Brethren of Purity


The Brethren of Purity and the Friends of Loyalty (Ikhwan al-Safa wa-Khillan al-Wafa in Arabic) was a secret, esoteric society believed to have existed in the mid-10th century. The Brethren were principally located in Basra, Iraq, but the society had ties with the neighboring countries. The identities of the Brethren’s members are still unknown to today’s scholars and are the subject of much research and vivid speculation.

This coterie of mystics put together their famed Encyclopedia of the Brethren of Purity, composed of 52 Epistles arranged into four groups. These Epistles covered a vast array of subjects, ranging from mathematics, philosophy, music, logic, astronomy, the physical and natural sciences, mineralogy, and botany to the nature of the soul, ethics, metaphysics, revelation, spirituality, theology, prophecy, spiritual entities, providence, magic, and talismans. This massive compendium was inspired in part by scholars of ancient Greek, Indian, and Persian thought; the scholars also incorporated scriptures from the Abrahamic tradition, the Torah of Judaism, and the Canonical Gospels of Christianity…all under the umbrellaof the Islamic Qur’an.

This open-mindedand eclectic endeavor was very unusual for the time. The Brethren of Purity justified its unusual undertaking by pointing out the necessity of seeking truth wherever it was to be found, without prejudice and with the intent to establish harmony between faith and reason. Religious divergences, the Brethren maintained, were born of accidental factors such as race, habitat, and time—in no way do these accidental factors affect the essential unity and universality of truth:

“…to shun no science, scorn any book, or to cling fanatically to no single creed. For [their] own creed encompasses all the others and comprehends all the sciences generally. This creed is the consideration of all existing things, both sensible and intelligible, from beginning to end, whether hidden or overt, manifest or obscure . . . in so far as they all derive from a single principle, a single cause, a single world, and a single Soul.”[1]

For the Brethren of Purity, the subjects covered in the Encyclopedia were subjects that an educated person was expected to understand in order to acquire the proper knowledge needed to improve both one’s physical lot in the material world and the fate of one’s soul in the hereafter. Knowledge was accumulated in order to bring one closer to the sublime goal of salvation. To use the Brethren’s own imagery, they perceived their Brotherhood—which they invited others to join—as being a “Ship of Salvation that would float free from the sea of matter in which the Brethren, with their doctrines of mutual cooperation, asceticism, and righteous living, would reach the gates of Paradise in its care.”[2]

Even the very name of the fraternity is representative of the doctrines the Brethren preached. Indeed, there is a common consensus among scholars that “The appellation is presumably taken from the story of the ring-dove in the classic fable Kalila wa-Dimna[3] in which a ring-dove and its companions get entangled in the net of a hunter seeking birds. Together, they leave themselves and the ensnaring net to a nearby rat, which is gracious enough to gnaw the birds free of the net; impressed by the rat’s altruistic deed, a crow becomes the rat’s friend. Soon a tortoise and gazelle also join the company of animals. After some time, the gazelle is trapped by another net; with the aid of the others and the good rat, the gazelle is soon freed, but the tortoise fails to leave swiftly enough and is itself captured by the hunter. In the final turn of events, the gazelle repays the tortoise by serving as a decoy and distracting the hunter while the rat and the others free the tortoise. After this, the animals are designated as belonging to the Brethren of Purity”.[4]

This fable is cited as a moral anecdote when the Brethren address the topic of mutual aid—a crucial part of their system of ethics—in one of their epistles:

“And know, O Brother, may God assist you and us with a spirit of His, that you ought to know for certain that you alone cannot redeem yourself from the affliction of this world into which you have fallen because of the [sin] committed by our [fore] father Adam. You need for your redemption and liberation of generation and corruption—and ascension to the world of celestial spheres—and proximity to God’s close angels, the assistance of brethren who are sincere advisers and associated with you by bonds of friendship, who are virtuous and have insight into affairs of religion, so that they can apprise you of the path of the hereafter and how to attain it. So, take an example from the story of the ring-dove mentioned in the book of Kalila wa-Dimna and how it freed itself from the snare.”[5]

The Encyclopedia of the Brethren of Purity included the philosophical sciences that were current among Arab Muslims and others living in the Middle East at that time.  What differentiated it from other contemporary texts, however, was not just the variety of sources the authors drew on (or the fact that all these sciences were compiled in one encyclopedia) but also—and most importantly—that in the Encyclopedia they managed to achieve such a remarkable overall synthesis. Indeed, given the very diverse sources of the Epistles, it would have been fortunate just to have been able to read some of the texts in the current language of the time; to have an adequate and modern synthesis would have seemed to be out of reach. The latter is what made the secret coterie and itsEncyclopedia famous among Muslims and non-Muslims alike, for the Brethren made knowledge that was usually reserved for the governing elite available to educated people of all races and professions.

