• The Case of the Animals versus Man Before the King of the Jinn: An Arabic Critical Edition and English Translation of Epistle 22
    Page last edited 12-11-2014

    Oxford University Press in Association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2010

    ISBN HardBack:
    978 0 19958 016 3
  • The Brethren of Purity (Ikhwan al-Safa’) were the anonymous members of a fourth-century AH (tenth-century CE) esoteric fraternity of lettered urbanites that was principally based in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, while also having a significant active branch in the capital of the ‘Abbasid caliphateinfo-icon, Baghdad. This secretive coterie occupied a prominent station in the history of scientific and philosophical ideas in Islam due to the wide intellectual reception and dissemination of diverse manuscripts of their famed philosophically oriented compendium, the Epistles of the Brethren of Purity (Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa’). The exact dating of this corpus, the identity of its authors, and their doctrinal affiliation remain unsettled questions that are hitherto shrouded with mystery. Some situate the historic activities of this brotherhood at the eve of the Fatimid conquest of Egypt (ca. 358/969), while others identify the organization with an earlier period that is set chronologically around the founding of the Fatimid dynasty in North Africa (ca. 297/909).

    Encountering ‘veracity in every religion’, and grasping knowledge as ‘pure nourishment for the soul’, the Ikhwan associated soteriological hope and the attainment of happiness with the scrupulous development of rational pursuits and intellectual quests. Besides the filial observance of the teachings of the Qur’aninfo-icon and hadithinfo-icon, the Brethren also reverently appealed to the Torah of Judaism and to the Gospelsinfo-icon of Christianity. Moreover, they heeded the legacies of the Stoics and of Pythagoras, Hermes Trismegistus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Nicomachus of Gerasa, Euclid, Ptolemy, Galen, Proclus, Porphyry, and Iamblichus.

    In general, fifty-two epistles are enumerated as belonging to the Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa‘, and these are divided into the following four parts: Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, Sciences of the Soul and Intellect, and Theology. The first part consists of fourteen epistles, and it deals with ‘the mathematical sciences’, treating a variety of topics in arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, geography, and music. The second part of the corpus groups together seventeen epistles on ‘the physical qua natural sciences’. It thus treats themes on matter and form, generation and corruption, metallurgy, meteorology, a study of the essence of nature, the classes of plants and animals (the latter being also set as a fable), the composition of the human body and its embryological constitution, a cosmic grasp of the human being as microcosm, and also the investigation of the phonetic and structural properties of languages and their differences. The third part of the compendium comprises ten tracts on ‘the psychical and intellective sciences’, setting forth the ‘opinions of the Pythagoreans and of the Brethren of Purity’, and accounting also for the world as a ‘macroanthropos’. In this part the Brethren also examined the distinction between the intellect and the intelligible, and they offered explications of the symbolic significance of temporal dimensions, epochal cycles, and the mystical expression of the essence of love, together with an investigation of resurrection, causes and effects, definitions and descriptions, and the various types of motions. The fourth and last part of the Rasa’il deals with ‘the nomic qua legal and theological sciences’ in eleven epistles. These address the differences between the varieties of religious opinions and sects, as well as delineating the ‘Pathway to God’, the virtues of the Ikhwan’s companionship, the characteristics of genuine believers, the nature of the divine nomos, the call to God, the actions of spiritualists, of jinn, angels, and recalcitrant demons, the species of politics, the layered ordering of the world, and, finally, the essence of magic and talismanic incantations. Besides the fifty-two tracts that constitute the Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa’, this compendium was accompanied by a treatise entitled al-Risala al-jamia (The Comprehensive Epistle), which acted as the summa summarum for the whole corpus, and was itself supplemented by a further abridged appendage known as the Risalat jamiat al-jamia (The Condensed Comprehensive Epistle).

    ‘The Case of the Animals versus Man Before the King of the Jinn’ (Epistle 22) is the longest of the fifty-two epistles, and in this one, widely read and translated in the Middle Ages and since, the Brethren break away from their usual expository format and fly up into the realm of fable. Their aim, as they explain, is ‘to survey the merits and fine points of animals, their admirable traits and wholesome natures, and to touch on man’s overreaching, oppression, and injustice against the creatures that serve him — the beasts and cattle — and his heedless ingratitude for God’s blessings.’

