Chapter One The Humors (al-akhlāṭ) and Character Traits (al-akhlāq) According to the Brethren of Purity
For those of you who, like me, spend time imagining the inner workings of real secret societies, the Brethren of Purity and Friends of Loyalty (Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ wa Khullān al-Wafāʾ) provide much food for thought. The Brethren hid their identities (or the identity of one person posing as many) so carefully that, even after a thousand years, scholars of Islamic intellectual history remain uncertain of their identities. Further kindling the sense of intrigue surrounding the Brethren is their interest in the esoteric sciences, especially magic.1 The idea of secrecy is important when thinking about the ethical dimension of their writings. For the Brethren, knowledge is premised on a sense of worthiness, an elitism that assumes that not everyone has the proper balance of virtues or even the capability for such a balance. Thus, the esoteric or hidden sciences—medicine, alchemy, astrology, and the science of talismans (and magic)—must remain hidden.2 Moreover, related to these sciences is a hierarchical view of the universe. Medicine brings the body’s humors into balance, so that it resembles higher, more balanced forms of being, such as planets. In alchemy, base metals become transubstantiated into a higher one, gold, also by balancing the properties of those metals—cold and wet, versus hot and dry. Astrology and the science of talismans (which often involves the astrological significance of symbols and letters) both presume that the higher, celestial realm directly affects human life. In other words, as the Brethren clarify in their twelfth epistle, all substances in the sublunary realm—whether meteorological, mineral, plant, or animal—become subject to internal incongruity and decay, and must strive for balance.3 Alchemy and ethics both aim at using the principle of balance to convert lower substances, base metals and lower souls, respectively, to the highest, most balanced ones, namely, gold and the intellect.
Ethics, then, as a balancing of human character traits, is a type of alchemical transubstantiation. It aims at human perfection. In fact, the human being’s centermost quality is perfectibility. Human potential outstrips the potential of other creatures, in large part because the human being as presented by the Brethren encompasses the entire universe of perfection—if only the human being endeavors to do so. The human, for the Brethren, is a microcosm. Rather, more accurately, the cosmos is a “macranthrope,” a human of astronomical proportions, as they explain in their sixteenth epistle.4 Thus, ethics allows each human to put the universe back in order, albeit one’s own internal universe, namely, the human self. Fraternities such as that of the Brethren were focused on giving life to this perfection-making process, not only for the individual, but for a larger group of people, indeed anyone who might join them in their vision of the self and the universe. The political side to their approach, namely, that love and friendship might take the place of power and coercion, was based on the idea that humans can live in a natural, harmonious way, like the planets, as opposed to the ruthless way of tyrants, a vicious method of rule beneath even predatory beasts. Because the Brethren were interested in a universal human, they were interested in universal knowledge, which helps explain the vast range of topics they cover. Because of that range of topics, statements about ethics and the cultivation of virtues (like their statements on astrology) appear scattered throughout their writings, placed in the context of other sciences. It is probably on account of the encyclopedic nature of their writings that the Brethren were so widely read, since they were not the authorities of their age in philosophy or the natural sciences.5
So, who were they? While there is no consensus, the Brethren were most likely bureaucrats in the city of Basra, Iraq, living in the latter half of the tenth century, probably adhering to Ismāʿīlī (Ismaʿili) Shiʿism. Ismaʿili Shiʿism, like other branches of Shiʿism, maintains an alternate model of leadership than the Sunni caliphate, arguing that a living, just, and often infallible imam should be at the helm of the Muslim community. The Brethren’s imam, an unidentified hidden imam whom they probably considered the promised deliverer of humanity (al-mahdī), is the voice of one of the epistles of the Brethren (the forty-eighth). In this epistle he encourages adherence to the contemplative, philosophical Shiʿism the Brethren espouse throughout.6 The other epistles are said to have been authored by Zayd ibn Rifāʿa, Abū Sulaymān Muḥammad ibn Maʿshar al-Bustī “al-Maqdisī,” Abū al-Ḥasan ʿAlī ibn Hārūn al-Zanjānī, Abū Aḥmad al-Mihrajānī “al-Nahrajūrī,” Abū al-Ḥasan al-ʿAwfī, and Abū Muḥammad ibn Abī al-Baghl.7 This assumes that all of the epistles were indeed composed in the 960s or 970s, yet compelling evidence suggests that parts existed before this date, as early as a century before.8
The fifty-one epistles of the Brethren, which might have been fifty or even fifty-two, initiated the reader (addressed as “brother” throughout) into their worldview, a Neoplatonic and yet also Qurʾanic and Shiʿi perspective on the universe.9 Indeed, the Brethren were not reticent about their mission to propagate their doctrines, nor about the success of their recruitment. They spread their epistles and carefully recruited suitable converts, including princes and other high-ranking officials who secretly aligned with them.10 It is difficult to measure the range of influence of these epistles, simply because passages are frequently taken or summarized without credit, referenced but not cited often because of controversy surrounding the epistles and the Ismaʿilism of their authors. In fact, the Sunni caliph al-Mustanjid (r. 1160–70) supposedly had the epistles incinerated in full view of the people of Baghdad.11
Influences on the Brethren span Greek, Christian, Jewish, Indian, and Islamic sources, as discussed by Ian Richard Netton in Muslim Neoplatonists. In terms of the discussion below, Greek influences are especially relevant. The idea that the number “four” represents balance (and hence justice) relates directly to the Pythagorean notion that reality is constructed according to numerical relationships. Indeed, the Brethren directly refer to, and even quote, the Golden Verses, a Pythagorean treatise attributed to Galen.12 While Platonism is reflected in their recognition of the forms, and Neoplatonism in their theory of emanation, Netton correctly argues that it is Aristotle, or rather Aristotelianism, that prevails most clearly in the Brethren’s treatment of natural sciences, of substance and accidents, and of matter and form.13 In other words, theirs is a Neoplatonic reading of Aristotelianism, within a monotheistic, Qurʾanic framework.
