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From Sense Perception to the Vision of God: a Path towards Knowledge according to the Ihwān al-Safā'

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 October 2008

Carmela Baffioni
Affiliation:
Dipartimento di Studi e Ricerche su Africa e Paesi Arabi, Istituto Universitario Orientate, Palazzo Corigliano, Piazza San Domenico Maggiore, 12, 80134 Napoli, Italy

Abstract

The aim of this paper is to identify the position the ru'yat Allāh holds within the curriculum of sciences described by the Iḫwān al-Ṣafa'. Their concept of knowledge is first clarified. The Ihwan use the terminology of rational knowledge to describe items of faith too. But faith is only an introduction to a greater knowledge. Now: is the supreme knowledge to be considered as speculative and theoretical, or are the ḫawciṣṣ, the only ones entitled to the vision of God, eventually obliged to rely on a kind of divine “revelation” or “inspiration”? If the “vision of God” appears beyond any possible connotation of knowledge in “rational” terms, it is unclear, however, whether the Ihwan use the concepts of “revelation” and “inspiration” as a way of explaining in a theological terminology the utmost degree of human knowledge (perhaps according to the same analogical function waḥy and ilhām appear to have in Ibn Sīnā). Moreover, the qualities and moral dispositions attributed to the “Friends of God” remind us of Sufi doctrines. Consequently, the question of the relation between Sufism and imāmite theories could be re-opened: the Iḫwānian definition of the “science of the transcendent” shows that the gnoseological itinerary is not concluded even with the “vision of God.”

Cet article vise à identifier la position tenue par la vision de Dieu (ru'yat Allāh) dans le cadre du curriculum des sciences décrit par les Iḫwān al-Ṣafā'. En premier lieu, leur conception de la connaissance est clarifiée. Les Ihwan utilisent la terminologie de la connaissance rationnelle pour présenter aussi les articles de foi. La question est désormais celle-ci: la connaissance suprême doit-elle être considérée comme spéculative et théorique, ou bien les ḫawīṣṣ, les seuls à avoir droit à la vision de Dieu, sont-ils finalement obligés de se reposer sur une sorte de “révélation” ou “inspiration” divine? Si la vision de Dieu paraît être au delà de toute connotation cognitive en des termes “rationnels,” on ne sait pourtant pas clairement si les Iḫwān utilisent les concepts de “révélation” et “d'inspiration” comme une manière d'expliquer, en termes théologiques, le degré suprême de la connaissance humaine (peutêtre conformément à la même fonction analogique que waḥy et ilhām semblent posséder chez Ibn Sīnā). En outre, les qualités et les dispositions morales attributées aux “Amis de Dieu” nous rappellent les doctrines soufies. Par conséquent, on pourrait rouvrir la question de la relation entre le soufisme et les théories imamites: la définition des Iḫwān de la “science du transcendant” montre que l'itinéraire gnoséologique reste inachevé même avec la “vision de Dieu.”

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Research Article
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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1998

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References

1 It is relevant here to point out that within the concept of “vision of God” could be included some views about the relation between human and active intellect.

2 Cf. e.g. Ep. 42 vol. III, p. 516, 17–18 of the Beirut ed. 1957, in 4 vols.

3 Ep. 38, vol. III, p. 297, 15–22.

4 Ep. 46, vol.IV, p. 102, 11–14.

5 Ep. 42, vol. III, p. 441, 16–24. In Ep. 52, vol. IV, p. 408, 7 we read that the mustabsirūn have their seat in the heavens. In the same Epistle, p. 443, 7–8 this term is used in relation to Hermes Trismegistus.

