Recorded history has often overlooked some scattered places on the periphery of civilizations. Frontier provinces, way stations and remote corners of empires are curious appendages to the main trunk of the human odyssey, strangely combining in rustic alchemy conservative and radical elements. Iberia, almost a prototype of the edge of existence, was used by the Phoenicians as a mining colony but never settled. It was too far away for serious Greek colonization. Apollonius of Tyana found the land backward and bucolic and the people superstitious. Roman emperors sent there emissaries who were politically threatening, and more than one plot against the Imperium was fomented in its hills. Gothic invaders eventually seized the peninsula and poured into North Africa. Throughout these long centuries, violence and ignorance punctuated a land too close to great powers to nourish pastoral simplicity and too remote from highly-evolved social orders to pass beyond crude imitations. Even as classical Rome decayed, Iberia became Christian – often Arian – and intolerant. Petty Visigothic chieftains warred over tracts of sparsely populated land, enforcing a rough justice that fused religious and political loyalty under threat of torture and execution.
When Islam spread into the Levant, Persia, and from Egypt along the south coast of the Mediterranean, Muslim leaders and lieutenants everywhere encountered cultures and civilizations that amazed them. When their scouts slipped into Iberia, they quickly realized that the faction-ridden country was easy prey, and Spain soon fell under the star and crescent. There a new glory shone upon the land. Elegant courts and exquisite architecture gave a lustre to Moorish Spain that would not be matched for a millennium after its passing. Yet the darkness of the past lodged in the Muslim mind, for the Alhambra, like its precursors in Phoenician mining villages, existed on the edge of empire. Its religion, rooted in the simple piety of the Qu'ran, crystallized into literalism and fear of innovation. Even as the batinis, those given to allegorical and esoteric interpretations of sacred writ, were sweeping across the Islamic world from Balkh to Fez, Spanish Muslims employed crucifixion as the punishment for heterodoxy. Nonetheless, this forbidding background became the stage of the first Iberian Sufi and, in a broad sense, the founder of that mysticism that affected John of the Cross, Ram6n Lull, Pico della Mirandola and Roger Bacon.
'Abd Allah, a client of a Berber of Fez, was born and raised in Cordova. He was not of Arabic descent, as his red complexion and light hair showed, but his family had been Muslim since the conquest. In A.D. 854 he left Cordova on a sojourn to the East in order to learn from the great teachers of the time. Basrah in Iraq had become a flourishing centre of learning, and there 'Abd Allah encountered the Mu'tazilites. This group of thinkers had taken up Greek science, reasoning and dialectics on behalf of the Muslim faith. Whilst others could only state Islamic principles as revealed dogma, the Mu'tazilites entered without fear into inter-religious dialogue. Their effectiveness in articulating the faith won them wide acceptance in the Muslim community. Taking their name from manzilah bayn al-manzilatayn, 'between belief and unbelief', they insisted on a philosophical agnosticism on certain theological issues and inclined towards an ethical middle way between excess and denial. When 'Abd Allah met these remarkable teachers, he experienced the freedom with which they questioned their own thoughts and was drawn to the simple purity of their lives. 'Abd Allah returned home to an inhospitable mental climate where he saw his Mu'tazilite friend, Khalil al-Ghaflah, persecuted for his beliefs, and he decided to keep his views to himself and wait for the moment when they could be shared.
That moment came with the birth of his son, Muhammad ibn Masarra, on the evening of April 19, 883, in Cordova. Nothing is known of Ibn Masarra's early years except that he was wholly receptive to his father's ideas. When Ibn Masarra was seventeen years old, 'Abd Allah was forced to flee his native country. Leaving his books to Ibn Masarra, he sought refuge in Mecca, where he died in 899. By the time Ibn Masarra was thirty years old, he had constructed a hermitage on the cliffs of the Sierra of Cordova, and there he lived with a few close followers. Here Ibn Masarra earned the title al-Jabali or El Serrano, the Mountaineer. Pious, virtuous and even austere, they revealed nothing of their doctrines to the outside world. In time, however, they were suspected of teaching Mu'tazilite views, especially those which attributed to human freedom causality for acts. Simple folk were horrified to hear that the Qu'ranic descriptions of hell were taken as allegorical. Educated individuals suspected that Ibn Masarra taught the pantheistic views of Empedocles. The respected jurist Ahmad ibn Khalid wrote a little book attacking Ibn Masarra's teachings, and Ibn Masarra went on a pilgrimage to Mecca before he could be charged with heresy.
In his arduous travels he tarried in the major centres to listen to the teachers of the day. In Medina he experienced a profoundly spiritual transformation that renewed his dedication to his work. Though history does not record the incident, in Mecca Ibn Masarra probably met and studied with the great Sufi mystic Ibn al-'Arabi. This adept in spiritual imagination wrote a short treatise to warn Ibn Masarra against uncontrolled ecstatic states of consciousness, and the disciple learnt from him the art of veiled discourse. From the batini movements he observed, he refined his sense of spiritual secrecy. By the time Ibn Masarra was ready to return home, he had developed a language and style completely opaque and orthodox to those not initiated into his secret vocabulary. When 'Abd al-Rahman III ascended the Moorish throne and introduced greater tolerance and interest in learning into Spain, Ibn Masarra turned homeward.
