alchemy

The Way of Hermes and its relationship to both philosophy and mysticism in Islam

Ibn Sab’in can be seen as a Hermetist who used formal logic and mystical discourse to transcend the limits of philosophy and Sufism alike. To make such an assertion, however, it is first necessary to re-examine the issue of Hermetism and its relationship to both philosophy and mysticism in Islam.

The very name of Hermes conjures up a vision of the occult among modern students of philosophy, who associate it with such ‘irrational’ sciences as theurgy, alchemy, and astrology. This is the picture that one gets, for example, from A. E. ‘Afifi’s important article, ‘The Influence of Hermetic Literature on Moslem Thought‘, which links Hermetism in the Islamic world to the pagan traditions of the Sabians of Harran.

There is little doubt that Ibn Sab’in practised so-called ‘occult’ sciences such as theurgy. This can be seen in his assertion that the inner meaning of the Qur’an is to be found in the disconnected letters (al-huruf al-muqatta’ a) that appear at the beginning of many suras. For Ibn Sab’in, these letters comprised formulas of incantation or adjuration (huruf al-qasam) that conferred paranormal powers on those who knew how to use them.

But the mere practice of theurgy alone is not enough to dismiss Ibn Sab’in as an occultist. Many Islamic philosophers whom one would never accuse of occultism believed in traditional sciences (such as astrology) that we would consider occult today. Just because a thinker did not adhere to our own categories of knowledge does not mean that his ideas are unworthy of serious consideration.

Although it would be equally inaccurate to see Ibn Sab’in as a rationalist, his spiritual method was more rationalistic than that of most mystics in his day. Budd al-‘arif is a guidebook for gnostics and an introduction to the subject of mysticism in general. Because of its epistemological focus, much of the work comprises a critical review of the ways to knowledge then current in the Muslim world.

“The present subject is Nous, its powers and variations. We have said that it is one thing in men, but another in irrational creatures. Again, in other creatures it is not beneficent. In each man, as it quells passion and desire, it acts differently and it is necessary to realise that there are some men who possess reason (logos) and others who do not.”

Corpus Hermeticum XII.6

The key to knowledge, says Ibn Sab’in, is the mastery of logic (Gr. Logos). Before seeking divine inspiration, the seeker of truth must first understand the proper methods of reasoning. The person who has learned the Oriental Wisdom ‘sees that knowledge, the knower, and the known are one, just as understanding, the one who understands, and the understood are one.

I, Nous itself, come to the aid of the devout, the noble, pure, merciful, and those who live piously, and my presence becomes a help, and straightaway they know all things.

Corpus Hermeticum I.22

The Supreme Good is unlimited, and it has no beginning and no end. But to us it appears that knowledge has a beginning. Knowledge then is not the origin of the Supreme Good, but for us it provides the origin of what is to be known.

Corpus Hermeticum IV

This monistic and totalizing approach to the concept of oneness is the central theme of Ibn Sab’in’s ‘unified theory’ of existence, which is summarized by the phrase, wahdat al-wujud.

This unified theory is also crucial to Ibn Sab’in’s conception of Hermeticism. Assuming that he accurately portrayed the Hermetic method as understood in the Andalusian Levant, Ibn Sab’in’s discussion of the subject in Budd al-‘arif leads one to believe that monism was a defining aspect of Hermeticism in Muslim Spain.

This conclusion calls into question Festugière’s assertion that it is impossible to construct a system of philosophy that could properly be called Hermeticism. The outlines of Ibn Sab’in’s monistic approach are in fact quite clear.

Although late-antique Hermeticism appears to have manifested itself in several different doctrinal guises, for Ibn Sab’in it was a form of intellectual mysticism that corresponded to what Garth Fowden has termed religio mentis.

Ibn Sab’in’s Hermeticism corresponded closely to the teachings of libellus II, Krater (libellus IV), and libelli V-VII, VIII (Peri Psychis), IX, X (Kleis, ‘The Key’), and XI of the Corpus Hermeticum.

‘Know this,’ he said. ‘That which sees and hears within you is the Word of the Lord, and Nous is God the Father. They are not separate from each other, for their union is life.’

Corpus Hermeticum I.6

Its view of existence was monistic, emanationist, and integrative, and was based on the premise that the unifying factor which underlies all of creation is the Intellectual-Principle (al-‘aql, Gr. Nous).

This spiritual substance (jawhar rūhāni) – the very marrow of existence itself – is referred to metaphorically by Ibn Sab’in as the ‘Supreme Father’ (al-ab al-mu’azzam). He also describes it as ‘the foundational attribute of the universe’ (uss sifat al-‘alam) and ‘the axis around which the existential order revolves’ (al-qutb alladhi yadūru ‘alayhi al-tadbir).

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.

Corpus Hermeticum I.11

The unmoving Nous moves matter thus: since the cosmos is a sphere, that is, a head and there is nothing material above the head, as there is nothing mental below the feet, where all is matter; so Nous is the head, and is itself moved as a sphere, that is, in a manner appropriate to a head.

Corpus Hermeticum X.11
Image header: V0025570 An alchemist working with his assistants at a crucible. Etch
Credit image header: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org An alchemist working with his assistants at a crucible. Etching by F. Pedro after F. Maggiotto. By: Francesco Maggiottoafter: Francesco del PedroPublished: -Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

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