The Way of Hermes and Ibn Sab’in

According to Lisan Al-Din Ibn Al-Khatib (d. 776/1375) Hermeticism was widespread in medieval Spain. The Ricote Valley where Ibn Sab’in was born and grew up in was known for its many followers of Hermeticism. According to Ibn Khaldun, Ricote (Arabic: Riqut), a town on the Segura River northwest of the city of Murcia in the Spanish Levant was a center of Hermetism in Muslim Spain.

In his La Voie et la Loi, (pp. 279-80) Ibn Khaldun notes that “a large group of people from eastern Spain and the Ricote valley were followers of Hermeticism”.

Curiously, despite all of the disputes over who or what Ibn Sab’in may have been, few writers – either in the past or in the present – have described him as what he himself claimed to be: a Muslim follower of Hermes Trismegistus who sought ultimate Truth beyond the boundaries of philosophy, Sufism, and even formal religion.

It is through the teachings of the Egyptian Dhu’l Nun Misri (from Akhmim, Upper Egypt, 9th century CE) that important Hermetic influences were introduced in the Islamic Sufi tradition.

According to Ibn Al-Khatib the Sufi, the Hermetist and political activist Ibn Ahla of Lorca (d.645/1247) was the actual teacher of Ibn Sab’in.

Ibn Sab’in considered Hermes to be his forebear. He states this position clearly in the Introduction to his most famous work, Budd al-‘Arif (The Prerequisite of the Gnostic):

“I petitioned God to propagate [through me] the wisdom (al-hikma) that Hermes Trismegistus (al-haramisa) revealed in the earliest ages, the spiritual realities that prophetic guidance has made beneficial, the happiness that is sought by every person of guidance, the light (nur) by which every Fully-Actualised Intellectual (mujtahid muhaqqaq) wishes to be illuminated, the knowledge that will no longer be broadcast or disseminated from [Hermes] in future ages, and the secret from which and through which and for the sake of which the Prophets were sent.”

The first words after the opening are:

“I prayed to great God to disclose the wisdom expressed in symbols (ramazaha) by the Hermeses of the first aeons (Haramisat ad-duhur Alawwaliya)”.

 For Ibn Sab’in, the figure of Hermes Trismegistus, whom he also terms “our greatest impeccable teacher” and “the greatest sage”, takes precedence over Prophet Muhammad.

The isnad of the tarika sab’iniyya given by Al-Shushtari in one of his qasidas shows the overlapping of the two cultures, the Greek and the Muslim, as accepted by the followers of lbn Sab’in. One finds the authors Plato, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Al-Halladi, but also Al-Shudhi, who as a mystic was the teacher of the “master of light” Al-Suhrawardi, and Abu Madyan.

In this initiatory chain, Hellenistic philosophy and Muslim tasawwuf are linked together under the patronage of Hermes, the spokesman of the gods and their messenger to men.

Al Shushtari was enchanted by the tariqa of the famous mystic Abu Madyan (from Seville). Therefore, he took the decision to break definitively with his past and his family, abandoning trade. From that time he qualities himself as “Madani”.

However, later on in 646/1248, his enchantment turned into deep confusion upon talking to Ibn Sab’in. Having finished the talk Al-Shushtari prepared to leave, and Ibn Sab’in asked him where he was going. He replied that he would watch the followers of Abu Madyan. Then Ibn Sab’in said to Al-Shushtari:

If you are looking for Paradise go with Abu Madyan, but if you wish to approach the Lord of Paradise follow me.

L0036620 The serpent Ouroboros, from Cyprianus, 18th C
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Page from Cyprianus showing the serpent Ouroboros surrounding a circle with lettering in Latin and Hebrew. Published: -Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

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