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Observations placeholder

Jabir ibn Hayyan – Henry Corbin – The science of the balance



Type of Spiritual Experience


A description of the experience

From History of Islamic Philosophy  - Henry Corbin  Translated by Liadain Sherrard  with the assistance of  Philip Sherrard

The purpose of the 'science of the Balance' is to discover, in each  body, the relationship which exists between the manifest and the hidden (zahir and batin, exoteric and esoteric). As we said, the alchemical operation can thus be considered the example par excellence of ta'wil  or spiritual exegesis: occulting the visible and causing what is occulted  to become visible. As the 'Book of the Arena of the Intelligence' (Kitab maydan al- 'aql) explains at length, to measure the properties of an object (heat, cold, moisture, dryness) is to measure the quantities to which the Soul of the world has adapted itself — to measure, that is, the intensity of the Soul's desire in its descent into matter: it is from the desire for the Elements aroused in the Soul that the originative principle of the Balances (mawazin) is derived.

One could therefore say that the transmutation of the Soul when it returns to itself will condition the transmutation of bodies, the Soul being the very place where this transmutation occurs. The alchemical operation is thus seen to be a psycho-spiritual operation par excellence — not that the alchemical texts are in any way an 'allegory of the Soul', but because the stages of the operation, actually performed on actual matter, symbolize with the stages of the Soul's return to itself.

The incredibly complex measurements and the sometimes colossal figures, so minutely established by Jabir, have no meaning for today's laboratories. It is hard to see the science of the Balance, whose principle and purpose is to measure the desire of the Soul of the world incorporate in every substance, as anticipating modern quantitative science.

On the other hand, it could be seen as anticipating the 'energizing of the soul' which is nowadays the object of so much research.

Jabir's Balance was thus the only 'algebra' capable of recording the degree of 'spiritual energy' in the Soul incorporate in the Properties, then freeing itself from them through the ministry of the alchemist who, in setting the Properties free, liberates his own soul.

Jabir considered the 'Balance of letters' as the most perfect of all. The Islamic gnostics developed a theory which existed in ancient gnosis, according to which the letters of the alphabet, being the ground-work of Creation, represent the materialization of the divine Word (cf. Mark the Gnostic; cf. also the Shiite gnostic Mughirah).

The Imam Ja'far is unanimously regarded as the originator of the 'science of letters'. The Sunni mystics themselves borrowed it from the Shiites after the second half of the third/ninth century. Ibn al-'Arabi and his school made extensive use of it. On the Ismaili side, speculation on the divine Name corresponds to the speculation in Jewish gnosis on the tetragrammaton.

Jabir devotes particular attention to this 'Balance of letters' in his treatise entitled the 'Book of the Glorious One' (Kitab al-Majid) — a treatise which, abstruse as it is, is nevertheless the best illustration of the link between his alchemical doctrine and Ismaili gnosis, and which may even permit us to glimpse the secret of his person. The treatise provides a lengthy analysis of the value and meaning of the three symbolical letters

  • 'ayn, symbolizing the Imam, the Silent One, samit, 'Ali;
  • mim, symbolizing the Prophet, natiq, the annunciator of the shari'ah, Muhammad;
  • sin, calling to mind Salman, the hujjah.

It has already been said that according to how one ranks these letters in order of precedence, one obtains the symbolic order typifying Twelver Shiism and Fatimid Ismailism {mim, 'ayn, sin), or else proto-Ismailism (such as that of the Seven Combats of Salman in the treatise Umm al-Kitab) and the Ismailism of Alamut {'ayn, sin, mim). In the case of the latter, Salman, the hujjah, takes precedence over the mim. Jabir justifies this order of precedence by a rigorous application of the value disclosed by the Balance of the three letters in question.

Who is the sin, the Glorious One? At no time does Jabir say that he is the awaited Imam, the Elixir (al-iksir) who emanates from the divine Spirit and will transfigure the city here below (an idea that corresponds to the eschatology of all Shiism, which Western interpreters have too often tended to 'politicize'). The sin is the Stranger, the Expatriate (gharib), the yatim (the orphan, the solitary one, the peerless), he who through his own efforts has found the way and has been adopted by the Imam; he who shows the pure light of the 'ayn (the Imam) to all who like himself are strangers — the pure Light which abolishes the Law that 'gehennas' bodies and souls, the Light handed down from Seth, Adam's son, to Christ, and from Christ to Muhammad in the person of Salman. The 'Book of the Glorious One' says that to understand it — to understand, that is, the book itself — and thereby to understand the order of the entire corpus, is to be like Jabir himself.

Elsewhere, using the symbol of the Himyarite language (southern Arabic) and of a mysterious shaykh who taught it to him, he says to his reader: 'When you read the Book of Morphology, you will become aware of the precedence of this shaykh, and also of your own precedence, O reader. God knows that you are he. '

Jabir the person is neither myth nor legend, but he is more than his historical person. The Glorious One is the archetype; even if several writers were responsible for the corpus, each of them had authentically to reassume the geste of the archetype in the name of Jabir.

This geste is the geste of alchemy, though we cannot follow its progress here save through a few names: Mu'ayyad al-Din Husayn al-Tughra'i, the famous poet and alchemical writer of Isfahan, executed in 515/1121; Muhyi al-Din Ahmad al-Buni (d. 622/1225) who had studied two hundred of Jabir's works; the Egyptian amir Aydamur al-Jildaki (d. 743/1342 or 762/1360), who makes frequent reference to Jabir. One of his many works, the 'Book of Evidence concerning the Secrets of the Balance', comprises four enormous volumes. This work pays particular attention to the spiritual transmutation which 'symbolizes with' the alchemical operation. The final chapter of the book Nata'ij al-Fikar, whose title is the 'Priest's Dream', celebrates the union of Hermes with his Perfect Nature.

In fifteenth-century Iran, a Sufi master at Kirman, Shah Ni'mat Allah al-Wali, himself annotated his own copy of a book by al-Jildaki (Nihayat al-talab). At the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries, the masters of the Iranian Sufi renaissance, Nur 'All-Shah and Muzaffar 'Ali-Shah, gave expression in their turn, using alchemical annotations, to the stages of the mystical union. Finally, in the Shaykhi school, alchemical descriptions are linked to the theosophical doctrine of the 'body of resurrection'.

The source of the experience

Jabir ibn Hayyan

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