The Hermetic method of gnostic intellection cannot be practised in isolation. Proceeding correctly requires an inspired teacher – Ibn Sab’in calls him a ‘Speaker’ (mukhatib) – who can translate the discourse of the Intellect/Nous to the disciple.
This disciple or ‘Pupil’ (muta’allim) will in turn become a Speaker for another generation of Hermetic devotees. In this way, the method is passed on in a living chain of teachers to future generations.
Although the exact roles of Speaker and Pupil are not discussed in detail in Budd al-‘arif, they seem to agree in general with the pedagogical style (Gr. paidacia) expressed in the Corpus Hermeticum. In late-antique Hermetism, pedagogy involved more than just teaching; it also implied filiation. So too in Budd al-‘arif. For Ibn Sab’in, each Pupil is a figurative ‘son’ of his Speaker.
Hermes: The listener, O son, should be of one mind and soul with the speaker and his hearing should be quicker than the voice of the speaker.Corpus Hermeticum X.17
This point becomes crucial when one realizes that the ultimate Speaker is the Intellectual-Principle/Nous in the guise of the Unmediated Logos:
[The Speaker] said: ‘Every Divine Intellect/Nous (kull ‘aql ilahi) makes things known because it is Intellect/Nous itself and its divine subjectivity (fulanuhu ilahi) controls and directs everything. This is because the particularity (khassiyya) of the Intellect/Nous is knowledge (logos). Therefore, its completion and perfection lie in the fact that it acts as an omnipotent regulator (mudabbiran ‘aliman).’Budd al-‘arif
This identification of the Speaker with the Intellectual-Principle/Nous means that every human spiritual master, from the ‘Impeccable Master’ Hermes Trismegistus to the present-day shaykh, is a figurative ‘son’ of the Intellect/Nous‘. As such, he is equally a ‘son’ of the One out of which the Intellectual-Principle/Nous issues.
Passing from the domain of idealiter to that of realiter, or from inward structure to outward metaphor, one may even call him a ‘Son of the Circle’, or ‘Ibn Sab’in’.
For Ibn Sab’in, it was the message, more than the messenger, that counted. This perennial wisdom was inscribed on every human heart and had the power to awaken the intellect to the transcendent substance that lay behind all things. This substance was the Intellectual-Principle/Nous, or ‘axis around. which the existential order revolves’.
When objectified as a name, the Intellect/Nous is called ‘Allah’, and is conceived as the single and unique source of being. The Intimate, however, sees more than this because he sees things as they really are. He looks directly into the face of Allah, while putting the Logos behind him. He has turned his face both from [the Logos] and from the Logophoric Essences (al-dhawat al mukallama).’
Ibn Sab’in’s Hermetism was thus an intellectual mysticism, whose view of pedagogy had as much in common with the Greek Lyceum as with the zāwiyas of institutionalized Sufism. It was not a path for every Muslim, or even for every mystic.
If one wished to follow it, the most important requirement that which determined whether one could fulfil its requirements in the first place was the desire to seek the guidance of the inner Self, wherever it may lead. Ibn Sab’in sums up this ‘prerequisite of the gnostic’ in the following terms:
If your Soul speaks to you and causes you to examine the truth as it really is, then be with the Intimate. If it disputes with you, then be with the philosopher. If it gives you sufficiency and causes you to banish strife from your spirit, then be with the Sufi. If it causes you to mix with and speak to the possessed, then be with the Ash’arite. And if it causes you to regulate the ethics of behaviour, then be with the faqih.Budd al-‘arif, page 172