Ikhwan al-Safa

I Wish I’d Been There

By Raheel Lakhani

Raheel Lakhani - studies advanced religious education and takes interest in comparative religion

During the second and third centuries of Islam, an era of philosophy emerged in Muslim civilizations where both Mutazalites and Asharites held debates on issues of free will, God’s attributes and the nature of scripture. The former adhered to rationality for acquiring truth, while the latter believed in a more traditional interpretation.

Later, in the fourth century, a group known as Ikhwan al-Safa (or the Brethren of Purity) emerged in Basra.

The Brethren became famous for their encyclopaedic work , the Rasa’il, which comprised of fifty-two epistles. The work covered a range of disciplines and was divided into four major sections : the mathematical sciences (geometry, astronomy, geography, music, arts, logic), the natural sciences (biological, meteorology, embryology, physics, epistemology), the psycho-rational sciences and the theological sciences (including discussions on meta-physics). The work permeated all major aspects of human life –  religious, social, economic, scientific and political – and the Ikhwan maintained that the principles that they promulgated would lead to justice, happiness and salvation.

One fact which has fascinated me the most of the Bretheren is that they decided to remain anonymous, thus exuding a deep mystery in the area of historiography. It is believed among some scholarly circles that they had Ismaili origins [1] and [2]. The concealment of their identity, and the absence to any specific ideological moorings in their works, made the epistles appeal to all groups. Common throughout the Rasa’il was the Ikhwan’s use of fables, parables and allegories for expounding their views. One such allegorical story, which I have included below, is a small chapter concerning education.

The Cosmic Hierarchy of the Brethern of Purity.

Being multi-disciplinary in today’s age is considered to be a great asset. The same fundamental pillar radiated in the works of the Ikhwan. The beauty in their teachings was that there was no fragmentation of knowledge. The Ikhwan sought to show the compatibility of the Islamic faith with other religions and intellectual traditions, and drew on a wide variety of sources for their ideas – a vision lacking today in many parts of the world.

The group believed in pluralistic insight of philosophical and religious discourse where man’s chief clue to the knowledge of the world must be the knowledge of himself.

I Wish I’d Been There to experience the broad vision of inclusiveness and pluralism that the Ikhwan imparted in one of the earliest phases of Islamic intellectual thought.


In this parable, “Man is an Epitome of the Preserved Tablet” (al-lawh al Mahfuz), the Ikhwan explain their philosophy of acquiring knowledge for betterment in this world and the next.)

There was once a wise and great king, who wished to educate and train his beloved children so that he could bring them to his Court. He therefore built a palace and assigned to each one of his sons a separate chamber in it. Then on every wall of each chamber he illustrated and portrayed all the sciences in which he wished to educate them. He also gave to each of his sons servants to look after all their needs. Then he said to them, “Consider what I have portrayed for you in the chamber, study it deeply, think carefully on its meaning. Then, when you have mastered everything, I shall bring you to my court where you will always be with me and I with you.”

In each of the chambers he had shown the following sciences:

(1) On the ceiling he had drawn the planets and spheres of the Universe and the stars and explained how they moved and how their movements were regulated.

(2) In the courtyard he had portrayed the geography of the earth, the division into various regions, the mountain ranges, oceans and rivers. He had also explained what the boundaries of the various countries were and the existence of trade routes between them.

(3) On the wall in the forefront of the chamber he had written about the Science of Medicine and the Natural Sciences, explaining the differences between the various species of Animals and Vegetation, their uses and their futility.

(4) On another wall of the chamber he had explained the field of Industry and Trade and dealt with the rules of business and the marketing of goods.

(5) On the third wall he had explained about Religious Beliefs, the principles of Law of what is halal and haram.

(6) On the last wall he had written about Politics and the ways of government in different countries, the army and similar institutions and how these were to be organized for the welfare and protection of its citizens.

This, then are the six fields of knowledge that the King wished his sons to be educated in – but this is only a metaphor struck by Wise Men. In reality the King stands for Almighty Allah, the palace represents the Universe, the sons represent humanity and the chamber is the human body. The illustrations on the walls exemplify the beautiful and wonderful workings of the human body and each science represents a faculty and capacity of the human soul and its knowledge.

© Simerg.com


About the writer: Raheel Lakhani is a student of Advanced Religion Education Professional Program at the Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board (ITREB) of Karachi and Baluchistan. He majored in Muslim Philosophy and is working towards the completion of his final research. He pens his thoughts at http://raheellakhani.wordpress.com. His primary interests are in the areas of  education, culture and comparative religion. He enjoys reading and photography.


Editor’s Notes:

[1] Following is a quote from article Ikhwān al-Safā’ by Diana Steigerwald, in Internet Encycopaedia of Philosophy:

“The Ikhwān al-safā’ were an anonymous group of authors who resided in Basra (current day Iraq), influenced by Neoplatonic and Aristotelian thought and linked to the early Ismā‘īlī da‘wa (literally: to call; missionary preaching), which belongs to Shī‘ī Islam. The group’s attempt at maintaining anonymity does not come as a surprise given that the distinguishing aspect of Ismā‘īlism (branch from Shī‘ism) is a deep esotericism concerned with the inner dimensions of Islam…”

[2] For a further discussion on the subject with divergent views about the identity of the Brethren please see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brethren_of_Purity.


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15 thoughts on “Ikhwan al-Safa

  1. Thank you so much for your article. I will relate the parable to my students and discuss the different interpretations of the wall paintings

  2. Dear all,

    — Its good to know that the Developed World Researchers or Youth are interested in the actual thematic understanding of the Hujat Azams i.e. Nasir Khesrow, Almuid Din Shirazi, Ibnee Hushab & KQARAMAT.

    — How the undestanding, knowledge transferred to the main stream of Islam Sunee, Musalman and Shia Islam. With in the Shia Islam how the Modern Ismalies have to play a pivotal rule under the guidance of a living Imam. How to link the developed World to the underdeveloped one for the betterment of the humanity and the strong humanity bondage of the Abraham sects for the acceptance of diversity, pluralism and win win situation.

  3. I was wondering if anybody knows about the histiriography of Rasaiil. I am working on the type of literature in terms of their style of writings. Thanks for any help.

  4. Thanks very much for sharing and giving us an insight into the Ikhwan. Very well articulated. Impressive piece of Research.

  5. An interesting read. Clearly shows that intellectual eclecticism has no boundaries.

    Also how the The Brethren could assimilate and synergize such diverse concepts. A lesson for eternity..

  6. Thanks Raheel, for highlighting and sharing this important aspect of our history. Knowledge is the key to appreciate and enjoy our Tariqah and the awareness of the rich historical inheritance as reflected in the Rasa’il should inspire everyone to seek knowledge in its multi-faceted and pluralistic dimensions and through it to attain the ultimate knowledge of the Self.

  7. Thanks Raheel for highlighting and sharing this important aspect of our history. Knowledge is the key to appreciate and enjoy our Tariqah. The awareness of the rich historical inheritance as reflected in the Rasa’il should inspire everyone to seek knowledge in its multi-faceted and pluralistic dimensions and through it to attain the ultimate knowledge of the Self.

  8. I had read about Ikhwan al-Safa before and then when my brother visited Syria he mentioned to me that the Syrian jamat had a majalis named Ikhwan al-Safa and they attended it. Ten years back when I visited Zanzibar, Tanzania, I went for dinner at Serena Hotel and a group called Ikhwan al-Safa was playing music and singing songs in Swahili and Arabic. It seems like the knowledge of Ikhwan al-Safa group had travelled wide around middle east and Africa. Good article, Raheel. Keep it up.

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