If al-Hakim had not bestowed protection
and safety upon the faithful, the hypocrite, godless and Muslim [alike], my
response to you would have been an exemplary punishment and the cutting of your aorta.
— from a scholarly
correspondence, Cairo, A.D. 1017 (408 A.H.)
With that slap a religious scholar rolls
up his reply to a list of philosophical questions. His reply takes the
form of a warning, as denoted forthrightly in its title: The Warning. He has answered a dozen questions: some
directly, some indirectly, some not at all. One compounded question he has
pointedly refused to answer:
What is the
conscious self? And what is intellect? And what is the limit of
created beings beyond the physical and spiritual worlds?
That's a tough one. The reply is
to all these questions are found with us, the assembly of propagandists, and
with the Imam al-Hakim. It [sic] is given to those who deserve receiving
it. You, however, have severed your connections, and... cannot expect to
receive it. However, if you repent and return upon the path of the
faithful, we will give you the knowledge about these things and many other
things to nourish you.
We can imagine behind this exasperation a
father who's already fielded too many precocious questions along the lines of,
"Why is the sky blue?" And there's something to that reading of
the correspondence. What is not apparent is the fact that
these men speak for philosophical camps already well acquainted with each other's positions.
have come from a court official, Hasan ibn Haydarah al-Farghani al-Akhram.
He is one of the sanguine leaders of a populist religious movement.
These partisans have taken as their authorities Plato, Plotinus, and
a band of Muslim Neoplatonists. To their way of thinking, individual
souls are dropped to Earth from, and participate in, an overarching
"Universal Soul." A contemporary of al-Akhram states the
relation of individual soul to Universal Soul, and the purpose of that
[T]he soul was dropped
into this world from without, without being apprised of any guilt attached
to it.... [T]his was done as an opportunity for the soul to be refined and
The replies to al-Akhram's questions come
from Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani,
chief theologian of all Ismaili institutions in
the Fatimid empire. His preferred Greek sage is not Plato, but
Aristotle. He has introduced a soul-theory into Ismaili Muslim
doctrine which is closer to Aristotle's than to Plato's.
Al-Kirmani has no intention of defending his theory on al-Akhram's terms, but he does state his views
elsewhere; as in his treatise, The Comfort of Reason
For al-Kirmani... intellect is divided into
ten separate intellects and none of them is exactly equivalent to the
universal intellect or universal soul of his predecessors. Soul, for
him, is simply not a universal being but is rather the particular animating
form of the individual living body which commences its existence when the
individual itself comes into being....
Al-Kirmani and al-Akhram were reviving a classical debate begun almost 1,400 years before, when Aristotle broke with his
instructor Plato over much the same issue.
These Muslim Hellenists, like their Hellenic authorities,
just understood the soul in fundamentally different ways.
Plato and Aristotle debate the soul's nature.
Plato points to the soul's heavenly origin and destination. Aristotle directs his
master's attention to the soul's physical life, here in the world below.
1,400 years later the old argument had
resurfaced in Cairo. But why Cairo? And why in 1017?
One man, really. In the early eleventh
century Cairo revolved around the man who was patron both to the orthodox
al-Kirmani and also to the extremist al-Akhram. This arch-patron was the
caliph, al-Hakim bi-'Amr Allah.
Al-Hakim was an imposing figure.
Physically intimidating, he was in character more so: bold, austere, and above
all, intelligent. Not a ruler to waste time with belly dancers
against astrology suggests his sober nature:
I question the sanity of him who gave the
stars powers to influence human affairs for good or evil; who says they
determine the lot of humans in worldly gain and possession. Whoever
believed in star power beyond its effect on physical dispensation of living
matter has given God a partner.
Some eighty years previous, al-Farabi had
introduced the Arab world to Plato's ideal of the philosopher-king.
And now al-Hakim was
honoring that ideal by nurturing a Hellenistic community within the
security of his palace walls. Muslim scholars of the Greek sciences carried
out their work under al-Hakim's protection, and with his personal
encouragements. The caliph even went so far as to organize
inter-departmental conferences at the palace.
conducted practical sciences at Dar al-'Ilm, the "House of Knowledge." They
entertained the theoretical sciences at Dar al-Hikma, the "House of Wisdom."
As the repository of wisdom, Dar al-Hikma was also a central library for the
empire. It was al-Hakim's personal treasure. Tall cabinets housed
hundreds of thousands of academic and religious volumes,
many transported by camel caravan from
libraries thousands of miles distant. The subjects of astronomy,
architecture and Greek philosophy by themselves filled over 6,500 volumes.
