mbd_map 19: A Dedication homepage homepage forum lectures 1: A Word of Encouragement 2: Dar al-Hikma 3: Proclus' Elements 4: Reversion in the Corporeal 5: Mathematical Recursion 6: Episodic Memory 7: Mortality 7 Supplement: Classical Mortality Arguments 8: Personal Identity 9: Existential Passage 10: Precedent at Dar al-Hikma 10 Supplement: Images of Dar al-Hikma 11: Passage Types 12: A Metaphysical Grammar 13: Merger Probability 14: Ex Nihilo Probability 15: Noetic Reduction 16: Summary of Mathematical Results 17: Application to Other Species 18: Potential Benefits 19: A Dedication appendices works cited

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A Word of Encouragement


Dar al-Hikma


Proclus' Elements


Reversion in the Corporeal


Mathematical Recursion


Episodic Memory




Classical Mortality Arguments


Personal Identity
1   2   3   4  


Existential Passage
1   2   3  


Precedent at Dar al-Hikma


Images of Dar al-Hikma


Passage Types


A Metaphysical Grammar


Merger Probability


Ex Nihilo Probability


Noetic Reduction


Summary of Mathematical Results


Application to Other Species
1   2   3   4  


Potential Benefits


A Dedication


Works Cited

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Chapter 2
Dar al-Hikma

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.)[1]
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?[2]
That's a tough one.  The reply is brief:

       The replies 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.[3]
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.
       The questions 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 relation:

[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 purified....[4]
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.[5]   Paul Walker paraphrases:

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....[6]
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.[7]  These Muslim Hellenists, like their Hellenic authorities, just understood the soul in fundamentally different ways.

Plato and Aristotle, from Raphael's 'School of Athens' Fig. 2.1
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[8] and astrologers.[9]  His pronouncement 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.[10]
Some eighty years previous, al-Farabi had introduced the Arab world to Plato's ideal of the philosopher-king.[11]  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.[12]
       Scholars 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,[13] 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.[14]  Classical works as a whole filled 18,000 volumes.[15]
       Al-Hakim had 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 serve there.
       Into this 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....[16]
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.
       Protected by al-Hakim, men like al-Kirmani and al-Akhram could drink freely at this oasis.  To these medieval Egyptians[17] 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.[18]  It was destined to the same fate as its Alexandrian progenitor.
       The Fatimid Hellenism represented by al-Kirmani and al-Akhram expired along with its institution.[19]  But 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.
       This essay 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[20] — 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 meaningful.

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 sage."
       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 Books."[21]
       The Berbers destroyed those Greek texts because they imagined them to be "Oriental";[22] 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 locked.

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 one.  This will do for a start.  We'll begin, here.

next    Chapter 3:  Proclus' Elements

Chapter 2 Endnotes

[1] 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.
[2] 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 variously.  Nafs is understood as "conscious self," "self," or "soul."  'Aql is understood as "intellect" or "mind."  Hadd is understood as "limit," "goal," "object," or "highest point."
[3] Haji 57.
[4] Abdallah Najjar, The Druze: Millennium Scrolls Revealed, 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' al-Din].
[5] The "Seventh Rampart" of The Comfort of Reason (Rahat al-'Aql) 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 al-Hakim (London: I.B. Tauris, 1999) 131-41, Appendix C.
[6] 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 89-92.  Al-Farabi's 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) 457-60.
[7] 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.
[8] Sadik A. Assaad, The Reign of Al-Hakim Bi Amr Allah (Beirut: The Arab Institute for Research and Publishing, 1974) 32.  Quoting:
"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."
[9] 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]:
       He 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."
[10] 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 Society, (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.
[11] Walzer 245-53.
[12] Halm 74.  Quoting:
"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."
[13] Abu-Izzedin 83.
[14] D. Sourdel, "Dar al-Hikma," Encyclopaedia of Islam (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1965).
[15] Halm 91.
[16] Halm 73-74.
[17] 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 al-Akhram) suggests birth in the Iranian district of Farghana.  See Mumtaz Ali Tajddin Sadik Ali, Ismailis Through History (Karachi: Islamic Book Publisher, 1997) 322.
[18] 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.
[19] 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 Islam.
[20] 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.
[21] 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.
[22] 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 and al-Akhram.
Copyright © 1999

Wayne Stewart
Last update 4/19/11