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Kitab Ikhwan as-safa'. (111) Die Lehre von Seele und Intellekt or “Brethren of Purity”

Arabische Philosophie und Wissenschaft in der Enzyklo-padie Von Suzanne Diwald. Pp. xii + 641. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz. 1975.

by Suzanne Diwald - reviewed by Abbas Hamdani

Constellation in book Al-Sufi

Rasa'il Ikhwan al-Safa', the famous Islamic encyclopedia of the late 9th century has aroused great interest and controversy among scholars for the last century and a half and innumerable studies have been published on various topics covered by the work. Yet there does not exist a good critical edition of it. The three complete editions published in Bombay (1888), Cairo (1928) and Beirut (1957) have no indices and contain only a few linguistic explanations. There is a great wealth of manuscripts of this work all over the world but they have not been seriously collated. Again only a few sections are available in translation. Thus the present work of Susanne Diwald is an important step toward achieving a complete critical edition, at least in German translation. She has chosen the 3rd Part of the work on Soul and Intellect. The page references on each paragraph belong to the oldest Istanbul ms. Atif 1681 and to the Beirut printed edition. The text is not reproduced but the German translation is given. One set of footnotes contains collations from four of the eleven Istanbul mss., one ms. from the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris and the Beirut edition. Another set of footnotes is devoted to the studies that have been published hitherto on the topics covered by the translated sections.

The Diwald book consists of 526 pages (31-556) of the translated, collated and studied text without the Arabic original, 36 pages (557-592) of a very copious bibliography and 49 pages (593-641) of indices containing names of persons, subjects and Koranic verses. There is a Preface of 2 pages and an Introduction of 30 pages at the beginning of the book.

The Preface announces Susanne Diwald's plans. She intends to produce the second volume of the series devoted to the 2nd part of the Rasa'il, third volume to the 1st part, fourth volume to the 4th part and the fifth volume to a general study of the entire system of the Rasa'il, the textual history of the mss., a glossary of technical terms and general indices. It is an ambitious plan which unfortunately does not include the Arabic text.

The ideas expressed in the present Introduction are stated to be tentative and subject to elaboration and revision in the final volume of her series. The present choice of the third part of the Rasa'il shows Susanne Diwald's own interest in the philosophical and mystical subjects. She seems to be of the opinion that the work is Sufi and not Fatimid. She points out that the word safa' in the title is indicative of the Sufistic nature of the work (p. 22) and the generally Ismaili ideas contained in the Rasa'il's summary, Risalat at-Jami'a should be considered separately from the main body of the text (p. 26). Again the Batini (esoteric) teachings of the Rasa'il need not be necessarily Isma'ili. They could also be mystical (p. 27). there are sections in the work that are against taqlid and therefore, in her opinion, could not be Isma'ili; also there is an explicitly anti-Isma'ili story (Beirut ed. p. 312ff). She also implies that the Rasa'il is an orthodox work when she says that in this connection there is no need to stress the relationship between Sufism and Shi'ism (p. 27). She is, however, perplexed by the question of Imamat that pervades the Rasa'il. In the end she promises to reopen this discussion in the last two volumes of her work.

On the question of authorship, she tends to accept the story that is given by Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi about a group of his contemporaries from Basra whom al-Tawhidi considers as the authors of the Rasa'il. Susanne Diwald is of the opinion that one of this group, al-Maqdisi, is the main author (p. 13). She is in error when she states that the story about the authors given by Al-Tawhidi is his Al'Imta is repeated in his Al-Muqabasat (p. 8). She, however, gives valuable information on one of the supposed authors, Zayb b. Rifa' a not given elsewhere (pp. 10-11). Equally valuable is her information from the pseudo-Majriti work Ghayat al-Hakim composed before 343/954 which pushes back the terminus ad quem for the Rasa'il's composition to any time before 343/954 instead of the generally accepted 373/984.

Al-Tawhidi's report proves beyond doubt that the group of men he is referring to are heretical (whom 'Abd al-Jabbar, another contemporary, confirms to be Qarmatian). There seems to be a contradiction in Susanne Diwald's acceptance of the Tawhidi report and her characterization of the Rasa'il as an orthodox Sufi work. Moreover, a close examination of al-Tawhidi's story shows that he is more concerned about proving the heresy of Zayd b. Rifa'a and his colleagues than about proving their authorship of the Rasa'il. (I have discussed this at length in an article awaiting publication).

The Ikhwan al-safa' work is referred to by Susanne Diwald as Kitab and not as Rasa'il on the ground that the oldest ms. she uses, Atif 1681 completed in 578/1182, has it as Kitab in the title (p. 16, note 55) following al-Ghazzali (d. 505/1111) in his al-Munqidh (p.17, note 58); so has also the Bombay edition (1888). The very first line, however, of the encyclopedia begins with the words: "Hadhihi fihristu Rasa'il Ikhwan as-safa..." Al-Tawhidi refers to the work also as Rasa'il and so after him many later writers. In any case the question is not of any great importance.

Susanne Diwald points out the impact of the Rasa'il on several scientists and philosophers, orthodox or otherwise and the high position the work occupies in the history of science (pp. 6-8 and in the copious notes to her translation relying on the previous studies of such scholars as Ruska and Goldziher). It is hoped that in her last volume she will give a definitive interpretation of the exact time of the encyclopedia's composition, for on it depends its exact location and status in the history of ideas. Her collation of various mss. also calls for determining as to what is the original text and where is a later interpolation. Her indue preference for Atif 1681 calls for caution, because although the ms. is the earliest, it belongs to the late 12th century and betrays the editorial inclinations of the copyist in favour of Sufism. It need not have reflected on earlier tradition, but the entente cordiale created by al- Ghazzali between orthodoxy and mysticism.

For all my disagreement with her on matters of interpretation, I must congratulate Susanne Diwald on her laborious and scholarly work and admiration of it makes me look forward with eagerness to the completion of her plans which will give us the first complete critical translation of one of the most important works of medieval civilisation.

- Abbas Hamdani

Rasail Ikhwan al Safa - Susanne Diwald's work reviewed by Hamdani
Rasail Ikhwan al Safa - Yves Marquet's book reviewed by Zimmerman
Rasail Ikhwan-us Safa - The Epistles of the Brethren of Purity by Asghar Ali Engineer
Rasail Ikhwan al Safa - Pages of Medieval Mideastern History by Eloise Hart
Ikhwân al-Safâ’ or “Brethren of Purity” by Carmela Baffioni
The Classification of the Sciences according to the Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa’ by Godefroid De Callata˙
Ikhwan al-safa’ - the Brethren of Purity by Diana Steigerwald
Risala dar Haqiqati Din - The True Meaning of Religion by Shiabudin Shah
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