- WINDOWS TO THE SOUL
The Brethren admit to the near impossibility for those people of true wisdom, who have endeavored in philosophy and trials of self-renunciation, to get to the essence of the disembodied soul and its states. If the soul has been so elusive for the truly wise, then imagine—the Brethren say—how elusive it must be for the rest of us. The good news is that the body and its states can serve as windows to the soul, for “that which is apparent of the states of the body indicates that which is hidden of the states of the soul; the manifest points to the interior; the unveiled to the veiled; the conspicuous to the hidden; and the perceivable to the abstract.”14 The body can tell us about the soul because the body is to the soul as a house to its resident, a craftsman’s shop to the craftsman, or the city to its inhabitant.15 These metaphors are meant to capture the sense of interdependence between soul and body, but also the possibility of divorcing the two: Can a carpenter accomplish anything, or even function as a carpenter, without chisel, hammer, saw, or wood? Of course not. Yet the carpenter can be imagined as abstracted from all of these tools, as a person possessing a skill, and hence cannot be reduced to, or even identified with, a set of tools. The body serves the soul, but the two are not one entity. The body serves the soul by gathering data and expressing speech, by allowing life, nourishment, and growth, as the soul accomplishes its ends.
The cosmos (and the human body, as its microcosmic counterpart) is a combination of four natures: heat, cold, wetness, and dryness, which were created by God before all other natural phenomena.16 These four natures counteract one another, bearing varied influence over one another. God combined the four natures into pairs, thus creating the elements: fire, air, water, and earth. Fire is hot and dry; air is hot and wet; water is cold and wet; and earth is cold and dry.17 These four natures, within the human body, interact and oppose one another. For the sake of health and even life itself, the natures must achieve a balance appropriate to that individual’s age, sex, place of birth, occupation, and surroundings, although each of these factors might also adversely affect the balance. When these natures or powers (heat, cold, wetness, and dryness) are out of balance, it is as though they have metaphorically become reckless and rebellious. In such a state, they bring about sickness, much as ruffians might set fire to a marketplace or destroy houses.18 When medicines and elixirs drive out excesses of these natures from the body, it is much like when the sultan and his forces combat such ruffians, bringing about peace by driving them from the city.19
- THE FOUR HUMORS AND THE THREE SOULS
Within the body, the four natures are realized as four humors: yellow bile (the body’s fire), blood (air), phlegm (water), and black bile (earth).20 The humors are the basic materials of the body’s internal world. They serve as building blocks for the body’s nine substances (bones, brains, nerves, veins, blood, flesh, skin, nails, and hair), which are arranged much like, the Brethren say, the raw materials of a city, such as wood, iron, and bricks.21 They are organized as ten levels from the top down, that is, from the head to the neck, chest, abdomen, pelvis, groin, hips, thighs, calves, and feet. The posts that hold it all in place are the bones; the ties that bind things together are the nerves. Each of the body’s members has a power from the powers of the soul that is peculiar to it, and the Brethren mention that each power is called the “soul” of that particular member. So, for example, sight is the soul of the eye; hearing is the soul of the ear; and so on.22
The three most powerful sources of bodily life are the liver, the heart, and the brain. In fact, the natural powers and instinctual traits that arise from these three organs are as central to the body as citizens of different races and colors are to a city. As the organs are three, so too are the souls that serve as intangible generators for these organs and, also, derive their particular strengths from each respective organ:
- The power of the soul that resides in the liver is called “vegetative” (al-nafs al-nabātiyya), indicating the human’s inclination to feed and grow. The vegetative soul has “inclinations and desires, virtues and vices” peculiar to it, and its influences and acts reach the body through the veins.23
- The power of the soul that resides in the heart is called “animal” (al-nafs al-ḥaywāniyya), indicating the human’s ability to perceive via the senses and to move. It too has inclinations, desires, virtues, and vices peculiar to it, and it influences the rest of the body through the arteries.
- Finally, the power of the soul that resides in the brain is called “rational” (al-nafs al-nāṭiqa), indicating the human’s ability to contemplate and make judgments. Again, there are virtues and vices peculiar to the rational soul, which influences the body through the nerves.
