This manuscript is a rare and profusely-illuminated copy of an extremely important and interesting work known as the Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa, a medieval Islamic encyclopaedia that represents the landmark legacy of a mystical group of Iraqi scholars and thinkers who aimed to save Islamic teaching from the perceived threat of liberal sciences by means of philosophy.
The Ikhwan al-Safa was a secret brotherhood thought to have been affiliated to the Ismai'li movement. Their true identity was so thoroughly hidden that scholars can only speculate as to their real associations. The Rasa'il however are considered to be central to Isma'ili doctrine, and have been attributed to the authorship of various different Shi'a imams, and scholars from the eleventh century. Given the esoteric nature of Shi'a Isma'ilism, one can understand why they even referred to themselves (in the fourth Rasa'il) as "sleepers in the cave". Although the Ikhwan remained an anonymous group of scholars, the literary scholar Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi (d.1023 AD)is thought to have identified three members, all of whom were from Basra: Abu'l-Hasan ‘Ali Ibn Harun al-Zanjani and three of his companions, Abu Sulayman Muhammad Ibn Ma‘shar al-Busti, (called al-Maqdisi), Abu Ahmad al-Nahrajuri and al-‘Awfi.
Comprising fourteen epistles (rasa'il), the manuscript to hand represents book one of the four quarters of the entire work, which contains in total fifty-two epistles. The four books of the Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa are as follows:
1. The mathematical sciences
2. The natural sciences
3. The rational sciences
4. The theological sciences
The present work represents the first of these, and covers arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, geography, music, self-discipline and ethics, mathematical philosophy, reason and syllogism. The Encyclopaedia of Islam remarks that "The epistles of the Ikhwan occupy a place in the first rank of Arabic literature, ... their influence endures, not only in Shi'ism, but also in the mystic movements." (EI, vol.III, p.1076).
The origin of the present manuscript cannot be precisely located, although it seems most likely that the origin lies somewhere in the arch stretching from Western Persia, through Iraq and towards the Levant. The date of the manuscript, corroborated by a carbon-14 test of the paper, has indicated a production between 1298 and 1407 AD. This places the work, depending on its place of origin, within the Ilkhanid or Jalayrid dynasties (in Persia or Iraq), although it is quite conceivable that it was produced in Mamluk Syria, where the use of Ilkhanid-style illumination may have continued after its transformation into more Timurid modes of decoration further east.
A particularly unusual feature of this manuscript is the sheer quantity of illumination, particularly at the end of certain chapters and beginning of the next. On six separate occasions there are large round illuminated roundels with polychrome scalloped edges placed face-to-face on opposing pages, and on three occasions incorporating an unusual squat ovoid version of the the same medallion (ff.158b-159a; ff.154b-.155a; ff.149b-150a). The style of illumination is typically Ilkhanid, and can be closely compared to a Qur'an juz' sold in Sotheby's Paris, 18 November 2013, lot 138 (as well as a further juz' from the same series, offered in these rooms, 22 April 2015, lot 52). Both manuscripts share with the present the use of two tones of gold, white headings in thuluth, as well as comprising various marginal verse markers of an almost identical design to the large shamsas found in the work to hand. These same decorative traits also find echoes in a Qur'an juz' of circa 1280-1320 AD in the Nasser D. Khalili Collection, London, where one witnesses the earlier scalloped medallions and large leafy flowers which provide the inspiration for the present manuscript's decorative repertoire (see D. James, The Master Scribes, London, 1992, pp.200-3, no.49).
Other known early manuscripts of the Rasa'il al-Safa include the famous copy in the 'Atif Pasha Library, Istanbul (1681), dated 587 AH/1182 AD; the copy formerly in the British Museum, now in the British Library (Or 6692), dated 646 AH/1248-49 AD, and a copy in the Majlis-i Shura-yi Milli, Tehran (4707), dated 686 AH/1287 AD. Manuscripts of the Rasa'il al-Safa appear very rarely on the market. Most recently, a copy dated 711 AH/1311 AD was sold in these rooms, 9 April 2008, lot 28.
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