The Hermetic teachings of Ibn Sab’in

Ibn Khaldun (d. 808/1406) described Ibn Sab’in as a radical monist whose ideas constituted ‘overt heresy and unwarranted innovations, and to justify them, the most extravagant and detestable interpretations of the literal meaning of orthodox doctrine’.

However, he has also been described as the author of works ‘the likes of which no one has ever seen’ and, according to at least one account, he was an accomplished physician who fashioned a prosthetic skullcap for the Sharif of Mecca.

In the medieval Islamic world elite Hermetic circles provided one of the few acceptable contexts in which a true religious interconfessionalism could be practised. This was because the figure of Hermes stood for a trans-confessional wisdom, a universal revelation, which doctrine further endorsed Muslim study of Jewish works.

This type of interconfessionalism is also found in Ibn Sab’in’s writings. In the Sufistic text Risalat al-nuriyya (The Treatise on the Illuminative), a discourse on the epistemology of invocation and remembrance, Ibn Sab’in cites Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed. In the theurgic invocation Da’wat al-Qaf (Imprecation on the Letter Qaf), he calls on the occult powers (ruhaniyyat) of the Jewish angels Metatron and Yahoel to overcome his enemies.

Besides religious interconfessionalism, other important themes of Islamic Hermetism can also be found in Ibn Sab’in’s writings. These doctrinal themes call into question the assertion made by many modern-day experts that Hermetism was merely an intellectual bricolage: in other words, it was purely syncretistic and did not have a doctrine unique to itself.

However, such a conclusion fails to hold up, both as a logical argument and after a critical examination of Hermetic writings. The very existence of Hermetism as an intellectual alternative implies a doctrine that cannot be found in other traditions.

The doctrinal core of Ibn Sab’in’s theosophy, and Hermetism in general, is a focus on Intellect as the First Cause and ground of existence; an unitas intellectus that unites all souls within a single nous. For Ibn Sab’in, this was the fundamental doctrine of the tradition of Oriental wisdom (al-hikma al-mashriqiyya), as represented (according to Ibn Sab’in, accurately) by Suhrawardi and (inaccurately) by Ibn Sina.

As a Hermetic doctrine, it consisted of an intellectual mysticism that corresponded to what Garth Fowden has termed religio mentis. The Hermeticism of Ibn Sab’in corresponds closely to the teachings of certain texts of the Corpus Hermeticum, such as The Mixing Bow (libellus IV), On Mind (libellus VIII), or The Key (libellus X).

It also shared an affinity with the medieval Arabic Hermetic text Kitab dhamm al-nafs (The Castigation of the Soul). Its view of existence was monistic, emanationist, and integrative, and was based on the idea that the principle that unifies all contingent existence in the sublunar world is Intellect, or more accurately, the Intellectual Principle (al-‘aql).

At times, Ibn Sab’in refers to the Intellectual Principle in mythological terms as the ‘Supreme Father’ (al-ab al-mu’ azzam), just as Hermes Trismegistus talks about the divine Father. At other times, he describes the Intellectual Principle more philosophically as ‘the foundational attribute of the universe’ (uss sifat al-‘alam) and ‘the axis around which the existential order revolves’ (al-qutb alladhi yaduru ‘alayhi al-tadbir).

For Ibn Sab’in, a unitary ontology based on the concept of Intellect as the First Cause and ground of existence is the fundamental doctrine of the Oriental wisdom tradition, and hence of Hermes Trismegistus, whom he regards as the source of this tradition:

“What I wish to counsel you is this: that you firmly believe that the universal, the particular, the material, and the spiritual are all one. Do not differentiate between them in your mind from the standpoint of whether or not they were brought into being at the first creation and do not believe that the primordial system (al-nizam al-qadim) is internally differentiated … Do not let the unitary theology (tawhid) that you hear others (i.e., exoteric Muslims) discuss confuse you. For the knower, knowledge, and what is known are all one. So know that what is necessary is Existence (al-wujud) itself and that nothing issues from it but the One.”

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