Monday, February 22, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Kevin van Bladel, The Arabic Hermes: From Pagan Sage to Prophet of Science. Oxford Studies in Late Antiquity. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. xii, 278. ISBN 9780195376135. $74.00.
Reviewed by Y. Tzvi Langermann, Bar Ilan University


Kevin van Bladel has produced an admirable study of the Arabic Hermetic tradition, fleshing out in considerable detail the evolution of Hermes' image, his identification with Qur'anic prophet Idris as well as the forces driving this transformation, and his connections, real, imagined, and still controversial, with the Harranians, the last organized group of astrolators to continue functioning within Islamic civilization. To do this, van Bladel constrains his use "Hermetic" to refer "only to texts attributed by name to Hermes" (p. 21), a definition that he admits is a bit too severe to apply throughout, but which serves well the purpose of weeding out much "Hermetic" nonsense that has no place in his book.

Part One, "Background", comprises three chapters. In the first of these, "Introduction", van Bladel establishes that the Greek Hermetica were produced in Roman Egypt. The remaining two chapters are devoted to Sassanid astrologers and the Harranian pagans, since these are the only two "special group[s] credited with possessing works attributed to Hermes and transmitting them into Arabic" (p. 66). The evidence for this transmission is very carefully reviewed. Van Bladel shows that some of the Arabic Hermetica were translated from Middle Persian. Though the texts in that language that may have been utilized by the Arabic translators are extremely scarce, the philology of Paul Kunitzsch and others prove a Persian origin. An important part of van Badel's story is taken up by complex narratives of the recovery of ancient wisdom. The Sassanians who translated Greek texts were, in their own eyes, repossessing part of the Perisan cultural heritage that had been plundered by Alexander the Great.

"Hermes and the Sabians of the Harran," is the third and longest chapter in part one. The Sabians, star worshipers living in and around Harran, maintained their astral cult for centuries after the Muslim conquest. They are prime candidates for the transmission of Hermetic materials. Matters are complicated by Michel Tardieu's famous claim that Harran was home to recalcitrant Neoplatonists fleeing Justinian and thus the focal point for the transferal of much Greek wisdom to Islamic civilization; there are many responses to Tardieu which must also be brought into the discussion. Van Bladel's review of this topic is sober and thorough. He argues that as a rule--that is to say, unless there is clear evidence that one must do so in a particular instance--the Sabians are not to be identified with the Harranian astrolators; instead, in the Arabic sources at our disposal, Sabian seems to have become a generic term for pagans.

As for the Harranians, they must be divided into two quite different groups. Those who remained in Harran did indeed maintain their astral cult well into the eleventh century, if not longer, though we possess precious few details. On the other hand, the Harranians who relocated to Baghdad, while proudly maintaining their "Sabian" identity, were highly acculturated to the higher circles of the Islamic society in which they lived. It is this group alone, of whom the most prominent was the mathematician and philosopher Thabit ibn Qurra, whose writings have survived, and they betray almost no "Hermeticism". In sum, Hermes was just one among many prophets recognized by the Harranian star-worshipers, and no extant Hermetic texts--applying here van Bladel's strict construction of the category--can be connected to the Sabians of Harran. On the other hand, later on in the book (196 ff.), van Bladel makes a strong case for viewing a "new" Hermetic text, the Testament to Ammon, as essentially a calque of Islam (my phrase, not his), with Hermes the prophet authorizing a religious code; this was done by a Baghdad Harranian who was anxious to present the Sabians as a legitimate religion in the eyes of the Caliph.

