alchemy

Hermeticism and the Monist Mystics of Islam

According to Lisan Al-Din Ibn Al-Khatib (d. 1375) Hermeticism was widespread in medieval Spain. The Ricote Valley 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”. 

The most famous hermetic mystic of this valley was Shaykh Ibn Sab’in. His mystical lineage included maybe the last of the practical followers of the Way of Hermes in Europe.

Shaykh Ibn Sab‘in is one of the most important thinkers of medieval Arabic philosophy and, together with Ibn ‘Arabi, is one of the leading representatives of Andalusian mysticism. He occupies a prominent place around the 13th-century cultural panorama of both Islam and Christianity. 

Ibn Taimiyyah states that Ibn Sab’in and his followers did not distinguish between Islam and other religions like Christianity and Judaism. Followers of any religion could approach them and become their disciples without changing their faith. 

How do we know that Ibn Sab’in was a follower of Hermes? The best proof is that he himself said that he was a Muslim follower of Hermes Trismegistus, who sought ultimate Truth beyond the boundaries of philosophy, Sufism, and even formal religion. 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.”

Budd al-‘Arif

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)”.

Budd al-‘Arif

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 lineage of Ibn Sab’in

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 Ibn Ahla of Lorca (d. 1247) was the first teacher of Ibn Sab’in.

Ibn Sab’in was the founder of the Sab’iniyya movement in Damascus. Badr Al-Din Hasan Ibn Hud (d. 1236-1300) came from Murcia and was the head of the Sufi sect of Sab’iniyya at Damascus in the second half of the thirteenth century. A follower of Ibn Arabi, Afif Al-Din Sulayman Al-Tilimsani also became a follower of Sab’iniyya. Another follower of the Sab’iniyya movement was Shayk Al-Kashani Al-Fargani.

Abū l-Ḥasan al-Shushtarī

The most senior student of Ibn Sabín was the famous mystic and poet Abū l-Ḥasan al-Shushtarī (d. 1269). Shushtarī’s attachment to Ibn Sabʿīn marks an important transitional moment in his life, as through the latter he received much of his training in the intellectual sciences, including theology (kalām) philosophy (ḥikma), and hermetic teachings

The isnad of the tarika sab’iniyya given by al-Shushtari in one of his qasidas shows the overlapping of the two cultures. The Nuniyya, that is, the “Ode Rhyming in Nün,” is Shushtar’s longest and, in many ways, his most enigmatic poem. Beginning with its examination of the goals of the mystic and moving on to probe the role of human reason, logic, and intellection in the apprehension of the divine.

The poem concludes with an enumeration of – and brief remarks about – an eclectic list of philosophers and mystics, both Greek and Muslim, as accepted by the followers of his master 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. Al-Shustari writes in his poem:

It enthralled the hearts of all the Hermes,
and it sufficed for Socrates to dwell in the barrel,
and to abstract all the forms of the world
and reveal Plato in his ultimate beauty.
And Aristotle became enamored until he became
peripatetic out of his love,
and spread his ideas and did not withhold anything.

In this initiatory chain, Hellenistic philosophy and Muslim mysticism (tasawwuf) are linked together under the patronage of Hermes, the first of the golden chain of enlightened masters, the spokesman of the gods, and their messenger to men.

Afif Al-Din Tilimsani

Afif Al-Din Al-Tilimsani (d. 1213 – 1291) was a student of Sadr Al-Din, Muhammad Yunus Al-Kunawi (d. 1207-1274), who in turn was a disciple of Ibn ‘Arabi. ‘Afif Al-din Al-Tilimsani played an important role in the diffusion of the school of Ibn Arabi.

Al-Tilimsānī and Saʿīd al-Dīn al-Farġānī (d. 1300) lived at the same period in Konya and were both disciples of Ṣadr al-Dīn al-Qūnawī (d. 1274), the favorite disciple of Muḥyī al-Dīn Ibn ʿArabī (d. 1240). 

Afif Al-Din Tilimsani had met Ibn ‘Arabi in Damascus. From a manuscript of Ibn ‘Arabi’s Futûhât, we learn that ‘Afif Al-Din and Qunawi were visiting the house of Ibn ‘Arabi in Damascus at the same time in 1236-7. Al-Tilimsani met Ibn Sab’in in Cairo and married his daughter.

Ṣadr al-Dīn al-Qūnawī

Ṣadr al-Dīn al-Qūnawī (d. 1274) was the foremost disciple of the great Andalusī mystic, Muḥyī-l-Dīn Ibn ʿArabī (d. 1240) and played a pivotal role in disseminating his teachings. Although less famous than his master, Qūnawī has traditionally been recognized both as a key interpreter of Ibn ʿArabī’s work and as a sophisticated metaphysician in his own right.

Although Qūnawī was part of the lineage of Ibn Arabi, and not of Arabi’s fellow Andalusian monist Ibn Sab’in, it is clear that Sadr al-Din’s Akkbarian monist views closely resemble the hermetic monist views of Ibn Sab’in. Views Qūnawī probably learned from his best friend and follower of Ibn Sab’in, Afif Al-Din Tilimsani.

Hermetic themes and symbols occur throughout Qūnawī’s writings, and like his master before him, he sees the human being’s journey to perfection as analogous to the stages of the alchemical work. Hence, in the same way that different metals are thought to be formed through their departing from the perfect equilibrium of their source (maʿdin), so is the individual’s ontogenesis deemed the result of their “divine secret” (al-sirr al-ilāhī) or existential ground – which in itself is “as non-differentiated as prime matter” (hayūlānī al-waṣf) – being “dyed” (inṣabagha) by the conditions of different cosmological degrees.

