The Hermetic mystic and the four lesser paths to knowledge

For lbn Sab’in Hermeticism was the highest path to knowledge. In his masterwork Budd al-Arif he outlines four lesser paths to knowledge:

  1. The path of the legist
  2. The path of the theologian
  3. The path of the philosopher or advocate of Greek traditions
  4. The path of the Islamic mystic

The lesser path of the legist

The legist bases his knowledge on the contents of the Qur’an and the Prophetic Sunna. Among the hadiths that make up the Sunna, a favourite of both Sufis and philosophers is: ‘The first thing that God created was the intellect.‘ This tradition is quoted more than once by lbn Sab’in, and is central to his intellectual model of cosmology and eschatology.

For the legist, however, this tradition simply means that the human intellect, and not Nous, was the first thing created by God. Because the epistemology of the legist is based on tradition, the legist’s understanding of the intellect must depend on a literalistic reading of authoritative sources.

The most important of these is the Qur’an, which speaks of the intellect as something given by God to ‘a people who understand‘, ‘one who has a heart‘, or ‘the foremost in knowledge‘. What the legist does not perceive is the inner
meaning of these passages, which for Ibn Sab’in demonstrate the existence of Nous as a substance above and beyond the human intellect.

The lesser path of the theologion

A more sophisticated understanding of the intellect can be found among the dogmatic theologians. Although the method of the theologian is similarly based on tradition, the theologian goes beyond the legist by using logical reasoning and the dialectical process to interpret the meaning of Qur’an and hadith.

He is not content to merely reproduce tradition, but uses his own reason to define the intellect as an abstract concept. According to lbn Sab’in, the pitfall of this method is the fallacy of circular reasoning, since the human intellect is the criterion upon which the theologian’s understanding of Nous is based.

The method of the theologian is to reason dialectically, by raising and eliminating contrary possibilities:

  • Is the intellect existent or nonexistent?
    Since it is distinguishable, it must be existent.
  • Is it eternal or created?
    It cannot be eternal because it comes into being after a time in which it was not. Thus, it is created.
  • If it is created, is it an innate quality (sifa) or a derived attribute (mawsuf)?
    Since that which is modified (mawsuf) cannot exist without a modifier (sifa), it must be innate.
  • If it is innate, is it animate or inanimate?
    It cannot be inanimate because it acts, so it must be animate. Now animate qualities are characterized by either perfection or imperfection. The intellect cannot be imperfect, because it is wholly good. Therefore, it must be a perfect attribute.
  • But which attribute is it: understanding, life, speech, knowledge, hearing, sight, smell, taste, touch, will, or power?
    Since the substance of the human intellect is knowledge, its attribute must be knowledge. Knowledge comes in three varieties: necessary (daruri); a priori (badihi); and acquired (kasbi). Intellect cannot consist of acquired knowledge, since it is prior to the acquisition of knowledge. Nor can it consist of necessary knowledge because it already exists; thus, the nature of the intellect must be a priori.

At this point, says Ibn Sab’in, most theologians lose their way, for their rootedness in the human intellect leads them to conclude that Nous is a created accident (‘arad) and not a primordial substance (jawhar). This is an error of the first magnitude, for it involves the fallacy of mixing separate and discrete natures. According to Ibn Sab·in’s line of reasoning, if the intellect is truly a priori, it can only be an archetype or a paradigm.

An archetype or paradigm is a substance and not an accident because it is a ‘first creation’ (mubdi’ al-awwal) that functions as a ‘governing essence’ (dhat muhkama) or model for others of its type. Since Nous is the archetype for the human intellect, it too must be a substance, albeit a spiritual one (jawhar ruhani).

The corollary that Ibn Sab·in draws from this argument is that the human intellect is identical in substance with the Nous itself. This is the crux of his concept of the ‘oneness of existence’ (wahdat al-wujud), which is part of his monistic interpretation of the Islamic theology of unity (tawhid).