6 Cf. Ep. 14, vol. I, p. 439, 5–10.

7 The definition of “science” is the basis of the inquiry about science itself (cf. Ep. 7, vol. I, p. 262, 5–6); science is acquired when the forms of intelligibles are in the knower's soul (cf. Ep. 8, vol. I, p. 277, 3; Ep. 41, vol. III, p. 385, 22; Ep. 46, vol. IV, p. 65, 1), and it is “the representation of a thing in its reality” (cf. Ep. 38, vol. III, p. 293, 13; Ep. 46, vol. IV, p. 62, 1). The Ihwān devote to the learning process at least three Epistles (nn. 24, 35 and, partially, n. 42), but the question is dealt with also in many other passages. So, we are informed that knowledge begins by sense-perception (cf. Ep. 24, vol. II, cc. 3–6 and Ep. 35, vol. III, cc. 4–5; and moreover Ep. 22, vol. II, p. 307, 3–5; Ep. 42, vol. III, pp. 404, 18–405, 15 and 409, 2–18; Ep. 52, vol. IV, p. 415, 6–8). The five senses are supported by three powers: a) the quwwa mutaḫayyila, or “imaginative faculty”, located in the front part of the brain, which is a medium between the senses and b) the quwwa mufakkira, or “cogitative faculty.” This is located at the centre of the brain, and evaluates and distinguishes the forms one from another, by bringing them to c) the quwwa nāfiẓa, or “conservative faculty” which is located in the rear part of the brain. The conservative faculty stores forms in the memory for the time they are needed by the quwwa nātiqa, or “rational faculty”, which uses them (cf. Ep. 24, vol. II, cc. 8–9 11; Ep. 35, vol. III, c. 5; and moreover Ep. 23, vol. II, pp. 389, 21–390, 14; Ep. 26, vol. II, pp. 471, 20–472, 4; Ep. 27, vol. III, pp. 10, 6–21 and 15, 19–16, 4; in detail: Ep. 42, vol. III, cc. 9–11, on the mutahayyila, c. 12 on the mufakkira; Ep. 35, vol. III, p. 246, 5–7 on the hāfiza and c. 6 on the nātiqa). The Ihwān seem also to hint at a sort of “common sense”, placed in the heart, which has the task to organize the various sensations (cf. Ep. 31, vol. III, pp. 105, 15–196, 10), and speak about different levels of knowledge for various objects (cf.Ep. 42, vol. III, c. 44). It is interesting to note that, according to the Ihwān, even when displaying its rational activity the soul does not give up the use of the body as a whole, because it keeps up the use of the brain (cf. Ep. 46, vol. IV, p. 85, 19–22). As to the methods of knowledge, the Ihwān divide existent beings into: universals and particulars (Ep. 30, vol. III, pp. 56, 20–57, 2); and just as only sensible objects can be perceived, which have an intermediate position between extremes, science knows only objects near in time (namely, “from Adam onwards”; Ep. 28, vol. III, pp. 21, 13–22, 2). Tracing a parallel with the letters of alphabet, the Ihwān say that the knowledge of quality precedes that of quantity, and is a condition for the knowledge of causes; to know causes, it is necessary to proceed from usūl to furū', from genres to species and individuals (Ep. 40, vol. III, p. 346, 1–6; cf. also Ep. 14, vol. I, pp. 436, 13–437, 19). The Ihwān also introduce the “philosophical questions” (cf. Ep. 7, vol. I, p. 262, 14–17; Ep. 40, vol. III, p. 345, 6–14 and 18–24 and, from a different perspective, Ep. 42, vol. III, p. 513, 14–16), as necessary to find hadd (“definition”) and rasm (“description”) (Ep. 7, vol. I, pp. 263, 4–20 passim; on the question “who is” cf. ibid., p. 265, 22ff. and Ep. 14, vol. I, p. 440, 13ff.; on the question “why” cf. Ep. 40, vol. III, p. 345, 15–16); later, they enumerate the scientifical methods of the philosophers: taqsīm (or qisma, “division”), taḥlīl (“analysis”), nudūd (“definitions”) and burhān (“demonstration”: cf. Ep. 14, vol. I, pp. 429, 11–13 and 429, 18–430, 5). Generally speaking, logic is the tool through which one is able to select the individuals belonging to the same species (Ep. 14, vol. I, p. 433, 2–9). As to the origin of the mistake, the Ihwān distinguish between mistakes of senseperception and mistakes of intellection. The mistakes of sense perception can occur because of 1) the high number of media between a sense and its object (Ep. 31, vol. III, p. 107, 1–20); 2) the judgement on the true nature of a thing through one sense only (Ep. 14, vol. I, p. 439, 23–24); 3) the judgement of a sense on an object pertaining to it only per accidens (Ep. 42, vol. III, p. 410, 3–4); mistakes in intellection, instead, are due: 1) to the variety of methods followed by scholars when studying the furū'; 2) to an evil or an incorrect use of “balances” (Ep. 14, vol. I, pp. 438, 19–439, 2; 439, 5–10); 3) to contradictions among scholars to their studying the furū' before the uṣūl (e.g., Ep. 42, vol. III, pp. 431, 17–432, 5; 438, 14–18; 439, 20–23; 441, 2–12); 4) to incorrect analogical inferences and to the ignorance of the demonstration-method (Ep. 42, vol. III, 445, 21–446, 1; 447, 3–16). Science is said to be attainable only through linguistic communication. The speech is divided into useful and non-useful, significant and non-significant, true and false; informations can concern 1) past things, 2) hidden things and 3) present and future things; all of them can be a) affirmations or negations, and b) necessary, possible or impossible (Ep. 31, vol. III, pp. 109, 7–19 and 119, 8–120, 2). More radically, no meaning can be known unless it is expressed by language ('ibāra: cf. Ep. 31, vol. III, p. 109, 2–3; Ep. 10, vol. I, p. 402, 2–12); only souls which are not incarnate do not need words, because they have reached purity (Ep. 10, vol. I, p. 402, 13–15).

