Michael-Sebastian Noble- About Fakhr al-Din al-Razi And His ‘Hidden Secret’
Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA are the opening paragraphs to Michael-Sebastian Noble’s ‘Philosophising the Occult’-Avicennan psychology and the ‘Hidden Secret’ of Fakhr Al-Din Al-Razi.’, De Gruyter-2021.
‘The most mysterious work of the great philosopher and theologian Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 606/1210)- ‘the renewer’ of the Islamic faith at the end of the twelfth century-was ‘al-Sirr al-maktum’ (‘The Hidden Secret). Addressing its parting counsel to an unnamed royalty, it describes, in remarkable detail, the occult beliefs and rituals underpinning talismanic astral magic. For practical purposes, when I refer to ‘astral magic’ and ‘occult science’, I shall restrict the meaning of these terms to the descriptive definition of ‘talisman’ formulated by Razi: ”…the blending of heavenly active forces with elemental passive forces, for the sake of being empowered (li-ajl al-tamakkun min) to make manifest that which runs contrary to the norm (al-ada) or to prevent from occurring that which is consonant with it.”The ‘talisman’ was an earthly object into which the practitioner, by the power of his own soul, could blend the powers of the celestial spheres to affect, at a distance, and in accordance with his will, a breach of the empirical norm that patterns reality, and idol or a ring-or the very person of the practitioner himself.
Identified as ‘Sabians’ (al-şabi’a), the masters of this science co-ordinated cosmology with psychology to achieve real effects in the world. For Razi, the Sabian was a practitioner of this science, irrespective of his theological commitment, his race, language, and culture. A practitioner could be a Sabian whether or not he believed in: multiple necessarily existent beings; God as the only Necessarily Existent Being, and as an agent possessed of volition (fa’il mukhtar) or God as the only Necessarily Existent whose creation is by way of non-volitional emanation. Since, theoretically, someone of any theological conviction could learn and practice Sabianism, it was less of a religion and more of an approach to understand the hidden forces with determined ‘generation and corruption’ in the sublunary world. It was science.
To what end this knowledge was put would determine the extent to which it could foster the soul’s perfection, or hasten its debasement into pure idolatry, the pursuit of sublunary gain and immersion in corporeal pleasure.
Concurring with most of the heresiographers from the time of the early tenth century, Sabianism represented for Razi any form of astrolatry. But in the introduction of the ‘al-Sirr’, it is presented as natural philosophy, grounded in the belief in an ensouled geocentric cosmos.
All events in its terrestrial centre are generated by the configurations of the planets. The planets and celestial spheres-the orbits in which they move-are animated by a plenitude of spirits. The powers of these spirits can be directed by means of ritual in order to influence change in this world. Each natural phenomenon and product of human artifice has its own special occult correspondence (sing. Munasaba, plur. Munasabat) with the specific planet or planets which presided over its coming-to-be (huduth). Planetary correspondence thus describes a special kind of ontological relationship in which sublunary effect somehow participates in the nature of its celestial principle: they share in a ‘congenereity’ (mujanasa).
For the Sabian, the significance of any terrestrial phenomenon derives from its participation in this infinitely complex web of celestial correspondence. Astral ritual gathers together sublunary objects of planetary correspondence and co-ordinates them with action and words to engender an intended result. Certain planets are effective for certain results: Mars for an aggressive aim; Venus for an aim relating to friendship and love.
For astral ritual to be effective, the practitioner must establish a noetic connection with the celestial spirits appropriate for his aim. To achieve this, he must purify his soul and cease its engrossment in material reality and sensual pleasure by engaging in rigorous spiritual discipline, fasting, and mental focus on the operative planet. Ritual preparatory diet serves two functions. Firstly, in ceasing engrossment with material reality, he must reduce his consumption of food to the barest required to sustain life. Such privation causes inevitable imbalances in the soul and thus requires a subtle knowledge of medicine (tibb) to ensure its well-being. Secondly, consumption of ritual foods assists in establishing the desired congenereity with the spirit that is invoked.
Two major categories of Sabian astral ritual can be discerned from Razi’s account:
The first involves the casting of a ‘talisman’ (sing. Tilasm; plur. Tilasmat). A talisman is an idol, cast in a mould at the astrologically appropriate time. Its metal corresponds to the operative planet: silver for the Moon; gold for the Sun; iron for Mars; lead for Saturn. Ritualised actions, mimetic of the intended aim, are then performed on or before this idol: when the practitioner enjoys a strong, stabilized noetic connection with the appropriate planet, then the intended result follows.
The second major category of astral magic in ‘al-Sirr’ involves invocations which address the planets (da’wat al-kawakib). It represents the central focus of ‘al-Sirr’. We shall refer to it as ‘the planetary ascent ritual’. A condition which the aspirant must fulfil before undertaking the ritual is to establish, by means of rigorous spiritual discipline, an established noetic connection with the ‘perfect nature’ (al-tiba al-tamm).
The Sabians of ‘al-Sirr’ understood the Perfect Nature as a celestial siprit (ruh falaki) that was the ontological origin of a discrete group of human souls. The heavens were inhabited by a multiplicity of such spirits, their number being commensurate to the number of discrete soul groups of which, according to the Sabians, humanity comprised.’