While described as three, these souls are indeed one human soul that performs in multiple contexts. Such is explained lucidly by the Brethren:
Then know that these three souls are not disjointed and separated one from the other, but rather are like branches from a single root, joined by one essence like the joining of three boughs of one tree; from each bough having grown a number of twigs, and from each twig some leaves and fruits. Or like one spring from which come three rivers, each river being divided into a number of tributaries, and each tributary having a number of small streams. Or like one nation, which branches off into three tribes; from each tribe branch off a number of clans; from each clan a number of families and kinfolk. Or like a man who works at three crafts with three different names, so that he is called ironsmith, carpenter, builder, when he excels at all three. Or like a man who reads, writes, and teaches, such that he is called a reader, writer, and teacher, because these names apply to the actor on account of what appears from him in terms of actions, movements, crafts, and deeds. Such, also, is the affair of the soul, for it is one in essence, but these names apply to it on account of what appear from it in terms of actions. That occurs when it acts in the body to bring about feeding and growth, so that it is called the vegetative soul; when it acts in the body to bring about feeling, movement, and translocation, it is called the animal soul; and when it acts to bring about contemplation and discernment, it is called the rational soul.24
These three sources of bodily life are also, indirectly, the sources of the major ethical character traits. Three faculties spring up from the liver, heart, and brain as well as from the vegetative soul, animal soul, and rational soul. The appetitive faculty (or, we might say, desire) originates in the liver; the irascible faculty (or anger) originates in the heart; and the rational faculty (or reflection) originates in the brain.
- MANAGING THE MULTIPOLARITY OF BODY AND SOUL
The Brethren refer to these three faculties, (1) the appetitive faculty, (2) the irascible faculty, and (3) the rational faculty, as “princes” of the other faculties. The constant cycle of intrigue, triumph, and defeat between these three adversarial princes yields the ethical balancing act of the soul. If either the appetitive or the irascible faculty wins, then all is lost. The appetitive faculty must be controlled by the irascible faculty, otherwise—say the Brethren—its actions will resemble those of children when left unmanaged by their fathers. Without proper edification, which comes from the irascible faculty, the soul dominated by the appetitive faculty will pursue its whims until it falls into perdition, engaging in play, overeating, laziness, and other vanities.25 The irascible faculty, in turn, must answer to the rational faculty. When the irascible faculty goes unchecked by the rational faculty, its actions become as those of “devils, juveniles, ignorant thugs, or insolent hooligans” when left unmanaged by the intellectuals and enlightened elders (mashāyikh) around them, the latter of whom should be engaged, also, in commanding them to right and forbidding them from evil. Bouts of violence, asocial or antisocial behavior, excessive banter, and transgressing the rights of others will result. The rational faculty must answer to the higher intellect, which we might consider—in this context—to be something like a fourth, overarching faculty, one that administers the three faculties using the perfections inherent in it.
When the rational faculty does not answer to the higher intellect, it becomes overscrupulous, trapped in its own thoughts, tormented by useless minutiae. Here the description of the Brethren is useful, because it provides a social commentary on a problem that has, periodically, dogged Muslim communities, namely, pedantry: “As for the rational faculty, when the intellect does not manage and cleave to it, its actions resemble those of scholars and Qurʾan reciters, contending with one another about religious rulings and differing about them, taking on—thereby—multiple schools of thought and doctrines, when a just imam from the successors to the prophets does not manage and cleave to them.”26
The soul, then, might be described as the power behind the functions of the body, as the body replenishes the soul, in turn, with knowledge and life. The body’s balances and imbalances affect the soul, but the soul also affects the body. As the Brethren of Purity explain in a section of their ninth epistle titled “On the Variances in Character Traits with Respect to the Humors,” the dominance of one of the four humors makes one predisposed to certain ethical traits:
Know, my brother, that those who are dominated by heat in their temperament, especially those in whose constitutions the heart predominates, are usually brave-hearted, generous, reckless when in fearsome situations, lacking fixity and deliberateness in affairs, rushed in movement, intense when angry, quick to reconcile, short on resentment, intelligent, sharp-witted, and good at forming mental conceptions. The cold in temperament tend to be dim in terms of intelligence, thick in terms of nature, heavy in terms of spirit, and unripe in terms of character traits. The wet in temperament tend to be stupid, indecisive, flexible, forbearing, goodly in terms of character traits, indulgent, quick to forget, and very careless when it comes to worldly affairs. The dry in temperament tend to be restrained in their deeds, fixed in their opinions, and reluctant to accept things; they are dominated by forbearance, spite, stinginess, avarice, and good memory.27
To give a very clear example of this relationship, anger, one of the three potentially destructive forces that one must manage in order to achieve virtue, causes a chain of reactions in which the passive animal faculties arise in the heart and work their way through the arteries, stimulating the body’s instinctual (or innate) heat. That heat then rises to the surface, clouding the brain with a turbid smoke that corrupts the thinking process and leads to the desire for vengeance.28 Anger actualized, therefore, has both physical and spiritual effects on the body and soul respectively. A person dominated by heat and the power of the heart—by the humor of blood—will be susceptible to certain physical ailments, but also to certain ethical challenges as well, such as anger, self-conceit, power-hunger, and ridiculing others. A person inclined to anger should, then, avoid boasting and reflecting on his or her own greatness, such as remembering the glories of his or her past victories, and should oppose the soul’s vanity, subjecting it, for example, to humiliation before an impudent person.29
- ANIMAL FABLES: SOME BACKGROUND
Ethics in the epistles of the Brethren encompasses much more than just the humors. Focus on the humors in this chapter merely lays the groundwork for the chapters to follow, wherein other thinkers base their discussions of virtue on a similar humoral model. This “humoral model” traces the foundations of character imbalances to the forces within the body. All variants of this model, however, hold higher expectations for human perfection than merely offsetting the body’s forces. The Brethren also have higher expectations and encourage the pursuit of knowledge of the divine. Revelation and divine law have important functions in pursuit of the knowledge they extol, so that their ethics, while Neoplatonic, has a strong Islamic substance behind it. The Brethren sometimes even modify notions from Greek writings to suit a Qurʾanic framework. For example, “greatness of soul,” or kibar al-nafs—a virtue praised by the Greeks but one in which Muslims saw implications of arrogance—becomes a limited virtue, applicable only to leaders, politicians, and kings, who need it to command and govern.30 Conversely, renunciation (zuhd) becomes the highest virtue.31 The Brethren merge multiple strains of thought current in their day to create an outlook and an ethics that is at once “Islamic” and “philosophical.”
