History of Philosophy in Islam, by T.J. de Boer , at sacred-texts.com
1. In the East, where every religion formed a State within the State, a political party invariably made its appearance in the additional character of a religious sect, just to gain adherents in some way or other. As a matter of principle indeed, Islam knew no distinction between men,--no caste or social standing. But property and education have the same influence everywhere; and in their train degrees of piety and stages of knowledge began to be set up, according as a community or party permitted of adjustment. Thus there arose secret societies having different grades, of which the highest and perhaps the next highest possessed an esoteric doctrine, which borrowed a good deal from the Natural Philosophy of the Neo-Pythagoreans. In furtherance of their object, which was to conquer political power, every expedient was regarded as lawful. For the initiated the Koran was explained allegorically. They traced their mystic lore, it is true, back to prophets with Biblical and Koranic names, but heathen philosophers were at the bottom of it all. Philosophy was completely transformed into a mythology of politics. The high intelligences and souls, which theoretic thinkers had recognized in the stars and planets, embodied themselves in human beings for the work of actual Politics; and it was declared to be a religious duty to assist these embodied intelligences in the establishment of an earthly kingdom of righteousness. The associations which acted in this way may best be compared to societies, which up to the days of Saint-Simonism and kindred phenomena in last century were wont to appear in countries where freedom of thought was restricted.
In the second half of the ninth century Abdallah ibn Maimun, head of the Karmatite party, was the originator of a movement of this kind. He was a Persian oculist, trained in the school of the Natural Philosophers. He proved able to associate both believers and freethinkers in a confederacy to endeavour to compass the overthrow of the Abbasid government. To the one set he was a conjurer, to the other a pious ascetic or learned philosopher. His colours were white, because his religion was that of the pure light, to which the soul was to ascend after its earthly wanderings. The duties inculcated were contempt for the body, disregard of the Material, community of goods for all the confederate brethren, as well as self-surrender to the confederacy, acid fidelity and obedience to their chiefs, even to death,--for the society had its grades. In accordance with the sequence of existence, viz., God, Reason, Soul, Space and Time, they conceived the revelation of God to be made in history and in the constitution of their own brotherhood.
2. The chief homes of Karmatite activity were Basra and Kufa. Now we find in Basra in the second half of the tenth century a small association of men, whose confederacy aims at having four grades. We do not know, to be sure, how far the brethren succeeded in realizing the ideal organization of their confederacy. To the first grade belong young men of from 15 to 30 years of age, whose souls are being formed in th; natural way: these must be completely submissive to then teachers. The second grade,--from 30 to 40 years of age--are introduced to secular wisdom, and receive an analogical knowledge of things. In the third grade,--from 40 to 50 years of
age--the Divine law of the world becomes known in more adequate form: that constitutes the stage of the prophets. Finally, in the highest grade, when one is over 50 years old, he comes to see the true reality of things, just like the blessed angels: he is exalted then above Nature, Doctrine and Law.
From this brotherhood there has come down to us a progressively-advancing Encyclopaedia of the Sciences of that day. It consists of 51 (originally perhaps 50) treatises, the contents of which are of such varied nature and origin that the redactors or compilers have not succeeded in establishing a complete harmony among them. In general, however, there is found in this Encyclopaedia an eclectic Gnosticism built on a foundation of Natural Science, and provided with a political background. The scheme sets out with mathematical considerations, continually playing with numbers and letters, and proceeds through Logic and Physics,--referring everything, however, to the Soul and its powers,--in order to approach at last, in a mystical and magical fashion, the knowledge of the Godhead. The whole representation is that of the doctrine of a persecuted sect, with the political features peeping out here and there. We see also something of suffering and struggle,--something of the oppressions to which the men of this Encyclopaedia or their . predecessors were exposed, and something of the hope they cherished and the patience they preached. They seek in this spiritualistic philosophy, consolation or redemption: It is their religion. 'Faithful to death,'--so runs the expression--shall the brethren be, for to meet death for a friend's welfare, is the true Holy war. In life's pilgrimage through this world,--
thus the obligatory journey to Mecca is allegorized--, one must aid the other by all the means in his power. The rich must communicate to others a share of their material goods, and the wise a share of their intellectual possessions. But yet knowledge, as we have it in the Encyclopaedia, was probably reserved for initiated members of the highest grade:
It must be allowed, however, that this confraternity of the Faithful Brethren of Basra seems to have led a quiet existence, as perhaps was the case also with a branch-settlement of theirs in Bagdad. The relation of the Brethren to the Karmatites may have resembled that of the more peaceful Baptists to the revolutionary Anabaptists of the 'King of Sion'. 1
The names of the following have been given to us by later writers, as having been members of the Brotherhood and collaborators of the Encyclopaedia, viz.: Abu Sulaiman Mohammed ibn Mushir al-Busti, called al-Muqaddasi; Abu-l-Hasan Ali ibn Harun al-Zandjani; Mohammed ibn Akhmed al-Nahradjuri; Al-Aufi and Zaid ibn Rifaa. In the time of their activity the Caliphate had already been forced to make an entire surrender of its secular power into the hands of the Shi‘ite dynasty of the Buyids. Probably this circumstance was favourable to the appearance of an Encyclopaedia, in which Shi‘ite and Mutazilite doctrines together with the results of Philosophy were comprehended in one popular system.