8 Ep. 31, vol. III, p. 108, 11–16.

9 Ep. 46, vol. IV, p. 65, 2–3.

10 Ep. 2, vol. I, pp. 103, 17–104, 7.

11 Ep. 34, vol. III, p. 213, 14.

12 Cf. also Ep. 8, vol. I, p. 294, 5–17, and Ep. 14, p. 438, 1–3 [here the passage happens thanks to 1) sensation, 2) reasoning (fikr) and 3) reflection (rawiyya)].

13 Ep. 8, pp. 294, 24–295, 9 (where fikr and rawiyya are again spoken of); Ep. 10, vol. I, pp. 398, 4–399, 2 and 400, 10–14; Ep. 52, vol. IV, pp. 408–409 passim. In my opinion, it happens here the opposite of what has been noted by Netton, who, if I understand him correctly, relates an “epistemological” role to al-Fārābī's emanatistic cosmology [cf. Netton, I.R., Al-Farabi and his School (London/New York, 1992), p. 33].Google Scholar

14 Ep. 38, vol. III, pp. 302, 5–17.

15 Ep. 46, vol. VI, p. 83, 2–5 (Note that in this passage “man” is the same as “soul”). In the hereafter, the science of soul becomes a reward to itself (Ep. 16, vol. II, p. 50, 11–19).

16 Ep. 38, vol. III, p. 288, 22–24 and Ep. 42, vol. III, p. 523, 2–8.

17 Ep. 38, vol. III, p. 288, 3–5. On this passage see also later, p. 225.

18 Ep. 7, vol. I, p. 261, 11; cf. Ep. 10, vol. I, pp. 399, 21–400, 1.

19 Ep. 10, vol. I, p. 399, 4–19; cf. Ep. 15, vol. II, p. 10, 1–11.

20 As it is not a task of this paper to underline the possible shades of meaning of the terms indicating the knowledge process, but, on the contrary, their recurring presence in different contexts, I shall give their general meaning the first time I quote them.

21 Ep. 24, vol. II, p. 396, 12–397, 2.

22 Ep. 8, vol. I, p. 277, 7–8. In Ep. 35, vol. III, p. 237, 2–3 they speak of senses for physical objects, and of 'aql and fikr for spiritual ones.

23 Ep. 24, vol. II, pp. 415, 21–416, 9.

24 Ep. 35, vol. III, p. 232, 18–23.

25 Ep. 29, vol. III, p. 43, 8–12. Similar quotations are Ep. 42, vol. III, pp. 414, 22–415, 13 and 507, 7–10. The Ihwān consider the advancement in the curriculum as the necessary condition of progress in science; in its turn, self-knowledge is the basis of the knowledge of the origin and destiny of soul (Ep. 1, vol. I, pp. 75, 19–76, 9).

