Researcher of Political Science & Classical Islam. Initiated by the Khwajagan i-Naqshband.
The ‘Ikhwan al‑Safa wa Khullan al‑Wafa wa Ahl al‑Hamd wa Abna’ al‑Majd‘ (the Brethern of Purity, Faithful Friends, the Men of Justice and Sons of Praiseworthy Conduct) were an ancient Sufic Arabic secret society with branches throughout Abbasid Iraq. They were Sufi followers of Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq, and traced their initiation through ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, back to the Prophet Muhammad, whom they say founded the first Arab secret society. They are referred to as the “Freemasons of Basra”, and existed long before Freemasonry.
The Kitab (“book”) or Rasa’il (“epistles”) of the Ikhwan as-Safa is a vast Arabic encyclopedia of some 52 epistles. This great treasure house of Sufic, Gnostic thought occupies a place in the first rank of Arabic literature. Showing the compatibility of the Islamic faith with other religions and intellectual traditions, the authors of this encyclopedia drew upon Indian, Babylonian, Persian, Hellenistic and Judo-Christian sources.
It is said that the members of the Ikhwan as-Safa, or “Brethren of Purity” (the common rendering of their name) formed a sort of Masonic Lodge long before Freemasonry existed. They lived in the Lower Mesopotamian river port of Basra, debating on literature, religion, philosophy and science. Apparently, this is the mysterious “Book P” of the Golden Dawn order. The appellation “Brethren of Purity” could also be the inspiration behind the “White Brotherhood” of the New-Age movement.
The Ikhwan al‑Safa had no interest in the theory of State or in the forms of government. Nor could they be influenced, in this respect, by Greek writers. The two worlds were totally different: Plato and Aristotle lived in City‑States; the Ikhwan al‑Safa lived in the great cities of an empire.
The Ikhwan al‑Safa believed that the State rests on two foundations: religion and kingship. A king is indispensable, though he may be a tyrant, if the State is to lead a secure and prosperous life. A group of wise men, however may do without a king.
They are generally considered a secret society because of their closed & private meetings every 12 days, as mentioned in the Rasa’il.
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.
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 summarized 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.
Hierarchy was a major theme in their Encyclopedia, and unsurprisingly, the Brethren loosely divided themselves up into four ranks by age; the age guidelines would not have been firm, as for example, such an exemplar of the fourth rank as Jesus would have been too young if the age guidelines were absolute and fixed. Compare the similar division of the Encyclopedia into four sections and the Jabirite symbolism of 4. The ranks were: