efendi Library – 1681 (1182; see I.K. Poonawala, ‘Why we need an Arabic critical edition with an annotated English translation of the Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa’’, in El-Bizri, The Ikhwan al-Safa’ and their Rasa’il, 33-57)
For other MSS see http://www.musicologie.org/publirem/jmw/notices/ikhwan_alSafa.html
J.-M. Warszawski, Dictionnaire des ecrits sur la musique, 2 vols,Berne, 2005
Editions & Translations
Most epistles have been translated into a variety of languages, but there is no comprehensive translation.
Currently there are five uncritical editions, very similar to each other:
ed. ‘A. Tamir, Beirut, Dar al-Nashr al-Jami‘iyya, 1995
Qum, Maktab al-I‘lam al-Islami, 1985
ed. B. al-Bustani, Beirut, Dar Sadir, 1957
ed. K.D. al-Zirikli, Cairo, Al-Maktaba al-Tijariyya al-Kubra, 1928
ed. N.D. al-Kutubi, Bombay, Matba‘ Nukhbat al-Akhbar, 1888
A complete new critical edition and English translation of the Rasa’il is being published by Oxford University Press in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies as Epistles of the Brethren of Purity Series.