Noteworthy is that Zosimos of Panopolis, one of the first alchemists and according to Wouter Hanegraaff probably a practicing hermetist, worked in an Egyptian temple as a dyer of metals.

Cosmology and human ontogenesis

In the anthropology of the monist mystics of Islam, a key part is played by the doctrine of human ontogenesis, conceived of as man’s formative descent through a hierarchy of cosmological grades and principles. 

In the rest of this article, we will explore the many similarities between Hermeticism and the cosmology of the monist mystics of Islam. This can only be a preliminary exploration as the subject is far too wide to be covered in one article.

The cosmological model the monist hermetic mystics of Islam use is as follows, we give first the hermetic term and then the Islamic term: 

  1. The First Intellect or Nous = the Sublime Pen = the Universal (or Muḥammadan) Spirit
  2. Creator-Nous or Demiurge = the Guarded Tablet = Universal Soul
  3. Nature 
  4. Prime Matter = Universal Hylé 
  5. Universal (or Absolute) Body 
  6. The Ennead or Outermost Sphere = the Throne 
  7. The Ogdoad = the Pedestal 
  8. The Form of the Elements = the Supreme Element 
  9. The Seven Planetary Heavens (Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury, the Moon) 
  10. The Kingdoms of Nature (Mineral, Plant, Animal) 
  11. The Human Being

In its basic structure, the familiar architecture of hermetic cosmology is immediately recognizable: the earth is the world of generation and corruption; above it rotates the concentric planetary spheres; finally, transcending the physical realm of change is the hierarchy of universal principles – body, matter, nature, soul and intellect. 

In Corpus Hermeticum I.9-11 it is stated:

Nous, God, being male and female, beginning as life and light, gave birth, by the Word, to another Nous, the Creator of the world; he, being the god of fire and air, formed seven powers who encompass in their circles the sensory world, and the governance of these powers is called destiny.
Immediately, the Word of God leapt forth from the downward moving elements to the pure work of the Creator, and was united with the Creator Nous (for he was of the same substance) and the downward moving elements of the creation were left behind, without the Word, to be matter alone.
Nous, the Creator, together with the Word, encompassing the spheres and spinning them round with a rushing motion, caused those things he had made to revolve and he allowed them to revolve from no fixed beginning to an end without limit, for it begins where it ends.’

The largely Hellenistic hermetic model has been Islamised by the monist mystics through the incorporation of terms and concepts grounded in the Qur’an and hadith, with the Ikhwan al-Șafa also playing an influential role in setting Greek and hermetic thought within a Muslim framework. 

The First Intellect

This is particularly apparent in the case of the first two grades of the hierarchy: the hermetic concepts of First Intellect or Nous (al-‘aql al-awwal) and Creator-Nous (al-nafs al-kulliya).

In Hermeticism, as is well known, Intellect or Nous is the first hypostasis, or emanation, of the transcendent One and contains the intelligible forms of all things within itself. By knowing itself and its source, Nous produces a second emanation, the Creator-Nous, which animates the world in its entirety. 

In the eyes of Muslim Neoplatonists such as the Ikhwan this creative duality seemed readily reconcilable with the Islamic doctrine of the Sublime Pen (al-qalam al-a’lā) and Guarded Tablet (al-lawḥ al-maḥfuz) – God’s first and second creations respectively. 

The first thing God created was the Pen. Then He created the Tablet and said to the Pen: ‘write!’ The Pen said ‘what should I write?’ God said to it ‘write My knowledge of My creation until the Day of Resurrection.’ Then the Pen traced what had been ordained.

Written some two hundred and fifty years after the Ikhwan, the following passage from Ibn ‘Arabi’s Futūḥāt is both typical of his school in general and indicative of the extent to which the terminological equivalence in question had, by his time, become commonplace: 

“The first entity to be created was the First Intellect or Sublime Pen, [which existed] with no other originated being (muḥdath) beside it. Then passively it underwent the effect of God’s causing the Guarded Tablet to proceed from it even as Eve would proceed from Adam in the world of bodies – so that the Tablet be the locus and receptacle for what the Divine Sublime Pen would inscribe within it […] Wherefore, between Pen and Tablet there occurred an intelligible, spiritual congress (nikāḥ), giving rise to a perceptible, sensorial effect […] The traces deposited in the Tablet are therefore akin to the sperm that flows into the female’s womb.”

This begetting of the cosmos by the “seed” of the Father is a core concept in Hermeticism and can be seen from this line in the hermetic prayer of thanksgiving:

We have known You, intellectual light. Life of life, we have known You. Womb of every creature, we have known You. Womb pregnant with the nature of the Father, we have known You. Eternal permanence of the begetting Father, thus have we worshiped Your goodness.

Asclepius – The Prayer of Thanksgiving

The Demiurge

Interestingly is that for the second emanation, the monist Islamic mystics use the term ‘nafs’, which means ‘soul’. This looks familiar to the hermetic concept of the one soul, or world soul. 

But consider, since there is only one matter and one soul

Corpus Hermeticum XI.9

… likewise soul, by itself, present with the Creator, is the cause of life.