One of the finest examples of such syncretism appears in a literary narrative. The Brethren’s twenty-second epistle, translated by Lenn E. Goodman and Richard McGregor as The Case of the Animals versus Man before the King of the Jinn, is an animal fable that tells of an island ruled by a benevolent king. That king belongs to the race of jinn (al-jinn or banī al-jānn), intelligent beings who resemble humanity in their moral autonomy but often elude human sight. It is commonly said in Islamic theology that angels obey God because of their luminous nature, such that they cannot do otherwise, and animals obey God because he has commanded them only to fulfill their animal ends, but humans and jinn must choose obedience, an arrangement supported by the Qurʾan and, to some degree, the Brethren’s tale (Q 22:18 and 55:33–4).32 Animals in this tale, however, clearly have an intelligence and moral agency that resembles that of humans and jinn, a situation that Goodman calls “virtual subjecthood.”33 In striving for their own interests, animals have a subjecthood much like human personhood, even if that subjecthood only materializes through the fictional attribution of human language to animals. For the sake of this story, it is important that jinn are neither human nor animal, because the jinn-king must adjudicate between the former two sorts of beings. That is, the author does not mean that jinn are superior, but uses the trope of a jinn-king as a third party, in order to imagine a scenario wherein humans and animals contend in litigation. Humans have recently landed within the king’s precincts, and, while the humans want to claim the animals as their slaves, the animals have come to complain about generations of human abuse. The epistle takes the tone of a courtroom drama as varieties of animals and humans send representatives to make their case for or against human superiority to animals. The humans do not fare well until the very end.
Muslims have had a rich tradition of considering the place and significance of animals in cosmological terms. In his discussion of the Brethren of Purity’s animal fable, Eric Ormsby traces philosophical concern with animal welfare to the rationalist Muʿtazilī school, for whom animal innocence and animal suffering were difficult to reconcile.34 Prior to that, the Qurʾan goes beyond mere concern for the welfare of animals, if, according to Sarra Tlili, one reads the text carefully and without anthropocentric bias. Tlili argues in Animals in the Qurʾan that the Qurʾan presents animals as “persons,” cognizant of their relationship with God, accountable for their own sort of morality, endowed with souls, and worthy of respect.35 Indeed, animals in the Qurʾan, along with other nonhuman entities, such as the earth, the heavens, and the mountains, exhibit clear qualities of intelligence and agency (e.g. Q 27:18, 27:22, and 33:72). The Brethren, using the perspectives of animals, take these qualities even further than most, presenting a very early non-speciesist, animal-egalitarian reading of Qurʾanic verses.36 As Tlili notes, global industrialization, mass consumption, and scientific experimentation have made our modern world abusive toward animals and their habitats, much more abusive—I would add—than the premodern world about which the animals in Epistle Twenty-Two complain. Were the case against us made today, humans would have much weightier evidence against them.
- ANIMAL-CENTRIC TEXTS BEFORE THE BRETHREN
Two texts stand out as models for the Brethren’s depiction of intelligent animals who make a case against human moral corruption. First is the Book of Animals (Kitāb al-Ḥayawān) by Abū ʿUthmān ʿAmr ibn Baḥr al-Jāḥiẓ (d. 868–9), which raises the question of human superiority to animals. This question might have been a literary representation of an ongoing social debate about ethnic superiority. A group of intellectuals called al-Shuʿūbiyya argued that Arabs were not superior to non-Arabs, especially to Persians.37 This was in response to a system of clientage established by the Umayyad caliphate, one that favored Arabs. While al-Jāḥiẓ had little sympathy for al-Shuʿūbiyya, he also saw great dangers in the tribal prejudices of his time.38 An ironic discussion of animals and speciesist chauvinism might have allowed al-Jāḥiẓ to deliberate on issues of hierarchy and ethnic chauvinism, themes that arise in his book, and in the story of the Brethren as well.
