Cross-discipline groups and their concern for social cooperation
In contrast to the tendency among scholars to limit themselves to their own field, some participated in multiple disciplines. According to al-Tawati, scholars like al-Tawhldl and al-Tanukhl maintained a comprehensive notion of knowledge by participating in the study of all available knowledge.190 Al-Tawhidi, for example, developed affiliations with various philosophical, religious, and intellectual groups, such as different Shafi‘i study circles, the philosophical circles of Baghdad, the circles of the grammarians al-Slrafi and al-Rummani, and he also frequented Sufi masters.191 His comprehensive approach to knowledge can be seen further in his letter Risala f- aqsam al-ulum (On the Classification of Knowledge), in which he discusses the relationship between various contemporary disciplines, arguing for an interconnection between all forms of knowledge.192 As such, al-Tawhidi crossed the boundaries among disciplines that modern scholars have seen as hostile to one another, namely religious studies and jurisprudence, the study of language, philosophy and tasawwuf.193
Miskawayh is another example of a scholar who had cross-group affiliations. In addition to his active political career,194 he practiced philosophy and was a member of Ibn Sa‘dan’s circle.195 He covered various fields ranging from history to psychology to chemistry.196 The group of the Brethren of Purity, an anonymous group of closely associated thinkers, were a- lso polymaths and their Epistles cover a wide range of disciplines.197 Al-‘Amiri, the student of the well-known philosopher Abu Zayd al-Balkhi (d. 322/934) who defended the compatibility of religion and philosophy, was another person who crossed boundaries between different intellectual fields.198 He enjoyed the patronage of the Buyid vizier Abu al-Fadl b. al-Amid and was open to religious studies and philosophy which many of his contemporaries saw as two different realms of inquiry that should be kept separate as will be discussed later.
It is noteworthy that these scholars shared a concern for collective harmonious living, which could explain their interest in an inclusive approach to knowledge. These scholars thought that people need to be reminded of the actions and moral conduct which enable people to live together. The Brethren of Purity in their Epistles, al-‘AmirI, Miskawayh, especially in his essay on love in The Refinement of Character (Tahdhib al-akhlaq), and al-Tawhidl discussed extensively ideas, such as ukhuwwa (brotherhood), mahabba (love), insaniyya (humanity), and sadaqa (friendship). They proposed questions including: “Why do humans need to live in a social framework?”, and “What forms of affiliations or sociability should exist in order for people to exist harmoniously and maintain salvation and the good life?” These questions highlighted a person’s need for social cooperation in order to achieve perfection. Previously, al-Farabl (d. ca. 339/950) discussed similar themes, stating that a person must join and cooperate with others to achieve perfection and ultimate happiness, since an isolated person cannot achieve all the perfections and attain happiness by himself outside the framework of social association.199 Al-Jahiz (d. 255/868) treated the issue200 and discussions of these questions were also available in Arabic translations of Greek works, especially Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Arab philosophers often cited Aristotle’s concept of man as a social animal in need of social cooperation in order to exist, sometimes with and sometimes without the Aristotelian tag (hayawan ins-/madam).20
Certain educated minds, including al-Tawhldi, considered social cooperation (ta awun) essential for the existence of humanity. Miskawayh and al-Tawhldi say that humans are social or civil species and need to help one another.202 Thus, al-Tawhidl cites one of the ancients, “man is sociable by nature (madan- bi-l-tab‘)”.203 Since man is social by nature, then everything that takes place because of this nature is inevitable.204 In many of their epistles, the Brethren of Purity see a necessity for people to come together in order to cooperate, since a person ca-nnot secure all his needs or live a virtuous and happy life alone.205 For al-‘Amiri, only gods or beasts can live alone.206
People also cannot reach perfection on their own. For the Brethren of Purity, a person cannot be expert in all professions, and therefore God’s wisdom required that each group should specialise in one profession with direct or indirect cooperation with others.207 Miskawayh observes: “Men are born with deficiencies which they have to remedy; there is no way for any single individual among them to become complete by himself. ... ”208 He adds that man “finds his completion in his friend and that necessity requires that they should seek one another’s assistance.”209 Therefore, cooperation between persons is necessary, so that each one among them may attain perfection and happiness.210
Scholars of this group were critical of others whose attitudes were driven by self-interests, religious zeal, or prejudice against each other’s field. During a majlis that Abu al-Fath b. al-‘Amid held during his visit to Baghdad, al-‘Amiri was faced with hostility from the scholars of Baghdad who were regionally limited and hostile to anyone who was not from the capital.211 Scholars of Baghdad also objected to al-‘AmirI’s attempt to discuss religious matters in philosophical terms and were not tolerant of differences in opinions. This attitude of al-‘Amir- was part of a tendency among some scholars in this period, especially those who did not believe in strict boundaries between certain disciplines, to look to philosophy to rescue theology from ideas that could harm the community.212 The worth of philosophy as arbiter of beliefs and matters of kingship was acknowledged by the ruling elites. Also, many like the Brethren of Purity and al-Tawhldl looked to philosophy for salvation, and a way to come to terms with the reality of competing beliefs fueled by the material world, deceptive senses, and dishonest self-interests. Therefore, for the Brethren of Purity also, the seeker of truth is someone who should have a pure soul and should not be “a partisan of one school of thought against another, since such fanaticism is based on mere whim, which blinds the mind’s eye, blocking apprehension of realities and keeping the insightful soul from conceiving things in their true reality”.213
This period was a melting pot for the influx of ideas coming from different cultures and from different ethnic and religious groups, with each putting forward arguments that were compelling but mutually incompatible, leading to increased doubt and scepticism. Some, like al-Tawhld-, managed to account for this communal diversity, and discovered the role of words and argumentative skills in making one religious or intellectual argument sound more convincing than another. Al-Tawhldl mentions his teacher’s conclusion that this wide variety of beliefs, even within a single religion, is not related to differences in the essence of religion, but it can be ascribed to the fact that beliefs are products of people’s opinions, and thus they are subject to people’s prejudice, impulses, and their differences in character.