Classical works as a
whole filled 18,000 volumes.
succeeded in restoring at Dar al-Hikma a wing of the lost Library of
Alexandria. A court chronicler relates Dar al-Hikma's inauguration:
The jurists took up residence there,
and the books from the palace libraries were moved into it.... After
the building was furnished and decorated, and after all the doors and
passages were provided with curtains, lectures were held there by the Qur'an
readers, astronomers, grammarians and philologists, as well as
physicians. Guardians, servants, domestics and others were hired to
house they brought all the books that the commander of the faithful al-Hakim
bi-Amr Allah ordered to bring there, that is, the manuscripts in all the
domains of science and culture, to an extent to which they had never been
brought together for a prince. He allowed access to all this to people
of all walks of life, whether they wanted to read books or dip into
them. One of the already mentioned blessings, the likes of which had
been unheard of, was also that he granted substantial salaries to all those
who were appointed by him there to do service: jurists and others.
People from all walks of life visited the House; some came to read books,
others to copy them, and yet others to study. He also donated what
people needed: ink, writing reeds, paper and inkstands....
Much of what Europe would later learn of
Hellenic and Hellenistic philosophy was on public display at Dar al-Hikma in
1017, stacked alongside those less fortunate texts which Europe would come to
know only by name.
al-Hakim, men like al-Kirmani and al-Akhram could drink freely at this
oasis. To these medieval Egyptians
it seemed only natural that Plato and Aristotle should inform
their raucous debate on the soul's nature.
Dar al-Hikma was looted in A.D. 1068.
It was destined to
the same fate as its Alexandrian progenitor.
Hellenism represented by al-Kirmani and al-Akhram expired along with its
al-Akhram's breathless, tumbling question remains:
What is the conscious self? And what
is intellect? And what is the limit of created beings beyond the
physical and spiritual worlds?
It is an obscure and multi-faceted
puzzle. All who contribute towards a solution gain from the efforts of
those who've contributed before. Ancient works can furnish precedents to
modern concepts; precedents that enrich and deepen ideas which might
otherwise wither rootless.
develops a metaphysical thesis which is, to the best of my knowledge, new to the
world. Viewed in isolation, the thesis would appear entirely novel
— not at all antiquarian.
The concerns of upcoming chapters are light-years removed
from those of Cairo's jasmined courtyards; or so some chapter materials, and chapter titles, would suggest.
In the face of this apparent incongruity, I can say that Dar al-Hikma does in fact harbor a unique and meaningful precedent.
And if we are patient enough to plant the modern thesis
within the context of Dar al-Hikma's precedent, the thesis will take root.
Men at Dar
al-Hikma ventured close to this thesis in the early eleventh century. The
relevant Arabic texts are handsome in their frankness, and little known. I hope it will
please the reader to learn of them while exploring a
metaphysical philosophy which is fully modern — a metaphysics at home among the natural sciences.
I'll set the
vignette of al-Kirmani and al-Akhram aside for now. I'll recall these
Ismaili leaders when the essay has progressed far enough to render their precedent
Where to begin?
There were many ideas
with merit, scattered throughout Dar al-Hikma's collection. We can picture
Dar al-Hikma in our mind's eye. Curtains and carpets muffle the voices of
instructors. We walk by a physician, an astronomer, men and women from the
general public. We stop at a wall of cabinets. A calligraphy graces
the one before us. It's a table of contents for the cabinet devoted to the
polymorphous sheikh yunani: the "Greek
The contents of
this cabinet were among the first to burn in 1068. Berber tribesmen
salvaged the bindings for shoe leather. The pages they tossed onto a
smoldering ash heap so massive it was later known as the "Hills of
destroyed those Greek texts because they imagined them to be
hence, heretical. Maybe a few were. But Oriental or
orthodox, it hardly matters now. The books were burned, and that's
that. In our mind's eye the cabinet devoted to the Greek sage — is
Fortunately, scholarship is a handy
crowbar. One tug and the padlock rips free. The door bangs
hard against its hinges. We snag a thin leather volume from within and
flip it spinning onto a reading desk. It lands with a splat.
This will do for a start. We'll begin, here.
next Chapter 3: Proclus' Elements
Chapter 2 Endnotes
Hamid al-Din Al-Kirmani, "The Warning," full title,
"al-Wa'izah fi nafy da'wa uluhiyat al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah," Majallat Kulliyyat al-Adab
; Jami'at Fu'ad al-Awwal
, 14.1 (1952): 1-29 [Arabic]. This
particular sentence has been paraphrased in English previously. See David
Bryer, "The Origins of the Druze Religion," Der Islam
52.1 (1975): 68. The sentence has been translated to
English, in full, under direction of this author; July, 1999. It is ostensibly a response to
al-Akhram's assertion of Caliph al-Hakim's divinity, but the intensity of the outburst
suggests a deeper concern, or frustration, with al-Akhram and the other radicals.