Not only were notions of Arab superiority being questioned by the rising Persian secretary class, but new tools had emerged for reading the Arabic scriptures, mainly in the form of writings translated from Greek and Persian that emphasized human reason. As a Muʿtazilī favorably disposed to such use of reason, al-Jāḥiẓ is eager to establish an affinity between the laws of nature and the wise actions of God.39 A peek into the lives of animals helps subvert our prejudices about the way the world works, such that al-Jāḥiẓ makes a case, using the Qurʾan and observation, that birds communicate in a way analogous to human communication.40 By subjecting human superiority to inquiry, al-Jāḥiẓ forces his readers to consider animals in a new light, even if he does conclude that humans are indeed superior because of their intellectual capacity.41
Also influential is Kalīla and Dimna (Kalīla wa Dimna), a book that collects numerous stories about animals and humans, and is considered one of the most influential in Arabic literature, even if some (such as al-Jāḥiẓ) did not appreciate its merits.42 The Brethren clearly did appreciate the stories, even giving one of its two main characters, Kalīla (a jackal), a prominent role in in their own animal fable. The stories, originally Indian and thus in Sanskrit, trace back some 700 to 1,000 years before the time of the Prophet Muhammad, making their way eventually to the pre-Islamic Persian court.43 They were and are focused on ethics and governance, using parables, often about animals. The Arabic translation (from Middle Persian) became widely influential, for it made its way into a variety of languages, including Hebrew, Greek, New Persian, Turkish, Old Spanish, and Latin. Its fascinating “frame-tale” structure (in which stories contain other stories) became a medieval literary tool to add thematic and structural complexity to disjointed moralizing tales, as one finds in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which was influenced by Boccaccio’s Decameron in structure, which was influenced in turn by Kalīla and Dimna.
The translator-writer of Kalīla and Dimna, ʿAbdallāh Rūzbih ibn al-Muqaffaʿ (d. 757), was a prominent litterateur and not, strictly speaking, a philosopher. Nonetheless, the high station granted to “philosophers,” which was still a relatively undefined group, appears clearly in Kalīla and Dimna and indicates that the turn toward ancient knowledge was also a turn in part toward pre-Islamic Iranian (Sasanian) culture.44 The stories would later appear throughout Arabic and Persian literary works pertaining to ethics, especially ethics as a venture not necessarily tied to the study of scripture and law, such as in the writings of Rūmī. That the mouths of animals conveyed much of the text’s philosophical wisdom delighted premodern audiences. The Brethren point to this very aesthetic component of animal fables in defense of writing their own.45
Note: Kalila Two Ways: East and West
Kalila Two Ways: East and West
Amanda Luyster and Mika Natif examine two illustrated manuscripts of the famous animal fables known as Kalila and Dimna: one, translated into Latin, was produced in fourteenth-century France; the other was rendered in Persian and illustrated at the Mughal court in the late sixteenth century, Lahore. This unlikely pairing of two royal commissions reveals interesting features regarding the conceptualization of identities at the different courts and may offer rich insight into various portrayals of dynastic authority and self-representation.
Part I : West
College of the Holy Cross
Part II: East
Harvard University Art Museums
- SOME ETHICAL CONCLUSIONS IN THE BRETHREN’S ANIMAL FABLE
In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, animals revolt and take control from their human master. Animals serve as a trope to satirize the Russian Revolution, but, more broadly, to contemplate the dangers of unquestioned revolutionary authority. Human dominance of animals, after all, often goes without much consideration. Animals, despite their resemblances to humans, often at best have the right to be used and even killed humanely. By questioning that very assumption of power, humans over animals, the Brethren (like Orwell) bring into question two “sibling” institutions in their day, state and religion, that is, state as ruled by the Abbasid caliphs and those recognizing them, and religion as interpreted by corrupt legal scholars, jurists, and others whose interpretation of Islam—they argue—supported such authoritarianism.46 What is worse is that those at the head of such authoritarian Islam, the caliphs themselves, follow the lifestyles of tyrants and slay God’s friends and the Prophet Muhammad’s progeny, among their other acts of sin and oppression.47
The Brethren’s story champions an ethics-based interpretation of religion over an authoritarian and legalistic one. Their ideal religion favors the acquisition of virtue and God-consciousness over rules imposed by the powerful. When religion fails to be based on virtue, its persons of eminence become jurists who bend rules and find loopholes in God’s law. The humans in this story, who ultimately hope to cheat animals into subordination, represent this failed and deceitful worldview. Upon landing on the island, humans began to subjugate the animals. Until then, the animals had lived in harmony because—the Brethren imply—even animal aggression, disorder, and competition are results of human mismanagement. This can be seen in the consumption of meat and the killing of animals; before humans began hunting and herding animals, carnivorous animals subsisted peacefully on carrion.48 Humans ought to be less concerned with subjugation, the text implies, and more concerned with discovering the harmony, interdependence, and wisdom that exist in creation, even if it might mean adopting a vegetarian lifestyle.