Corpus Hermeticum XI.10

Clearly there is a Creator of these things, and it is very evident that there is only one. For soul is one, life is one, and matter is one.

Corpus Hermeticum XI.11

The beautiful cosmos is in Hermeticism an expression of the divine. From Life springs soul and from Light springs (Man’s) Nous. Soul is the essence and manifestation of Divine Will. Life and Will are connected by the mediation of soul, as we read in Corpus Hermeticum I.17:

‘From life and light the man (Anthropos) became soul and mind (Nous); from life came soul, from light came mind (Nous), and all things in the cosmos of the senses remained thus until a cycle ended (and) kinds of things began to be.’

Corpus Hermeticum I.17

In Islamic monist mysticism, Soul, as the essence and manifestation of Divine Will, is similar to the Creator-Nous or Demiurge in Hermeticism. Later in this article, we will come back to this “archetypical” concept of Universal Soul.

Noteworthy, is the idea that the relationship between Pen and Tablet, or Nous and Demiurge, is that of a marriage or loving conjugal union. In the hermetic texts, it is stated that:

‘God loves none other than His own quality. This love is an aspect of God’s love for Himself, and its reality flows through all the levels of His existents, none of which love anything but themselves.‘

The First Intellect’s relationship with the Demiurge, is fundamentally a reflection on the cosmological level of the archetypal relationship between ontological necessity (wujub) and contingency (imkān). This is the idea that the intelligible essences in the First Intellect are made manifest first as spiritual prototypes, and then as subtle forms before finally taking shape in the bodily domain as “written words”, i.e. corporeal beings.

‘Matter has come into being, my child, though it preexisted. Matter is the vessel of becoming. Becoming is the sphere of activity for the unborn and preexistent being, namely God. Now matter received the seed of becoming and has come into existence. . It was changeable and, when formed, assumed shapes.’

Stobeaus Fragment 9 – An Excerpt of Hermes from His Discourses with Tat: On Matter

Nature

The monist mystics believe that Nature (al-tabia) is an “instrument” (āla) of the Demiurge, through which the Demiurge acts upon the world “below” it. Nature is known to us through its effects but has no manifest form of its own.

Noteworthy is the idea that the relationship between Pen, Tablet, and Nature, is that of a loving conjugal union, like in the Hermetica. In the Corpus Hermeticum it is stated that:

‘Having all power over the world of mortals and living creatures without speech, he looked down through the harmony of the cosmos and, having broken through the sovereignty of the Divine Power, he showed to downward moving Nature the beautiful form of God.
When she had seen the beauty’ which never satiates of him who had in himself all the energy of the powers and the form of Gods he smiled with love, because she had seen the image of the most beautiful form of Man in the water and his shadow upon the earth.
He, seeing in himself a similar form to his own in the water fell in love with her and wished to dwell there. No sooner wished than done, and he inhabited a form without speech. Nature, having taken her beloved, enfolded him completely and they united, for they loved each other.’

Corpus Hermeticum I.14

Prime Matter

In broad agreement with the standard theories of their day, the monist mystics – like the Ikhwan al-Şafa’ before them – see corporeal space as being produced by the “measuring” of Prime Matter (al-haba’ al-awwal), or Universal Hylé (al-hayūlā al-kulli).

Matter is deemed the basic principle of corporeality, but although its intelligible rank is known to us through its manifest effects, Prime Matter – like Nature – remains non-manifest in itself and hence has no actual existence in concrete. Rather, the first corporeal form actually to be made manifest is that of al-‘arsh al-muhit or God’s All-Encompassing Throne, a concept rooted in Qur’anic accounts of the creation of the world, and one that generally plays a key part in Islamic cosmology. 

By dint of being the first body, the Throne is seen as representing the complete manifestation of existence in all of its fundamental degrees: spiritual, subtle, and corporeal. 

As the first and simplest of bodies, the Throne embraces, in principle, all bodily forms. However, as was the case at the archetypal level with the creative pairing of Nous and Demiurge, the Throne – in keeping with its simple nature – contains such forms in a unified, summative manner. They are distinguished and differentiated at the level of its passive, complementary aspect, the kursi or Pedestal – a term likewise grounded in Qur’anic cosmology.

Conceived as the principle that “defines the directions of space”, the Throne is seen as comprising all space within itself. Accordingly, the monist mystics identify the Throne with the Ennead, or ninth or outermost sphere (al-muḥīt) in the hermetic system.

As for the Pedestal – depicted in the scriptures as encompassing the heavens and the earth – it is naturally equated with the Ogdoad, or eighth sphere. Both Throne (Ennead) and Pedestal (Ogdoad) are deemed to transcend change and corruption, and hence to abide in perpetuity. 

The monist mystic Farghānī writes: 

The folk of unveiling are unanimous in deeming the Throne and Pedestal physical but not elemental, and in no way susceptible to generation and corruption, nor perishing or ceasing to be, for the Pedestal’s roof is the ground of Paradise (zamīn-i behesht) and the Throne is Paradise’s ceiling as articulated explicitly in the sound prophetic traditions and by allusion in the text of the Qur’an.”

