Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ’s Religious Reform and Magic: Beyond the Ismaʿili Hypothesis

Journal of Islamic Studies 30 (1):34-68 (2019)

Abstract
This article investigates the role of magic in the confessional identity of the Ikhwān al-Ṣafā as it is articulated in the 52nd epistle on magic, and informed by the rest of their Rasāʾil. To achieve this, the author revisits the long scholarly tradition of speculation about their denominational commitment that has seen them affiliated one way or the other to Ismailism, seeing its esoteric foundations as the platform onto which their magic and astrology were cultivated. Rather this article argues that the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ aimed with their Rasāʾil to establish an anti-sectarian religio-political reform that they refer to as the Third Way. Its strategy comprises: reconciling revelation and philosophy; valuing the message of religions other than Islam ; and addressing some Shiʿa specific practices and doctrines which it scrutinizes. The Ikhwān mitigate the doctrinal boundaries between Shiʿism and other denominations by adopting a more equable position which is consonant with Zaydi and Ibadi attitudes toward the contentious issues of imamate, caliphate, and wilāya / walāya. So, the Ikhwān see magic as the conceptual and practical pivot of the Third Way, since it is the culmination of philosophy and revelation, becoming a suitable concept to signify the self-enlightenment of the accountable imam achieved through knowledge of the Divine and Nature and the abandonment of physical attachment, and constituting the only conditions of legitimacy. It is also an appropriate tool for regulating state guardianship and sublimating the temporal state itself into a sacred city instead of investing sacral power into a single person.
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DOI 10.1093/jis/ety020
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