26 Ep. 3, vol. I, pp. 153, 10–154, 8.

27 Apprehension is called dalāla (“pointing”), teachers adillā' (“signs”) and the object of knowledge al-madlūl 'alayhi (“what is pointed”) in Ep. 8, vol. I, p. 294, 5–17, quoted above, note 12.

28 Listening is said proper for both past and present-hidden things in Ep. 42, vol. III, p. 413, 10–18. Cf. also Ep. 38, vol. III, p. 303, 13–18, on which see later, pp. 225 and 228.

29 See above, note 7.

30 Ep. 46, vol. IV, p. 122, 1–5.

31 Ep. 46, vol. IV, p. 121, 19–24.

32 Ep. 40, vol. III, p. 348, 6–12.

33 Ep. 38, vol. III, p. 289, 9–13. Here, it is tafakkur (“meditation”) which gives man yaqīn (“certitude”) about his meeting (liqā') God.

34 Ep. 14, vol. I, p. 451, 2–9.

35 Cf. Ep. 46, vol. IV, p. 120, 2–16.

36 Ep. 51, vol. IV, pp. 281, 15–282, 3; cf. also Ep. 14, vol. I, p. 450, 13–19; Ep. 40, vol. III, p. 371, 11–12; and again, Ep. 21, vol. II, p. 171, 20–172, 5; Ep. 29, vol. III, p. 47, 7–11; Ep. 14, vol. I, p. 448, 12–14.

37 The same root letters are also used to explain sensation.

38 Ep. 40, vol. I, p. 347, 15–16.

39 Other Ihwānian passages could be also understood in this sense. Cf. my article Sulla ricezione di due luoghi di Platone e Aristotele negli Ihwān al-Safā',”, Documenti e studi sulla tradizione filosofica medievale, 8 (1997): 479–92.Google Scholar

40 Ep. 8, vol. I, p. 290, 4–8. Cf. also, e.g., Ep. 13, vol. I, pp. 427, 18–428, 3. Complete references to this saying can be found in my Frammenti e testimonianze di autori antichi nelle Epistole degli Ihwān al-Safā' (Roma, 1994), p. 274.Google Scholar

41 Cf. Ep. 22, vol. II, pp. 356, 21–357, 4.

42 Ep. 15, vol. II, p. 21, 9–13; Ep. 42, vol. III, p. 507, 10–12; Ep. 43, vol. IV, p. 13, 6–8. Even the different levels among scholars depend upon the higher or lower degree of “spirituality” which they have attained, through study (naẓar), ta'ammul, tafakkur, rawiyya and i'tibār (Ep. 14, vol. I, p. 439, 18–22).

43 Cf. Ep. 46, vol. IV, p. 120, 2–16, quoted above, note 35. According to the Ihwān, the souls who are worthier to attain the angelic degree are those who observe the commands and prohibitions of Law (Ep. 9, vol. I, p. 320, 13–14).

44 Cf. again Ep. 22, vol. II, pp. 356, 21–357, 4, quoted above, note 41.

45 Ep. 3, vol. I, p. 157, 7–10.

46 Ep. 13, vol. I, p. 427, 15.

47 Cf. Ep. 21, vol. II, p. 152, 6–7. So, we can ground an interesting comparison with c. 7 of Ep. 39, vol. III, p. 336, 1ff., whose title is: “Explanation of the witness (mušāhada) of scholars and of gnostic wisemen ('ārifin) endowed with mental vision (mustabṣirīn), who are the selected “Friends of God”, who see (yarawna) the Maker of the world through the mental vision eye (bi-'ayn al-basīra).”

