The Brethren of Purity (Ikhwān al-Ṣafā’)
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The Brethren of Purity (Ikhwān al-Ṣafā’) book
The Brethren of Purity, or Ikhwān al-Ṣafā’ as they are called in Arabic, hold a certain place in the affections and interests of those who have studied the intellectual development of Arabic and Islamic thought. They are particularly beloved by the Ismā‘īlīs who claim them as their own (see Netton (1982): 95–104). They continue to intrigue because of the synthetic quality of their thought and the mystery of their identity and place of origin. This chapter will concentrate principally on the former and only briefly refer to the latter. Their thought is indeed worthy of more than superficial study, for the Brethren are as famed in the Middle East as Hegel, Kant and Voltaire in the West. Their self-designation as “Sleepers in the cave of our father Adam” (R, 4: 18), clearly deriving from the Qur’ān and the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus legend, certainly reflects the mystery of their identity. And while there are some things that do remain unclear about their thought — for example, were they, or were they not, Ismā‘īlīs? – there is much that may be said with satisfaction and positive conviction about that thought. In particular, while it would be unfair and unjust to characterize it as a total syncretism, there is no doubting the impact of the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, and especially Plotinus, on the philosophy of the Brethren of Purity. Such elements will be surveyed in this chapter.