3. The Brethren themselves avow their eclecticism. They wish to collect the wisdom of all nations and religions. Noah and Abraham, Socrates and Plato, Zoroaster and
[paragraph continues] Jesus, Mohammed and Ali are all prophets of theirs. Socrates, and Jesus and his apostles, no less than the children of Ali, are honoured as holy martyrs of their rational faith. The religious law in its literal sense is pronounced good for the ordinary man,--a medicine for weak and ailing souls: the deeper philosophic insight is for strong intelligences. Though the body is devoted to death, dying means rising again to the pure life of the Spirit, for those who during their earthly existence have been awakened by means of philosophic considerations out of careless slumber and foolish sleep. This is impressed with endless repetition, by means of legends and myths of later-Greek, Judaeo Christian, Persian or Indian origin. Every transitory thing is here turned into an emblem. On the ruins of positive religion and unsophisticated opinion a spiritualistic philosophy is built up, embracing all the knowledge and endeavour of human kind, so far as these came within the Brethren's field of view. The aim of their philosophizing is given as 'the assimilation of the soul to God, in the degree possible for man'.
In this scheme, the negative tendencies of the Brethren, are kept somewhat in the background, for reasons which are quite intelligible. But their criticism of human society and of positive religions is exhibited with least reserve in the 'Book of the Animal and the Man', in which the figurative dress makes it possible for them to represent animals as saying what might be questionable if heard from a human mouth.
4. The eclectic character of the scheme, and the far from systematic method adopted in its subdivisions render it difficult to give a coherent exposition of the philosophy
of the Brethren. But still the most important tenets, though sometimes loosely connected, must here be set forth with a measure of order.
The mental activity of Man falls to be divided, according to the Encyclopaedia, into Art and Science. Now Science or Knowledge is the form assumed within the knowing soul by that which is known, or a higher, finer, more intellectual mode of existence of whatever is realized in outward substance. Art on the other hand consists in projecting the form from the artist-soul into matter. Knowledge is potentially present in the soul of the disciple, but it becomes actual only through the teaching activity of a master, who carries knowledge as a reality within his own mind. But whence did it come to the first master? The Brethren answer, that according to the philosophers he gained it by his own reflection, while, according to the theologians, he received it through prophetic illumination; "but in our view there are various ways or instrumentalities by which knowledge may be attained. From the intermediate position of the soul, between the worlds of body and of mind it results that there are open to it three ways or sources of knowledge. Thus by means of the senses the soul is made acquainted with what is beneath it, and through logical inference with what is above it, and finally with itself by rational consideration or direct intuition. Of these kinds of knowledge the surest and the most deserving of preference is knowledge of one's self. When human knowledge attempts to go farther than this, it proves itself to be limited in many ways. Therefore one must not philosophize straight away about questions like the origin or the eternity of the world, but make his first essays with what is simpler. And only
through renunciation of the world, and righteous conduct, does the soul lift itself gradually up to the pure knowledge of the Highest."