Only a wise person will have a loving appreciation of the purposefulness of all created things. The jinn-king, who is the judge of this story, is precisely such a wise person. The animals, accordingly, beseech this jinn-king, telling him that he would have wept for them had he seen the lack of human compassion as animals were slaughtered, cooked, ridden, driven, and beaten. The jinn-king would weep because such is the rational response to injustice, the intellectually sound response to affairs being out of order.49 In this story, the race of jinn, hidden yet sentient, represents all those virtuous people who must hide their true identities for fear of hatred or violence. In a similar manner, their king represents the intellect (as well as possibly the hidden Shiʿi imam). Like the intellect, the jinn-king is an entity hidden, rational, merciful, and just, and yet taxed with the management of the affairs of all beings. Also, like the intellect, the jinn as a race are not trusted by humans.50
The Brethren present their critique of a power-based religion (which is also an “Abbasid” Islam) quite cleverly. Elements in the story intimate the political implications of their virtue ethics. For example, the humans are first represented by an Abbasid, a representative of a realpolitik interpretation of Islam in the epistle. His reading of the Qurʾan focuses on verses in isolation, not placed in a larger context. He reads those verses literally, using them to construct a dichotomy between master and slave in his presentation of humans and their subjects, namely, animals. His sermon is debunked by a mule’s. The mule presents a solid linguistic and rational argument that animals have been “subjected” to humans in a manner similar to the sun and the moon, not as slaves, but as facilitators of human perfection.51 The mule calls attention to a system of interdependence grander than the master–slave relationship, a system of interdependence in which (I might add) even human-to-human relationships play a part, according to the Qurʾan (Q 43:32). In other words, humans benefit from other humans as they do from other animals, but in neither case is subjugation justified. It is not that animals belong to humans as chattel, but rather that all of creation is a network of service and benefit. This is the animals’ argument.
Humans, on the other hand, as masters of judicial misconduct, will use any means—including those outside of rational argument—to attain dominance. They consider using spurious documents lost in Noah’s flood to assert their superiority over beasts. (This is an allusion to the use of specious scriptural arguments made concerning Arab superiority in Islam.52) While humans make use of pietism and abuse of scripture, the animals are almost obsessively conscious of the importance of sincere intention in all things. An owl, for example, momentarily objects to supplication—a central theme in Islamic religiosity (Q 25:77)—because supplication has no purpose if done without proper presence of heart, intention, and kindness to others.53 The same is implied for formality and ritual. Religion, like supplication, fails to be useful if our focus does not shift toward the interior.
The Brethren even present an ethics-based theory of religious tolerance in their exposition. The animals point out that they, despite their sundry forms, live in harmony, under one natural order. Humans, however, while united in form, have countless religions and sects, adherents of which defame and even sometimes kill one another. In response to this problem, a Persian—an ethnicity with which the Brethren self-identify—explains that religion and state have a mutually necessary relationship, and the lesser (the state) is ideally there to protect the lofty aspirations of the greater (religion).54 All religions, moreover, including not only Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, but also the “Brahmins of India,” have one common purpose, namely, to instill a transcendence of the self, often realized as self-sacrifice.55 Unfortunately for humanity, state overpowered religion, and self-sacrifice became the selfish sacrifice of the lives of others for one’s own ends. Religion became a means for worldly advancement and self-aggrandizement, epitomized by the murdering of the Shiʿi imams for the sake of power.56
The entire epistle seems aimed at redirecting the human fixation on self-aggrandizement, through its assessment of human superiority. By the end, the discussion shifts from simple observations (and refutations) of what superiority might mean to a profound picture of human superiority to animals. The humans seek a categorical statement about human superiority. What they get instead is a sense of how complex “virtue” really is: All things have it, even if for different ends. Human superiority lies in a potential that merits humans’ eternal life and that allows them to join the select:
If we are obedient, then we find ourselves with the prophets, the saints, the imams, the successors to prophets, the wise, the good, the virtuous, the successors to saints, the renunciants, the righteous, the awakened worshippers who know God, the rational, the insightful, the intelligent, the choicest souls among good-doers, those who resemble God’s noble angels, who rival one another in good deeds, who crave meeting their Lord, approaching Him in all their moments, listening to Him, gazing upon Him, contemplating His majesty and splendor, relying on Him for all affairs, beseeching Him, seeking from Him, hoping in Him, anxious out of fear of Him. If it turns out that we are rejected, then we will find deliverance through the intercession of our prophet, Muhammad. We will then become eternal, living in the garden with houris, youthful servants, as well as repose and fulfillment [Q 56:89], encountering the All-Merciful, and the reward of those who acted most virtuously and were given the best and given more in terms of [intercession on behalf of] us [Q 10:26].57 The Exalted has said, “Peace be upon you. You’ve arrived to our delight, so enter it, abiding forever” [Q 39:73].58
It is only after such people are mentioned that the animals and jinn-king concede the humans’ point: “Now at last you have brought the truth!”59 The central thesis is that human beings have an extreme range of potential, at one end possibly resembling angels, and at the other end possibly resembling devils; this range, it seems, makes them subject to eternal life, unlike the animals.60 Most humans, then, are “superior” exclusively in potential, and perhaps in affiliation with their betters. Yet striving for that potential becomes the only way a notion of human superiority can be salvaged. It is not a static, inherent quality of humans to be higher than animals, but rather an anticipated greatness that occurs only through the pursuit of both knowledge and action. In that regard, the narrative presents ethical choices, such as kindness to animals, as a moral reasoning that does not necessarily rely on law, or even on scripture, but on an awareness of one’s teleological moment: Knowing your place in creation, its limits and its expectations, and knowing the burden upon you to pursue justice and the other virtues, you could not possibly make light of the suffering of animals, or commit any other act of injustice for that matter.