Hamid Haji, A Distinguished Da'i Under the
Shade of the Fatimds: Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani
, (London: Hamid Haji, 1998)
57. Scholars have translated some of the terms in this quotation
as "conscious self," "self," or "soul." 'Aql
is understood as
"intellect" or "mind." Hadd
is understood as "limit," "goal," "object," or "highest
Abdallah Najjar, The Druze: Millennium
trans. Fred I. Massey (Atlanta: American Druze Society;
Committee on Religious Affairs, 1973) 97. Quotation is from Epistle 70 of
the Druze Hikma
canon [probable author Baha'
The "Seventh Rampart" of The Comfort of Reason (Rahat
describes the physiologic and psychological qualities of plants,
animals and human beings. For a Russian translation of Rahat al-'Aql
, see Andrey Smirnov's online publication
For an English translation of the table of
contents see Paul E. Walker, Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani: Ismaili Thought in the Age of
(London: I.B. Tauris, 1999) 131-41, Appendix C.
Walker, Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani
59. Walker provides an overview of al-Kirmani's theory of the ten
intellects, and its relation to al-Farabi's philosophy, in Walker, Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani
original theory of the ten intellects is summarized in M. M. Sharif, ed. A History of Muslim Philosophy: With Short Accounts of
Other Disciplines and the Modern Renaissance in Muslim Lands
2 vols. (Karachi: Royal Book Company, 1983)
This basic disagreement may explain in part why Aristotle chose to
establish his own Athenian school, instead of remaining to administer Plato's
academy. At any rate, the two philosophers' texts on the soul make clear
their differences in approach. It is difficult to imagine the author of De Anima
as an acolyte of the author of Phaedo
Sadik A. Assaad, The Reign of Al-Hakim Bi
(Beirut: The Arab Institute for Research and Publishing, 1974)
"Unlike the majority of Muslim Caliphs
he did not indulge in a Harim and seems to have freed all his female
slaves. The life of frivolity seems to have been against his
principles and one of his idiosyncrasies was that singers and dancers were
not welcomed in his palace."
Heinz Halm, The Fatimids and their
Traditions of Learning
, (London: I.B. Tauris; The Institute of Ismaili
Studies, 1997) 87. Quoting:
"[T]he caliph al-Hakim's edict of
1013 against astrology and the astrologers is in the same tradition [as that
of his great-grandfather, al-Mansur]:
forbade idle talk about the stars. Several astrologers thereupon emigrated,
but some of them stayed behind. These were banished, and the population was
warned against hiding any of them. Then some of the astrologers showed
remorse and were forgiven, and they swore that they would never again look
at the stars."
Najjar 149-50. Text preserved by Hamza b. 'Ali (or perhaps by Baha' al-Din)
in epistle 85 of the Druze canon. Abdallah Najjar places the quoted text
inside a section of "biographical notes" on al-Hakim. But authorship
is not certain. For authorship possibilities, see Nejla M. Abu-Izzeddin, The Druzes: A New Study of Their History, Faith and
, (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1984) 108-10. Possibly the text is a
quotation from al-Hakim's A.D. 1013 edict against astrology (per note 9).
Or the text could be a dictation from al-Hakim to one of the two primary authors
of the Druze epistles. Or the text may even be an independent addition by
one of these two authors.
"From the House of Knowledge a number
of mathematicians, logicians and jurists, as well as several physicians were
summoned by al-Hakim; the representatives of each discipline appeared before
him separately, in order to argue in his presence; thereupon he presented
all of them with robes of honour and gifts."
D. Sourdel, "Dar al-Hikma," Encyclopaedia of Islam
(Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1965).
Both al-Kirmani and al-Akhram were probably born elsewhere, as
suggested by the localities embedded within their names. Al-Kirmani may
have been born in the Iranian district of Kirman. See J. T. P. De Bruijn,
"Al-Kirmani, Hamid al-Din Ahmad B. 'Abd Allah," Encyclopaedia of Islam
(Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1986). Al-Akhram's
full name (Hasan ibn Haydarah al-Farghani
suggests birth in the Iranian district of Farghana. See Mumtaz Ali Tajddin
Sadik Ali, Ismailis Through History
Islamic Book Publisher, 1997) 322.
Court officials, unpaid in a time of famine, made off with the
library's contents in lieu of salary. Berber tribesmen confiscated texts
from the court officials afterwards. See Halm 77-78.
Dar al-Hikma was closed at the end of the eleventh century.
A smaller library was reopened in 1123, but the orthodox Sunni caliph Salah
al-Din closed this remnant and sold off the remaining books in 1171. See
D. Sourdel, "Dar al-Hikma," Encyclopaedia of
Mercifully, as of August 2004 this statement is no longer entirely true. Philosopher Thomas W. Clark has recently published a paper which parallels my thesis at the most
critical points. Mr. Clark characterizes the parallel in my addendum to Chapter 10
Halm 77-78. The landmark was still visible some 400 years
after the incident; but farming and/or urban development may have leveled
it. At any rate, this author has been unable to determine the location of
the site, and would welcome with surprise any information pinpointing it.
Halm 78. Many of the scholars and religious leaders in
Cairo hailed from the eastern provinces of the Muslim world: to the east and
north of modern-day Iraq. See, for example, note 17, concerning al-Kirmani