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Was Ibn Sab’in a follower of the Way of Hermes?

In Christian Spain, Hermeticism diffused outward from the city of Toledo after its reconquest in 1085. It was especially influential in the region of Saragossa, which fell to Christian forces in 1118. Important translators of Hermetic works included Bishop Michael of Tarazona (present-day Tudela, d. 1151) and Hugh of Santalla, who discovered several Arabic works attributed to Hermes in the town of Rueda, between Saragossa and Tudela, to which Muslim forces had with drawn after the fall of Saragossa itself.

Some scholars believe that Hermetic doctrines can also be found in Kitab al-hidaya ila fara’id al-qulub (Guide to the Duties of Hearts), by the Jewish mystic Bahya ibn Paqūda. This work, which was originally written in Arabic, was translated into Hebrew in 1161. The presence of Hermetic teachings among the Jews of Spain is further attested by Moses Maimonides, who, in a let ter to his translator Samuel ibn Tibbon, calls it an ‘ancient philosophy’ that interferes with Aristotle’s more rigorous and intellectually satisfying system of thought.

[All] of the prophets are leaders to whom one should look for guidance in all matters save those that are abrogated by our Law. Indeed, common sense (al-umür al-ma’qula), the revealed laws, and the prophets are all in agreement on this matter and there is no dispute about it. The only disagreement is over the establishment of revealed laws [i.e. religions] and rules of conduct, which, in any case, are of one nature because they all guide and urge [man] toward the Truth and make known to the traveller the way to the paradise of God and His good pleasure. There is no schism between [religions] in all of this; the only schism and division among them is in rank, order of precedence, and context. May God grant us guidance through all of [the prophets] and allow us to enter their ranks through His mercy and generosity!

Budd al-‘arif, p. 54

It is not difficult to argue that Ibn Sab’in was more of a Hermetist than a Sufi. First of all, he makes it clear that the source of his doctrines is Hermes Trismegistus rather than some Sufi shaykh or even the Prophet Muhammad.

Hermes, who is also called ‘The Greatest Sage’ (al Hakim al-A’zam) by Ibn Sab’in, is depicted in Budd al-‘arif as superior to Aristotle, who is simply referred to as ‘The Sage’ (al-Hakim).

As Ibn Sab’in states toward the beginning of Budd al-‘arif, the function of the prophets is not to originate doctrine but to reaffirm a primordial wisdom that transcends all of the revealed reli gions.

By positing the origins of this wisdom to a period long before the advent of Islam, Ibn Sab’in diminishes the centrality of Muhammad as a source of religious precedent.

This is further illustrated by his lack of regard for hadith, or Prophetic traditions. With few exceptions, the only hadiths to appear with any frequency in Budd al-‘arif are not those that reflect Muhammad’s own interpretations of Islam, but rather the so-called ahadith qudsiyya, or extra-Qur’anic inspi rations that were revealed to the Prophet by God.

A second reason for calling Ibn Sab’in a Hermetist instead of a Sufi involves his desire to transcend tasawwuf as a spiritual method. Although he professes a great respect for Sufism and encourages his followers to embark upon the Sufi way as a means of attaining primordial knowledge, he asserts that even the most advanced stages of Sufism fall short of the ultimate truth.

This truth is instead to be found at a higher level, that of the ‘Fully-Actualized Intimate [of God]’ (al-muqarrib al muḥaqqaq), who attains gnosis by following the way of our greatest impeccable teacher’ (mu’allimună al-a’zam al ma’sum), the ‘Greatest Hermes’ (hirmis al-a’zam).

… may the man endowed with Nous recognise that he is immortal, that desire is the cause of death, and may he come to know all things that are.

Corpus Hermeticum I.18

In doctrinal terms, Ibn Sab’in’s al-muqarrib al-muḥaqqaq is little bit different from the figure whom Hermes calls the ‘Antropos‘. In the Corpus Hermeticum, Hermes describes the person with Nous as a mystic whose human soul (Gr. psyche) has freed itself from the body and is prepared to unite with the Universal Soul (Gr. Nous).

“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

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Abu Bakr Sirajuddin Cook

Greater clarity on the claim that Ibn Sab’in was a follower of Hermes can perhaps be found here: