The spirit of inclusive Islam in Ikhwan Al-Shafa

Ida Indawati Khouw , The Jakarta Post , Jakarta | Sun, 07/06/2008 11:37 AM | Bookmark


A 1,000-year-old legacy is waiting to be unveiled to present-day human beings. Through it the people of modern times, especially Muslims, could learn what it means to be open and inclusive toward other identities, while still being religious.

The four volumes and 1,959 pages of the Rasa’il Ikhwan Al-Shafa (the Epistle of the Brethren of Purity) will remain under wraps for two more months before being revealed to Indonesians. It is still in the process of translation and editing from the original 10th century Arabic, in the expert hands of the Center for Islamic Studies and Information in South Jakarta (CIPSI).

Scholar Mulyadhi Kartanegara, the editor, said that the translation process of the initial 52 verses of this first example of encyclopedic literature in the Islamic world had been started in September last year.

“I hope the translation will help carry the spirit of renaissance to Indonesian Muslims. Renaissance thinking always begins with translation (of influential literature), doesn’t it?

“If we read the epistle carefully we cannot fail to be astonished by this early society’s broad scientific perspective, including math, logic, physics, psychology and metaphysics, as well as their scientific discoveries,” Mulyadhi said.

This society existed in 10th century Baghdad, present-day Iraq, but their scientific discoveries, Mulyadi said, actually preceded Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity in the 17th-18th century as well as Charles Darwin’s evolution theory. They argued consistently that the continuum in natural development proceeded from something simple into something more complex, starting from minerals and progressing up to human beings.

“The epistle explains that the final development of human beings is to return to God. Being a religious society, it is understandable if their worldview and choice of words is religious,” Mulyadi added.

The epistle is a collective work. “It is the project of several authors,” Mulyadhi said, saying that they were a kind of underground movement.

The number of the brethren is not known, but their strict membership was hierarchical and based on grading by age, with the eldest being the highest spiritual leader (the washil).

“I think (they kept this structure secret) because they were ascetics who existed within a political climate which was unfavorable to them,” said Mulyadhi, referring to the domination of the literalist Hanbalian and Asy’arian theologies in the political landscape of Baghdad at that time, which pushed the Ikhwan brethren underground.

According to Mulyadhi, the ikhwan‘s main concern was to free human beings to allow them to reach a higher level.

“For them, heaven was not about afterlife. Heaven is when human beings are able to free themselves from the trap of worldly materialism,” he said.

Interestingly the brethren defined death as the birth of the soul. This concept explains the good, as well as the evil side of humanity. “They say an evil soul is potentially a demon, so when the (human) body dies, the evil soul becomes a demon that tempts human beings to do evil things. The same is true for the good soul who can push human beings to do good things,” he said.

The rasa’il is not only preoccupied with scientific and philosophical thoughts, but also includes words of wisdom on topics like health and illness: “God does not equip plants with a sense of pain as it won’t help them to be aware of danger. With regard to animals and humans, pain is to make them more alert to danger. Thus (pain) is a grace from God,” Mulyadhi translates.

Unlike the theological approach of the influential world Islamic scientists al-Farabi (died in 951 AD) and Ibn Sina (died in 1037 AD), Novriantoni Kahar from the Liberal Islam Network (JIL) said that the ikhwan‘s method of harmonizing religion and philosophy was not through synthesizing philosophical truths and religious truths. Instead they avoided potential conflicts where faith, logic, religion and philosophy could potentially clash.

“They were at a crossroad; for them, philosophy was a rational method to understand religion,” Novriantoni said, quoting sources.

“Their method of harmonization reflected three aspects; their acknowledgment of (God’s) revelation as the source of science, that prophets were philosophers with a divine gift and that spiritual virtue was inherent in religious stipulations.”

The ikhwan were also critical of religious dogmatism. And when it came to this issue, they urged people to take philosophy into account. “Sharia (Islamic law) has been besmirched by ignorance, mingled with misconceptions. There is no other solution than to ‘wash’ it with philosophical *soap’, as philosophy contains wisdom in living the faith, and accuracy in reaching conclusions,” Novriantoni said.

Both Mulyadhi and Novriantoni agree that the influence of Zoroaster, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and other traditions are present in the epistle, “The brethren were a very open, inclusive society.”

According to Novriantoni, being inclusive and open to various schools of thought (mazhabs), religions and other faiths was characteristic of the society, as they advised their followers “not to be hostile toward science and not to boycott any kind of literature, because (the brethren’s) ideas and mazhab embraced all other thoughts and knowledge”.

Another part of the epistle mentions, “Take efforts, my brothers, to unveil truths of every religion and mazhab. Don’t cling to your own religion and mazhab only. Also you should not scrutinize the bad side of other mazhab, but search for (their) good side.”

Novriantoni said this open and inclusive spirit was supported by their high appreciation of logic. “For them, logic was at the same level with the position of imams or other religious leaders in terms of theological interpretation.”