Bibliotherapy

Mathieu Terrier-Qutb al-Din Askevari & Asclepios

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Image: Marble relief of Asclepius and Hygieia. Therme of Salonika, classical period, last quarter of the 5th ct. BC. Istanbul Archaeological Museum inv. no. 109 T (Mendel 91).

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Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA are selections from Mathieu Terrier’s commentary from the ‘Asclepios’ chapter, in Qutb al-Din Askevari’s ‘The Beloved of the Hearts’, part 1- In Mathieu Terrier’s ‘Histoire de la Sagesse et Philosophie Shi’ite’, ‘L ‘Aime des Coeurs’. Editions du Cerf_2016. Our English translation-in-the-working from the French.

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The presence of Asclepios in the Islamic historiography demonstrates all together the importance of medicine, the awareness of the Greek heritage and the influence of Hermetism in the Arabo-Muslim representation of wisdom. Asclepios, in fact, is portrayed as a legendary disciple of Hermes Trismegistus and the dedicatory of numerous hermetic writings. Alike Hermes, Asclepios is a member of the Greek Pantheon, as son of, either Zeus or Apollo, that is a pagan divinity, transformed into a wise man inspired by God. He was held as the father of the Asclepiades, this lineage of priest-doctors who, in ancient Greece, were transmitting the art of medicine from generation to generation. Of this lineage (Silsile), the Arabic-Muslim tradition remembers only eight ‘expert doctors’, separated each from the others by a lengthy span of time, passing by a second Asclepios-In fact the third-to arrive up to Galen. From the gap between them, we can estimate the pre-flood Asclepios around 5500 years b.c.

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His presence in the ‘Mahbul al qulub’ is a deliberate choice by Askevari. Asclepios is an essential link in the transmission of the hermetic wisdom, of medicine, and sciences ‘foreign to the Greek civilization’. Perhaps, cautiously, on one hand Askevari refrain to borrow the quotation from Abu Sulayman al Sigistani, quoted in its main source, Ibn Abi-Usaybi’a’s book: “Asclepios, son of Zeus. It is said that his birth was spiritual. He is the imam of medicine and the father of philosophers. Euclid proceeds from him, as Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates and most of the Greek philosophers.” He also does not borrow the title of prophet that his source, Sahrazuri, confers upon Asclepios. On the other hand, he quotes as an argument of authority the words of Galen: “God revealed to Asclepios: “I would better call you an angel than a man”. This speech is reported like a true ‘hadith qudsi’, one of the sayings recalled from the Prophet in which God is directly speaking to him; Galen being here the trustworthy transmitter (tiqa), his moral integrity to be established. This tradition makes Asclepios one of the man God talks to through the mediation of an angel, alike those called ‘Muhaddatun’ by the Shi’a tradition. After being degraded from the status of a god down to a man, Askevari raises him to the rank of angel.

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Askevari tells us, recalling a Hippocratic tradition, that Asclepios was ‘taken up to Heaven’ towards the angels by a pillar of light. We can recognize a theme of Manichean origin, here projected upon Greek Historiography. Our author produces a brief allegoric interpretation, of a clear Sufi flavor. The inspired doctor appears as the first authentic mystic, having purified by the fire of patience his psychic substance until the annihilation into God’s unity. Without using the word ‘fana’, ‘extinction’ or ‘annihilation’, classic terms of Sufi terminology, Askevari makes Asclepios the forerunner of this mystical tradition that appeared in Islam with Mansur al-Hallaj, his word: “I am God-Truth.” (ana l’haqq) and his martyrdom in the name of the law (Suna). Our author quotes Mulla Sadra without crediting him, aiming to distinguish this form of annihilation from unification (ittihad) and conjunction (ittisal) that some mystics claim without being free of their ego. Alike Mulla Sadra, but through the use of the figure of Asclepios, Askevari aims at saving the authentic high mysticism from the vile pretention of the common dervishes, but also from the attacks of the juror-theologians, because the ‘confused minds’ in confusing the mystical annihilation and the identification to God are as much pseudo-Sufis than their censors. The metaphor of the iron casted into the fire, confirmed by a verse by Rumi, is ideal to indicate a formal indistinction preserving an ontological difference between the mystic and God and at the same time it prolongate the theme of the pillar of light and the purification of the soul.

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Here we have an Asclepios, highly symbolical; his outer appearance is only relevant as sign of his inner spiritual state. For instance, the rolled-up clothes indicate that the doctor must philosophize every day. The formula is important as it indicates that the inventor of medicine, already credited with of the first spiritual experience was also a philosopher. At this stage of the history of wisdom, medicine, philosophy and spiritual experience seem inseparable, twigs freshly sprouted from the trunk of prophecy.

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