In his Cordovan hermitage he gathered the two disciples who had accompanied him eastward and a few others into a community. Whilst the outside world knew only of the humble probity of Ibn Masarra and his disciples, and heard only the most uplifting instruction from him, his inner circle learned a tariqah, mode of practice, which was his own, and which integrated metaphysics, spirituality and simplicity into a single whole. Its pivotal practice was the daily and private examination of conscience as a means of purifying one's motive and raising the soul towards the Divine. Despite his withdrawn life, orthodox canon lawyers soon came to suspect his activities. Their surreptitious investigations revealed what was, to them, a scandalous mystery. Ibn Masarra taught that man acts in freedom without divine intervention, that heaven and hell are states of consciousness and not places of physical reward and punishment, and that spiritual perfection is possible through moral and mental purification and practice. Whilst they brooded over what action to take, Ibn Masarra published a number of books. Therein he explained the principles of his veiled teachings and outlined a mystical Kabbalah, and his writings passed from hand to hand whilst evading the suspicious eyes of the authorities.
His works were of such spiritual force that they soon passed beyond Cordova and were carried to the Orient. There two orthodox Muslims denounced them in a repetition of Ibn Masarra's earlier experience with Ahmad ibn Khalid. But the temper of the times had changed to a degree, and no judicial action was taken. Rather, the community of Cordova divided into two strong factions. The jurists and many ordinary citizens reviled Ibn Masarra as a heretic, but others, moved by his example of virtue and nourished by his eloquence and wisdom, saw him as a genuine imam, religious leader. Thus he escaped physical abuse and punishment, although the intensity of the strain of living in such a divided community took its toll. Shortly after the Muslim lunar calendar had registered his fiftieth birthday – forty-eight solar years – he said afternoon prayers, surrounded himself with his disciples and peacefully breathed his last. Though later generations successfully destroyed every line he had written so that not one phrase survives, his noble example touched his contemporaneous adversaries as well as his friends. With his death on October 20, 931, he joined several great men of science who died in the same year, and his name was added to theirs when the Cordovans named 931 the "year of the notables".
Though Ibn Masarra's books perished and those who called themselves Masarrans vanished within a few generations, his legacy did not fade. In his own time he opened the door to authentic mystical insight in Spain. Until the Christian reconquest, Sufis abounded throughout the countryside. The way was opened for batini views and practices, and soon the works of Plato would pass through Spain and into Europe. Whilst nothing is known from his silent followers, his enemies reveal the core of his teachings in their universal agreement that his doctrines were based on those of Empedocles. When Muslim writers referred to the philosopher-physician, they did not have in mind the surviving poetic fragments that intrigue contemporary thinkers; they envisaged a mythic figure who arose like Venus in the sunset of classical Alexandria. For them, Empedocles was the first of the five great sages of ancient Greece, whose number included Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. The mythic Empedocles lived in the tenth century B.C., was a contemporary of David, had travelled to Palestine to learn the mystic sciences from David and Solomon and from Syrian sages, including Luqman. For the early Muslims Ibn Masarra was an ascetic philosopher and magician who spurned worldly honours and took up the moral practices of the Sufis. Whilst some details of his life and teachings were drawn from the historic Empedocles, much of it is neo-Platonic in origin and spirit. Just as the Arabic Theology of Aristotle consisted of excerpts from Plotinus, so the books attributed to Empedocles – now all lost – were drawn from a variety of sources.
Those who wrote about Ibn Masarra, coteries of distant disciples and fragments from the legendary Empedocles mutually confirm Ibn Masarra's basic teachings. For Ibn Masarra the philosophical life is the noblest course of thought and action for a human being to follow. The attempt to think and live philosophically inspires and requires purity of spirit, motive and judgement. It draws divine light into human understanding whilst impelling one to renounce the ways of the world. The novice in understanding cannot begin too high or too low. If he begins with the prima materia, first matter, the initial spiritual manifestation of Deity, he will see only a void, for his eyes are unaccustomed to beholding formless spiritual substances. If he begins with the coarse perceptible world, he will be swept away by its attendant passions. The aspirant must begin in the middle, with an intermediate being, which is the soul. Since the soul can ascend to spiritual union with the Divine and descend into the gross differentiated world, one who gains profound knowledge – esoteric to the profane – of the soul will come to know all. The tainted soul cannot be known in this way, and so moral, mental and volitional purification is necessary. Purification is the result of intense and dispassionate self-examination, which looks less at the exterior of the soul with its myriad characteristics and more at the 'interior', the soul's substance, identical with being.