48 Ep. 9, vol. I, pp. 346, 16–347, 16.

49 Ep. 46, vol. IV, pp. 65, 22–66, 2.

50 Ep. 46, vol. IV, p. 62, 2–5.

51 Ep. 46, vol. IV, p. 84, 6–7. This passage has already been quoted by Y. Marquet in an article which aimed at studying the lines following it, and the “vision” as well, in a perspective quite different from mine. Cf. Marquet, Y., “Révélation et vision véridique chez les Ikhwān al-Safā',” Revue des études islamiques, 32 (1964): 2744, at p. 31, where the definition of “revelation” is translated as follows: “une information sur des choses échappant aux sens, et qui agit sur l'âme humaine sans intention et sans effort de la part de celle-ci.”Google Scholar

52 Ep. 46, vol. IV, p. 66, 4–6.

53 Ep. 38, vol. III, p. 293, 4–9. This passage refers to the science of the hereafter.

54 Ep. 38, vol. III, p. 291, 23–292, 4. This passage can be compared with an other where, on examining methodology of science, the Ihwān say that the one who wants to know the true natures of things, besides searching for causes, must have pure heart and to be deprived of fanatism, not to become blind in the intellect eye (Ep. 40, vol. III, p. 376, 11–17).

55 Ep. 38, vol. III, p. 287, 13–15. On the same line, we are apprehended of the fact that one can advance in knowledge only if he puts off morals and doctrines devoid of basīra and rawiyya (cf. Ep. 14, vol. I, p. 449, 4–9).

56 Such are the authors of the Rasā'il themselves.

57 Ep. 38, vol. III, p. 303, 7–10.

58 See pp. 219 and 228.

59 Ep. 38, vol. III, p. 303, 13–23.

60 See infra and above, p. 218.

61 Remember again Ep. 3, vol. I, p. 154, 7–13. In Ep. 35, vol. III, p. 246, 5–7 the Ihwān, on enumerating the various faculties of the nāfiẓa (see above, note 7), speak also of the ilhām in connection with religion.

62 Ep. 10, vol. I, p. 392, 11–14. Cf., on the same regard, also p. 390, 10–14.

63 Ep. 3, vol. I, pp. 155, 13–20.

64 Ep. 3, vol. I, p. 137, 2–15.

65 Cf. especially the Epistle on nature, passim.

66 See above, p. 217 Ep. 38, vol. III, p. 288, 3–5.

67 Cf. also Ep. 38, vol. III, p. 298, 17–20.

68 They are named “persons of understanding (albāb), view (absār) and mind (nuhan)” (Ep. 9, vol. I, pp. 357, 5–9 and 378, 23–24). Such a special intellectual state is confirmed in other places: cf. e.g. Ep. 38, vol. III, p. 311, 6–12, where they are called al-mustabṣirīn bi-'ayn al-yaqīn and by nūr al-hidāya (“the light of guidance”), al-'ārifin bi-ḥaqā'iq al-ašyā' (“the gnostics of the true natures of things”), those who see God everywhere.

69 Ep. 39, vol. III, p. 342, 5–343, 2.

70 To which the wish of the ru'yat Allāh is also linked (cf. Ep. 42, vol. III, p. 530, 15).

71 Among their distinctive features we find tawakkul (“trust”) and tiqa (“confidence”) in God, tuma'nīna (“peace of mind”), sincere devotion in deeds and prayer trust in speaking, taṣdīq in their heart, nuṣḥ (“good advice”) to their Brothers, loyalty to the pact, prudence, steady determination in acting, piety and so on (cf. Ep. 9, vol. I, p. 360, 4–10 and again 333, 17–334, 3).

72 Such as tazhīd (“renunciation”) to the world and tarġīb (“longing”) for the hereafter; and again istibsār, yaqīn and dirāya (“cognizance”), without šakk (“doubt”) nor rayba (“uncertainty”), tanaqquq in their faith and šadda (“strength”) of their istibsār (Ep. 9, vol. I, pp. 375, 15–376, 13); as imān and ta'abbud (“devoutness”) qabūl al-ta'yyīd wa al-ilhām (“acceptance of confirmation and inspiration”), zahāda (“moderateness”) in the world after fikr and rawiyya (ibid., p. 378, 1–13). It is clearly stated that Iblīs' deceptions have power on these people, even if they believe in the original sin, unlike – quite polemically the Ihwān say – on “scholars and jurisprudents belonging to the prophetical šarī'a,” and on many “pseudo-philosphers” as well (Ep. 9, vol. I, pp. 362, 1–364, 1; cc. 28 “What one of the ‘Friends of God’ said on the way to know the devils' artifices…” and 29 “Another story from one of the ‘Friends of God’ when considering the meaning of duty and affliction” follow. But we have seen above what true philosphy is!).