5. After secular instruction in Grammar, Poetry and History, and after religious education and doctrine, philosophic study should begin with the mathematical branches. Here everything is set forth in Neo-Pythagorean and Indian fashion. Not only numbers but even the letters of the alphabet are employed in childish trifling. It was particularly convenient for the Brethren that the number of letters in the Arabic alphabet is 28, or 4 multiplied by 7. Instead of proceeding according to practical and real points of view, they give the rein to fancy in all the sciences, in accordance with grammatical analogies and relations of numbers. Their Arithmetic does not investigate Number as such, but rather its significance. No search is made for any more suitable mode of expressing number in the case of phenomena; but things are themselves explained in accordance with the system of numbers. The Theory of number is Divine wisdom, and is above Things, for things are only formed after the pattern of numbers. The absolute principle of all existence and thought is the number One. The science of number, therefore, is found at the beginning, middle, and end of all philosophy. Geometry, with its figures addressing the eye, serves merely to make it more easily understood by beginners, but Arithmetic alone is true and pure science. And yet Geometry too is divided into a sensible form of it which deals with lines, surfaces and solids, and a pure or spiritual form which treats of the dimensions or properties of things, such as length, breadth and depth. The object both of Arithmetic and
[paragraph continues] Geometry is to conduct the soul from the sensible to the spiritual.
First of all then they lead us to consider the stars. Now the Encylopaedia offers us, in its Astrology,--and nothing else could be expected--teaching which is exceedingly fantastic and sometimes self-contradictory. The whole of it is pervaded by the conviction that the stars not merely foretell the future, but directly influence or bring about every thing that happens beneath the moon. Fortune and misfortune come equally from them. Jupiter, Venus anal the Sun bring fortune; misfortune is brought, on the other hand, by Saturn, Mars and the Moon; while the effects produced by the planet Mercury have in them both bad and good. Mercury is the lord of education and science: we owe to him our knowledge, which comprises bad and good. In the same way too the other planets have all their several spheres of influence; and man in the course of life, if he is not prematurely snatched away, experiences successively the influences of the whole of the heavenly bodies. The Moon causes his body to grow and Mercury forms his mind. Then he comes under the sway of Venus. The Sun gives him family, riches or dominion; Mars, bravery and noble-mindedness. Thereupon, under the guidance of Jupiter, he prepares, by means of religious exercises, for the journey to the world beyond, and he attains rest under the influence of Saturn. Many men, however, do not live long enough, or are not enabled by circumstances, to develope their natural capacities in unbroken sequence. God therefore graciously sends them his prophets, by whose teaching they may, even in a short time and under unfavourable circumstances, form their natures completely.
6. According to the Encyclopaedia, Logic is related to Mathematics. In fact just as Mathematics conducts from the sensible to the intellectual, so Logic takes an intermediate position between Physics and Metaphysics. In Physics we have to do with bodies; in Metaphysics, with pure Spirits; but Logic treats of the ideas of the latter as well as of the representations of the former in our soul. Yet in range and importance Logic is inferior to Mathematics. For the subject of Mathematics is regarded not merely as an intermediary, but also as the essence of the All, while on the other hand Logic remains completely restricted to psychic forms as an intermediary between body and mind. Things are regulated by numbers, but our presentations and ideas by things.
The logical observations of the Brethren start from Porphyry's Introduction, and the Categories, the Hermeneutics and the Analytics of Aristotle. They present nothing original, or very little.
To the five terms of Porphyry, a sixth,--the 'Individual'--is added, no doubt for the sake of symmetry. Three of these,--Genus, Species, Individual,--are then called Objective Qualifications and three,--Difference, Property, Accident--Abstract or Conceptional Qualifications. The Categories are Genus-conceptions, of which the first is Substance, the other nine denoting its Accidents. The whole system of Concepts is farther developed by a division into species. But besides Division, there are three additional logical methods in use: Analysis, Definition and Deduction. Analysis is the method for beginners, because it permits a knowledge of what is individual. More subtle, however, as disclosing to us what is spiritual,--are
[paragraph continues] Definition and Deduction, the former investigating the essential nature of Species, and the latter that of Genera. The Senses apprise us of the existence of things; but acquaintance with the essence of things is gained by reflection. The information which is conveyed to us by the senses is small, as it were the letters of the alphabet. Of greater importance considerably are the principles of rational knowledge, just as words have more significance than letters; but the most important knowledge of all, lies in the propositions which have been derived from those principles, and which the human mind gains for itself or appropriates, in contradistinction to that knowledge which Nature or the Divine revelation has imparted to it.