The Throne and Pedestal are the ceiling and ground respectively of Paradise, and although the concept of Paradise does not exist in Hermeticism, the spheres of the Ogdoad and the Ennead can be seen as “hermetic paradise”:

‘Then, stripped of the activities of the cosmos, he enters the substance of the eighth plain with his own power, and he sings praises to the Father with those who are present; those who are near rejoice at his coming. Being made like to those who are there together, he also hears certain powers which are above the eighth sphere, singing praises to God with sweet voice. Then in due order, they ascend to the Father and they surrender themselves to the powers, and becoming the powers they are merged in God. This is the end, the Supreme Good, for those who have had the higher knowledge: to become God.’

Corpus Hermeticum 1.26

For the monist mystics, the Throne or “supreme sphere” (al-falak al-a’zam) is the mover that turns the wheel of the heavens. Spurred by the divine love that initiated the act of creation, the Throne’s movement sets the Pedestal and lesser spheres turning, and their combined motion, interaction, and “manifold configurations” produce the “principles of the generic, specific and individual corporeal forms” that make up the world of bodies. 

Eternity and Time

The monist mystics believe that the origin of time (aṣl al-zamān) is the [Divine] Name ‘the Eternity’ (al-dahr). Time – like all other physical conditions – is inevitably the modified expression of a universal principle. This principle, the Divine Name al-dahr, makes its influence felt, so we are told, in all degrees of existence and all phases of human ontogenesis. This mirrors the hermetic view on eternity, time, and generation. Nous, the First Intellect, teaches Hermes in Corpus Hermeticum 11.2. 

My son, hear about time, God and the all: God, eternity, the cosmos, time and generation. God creates eternity; eternity, the cosmos; the cosmos, time; and time, generation. The Supreme Good, beauty, bliss and wisdom are, as it were, the essence of God. The essence of eternity is unchanging identity; of the cosmos, order; of time, change; of generation, life and death. But the active power of God is mind and soul; that of eternity, duration and immortality; of the cosmos, the everlasting revolution of stars and planets; of time, growth and diminution; of generation, the creation of qualities. Therefore, eternity is in God, the cosmos in eternity, time in the cosmos, generation in time. Eternity stands still before god, the cosmos is moved in eternity, time passes through the cosmos and generation takes place in time.”

Corpus Hermeticum 11.2

Noteworthy is that Nous, or the First Intellect, teaches that “the active power of God is mind and soul”, which is exactly as the monist mystics see it when they combine the Creator-Nous with the Universal Soul. 

The Sublunary World 

Apart from the occasional reference to the “world of generation and corruption” and the “kingdoms of nature” (al-muwalladāt), the monist mystics of Islam generally say little about the physical make-up of the world beneath the lowest heaven, appearing instead to accept without comment the standard theories of his day. 

The first three kingdoms, naturally enough, are those of minerals, plants, and animals. Situated above these the fourth and highest kingdom is that of the human being, “created in God’s image”; and it is with the appearance of man that the cosmogonic process reaches its end. This comes very close to Corpus Hermeticum I.12:

‘Nous, the Father of all, who is life and light, brought forth Man, the same as himself, whom he loved as his own child, for Man was very beautiful, bearing the image of his Father. It was really his’ own form that God loved, and he handed over to him all his creation.’

Corpus Hermeticum I.12

Conceived as the seal and sum of God’s creation, the human being is deemed to mark the end-point in the descent of God’s amr or creative command. Tracing the command’s descent through the ontological and cosmological hierarchy, the monist mystic Qūnawi writes: 

‘The command descends unseen from the reality of realities (haqiqat al-ḥaqā’iq)… along a central, axial degree, with a non-manifest, intelligible motion, to the breath of the Most Merciful (al-nafas al-raḥmānī) described as the ‘Primordial Mist’ (al-‘amā’) – thence to the rank of the Pen or First Intellect, then to the Tablet or Soul, then to the Throne, then the Pedestal, then the heavens, then the elements, then the engendered kingdoms of nature, until it arrives at the human being… Then, having reached the end of its descent in man’s manifest form it returns to the perfect, universal reality that is specific to the human being, namely the reality of realities, and thus does it complete a full circle whose rule abides until the Pen finishes writing God’s knowledge of His creation.’

To return to God is therefore to make the cycle in the reverse order.

Knowledge of Man’s creator and source

Like Hermes, the monist mystics of Islam impress upon their students the importance of understanding the human predicament in all its facets – from its ontological causes to its earthly nature. They followed broadly the traditional mabdaʾ wa maʿād scheme. 

The monist mystics laud the knowledge of man’s “origin” (mabdaʾ) and “end” (ghāya), and of his “journey” (riḥla) between the two, as “one of the most noble ornaments adorning the souls of the intelligent”. Especially knowledge concerning man’s “existential journey”, the metaphysics concerned with the eternal causes and underlying reality of things, and the science of man’s exitus and reditus (mabdaʾ wa maʿād) illuminates man’s path leading back to God.

We see this great emphasis on higher knowledge of our origin also in the hermetic texts, for example in Corpus Hermeticum IV.4:

‘Plunge into this bowl, if you can, having faith that you will rise to him that sent down the bowl, realising why you came into being.’ Those who heard the proclamation, merged with Nous, partook of higher knowledge and became perfect and complete, since they had received Nous. Those who missed the proclamation had the Word, but had not received Nous, ignorant as they were as to why they were born, and from whom.’

Corpus Hermeticum IV.4

Love

The monist mystics of Islam identify God’s love as the “motive” (bāʿith) of creation. Creation entails man’s descent from God’s knowledge to manifest existence, and therefore brings about his separation (faṣl) – albeit in appearance alone – from the “homeland of the non-manifest”. 