Part Two begins with an investigation into the story of the three Hermes: the antedeluvian prophet, the Babylonian, and the Egyptian. The Arabic sources all depend ultimately upon an astrological history called The Thousands written by Abu Ma'shar al-Balkhi (d. 886). That book has not survived in its entirety; the extant citations were gathered and studied by David Pingree. Van Bladel rejects Pingree's thesis that Abu Ma'shar deliberately constructed a false history of astrology so as to link his own art with the antedeluvian sage. Instead, van Bladel argues that Abu Ma'shar was trying to establish an accurate chronology, using historical sources at his disposal, so as to be able to correlate events of the past with the celestial phenomena. In so doing he exploited Christian chronography, specifically the book of Annianus, whose chronicle--though it too is now lost--conveyed via other transmitters the story of two Hermeses, first found (as first pointed out by Martin Plessner) in the Book of Sothis by the Egyptian priest Manetho. The third Hermes, the most recent one and the purported master of Apollonius of Tyana, is first reported by the Mamluk poet Ibn Nubata, in the name of al-Kindi, who, suggests van Bladel, was likely to have had access to some Harranian tradition.

This brief recap does not do justice to the many separate and meticulous investigations that van Bladel has carried out and pieced together in order to provide this account. Though his retracing of the "two Hermes" back to Annianus is convincing enough, some other parts of his reconstruction appear problematic. According to van Bladel, rather than intentionally fabricating a history, Abu Ma'shar, utilizing his training as a muhaddith (expert in Muslim traditions), preferred to combine all of what he heard. But this is not how hadith (non-Quranic sayings attributed to Muhammad) operates; instead, the accuracy of the transmission is based upon presenting each individual report exactly as it was received, no matter how repetitious the process may become. Indeed, this is exactly how the reports appear in the text by Ibn Nubata: separate traditions, one in the name of Abu Ma'shar, the other in the name of al-Kindi. Moreover, there is no evidence at all that Abu Ma'shar saw the report ascribed to al-Kindi; to fill in this piece of the puzzle, van Bladel must resort to the very sort of speculation that he rightly criticizes throughout.

Hermes the prophet of science is a combination of "ancient Judaean lore" concerning the biblical Enoch with Hellenistic astrology, including stories of heavenly ascents in order to receive science from the angels. Van Bladel looks mainly to the Ismailis for the source of this particular Hermes, as well as some of pseuepigrapha connected to it (Sirr al-Khaliqa, ascribed to Apollonius of Tyana, and De pomo, usually attributed to Aristotle). With Hermes as its prophet, science becomes revelation and as such is superior to the musings of the philosophers. After the eleventh century, when there are no longer any practicing Sabians around, Hermes finally achieved legitimacy among the philosophers. Responsible for this are the collections of wisdom literature, in which Hermes figures prominently, as well as the complicated development of the concept of the "Active Intellect", which led, in some circles at least, to a blurring of the distinction between prophetic knowledge and the intuitive insights of great minds. The Ishraqi or Illuminationist school in particular accorded a major role to Hermes. Around this time one philosophical, rather than technical text, began to circulate under the name of Hermes, namely, The Rebuke of the Soul. Van Bladel advances very strong arguments that the true author was al-Kashani (d. ca. 1213). This tract circulated widely, among Christians as well as Muslims; I may add that it found a Jewish audience as well.

The only "successful alternative" to Abu Ma'shar's story is the account relayed by Mubashshir bin Fatik, a bibliophile and anthologist who flourished in Fatimid Egypt. Mubashshir knows of only one Hermes, not three, and he emphasizes his role as the founder of a primordial religion. So also Mubashshir's collection of maxims ascribed to Hermes differs from all the others, not just in content, but also in the occasional tone of prophetic commandment, rather than wise advice. Van Bladel finds traces of Harranian traditions in Mubashshir, which in turn betray a similarity (perhaps indicating a common source) with al-Kindi. However, van Bladel overlooks a much more plausible link in the chain, namely Ali ibn Ridwan, Mubashshir's teacher, an ardent hellenophile, antiquarian, and champion of the Iraqi (Babylonian if you wish) school in Egypt.

Despite some minor criticisms, some of which have been scattered through this review, this is a very good book, all the more impressive as it is the product of a young scholar. The Arabic Hermes is meant, inter alia, to serve as an introduction to the publication of the Arabic Hermetic texts, a daunting task indeed which van Bladel has in the works. We look forward to the fruits of that project with great anticipation.

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