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 Mu‘tazilites, 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’an 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.