How can it be that love itself is the cause of separation from the beloved? The answer, we are told by the monist mystics, is that such estrangement is necessary as love always presupposes a certain degree of separation in order that its power (sulṭān) be made manifest.

Insofar as “nothing can act upon anything else in respect of that by which they are different or opposed” it follows that “nothing can love anything else in respect of that by which they differ”, such that, in reality, “the lover only ever loves himself”, a principle the monist mystics deem to hold true of love both human and divine. 

God does not love creatures in respect of their being other than Him but in respect of their participation in His Attributes. The beloved, then, is like a mirror in which the lover’s hidden beauty is made manifest.

In keeping with this view the monist mystics speak of the perfect man (Anthropos in Hermeticism) – who is the final cause of existence – as being a “perfect mirror of the True” (majlan tāmm li-l-ḥaqq) in which God beholds the multiplicity hidden in His absolute oneness.

Love plays an important part too in the monist mystics’ conception of the spiritual path, both as the force carrying the initiate forward and as the principle presiding over the chief stages of his progress.

The monist mystics believe that a perfectly balanced spiritual mizāj is the outward sign of the authority of the heart. Until the initiate becomes a ‘companion of the heart’ (ṣāḥib-i dil) he should not cease striving to attain this degree, by practicing the spiritual exercises and means of countering the desires of the soul which his shaykh has prescribed, as distinct from those of his own choice. However, once he has become a companion of the heart, Love (ʿishq) is his master (ustādh) from that moment on. Having reached that point, it is he himself who determines his actions.

This mirrors what is stated in the Corpus Hermeticum, for example:

“This is the image of God, O Tat, that has been drawn for you, as far as it can be. If you observe it clearly and reflect upon it with the eyes of the heart, believe me, my son, you will find the way to higher things. In fact the image itself will guide you. For sight of the image has a special quality of its own. It dwells in those who have already seen it and draws them upward, just as they say a magnet draws up iron.”

And:

“Stop, be sober. Look up with the eyes of the heart; and if all of you cannot, at least those who can.”

“… seek one who will lead you by the hand to the gates of the knowledge in your heart. There is the bright light, clear of darkness, where no one gets drunk, but all are sober, looking with the heart to Him who wills to be seen. He cannot be heard, He cannot be uttered, nor seen by the eyes, but by Nous and the heart.”

Attaining the degree of “companion of the heart” is synonymous with the “spiritual opening” (fatḥ), specifically the idea of love’s irrationality – or rather its transcending the bounds of reason (ʿaql). The spiritual opening of the heart can be seen as the equivalent to receiving Nous and being able to see with the eye of Nous in Hermeticism.

The Spiritual Ascent

According to the monist mystics every wayfarer who is following a path to God, whichever path it be, is thereby undertaking a miʿrāj” – a term traditionally associated almost exclusively with the Prophet’s ascension through the seven heavens, though here it is applied generically to all spiritual ascensions

This miʿrāj” is another kind of spiritual ascent, which is undertaken once only. The monist mystic Qūnawī calls it the miʿrāj al-taḥlīl, or “ascension of unbinding” because it is by means of it that the initiate successively “dissolves” each of the manifold determinations acquired during his descent through the stages of lodging. 

This miʿrāj, then, is the second half of the full cycle of human existence, or “circle of completion” (dāʾirat al-tamāmīya) ending in perfection, which is why it is conceived of as starting at the very mid-point of man’s existential journey, that is, the stage at which the individual reaches full maturity.

The monist mystic Qūnawī writes:

“The [perfect human being] whose existence has been decreed becomes manifest first in the metaphysical degree of the Sublime Pen and then within that of the Guarded Tablet; and thus does he continue to descend, passing through every presence, acquiring their characteristics and becoming imbued with their influences – while nevertheless retaining those non-manifest, essential attributes which he acquired through the initial act of existenciation – wherefore, even in the act of descending he ascends (hākadhā munḥadiran yartaqī) until the moment when the form of his matter is determined in the womb, in the manner which has already been expounded. Once he has reached the stage of integral individuality, he then grows and develops, passing from one phase to another until the perfection of his genesis is achieved when he reaches maturity in mid-life, whereupon he starts ascending again by casting off [the determinations he acquired during his descent] in order to bring about the second intelligible composition (al-tarkīb al-maʿnawī al-thānī) which the gnostics (ʿārifūn) realise after the [spiritual] opening (fatḥ).

Now, this ascension is that of the foremost from among God’s folk – as distinct from simply all those who achieve the opening – and is called the ‘ascension of unbinding’ because from the very moment he leaves the Earth there is nought through which the wayfarer passes on his journey to the Higher World, – be it an element, presence or celestial sphere – save he leaves the appropriate part with it – namely that which he took from it when he first passed through it.

This, then, he does in accordance with the divine command: {Verily, God commands you to return that which He has placed in your trust to its owners.} Such relinquishment (tark) consists in the spirit’s turning away from the part in question and from the desire to control it, and likewise in the weakening of the correspondence between the two owing to the increased dominance of the essential bond between the spirit [of the wayfarer] and the True, by dint of which he ascends towards Him and devotes himself to Him with all his heart. Hence, when he arrives at the divine dignity of the Essence – albeit without having traversed any distance – according to the manner and the path expounded earlier on, naught remains with him save the divine secret, which he received when God first turned towards him [to bring him into existence].