The soul is a simple substance, self-moving and immortal in essence. This simplicity has nothing to do with a corporeal unity or a lack of material parts. It is simple in concept and fundamental thought because it is spiritually simple. In comparison with this, material simplicity is actually compound. Al-Shahrazuri attempted to explain this teaching in an analogy:
For Ibn Masarra this doctrine is at the core of his teaching, for it links the spirit in the human being mystically with Deity and makes transcendence possible. Thus heaven and hell cannot be physical ends and should be understood allegorically and psychologically. Like the mythic Empedocles, Ibn Masarra refused to recognize attributes of the Creator. The Creator is the ineffable root of Being. In this sense He is pure knowledge, pure will, compassion, force, justice, the good and truth, but neither the faculties nor potentialities denoted by such terms exist in Him. They are identified with Him; He is identified with Himself. Thus His essence is attributeless; His essence is His existence. Language cannot express understanding, for it is compound compared with understanding. The highest understanding, being simple and inexpressible, is close to Him Who is attributeless and ineffable. Being and non-being are categories of thought and existence posterior to them.
Deity emanates or radiates five universal substances. Beginning with primal matter, their logical order is intellect, soul, nature and secondary matter. In cosmic ontology the soul is in the middle place, looking up through intellect (spiritual insight) to the universal light and down through noumenal Nature to the material world. The Creator is seen as moving with a mysterious quiescence because both intellect and the prima materia move in this way. The movement involved is not that of local change, alteration or substantial transformation, nor is quiescence spatial immobility or continuity in one state. Rather, the intellect is an agent without having to act, and the soul, though imperfect because of its capacity to descend, seeks to emulate the intellect. "The intellect is perfect and the perfecter of the soul." In mystical analogy Deity can be called Creator without assuming the attributes of an actor. He creates being only in the sense that He equally creates non-being. He is the Source. Since the pairs of opposites arise out of this Source, he can be said to create forms, relationships and substances. This is the real meaning of creation out of nothing, for nothing coexists with attributeless Deity.
Prima materia is the first effect of Deity by a process called emanation', but it is incomprehensible, for it is known only as an effect when contrasted to Deity. As causal to what follows from it, primal matter is simple, as is intellect and soul, the three forming the great Triad which eternally reflects the Divine. The other two, noumenal Nature and the material world, are compounds. As an effect in contrast to the Source, even primal matter is compound and thus consists of two principles, love and hate. These principles are impressed in each subsequent emanation, and since love tends to integrate and harmonize, it predominates in the intellect and soul, whilst hate, tending to separate and differentiate, more strongly impresses Nature and matter. As universal causative principles, love is associated with Jupiter and Venus, and hate with Saturn and Mars. Because the quintessential property of soul is love, it can rise through intellect towards primal matter, the luminous mirrors of the Unknown Divine Darkness. Nature's predominant quality is hate (differentiation), and it gives the material world forward coherence. As each of the universal substances envelops the one below it, the spiritual light suffuses the envelopes which are transparent in virtue of being essentially love. Thus primal matter, intellect and soul can mingle as one, whilst Nature and matter are distanced by their mutual affinity. The tainted soul is attracted out of its natural alignment and becomes clouded. Moral purification, which is purity of thought, word and deed, so that each is marked by love, restores the soul to its natural spiritual transparency and alignment.
Differentiated Nature and matter become vestures for the soul in union with the higher substances. Since the purified souls cannot be substantially or qualitatively distinguished from one another, they are separated only by the clouds of spiritual ignorance and incarnation in material vestures. "The particular souls are, therefore, parts of the universal soul, just like the particles of the sun which shine through the crevices of a dwelling-place." Since the soul is intermediate in the emanative hierarchies of substances, it can be internally distinguished by function. The vegetative soul is a protective shell for the vital soul, itself a sheath of the rational soul, the covering of the intellectual soul. The clarity and direction of a soul – whether it is purifying itself or immersing itself in greater ignorance – corresponds to the relative activation of its functional sheaths. The body is a grotto for the soul, a prison when the soul is tainted, but the gateway to a divine mansion when purified. The human being can be considered sinful in that he is incarnated. One could not be in a body unless one had acted in disharmonious ways in previous lives. By being attracted to the things of the world, the soul is tossed between the elements – earth, air, fire and water – and this is the self-engendered "wrath of God". It is some sort of forgetfulness of the perfect beauty and splendour of its natural home, the empyrean of universal light. The only way to escape the seduction of Nature is to embrace the Divine.
Once each century, once in each revolution of the spheres, the noblest essence of the universal soul takes human shape. By whatever name, this is the Prophet who teaches, guides and alters the orientation of humanity.
When souls recognize that they will suffer in the hate of the four elements until they purify themselves, they will aspire to the universal soul, which is the totality of all souls, and the universal soul carries their aspiration to the Creator, whose light (primal matter) will shower upon the intellect to be radiated through the universal soul and then to the aspirant. For Ibn Masarra this teaching was a stimulus for a way of life, a batini view which ennobled and universalized the deepest spiritual meaning of Islam. It was an authentic expression of the vital Truth that alchemizes humanity and draws it towards its original estate, the Divine Light veiling the Divine Darkness – and beyond into that Mystery Itself.