    Once given words, the animals have much to say, both about their own plight and about the human condition. They present themselves not as mere objects of study but as subjects with an outlook and interests of their own. That casts the essay into a moral mode: the animals warmly appreciate the bounty of Creation but passionately criticize human domination and systematically indict its underlying rationales as the products of human arrogance. The ingenious and insightful design of every creature, say the animals, testifies to God’s creative and providential beneficence. But the natural piety, generosity, courage, and trust of the animals model virtues that human beings too often lack. The animals become living, speaking rebukes of human waywardness, faithlessness, negligence, and insensitivity.

    Although it is actually the animals that have brought their case before Biwarasp the Wise, King of the Jinn, the humans see themselves as the plaintiffs. They expect animals simply to serve their needs. Outside the precincts of the court, in their own domains, they readily berate and belabour any domestic beasts that seem to shirk that role. Some even question God for creating beasts that they find useless, noxious, or repulsive. All creatures, the animals argue, have a place in God’s plan. All play their roles in Nature. But, beyond such merely defensive remarks, the animals turn the tables on their adversaries, goaded to a wide-ranging denunciation of human weaknesses. Their aim is to discredit the claim that man’s innate superiority makes humans the owners of Nature and gives them a perfect right to treat all creatures as they please. Much of the fable is taken up with the animals’ ripostes to such arrogance. In the end, most but not all of the claims the humans make are found groundless.

    The zoological and ethological information that the Ikhwan table, whether scientific in the Galenic and Aristotelian mode or fanciful in the manner of midrashic tales and ancient bestiaries, is never dry or merely technical. By allowing the animals to speak, the Ikhwan clearly hope to sweeten the didactic pill. But by letting them speak critically, they add a bit of salt as well. The method that serves their moral aim is Aesopian. But the fable embedded in the essay form rapidly bursts the bounds of the familiar Aesopian tale. It is longer, broader in scope, and more varied in focus. Without the great battle scenes or stagey clinches of the epic, the fable’s narrative is far more arresting to the interests of a grown-up than any simple allegory or morality play; and the narrative ends with no single pithy punchline but by integrating its insights into a single thesis, promised at the outset: ‘Man at his best, we shall show, is a noble angel, the finest of creatures; but at his worst, an accursed devil, the bane of creation.’ To this the Ikhwan add: ‘We’ve put these themes into the mouths of animals, to make the case clearer and more compelling — more striking in the telling, wittier, livelier, more useful to the listener, and more poignant and thought-provoking in its moral.’

  • Acknowledgements xv
    Foreword xvii
    Introduction 1
    Technical Introduction 57
    Epistle 22: The Case of the Animals versus Man Before the King of the Jinn 61
    Prologue of the Ikhwan 63
    Fable 99
    Appendix A: Authorities Cited 317
    Appendix B: Geographical Regions 319
    Appendix C: Iranian Kings and Heroes 331
    Appendix D: Religious Traditions 337
    Bibliography 343
    Index Nominum 357
    Index Rerum 365
    Index Locorum 377
    Risala 22 (Arabic Text & Variants) [Arabic pagination 3–280]


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  • Prof. Lenn Goodman

    Lenn E. Goodman is Professor of Philosophy and Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. His books include Islamic Humanism ; In Defense of Truth: A Pluralistic Approach ; Jewish & Islamic Philosophy: Crosspollinations in the Classic Age ; Judaism, Human Rights and Human Values ; God of Abraham ; Avicenna ; On Justice ; and his Gifford Lectures, Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself. A winner of the American Philosophical Association Baumgardt Memorial Prize and the Gratz Centennial Prize, Goodman has lectured widely across the world in various...Read more

    Richard McGregor

    Richard MGregor is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Islamic Studies at Vanderbilt University. His primary field of research is mediaeval Egypt and Syria, with a focus on intellectual history, visual culture, and Sufism . He is author of Sanctity and Mysticism in Medieval Egypt (2004), a study of the evolution of theories of religious authority among mystics of mediaeval Cairo. He is also co-editor with Adam Sabra of Le développement du soufisme en Égypte à l'époque mamelouke (2006), and is currently at work on a study of religious practice centred on processions, banners,...Read more