The theory of the miʿrāj al-taḥlīl can also be compared with the Proclean concept of anagoge, envisaged as an “elevation through the return to simplicity”. According to Proclus’ theory of anagoge, “during the [pure soul’s] ascent to her origins, the mortal soul and the associated pneumatic body are purged away and perish while the elemental envelopes are discarded in their respective spheres”.

Although Qūnawī writes here simply of “leaving” these acquired qualities in their respective spheres, he observes elsewhere that this process of unbinding does not imply the irrevocable loss of the initiate’s multiplicity, but rather its resolution within his unity. 

It is worth observing too that Qūnawī’s conception of the soul’s ascent forms a significant point of contention in his debate with the philosopher Ṭūsī, for the latter roundly rejects the possibility of the individual soul’s ascending until it becomes universal. In response, Qūnawī argues that this ascent should be conceived of, not in the sense of an individual essence’s (dhāt) becoming something else, but simply as a rediscovery of what it had always been in reality:

“Your assertion – may God keep and preserve you – in objection to our saying that ‘the soul may ascend until it becomes universal’, namely that this is impossible, would seem to suggest that you construe this in the sense of a fusion in which two radically distinct essences (dhātayn) become a single essence. That, however, is not at all what we meant thereby, nor did we mean that the soul, qua individual, unites with the Universal Soul … Rather, what is intended is simply that the soul transcends its individual state (juzʾīyatu-hā) by casting off the accidental restrictive attributes (tansalikh min awṣāfi-hā al-taqyīdīyati-l-ʿāriḍa) on account of which it had been called ‘individual’, such that it returns to its original universality; whereupon, the attributes that could be predicated of it in its primordial state can be so again, simply by virtue of the [soul’s] realisation of this identity and the removal of the accidental obstacles [impeding this realisation].”

The initiate’s ascent through the higher spheres is specifically portrayed as being achieved through realizing the essential continuity between all the higher states of his being, ending with his effacement (fanāʾ) in God’s presence.

For the monist mystics of Islam, this marks the end of the initiate’s spiritual reditus. Having cast off the determinations and restrictive attributes that bound him to a specific state – and kept him tied to the chain of causality – he has returned to the “necessary freedom” of his metaphysical ground. This is exactly how the mabdaʾ wa maʿād scheme is described in the Corpus Hermeticum I.24-26:

‘You have taught me these things well, as I wished, O Nous.Now tell me how the way back is found?’
To this Poimandres replied: ‘First, in the dissolution of the material body, one giveso the body itself up to change. The form you had becomes unseen, and you surrender to the divine power your habitual character, now inactive. The bodily senses return to their own sources. Then they become parts again and rise for action, while the seat of emotions and desire go to mechanical nature.
‘Thus a man starts to rise up through the harmony of the cosmos. To the first plain he surrenders the activity of growth and diminution; to the second the means of evil, trickery now being inactive; to the third covetous deceit, now inactive, and to the fourth the eminence pertaining to a ruler, being now without avarice; to the fifth impious daring and reckless audacity and to the sixth evil impulses for wealth, all of these being now inactive, and to the seventh plain the falsehood which waits in ambush.
‘Then, stripped of the activities of the cosmos, he enters the substance of the eighth plain with his own power, and he sings praises to the Father with those who are present; those who are near rejoice at his coming. Being made like to those who are there together, he also hears certain powers which are above the eighth sphere, singing praises to God with sweet voice. Then in due order, they ascend to the Father and they surrender themselves to the powers, and becoming the powers they are merged in God. This is the end, the Supreme Good, for those who have had the higher knowledge: to become God.

Corpus Hermeticum I.24-26

Hermeticism as the highest level of the mystics

For the monist mystics of Islam the term muḥaqqiqūn, or “verifiers”, generally appears to denote the preeminent mystics who have “verified” the truth of their doctrines.

They regard the philosophers  (ḥukamāʾ) in a more favorable light than the mutakallimūn, or rationalist theologians; for, regardless of their religious orientation, the philosophers are still in possession of certain fundamental premises which elude the exponents of kalām: most notably the monist insistence on the utterly transcendent – and therefore unknowable – nature of the One, and on the incommensurability between God and creation.

For the hermetic monist lbn Sab’in, Hermeticism was the highest path to knowledge. In his masterwork Budd al-Arif, Ibn Sab’in outlines five paths to knowledge, from lowest to highest:

  • The path of the legist
  • The path of the theologian
  • The path of the philosopher or advocate of Greek traditions
  • The path of the Islamic mystic (Sufi)
  • The greater path of the hermetic mystic

The path of the hermetic mystic, or ‘Fully-Actualized Intimate’ as Ibn Sab’in calls it, is similar to what the other monist mystics call the path of the verifiers or realizers, and according to them is the highest form of mysticism as it comes nearest to the truth (haqq).

Ibn Sab’in most senior student Shushtarī presents verification (which he calls realization (taḥqīq)) as the culminating and transformative experience that the mystic seeks to attain. The mystic considers material things not as proofs for God, but as “mere apparitions.” They are “essentially dead,” or “raised up apparitions, tents of the divine command that are pitched by it.” 

From the perspective of the Verifier/Realizer, a Sufi is one who begins to proclaim that God is the sole Reality but has not fully realized that assertion. He still perceives created existence as the empty space of a tent and is aware of the difference between God and the cosmos, the latter being the locus of God’s manifestation. 

