The Heritage Society Presents... Back to Heritage F.I.E.L.D - First Ismaili Electronic Library and Database


: La philosophie des Ihwan al-Safa': de Dieu a l'homme

Yves Marquet. (iii), Ixi, 680 pp. (Lille): Service de Reproduction des Theses, Universite de Lille, 1973. Yves Marquet: La philosophie des Ihwan as-Safa': L'Imam et la societe. (Universite de Dakar: Faculte des Lettres et Sciences Humaines. Departement d'Arabe. Travaux et Documents, No. 1.) [i], 278 pp. [Dakar: Universite de Dakar}, 1973.

Since 1961 Marquet has published eight articles on 'The concept of... in the epistles of the Ikhwan al-Safa' ' and 'The Ikhwan and ...', and has contributed the article 'Ikhwan al-Safa' ' to the new Encylopaedia of Islam. This last has been savagely criticized by the late M. Plessner (Israel Oriental Studies, II, 1972, 353-61). Plessner castigates (a) the shortcomings in Marquet's account of the sources of the Rasa'il, (b) his disregard for previous research in general and, in particular, S.M. Stern's assessment of the Rasa'il as a work outside the mainstream of contemporary Isma'ilism. It must be said at once that the publication of Marquet's basic and comprehensive account of the philosophy of the Rasa'il does little to allay such criticisms. It has been summed up in advance by the El article and the reader of Marquet's other articles stands to gain little from reading the book as well (the two volumes together form a single work in three parts).

To be fair, the present work is less vulnerable to Plessner's criticisms than the El article since it tries to argue a case rather than to inform. Its thesis (De Dieu a l'homme, pp. 1v ff.; L'Imam et la societe, 272 ff.) is that the Rasa'il incorporate the earliest comprehensive body of Ismaili doctrine, drawn up in the ninth century by the highest officials of the movement, possibly even by an Imam, under the influence of the so-called Sabians of Harran. The bulk of the proof lies in a systematic account of the theories of the Rasa'il, designed to demonstrate that it makes sense to interpret them as a document of pre-Fatimid Isma'ilism. Although one may reject this proof for its apparent circularity, it is with the exegetical part that the achievement of the book rests. By translating, paraphrasing, and discussing countless passages (unfortunately, there is no index), Maquet has certainly made progress in the art of reading the Rasa'il. Moreover, he has accomplished the task that remained after Stern had shown (Islamic Culture, XX, 4, 1946) that according to reliable contemporaries, the authors of the Rasa'il were Ismailis: he has collected corroborating internal evidence and given a detailed account of the authors' Isma'ilism.

The major obstacle to Marquet's thesis is, of course, the fact (established by Stern and accepted by Marquet) that the Rasa'il were written not too long before 981. One of the considerations which led Stern to argue that they do not express the official Ismaili doctrine of their time was that the supposed Imam-author, described in them as unknown except to a small circle of intimates, could not have been the Fatimid caliph of the day (Islamic Studies, III, 4, 1964, 421). Therefore, whoever wants to hold on to the Rasa'il as an official document is forced to postulate an earlier version dating from before 909 (beginning of the Fatimid caliphate in North Africa). Marquet puts forward two arguments in support of such an earlier version.

(1) There are certain irregularities in the arrangement of the existing version, which he thinks were caused by rearrangements and additions made by the known authors to the hypothetical proto-Rasa'il. Plessner has already rejected this argument (art. cit., 357). It may be added that some of the discrepancies noted by Marquet seen attributable to sloppy compiling of sources rather than sloppy editing. In drawing up their catalogue of disciplines (De Dieu a l'homme, 442 ff.), the authors of the Rasa'il compiled several introductory works in the vein of late Greek prolegomena to philosophy, tacking on some disciplines that had no place in the traditional syllabus, such as geography and 'traits of character' (op, cit., 463 f.), i.e. Galen's Fi'l-akhlaq (cf. Plessner, 356) or a discipline based upon it. Obviously, there is plenty of scope for inconsistency in such a procedure.

(2) The second argument is too involved to have been stated in the EI ('Les cycles de la souverainete selon les epitres des Ihwan al-Safa'', Studia Islamica, XXXVI, 1972, 47-69, and the corresponding chapter in L'Iman et la societe, 21 ff.). It reopens the issue of the prediction in the Rasa'il of an impending success for "the cause", which Casanova, inspired by de Goeje, once related to the astrologically important conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in 1047. A careful reconstruction of the astrological scheme of the Rasa'il, leads Marquet to the conclusion that the prediction was for the conjunction year 928. Whatever the merits of the reconstruction, it is hard to accept Marquet's final conclusion that because the Fatimid victory of 909 was the only conspicuous success for the Ismaili cause anywhere near 928, the hypothetical proto-Rasa'il must have been composed before that date. If there was an early version with a prediction for 928, this would rather seem to argue against a connection between the pre-Fatimid campaigners and the Rasa'il. The whole point of de Goeje's excursus on the importance of astrology for medieval history and, in particular, the Ismaili movement (Memoire sur les Carmathes du Bahrain et les Fatimides, Leiden, 1886, 113 ff.) was that people made, and acted upon, exact predictions. Now a forecast in, say, 907 of a success for 928 would not have resulted in a major effort in 909. If the timing of the Fatimid campaigns was astrologically inspired their calculations (de Goeje,122) must have been somewhat different from those of the Ikhwan. The Qarmatians of al-Bahrayn, on the other hand, firmly believed that the year 928 would bring the Madhi (Madelung, EI, second ed., IV, 198b; Der Islam, XXXIV, 1959,75-82). It was not, however, a Fatimid caliph they had in mind; for they accepted an imposter a little later (ibid.; Stern, BSOAS, XXIII 1, 1960, 69). Marquet has pointed out (Studia Islamica, XXXVI, 1972, 68) that the theory of the Rasa'il gives a highly schematic and idealized picture of history (more confirmation for Stern's assessment of their philosophy as 'utopian Isma'ilism', Islamic Studies, III, 4, 1964, 421). It follows, surely that since the scheme does not reflect history at all exactly, historical deductions cannot be made from it. But if we had to accept that there is in the Rasa'il a prediction of success for vaguely the first half of the tenth century, this would most easily be interpreted as a rather indifferent vaticinium ex eventu. The authors did not have to accept the Fatimids as the true Imams to consider their progress as a success for the Ismaili cause. Exit the second argument. It has not, after all, been proved 'sans contest que les epitres des "Freres de la Purete" sont bien le plus ancien expose d'ensemble de la doctrine ismailienne' (L'imam et la societe, 272).

In order to do stimulating research on the Rasa'il, one does not have to prove that they are the central document of early Isma'ilism. A large part of Marquet's research has been dedicated to the Sabian connection. This is more promising ground: e.g. he has looked up the Kitab al-Ustutas, a Hermetic treatise from which the Rasa'il quote and which survives independently (M. Ullmann, Die Natur- und Geheimwissenschaften im Islam, Leiden,1972, 375), and has found in it an astrological model for the Ikhwan's curious concept of the cycle of seven millennia, each ushered in by another prophet.............. to be interesting to know his proof of the Harranian origin of this treatise, which he promises to give in a forthcoming study on quotations and references in the Rasa'il, a kind of study which is needed and which will be welcomed by all.

F.W. Zimmermann