7. From God, the highest Being, who is exalted above all distinctions and oppositions both of the Material and the Spiritual, the whole world is derived by the path of Emanation. If now and again a Creation is spoken of, that is only to be understood as a form of adaptation to theological language. The gradation then of the Emanations is exhibited as follows: 1. The Creative Spirit. (νοῦς, ‘aql); 2. The Passive Spirit, or the All-Soul or World-Soul; 3. The First Material; 4. The Operative Nature, a power of the World-Soul; 5. The Absolute Body, called also, the Second Material; 6. The World of the Spheres; 7. The Elements of the Sublunary World; 8. The Minerals, Plants and Animals composed of these elements. These then are the eight Essences which,--together with God, the Absolute One, who is in everything and with everything--complete the series of Original Essences corresponding to the nine Cardinal Numbers.
Spirit, Soul, Original Matter, and Nature are simple;
but with Body we enter the realm of the Composite. Here all is composed of Matter and Form, or,--to adopt another principle of division,--of Substance and Accident. The first Substances are Matter and Form; the first Accidents or Properties, Space, Motion and Time, to which in the opinion of the Brethren may perhaps be added Tone and Light. Matter is one; all plurality and diversity come from the Forms. Substance is designated also as the constitutive, material Form, while Accident is the completing, spiritual Form. The Encyclopaedia does not express itself clearly on these points. But in any case Substantiality is looked for rather in the Universal than in the Particular, and Form is put before Matter. The Substantial Form, like a spectre, frightens off every attempt of the philosopher to investigate thoroughly the domain of the Material. The Forms wander at their own sweet will like lords through the lower world of Matter. No trace is discoverable of any inner relation between Matter and Form. Not only in thought, but also in reality they keep themselves separate.
From the account which has been given an idea may now be formed of the story of Nature as the Brethren viewed it. They have been represented as the Darwinists of the tenth century, but nothing could be more inappropriate. The various realms of Nature, it is true, yield according to the Encyclopaedia an ascending and connected series; but the relation is determined not by bodily structure, but by the inner Form or Soul-Substance. The Form wanders in mystic fashion from the lower to the higher and vice versa, not in accordance with inner laws of formation, or modified to suit external conditions, but in accordance with the influences of the stars, and, in the
case of Man at least, in accordance with practical and theoretical behaviour. To give a history of Evolution in the modern sense of the term was very far from the thought of the Brethren. For example they expressly insist that the horse and the elephant resemble Man more than the ape does, although the bodily likeness is greater in the last-named. In fact in their system the body is a matter of quite secondary consideration: the death of the body is called the birth of the soul. The soul alone is an efficient existence, which. procures the body for itself.
8. The teaching of the Brethren concerning Nature is therefore merged almost completely in Psychology. Let us confine ourselves here to the human soul. It stands in the centre of the All; and just as the World is a huge man, Man is a little world.
The human soul has emanated from the World-soul; and the souls of all individuals taken together constitute a substance which might he denominated the Absolute Man or the Spirit of Humanity. Every individual soul, however, is involved in Matter, and must gradually be formed into spirit. To that end it possesses many faculties or powers, and of these the speculative faculties are the choicest, for knowledge is the very life of the soul.
The soul of the child is at first like a white sheet of paper. What the five senses convey to it is first presented, then judged, and lastly stored up, in the front, middle, and hinder parts of the brain respectively. Through the faculty of speech and the art of writing, which make up the number of the internal senses to five, corresponding to the number of the External, the contents of Presentation are then realized.
Among the external senses, Hearing takes precedence of Sight; for Sight, a mere slave of the moment, is occupied with what is actually present to the sense, whereas Hearing apprehends also what is past, and is conscious of the harmony of the tuneful spheres. Hearing and Sight constitute the group of the intellectual senses, whose effect must continue time without end.
While Man then possesses the external senses in common with the lower animals, the specific nature of human reason is notified in Judgment, Speech and Action. Reason judges of good and bad, and in conformity with that judgment the will is determined. But in particular the significance which Language has for the soul's life of cognition is to be emphasised. A concept which cannot be denoted by some expression in some language is not thinkable at all. The word is the body of the thought, which cannot exist absolutely per se.
But it is difficult to see how this understanding of the relation between concept and expression is to square with other opinions of the Brethren.
9. At its highest stage the teaching of the Brethren becomes a Philosophy of Religion. Its purpose is a reconciliation between Science and Life, Philosophy and Faith. Now in these matters men differ greatly. The ordinary man requires a sensuous worship of God; but just as the souls of animals and plants are beneath the soul of the ordinary man, so above it are the souls of the philosopher and the prophet with whom the pure angel is associated. In the higher stages the soul is raised also above the lower popular religion with its sensuous conceptions and usages.