While the Sufi mystic sees the created realm as a dim shadow or a silhouette, the Realizer experiences a complete absorption in direct and unitive knowledge of God, and the separative realm of other-than-God is extinguished. 

The Realizer is not a monist in the sense of believing that God and creation form an ontological, unitary whole with one underlying ultimate substance. Rather, the Realizer verifies the bold assertion that creation does not exist at all. It is not a separate entity from God. 

The Realizer affirms a non-dualist truth and denies the very existence of the Sufi’s empty “tents” of material creation. God is not veiled by anything, and the category of other-than-God is illusory and non-existent.

The Realizer (muḥaqqiq), therefore, neither discovers God through creation like the Ashʿarite, nor creation through God like the Sufi, but rather knows “God through God, and sees none alongside God but God, and considers things [other than God] to be nonexistent.”

For Shushtarī, the station of the Sufi is located midway, as it were, between the theologian and the Realizer. Sufism stands in relation to Ashʿarism just as the school of Realization stands in relation to Sufism. Because while the Sufi recognizes the inadequacy of the rational constructs of Ashʿarism in proving God’s existence, the Realizer rejects the Sufi conception of a “journey to God” altogether.

For the Realizer, conceiving of the journey to God in terms of arrival at, separation from, union with, proximity to, or distance from God is as inadequate as the theologian’s cosmological and teleological arguments for God’s existence.

The Realizer is both the perceived and the perceiver, the subject and object of awareness. He is unaware of his awareness and is no longer aware of himself since his awareness is none other than God’s. 

The Realizer attains actual realization after losing awareness of his awareness of God, in contrast to the Sufi, who is aware of his awareness.

The Realizer loses his “traces” (sing. rasm), or the illusion of separative existence that he once ascribed to himself and to creation. He returns to where he began, thereby discovering his pre-eternal station in God, and completing the full circle of the journey “to” God. Upon completing the journey, the Realizer proclaims that there is no journey to God in the first place since He is beginningless and endless and cannot be “arrived at.” 

The Realizer professes sheer divine oneness (ṣāḥib al-waḥda al- maḥḍa) and is directly aware of divine unity (shāʿir bihā) through God. 

In Shushtarī’s treatise entitled “The Keys of Existence: Calling Attention to the Circle of Illusion” (al-Maqālīd al-wujūdiyya fī l-tanbīhʿalā al-dāʾira al-wahmiyya), he describes a visionary experience that he had in Egypt which illustrates this circle of realization. He explains that the rationalist (ʿāqil) theologian completes one-third of the circle, the Sufi knower of God (ʿārif) completes two-thirds, and the Realizer completes the full circle, thereby returning where he started, and immersing himself back in sensible reality once more 

The Realizer, therefore, meets the rationalist, the Sufi knower of God, and the monotheist (muwaḥḥid) at their own levels, assenting to the knowledge and experience of each one while critiquing them at the same time.

Neoplatonic or Hermetic?

The crucial inquiry is whether Islamic monist mystics align with hermeticists or Neoplatonists. Answering this is challenging due to the strong influence of the Ikhwan al-Șafa, who integrated platonic and hermetic ideas into Islamic mysticism and philosophy. Initially, let’s explore the distinctions between Neoplatonism and Hermeticism.

Neoplatonism and Hermeticism, though distinct in focus, coexist harmoniously. Neoplatonism primarily delves into theoretical and philosophical aspects, while Hermeticism predominantly emphasizes practical and ritual elements. Hermeticism draws considerable inspiration from Neoplatonism, and conversely, (late) Neoplatonism is significantly influenced by Hermeticism.

The Neoplatonist Iamblichus starts his De Mysteriis with:

Hermes, the God who presides over language, was formerly very properly considered as common to all priests ; and the power who presides over the true science concerning the Gods is one and the same in the whole of things.
Hence our ancestors dedicated the inventions of their wisdom to this deity, inscribing all their own writings with the name of Hermes. If, therefore, we participate of a portion of this God, adapted and commensurate to our powers, you do well to propose your theological doubts to the priests, as friends, and to make these doubts known to them.

De Mysteriis

The writings ascribed to Hermes are undoubtedly the Corpus Hermeticum, and it means that Iamblichus had access to these teachings and was working with them.

Neoplatonism and Hermeticism are both Monist with a polytheistic framework. The Greek philosophers themselves said that they learned their philosophy from the Egyptian priests.

Neoplatonism and Hermeticism can be seen as siblings with the same parents. Because of this, most of the major doctrines are more or less the same. They are both Monistic and polytheistic and ultimately speak to a desire to liberate the soul from the illusory sensible world.

What is Hermeticism?

  • Hermeticism is Monist, its view of humans is bipartite, where we consist of soul and body
  • Hermeticism sees reality as consisting of “illusionary” divine phantasms.
  • Hermeticism is concerned with healing the soul from its contamination by the negative passions.
  • Hermeticism cultivates the essential virtues of piety, gratitude, and reverence (eusebeia) in connection with learning to “open one’s heart” to (or learn to “see with the eye of Nous“) divine beauty, thereby becoming a loving caretaker and sibling of our brother the cosmos and learning why we were created and by whom.
  • Hermeticism culminates in “becoming the aiōn

In Hermeticism it is crucial to become a “stranger to the world” and be rebirthed by being liberated from the irrational tormentors that have taken possession of the body. Being reborn might lead to a supreme hypercosmic experience of the Ogdoad, the dimension of divinized souls, the Ennead of noetic powers, and even the pēgē, the supreme Source of all manifestation.