Creation for Ibn Sab·in is a two-stage process:

  • At the ‘first creation’ the unitary Nous is particularized into multiple ideal or archetypal forms by the divine command: ‘Be!’ (kun).
  • This is followed by a ‘second creation’, in which the actual forms of things in the world are generated from the substance of Nous through the divine statement: ‘And they are’ (fa-yakun).

The multiplicity of forms that results from this generative process (sudur) is not fully real, however, because the unique substance of Nous remains present in all of creation.

The lesser path of the philosopher

After refuting the theologian view of the intellect, Ibn Sab’in next turns to the philosophers. As one would expect from a medieval Muslim epistemologist, his description of philosophical theories of the intellect is heavily Aristotelian.

Ibn Sab’in’s own perspective, however, goes beyond the strict rationalism of Aristotle. Instead, he reconceptualizes Aristotle’s theories in a way which Philip Merlan calls ‘Neoaristotelian’. Neoaristotelianism is a ‘rationally mystical’ philosophy which combines the Neoplatonic doctrine of emanation with Aristotle’s theory of the intellect as interpreted by Alexander of Aphrodisias.

Alexander saw Aristotle as teaching a type of mysticism in which the god whom the philosopher seeks to know through conjunctio (Ar. ittisal) is not the supra-intellectual Absolute, but rather a deity who is thought or thinking itself. This intellectualizing deity is, to all intents and purposes, identical to both Plotinus’ ‘second god’ and Ibn Sab’in’s Nous.

According to Ibn Sab’in, the problem with the philosophers in general is that they fail to realize the centrality of the intellect in the universal scheme of things. This centrality is part and parcel of the ‘unadulterated oneness’ (al-wahda al-mahda) and ‘absolute existence’ (al-wujud al-mutlaq) that characterizes Nous, the ground of creation itself.

lbn Sab’in’s stress on this concept is more than just a philosophical splitting of hairs; for him, it is the fundamental point of the Hermetic or Primordial Sciences (al­’ ulum al-qadima) from the earliest times to the Islamic era.

Once aware of this truth, the mystic understands that, despite the apparent multiplicity of forms, the unique and unitary Nous underlies all forms equally:

What I wish to counsel you is this: that you firmly believe that the universal and the particular and the material and the spiritual are all one. Do not differentiate between them in your mind (damir) from the standpoint of whether or not they were brought into being at the first creation and do not believe that the primordial order of the universe (al-nizam al-qadim) is internally differentiated. Likewise, do not favour the spiritual essences over the others just because they are intelligences ….
The Intimate believes that whatever he attains comes to him from beyond the Spheres, and that when the Intimate attains the realization of union, his state is higher and finer than what the philosopher imagines, for he is distinguished by [his concern with] the universal [alone]. For this reason, the Intimate is satisfied with nothing but Absolute Existence (al-wujud al-mutlaq) . … Do not let the tawhid that you hear others discuss betray you; for the knower, knowledge, and what is known are all One. So know that what is necessary is Existence itself and that nothing issues from it but the One.
Budd al-Arif, p. 196

The lesser path of the Islamic mystic

Although Ibn Sab’in’s discussion of Sufi views of the Intellect is much briefer than that devoted to the philosophers, it is nonetheless interesting because it summarizes doctrines that are hinted at but not detailed in hagiographical works from the same period.

In his view, the Sufi shares much in common with the Hermetic Intimate because both consider concepts such as guidance (hidaya), good fortune (ni’ma), divine satisfaction (ridwan), and happiness (sa’d) to be theophanic expressions of the Qur’anic ‘Beautiful Names of God’ (asma· allah al-husna’). (Q. 7: 180.)

According to Ibn Sab’in, all of the Divine Names are synonymous because they issue from the One through the mediation of Nous. Therefore, the true ‘knower’ (‘arif) refuses to distinguish between subject and predicate in regard to the Divine Names, nor does he try to differentiate levels of existence.