73 Ep. 9, vol. I, pp. 375, 10–14, confirmed by p. 374, 6–7 where the Ihwān speak again of tazhīd from the world and targīb of the hereafter according to basīra, yaqīn and ḥaqīqa. Elsewhere, the “Friends of God” as a'imma are also called the du'āt (“propagandists”) and the hudāt (“guides”) on the way to God, and the safwa (“the cream”) and the hīra (“the élite”) of the created world (Ep. 9, vol. I, p. 387, 3–6).

74 These people — asfiyā' (“bosom Friends”), ‘ulamā’ 'ārifūn (“learned gnostics”) and mustabsirūn (“endowed with mental vision”) – see and have experience (yušāhidūnahu) of God night and day, so that God called them šuhadā' (“martyrs”). God explains (šaraḥa) to their hearts and takes the veil off (kašafa), so that they see Him and have experience of Him (šāhidūhu) by their views (absār) in the same way in which they know Him ('ārifūhu) in their hearts (Ep. 39, vol. III, pp. 336, 16–337, 5). Let's say incidentally that this is a further proof of the fact that the “Friends of God” are the Ihwān al-safā' themselves. Sometimes, they say that also explicitly (Ep. 45, vol. IV, pp. 57, 2–58, 1); anyway, one of the leit-motives in the encyclopaedia is the leading role of the of the Ihwān themselves.

75 Ep. 42, vol. III, p. 453, 11–15.

76 See above, p. 218.

77 Ep. 38, vol. III, p. 303, 13–18, quoted also above, note 28. In Ep. 52, vol. IV, p. 403, 16–19 we read that the noblest sciences (like astronomy-astrology and magics) are received by the angels through waḥy and ilhām (cf. also ibid., p. 285, 18–21).

78 Moreover, there are hints at the innate (ġarīzī) and at the acquired (muktasab) intellects. In my opinion, the former is a synonym of that 'aql which was indicated as the common feature of man before the refinement that, through logic, allows him to become conscious of himself as a rational being, namely, in Alexander of Aphrodisias' footsteps, to consider his intellect as “muktasab.” In fact, it is here as if the innate intellect were opposed to the acquired one, the former finding its place in man after his examination of sensibles, the latter being proper to him who has deeply examined the sensibles and has a purer soul.

79 Ep. 9, vol. I, p. 316, 1–2.

80 See above, p. 217 and note 21.

81 Ep. 27, vol. III, p. 13, 7–11.

82 Ep. 38, vol. III, p. 295, 20–24.

83 Moreover, it presupposes, no matter how we want to undersand it, that the “vision of God” (or, alternatively, the “divinization”) is bestowed only upon a very limited minority of individuals.

84 Cf. Gutas, D., Avicenna and the Aristotelian Tradition. Introduction to the Reading Avicenna's Philosophical Works (Leiden/New York/København/Köln, 1988), p. 161.Google Scholar

85 Ep. 9, vol. I, p. 316, 11–13.

86 Ep. 37, vol. III, p. 282, 4–10. For Ibn Sīnā cf. Gutas, Avicenna and the Aristotelian Tradition, pp. 164–5.

87 Cf. Gutas, Avicenna and the Aristotelian Tradition, p. 170 ff.

88 Such a relation has been already hinted at by Nasr., S.H. Cf. An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines. Conceptions of Nature and Methods Used for its Study by the Ikhwān al-safā', al-Bīrūnī and Ibn Sīnā (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1964), p. 31.Google Scholar

89 Ep. 3, vol. I, p. 153, 6–9.

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