The Ikhwan al-Safa were an anonymous tenth-century fraternity based in Basra and Baghdad, Iraq. This secretive group of people occupied a prominent position in the history of science and philosophy in Islam “due to their wide reception and assimilation of their monumental encyclopaedia, the Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa (Epistles of the Brethren of Purity).” (El-Bizri).
Seeking to show the compatibility of the Islamic faith with other religions and intellectual traditions, the authors of the Rasa’il drew on diverse schools of ancient Greek wisdom as well as Babylonian, Judaeo-Christian, Persian, and Indian elements.
Although the exact date of the Rasa’il and the identities of its authors remain a mystery, it is generally agreed that the authors were high-ranked men of learning from the Shi‘a community, and that they had at least some connections with the Ismaili movement. Some historians situate this brotherhood to the eighth century, attributing the compiling of the Rasa’il to the early Ismaili Imams Jafar al-Sadiq, Abd Allah (Wafi Ahmed), or his son Ahmad b. Abd Allal (al-Taqi); others situate the Ikhwan to just before the founding of the Fatimid dynasty in North Africa in 909.
The Rasa’il comprises 52 essays divided into four parts:
Mathematics – 14 essays
dealing with arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, geography, and music.
Natural Philosophy – 17 essays
on the physical and natural sciences dealing with matter and form, metallurgy, meteorology, classes of plants and animals, the composition of the human body, the phonetic and structural properties of languages.
Sciences of the Soul and Intellect – 10 essays
discussing a distinction between the intellect and the intelligible, the mystical expression of the essence of love, definitions of the various types of motion, among other topics.
Theology – 11 essays
on differences between the varieties of religious opinions, the call to God, the actions of spiritualists, the cosmic hierarchy, and the essence of magic and talismanic properties, among other topics.
Historians agree that the efforts of the authors of the Rasa’il to collate the sciences and compose a pioneering encyclopeadia, indicate their originality during their time.
Nader El-Bizri states:
“The Rasa’il corpus is brimming with a wealth of ideas and constitutes a masterpiece of medieval literature that presents a populist yet comprehensive adaptation of scientific knowledge. …By influencing a variety of Islamic schools and doctrines, the Brethren’s heritage acted as a significant intellectual prompt and catalyst in the development of the history of ideas in Islam. As such, their work rightfully holds the station assigned to it among the distinguished Arabic classes and the high literature of Islamic civilization.”
Extract from Forward
Epistles of the Brethren of Purity, On Music, Edited and translated by Owen Wright, Oxford University Press in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2010
Godefroid de Callatay, The Classification of the Sciences according to the Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa, The Institute of Ismaili Studies (accessed December 2016)
From the Manuscript Tradition to the Printed Text: The Transmission of the Rasa’il of the Ikhwan al-Safa’ in the East and West, The Institute of Ismaili Studies (accessed December 2016)
Compiled by Nimira Dewji