• The Ikhwan al-Safa’ (Brethren of Purity), the anonymous adepts of a tenth-century esoteric fraternity based in Basra and Baghdad, hold an eminent position in the history of science and philosophy amongst Muslims due to the wide reception and assimilation of their monumental encyclopaedia, the Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa’ (Epistles of the Brethren of Purity).

    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 fourth and last part of the Rasa’il deals with ‘the nomic or legal and theological sciences’ in eleven epistles. These address the differences between the varieties of religious opinions and communities, as well as delineating the ‘pathway to God’, the virtues of the Ikhwan’s fellowship, the characteristics of genuine believers, the nature of the divine nomos, the call to God, the actions of spiritualists, jinn, angels, and recalcitrant demons, the species of politics, the cosmic hierarchy, and, finally, the essence of magic and talismanic incantations.

    Until now, the standard form of the epistle that discusses magic has been that of the existing Beirut edition which is 180 pages long, making it the second longest treatise of the entire corpus, after Epistle 22, which contains the ‘Case of the Animals versus Man’ story. These pages constitute pp. 283 to 463 of the fourth part of the Rasa’il.

    Modern scholars have consequently taken for granted that the epistle on magic formed a single, 180-page-long unit. However, the present volume’s editors Godfried de Callatay and Bruno Halflants have identified within the manuscripts two distinct versions, long and short, the latter of which constitutes, On Magic I: An Arabic Critical Edition and English Translation of Epistle 52a. The Arabic critical edition and annotated English translation of what is consequently classifiable as the ‘long version’, or ‘Epistle 52b: On Magic’, will be edited and translated by Professor de Callatay and Mr Bruno Halflants, in collaboration with Dr Sébastien Moureau, and published at a later date in a separate volume of the series.

    Magic is a subject that has provoked a great number of debates. With regard to magic and its practice in medieval Islam, the spectrum of positions can be summarised under three categories. Like the Mutazilites, there are those deny that magic or any of the related issues could even exist. Then there are others like al-Ghazali (d. 1111 CE) or the scholar and historian Ibn Khaldun (d. 1404 CE), who, although admitting the possibility that magic exists and that it could even have some efficacy, condemned its practice as incompatible with the moral precepts of Islam. Lastly are those, including the Ikhwan al-Safa’, who seem to have considered magic and, in a more general way, every hidden art or practice, not only as licit and useful, but even as potentially fundamental.

    Medieval Muslims have generated an enormous amount of literature from this last group, and the fame enjoyed over the centuries by — to mention a few — Abu Ma‘shar (d. 886 CE) for astrology, Jabir ibn Hayyan (Eighth century CE) for alchemy, and al-Buni (d. 1225 CE) for magic, is something that remains quite impressive to a modern reader.

    In this volume, the Ikhwan argue for the legitimacy of magic and the other occult sciences, citing such classical authorities as Plato and the Qur’aninfo-icon as they interweave Hellenic, Hermetic, and Islamic ideas. There also features a notably sympathetic section on the enigmatic Sabi’ans of Harran and their ‘astral’ magic, philosophical doctrines and initiation rites.








    Technical Introduction


    Epistle 52a: On Magic


    Select Bibliography


    Subject Index


    Index Locorum


    Risala 52a (Arabic Text & Variants)

    [Arabic Pagination 3-105]

    Arabic Index

    [Arabic Pagination 107-110]


  • Godefroid de Callataÿ

    Godefroid de Callataÿ is Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the Oriental Institute of the University of Louvain. He received his doctorate from The Warburg Institute, University of London and is the author of numerous monographs and articles dealing with science and philosophy. He has specialised in the history of Arabic sciences and philosophy, and the role played by Islam in the transmission of knowledge from Greek Antiquity to the Latin West during the Middle Ages. Amongst other subjects, he is the author of numerous articles and books on the Brethren of Purity, including his...Read more

    Bruno Halflants

    Bruno Halflants was involved in various major projects during his first career as a civil engineer. He has cultivated his interest in Arabic since 1978, focusing on Arabic poetry and metrics, and in 1998 he obtained a master’s degree in Arabic. In 2007, he published Le Conte du Portefaix et des Trois Jeunes Femmes, a study of Middle Arabic in the 1001 Nights, with an original edition of the tale’s earliest-known manuscript. Further to this, he has participated in several colloquies and seminars and has contributed to the forthcoming Autour de la Langue Arabe. He is currently working on the...Read more