To take this idea a bit further, the use of animals brings us to reassess what it means to be human. One view of animals and nature in general is to see them as part of a background upon which is superimposed the one rational agent, the human, much like a player in a video game might be the only rational agent interacting with virtual reality. This is a view held by the most myopically anthropocentrist humans in the Brethren’s story. Yet when we engage with nature more closely—animals especially—we draw something nonhuman into the frame of our human perception. That which is most like us in terms of perception and movement begins to bear some of our other traits, the more we look. The result is twofold. First, animals become agents analogous to humans, resulting in the genre of the animal fable. Second, human character traits appear not as inalienably human, but rather as part of a gamut of natural and rational character traits possessed variously by plants, animals, humans, jinn, celestial bodies, angels, and even universal entities higher than angels. In other words, virtue becomes part of the cosmological order. Thus, even the word “human,” as the potential perfection of that order (the microcosm as reflected by the macranthrope), takes on more universal significance than the commonly perceived hominoid instantiation called “the human being.” “Human” can then mean “pinnacle of all creation,” realized fully by some humans, not at all by others, and in an attenuated and highly specialized fashion by animals.
This merits some elaboration. Animals, in the Brethren’s fable, function as dimensions of humanness, as facets of what it means to be human in a universal sense. Thus, just as human character traits develop from balances and imbalances within the constitution, so too does the “temper” of a particular animal dictate its peculiar character traits.61 Adam’s form was arguably the most mediate and perfect, with the most balanced constitution, fashioned on the most astrologically auspicious day.62 More important, however, is the idea of relative perfection; every creature, and every human, has a capability dictated by its nature (including its biology), and strives to meet its own suited perfection.63 Thus, justice is not one blanket expectation: Rather, justice for the elephant is one thing, and for the gnat, another.64 While none are identical, all are equal (mutasāwīya) in receiving what they need for a meaningful life in accordance with their place and rank.65
The Brethren’s focus on capability and difference translates to a virtue-ethical interpretation of Sharia, one that relies not on universally codified laws that can be bent through sway, bribes, and exploited ambiguities, but on individual character traits—which are embodied by the variety of animals. Each animal represents a certain perfection suited for a certain situation, and thus represents the varieties of virtuous character traits. Humans (ought to) represent the cumulative acquisitions of all traits, the perfect and complete animal. Were a human to resemble only one or two animals in his or her traits, that human would be “base,” even though for those specific animals such partial perfections are perfections. For this reason, the lion—himself king of the predators—makes the case that humans who resemble predators (namely, kings and other commanders) are only human in form, while those who are the people of “intellect, perspective, knowledge, and acumen have character traits and dispositions that resemble the traits of angels.”66 A human must limit his or her predatory qualities by using the scale of justice as determined by wisdom. In doing so, the human may become loftier than her biology, loftier, in fact, than that which can be expressed by biology, relinquishing the ways and traits of animals for those of angels, “the inhabitants of the heavens.”67 Yet, in pursuit of such perfection, one must know what it means to be human, and to know the human, one must know animals. After all, both come to exist as part of the same natural order, an order in which humans represent the whole and animals represent specific parts. To understand animals is to understand situated perfection, and to understand situated perfection is to understand the morally good.
1 Lory, “La magie chez les Iḫwān al-Ṣafāʾ,” p. 149, as cited in Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, On Magic, p. 12.
2 Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, On Magic, pp. 63–4, 143.
3 Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ wa Khullān al-Wafāʾ, p. 2:74.
4 Ibid., p. 2:22.
5 Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, On Magic, p. xx.
6 Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ wa Khullān al-Wafāʾ, p. 4:121. Ian Netton questions the identification of the imam of the Brethren with a Shiʿi hidden imam, based, in part, on a statement by that imam that some say he is “hidden for fear of those who would disagree with him,” when in fact “he is manifest in their midst.” See Netton, Muslim Neoplatonists, p. 102. I read this differently. The imam seems to mean that he is not actively hiding, but rather unrecognized by those unworthy to know him and hence is absent while present. As Netton and Nader El-Bizri have shown, nevertheless, the Brethren do not exhibit a clear adherence to Ismaʿili Shiʿism. See El-Bizri, Epistles of the Brethren of Purity, pp. 8–10; Netton, Muslim Neoplatonists, pp. 104, 107.