Simply put, the Brethren popularized learning and philosophy without placing any limitations on the origin of truth. Consequently, their Encyclopedia was widely received and assimilated; it played a prominent role in shaping medieval Islamic beliefs. Indeed, the Encyclopedia was disseminated from the heart of the Islamic world all the way to Andalusia, Spain. It had a great influence on later intellectual leading lights of the Muslim world, such as Ibn-al-Arabi, Avicenna, and al-Ghazzali. And as the Brethren’s work contributed to the popularization, legitimization, and harmonization of Greek philosophy, it also passed along knowledge of Babylonian, Indian, Persian, Zoroastrian, Buddhist, Manichaean, Jewish and Christian principles to medieval Islamic scholars.
The Encyclopedia’s influence did not stop there, however: it spread beyond the borders of the Islamic empire into the Western one as early as the 11th century. For the most part, this was due to the Jewish scholars in Spain. The Epistles of the Brethren of Purity played an important part—although one that is not usually studied—in forming medieval Judaic thought throughout the 11th to 15th centuries in Spain, Provence, and Yemen. Many scholars believe that the Brethren of Purity were referenced by many of the Jewish intellectuals as they developed their philosophies and sciences. (The Encyclopedia may have even been the basis for those endeavors.) According to various sources, such was the case for Ibn Gabirol[6], Joseph Ibn Zaddiq[7], Moses Ibn Ezra[8], and many others. They were also referenced by Abraham Ibn Ezra[9], the well-known Spanish Jewish author and scientist who was active in Italy, France, and England during the years 1140-1160.

The Encyclopedia’s influence on Western thinking was not limited to the spread of knowledge from the Jewish scholars of Spain to those in the rest of mainland Europe. Christian Rosenkreuz, the founder of the legendary Order Rose-Croix, may have coaxed his secrets from the Brethren of Purity’s writings,[10] and rumors even say that exchanges were made between the Templars and the Brethren of Purity during the first Crusade (which took place at the end of the 11th century). Western scholars have even described the secret coterie as being an early form of Freemasonry[11].

The influence of the Brethren’s Epistles did not end in medieval times, either. One of the greatest thinkers of the 19th century, Charles Darwin, is believed to have been influenced by the Encyclopedia as he developed his theory on evolution—there are many similarities between Darwinism and the Brethren’s thoughts on evolution, and English translations of the Brethren’s epistles would have been available beginning in 1812:

“[These books] state that God first created matter and invested it with energy for development. Matter, therefore, adopted the form of vapour which assumed the shape of water in due time. The next stage of development was mineral life. Different kinds of stones developed in course of time. Their highest form being mirjan (coral). It is a stone which has in it branches like those of a tree. After mineral life evolves vegetation. The evolution of vegetation culminates with a tree which bears the qualities of an animal. This is the date-palm. It has male and female genders. It does not wither if all its branches are chopped but it dies when the head is cut off. The date-palm is therefore considered the highest among the trees and resembles the lowest among animals. Then is born the lowest of animals. It evolves into an ape. This is not the statement of Darwin, this is precisely what is written in the Epistles of the Brethren of Purity. Ape then evolved into a lower kind of a barbarian man. He then became a superior human being. Man then becomes a saint, a prophet. He then evolves into a higher stage and becomes an angel. The one higher to angels is indeed none but God. Everything begins from Him and everything returns to Him.”[12]

Even today the Brethren of Purity and their Encyclopedia do not cease to intrigue scholars all over the world. Indeed, Oxford University is collaborating with the Institute of Ismaili Studies to publish “an Arabic Critical Edition with an Annotated English Translation of the Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa (Epistles of the Brethren of Purity) in order to reveal the extent of interpolation and tampering with the original text to determine their [The Brethren of Purity] affiliation to a particular ideological or sectarian group within Islam… and because it has never been translated in its entirety into any Western language.”[13]

Y. S. H.

1 From Encyclopedia of the Brethren of Purity, 4 volumes (Beirut, Dar Sadir, 1957). A complete untranslated edition of the 52 rasa’il.
2 Volume 4, pg 685-688 of the 1998 edition of The Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy; ed. Edward Craig.
3 Arabic translation of the The Panchatantra (Sanskrit: ‘Five Principles’), which is a collection of animal fables in verse and prose believed to have been composed in the 3rd century BCE in India.
4 A suggestion made by Goldziher and later written about by Philip K. Hitti in his History of the Arabs.
5 Epistle (Rasa’il), vol. 1, p. 100 (Beirut, Dar Sadir, 1957).
6 Jacques Schlanger (Schlanger 1968, 94-97)
7 Vajda 1949
8 Horovitz 1903, 3
9 Jospe 1994, 46-48
10 Christopher McIntosh, The Rosicrucians: The History, Mythology, and Rituals of an Esoteric Order, p. 25.
11 Masonic Encyclopedia II Mackey 601a-b
12 Muhammad Hamidullah and Afzal Iqbal (1993), The Emergence of Islam: Lectures on the Development of Islamic World-view, Intellectual Tradition and Polity, p. 143-144. Islamic Research Institute, Islamabad.
13 Nader El-Bizri, The Epistles of the Brethren of Purity. Ikhwan al-Safa’ and their Rasa’il: An Introduction.