Each name, like Nous which is their source of being, is both unitary and multiple at the same time. Just as every triliteral root in the Arabic language carries within itself all of its derivative meanings in potentia, so too a Divine Name such as al-khabir (The Aware ) carries within itself all of the secondary terms that express the concept of awareness, such as conscience, instinct, comprehension, etc.

Among the Sufi theories of the intellect discussed by Ibn Sab’in are two alternate versions of the ‘Way of the Will’ or ‘Way of Desire’ (tariq al-irada) which became famous in Muslim Spain and North Africa as a hallmark of the doctrinally influential Sufi Ahmad ibn al-‘Arif (d. 536 / 1141).

The closest of these doctrines to Ibn Sab’in’s own is that which conceives of the human being (insan) as being composed of four basic faculties:

  • comprehension (ihata);
  • perception (idrak);
  • informational knowledge (khabar);
  • and desire or will (irada).

Since each of these faculties is also an aspect of the intellect, this means that the intellect must include the capacity for love ( conceived as the attraction toward what is good or beautiful) along with the capacity for intellection. This implies in turn that the archetype of love is contained in Nous.

In the second version of the Way of Desire the intellect is seen to have a dual nature. As a created thing, the intellect is deficient. In this sense, it is symbolized by the worshipper (‘abd), who is similarly deficient before God. In its transcendental aspect, however, where it merges with Nous that is its master and archetype, the intellect is perfect and complete.

In this aspect it is symbolized by the ‘will of the Lord’ (iradat al-rabb). This view of the intellect provides the opening for a new interpretation of the famous Sufi hadith, ‘He who knows himself knows his Lord’ (man ‘arafa nafsahu ‘arafa rabbahu).

For Ibn Sab’in and other hermetic mystics, Soul or Spirit (nafs) is simply another name for Intellect ( ‘aql). According to this line of reasoning, the person who knows the true nature of his soul knows that Soul is indistinguishable from Intellect. As such, it is one in essence with Nous, which is the ‘lord’ or governor of creation. In other words, he who intellects himself also intellects his Lord, for the self – insofar as it consists of Soul/Intellect (nafs = ‘aql) – is the Lord ( ‘aql = rabb).

The greater path of the hermetic mystic

lbn Sab’in concludes his discussion of the intellect by summarizing the doctrines of his own method (madhhab), that of the Fully-Actualized Intimate. In its general outlines, this approach is similar to what some scholars have terme ‘philosophical’ Hermetism.

This type of Hermetism is distinguished from its dualistic or theurgic counterparts by a basic doctrinal simplicity. It rejects any concept of salvation that is conceived in terms of cosmic or ritual drama, and depends instead on what Van Moorsel has called a ‘two-stroke’ structure of spiritualization.

The downward stroke involves the incarnation (hulul) of the soul (nafs) in the body. The upward stroke or ‘pneumatic recovery’ involves the return of the soul to its origin in Nous.

For lbn Sab·in, gnosis is reflexive and is in agreement with the words of the famous hadith qudsi, ‘I was a hidden treasure and I desired to be known.’

This concept is not unique to Hermetism. Many Sufis, from al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi ( d. 295-300 / 905-10) to lbn al-‘Arabi, have said the same thing. However, for lbn Sab·in it is not the Absolute as such which desires to be known, but rather Plotinus’ ‘second god’ or Nous, which continually intellectualizes itself.

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.

The Son of the Circle

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. paidaeia) 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. This point becomes crucial when one realizes that the ultimate Speaker is Nous in the guise of the Unmediated Logos:

‘[The Speaker] said: ‘Every Divine Intellect (kull ‘aql ilahi) makes things known because it is Intellect itself and its divine subjectivity (fulanuhu alahi) controls and directs everything. This is because the particularity (khassiyya) of the Intellect is knowledge. Therefore, its completion and perfection lie in the fact that it acts as an omnipotent regulator (mudabbiran ‘aliman).’Budd al-‘arif, p. 147.

This identification of the Speaker with 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. As such, he is equally a ‘son’ of the One out of which 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’.

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