This critical edition and English translation of the epistle on geography by the anonymous members of a tenth-century group known as the ‘Brethren of Purity’ (Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ) is, after the introductory volume, the seventh instalment of the Epistles of the Brethren of Purity series published by the Institute of Ismaili Studies and Oxford University Press. Numbering 52 epistles in all, this corpus of writing represents the sustained efforts of a secret society of medieval Muslims to examine the relationship between science, philosophy, and the divine. It has attracted significant attention over the years because of the mysteries surrounding its authorship and the wide dissemination of surviving manuscripts. This new series of critical editions and translations is intended to bring the work of the Brethren to a broader audience and contribute to ongoing scholarly analysis of their complex and influential thought. On Geography, the fourth epistle of the first part of the corpus devoted to mathematics, has been translated before. However, no previous translation has benefited from the wide range of manuscripts brought together for this edition—twelve in all—and, even more importantly, no previous translation has presented the complete text. By omitting passages deemed insufficiently scientific, previous translators transformed the epistle from an ‘act of worship’ (p. 26) intended to pay homage to the order of God’s creation into a derivative example of mathematical geography. Indeed, as Ignacio Sánchez and James Montgomery put it in their introduction, ‘it is not possible to envisage a purely scientific approach in an intellectual environment where science was regarded as a way of comprehending God’s designs’ (p. 25). By finally allowing the Brethren to speak on their own terms, Sánchez and Montgomery have done a great service to the field. Before elaborating on the importance of this new edition to the study of medieval Arabic geography, I must first acknowledge the impeccability of the editorial methods and presentation. Sánchez and Montgomery’s introduction describes each of the twelve manuscript copies in turn, examines possible textual relationships among them, and explains the editorial choices made in presenting the Arabic text and translation. They have not tried to reconstruct an ‘original’ or Urtext for the epistle for a variety of reasons; indeed, they argue that this would be impossible without a systematic analysis of surviving manuscripts of the entire corpus. Instead, they follow one particularly complete manuscript and supply variants in the scholarly apparatus, including the eleven variant sets of tables of longitude and latitude in an appendix. The English and Arabic texts, while not side by side, are nonetheless easy to consult in tandem, and the annotation and appendices are vital aids for future research. Sánchez and Montgomery have translated the epistle into readable English, while staying very close to the original Arabic—an impressive balance. The introduction also situates the epistle ‘On Geography’ in its historical and intellectual context. The Brethren of Purity had an established interest in the sciences, and the emphasis in this epistle is certainly on what has been categorized as ‘technical’ or ‘mathematical’ geography. Nonetheless, Sánchez and Montgomery resist the dichotomizing implications of such a categorization, which has moved previous translators to omit the scriptural and allegorical passages that are essential to understanding the Brethren’s message. In the central allegory of the epistle, a group of people enter a city that has been laid out according to the wisdom of a mighty king. Instead of spending their time studying the form and contents of the city, they are concerned only with eating, drinking, and partying. For the Brethren, these are ‘the sons of the world’ who enter it in ignorance, abide there in perplexity, and depart unwillingly, in complete denial of the next abode’ (p. 60). They urge the reader ‘not to be one of them’, but to ponder the order, magnitude, and complexity of God’s creation through the study of geography. According to Sánchez and Montgomery, ‘the initiation into the sciences, such as geography, that allows Muslims to understand God’s designs is not only a scientific endeavour, but also a demonstration of piety’ (p. 45). Whereas for others such a demonstration might have meant evoking the bewildering but wondrous diversity of the world, for the Brethren it meant a celebration of the rationality and order of the universe. Accordingly, the Brethren’s preferred approach to geography draws substantially on the mathematically-based Hellenistic tradition as adapted in the ninth-century Arabic astronomical and cartographical treatises of al-Farghānī and al-Khwārizmī. In particular, the epistle describes the earth as a fixed sphere at the centre of the celestial sphere and supplies measurements for its circumference and diameter. The earth’s ‘inhabited quarter’ (al-rubʿ al-maskūn) is divided into seven parallel climes north of the equator calculated in terms of the length of the longest day. For each clime, the epistle gives latitudinal boundaries, the names of constituent cities and regions, and the number of rivers and mountain ranges. The longitude and latitude coordinates for major cities are also supplied in tabular form. Despite this emphasis on technical information, the discussion of the central fourth clime extols the excellent qualities of its inhabitants in comparison with those of other climes, reflecting widespread assumptions about geographical determinism. Sánchez and Montgomery consider