7 Callataÿ, “Brethren of Purity (Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ).”
8 Callataÿ, Ikhwan al-Safaʾ, p. 10; Callataÿ, “Brethren of Purity (Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ).”
9 The word “Neoplatonic” refers to a philosophical outlook, influenced by Plotinus’s (d. 270 CE) interpretation of Plato (d. 347 BCE), in which qualities and forms of perfection emanate from a unitary and even “divine” source down to the imperfect sensory world that surrounds us.
10 Callataÿ, Ikhwan al-Safaʾ, pp. 101–3.
11 Callataÿ, “Brethren of Purity (Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ).”
12 Netton, Muslim Neoplatonists, p. 15.
13 Ibid., p. 20–6.
14 Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ wa Khullān al-Wafāʾ, p. 2:320.
15 Ibid., pp. 2:323–5.
16 Ibid., pp. 2:321–2.
17 Ullmann, Islamic Medicine, p. 57.
18 Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ wa Khullān al-Wafāʾ, p. 2:327.
19 Ibid., p. 2:328.
20 Ullmann, Islamic Medicine, p. 58; Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ wa Khullān al-Wafāʾ, p. 2:322.
21 Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ wa Khullān al-Wafāʾ, pp. 2:321–2.
22 Ibid., p. 2:326.
23 Ibid., p. 2:326.
24 Ibid., p. 2:326.
25 Ibid., p. 2:328.
26 Ibid., p. 2:327.
27 Ibid., pp. 1:253–4.
28 Ullmann, Islamic Medicine, p. 61; Miskawayh, Tahdhīb al-Akhlāq, p. 176.
29 Miskawayh, Tahdhīb al-Akhlāq, pp. 165, 167.
30 There is some suggestion made later in the Rasāʾil, in the animal fable, that those qualities that pertain to human rulers resemble those of predators. See Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ wa Khullān al-Wafāʾ, p. 2:202.
31 “Greatness of soul” and renunciation in the writings of the Brethren are discussed by Winter in Ghazālī, On Disciplining the Soul, p. lv. See also Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ wa Khullān al-Wafāʾ, p. 1:298.
32 Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ wa Khullān al-Wafāʾ, p. 2:257.
33 Goodman, “Reading the Case of the Animals,” p. 249.
34 Ormsby, “Literature,” p. 74.
35 Tlili, Animals in the Qurʾan, pp. 166–209.
36 Ibid., pp. 50–1.
37 Mottahedeh, “The Shuʿūbīyah Controversy and the Social History of Early Islamic Iran,” p. 174.
38 Cooperson, “Jāḥeẓ.”
39 McDonald, “Animal-Books as a Genre in Arabic Literature,” pp. 6–7.
40 Al-Jāḥiẓ, Kitāb al-Ḥayawān, p. 7:57.
41 Netton, Muslim Neoplatonists, p. 92.
42 Irwin, “The Arabic Beast Fable,” p. 42.
43 Riedel, “Kalila wa Demna.”
44 Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ, Kalīla wa Dimna, p. 56.
45 Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ wa Khullān al-Wafāʾ, p. 1:149.
46 Ibid., pp. 2:310, 2:303.
47 Ibid., p. 2:304.
48 Ibid., pp. 2:169, 2:280–1.
49 Ibid., pp. 2:178–80.
50 Ibid., pp. 2:189–93.
51 Ibid., p. 2:172. See also the note by Goodman and McGregor in Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, The Case of the Animals versus Man before the King of the Jinn, p. 103, n. 17.
52 Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ wa Khullān al-Wafāʾ, p. 2:196. See also the note by Goodman and McGregor in Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, The Case of the Animals versus Man before the King of the Jinn, p. 147, n. 146. The suggestion is made by the “Arab” in Goodman and McGregor’s text, but by the “Abbasid” in al-Bustānī’s edition.
53 Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ wa Khullān al-Wafāʾ, p. 2:219.
54 Ibid., p. 2:310.
55 Ibid., p. 2:310. See also Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, The Case of the Animals versus Man before the King of the Jinn, p. 305.
56 Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ wa Khullān al-Wafāʾ, p. 2:240.
57 Here I read jazāʾ instead of nidāʾ in the phrase nidāʾ alladhīna aḥsanū al-ḥusnā.
58 Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ wa Khullān al-Wafāʾ, p. 2:316.
59 Ibid., p. 2:316.
60 Ibid., p. 2:149.
61 Ikhwān, The Case of the Animals versus Man before the King of the Jinn, p. 191, n. 230.
62 Although this claim is brought into doubt, the problem lies in relating Adam’s form to the notion that all humans, and not just Adam and those as complete as Adam, were created in the “greatest of forms” in the Qurʾan (95:4). See Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ wa Khullān al-Wafāʾ, p. 2:175.
63 Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ wa Khullān al-Wafāʾ, p. 2:176.
64 Ibid., p. 2:225.
65 Ibid., p. 2:225.
66 Ibid., p. 2:202.
67 Ibid., p. 2:202.