Ismaili Roots of Jabir Ibn Hayyan's Intellectual System

  January 18, 2022   Read time 2 min
Ismaili Roots of Jabir Ibn Hayyan's Intellectual System
There are many references in the Jābirean Corpus to Ismaili ideas such as the usage of the terms nāṭiq (speaking) and ṣāmit (silent), degrees of initiation, the significance of the Imam, and the division of the history of the world into seven periods.

But as already mentioned there are also points in which these texts do not follow known Ismaili teachings. It is interesting to note that although alchemy is the application of Hermeticism to a particular realm and has been closely associated with ‘Hermetic Philosophy’ in both the Islamic world and the West, Jābir, who is the founder of Islamic alchemy and indirectly Latin alchemy, does not usually use the language of Hermeticism. His philosophical perspective and language are more Aristotelian although symbolic while his alchemy is primarily an ‘experimental science’ based on that philosophy (if one does not reduce the term experimental simply to the sensuous and empirical). He does not use the arcane language of the alchemist yet succeeds in hiding the teaching as do other alchemists but in a different manner. His recourse is to what is called ‘dispersion of knowledge’ (tabdīd al-ʿilm), which means placing various parts of the exposition of a particular teaching in different works. This method was not unique to Jābir but is to be found in other Islamic figures as well as in other traditions, as one can see in the works of Maimonides and Roger Bacon.

The vast Jābirean Corpus, which is indeed encyclopedic and includes even many lost Greek sciences, has been rightly compared in its encyclopedic character to the Rasāʾil of the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ. But whereas the Rasāʾil are bound together by a Hermetico–Neo-Pythagorean philosophy, the Jābirean Corpus is unified by a philosophy drawn from Aristotle as well as Islamic sources and based on the concept of the balance or mīzān, which is a Qurʾānic term. Jābir sees everything, not only the physical world but also language, thought, ethics, and the world of the spirit in terms of the balance of qualities both inward and outward. Even words are seen by him to be constituted of letters on the basis of the science of ‘the balance of letters’ (mīzān al-ḥurūf). Moreover, he combines this central concern with the balance with numerical symbolism drawn from the traditional Islamic science of numerical symbolism of letters called al-jafr, as well as Neo-Pythagorean ideas probably associated with Ḥarrān, which remained a repository of the more esoteric currents of Graeco-Alexandrian thought into the early Islamic period. Altogether it can be said that Jābir is the father of a whole ‘philosophy of nature’ that was to possess a long life in the annals of Islamic thought.

One cannot be concerned with philosophy in Persia without at least dealing to some extent with Jābir and his works because, although he is studied usually in the context of either the history of science or the history of religion or both, he is also of much philosophical importance. His influence can be seen not only in later Ismaili thought but also in many later religious movements with a philosophical perspective, such as the Nuqṭawiyān. Also, this archetypal figure has hovered over all those Persian theologians and philosophers of the later centuries who were concerned with alchemy, jafr, or the occult sciences in general ranging from Suhrawardī to Mīr Findiriskī to Ḥājj Muḥammad Karīm Khān Kirmānī, who died only over a century ago.