Relationship of music and cosmos in the thought of the Ikhwan es-Safa
In the history of Islamic thought, the Ikhwan es-Safa is considered a very distinctive school due both to its origin, and its system. Founded in Basra, the full name of this school of thought was İhvân es-Safâ and Hullân el-Vefâ and Ehl el-Hamd and Ebnâ el-Mecd. The name Ikhwan es-Safa had been used by a group of independent philosophers (libres penseurs), who were tirelessly involved in science and philosophy, if not directly for their sake, but with the hope of building a kind of moral-spiritual community, where the heterogenic Islamic state elite can take refuge away from the wide-spread conflicts among religious groups, national societies and Muslim sects.
The most important work of the Ikhwan es-Safa is the encyclopedia-like “Epistles (Risaleler)”. It is evident from the Epistles that the “Brothers of Purity and Loyal Friends” are brothers, each of whom are “pure souls, and they believe in and remain faithful to every sign”. Having emerged during the reign of the Buyids in Basra, Ikhwan es-Safa was a secret philosophical-religious society. Although the Ikhwan had claimed that they had been the 10th Century representatives of the Pythagorean school and that they had followed him in various sciences, it is possible to say that especially in the area of music, they established an idea of music, and a “musical way of thinking” by combining their own thoughts in music with the musical thinking and experiences that occurred and were developed starting from the B.C 6th Century of Pythagoras until their own era. This claim is based on the musical texts found in the Epistles (Risaleler) where we understand that they had taken especially the relationship of music and cosmos that Pythagoras started, so much further.
In their fifth epistle of their encyclopedical work, the Epistles (Risaleler), the Ikhwan es-Safa likens the movement of planets and the sound they make as they move to the tune of Oud (Ud), and informs that the four strings of Oud (Ud) correspond to the four main elements of nature, that is earth, air, water, and fire. Claiming that the movements of planets are like the tunes of Oud, and the four strings of Oud correspond to the four main elements of nature, that is earth, air, water, and fire are conceptions that are even today quite novel and exciting. However, I would like to bring to mind that these ideas of the Ikhwan es-Safa are generally inspired from their master Pythagoras’ sense and idea of the cosmos. That being said, the fact that the Ikhwan established these thoughts and interpretations of a relationship between music and cosmos over Oud, demonstrates that this particular idea and its form of expression are indeed authentic. This is because Oud was the most respected instrument in their region and within the Islamic musical circles in general both during and after the Ikhwan’s era. Oud is in a way a common instrument of Islamic musical culture and civilization. There is no such information in the sense of building such “music-cosmos” relationship neither in Pythagoras’ own sentiments, nor in the Pythagoreans from this school, nor in others until the Ikhwan es-Safa.
It is possible to understand the Ikhwan’s claim on planets making tunes as they rotate via their knowledge of Pythagoras, since they acknowledge Pythagoras as their master, and their submission to his teachings, however, while being submitted to their master’s thoughts, they branch out from this particular notion by their own interpretation and description. Likening the tunes of planets (earths) as they rotate to the tunes of Oud is an example to that. The Ikhwan’s purpose in attributing such meanings to the tunes of Oud and its strings is to create a connection between the strings and the tune of Oud, with the existence, physical characteristics, and movements of the planets.
The Ikhwan claims that sound and music emerge through connecting tunes to one another by means of strokes. According to them, the strokes on the strings are like words. Sharp tunes replace letters, notes replace words, music replaces sentences, and the air that carries them becomes the paper. When these regular tunes reach human ear, his nature savors it, and spirits cheer up. It is because these movements and cessations that occur are a measure and quantity that define time, and they resemble the movements of spatial substances. According to the Ikhwan, the unison and regular movements of stars and planets are a measure of time, as well. When time is measured through them in a regular, balanced, and appropriate fashion, its tunes become equivalent to and congruous with those of the planets and stars. At that moment, fractions of spirits that exist in the physical world recall the bliss and joy they felt in the universe of planets. Because these tunes are the purest and the most genuine, these notes are good, the aggregation of these masses are beautiful, their ores are pure and aligned symmetrically, their movements are rather neat, with complete harmony.
The Ikhwan es-Safa respond to those who claimed that the planets have a quintet nature, and they could not have tunes and sounds, and say, “Even though planets have a quintet nature, they are not contrary to these masses with regards to the characteristics we talk about. This is because some of them illuminate their surroundings like fire; such as stars. Some are transparent like crystal; such as planets. Some are as bright as a mirror; such as the moon. Some lend to being both luminous and dark; like air. The moon and the planet Mercury (Utarid) can also be included in this group.”
Here is how the Ikhwan explain this phenomenon: “The shadow of earth reaches all the way to Mercury (Utarid). These are all qualities of natural forms. In this respect, celestial objects are like that too. So, as things stand, we can say that even though the planets have a quintet nature, they are not antithetical to natural substances with all their characteristics; it is just that some of their qualities are different. Because it is not hot or cold or humid; on the contrary, it is dry, and harder than ruby. It is purer than air, clearer than crystal, and brighter than mirror. The planets also knock against each other, and tinkle like copper and iron. Their tunes are in harmony and coordinated with each other. Just like the tunes coming from the strings of an Oud; their melodies are balanced…”
While claiming that the planets create tunes as they move, the Ikhwan es-Safa comes very close to the Pythagoras’ notion. It is safe to think that such thoughts of the Ikhwan are a bit enhanced form of Pythagoras’ conceptions of “the planets making sounds as they move”. Pythagoras had explained how he had heard attractive tunes and lovely melodies coming from the movements of planets, and that he had engraved these songs in his imagination and memory.”
The Ikhwan es-Safa acknowledge Pythagoras as an almohad of wisdom from the Harran region, and talk about that on page 200 of the 3rd volume of the Epistles; mentioning the influence of this philosopher on them, they talk about the tunes emanating from the movement of the planets, as a result of this influence: “My brother (may Allah endorse you and us with his strength), if the movements of those creatures living on planets did not make sounds and tunes, their sense of hearing would have had no use. If they did not have a sense of hearing, they would have been deaf, mute, and blind, just like the motionless creatures whose existence is incomplete. Authentic evidence derived by means of philosophical logic show that those who live in the skies and on the planets are Allah’s angels and committed vassals who can hear, see, think, know, read, and tirelessly glorify him day and night. Their glorification was sweeter than Prophet David’s recitation of the Psalm on the altar, and more beautiful than the fluent tunes of the oud heard from Kisra’s palaces. If it is claimed that they should also have had the senses of smell and taste, and touch, then we say that such senses of smell and taste and touche are only bestowed upon creatures who eat and drink water, so that they can distinguish useful from that which is harmful, and protect their bodies from the deadly and damaging heat and cold. The people of skies and planets are creatures who do not need such things. They do not need to eat or drink. Glorification is their food, tehlil (uttering Lâ İlâhe İllallah) is their drink, and contemplation, research, knowledge, conscience, skill, sensation, taste, relief, bliss, and comfort are their fruits. The movements of planets and stars have pleasant and sweet tunes and melodies that give relief to the soul. These tunes and melodies remind the simple souls who live there the happiness in the realm of spirits, which is located over the orbit with superior and more dignified ores than those of the realm of planets. This realm of spirits is life itself that possesses the appealing smells and the blessings of comfort that can only be found in heaven, as heralded in Kur’an by Allah.”
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