What distinguishes Neoplatonism from Hermeticism?

  • Hermeticism notably elevates and deifies the Nous more than Neoplatonism does.
  • Hermeticism holds a more positive view of the material world, represented as physis or Nature.
  • Hermeticism exhibits a stronger inclination towards non-discursive revelation of the Divine experience, contrasting with Neoplatonism’s emphasis on discursive reasoning for exploration.

Hermeticism diverges from Neoplatonism in terms of its nature. While Neoplatonism operates as a formal philosophy, involving rigorous application of logic and argument with specific tenets or axioms, Hermeticism takes on a mystical approach with distinct goals and methods.

Hermeticism seeks to transcend reason and rationality through devotion and gnōsis, delving into realms beyond the reach of conventional philosophy. In Hermetic texts, Hermēs himself expresses a critical stance toward what is conventionally regarded as “philosophy.” In the Asclepius Hermes says:

    Hermēs: “…Speaking as a prophet, I will tell you that after us will remain none of that simple regard for philosophy found only in the continuing reflection and holy reverence by which one must recognize divinity. The many make philosophy obscure in the multiplicity of their reasoning.”

    Tat: “What is it that the many do to make philosophy incomprehensible? How do they obscure it in the multiplicity of their reasoning?”

    Hermēs: “In this way, Asclepius: by combining it through ingenious argument with various branches of study that are not comprehensible—arithmetikē and music and geometry. Pure philosophy that depends only on reverence for god should attend to these other matters only to wonder at the recurrence of the stars, how their measure stays constant in prescribed stations and in the orbit of their turning; it should learn the dimensions, qualities and quantities of the land, the depths of the sea, the power of fire and the nature and effects of all such things in order to commend, worship and wonder at the skill and mind of god. Knowing music is nothing more than being versed in the correct sequence of all things together as allotted by divine reason. By divine song, this sequencing or marshalling of each particular thing into a single whole through reason’s craftwork produces a certain concord—very sweet and very true.

    “Accordingly, the people who will come after us, deceived by the ingenuity of sophists, will be estranged from the true, pure and holy philosophy. To adore the godhead with simple mind and soul and to honor his works, also to give thanks to god’s will (which alone is completely filled with good), this is a philosophy unprofaned by relentlessly curious thinking.”

    Asclepius 12—14

    To answer the question if the monist mystics of Islam are Neoplatonic or hermetic we need to look at how they practiced their mysticism and how they valued philosophy.

    The monist mystics of Islam:

    • see their monist mysticism as higher than philosophy
    • emphasize that reason and rational discourse are limited and will not make us reach divine Truth
    • see the interaction – or union – of the divine with Nature, through the perfect human (Anthropos), as one of love
    • practice a radical form of Monism where God is the only being that exists and all else, including humans, are temporary divine phantasms
    • are concerned with healing the soul from its contamination by the negative effects coming from embodiment
    • practice a miʿrāj al-taḥlīl or anagoge, envisaged as an “elevation through the return to simplicity” through higher spheres back to God
    • practice spiritual exercises to open the heart to receive divine truths

    Of course, a big difference is that the monist mystics of Islam do not practice polytheism, but they recognize different entities existing between God and Man, and they make use of the qualities and influence of the stars and planets to practice astrology and magic.

    Conclusion

    As stated at the beginning of this article, tackling the possible hermetic roots of the monist mystics of Islam, and the many similarities between Hermeticism and their monist cosmology is too big of a task for one article. This tantalizing connection deserves a more serious, academic approach.

    Therefore, this article can only be a preliminary exploration that hopefully shows a possible survival of hermetic philosophy within the monist mysticism of Islam, a survival that the monist mystics themselves see as the ancient lineage that started with Hermes that they are part of.

    One thing is clear, the monist mystics have a radically different worldview than their fellow Muslim theologians jurists, philosophers, and Sufis. It is so different that they are scorned and persecuted for their beliefs by all four types of Muslim intellectuals and many found a safe haven only in Egypt and Damascus, amongst their fellow monist mystics who trace their wisdom all the way back to Hermes Trismegistus.

    Recommended reading

    • The Arabic Hermes: From Pagan Sage to Prophet of Science by Kevin van Bladel
    • Shushtarī’s Treatise on the Limits of Theology and Sufism: Discursive Knowledge (ʿilm), Direct Recognition (maʿrifa), and Mystical Realization (taḥqīq) in al-Risāla al-Quṣāriyya by Yousef Casewit
    • La Voie et la Loi by Ibn Khaldun
    • The Sufi Doctrine of Man: Ṣadr al-Dīn al-Qūnawī’s Metaphysical Anthropology by Richard Todd
    • Sufism and Magic: amulets from the Islamic world by Alexander Fodor
    • Abū al-Hasan al-Shushtarī: Songs of Love and Devotion by Lourdes María Alvarez
    • The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind by Garth Fowden
    • Becoming Gold: Zosimos of Panopolis and the Alchemical Arts in Roman Egypt by Shannon Grimes, PhD
    • Ibn Sab’in of the Ricote Valley; the First and Last Islamic Place in Spain by Govert Westerveld

    Similar Posts

    Subscribe
    Notify of
    guest

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

    0 Comments
    Inline Feedbacks
    View all comments