No doubt Christianity and the Zoroastrian faith appeared
to the Brethren to, be more perfect religious revelations. 'Our Prophet, Mohammed', they said, 'was sent to an uncivilized people, composed of dwellers in the desert, who neither possessed a proper conception of the beauty of this world, nor of the spiritual character of the world beyond. The crude expressions of the Koran, which are adapted to the understanding of that people, must be understood in a spiritual sense by those who are more cultured'.
But the truth is not presented in its purity even in the other national religions. There is a rational faith above them all for which the Brethren moreover tried to find a metaphysical derivation. Between God and his first creature, the Creative Spirit, there is interposed by way of hypostasis the Divine World-Law (nâmûs). That World-Law extends over everything, and is the wise arrangement of a merciful Creator, who intends evil Ito no one. Belief in a God of Anger, in the punishment of Hell and the like, the Brethren declare to be irrational. Such a faith does harm to the soul. The ignorant, sinful soul finds its hell even in this life and in its own body. On the other hand, Resurrection is the separation of the soul from its body, and the great Resurrection at the last day is the separation of the Universal soul from the world, and its return to God. This turning to God indeed is the aim in all religions.
10. The ethical system of the Brethren has an ascetic, spiritualistic character, although here too their eclecticism is shewn. According to it man is acting rightly, when he follows his proper nature; 'praiseworthy is the free act of the soul; admirable are the actions which have proceeded from rational consideration; and lastly, obedience to the Divine World-Law is worthy of the reward of being raised
to the celestial world of spheres. But this requires longing for what is above; and therefore the highest virtue is Love, which strives after union with God, the first loved one, and which is evinced even in this life in the form of religious patience and forbearance with all created beings. Such love gains in this life serenity of soul, freedom of heart and peace with the whole world, and in the life to come ascension to Eternal Light.'
After all this we need not wonder that the body was depreciated a good deal. 'Our true essence is the soul, and the highest aim of our existence should be to live, with Socrates, devoted to the Intellect, and with Christ, to the Law of Love. Nevertheless the body must be properly treated and looked after in order that the soul may have time to attain its full development.' In this view the Brethren set up an ideal type of human culture, whereof the features were borrowed from the characteristics of various nations. 'The ideal, and morally perfect man, should be of East-Persian derivation, Arabic in faith, of Irak, i.e. Babylonian, education, a Hebrew in astuteness, a disciple of Christ in conduct, as pious as a Syrian Monk, a Greek in the individual sciences, an Indian in the interpretation of all mysteries, but lastly and especially, a Sufi in his whole spiritual life.'
11. The attempt to establish in this way a reconciliation between knowledge and faith satisfied neither side. Theological dialecticians looked down upon the interpretation of the Koran given by the Brethren, just as the divines of our day look down upon the N. T. exegesis of Count Tolstoi. And the more rigid Aristotelians regarded the Pythagorean-Platonic tendency of the Encyclopaedia
much as a modern professor of philosophy is wont to look upon Spiritism, Occultism, and phenomena of that nature. But the writings, or at any rate the opinions, of the Faithful Brethren of Basra have exercised an important influence on the great body of the educated or half-educated world,--an influence to which eloquent attestation is borne by the very fact that so many manuscripts, mostly of recent date, are to be met with, of this extensive Encyclopaedia. Among many sects within the world of Islam, such as the Batinites, the Ismaelites, the Assasins, the Druses, or whatever may be their names, we find again the same doctrines in the main. In this form Greek wisdom has best succeeded in making itself at home in the East, while the Aristotelian School-Philosophy would only thrive, with few exceptions, in the hothouse-cultivation bestowed upon it at the courts of princely patrons. The great religious father, Gazali, is ready enough to toss aside the wisdom of the Brethren as mere popular philosophy, but he does not hesitate to take over what was good in them. He owes more to their body of ideas than he would perhaps have cared to avow. And their treatises have been turned to profit by others besides, particularly in Encyclopaediac works. The influence of the Encyclopaedia continues even yet in the Muslim East. In vain was it burned in Bagdad in the year 1150, along with the writings of Ibn Sina.
84:1 [Translator's note.--'John of Leyden']