the Brethren’s description of the fourth clime in general, and specifically its characterization as the ‘clime of the prophets’, to be one of the most distinctive attributes of the epistle. Since the fourth clime lies well to the north of the part of the Arabian Peninsula where the Prophet Muḥammad spent his life, it would seem problematic for Muslims to associate it with prophecy. Sánchez and Montgomery note that the celebration of the fourth clime has been associated with the Iranian geographical tradition and point to contemporaries, such as Ibn Khurradādhbih, who frame it explicitly in those terms. However, the Brethren seem to be up to something else. Sánchez and Montgomery argue that calling the fourth clime the ‘clime of the prophets’ when it is clearly not the clime of the Prophet of Islam may be a way of suggesting an alternative—perhaps even a superior form of—prophecy: the attainment of wisdom that is at the heart of the Brethren’s project. While I find this argument convincing and consistent with the overall message of the epistle, I think Sánchez and Montgomery have overstated the unusualness of associating a region other than the Arabian Peninsula with prophecy. They observe that two later works, both thirteenth-century topographical histories, include the same characterization of the fourth clime as the ‘clime of the prophets’ and may have drawn directly on the Brethren’s epistle or another common source. While this is an intriguing textual correspondence, the two works in question, Bughyat al-ṭalab fī taʾrīkh Ḥalab by Kamāl al-Dīn ibn al-ʿAdīm and al-Aʿlāq al-khaṭīra fī dhikr umarāʾ al-Shām wa-l-Jazīra by ʿIzz al-Dīn Ibn Shaddād (the latter composed after, not before, the former) must also be seen in the context of a long-standing tradition of representing the region of Syria (al-Shām) in terms of its association with prophecy. Indeed ninth- and tenth-century works, such as Nuʿaym ibn Ḥammād al-Khuzāʿī’s Kitāb al-Fitan and world geographies by Ibn al-Faqīh and al-Muqaddasī, all apply some version of the epithet ‘land of the prophets’ to Syria in recognition of the many prophets before Muḥammad associated with the region and thus its long sacred history.1 When in the thirteenth century, Ibn al-ʿAdīm and Ibn Shaddād wished to highlight their hometown of Aleppo within the greater region of Syria, asserting its location in the fourth clime was the perfect way to do it, since the southern cities of Damascus and Jerusalem, which had been more prominent in the literary tradition up to that point, were located in the third. In other words, Ibn al-ʿAdīm and Ibn Shaddād likely found a reference to the fourth clime as the ‘clime of the prophets’ useful in praising Aleppo in terms that would resonate with, but also distinguish it from, past praise for Syria and its cities. The Brethren clearly had a different agenda. But what this broader context, and the textual relationship between two thirteenth-century Aleppans and the mysterious, but likely Iraqi, tenth-century Brethren, suggests is both the wide dissemination of the Epistles and the multivalence of their contents. Moreover, drawing attention to this context illuminates not only the importance, but also the range, of possible associations between geography, prophecy, and sanctity in the medieval Islamic world. To bring this discussion back to the overarching project of the Brethren, the final passages of the epistle are noteworthy for a trenchant critique of their times: ‘[W]e observe that in this epoch the cycle of the evil-doers has reached its peak, their power has become manifest and their actions predominate in the world’ (p. 77). While it is not clear exactly who the ‘evil-doers’ (ahl al-sharr) are—and solving this mystery would go a long way toward solving the mysteries of the Brethren themselves—it is clear that the intellectual project represented by the Epistles was conceived both as a form of resistance to the status quo and as an investment in the future ascendancy of the virtuous (ahl al-khayr) through the pursuit of knowledge. By contextualizing the fourth epistle within the Brethren’s complex and influential body of work, elucidating its significance for the broader field of medieval Arabic geography, and presenting it, for the first time, in an impeccable and complete critical edition and English translation, Sánchez and Montgomery have made an invaluable contribution to future scholarship. The Institute of Ismaili Studies is to be commended for launching the Epistles of the Brethren of Purity series, and Sánchez and Montgomery, in particular, for such a lucid, comprehensive, and thought-provoking instalment. Footnotes 1 For these examples, see Nuʿaym ibn Ḥammād al-Khuzāʿī, Kitāb al-Fitan (ed. Majdī b. al-Manṣūr b. Sayyid al-Shūrā; Beirut,  1997), 207–8; Ibn al-Faqīh, Mukhtaṣar Kitāb al-Buldān in M. J. de Goeje (ed.), Bibliotheca Geographorum Arabicorum (Leiden,  1967), v. 115; and al-Muqaddasī, Kitāb Aḥsan al-taqāsīm fī maʿrifat al-ʿaqālīm in ibid, iii. 157. Other early works enumerate the tombs of the prophets to be found in Syria or catalogue the sites that could be associated with episodes in the lives of specific prophets; for eleventh-century examples, see al-Rabaʿī, Faḍāʾil al-Shām wa-Dimashq (ed. Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn al-Munajjid; Damascus, 1950), 49; and Abū l-Maʿālī al-Musharraf b. al-Murajjā, Faḍāʾil Bayt al-Maqdis wa-l-Khalīl wa-faḍāʾil al-Shām (ed. Ofer Livne-Kafri; Shafā ʿAmr, 1995), 206. © The Author (2017). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Journal of Islamic Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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